Posts Tagged ‘Los Angeles’

So It Turns Out…Part One

Monday, November 6th, 2017

Goddy and Casey and Howard

Winton & Waltons

“I was curious by nature. I observed the grownups, their behavior. I listened attentively to their talk, which I sometimes understood and sometimes did not.” Isaac Bashevis Singer

I’m in therapy again at the age of sixty-eight after a twenty-seven-year hiatus. And very much to my surprise, something has come to light that I got an inkling of when I was twelve and came to understand was a huge emotional component of my life when I was forty, but it was not something I fully opened to, delved into, and accepted as a fundamental aspect of my being until now.

I’m Jewish.

I don’t simply mean I am descended on my mother’s side from Jewish people who came to America from Poland and Ukraine in the late 1800s and settled in and around Detroit. I mean I carry in my psyche, in my neural pathways, and in my DNA, the experiences of an entire society as represented by unique individuals: my Jewish ancestors.

My non-Jewish father was a powerful influence in my life, but the deep emotional lake I swam in from the moment I was conceived and throughout my childhood was largely fed by the psycho-spiritual torrent flowing from my mother and her parents and her parents’ parents. I should also mention that my father’s parents disowned him when he married my mother, for they felt marrying a Jew was the worst thing their son could do. And though my father’s parents relented somewhat along the way, my connection to my father’s people never amounted to much.

By contrast, we, my siblings and I, adored my mother’s parents, and they, Goody and Casey, adored us. Nevertheless, I did not know my mother and her parents were Jewish until I was twelve-years-old. However, that didn’t stop me from becoming best friends with Colin, one of the only (other) Jewish boys at my elementary school—a friendship that has lasted sixty-two years and counting.

And I now realize that my friendship with Colin saved me from a childhood of denying my authentic self; for when I was with Colin, which was frequently until I was twelve, I was free to be who I really was, a Jewish kid who didn’t know he was Jewish.

How did I get to be twelve without knowing my mother was Jewish? Well, my mother’s parents, Goody and Casey, changed their last name from Weinstein to Winton during the Great Depression—the 1930s—so they could rent places to live in Los Angeles and find work there during a time of ferocious anti-Semitism in America. Thus they raised their two children, my mother Avis and her younger brother Howard, with the dictum: tell no one you are Jewish and exhibit no behavior that will reveal you are Jewish.

This imperative was re-enforced in my mother when kids at two different elementary schools she attended discovered she was Jewish, followed her home after school, shouted Jew and Kike, and threw rocks at her.

Which is no doubt part of why my mother rebuffed her Jewish suitors while attending Beverly Hills High and chose instead to marry my non-Jewish father. Raising her four children in the cultureless anonymity of the San Francisco suburbs, my mother gave no clues to her friends or her children that her parents were Yiddish-speaking Jews and her grandparents were immigrants from Poland who came to America to escape poverty and murderous prejudice.

Goody and Casey, however, continuing to reside in Los Angeles, eventually became wealthy from Casey’s real estate investments and “came out”, so to speak, in that city full of Jews. In the post-World War II boom times, they hobnobbed with other Jewish folks in the intertwined entertainment and real estate industries, and one summer when I was twelve, during our family’s annual visit to Los Angeles, Goody and Casey threw a big party, and at this party…

Picture a skinny twelve-year-old Todd wearing black slacks and a short-sleeved white shirt, reveling in the delicious food and the company of his cousins and siblings. Picture Goody, Todd’s effervescent grandmother, five-feet-tall in heels, leading him to a group of four Jewish matrons, introducing Todd as her grandson, and hurrying away to greet a newly arriving guest.

I stand before the four matrons. One of them pinches my cheek and says, “Oh what a cute Jewish boy you are. You’re gonna break lots of hearts, honey.”

To which I reply, “I’m not Jewish. I’m Unitarian.”

The matrons laugh and the cheek pincher says, “Of course you’re Jewish, sweetie-pie. You’re Avis’s child. What else could you be?”

“What do you mean?” I ask, feeling confused and a little frightened.

And another of the matrons frowns at me and says, “They would have burned you. The Nazis.”

I seek an explanation not from my mother but from my father who tells me in his I-Know-Everything way, “According to Jewish law, if your mother is Jewish, you are Jewish, but that’s religious nonsense. You’re just a person. And you’re too intelligent to get tangled up in primitive religious stupidity.”

Thereafter, the few times in my life when the subject came up, I would tell friends and girlfriends that my mother’s folks were the children of Jewish immigrants, but my mother didn’t consider herself Jewish, so…

In 1979 a movie was being made of my novel Inside Moves. For the first time in my life I had more than enough money to cover rent and groceries. With some of my surplus cash I decided to make a fifteen-minute movie from a script I’d written: Bums At A Grave. I was twenty-nine. This was in the days before digital everything so I hired a cameraperson, sound engineer, producer, and continuity person to make the 16-millimeter movie starring my brother and me.

During our two days of filming on forested land near Grass Valley, I felt I was doing what I was born to do—write and direct movies. Bums At A Grave turned out well and we had a premiere party at my house in Sacramento—a house purchased with more of that movie money.

A hundred people came to the lavish affair, many of the guests dressed as their favorite movie stars. My parents attended, and my mother came as Gloria Swanson, the famous Jewish actress and producer.

Bums At A Grave was subsequently screened at Filmex in Los Angeles to thunderous applause from a huge audience and was shown several times on an arty television station in the early days of cable TV. I never for a conscious moment thought Bums At A Grave had anything to do with me being Jewish or denying my Jewishness or being a self-sabotaging emotionally derailed human being. But this morning, opening and delving as never before, I realized that if there was ever a movie about a Jewish man unconscious of his Jewishness trying desperately to connect with his hidden identity, Bums At A Grave is that movie.

