Inspired by a song and its legendary lyricist, driven by images he can’t quite shake, a writer travels from Florida to Savannah to Washington, D.C. in search of his next novel…
Inspired by a song and its legendary lyricist, driven by images he can’t quite shake, a writer travels from Florida to Savannah to Washington, D.C. in search of his next novel…
There are more shoe stores in Spain than there are anywhere in the known world. There doesn’t seem to be any explanation for this. But someone is selling shoes just about everywhere you travel. Street after street full of shoe stores, sometimes two or three clustered together on a single block.
None of the shoes in these shoe stores fit me. My feet, sadly, are too big for Spain.
However, the shoes in Spain fit my wife, Kathy, all too well. She was in shoe heaven. I endured a lot of attractive shop clerks who looked at my feet, shook their heads, and choked back what I took to be a derisive snicker.
Spain and its many, many shoe stores remain curiously beneath the tourist radar, although, according to the New York Times, that’s beginning to change: by the end of 2016 more than seventy-six million visitors looking for a safe, terrorist-free environment will have visited.
The food here is better than just about anywhere else in Europe, even better—and this is a kind of heresy coming from an unrepentant Paris lover—than in France. The gazpacho is the best a certain gastronomically-challenged patron has ever tasted; one could live on the octopus salad.
At Botin, considered by the Guinness Book of Records to be the world’s oldest restaurant (founded in 1725), tour groups crowding the street in front, you enter into an austere, dark-wood interior where the brusque maître d’ directs you through the kitchen and into a back room for a superb lunch: a mixed fish casserole for the gastronomically-challenged; grilled prawns for our resident foodie.
What’s more, the price of everything–shoes, food, accommodation, clothing–is often less than half of what it is just about anywhere else in Europe. After the soaring costs of London and Paris, a visitor is in a mild state of sticker shock. You keep looking at restaurant bills thinking that a mistake has been made. It hasn’t.
Of course, the view of Spain is the tourist’s narrow view, the romantic Spain of old, old stones, of a twisting labyrinth of cobblestone streets leading inevitably to cathedrals and palaces—Seville’s Cathedral of Saint Mary of the See, the third largest church in the world; the Royal Palace in Madrid, a vaulted complex of such tasteless gilt-edged overindulgence as to leave one breathless; the fabled Alhambra, combination Moorish-Christian palace and grim fortress brooding down on—and dominating—Granada; the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Snows, mounted atop the island of Ibiza.
On and on it goes—just when you are certain the Spanish can’t outdo themselves architecturally any further, you stumble upon Seville’s Plaza de España , built to celebrate the 1929 World’s Fair, an ostentatiously elegant clash of art deco and Moorish styles one local called “The most beautiful place in the world.”
Tourists overwhelm these monuments to the power and religion that have dominated Spanish history—better order your tickets in advance for the Alhambra, otherwise you’re not going to get in.
No sign of the peasants among the grand stones. They don’t write the history and their hovels don’t survive, so it is the kings and cardinals who endure and are remembered. In this modern, democratic time we line up in droves to marvel at testaments to a royal and religious world that effectively shut out any notion of the common man.
History comes via a series of guides escorting the hordes through ancient city centers, attempting, usually with some success, to illuminate a blur of competing cultures and religions, all taking turns invading across the Iberian Peninsula.
The Phoenicians arrived more or less first, people of the Fertile Crescent in what is now Israel, Jordan and Syria, then the Romans, who were replaced for five hundred years by the Moors of North Africa. They, in turn, were finally defeated by the Christians—the last sultan gave up Granada to King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella in 1492, the same year Columbus, or Cristóbal Colón as he is known here, set sail for India and instead bumped into the New World. Loathe to admit his mistake, Columbus called the inhabitants Indios or Indians.
The Christians, depending on their mood, either obliterated any sign of the Muslim presence—in Valencia they destroyed the great mosque and replaced it with their own cathedral—or learned to adapt to it, most prominently at the Alhambra in Granada and the Alcazar in Seville.
For a time, the Christians understood that they could learn much from the Muslims, and that Islam and Christianity weren’t all that far apart when all was said and prayed for, so they simply pinned a few Christian symbols onto the existing Muslim architecture and no one seemed to mind.
The one part of Spanish history that the guides and the guidebooks do not much discuss is the Spanish Civil War between 1937 and 1939. Romanticized in North America thanks to the likes of Hemingway, the war is barely mentioned in the country that was ripped apart by it and resulted in nearly four decades of dictatorship under Generalissimo Francisco Franco.
