George Gaynes was a wonderful man, and an old family friend. Longtime readers of this blog will recognize him as Matt Gaynes’ father. Most people know him from his film and television roles: John Van Horn, “The Tongue,” singing Some Enchanted Evening from the street to Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie; Commander Lassard in the Police Academy movies, crusty Henry Warnimont in Punky Brewster; Frank Smith, the mob boss threatening Luke and Laura on General Hospital, and—perhaps his finest work—Serybryakov in Luis Malle’s film of Andre Gregory’s production of Uncle Vanya, entitled Vanya on 42nd Street.

But in many ways, George’s life was infinitely more fascinating than a cold collation of his film credits. He was a tireless storyteller, and he had fantastic stories, all true: born in Finland when it was part of the Russian empire, his birth recorded in the old-style Julian calendar, George survived a great many things that would have humbled a lesser man: a mother who remarried and divorced with avid rapidity, and who ultimately became the toast of French café society between the wars; a brutal slice of World War Two involving escapes, internments, and an overall sense of duty to fight for what he believed; the loss of a son. But through it all there was fundamental love, quick and splendid humor, tremendous backbone (a quality his son and daughter both inherited) and a capacity for great and tender kindness. He was a gentleman, with old-school European manners underlying an impeccable and abiding moral code.

I knew the family because I grew up in the same New York apartment building, and their son, Matthew, was my age and my best friend. I have had the pleasure of staying in touch with George, Allyn Ann Mclerie (his wife, an actress and star in her own right), Matt and Iya and Iya’s daughter Niki over the years.

As an elderly man, George wrote a brief autobiographical essay to set the record straight on the story of his life. Upon his death in February, his daughter Iya asked me to give it a slight edit for brevity. This was handed out last week at the memorial service in Santa Barbara celebrating his life; I publish it here with Iya’s permission.

The words that follow are George’s, the story is George’s. My edits are, as they should be, invisible.

 

TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN

by George Gaynes

This document is intended to convey to my survivors and to the press, the real story, albeit in an abridged form, of my origins, my life, and my career. It is not intended as a panegyric for my accomplishments, nor is it a self-congratulatory account of my achievements. Just a story, the main thrust of which is to inform whoever has an interest on the subject of my life with exact details, both personal and professional. So, here are the facts.

This document is for filing purposes at the present time, to be trotted out upon my demise if deemed necessary for an obituary. In fact, I would request that it be consulted. In other words I am acting as my own public relations agent.

I was born George Jongejans on May 16th, 1917 (May 3rd, per the old-style Julian calendar) of a Dutch father, Gerrit Jongejans and a Russian mother, Iya Grigorievna Gay, in Helsingfors (now Helsinki) Finland, where they had met. My father, from a middle class family in Alkmaar, Holland, was working for the American Tobacco Company in Finland. My mother was the daughter of a prominent Saint Petersburg artistic, and aristocratic, theatrical producer, writer, and actor named Gregory Gay. He was divorced from his wife, Anna Novikova, also an actress, who was descended from a prominent Eastern Russian family with Tartar origins in the Golden Horde. Both had worked in the Imperial Theaters. Anna Novikova had remarried to an Imperial government functionary, George Wouitch.

The latter had been assigned to the then Grand Duchy of Finland for government duties. Finland declared its independence during the two Russian revolutions that year. There was fighting in Helsinki, and my mother had to dodge bullets when going out to buy milk.

A year or so after my birth my mother and father moved to Holland, where my mother stayed through the end of World War 1. The marriage proved incompatible very early; in 1920 my mother moved to Paris, where her mother and stepfather had preceded her. She sent for me some weeks or months later. In 1923 my mother married an Englishman, Sir Robert Abdy, Bart.; this marriage lasted for six years. During that time my mother established herself as one of the reigning beauties of Paris and international café society, a social swirl that continued through the ‘30s.

