Here we go again, life or death on the dreaded Williamsburg Bridge. I know to stay in the far right lane but as I come to the Brooklyn moment of truth, I brace myself for the possibility of a hellbent truck shunting me off to Staten Island or darkest Queens. All it takes is a look at the date of this column and I know one reason I’m afraid of being forced onto an expressway to nowhere. On the early evening of December 18, 1978, taking an unfamiliar route to see my dying mother at a Melbourne, Florida hospital, I got trapped going the wrong direction on a busy expressway, panicked, and barely avoided crashing into a guard rail. When I finally reached the hospital I rushed to my mother’s room and found that an empty bed had already been made up for the next patient.
Though she had her share of dark moods, my mother was a shameless enthusiast. It was always the best meal, the best trip, the most beautiful, most glorious this or that, which may explain why my point of view in these columns is essentially positive, my preference not to attack but to celebrate. Even now, rather than demonizing the Williamsburg Bridge (my mother loved bridges), I’m reminding myself, as I always do, that in addition to its straight-forward matter-of-fact magnificence, the way it simply rolls off Delancey Street like a Brooklyn-bound wayfarer’s dream made manifest, the bridge belongs to Sonny Rollins.
While the jazz legend may not legally own it, he laid claim to it five decades ago during his self-imposed retirement from the scene. Night after night for two years, he left his Grand Street apartment and hiked along the pedestrian walkway to the middle of the span, removed his tenor sax from its case, and blew to his heart and soul’s content a couple of hundred feet above the East River. Rollins did not set out to create a legend, though he had to know that it would make a great story for the press. It also made a great story to tell my mother to get her in the mood the first time I introduced her to his music, especially when I clued her in on his reason for the trek to the bridge, which was that “the lady next door had just had a baby,” and he didn’t want to disturb his neighbors.
When I saw Sonny Rollins in one of his first appearances after the sabbatical on the bridge, he had formed a new group including the somewhat off-puttingly professorial presence of a balding, bespectacled white guitarist. Like most Rollins fans, I soon came to appreciate Jim Hall, who died at 83 a week ago, less than a month after the November 25 death of his old bandmate from the 1950s, drummer Chico Hamilton. Though I haven’t heard Hall’s recent work and know his music mostly through the Rollins albums and his extraordinary collaborations with Bill Evans, a message from Visions of Jazz author Gary Giddins tells me that he was “one of the great old-school liberals who wore his politics on his sleeve,” and that “his playing got hotter during the Bush years, because he was so fired up with outrage.”
The news of Chico Hamilton’s death took some time to register because the lasting and even life-changing impression he made on my clueless 14-year-old self had little to do with his drumming or the records he made with Jim Hall or Buddy Colette or George Duvivier. No, what impressed, amazed, and enchanted me (here I go enthusing again, like mother, like son) was his singing, or humming, or whatever it is that he’s doing in the background of the moody Gerry Mulligan/Chet Baker rendition of “Moonlight in Vermont.” That performance, with its Chico-Hamilton-haunted chorus, revolutionized my listening habits; it’s where jazz began for me.
Woman of a Thousand Faces
It seems there’s no escaping the symbolism of the bridge. Life-spans, this side, That Side, the passing or the crossing, so that once I’ve run the gauntlet of the ramps and am navigating the streets of Brooklyn, I’m feeling like a survivor, if not exactly reborn (it’s no fun anticipating the chaotic rush-hour return across the bridge to Manhattan). While my son spends the afternoon at Academy Record’s newly relocated Oak Street store, I keep warm in the Greenpoint Public Library looking in vain for a biography of John Garfield (1913-1952) and thinking about Eleanor Parker (1922-2013), who died December 9, a day before Jim Hall.
If you love old movies, there’s always a birth or death rationale for searching out a certain film. It might only be the passing of an obscure actor who played a small but memorable part or it might be an all but forgotten actress like Eleanor Parker, who was, however, remembered in June as Turner Classic Movies’ Star of the Month. When we heard of her death, my wife and I turned to Comcast On Demand and found Pride of the Marines, where she plays John Garfield’s steadfast girlfriend. That’s it. Someone dies and you to bring them back to life On Demand.