“That is still an open wound,” said Aitor, a passionate student of history who introduced us to his native Seville. “It’s something the Spanish people don’t like to talk about.”
The lingering effects of the civil war are subtle but still present. For example, all those statutes you see around Madrid? Replicas, for the most part. The original bronzes, amazingly, were all melted down for ammunition during the war.
And one has only to wander into the city’s Reina Sofia museum for a view of Guernica, Picasso’s black and gray masterpiece depicting the bombing of the Spanish town by German planes aligned with the Nationalist forces of General Franco, to be reminded of the war’s atrocities.
Franco died in 1975 and Spain has been a democracy ever since, although lately there had not been a national government. As we departed, the warring opposition parties finally reached a compromise and formed a government amid howls of outrage and protests outside Madrid’s Palacio des las Cortes, the house of parliament known locally as the Pickpocket’s Temple.
Otherwise, no one seemed particularly concerned by the lack of a governing body. Most Spaniards thought the country worked better without a government. Services kept functioning, everyone somehow got paid, the streets of the major cities were clean, unemployment fell, and the previously floundering economy grew at a healthy three per cent.
On a perfect evening in Madrid, one sits in the city’s central square, the Plaza Mayor, teeming with the young and the exuberant, concluding that for all Spain’s dark history, its recent economic woes, this is a vibrant, energetic country where everyone is out on the street, where no one seems to go too far before settling into an outdoor café or restaurant for tapas or paella or pulpo (octopus to you foreigners), accompanied by a glass of Agua de Valencia—a popular cocktail combining cava (champagne) orange juice, vodka, and gin. “It doesn’t taste like liquor,” someone pointed out. “Until you try to stand up.”
You marvel again at the ease of Spain, its rich culture, the intoxicating rhythms that draw you in effortlessly, so much to enjoy here.
If only the shoes fit.
Toronto writer Marni Jackson has written a novel about celebrity. Rose, the protagonist in Don’t I Know You? keeps having encounters with real-life famous people, the novelist John Updike, actors Bill Murray and Gwyneth Paltrow, singers Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, and Neil Young.
I’ve known Marni for many years. Her novel, actually a series of interlocking short stories, attempts to come to grips with the phenomenon of fame and our unending preoccupation with it. It got me thinking about my own encounters with celebrity, the fascination with it that has marked my life.
The first movie star I ever met was James Stewart, a true Hollywood legend who had been making movies almost since they began to talk. I’d grown up loving him in such classics as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Philadelphia Story, Winchester 73, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Rear Window and Vertigo.
Standing outside Stewart’s hotel room in Ann Arbor, Michigan, accompanied by my pal Ray Bennett and photographer Bill Bishop, I actually hesitated for a moment, overwhelmed with a sense that as soon as I walked into his room, my life would never be quite the same. The fantasy I had enjoyed on the screen was about to become reality. The prospect was both exhilarating and daunting.
The door opened and standing there in the flesh was a rather formal, elderly looking gent (although Stewart was only sixty-one at the time), who didn’t seem to know who I was, even though I had known him for a lifetime.
Eventually, he warmed up, told great Hollywood stories, and the three of us spent a delightful afternoon together. Nonetheless, it taught me a valuable lesson that would help me with future encounters: reality never quite lives up to the fantasy found on a movie screen, although, I must admit, Stewart came awfully close.
As did Henry Fonda a few years later. Following him upstairs to his hotel suite, I stared at the back of his neck thinking: I’m looking at the back of Henry Fonda’s neck!
Seeing those early stars for the first time hit me with an almost physical force. Long before celebrities became ubiquitous via television and the Internet, movie stars were almost never seen except on a big screen in a darkened theater.
Exposure has now reduced them almost to the point of extinction, but back then stars like Stewart and Fonda were so removed from day-to-day existence, it was initially hard to fathom they were sitting right there in front of me.
I’ve spent a fair amount of time attempting to come to terms with my feelings about this celebrity fascination, wondering about a kid who could get excited about the back of Henry Fonda’s neck, forcing myself to admit that it was in fact a fascination (obsession?) and not simply journalistic pursuit.
Journalism, if I’m to be honest, was the convenient excuse that allowed me to indulge in that fascination (obsession?) over many years—perhaps too many years. What was missing from my own life that I so badly needed to be part of someone else’s life?