In 1926 I was sent from Paris to an English private elementary boarding school in preparation to becoming a proper English public school boy. I even successfully passed the entrance exam to attend Eton. However, in 1930, after the divorce in 1929, my mother followed the advice of a school friend from her all-female Swiss finishing school and put me in a high school (collège) in Lausanne, Switzerland. There I lived in a pension with a Swiss family for seven years. In 1937 I graduated from junior college (gymnase). I had been singing throughout my school years; my voice had changed into a bass baritone register, and as it had become my intention to follow a theatrical career, I went to Milan, Italy, to study music and opera.

From 1937 to 1940, when I made my operatic debut at the Teatro della Triennale in Luigi Dallapiccola’s one act opera Merlin, I lived in Milan, returning intermittently to my mother’s home in Paris. World War II hit its stride in May 1940 with the German invasion of Holland, Belgium and France. As a Dutch subject my residence in Italy became insecure, and I left just the day before Italy’s declaration of war on June 10, 1940. I headed through Switzerland back to France, but Paris had been taken, so with difficulty I joined my mother in Vichy, where she had gone for health reasons. We took off together for Biarritz and the Spanish border. With her British (by marriage) and my Dutch passports we attempted to leave for England through Spain and Portugal. This proved unsuccessful, and we crossed to Monaco, where we resided for the best part of two years, always trying throughout that time to find some way to leave for England.

Finally, with the total occupation of France by the Germans in 1942, we each separately found our way on foot across the Pyrenees into Spain, where she and I were subjected to some months of internment. In 1943 we were able to get to London through Gibraltar, courtesy of the British Embassy in Madrid.

I got to London first, joined the Royal Dutch Navy, was assigned to the British Navy, and took part in the invasion of Sicily, as well as actions in Italy, Albania, Greece, and the invasion of the South of France. In 1945, after the German surrender, I spent a year in the German seaport of Emden as part of the British occupying forces.

My mother got to London after I had already left. There, she joined the Free French Forces, was assigned to an American medical unit, and landed with them in Normandy on D-Day. Her language skills were invaluable as an interpreter, and she ended the war in Paris with the Russian Soviet Medical Mission.

Returning to Paris in 1946 I resumed my operatic training, and was engaged in 1947 at the Mulhouse, Alsace, followed by an engagement in Strasbourg the following year. Lazslo Halasz, founder of the New York City Opera, heard me in audition each one of those years and brought me to New York for the City Opera 1949 fall season. As company basso, my most prominent role was Leporello in Mozart’s Don Giovanni; Virgil Thomson, then music critic at the New York Herald Tribune, found me “the best Leporello of the decade.”

That same year, the producers of Gian Carlo Menotti’s opera The Consul, Chandler Cowles and Efrem Zimbalist Jr., cast me in the role of Mr. Kofner in the original production at the Barrymore Theater.

The following year, 1950, by an arrangement with the New York City Opera, I was given the opportunity to play the role of Jupiter in Cole Porter’s Out of This World at the Century Theater, courtesy of the producers Saint Subber and Lemuel Ayres. The same thing happened the next year with Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden and Adolf Green’s Wonderful Town, in which I played the lead against Rosalind Russell and, later, Carol Channing. During a rehearsal for Wonderful Town, the director, the legendary George Abbott, advised me to change my name to one more appropriate to a Broadway performer; though I was still under contract and performing at the City Opera during this period, the experience of being part of Wonderful Town offered possibilities that opera could not. In the midst of a medley of names floated by the assembly, Leonard Bernstein took with particular enthusiasm to George Gaynes, a partial anagram of Jongeyans, the phonetic simplification of Jongejans I was then using. I opened with Gaynes on the marquee.

During this season I fulfilled my contract with the New York City Opera at the same time I was appearing on Broadway. I worked in both to the fullest extent I could; standbys took over in each when I appeared in the other. I believe such a shuttle still remains unique in the annals of Broadway and opera in New York City.

In 1953, during the run of Wonderful Town, I met my future wife, Allyn Ann McLerie. We married at Christmastime that same year, and remain married to this day. Allyn Ann is a Broadway and film star with a very fine career behind her. We had two children: a daughter, Iya, born in 1955, and a son, Matthew, born in 1958.

