My mother, the product of a broken wreck of a marriage, was raised, in part, in the Philadelphia home of her cousin Elsie. Elsie’s parents were anarchists; they never married out of principle. They had a picture of Eugene V. Debs above the fireplace (Debs being the only Socialist candidate for President who ever came close to getting a million votes; he accomplished this while in prison in 1920), and in 1909, long before my mother was born, they hid out Emma Goldman when the police were looking for her.
My father, the product of a stable family, was raised, in whole, in the small town of Carrollton, Ohio. He was an Eagle Scout, went to bible camp, and at 14 signed the Women’s Christian Temperance Union pledge to never let alcohol touch his lips. He has happily spent a lifetime breaking that pledge. He is, through his mother, related to William McKinley, stalwart Republican and 25th President of the United States, who received over 7 million votes in 1900, long before my father was born.
William McKinley was assassinated in September 1901 at the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. He was shot by Leon Czolgosz, an off-the-rails anarchist driven to the deed after seeing Emma Goldman speak, and put to death for his efforts.
My mother’s politics were, as one might expect with her upbringing, as red as her hair; the only picket line she ever crossed in her life was to work on Dark Shadows, and only then after days of memorably exhaustive soul-searching. My father’s politics were what one might expect of a small-town Ohio boy related to William McKinley. But landing on Normandy Beach (D-Day+2) and walking from there through the Battle of the Bulge to Munich made him go through his own evolutions of the soul.
Still and yet, they often joked, when they came home from the polls on Election Day, that their votes had cancelled each other out.
Kind of like Czolgosz and McKinley.
* * *
Stephen Sondheim mentions Czolgosz—gives him a whole song, in fact— in his musical, Assassins. Stephen Sondheim also wrote this, in Follies:
Come on, folks.
And where we gonna go?
A little joint I know-
Great new show there.
Hey, I thought you said tonight’d be Tony’s–
This joint is just as grand.
We girls got dressed for dancing at Tony’s–
This joint is in demand.
Ta-ta, goodbye, you’ll find us at Tony’s–
Wait till you hear the band!
You told us Tony’s,
That we’d go to Tony’s. I told you Tony’s?
Then Ben mentioned Tony’s. I never said Tony’s
Well, someone said Tony’s. When’s Ben mentioned Tony’s?
There’s dancing at Tony’s– It’s ritzy at Tony’s–
All right, then, we’ll go! All right, then, we’ll go!
My parents met on a double date at Tony’s in 1950. It was, evidently, where the Sheraton Hotel is now. When Grayson mentioned that she was planning to marry some man and move to California, Sam got up, went to the bathroom, then went to the Maitre D’, bypassed the table, paid the check, left the restaurant, went back to the Plaza hotel, packed his bag, and took the train up to Hanover, New Hampshire, where the Dartmouth Winter Carnival was in session. He was no longer a Dartmouth undergrad—he’d been through the war, and was now pursuing a Master’s at Yale Drama—but he knew people up at Hanover, and he went to stay with them.
No doubt there was a girl involved. There were girls before my mother. There was a beautiful countess with a slight hint of a moustache. There was an interesting girl who was murdered by the man she eventually married, and later, in Mexico, Sam was introduced socially to that man.
Anyway. Some time in 1952, or thereabouts, Sam was in New York, and was asked if he wanted to go to a party at that girl Shirley’s apartment. Okay, he thought, that marriage didn’t work out. He went, talked with her (she had no memory of the earlier evening, nor did she ever dredge any memories up—suffice it to say, she had been busy), charmed her, convinced her to leave her own party and spend the night with him at the Algonquin.
And so they did. And were together until 1985.
Czolgosz and McKinley. United at last.