Growing Up With Jerry Lewis (1926-2017), Looking for Dick Gregory (1934-2017)
On the age-old problem of how to begin, what better guide than John McPhee? In his new book Draft No. 4: John McPhee on the Writing Process (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux $25), he says “a lead should not be cheap, flashy, meretricious, blaring. After a tremendous fanfare of verbal trumpets, a mouse comes out of a hole blinking.” He goes on: “The lead — like the title — should be a flashlight that shines down into the story.” And then: “A lead is good not because it dances, fires cannons, or whistles like a train but because it is absolute to what follows.”
A Walk by the Lake
Now that I’m out of the mousehole smiling, I have to admit that my favorite remedy for the ordeal of the lead is to go for a walk by the lake. On my way toward the Harrison Street bridge the other day, sidestepping some geese poking along between me and the water, I’m thinking about the two famous comedians, one black, one Jewish, whose deaths coincided with the white supremacist invasion of Charlottesville. My problem is that while I’ve grown up, for better or worse, with Jerry Lewis, I didn’t know much about Dick Gregory until the last minute discovery noted later.
Midway across the bridge, I watch a great blue heron descending on the eastern shore, my cue to head back to the car. It’s a family tradition that a walk by the lake is complete whenever you see a heron. That’s it. Then you know the walk was worth taking.
But this time what completes the walk is on the other side of the bridge, just off the path. It’s a dead turtle, or rather it’s the perfect, boldly patterned, stunningly undead shell of one. The creature that once inhabited the big dark armorial object is gone, but look what it left behind.
The turtle shell sends me half a century back to another lake where my best friend and I used to spend balmy southern Indiana nights catching and cooking frogs and generally clowning around. We specialized in Jerry Lewis travesties of movie stars, Jerry as James Dean, Jerry as Brando the Nazi soldier in The Young Lions ambushing Dean Martin as he saunters along singing “That’s Amore.” We knew all the screechy spastic manic Jerry moves. “Oh da pain!” was our password — a WASP from Kansas and a Jewish roughneck from Chicago who transferred to my school his junior year and immediately found himself doing battle with another freshly arrived tough guy from the Windy City, who came to school armed with a knife (and went on to become a successful accountant based in London). One reason the fight never got past the cursing stage was that my pal did a Jerry Lewis so brilliant, so pure, so gloriously stupid that his opponent almost died laughing.
Jerry as Babysitter
Driving home, I’m wishing that the late C.K. Williams was still available for coffee at Small World so I could ask him what it was like to have Jerry Lewis for a baby sitter. Both the poet and the clown were born and raised in Newark, and my guess is it would have been around 1942, when Williams was six and Lewis 16, “a high school dropout and a show-business wannabe,” as he puts it in his memoir Dean and Me: A Love Story: “I was tall, skinny, gawky; cute but funny-looking …. I always saw the humor in things, the joke possibilities.” So chances are he tried his act out, miming, making faces, running through a whole vocabulary of outrageous body English for little Charlie.
Jerry and Holden
I might have learned more about the early adventures of the clown and the future poet during a real-life coffee chat with Williams about J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, which C.K. celebrates in his 2012 collection In Time. When he read the book at 16, “it was as close as I’d ever come to revelation …. I felt illuminated, enlightened, enchanted.” If we’d talked about what sort of a film the novel would have made, we’d have undoubtedly gotten around to Jerry Lewis, who was famously obsessed with the idea of making a film of The Catcher in which he himself played Holden Caulfield.