The opera work faded into the background and finally ceased altogether as I became more heavily involved in nonmusical theater, films, and television. In 1967, André Gregory invited Allyn Ann and me to Los Angeles, to join the Inner City Repertory Company, a nontraditional integrated theater group subsidized by the National Endowment for the Arts. We opened with a landmark production of Moliere’s Tartuffe. The Company only lasted one season, but we became residents of Los Angeles, and worked in a great many films, plays, soap operas and other television shows. For many, my most memorable television show remains the series Punky Brewster with Soleil Moon Fry in the 1980s. But I continued to do theater whenever I could, joining Claudette Colbert in the Jerome Chodorov comedy A Company of Two, both in Los Angeles and on tour.

The 1980s also saw the Police Academy series; I play Commandant Lassard in all seven, thanks to the original director Hugh Wilson and producer Paul Maslansky.

And in 1982 I had the good fortune to be cast as the fatuous soap opera star in the film Tootsie with Dustin Hoffman, Bill Murray, Charles Durning and Jessica Lange, directed by Sidney Pollack.

In 1991 I joined André Gregory’s Uncle Vanya project, in which a group of actors gathered at the New Victory theater in New York in long-running public rehearsals. The result of this collaboration was ultimately filmed by Luis Malle under the title Vanya on 42nd Street. It was Malle’s last film; he died a year or so later.

In 1995 I played the role of Judge Samuel Sewell in Arthur Miller’s film version of The Crucible. The role, not in the original play, was written for the film.

Allyn Ann, throughout the years, kept on working as well, notably in various projects with Robert Redford, and in The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd. My son Matthew, a champion kayaker, graduated from UCSB with a degree in physics; he was killed in a road accident while on a kayaking expedition in India in 1989. Iya, who has a law degree from the McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento, has held various posts in Santa Barbara city government; her daughter, Niki, has had two daughters, making us great-grandparents.

With best regards,

George Gaynes

Né Jongejans

“Hurrah, hurrah! The third of May!

Outdoor fucking began two days ago.”

 

…That said, there are two new Grayson Hall items up at eBay: a wide-brimmed summer straw hat in excellent condition, and a pair of “bunch of wine grapes” earrings. You can check ’em out here:

http://stores.ebay.com/universe-of-hall

 

I grew up in New York City, very much a city kid. When I joined the cub scouts the only sleep-outs we ever had were on the 7th floor of the 92nd street Y. We’d build a fire in the fireplace and turn up the air-conditioning and tell ghost stories and fall asleep in our sleeping bags and in the morning pack everything up and trundle downstairs and take the subway back home.

My mother’s father, who spent his life in Philadelphia, had been a professional gambler and bookie—on his death bed, he griped about the parimutual betting act of 1937, which had put him out of business—but after the government forced his hand, he and his brothers opened a used car dealership and repair shop. My mother’s parents were estranged, though never divorced, and whenever my mother needed a car, he would give her one from his lot.

And it always broke down.

This extended after my parents married and I came along. For a portion of every summer, we would get a car from Grandpa to take a vacation.

And it always broke down.

We never got a car that didn’t. Even the summer of ’73, when my mother, Matt Gaynes and I were in Nantucket (mom was doing a John Guare play, Marco Polo Sings a Solo; the exploits of Matt and I that summer are chronicled elsewhere in this blog), we were in one of Grandpa’s cars when we took the car ferry to the island and drove all over the island and took the car ferry off the island, and on our way back to New York found ourselves driving through a horrible rainstorm when Matt Gaynes remarked that this car, of all the cars he’d seen my family drive, had never broken down.

Whereupon, as if on cue, it promptly did. We managed to push it under a bridge and waited, sopping wet, for two hours in those pre-cell phone days for the cops to come, call in a tow truck, and get us someplace with a phone.

The minute I went to college my parents finally bought their first car, a big-ass ‘70s Monte Carlo, a no-joke 17-foot long, 4000-pound blue two-door monster with a majestic sweep of steel from the rear wheel well to the headlights, an 8-cylinder turbo-boosted engine under a hood the size of a drawbridge, a trunk big enough to comfortably house a Shetland pony, a full-on couch in the front, and a cramped back seat with no legroom and a fake little rear window you couldn’t open or close.

