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The Gaynes family Christmas card the year they moved from New York to California.

The Gaynes family Christmas card the year they moved from New York to California.

If Matt Gaynes were alive today, he would be a mature man in his mid-fifties. The height might have diminished by a couple of millimeters, or perhaps that inexorability would not have yet begun; either way, he would still routinely be the tallest one in the elevator. His blonde hair would have lost the almost metallic golden sheen the sun glinted off of in Nantucket in 1973; time would have softened it to the tan beach sand of his father, George. He would dress with a casual unfussy formality, blue blazers and chinos, because it would be an easy uniform to slip into and respectful of the people he encountered, whoever they might have been.

If Matt Gaynes were alive today, he might have the tiniest bit of a belly, from beer and wine and casually enjoying life, but he would be disciplined enough to keep it from defining him, and if he ever felt it was he would get to the gym or cut out the carbs and make it go away. The boy may have, at times, run a bit wild, but the man would have held his appetites in check.

If Matt Gaynes were alive today, he would no doubt be a father, and a damn good one. His professional desires would have settled, perhaps into something surprising, most likely to do with sports or athleticism. Teaching might have been some part of it. As a boy, and as a man, he expressed leadership effortlessly, in every arena he encountered.  He had a gift of taking whatever crazy idea interested him and making it possible.

That’s important to understand. Ed Ruscha has a deceptively simple 1977 painting entitled No End of the Things Made of Human Talk. I have no idea if Matt ever saw it, but I’m absolutely sure it would have at once been instantly recognizable to him, and its simple directness would have caused him to burst out with a crisp, short bark of a laugh. Because talk was never the end for him. Talk achieved nothing if it didn’t turn into action. The boy, and then the man, turned suggestions into achievements seemingly effortlessly, even when they were ridiculously hard.

Especially when they were ridiculously hard.

He was in school on Catalina Island, sent there as a teenager by his parents George and Allyn Ann because (as has been chronicled elsewhere in this blog) the drug culture had made its inroads into him and he into it. The school turned out to be perfect for him, a place that allowed him to shed old identities and necessities and mature into new and more meaningful ones. (I wasn’t there; I was in New York fighting my own battles, though I did visit the island with him years later.) One night, one of Matt’s Catalina Island School classmates suggested they get beer. This was for whatever reason, an impossibility on the island. But at the school they had access to kayaks—there were classes in building them—and it was only 22 miles across open ocean to Long Beach. So Matt led a couple of kayaks across one of the world’s most heavily trafficked ocean corridors at night. For beer. And got it, stowed cases in the kayak holds, and then turned around and paddled 22 miles back.

Easy. Not for me, nor for anyone else. But for him, yeah.

Water always played a part. He and I learned to swim at the YMCA on 8th avenue; it’s an apartment building now. The pool was municipal-sized, laned and busy, and we went once a week, and dove in full-throated little-kid competition for a heavy rubberized brick thrown from the side over and over again. This was when I first came to know the absolute joy of being entirely surrounded by water; to this day I have no interest in swimming laps unless I’m holding my breath and trying to get all the way across the pool without ever touching air.

And then I love it.

Matt’s relationship with water was richer than mine. Once he discovered kayaking he never stopped, and lived in Santa Barbara in easy proximity to the beach, if by easy proximity you mean going a hundred stairs down a steep cliff with a kayak over your shoulder. He introduced the term “hairball” into my vocabulary (it describes particularly dangerous whirlpools), and was good enough, and a known quantity enough, to just barely miss qualifying for the 1980 Olympics, the year Carter cancelled American participation after the Russians invaded Afghanistan. And then he broke his wrist—I have the x-rays in a box in my closet—and lost whatever fraction of a millisecond of control is needed to join the Olympians. But he wasn’t stuck on that; he was too broadminded a participant in life to get trapped by that self-definition.

He and I were born the same year, August for me and November for him, spent our first nine years in the same New York apartment building, four floors from each other—6A and 10C. His number was CI6-5855, when CI stood for Circle. Mine was JU2-8940, for Judson. I am an only child of only children; Matt had an older sister, Iya, who was from birth and very much remains a force of nature in her own right, (She was for many years involved in high-level city politics in Santa Barbara, and recently embarked on a new marriage; her daughter, Matt’s niece, has built a beautiful family on the West Coast.) We had a male pug, Thing; they had a female keeshond, Saskia. Matt’s mother and father were actors; my mother was an actress and my father a writer. He was blonde and thin and outgoing. I was brown-haired and perpetually chubby and introverted—at least I was then; at some point I inarguably became an extrovert, to the extent those overused labels still apply, though unfortunately the chubby thing never left.

