Close Encounters of the Pulitzer Kind
The year I turned 23 I was in San Francisco. That day I went to Baker’s Beach to stare out at the ocean and bathe myself in failure and regret that I had not written a masterpiece by such a late date in my life. It would take a few years before I knew why this made me a perfect fool.
That night I went to a bar in North Beach on Broadway just over the hill toward the bay. It wasn’t a big room but it did have a dance floor, about a dozen long haired hippies hanging around, and one unique looking older man sitting at a table by himself.
He wore a blue serge suit with a snap brim fedora, sported a walrus mustache, held a pearl handled cane between his knees and had a full mug of beer on the table in front of him. There was a passing thought I should speak to him, but I didn’t. I did wind up sitting at the very next table.
That night I danced with woman who was probably in her thirties. When I told her it was my birthday she asked which one and laughed when I gave the answer. “Oh,” she said, “you’re just a baby.” This made me feel vaguely insulted and after the dance I went back to sit my table next to the man who, if only in passing, had to be watching me, for there were maybe three couples on the dance floor that night.
Twelve years go by. One day at work at a law firm in Manhattan I opened that day’s copy of the New York Times and saw a picture of that man in the same hat, the same mustache, maybe even the same suit. There was no mistake. It made me leap out of my chair and exclaim, “Oh my God, that was him. That was him!”
That’s how long it took me to find out that William Saroyan sat on the edge of a dance floor in a bar in San Francisco and watched me have the time of my life on the night of my 23rd birthday.
Tennessee Williams paused beneath my shoulder one night in a theater lobby. This happened on Melrose Place in Los Angeles. The real Melrose Place should not be confused with the fictional one. The real street is only two blocks long and full of warehouses except for a small theater on its north side. The lobby is about as large as your average bathroom.
I was on a waiting list to see Scott Wilson in Outcry and the lobby was full of buzz that Tennessee Williams was going to attend. Eight o’clock came, then eight oh five, then eight ten, then the door opened and he entered.
That night he was high as a kite drunk with a beautiful blonde boy in tow. Right in front of me he stopped, turned with one hand across his chest, the other hand near his eyes, striking the melodramatic pose of an aging coquette, and said to someone behind us, “Who, me?” and then giggled in a drunken, demented and delighted way.
Then they hustled him into the theater because they had been holding the curtain for his arrival. The man who was the producer or director, the man who had done the most to spread the delicious rumor that Tennessee Williams was going to show up that night, rolled his eyes, which was his remark upon the scene.
The show was sold out and I did not get a seat. The more personal show happened in the lobby. All these years later I realized the one thing I might have said when he stopped in front of me:
In the lobby of Manhattan Theater Club I saw David Mamet and Gregory Mosher enter and thought, gee, that’s interesting. When I took my seat there were two empty seats beside me and sure enough a few minutes later in they walk, Mamet to sit next to me and Mosher on the other side of him. The play that night was “It’s Only a Play” completely appropriate, as it is a show about show business.
On such an occasion one should be witty but of course I was tongue tied. No sparkling words leaped out of me and over the years the things I have thought to say would have been wholly inappropriate.
“Mamet, I saw Glengarry Glen Ross. The curtain went up at 8:15, at 8:45 there was a twenty minute intermission, and at 9:20 the curtain was down. You call that a meal? That was more like a shot of booze and an appetizer.”
“Fuck you,” he might have said.
“And how do you feel about your contribution to the coarsening of the American language?”
“Fuck you,” he might have said.
Maybe it’s best we didn’t have much of an interchange. But if one is sitting next to the man one should say something, right? It happened to be the week before the Super Bowl the year Da Bears went, and my too simple conversational gambit became a bet on the game.
That’s how I wound up owing David Mamet ten bucks.
One morning I walked out of the law firm where I worked and went up Fifth Avenue. This was about a month before I was to exit New York and return for a second bout with Los Angeles. At that time my wife and I were breaking up, which added to my usual gloom how the world did not know my plays, though in truth at that point I had only five one acts worth knowing.
It was nine short blocks to Central Park and once there I took the sidewalk that led to the zoo. There in a line of benches sitting alone on a bench was one of America’s most famous playwrights. He was reading the New York Times and as I walked by I thought, (a) “that’s Arthur Miller” and (b) “what could I say to him?”
Nothing came to mind except all my troubles and I kept walking up the sidewalk to the zoo. A little time was spent seeing the animals in their cages, which is always depressing, and before long I was walking back down the same sidewalk.
Arthur Miller was still there, still reading the Times but was now on its last section, the Business Section, the other sections folded neatly against his leg. Except for him the bench was still empty so I sat down on the other end.
I was tongue tied, not an unusual condition when one is so tied down with troubles. What could I say to this man? “What advice would you give a young playwright?” That might have been good. That might have got him talking. That might have given us a real encounter. But my intensity was turned inward and I could not utter a word.
After a bit Arthur Miller stood up. I was struck by his broad shoulders and his height. Someone once told me Biff was really Miller. In that moment I thought of that statement and thought, “Of course, this guy went after Marilyn.” He would have been seventy-two that year but he was still fit, trim, and holding his shoulders erect walked away without a word from me.
A few years later in Los Angeles an actress in a play of mine told me she was on the reading committee of some theater. They were doing a one act festival and had just turned down a submission by Arthur Miller. “Oh my God, you are kidding me,” I said. “You turned down Arthur Miller? For a one act?”