This car was a beast, the kind of car America will never make again. The ideal customer Chevrolet had in mind when they designed this thing was someone who liked to drive really fast, and if they crashed into anything they’d destroy it and walk away without a scratch.

They’d obviously designed it, then, expressly, for my mother.

I have stated elsewhere in this blog that my mother loved to drive. I always thought she was a superb driver; it turned out others didn’t think so, but they were wrong. I once saw her miss an exit and simply turn off the highway, rip over 40 feet of grass and gravel to the service road, all without the slightest pause in conversation. She drove fast, with one arm and a constant stream of chatter. We had some of our deepest and heaviest talks clipping along at 75 miles per hour on speed-limit-55 roads. And when she got pulled over, which she often did, she would charm the shit out of the officer, and sometimes it would work, and sometimes it wouldn’t, but it was always worth a try.

If you were going to drive as fast as my mother, the occasional ticket was just the price of doing business, in some respects akin to the ante one threw in to get into the game.

Anyway, with me packed off safely in college, the first thing my parents did after they got the car was started to rent country houses in upstate New York with friends. (At the time I was mystified: if we’d had access to the country when I was a kid, I wouldn’t have been learning about plant lore on 92nd street; now, as my peers become empty nesters, I can see it as a well-deserved return to and indulgence in adulthood.) The small towns south of Kingston, New York have a great many very nice stone houses, and gradually the urge to rent gave way to the urge to buy. They started out, in the middle ‘70s, looking for a small stone house to purchase on the west side of the river. They ended up, in 1978, buying Wildercliff, a large clapboard wood house on the east side of the river. (It turned out that under the clapboard was brick, probably made of local mud and a kiln onsite, which is how they did things in 1799. But brick was unfashionable and thus was covered with wood. Having a brick house covered with wood made rewiring anything rather complicated.)

The house was on the river, on a plateau high above the railroad tracks. It was close enough to the local train station that mom could be sitting on the porch having a glass of wine, see the train pass heading north, get in the blue beast and meet the train at the station, about four miles upriver. This was how she would pick up my dad, when he would come up at the end of a week of writing One Life to Live.

While this was delightful when it worked, the Amtrak trains speeding up the river from New York were often off-schedule, which is polite Amtrak talk for being late. Mom liked sitting on the porch and waiting for it when everything went like clockwork; when it didn’t, her legendary impatience kicked in. She realized she needed an intelligence system to inform her of the arrivals of trains about which she cared. To that end, she began chatting up the two young men who ran the Rhinecliff train station, both of whom were named Walter. They were gay without being a couple; they both knew Mom from Dark Shadows, and pretty soon she had them eating from the palm of her hand.

They would call her when Sam’s regular train was late, and call her again when it was five minutes from the station. If she had friends coming up, they would call when those trains were near arrival. They would have tickets printed and waiting so she could sweep into the station and cut to the head of the line. And at all times she treated them like the world’s sleekest and finest groomed sea otters behind the grillwork of their little cage.

One time, she spent the afternoon with friends in Hudson, an hour upriver from Rhinebeck, where we lived. Invited for dinner, she longed to stay and have Sam join her, but the drive was inconceivable. So she picked up the phone (again, all this was pre-cell phone), called the station, and told whichever Walter answered to radio the train to tell Sam Hall not to get off in Rhinecliff, but to go on to Hudson. And sure enough, they did it: Sam, minding his own business after a week of plotting the lives of Asa Buchanan and Dorian Cramer and Victoria Lord, was suddenly mortified to hear the train speaker crackle into life: “Passenger Sam Hall, do not get off in Rhinecliff, repeat Passenger Sam Hall, do not get off in Rhinecliff. Your wife will be waiting for you at the Hudson station.”

It made him want to curl up like a roly-poly bug and disappear under his seat, but he got off at Hudson and was met at the station by the group of friends Grayson had cajoled into joining her and immediately handed a glass of wine and that made it all better.