Matt’s father, George Gaynes, had done movies, Broadway and off-Broadway; he was The Tongue in Tootsie who serenaded Dustin Hoffman’s character from the street. He did turns on Punkie Brewster and the Police Academy comedies, and was absolutely brilliant as Serybryakov in Louis Malle’s Vanya on 42nd Street. His  mother, Allyn Ann Mclerie, was a triple threat—actress-singer-dancer—who was in the original production of On the Town on Broadway, among other era-defining musicals, and had steady work in theater, TV and movies for years; people know her from Days and Nights of Molly Dodd, though she’s in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? and All the President’s Men and Jeremiah Johnson along with many others. She worked a lot with Robert Redford. George and Allyn Ann were both in The Actor’s Studio, back in the ‘50s and ‘60s when all the cool people were there. Which basically means they knew everybody.

Matt didn’t care about any of that. Or rather: he admired it, and respected it, and was active in his appreciation of the fine things all that work had allowed for him, but he didn’t feel the call to do those things. It was what his parents had done; it was not an inevitability for him, not an entitlement he felt he owned. From George he’d gotten his height, his Dutch golden hair and straight back and courtly European manners; from Allyn Ann he’d gotten her Scottish passion and focus and capacity for quick anger at perceived injustice. The only movie I know him to be in is the opening-credits song in the Val Kilmer comedy Top Secret, a very funny Beach Boys surfing-USA spoof in which happy American teenagers surf and skeet-shoot at the same time. He’s one of the gun-toting surfers; it could well be him who appears to get off a shot before being crushed by a wave more than twice his size behind the Director of Photography credit. Maybe he had talent as an actor; certainly it was in his genes. All that can be said from this, which I believe is his only appearance in film, is that as an actor his surfing skills are impeccable.

Let’s get this out of the way now: Matt died in a car crash in India in 1989. Recently married (I was the best man at his wedding, earlier that year) he was traveling through Northern India to Nepal to film a kayaking special for ESPN. The moment that he died was weirdly pivotal: worlds were changing. Almost immediately after his death the Berlin Wall came down. He would have relished it, not being a man with much use for walls or the dictatorships behind them, whether left or right.

But as I learned when my mother died, the body at its final age is not the sum total of the person’s existence. The body is a husk, too wounded by age or illness or trauma to continue its usefulness. Being overly concerned about Matt’s death is uninteresting. He was here; he walked the rocks of Catalina and the hills of Central Park, air bent around him and water curled around the edges of his paddle. He made a mark.

And yes, he’s somewhere else. And so is my mother, and so are they all.

On the other side of time, I expect, but I don’t know. I don’t know.

Who was he? That’s for people who knew him to explain. In the coming months and years those explanations will be part of the thread of this blog.

And now you know the reason I named it Nantucket ’73.

Matt Gaynes, Catalina Island School yearbook, Spring 1974– the school year after Nantucket.

For drug-addled stories of Matt and me acting fairly disgracefully as teenagers, go here:


Merriewold: odd little community in upstate New York. Not an intentional community; more a private enclave. Lake, woods, houses. Lots of theater people—at the center, George Abbott, who had a house there. Theater producer/director/writer/all-around champion who lived to be a vigorous 107. Directed the original Broadway productions of Pal Joey and On The Town, back in the ‘40s. And Damn Yankees and Pajama Game, for both of which he also wrote the book. And Where’s Charley, which had starred Allyn Ann Mclerie, Matt Gaynes’s Mom.

Years later George Abbott’s second wife, Mary Sinclair, painted my mother. After she found him cheating, after she left him, after she fell in love with another woman. The painting is a definitive picture of my mother in her prime in the ‘70s. But that was yet to come.

George Abbott’s house was big, as I remember it the biggest around, and just up the road from the lake. Our house—the house we had rented from friends—was further along that road and then another road off,  small, considerably distant from the lake. After us, the asphalt ended, the road turned to tire ruts cutting through bushes.

This was where Matt Gaynes and I spent the summer of 1967—I turned 9, dreamy, introverted, overweight. He was three months younger than I, but taller, more present, less awkward, and he never had a weight problem.