They had. This black box theater in L.A., whose name I can no longer remember, had turned down one of the country’s best playwrights for a one act play, one he had probably personally printed out, bound up, wrote a transmittal letter, addressed an envelope and made a trip to the post office to put in the mail.
Think on that awhile, and think about the life of a playwright. A few more years went by before it occurred to me that Saroyan was sitting in that bar that night dressed the way he was waiting, and hoping, to be recognized.
The best five weeks of my life were spent at the O’Neill and August Wilson being there was part of it being special.
“Your computer arrived, man. It’s up at the big house.”
Those were the first words he spoke to me. It was good it was him who broke the ice because you know how I can be around famous playwrights. August was easy to be around for his nature was genial and so completely unassuming, modest and humble, it was hard to believe the man had won two Pulitzers. At the breakfast table he would be in the middle of us, gabbing away, but never really gossiping.
“One year the food was so bad here the cook served spaghetti with sauerkraut,” he told us.
After Ma Rainey had been done on Broadway he went home to Minneapolis and there, at least for a time, worked as a short order cook again. He did this because this was the rhythm he had known when his work first got good. The man didn’t drive, didn’t own a car, didn’t have a license and cared not a whit about any of these things.
One night a bunch of people dragged him to an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie. After fifteen minutes August walked out and sat in lobby for an hour and a half, telling us later, “I couldn’t stand it. It was too stupid. What a waste of time.”
One dusk at that beautiful place on the Connecticut shore he stood in front of a small crowd talking as I strolled up to his left. He was talking about the Emile Griffith–Benny Parret fight. It is a story I know well, how Parret had called Griffith a “maricón” at the weigh in, how Griffin caught Parret in the corner and hit him with twelve straight unanswered shots to the head, how Parret died in the ring.
I knew this story but didn’t walk into the man’s space as he told it, but oh, over the years how I wish I had. Because to my left in the group of people listening was Vinnie, the longtime photographer of O’Neill summers. Among my regrets is that I don’t have a picture of me and August from that night discussing this story.
A week later it was the 30th anniversary of the O’Neill. A big white party tent was put on the great lawn. How jealous I was a friend’s play was going up that night instead of mine, for VIPs were coming for a barbecue and then the show; Edith Oliver, John Lahr, Jane Alexander, Derek Walcott, and a U.S. Senator, a man I would see sneaking out at intermission to be driven away in his limousine.
At the edge of the tent where the playwrights had gathered I met the dapper John Guare, who was among the inaugural class who first came to the great wooden mansion on the ocean. “This is where it all began for me,” he said. “There is no better place.” Any playwright who has been to the O’Neill would agree there is no greater paradise on earth. The only problem is the O’Neill National Playwrights Conference is not reality. It is paradise but it is not reality.
Clouds had been building through the day and as soon as we were seated and the speeches began an enormous summer thunderstorm erupted with a violence that was close to scary. For a few moments the wind threatened to lift the big party tent right off the ground. Amid crashes of thunder and cracks of lightning Lloyd Richards was introduced. In our corner the playwrights pounded the table and yelled as loud as we could at the height of the storm, “Lloyd, Lloyd, Lloyd!”
Lloyd Richards was one of the few men I ever met who I thought had greatness about him. He too had a quiet demeanor but don’t be fooled. His perception was precise and powerful. To be in his presence was an honor. August’s plays were not as good when he and Lloyd no longer worked together. The same is true of Tennessee Williams after he no longer worked with Elia Kazan.
A couple of hours later, sitting in the dark on the front porch of the mansion, somebody in the group around me said, “August said your play was his favorite one done here this year.” There was a pause. Then Lori, who was sitting to my left said, “Yeah, I heard him say that, too.”
* * * * * *
At the breakfast table on the last day of the O’Neill I read August Wilson’s palm, a talent for which I once had a superficial and modest knowledge. August had the longest life line I had ever seen, running off his palm and down into his wrist.
“Yeah, I’m going to have a long life,” he told me. “When I get old I’m going to take up painting. Death is going to be looking for me over here but I’m going to be over there doing something else.”
That long life line must have meant his work, for he would die too soon from liver cancer. In the five weeks we spent together I never saw him take a single drink. The rest of us would hang out till closing at Blue Gene’s, the conveniently located tavern on the grounds before taking the van back to the dorm. But August would catch the first van back and spend the nights working with words. My sense was that he was indifferent to alcohol. I don’t think it was liquor that gave him liver trouble.
“I am ready to go,” he announced a few weeks before his death. “My life has been blessed.”
The last time I saw him was fifteen months after that summer at the O’Neill. I was at a preview of Seven Guitars at the Walter Kerr Theater. As the lights went down on Act One I ran as fast as I could to be the first in line for the men’s room. As I reached for the door it flew open and there was August. His face broke into a big smile, he held out his hand, and the first words out of his mouth were, “Hey man, I told them to do your play. I acted out the whole thing for them.”
I thanked him and asked who. He gave me the name of the artistic director of a major theater. You would think when a two time Pulitzer winner recommends a play, is excited or charmed enough to “act out the whole thing,” you would think that play might get done. But you don’t understand the life of a playwright.
Upon such wisps of encouragement one lives for years, and during those years every theater in the country would turn down my plays again and again. On my bad days I am bitter and enraged. On good days I believe Fortune will yet find reasons to smile on my luck.