Originally, I believe, it had to do with a lonely teenager’s desire to get closer to the stars I saw in a small town on a large movie screen. I didn’t so much go to the movies as I inhabited them. Somewhere off in the misty distance, I imagined, lay an Emerald City filled with the beautiful women and handsome men I saw captured on celluloid. Somehow, I would make the journey and meet my heroes and my insular life would change for the better.
That journey began in Jimmy Stewart’s hotel room, and I was right, my life was never quite the same afterwards. I travelled many places, met many people, finally reached the Emerald City only to discover, perhaps not surprisingly, that it didn’t really exist beyond the confines of a youthful imagination running wild in a small Canadian town.
The stars within the city’s confines could do many things, but they could not make my life better. You could meet these people and talk to them, but you were never going to be part of them. You were, as the writer Nora Ephron noted so memorably, the wallflower at the orgy.
In those days, I had plenty of company reporting the orgy. It was something of a golden age of celebrity journalism. Not only did I want to meet the stars, but, fortunately, I was driven by my betters to try to write about them intelligently—or as intelligently as a young fellow not yet fully formed by the world could write.
Rex Reed as a freelancer for the New York Times was, to my mind, the pioneer in writing about the famous without the gee-whiz enthusiasm of his predecessors. Rex possessed a gimlet eye, an acerbic wit, and a novelist’s innate ability to turn a phrase that provided unexpected insight into the people he was talking to.
Over the years, one of my great pleasures has been getting to know Rex. To this day, I remind him how much he influenced me. His pieces on Tennessee Williams and Warren Beatty in Esquire remain classics of celebrity journalism, instruction manuals for anyone interested in writing magazine profiles.
Marci McDonald, who wrote celebrity profiles for the Toronto Star and then Maclean’s magazine, was also someone whose prose I greatly admired—and envied. The same is true of New York writer Tom Burke who wrote for Rolling Stone.
Gay Talese wrote the most famous celebrity piece of all time for Esquire, titled Frank Sinatra Has a Cold. At the bar one night at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, I spent a great deal of his time informing Talese about how much his journalism meant to me.
Alas, those golden days of fine celebrity writing are gone, partly, I suspect, because the days of easy access to the stars are long gone. When I interviewed Jimmy Stewart for example, there wasn’t a publicist in sight. That has all changed. Writers appear to be much more tightly controlled than they were back in the days when I was writing.
Often I was able to spend days hanging out with someone like James Garner or Tom Wolfe in order to write about them. Now it’s all red carpet interviews and television sound bites. The magazine writer is fortunate to get lunch with the star during a photo shoot.
Or maybe it’s simply that no one has come along to replace the likes of Rex Reed, Tom Burke, and Marci McDonald. I finally exhausted my penchant for celebrity in a blur of hotel room interviews for the Toronto Star. I came into the job wanting to profile everyone under the sun and proceeded to do it to the point of exhaustion.
I am no longer the wallflower at the orgy, although I suppose my fascination lingers. As readers of these blogs know only too well, I continue to spin the celebrity stories that informed so much of my life. Did I waste much of that life, sitting in a hotel room waiting for Cher to call (she never did incidentally)? It has crossed my mind from time to time.
At least Marni Jackson in Don’t I know You? has managed to find a new use for celebrity stories, incorporate them into your fiction; the wallflower joins the orgy, at least on the printed page.
Why didn’t I think of that? But then, hey, I got to interview Jimmy Stewart, and I saw the back of Henry Fonda’s neck.
Buy Don’t I Know You? HERE
The singer Glenn Yarbrough died in August at the age of eighty-six after suffering from dementia for years. His voice and his songs were such a pivotal influence on my adolescence, I can’t imagine how I missed the news of his death, but miss it I did.
When I think back now, it amazes me that a group of teenaged guys sitting around late at night so avidly embraced his songs. While everyone else favored groups such as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and the Mamas and the Papas, we listened to Glenn singing songs like “Stanyan Street Revisited,” “The Warm and Gentle Girls,” “The World I Used to Know,” “Rose,” “Lonesome,” and his only top-twenty hit, “Baby the Rain Must Fall” (from the Steve McQueen-Lee Remick movie).
A high tenor voice infused with angst and longing, a gentle poet singing of loves that slipped away, ambitions that went unrealized, illusions shattered, wanderers constantly moving on, and loneliness. We would later encounter all those things in our lives, but at the time we really hadn’t had to deal with any of it, except maybe the loneliness.