Sam and Grayson—my Mom and Dad—had rented the house for the summer from friends to debate (and perhaps postpone) a decision they didn’t want to make: whether or not they could continue to attempt lives as a writer and actress in New York City, or whether the economics had so turned against them that they had to give up their dreams and all the work they had done—my mother both off-Broadway and on, my father writing for television and garnering interest in his plays—and go back to my father’s one-stoplight town in Ohio to take a job in his father’s rubber glove factory.

I was aware we were poor. We lived cheaply; we were not extravagant. Money was always an issue, a subject of conversation, an insurmountable truth. One reason we were in Merriewold was that it was cheaper to be there than in New York City. Another reason was to be in the orbit of George Abbott and his retinue. What was once called social climbing is now called networking, and Mom, as an actress, and Dad, as a playwright, had put themselves into proximity of one of the American theater’s great powerhouses. And then Mom blew it all by getting cast in a soap opera with vampires.

Famously, Grayson was in New York one Manhattan summer temperature-inversion heatwave day in June; she had just come in from errands, stripped off her clothes and had one foot in a cool shower when the phone rang. She stood perched for a second, her foot wet, debated not answering it, but she wasn’t bodily in the shower yet so she pulled out and went to get the phone. It was her agent offering her a short role on Dark Shadows. The show’s lead was a vampire; Mom was to be a famous hematologist investigating the vampire’s victims; she would threaten the vampire’s identity and be killed off in a couple of weeks. We needed the money. She took the job.

Thereafter, Mom commuted to Merriewold as the production schedule allowed, taking the bus to Monticello, the closest town, us all rattling back and forth to pick her up in one of her father’s used-car-lot cars, Dad setting up his typewriter to write on the wooden porch, Mom studying her scripts on the couch in the living room. She brought foods from New York—black raisin bread, I remember, and soap, and no doubt wine for the two of them.

A potato chip can—Sam would say tin, the Ohio word—large enough for a child to embrace. After the chips were gone, I caught a catfish in the lake, a big monster, green and whiskered, and filled the can with hose water to contain him. He was an object of fascination, a species utterly alien, and when he died Matt Gaynes and I buried him in an inappropriate grave amidst the roots of pines.

We ate catfish; just not him.

Mom and Dad went to parties. One night after dinner at George Abbott’s, Mom, lubricated if not pixilated, tripped in the dark heading back to the car, cut her ankle on the rough bark of a tree, and woke up with blood poisoning. Took a couple of days to manifest, but it didn’t get better, and it made her ill, and eventually it necessitated a trip to the emergency room in Monticello, the nearest town, antibiotics and a bandage. The irony was not lost: blood poisoning, hematologist, Dark Shadows.  The wound healed over into a quiet scar that she had for the rest of her life.

George Abbott never cast her in anything; he never entertained the notion of doing one of my father’s plays. But Dark Shadows turned out to be a revolution in our family, the beginning of solidity, and George Abbott did not, as it happened, matter.

Mom got the job by bravura, but she kept it by technique. She decided early on that every scene she would be in would be inhabited by a subtext only she knew: she was in love with the vampire. She never said it, she never explained it to anyone, she just kept that thought in her heart and let it guide every choice she made whenever she was on camera. That was the work she did that summer, and beyond, to help our family survive.

For Matt and me the days were hot, and still, and sometimes the wind would sheen through the trees, and sometimes it rained. There were crickets in the dry fields and fireflies at dusk and owls in the woods and rubber-band-powered balsa wood airplanes that flew too far to ever be found, and stray cats, and skinny orange salamanders three inches long hugging the skirts of trees on the mornings after rain.

Merriewold in 1967 was the only place I’ve ever seen salamanders like that; I’ve never been back and I’ve never seen lizards emerge after every rain to cling to tree bark anywhere else.

Lake swimming in summer: a wooden raft docked ten yards off the beach, a rope swing dangling from a fat healthy tree, swimming out through the goose-pimple cool water to the oddly permanent spot in which warm water welled up from unknown depths, and then treading water and hanging out, talking and talking, never wanting to leave the charmed warm circle, knowing that eventually you’d have to make your way back, the cool water now insultingly cold.

And then: lunch. The Snack Bar across the road from the short sandy beach, the waddle of flip flops on hot asphalt. The snack bar was tiny, a counter and some stools and a diner menu on the wall, black letters slotted into white plastic. I had, as a rule, .50 cents for the day. I remember Matt having more. A hot dog was .30 cents, cheapest thing on the menu; with cheese .35; my one luxury. With a soda, .15, that was my .50 cents, and after that I was broke. There were hamburgers on the menu, but I couldn’t afford them. A cheese dog: every day, unchanging, that was what my money could buy.