For all my misgivings about the damage Lewis (or any other director) might have done had Salinger ever sold the rights, I’ve always thought Jerry’s identification with the novel one of the most interesting things about him. Holden Caulfield moved him with an intensity comparable to the “revelation” experienced by Williams, who looks back on the novel in the light of his coming of age as a poet potentially influenced by the “tonally very complex” style Salinger uses for Holden, whose “sentences are contorted, turning in on themselves, going on and on past where anyone in a normal state of mind would end a thought to start another.” What Jerry Lewis saw was a character he was sure he’d been born to play. Who else but a Lewis-type schlub would leave the fencing team’s equipment on the subway? Who else would back out of sex with a call girl saying “I was a little premature in my calculations.” The nightclub scene where Holden jitterbugs with a “dopey girl” from Seattle would fit right into a Jerry Lewis film. When she asks how old he is, Holden says, “I’m twelve for Chrissake. I’m big for my age.” After being scolded for using “that type language,” he gets her out on the floor and ‘”she was really good. All you had to do was touch her …. She knocked me out, I mean it. I was about half in love with her by the time we sat down. That’s the thing about girls. Every time they do something pretty, even if they’re not much to look at, even if they’re sort of stupid, you fall half in love with them, and then you never know where the hell you are.”
There are a few crude echoes of The Catcher in Dean and Me, as when Lewis writes, “to tell the absolute truth, it was pretty goddamn funny.” Or this: “The truth is, funny sentences were always running through my brain: I thought funny. But I was ashamed of what would come out if I spoke — that nasal kid’s voice.”
Salinger was hounded with offers from Hollywood, but no one persisted the way Jerry Lewis did. He saw in Holden a sad alter ego in need of company; to be denied the opportunity was like being denied a chance to, as John McPhee might put it, shine a flashlight down into the story of his life. In The Total Film-Maker, published in 1971 when Lewis was 45, he says, “I have been in the throes of trying to buy The Catcher in the Rye for a long time. What’s the problem? The author, J.D. Salinger! He doesn’t want more money. He just doesn’t even want to discuss it. I’m not the only Beverly Hills resident who’d like to purchase Salinger’s novel. Dozens have tried …. Why do I want it? I think I’m the Jewish Holden Caulfield.”
Enter Dick Gregory
Here I am writing on Charlie Parker’s birthday, the column is ready to go, and I’ve given up looking for some workable connection to Dick Gregory only to find, thanks to the internet, that Gregory plays a jazz musician based on Parker in an independent film from 1967 called Sweet Love, Bitter. The film is adapted from Newark native John Williams’s novel Night Song and has an excellent score by Mal Waldron. The fact that Gregory’s co-star is Don Murray would be no big deal if I hadn’t just seen the amazing 16th episode of Twin Peaks: The Return, in which an aged Murray is a key witness to the moment we’ve been waiting for, when Dale Cooper the Holy Fool becomes the FBI agent we know and love. Showtime will air the two-episode finale on Showtime Sunday.
Having just begun watching Sweet Love, Bitter on YouTube, I can’t really say much about it except that Gregory plays the role of Eagle (as in Bird) like a highly intelligent black comedian doing a clever if predictable impersonation of a charismatic black jazz musician. Writing in the Jan. 31, 1967 New York Times, the inimitable Bosley Crowther, whose clueless review of Bonnie and Clyde later the same year reportedly cost him his job, calls “Mr. Gregory’s predominating performance splashy and rich in jazz-world slang.” Classic Crowther is the line, “this chap is his own worst enemy.”
Gary Giddins, the author of Celebrating Bird: The Triumph of Charlie Parker, recalls the cinematic situation as that of “a neurotic black genius and his worshipful white pal.” Giddins also had the good fortune to see Dick Gregory the comedian at the Village Gate in 1964 (though Dizzy Gillespie stole the show) and remembers him as “a singular, dapper, cool wit, who walked the line that Bill Cosby ignored, between everyman social observations and racial specificity.”
“Once In a Pale Blue Moon”
I’m still reading McPhee’s Draft No. 4, savoring it, smiling over it, sometimes laughing out loud. Having begun in the reflected glory of a trio of quotes from a book that you don’t have to be a writer to enjoy, I’ll end with one of my favorites, inspired by an editor’s questioning of a descriptive phrase applied to himself. “A sincere mustache, Mr. McPhee. What does that mean? Was I implying that it is possible to have an insincere mustache?” After running the gamut of possibilities, from a “no-nonsense mustache” to a “gyroscopic mustache” to a “soothing mustache,” McPhee says something we should all hang above our desks: “Writing has to be fun at least once in a pale blue moon.”