Perhaps that was the essence of his appeal for us. I certainly felt alone and cut off back then, locked away in a small town along the St. Lawrence River. I’m not sure any of us realized it, but in a way those songs prepped us for the future, sending out signals, warning of what was to come in life, the messages embedded in a bittersweet romanticism that I soaked up.
His voice echoed constantly through our apartment over the bank my father managed on King Street West, so much so that even my brother Ric, not ordinarily obsessed with thoughts of love and loneliness, became addicted.
Recently my niece Lindsay married. Ric arranged a surprise dance with his daughter as Glenn sang “Rose,” a somewhat soppy ballad, I must admit, that my poor niece and nephew grew up listening to. It contains the refrain: “That’s okay, Rose would say, don’t you worry none. We’ll have good times, by and by, next fall when the work’s all done.”
The Bases sang along lustily, memories and tears flowing. Everyone else thought we were nuts. And we were. Just a little.
Born in Milwaukee but raised in New York City, Glenn first gained notoriety as a member of the Limelighters folk group (a college appearance by Woody Guthrie was an inspiration). He never strayed far from his folk roots after he left the group and struck out on his own. He was particularly adept at interpreting the songs and poetry of Rod McKuen with whom he collaborated often over the years.
I met Glenn when he came to Ottawa to do a concert. I persuaded the entertainment editor at the now defunct Ottawa Journal to let me do a story on him. I doubt the editor knew who I was talking about, but nonetheless he agreed to run an interview.
I hurried over to where Glenn was performing on a double bill with the Everly Brothers. Don and Phil came on first. Most of the crowd was there to see them. Unfortunately, they were not there to see Glenn.
The audience remained polite enough through the first few songs in his set, but as it became apparent Glenn Yarbrough was a long way from the Everlys, the booing started. I couldn’t believe it. Those songs meant a lot to an eighteen-year-old kid, how could these people not be swept away? But they weren’t.
To his credit, when I saw him backstage, Glenn took the hostility more or less in stride. “They came to see Don and Phil,” he said. “It probably wasn’t a good idea to put me on the same bill with them.”
A small, stocky man with short-cropped hair and a round, boyish face, Glenn stood for most of our time together, moving his arms restlessly around, snapping his fingers, courteous enough, but a bit remote—or maybe he was more shaken by his encounter with the Ottawa crowd than he was willing to admit.
That night also marked one of the first times I heard anyone angrily criticize the war in Vietnam. This seems extraordinarily naïve today, but in 1967 the anti-war sentiment that soon roiled the United States had yet to take hold. At least it had not gotten through to me. Until I met Glenn, I pretty much bought the Time magazine view that the war was necessary in order to stop the communists from taking over the world.
After that, I went on with my life, experiencing firsthand many of the things I previously had only heard Glenn sing about: loves and losses, disappointments and disillusion, all those beautiful strangers who came along and then were gone.
Glenn faded into the background.
I went over and introduced myself. He shook my hand, friendly, but as he was the first time we met, somewhat remote. He said he had become a lot more interested in sailing around the world and helping others than he was in performing. Now he only sang on occasion so he could pay the bills.
I accompanied him to the photo studio where he was getting his picture taken for something or other. Later, as he came back through the newsroom, he waved and I went over and walked him out. As we said goodbye, I tried to tell him how I admired him, and how much his music had helped me get through lonely adolescent nights.
Then he was gone and the next thing I heard about him was the belated news of his death. So as I sit writing this, I am listening to that warm tenor voice reciting the words that have stuck with me for a lifetime:
“Alas the nights so blue and bright, have wandered into dawn, and all the warm and gentle girls have come along and gone. . .”
Ah, but one of them stayed Glenn, the warmest and gentlest. You got it just about right.
Cary Grant was a made-up character according to—Cary Grant.
“I’m playing a part,” he told interviewer Jim Bawden. “It’s a part I’ve been playing for a long time, but no way am I really Cary Grant.”
Gloria Swanson said Billy Wilder approached Mary Pickford and Greta Garbo before he finally cast her as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. Roy Rogers admitted he had no idea how to act when he started in movies. Cast as a villain in his first picture, all he could think to do was frown.
Van Johnson remembered the day Clark Gable, MGM’s top box office star for many years, left the studio. “He was considered too expensive at $6,000 a week…(I) watched from an upstairs window as Gable drove his convertible right around that loop. Then he stood up and saluted and drove away and with him went the studio’s glory.”