Another time, Amtrak was experimenting with offering free dinners in First Class. (This didn’t last long; Amtrak was many things, but it was not an airline.) Sam, who would reserve a first-class ticket so as to be assured of having a seat on the Friday afternoon train, would routinely forego the free dinner, as better food was awaiting him at the house. One day, mom was lounging in the station with the Walters, when one of them piped up with the complaint that the passengers got free food on the train, but the Amtrak workers never got anything like that. Mom, because she always held in herself the incalculable power to change things she thought unfair, decided to fix this. So the next Friday when Sam called her to tell her he’d be making his regular train, she put in a request. Were they still offering free dinners? Could he pick one up and bring it up to the station house for the Walters?

Bring his free dinner up to the Walters?

Well, Mom said, it would be great if he could bring two, but he probably couldn’t. (She’d’ve pulled it off, but that’s another story.) Yes, when they asked him if he wanted the free dinner, he was to say yes, and then bring it with him up the stairs to the station house when he got off the train.

So he did. Presented with a menu, he ordered the chicken, because he thought it would be more splittable. And when the tray of food arrived, he asked for it to go.

The conductor looked at him, incredulous. You want to take this off the train?

Yes, I want to take it with me when I get off in Rhinecliff.

The leftovers?

No, the whole thing.

But nobody’s ever asked that before.

Well, Sam asked, impatient now at the idiots in front of him and at my mother for putting him into this position, I own it, don’t I?

Well…yes, the conductor admitted.

Well, when I get off the train, I want to carry it with me. Whole. Uneaten. Exactly like this.

Radios crackled, secondary conductors were summoned, conversations were had. Finally it was agreed that Mr. Hall could take his dinner with him.

And so he did. When the train stopped in Rhinecliff, he got off with his workday Hunter’s World bag dangling from his shoulder, carefully carried the tray of cold chicken up two flights of stairs into the station house, and presented it to the Walters.

Who were in shock. They had just been kidding. They had never had the slightest expectation that anybody would actually do this.

By the time my father saw my mother, he was absolutely furious. The Walters, however, said the chicken was very good.

One more story: One night, when mom was doing a play, she took the last scheduled Amtrak up the Hudson river. The blue Monte Carlo had by then become the car they left at station parking when they both were in New York; it was after midnight when she arrived at Rhinecliff. She was tired, she was grumpy, and she wanted to get to the house and sleep.

The Walters were not around that late; the station was closed. Mom trudged up the two flights of stairs, took the door to the street, went up more stairs, and looked around the parking lot for the blue Monte Carlo.

At last, there it was. It was a cold night, and she had trouble with the key, having to wiggle and jiggle it for an absurdly long time before the lock finally gave and she opened the door and got in.

And there next to her was a book she’d seen around, and she thought to herself: Oh, I haven’t read that, and I’ve been meaning to.

Whereupon she realized she’d just broken into somebody’s car.

We’ve had auctions, we have given away carloads to the Northern Dutchess Hospital Thrift Shop in Rhinebeck, NY (Gucci raincoats! Martini glasses!) and HousingWorks in New York City (an air conditioner!), and we still have all sorts of things that were actually owned and worn and used by Grayson and Sam (with emphasis, clothing-wise, on Grayson).

So we’re opening an eBay store.

Now: I was once contacted by a friend who saw that someone on eBay was selling clothing he claimed was owned by Grayson Hall. I went over to check it out, and didn’t recognize any of it– it was pretty generic. So I e-mailed the seller, identified myself as Grayson’s son, and asked about the items.

It didn’t go well. He responded to my inquiry by attacking, and attacking, and ATTACKING, until I eventually just backed off and let him stew in his own vituperative self-created fake memorabilia hell.

So: in order to prove that everything we sell is authentic:

Every item sold at our eBay store will come with a canceled check from 1972 or 1973 signed by Grayson Hall (or, if you prefer, Sam Hall, as I also have some of those). These checks will be crimped with an embosser to provide a further test of authenticity. And I will keep a record of check numbers and other identifying information tying the sale to the check, and vice versa.