Parker’s role as the rejected Baroness in The Sound of Music gave obit writers a point of reference most people could connect with. “She was wonderful in the part,” director Robert Wise said, “a sort of light ‘heavy’ who was also ultimately quite touching.” He should know, since her farewell scene is filmed so sympathetically you have to think the director was under her womanly spell. She would have been 43 at the time. Julie Andrews remembers her as “charming, elegant, and beautiful … one of the legends of Hollywood.”
Thanks to TCM, we saw enough of Eleanor Parker last June to comprehend the truth of the “legends” reference. What set her apart from other female stars was her ability to give herself up to a wildly different assortment of roles (the only biography is titled Woman of a Thousand Faces). She was nominated three times for Academy Awards, for Caged in 1950 (she should have won; it’s as touching and terrifying a performance as you’ll ever see), for Detective Story a year later, and for Interrupted Melody in 1955. What she accomplishes as Mildred in the rarely shown 1946 version of W.S. Maugham’s Of Human Bondage is more terrifying than touching; neither Bette Davis nor Kim Novak approach Parker’s uncanny blend of the abrasive and the pathetic, at once vulnerable, fascinating, hostile, arrogant, and seething with passion. You may be repelled by Mildred but you love the heroics of the actress. Talk about heroics — as a wide-eyed innocent, brutalized in prison in Caged, she steals your heart and breaks it, and she does it again playing multiple personalities in Lizzie, part shy thing, part slut, part good girl. She’s a wicked delight as the gorgeous, clowning knockabout mistress of Stewart Granger in Scaramouche and she gives warmth and light to The Voice of the Turtle, later retitled One for the Book, in which her quiet, quirky charm seems to rub off on Ronald Reagan, who is quite likeable as a soldier on leave finding romance with the adorably untogether girl played by Parker.
Until we brought John Garfield back from the dead in Pride of the Marines and He Ran All the Way on successive nights, I hadn’t realized that 2013 was his centenary. While Eleanor Parker lived into her nineties, the heart condition that kept Garfield from serving in World War II killed him at 39, even as the dogs of the Communist witch hunt’s spineless studio overlords were baying at his back. He Ran All the Way makes an all too appropriate title for the final picture from the actor some consider to be Hollywood’s first rebel, the precursor to Marlon Brando (Garfield turned down the role of Stanley Kowalski), Montgomery Clift, James Dean, and later the young Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino.
The Broadway role Clifford Odets wrote with “Julie” in mind, as the violinist/prizefighter on Broadway in Golden Boy, suggests the Garfield dynamic — you could imagine him as both a tough guy and an artist. The endgame intensity he gave to playing the hapless punk Nick Robey in He Ran All the Way — the combination of headlong force and desperate, wrenching anguish — is painful and moving to behold. His death at the end — the last shot in the gutter, his face fixed in close-up as it was in the extraordinary combat sequence in Pride of the Marines — is the epitome of the fallen anti-hero. A native New Yorker (he grew up fighting in street gangs), Garfield had a large local following, his funeral service drawing a crowd of more than 6,000, the largest such gathering since the death of Valentino.
According to Robert Nott’s biography, He Ran All The Way: The Life of John Garfield (Limelight 2003), “The mourners came from all boroughs of the city and all walks of life.” Nott mentions businessmen, housewives with toddlers, “bobbysoxers … crying over their fallen idol,” and “working-class stiffs clad in their dirty trousers and weathered jackets, lunch boxes in hand, who came by to bid farewell to one of their own.”
The body count is getting out of hand. Jim Hall, Chico Hamilton, Eleanor Parker, John Garfield, not to mention my mother, and now the news that even as we were watching her in Robert Montgomery’s noirish Christmas tale, Lady In the Lake, Audrey Totter had died, and now it’s Peter O’Toole and Joan Fontaine.
When I got back to my mother’s condo on that long ago December 18th, I found some extraordinarily revealing journals that she’d kept when she was in her mid-thirties, papers, letters, and drafts of stories I’d never seen before, written in her prime as a writer, mother, wife, lover, and working woman. I go back to those papers every year on this date, one more way of bringing her back, On Demand, which is why this day of all days in the year has always been more about life than death.