These and dozens of other anecdotes and memories of a bygone age fill Conversations with Classic Film Stars: Interviews from Hollywood’s Golden Era by Jim Bawden and Ron Miller. The book, published by the University Press of Kentucky, gleaned from interviews both authors conducted with various stars over the years, is at once a delicious wallow in nostalgia and a sad reminder that movies no longer matter the way they used to.
I devoured Conversations with Classic Film Stars as the movie summer of 2016 wound down, leaving a bad taste in everyone’s mouth and Hollywood wondering if there was any future at all in the wake of the failure of so many blockbuster behemoths.
“Cinema Is Dead?” asked a recent New York Times headline, before hurrying to reassure that maybe it isn’t—maybe.
Now that September is upon us accompanied by the arrival of the Toronto International Film Festival, the start of awards season, and a clutch of films that don’t rely on special effects or comic book heroes in tights, there is a burst of optimism. Yet a shadow hangs over film; if the movies are not dead or dying, they are at least unhealthy and possibly on life support.
Wired magazine in its critical appraisal of this past summer’s offerings concluded that this could well be “the worst. Year. Ever.”
Referring to the avalanche of mediocre box office duds littering your local Cineplex over the past four months, Wired critic Brian Raftery wrote: “These movies didn’t just fail; they almost seemed to never exist in the first place, having been dismissed or disposed of immediately upon impact.”
Certainly the glamor and excitement that used to accompany going to movies has, for me a least, long since slipped away. The slippage began in the 1980s when I was writing about film. Those of us who covered cinema could see that something was going seriously wrong. The high profile failures of Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull and Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate spelled the end of the autonomy many directors had enjoyed throughout the seventies and which produced what is generally regarded as the last great age of American cinema.
By the beginning of the twenty-first century, the Hollywood studios, taken over by conglomerates, had begun to turn out mostly big, lumbering noisy industrial products that could appeal to everyone but in the end satisfied no one. As the years went on, things only got worse until now the studios have no interest in anything but expensive sequels, remakes, and animated features designed for family audiences. Most of the movies I grew up loving would never get made by a major studio today.
Even as I devoured movies, there was a great deal of talk about their death. The studio system that sustained Hollywood and nurtured and manufactured their stars through the 1930s and 1940s, was disappearing as theater attendance plummeted and television kept audiences at home.
Ironically, television is once again the culprit. This time, however, it’s because television, to the astonishment of a writer who used to write despairingly about the medium, has become the pop cultural touchstone of our time. Movies have been left in the dust of the dozens of special effects cities Hollywood blockbusters insist on destroying every summer.
Original writing, brilliant acting, cinematography that captures the light and shadow of contemporary life, all that is found on your home flat screen. Movies, on the other hand, have become impossibly difficult to produce and finance, and, worst of all, dull.
As I exited the task of writing about film at the end of the 1980s, I reported that the cost of the average studio movie had doubled over the decade to twenty-three million dollars. I was shocked—shocked!—that a new Arnold Schwarzenegger sci-fi action movie, Total Recall, had cost an astronomical fifty-five million dollars.
I naively worried that “there was concern that even if the summer movies were hits, they could never make enough money to recoup their production and marketing costs.” I quoted one studio executive as saying, “What’s going on is insane.”
Ha. What little did he—or I—know of what was to come.
The latest X-Men installment was budgeted at over two hundred and fifty million dollars, and that’s not unusual in this surreal movie age.
Because pictures have become so expensive, the stakes so extraordinarily high, any signs of originality or unpredictability have been bled out by herds of writers and studio executives intent on making them palatable to the largest worldwide audience.
Ostensibly, it has been left to independently-financed films made outside the studio system, to provide the original and the unpredictable. But the independents, too, are often hobbled by a lack of the audacity that seems to come so naturally to television. The writing is better, the acting often superb, but everything independent appears to have to be based on a true story in order to get made. What the super hero movie is to summer, the true story has become to the fall.
Brian Raftery in Wired makes the point that it isn’t just television that has captured the cultural zeitgeist, it is unexpected phenomenon like Pokémon Go or the Broadway smash, Hamilton, that get everyone talking.
No one much talks about movies any more. Even so, no matter what they do to me, I can still be found most weekends at the multiplex with my popcorn and my optimism. I’m still yammering away about movies—these days extoling the many pleasures contained in Bawden and Miller’s delightful book about movie stars from another age who remind us of a time when movies really mattered.
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