The store is called Universe of Hall (I’d like to thank my son for that name) and can be found here:

http://stores.ebay.com/universe-of-hall

The first item is up now. It’s a set of 7 really attractive large yellow cups and saucers (and a sugar bowl and creamer) that would be a complete 8 but for Grayson breaking one, under innocent circumstances, one autumn morning in Rhinebeck many years ago. There is an eighth saucer, chipped and reglued, but the cup was a goner, swept up and tossed.

I’m going to keep putting stuff up, hoping people find it interesting or unusual or attractive or useful, or just want to own something that was owned by Grayson or Sam. There will be inexpensive items and some things that are probably worth a bit more. If you have any questions about any of it, feel free to get in touch and ask.

Have fun with it– that is, in fact, the point.

Okay, folks, this is the tricky one—this is the one that’s going to hurt. On Saturday, June 27, some of the nicest of my parents’ stuff from Wildercliff will be auctioned off:

http://www.stairgalleries.com/auctions/june-26-27-2015/

Though there will be interesting oddments of Grayson and Sam’s Hall’s collected weirdness in future auctions, this is the one with the most, the best, the big pieces that I will be sad to see go. But the thing is, to keep all this stuff, I would need, umm, two houses. And, well, we don’t have that.

One can bid through the internet; our stuff is lots 662 to 709. Half is furniture, which will probably be expensive; half is Majolica ceramic pieces, which will probably not. My parents collected it (you can tell the ones my father bought because he had a thing about monkeys) and it’s beautiful stuff, but it really doesn’t fit our lives. Two adolescent boys + delicate pottery = multicolored shards of broken monkey bits in vacuum cleaner bags.

In 1983, my parent’s house was featured in Architectural Digest magazine. In 2010, a blogger I didn’t know wrote a blog piece in which he said nice things about the rooms, and published the pictures. If you care to see the furniture in context, that blogger’s kind post can be found here:

http://thebluerememberedhills.blogspot.com/2010/02/wimped-out.html

We’ll get back to the carefully written nonfiction once this is all finally over and done.

As has been mentioned in recent posts on this blog, since my father passed away last fall I have been working my way through the lifetime of possessions he and my mother accumulated over the years.

Many of the larger pieces have been consigned to two auction houses: Stair Galleries in Hudson, New York, which specializes in high-end pieces, and Hyde Park Country Auctions, in Hyde Park (the FDR Hyde Park, south of Rhinebeck, not the Long Island Hyde Park, or, for that matter, the London one), which will be handling the more quotidian items when their new facility opens in September. Both allow internet bidding.

Many of Sam and Grayson’s larger pieces will be featured in Stair’s “Fine” auction on June 27, 2015. But two items have been slotted into their “Modern” sale on Saturday, June 6th (http://www.stairgalleries.com/auctions/june-6-2015/). One, listed as Lot 819, is the brass, steel and glass desk at which Sam wrote daily on the second floor of Wildercliff for many years. It was sold to him by its designer, the noted John Vesey. It’s a gorgeous piece of furniture. The estimate is $1500-$2500, though Veseys have occasionally been known to go higher than that. The second piece, lot 779, is a lovely, graceful and beautifully crafted blonde wood stool, in an elegant and perplexing design. And it actually comes with one of my favorite Sam Hall stories.

 STOOL, SORI YANAGI “BUTTERFLY”, 1980’s

Screen Shot 2015-05-29 at 3.35.58 AM

Sam would often be asked to open Wildercliff for charity events. Every year, Hudson Heritage, a local land preservation group, would organize a fundraiser by enlisting a group of owners of large Hudson Valley homes to open their houses to the paying public for one day. Sam always supported their work, and usually said yes. People would pay money to be carted from large house to large house and oooh and aaah at the view, the furnishings, the weird colors we favored, and the rest of it. Docents were positioned on every floor to explain things and keep an eye out for thieves.

Sam would be fresh-eyed and set to charm, pug on arm, when the first bus pulled up in the morning. By the end of the day, having put up through bus after bus of people wandering through his life (and often making quite inelegant and misinformed statements about it), he had always had enough. The charm would wear off, the pug would be let down to bark at whomever she pleased, wine would be poured for himself and maybe me if I was around, and he would give in to the mildly evil side of his nature, and begin to interact with these earnest tourists in whatever way amused him.