And now we get to the heart of this memory: the guy behind the grill who made my cheese dog had a record player perched on a shelf. And it was always on. And it was the summer of 1967.

Some days it was Sgt Pepper. Some days it was The Doors first album (which I actually knew—my parents had bought it off of reviews because of the Brecht/Weill song Whiskey Bar and the luridly Freudian The End, which had momentarily intrigued my father. After a while they had grown bored of it—it wasn’t show tunes—and had given it to me). Some days Surrealistic Pillow.

Sgt Pepper. The sheer liberational sweep of that album, the gently pointed modernity, the way it moved from height to height.

Every moment of music was of paramount importance, at once palpably present and infuriatingly ephemeral, transmissions from a half-glimpsed distant world. Lunch over, no money left, no reason to stay, the music swirling through the little room, I’d wait for the song to end—Matt Gaynes impatient to be up, doing something, on to the next adventure—and then I’d force myself up before the next one started, push myself step by step back out into the summer day. I was mildly aware that I looked like a fat kid, nowhere to go, loitering around a lunch counter.

But it wasn’t the food. It was the music. It  made me never want to leave.

When I was in fifth grade, I found my parents’ pot.

My parents were products of the ‘50s New York Professional Artist Drinking Culture, which I contend may well have been something of a golden age in the history of drinking cultures, right up there with the Roaring ‘20s except with much more routine access. And my parents were very, very good at every aspect of drinking: Wolfshmidt’s vodka with the green label, wineglasses on the dinner table, Chateau de la Chaize, the rise of California wineries, Almaden in the enormous green glass bottle, Dos Hermanos, a decent red marketed the same way…sparkling witticisms, roaring with laughter, heartfelt deep truths, vodka stinger nightcaps, harsh words, overreactions, overemotions, self destructive behavior, hangovers, guilt, starting up again a few days later.

You know, drinking.

I understood alcohol from a very early age. Had Mom and Dad been smoking pot with anything like the alacrity with which they drank, I would have understood that as well. But I didn’t know the smell until much later.

But the fact remains: in 1969 they had pot. And I found it.

There was a round wooden table in the living room with a “secret compartment” I had  never not known about. One weekend morning before my parents were up, bored and just checking, I looked in and found a baggie full of green/brown oregano-like leaf flakes mixed with seeds and skinny twigs. This, of course, is what pot was actually like, in the ‘60s. Now it’s fat green-red-gold seedless buds that render you tectonically useless after one hit (or “toke,” as we quaintly put it back in the day). Anyway, my parents were theater people, mom was spending all her time doing a TV show with a bunch of young actors, it was, quite literally, the ‘60s, a bag of pot hidden in the obvious secret compartment in the living room should not have come as much of a surprise. And indeed it didn’t.

I was delighted and excited to find it. I did three memorable things with it.  The first was, I ate a little of it—probably about a teaspoonful. Gagged it down and waited nervously for hours as literally nothing whatsoever happened. (As we all now know, you have to cook it, and you have to eat rather a lot of it, and then it hits you all at once two hours later.)

The second thing I did: I brought it to school, as I remember it on a Wednesday, and showed it to my friends, the group of perhaps two people with whom I actually socialized, and all my sort-of friends, the larger group of people that held social power in my class, and who I wanted to include and respect and like me.

In doing this, however, I knew my motives were mixed, and further muddied by an indisputable fact: I was relying on my parents, who they were, what they had done, decisions they had made, to claim coolness for myself. And I knew enough to know this was amoral, an unpleasant aspect of my personality that, if analyzed too deeply, was unsupportable and actually kind of loathsome. But that argument got tamped down by my excitement at the thought that being able to present actual marijuana would break my social logjam in new and permanent ways.

And so I took it in. And showed it to the class leaders—Kenny and Peter and Eugene and Paul and the others—in the locker room before gym class. And there was interest, but there was also an undercurrent of skepticism: Wow, really? Is it real? Is it illegal? Is this a good idea? Why did you bring it? Are we going to get arrested?

For 5 minutes there was an open market in reactions, culminating in: had I tried it?

I remember telling them: yes I have. I remember embellishing its effect, from Zero to Something.

In other words, I lied. In my own quest to go from Zero to Something.

