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[This was the eulogy I presented at Sam Hall’s memorial service, a month after his death and three weeks after his burial. Same church, packed to the gills. Speakers included his lifelong lawyer, his last director, various old friends, his daughter- in-law, who read a fantastic poem, On The Edge by Dorianne Laux, and me. And there was a singer, Kevin Spirtas, who did Stephen Sondhiem’s “Being Alive” a capella. It was a song capable of making Sam cry, and capable of making me cry, and this guy tore it to shreds. Afterwards, old friends of Sam’s opened their home for a reception that was lovely and weird, because I kept expecting Sam to walk in and be the funniest man in the room.
Anyway, here’s what I said. Some of it is the same as the first eulogy. A lot of it is not.]
I really didn’t know my father until I was fourteen.
I mean I knew him—he was my father, and he loved me, and he hugged me, and we had tickle time. He got me a pug when I was four, my only one and his first of many, and he worked extremely hard to provide a constant flow of money into our home, giving up his own dreams in many ways to do so. He built other dreams, new dreams, and he fulfilled those dreams magnificently, but in his heart he was a playwright, and on his income tax forms he was a television writer, and specifically a writer of soap operas.
But he was a man in competition with his own father. And in many ways he was a man who had left his family behind, as my mother had her own, to become something their parents did not, could not understand.
In that sense, my father was an entirely self-invented man. Writing was his form of self-creation; it allowed him to escape whoever that person was in Carrollton, Ohio whom he had refused to be. It allowed him to build a successful life with my mother and me in New York based entirely on writing. It allowed him, after my mother died, to become the figure of both charm and gravitas—and power, in his way he was immensely powerful—you all knew him to be in Rhinebeck. In a sense, he wrote himself into existence; his enormous writing talent—and it was prodigious, the largest talent I have ever known or ever will know—allowed him to become precisely who he wanted to be.
And he always gave himself the best lines. Thirty years ago—more—we were driving back from a party at a very silly, very rich man’s home. I remarked that while certainly the man was charming, there was something empty in his determined frivolity. Sam turned to me and said “I like my children young.”
At the vet, after having to put down one of his pugs, he asked to pay the bill. Upon being told there was no charge for euthanasia, he said “if I’d known that, I’d’ve brought the other one too.”
Or him with a guest on the porch at Wildercliff, watching someone on a tractor take umpteen turns back and forth and back and forth and back and forth mowing across that vast lawn. Finally the guest asked: “How long is he going to keep riding that tractor?” And Sam waited the perfect millisecond of timing and then said “Until he has an orgasm.”
But those are stories about what Sam said. Even better are the stories he told, and one of my favorites could not be less appropriate for this beautiful church we are in today. But I’m going to tell it anyway.
I was a ten-month baby. I was a month late, which became a medical crisis. After many attempts to induce labor, finally an emergency cesarean was performed, and I emerged into the world. Afterwards, once we were home and I was introduced to my crib and a nanny was hired and installed in the maid’s room by the kitchen, my mom had to heal. The damage was such that they were cautioned not to be intimate for a few weeks. And then finally things got better, the stitches came out, and, the moment finally came when the doctor gave them the go-ahead to resume relations. And so they did, one eager evening, and things were heating up to a long-awaited level when they heard the nanny running down the hall, and she burst into the room and wailed “THE POPE IS DEAD!”
See, that was the kind of story Sam liked to tell. He had great one-liners; we all know that. But more than that—much more than that—he had great stories. And one of my favorite things he would say when telling a story was this: he would start a story, and build it, and get a laugh—and then he would say these words: “now, wait.” Because he knew there was more story, that it was about to get even better, and all he had done so far was just set up something that would have a bigger payoff later.
It’s difficult to explain what a brilliant writer he was. His work isn’t in the pages of any book—you can’t go to the bookstore and buy him and read him and have that moment of “My God, he’s amazing.” To the world at large it would appear that he never wrote a word. Yet more people saw his work than have ever read Fitzgerald or Hemingway or Updike or Roth or any other 20th century American writer. He was a colossus, but unknown even to the people most avidly caught up in his work.
He was a war veteran. He was in the signal corps, he landed on Normandy Beach two days after D-Day and walked from Normandy Beach to Munich. Every town he came to, the Germans had just left, and they’d taken all the wine, so all that was left was calvados. He emerged from the war hating Patton and not much liking calvados.
One afternoon at Wildercliff 20 years ago I found a large cardboard boot box from a long-gone shoe store in Carrollton. I opened it and discovered that his parents had saved all his wartime letters home. There they were, hundreds of them, neatly arranged in three columns. My excitement was visceral—here was the entire history of my father’s war! I didn’t have time that day, but I made a plan that the next time I came up I would block out an afternoon, sit down and really go through this box of living history.