So: long day, orange early-evening light slanting through the windows on the second floor, and there are a pair of biddies in his bedroom, and they are asking him about every little thing. They ask about his preposterously long bed (“I was going to get a St Bernard, but it didn’t work out,” was his usual response—entirely untrue, of course; from my birth forward, Sam’s dogs had always been pugs). They considered the painted white paisley patterns on the floor, and declared them “interesting.” He didn’t bother to point out the fake shafts of sunlight carefully dappled in; he’d been saying it all day and he wanted his house—his life— back from these interlopers. He wanted them to leave. And then their eyes fell on the wooden butterfly chair in the corner. “What’s that?” one of them asked. Something broke inside Sam, some last piece of decency and decorum. “That,” he said, his wit dry as a carefully sharpened sword, “is my Japanese cocksucking stool.”

It worked. The biddies hustled back down the stairs and were out of the house in two minutes. Later, when he told me I roared with laughter, as did everyone else he told, and it made it into his repertoire of dependably funny stories. But when he first told me, after I stopped laughing, he asked if he had been too mean, too bizarre, making up a thing like that just to get the day over.

No, I assured him, he had been precisely mean enough.

In 1978, at the top of their career arcs, my parents bought a house.

Dark Shadows had ended its run several years before, but it had established them. They had gone on to greater successes, my father as headwriter of One Life to Live, first with Gordon Russell, his writing partner on Shadows, and then alone. My mother had spent the ‘70s doing less television and more live theater, including noted productions of Genet’s The Screens, and, on Broadway, The Leaf People and the Brecht/Weill musical Happy End.

They had never had a house. I grew up in a rental apartment in Manhattan; my parent’s careers had been, in the early years, a bit rough. But they had come through the fire, they had made it, and they rewarded themselves by purchasing a house in Rhinebeck, New York.

Not just any house, either— the most fantastic house I had ever seen.

There are, in New York State, a few large houses, many of them quite grand, that were built by members of the Livingston family, a clan whose connections with the Hudson Valley go back to land grants in colonial days. Wildercliff had been built on a bluff overlooking the Hudson by a Livingston daughter in 1799, and is the only south-facing Livingston house I know of; the others align with the river and face west. In essence a three-story farmhouse that had been added to over the years, it was large enough to be called a mansion without looking like it had ever intended to be one. It had well-proportioned, high-ceilinged rooms, an ample country kitchen with an enormous built-in wood-burning stove, and the world’s finest porch, a simple covered platform that ran along the back of the house and looked south over a long swath of lawn and a huge downriver vista of mountains and water and sky that seemed virtually infinite.

I was working on a newspaper in Tucson* the summer my parents moved in. My mother told me later of the joy they had felt, their first night, just the two of them sitting on the steps of the porch and drinking wine and looking out at the night and the stars and the river.

I remember driving back from Arizona, arriving at this fantastic home— 48 acres, an enormous barn, and eventually a swimming pool— and realizing how this was the culmination of all my parent’s dreams. And the fundamental emotion I felt was pride— pride in them for working so hard they’d been able to achieve this, make it their own.

Antiques were purchased. Decorators were hired. One wall on the second floor, found to be buckling, turned out to be made of mud mixed with horsehair. Sadly, it was torn down and replaced, though we all hated modernizing it. My mother and father had always been adventurous about color— many Dark Shadows-era interviews mention the Pompeian red living room in our New York apartment. This house offered them endless opportunities to experiment and explore. One room’s floor was painted to look like marble. Another had fake shafts of sunlight appropriate to the room’s windows— always slightly unnerving at night. The interior doors had four inset panels framed by molding— the door, the inset and the molding each painted a slightly different shade of white.

The master bedroom, on the second floor, shared a wall with the guest room. The first time my parents had weekend guests, they served an elaborate Friday night dinner, and wine flowed freely. Later, as my mother and father were preparing for bed, they heard their guests through the wall: “Ugh, is all the food this weekend going to be so heavy?”