And then the time came for us all to go out to gym class, and I put the pot in my bag, shut my locker, spent gym class worrying that marijuana sniffing dogs were going to come through the locker room and find it and I would get pulled out of gym and sent to jail, but that didn’t happen and I brought the pot home and that was, in near-entirety, the moment.  Other than one enterprising fellow asking me if I still had it, a few days later, which I did not, no mention of it was ever made again.

It had not been the easy ticket of entry into the coterie of cool kids. It had done nothing to redefine me as possessed of interesting knowledge. It didn’t change any aspect of my place in the ecosystem of 5th grade. (A couple of years later that ecosystem shifted, a story not worth entering here, except to say it had nothing to do with drugs.)

So: not very successful. But there was a third thing that happened, and it actually went splendidly: when I found the pot, I sent some to Matt Gaynes in California.

Through the mail. In an envelope. Addressed in my dreadful 5th-grade block handwriting. With a stamp on it. And no tape over the envelope’s open sides.

I called him and told him to watch the mail, though I was too paranoid to adequately explain why—phone taps, you know, scary stuff in 5th grade. But he got the message that Something was coming, and watched the mails. And it got to him, too—delivered, I learned later, by a Los Angeles mailcarrier with a ponytail who knew exactly what it was, dropped it and ran.

And Matt, more enterprising than I, managed to figure out how to smoke it (the technology of which had eluded me, though there were rolling papers in the Secret Compartment, but I couldn’t decipher how to use them). And though he didn’t feel much—you never do, your first time—he was grateful and appreciative that our deep childhood friendship had taken this new and interesting turn.

The next Saturday morning, a week after finding the pot, having utterly freaked myself out by bringing it to school and sending it to California and then staying up nights thinking postal authorities were going to smash through our door and ruin my life, my parents’ careers, Matt Gaynes’s life, his sister’s life, his parents George and Allyn Ann’s theater and film careers, I indignantly told my mother I had found her marijuana, that this was Bad, and that Really, Something Must Be Done.

And together we flushed it down the toilet. And it made my guilt go away, if not my moral quandary.

But I got Matt Gaynes high, from all the way across the country. And it would be, in time, a favor he would repay.

Which, actually, brings us back around to Nantucket, 1973.

Fame is weird.

My mother, in that summer before Nantucket, was recognizably famous.

Walking around, every block or so, people would stop her on the street —mostly Dark Shadows fans, mostly high school kids, for a while it was actually difficult to get anywhere by foot— and ask her for her autograph.

When we were in public, and somebody recognized her, the conversation was always the same. One by one they would hit each beat: surprise, recognition, compliment, proof of depth of knowledge about her, Dark Shadows or something else she’d done, expectation of certain behavior back, and then, with that achieved, the request for the autograph.

Mom was, most of the time, very nice—though not all of the time. The thing was, we understood that we had to let people go through every beat; the fact that the beats were always the same didn’t mitigate their importance to the person hitting them. All of this required patience, and patience was not a flower that grew in Mom’s garden. But her empathy would usually outstrip her impatience, most of the time, and she’d sign the autograph, and be gracious, and move on.

Once, somewhere between ’72 and ’75, after she signed for a perfectly pleasant young man, I waited until he was out of hearing and I said, mostly out of frustration: what’s he going to do with that, now that he has it? And she smiled and said: That and thirty-five cents will get him on the subway.

Anyway. Carlsbad, New Mexico, Gargoyles MOW shoot, summer 1972. The motel where the cast and crew stayed had a bell on the glass front door that jangled whenever it was opened or closed. One evening, Matt Gaynes, my mother and I, and various actors and film crew members were waiting for the drivers to get us all to the set, and as it happened one of mom’s TV shows—her episode of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery—was on the motel lobby television set. So we’re all watching Mom emote scarily away on the screen, and every time the door jangles we all look up, expecting the driver. And at some point the door jangles, and we all look up, and a normal American family, mom and dad and buddy and sis, walk into the motel lobby. And the man points to the TV and says: Look—Grayson Hall. And his wife says: From Dark Shadows. And the husband says: Right. And they watch for a moment, and then go about their business, and they never realized the woman was right there in the room with them, watching herself on TV.

We were dumbfounded. All of us. Too dumbfounded for my mother to jump up in front of all those actors, embrace the sheer weird Marshall Mcluhanness of the moment, and introduce herself. Nope. We were all too dumbfounded to pull that off.

And all these years later, I still am.

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