Three weeks later I sat down one morning, opened the lid of the box and again marveled at this unexpected treasure trove. I took out the first letter, addressed in pen to my grandparents in their house on Main Street in Carrollton. Carefully I unfolded the notepad-sized paper inside. There, in Sam’s open, cursive handwriting were the words:
Dear Sam and Bea
I’m somewhere in Europe. I’m not allowed to tell you where.
Today for lunch we had…
I opened the second:
Dear Sam and Bea
I’m somewhere in Europe. I’m not allowed to tell you where.
Today for lunch we had…
Hundreds of letters detailing the lunch routines of the United States Army as it chased the Nazis across Europe.
But the real story, the story he never told, was this: Sam actually managed to write a 13-act play during his time in the army, with over one hundred characters. He told me that he had done it, that it existed, and that it was terrible. And while he never let anyone see it, I expect it wasn’t about lunch.
And I expect, in some weird way, it taught him more about how to write than his MFA from the Yale School of Drama.
One quick story. After college, for a period of about a year, I worked at One Life to Live during my father’s tenure as head writer. The team had collaborated on a three-month arc of story, and submitted it to the network, as was standard. The head of daytime—still and yet, my favorite job title ever—had rejected it, as was also standard. Sam and I—just the two of us— came in on a Saturday to build a new arc of story to submit that Monday. We sat across from each other at a desk, spent fifteen minutes discussing what the network hadn’t liked, and then stared at our yellow legal pads, trying to think up solutions.
After about five minutes, Sam began to write. And once he started he did not stop—he filled up a legal pad page, flipped it over and kept on, pages and pages of finely wrought story that took the characters into utterly new situations and emotional places that simply hadn’t existed when we walked into the room. After another 15 minutes, I had a pokey little idea, and then another, and then I began to write as well. By the end of the afternoon he had solved the problem, and had even incorporated a couple of my ideas into the thread of story, suitably transmogrified, as necessary. Mostly, though, I had sat there and watched, in awe.
Sam’s wit sometimes had the edge of a well-sharpened dagger, the blade so smooth the victim didn’t feel it as it slipped in. But if it could sometimes be a weapon, it was a defensive one, because I’ve never known anyone who was so fundamentally curious about the people around him. The thing with Sam was that he was actually open to anybody who interested him. He actually listened, and he actually remembered, and he actually thought about and made decisions about people based on what he saw and heard.
In the early 1980s, Elaine Stritch was married to a lovely man named John Bey, who sadly was diagnosed with cancer. At this moment when they needed it most, it turned out they had no health insurance. Sam heard that, and immediately wrote Stritch onto One Life to Live, putting her character on air the exact number of times it took for her actor’s union insurance to kick in.
Sometimes his generosity could be negative as well as positive. When I finished the first draft of my first novel, with a mixture of pride and caution I asked if he would read it. His answer was… “No—if I tell you I like it, you won’t believe me, and if I tell you I don’t, you’ll never write again.”
He and I had a relationship that was both more loving and more complicated than many of you can imagine. In a way he allowed me a childhood, something I’m not sure he necessarily got from his parents. But one night, when I was fourteen, he sat across from me at a Chinese restaurant on 7th Avenue and drank three martinis and explained to me what his real relationship with his father was. And I was shocked, because in a way he had always been distant, and at that moment I realized that he had been waiting for me to be old enough to be let in on the real person he actually was, and not the role he had been playing as my father. He had, in a sense, waited for me to be suitably adult to explain the truth behind my nice grandparents in Carrollton, Ohio. There were no deep dark secrets there—none of the shocking things you might all be imagining, just a small-town boy desperate to get out from under the shadow of a father with dynastic intentions—but it was a narrative I had not known, and when he told me it literally rocked my world.
It was interesting, being the only child of a man who had rejected his own father. I could turn to him at any time and ask him what he was thinking, and he would actually tell me. Sometimes his thoughts were hilarious. After a moment of quiet, I’d say “What are you thinking?” And he’d say: “I was thinking that weiner schnitzel is never as good as it was meant to be.” Sometimes his thoughts were trenchant, sometimes mordant. But he always offered them immediately, as unfiltered as possible, and this from a man who did not impart his secrets easily.
Sometimes Sam never allowed people to see the things most important to him. But he allowed me to see how much he loved me, and Cecilia, and Caleb and Jed, and Grayson—always Grayson. And he allowed you all to see various bits and pieces of himself, and that’s why you’re all here—because whatever it was he allowed you to see, you all recognized that it was—and here again, there is simply no better word—brilliant.
Sam Hall, sitting on the porch in the shifting light of sunset at Wildercliff… listening, constantly filtering all he heard through that labarynthine mind, yet the picture of ease in a boldly colored shirt with a globe of red wine and a pug snuffling around and the world as far as the eye could see before him.
And here, now, it is my sad duty to inform you all that this time the pope really is dead.
Mom and dad, probably before me.
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.