Confronted by this, my parents could have rethought their approach, reconsidered their standard dishes, changed their menu choices. Instead, after the guests left, they found a company that blew soundproofing insulation into the walls, and carried on precisely as before.

My parents were both inveterate shoppers— I am not, really— and they both had taste. The three-story house was soon full of odd, beautiful pieces, unique chairs and tables and paintings and mirrors and weird little objects that reflected the madness of their sensibilities. The furniture and fixtures in that house came to express as unique a personal vision as the experimentation in colors.

Parties were thrown: cocktails on the porch and dinner parties around the circular table under the chandelier in the dining room, and full-blown house parties where guests came early and stayed late and mingled in a crush with drinks in their hands. There was always music— showtunes, mainly, and jazz singers, mostly female. Cooking was a huge part of that house— Mexican and Chinese and risotto and fresh corn in the husk, soaked in salt water and jammed into barbeque embers to roast, and black bean/mango salad and vitello tonnato and Indonesian rack of lamb and a million other things. Roaring fires in winter, white wine and wicker on the porch in summer. One year we hosted the Hudson Valley Film Festival final party— a tent, bartenders, caterers. A storm roared up and took out our electricity. We found candles and lit them, rain lashing the house, and people slept everywhere and stayed until it was safe to drive the next day.

Architectural Digest photographed the house in January, 1983. Mom died in 1985; Sam never remarried. Hell, he never even dated.

We had that house for 34 years. Sold it in 2012; Sam, fully inhabiting his 90s, had not been able to keep up with the constant maintenance an old place like that needs, and by then his joints were such that the stairs presented a painful challenge. As for me, I couldn’t take it over— I’ve had success, but not hedge-fund-level success, and that’s what it would have taken, given the changed economy from the ‘70s to now, to really make the place work. Sam took a rental, also on the river, and lived his remaining days in a lovely little house with a porch and a view.

But Wildercliff— well, there’s only one of those. And we had it, and we loved it.

And no one can ever take that away.

*This experience later became Nightmare Logic, my first novel, a thriller published by Bantam in 1989. Long out of print, and deservedly so.

Cleaning out my father Sam’s house has churned up some interesting surprises. I had never seen this letter before; it was in some papers of my mother’s that he had kept undisturbed for years.

Richard Burton, of course, was one of the 20th century’s most respected theater and film actors. He starred in John Huston’s film of Night of the Iguana, the movie for which my mother, Grayson Hall, was nominated for an Academy Award for best supporting actress in 1964. Myrna Loy was…well, a movie star. A movie star of the old school—she began her career when movies were silent; she thrived when sound arrived, became a star when movies were still black and white, and made very good, very glamorous movies at precisely the moment when Hollywood glamour was at its height.

The Thin Man movies? Loy and William Powell in perfect formal eveningwear, solving crimes with their dog Asta between quips and cocktails? Those movies were a revelation the first time I saw them, and they’re just as good now. And Myrna Loy was the luminous beauty whose sharp-eyed hyperintelligent wit epitomized everything to be hoped of American adulthood.

Richard Burton knew Myrna Loy. He wrote her a letter from the set of Iguana in Mexico, extolling the virtues and acting ability of my mother. After Iguana, back in New York, my parents were swept for a period into Myrna Loy’s social circle. She gave them Burton’s letter.

Here it is.

Burton - Loy - Grayson Hall(1)

 Burton - Loy - Grayson Hall-1

WordPress lets its bloggers see what countries our blogs are getting hits from. I’ve had hits from all over, which is very exciting. But this week someone in the Ukraine took at look at Nantucket ’73. Thanks for that, Ukraine person! If you would like to write an e-mail telling me how things are for you, and give me permission to publish it, I’ll be happy to put it up for everyone to read. (If you want to address me personally, I assure you I won’t publish anything you don’t want me to.)
Anything you want to write about is fair game.
Hope this reaches you!
With respect,
Matt
Nantucket73@hotmail.com

He wrote Children of Light, one of the most fantastic novels I’ve ever encountered.
If you have not read it, go now and do so.
And– love him or hate him– report back.

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