The movie is set in 1933, the year my grandparents changed their name from Weinstein to Winton. Willy, played by my brother, a handsome fellow who certainly sounds Jewish, is a homeless bum. He comes upon another itinerant, played by yours truly, completing the burial of someone.

Who am I burying? An old guy who happens to be…wait for it…a Jew. As we stand by the grave, I ask my brother if he knows anything appropriate to say, and he innocently asks, “Do you know any Jewish songs?” And I say, “He taught me one.”

I then proceed to sing “Hine Ma Tov”, a song I learned as a counselor at a Quaker summer camp when I was nineteen. The lyrics are the first verse of Psalm 133. “Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity.”

When I finish singing my heart out over the buried Jew, my brother invites me to join forces with him to sing for our breakfast at a nearby farm, and on the way to the farm we talk about the buried Jew who I reveal was a great joke teller. I then tell my brother a joke about Democrats and Republicans that could just as easily be a joke about Jews and non-Jews. Then we sing an Irish folk song together. Fade Out.

You can watch Bums At A Grave on my web site, Under the Table Books.

Prostitution

Thursday, October 14th, 2010

“Working in Hollywood does give one a certain expertise in the field of prostitution.” Jane Fonda

I have never heard of a workshop for writers that teaches the efficacious use of sex to make it big in theatre or publishing or the movie business, but any writer who has toiled in Hollywood or New York, or in the outposts of those Babylons, knows that sexual linkage to people in power is of paramount importance to success in The Biz; and anyone who denies this is either a phony or grossly naïve.

Grossly naïve describes moi when the sale of my first novel to the movies landed me in Hollywood circa 1980, though my naïveté was not so much intellectual as grounded in a fierce unwillingness to accept reality. That is, I knew a good deal about the sexual machinations of the theatre world, yet clung to a mythic notion that by creating highly desirable plays and books and screenplays I would be allowed to travel sexually unmolested into collaborations with creative people possessed of sufficient clout to get books published and movies made and plays produced.

The sale of my first novel to a major New York publisher and the subsequent sale of the movies rights to a Hollywood studio were accomplished without my having screwed or been screwed by anyone even remotely connected to those industries, and so at the age of twenty-eight, I felt confirmed in my belief that the quality of my writing could, indeed, trump the necessity of screwing or being screwed by people I had no interest in screwing or being screwed by.

In one fell swoop I was transported from a rat-infested garret in Seattle to a plush suite at the Beverly Hills Hotel, and into meetings and dinners and soirees with powerful agents and studio executives and well-known movie producers. And it was made clear to me again and again that unless I was willing to engage in drug-enhanced sex with these wonderful people and to rewrite my stories and screenplays to suit their moronic fancies, my chances of a successful Hollywood career were precisely nil.

And sure enough, a mere two years into my Hollywood adventure, the last agent to officially represent me declaimed, “Stick with novels, okay? You might hit again with a book, but you can forget about working in this town as a screenwriter.”

“Why?” I asked, knowing why.

“Because you won’t do as you’re told. And nobody wants to work with somebody who can’t get with the program. Kapish?”

I didn’t and don’t want to believe that sexual extortion and drugs and nepotism are the primary coins of the theatre and publishing and movie worlds. I wanted and want to believe that producers and directors and editors were and are starving for original, compelling, well-written screenplays and books and plays. But that belief presupposes producers and directors and editors are capable of discerning the excellence of a creation, which they (with painfully few exceptions) are not.

And therein lies the disastrous problem (disastrous if you like good movies and plays and books). For if the game is first about gaining and asserting power over others, and secondly about maintaining the status quo, and thirdly about making money, then we aren’t talking about collaborative creativity, we’re talking about prostitution.

“The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side…” Hunter S. Thompson

Long before my short-lived career as a writer in Hollywood, I had several strange and fascinating and ultimately depressing adventures in the music biz. Another of my mythic notions is that success with my music will resound to the benefit of my novels and plays and screenplays (or vice-versa) so that one day I will pen the story, the screenplay, and the soundtrack for a movie that will change cinema as we know it (in a good way) and usher in the long awaited renaissance. This particular fantasy becomes more and more of a stretch as middle age gives way to old age, but in my dreams, age holds little sway.

So. 1971. Los Angeles. I was twenty-two, the composer of a dozen heartfelt songs, and barely literate on the guitar, yet I miraculously wrangled a face-to-face meeting with a “for real” record producer at Columbia Records by innocently calling the studio and asking to speak to someone, anyone, interested in auditioning a hot new singer songwriter with a golden voice, i.e. moi. Talk about naïve. But by golly, after being transferred by the switchboard operator to a secretary to an assistant producer to a producer, I made my case to a bona fide record company executive and he invited me to come on down with the tape of three songs I had hastily recorded on my Aunt Dolly’s neighbor’s reel-to-reel tape recorder—Todd singing along to his funky guitar.

So I borrowed Aunt Dolly’s purple Impala and set out to make my fame and fortune. And as I was merging onto the Santa Monica Freeway, I couldn’t resist stopping for a breathtakingly beautiful young woman who was thumbing a ride. She had long brown hair and wore a crimson T-shirt tucked into blue jeans, and I was so blinded by her curvaceous loveliness that I did not perceive her very unbeautiful companion until the goddess was hopping in beside me, and her boyfriend, the quintessential scruffy dweeb, was commandeering the backseat.

I took a moment to assess their vibe, deduced they were harmless, and surrendered to the sarcastic fates as I eased back into traffic, unsuspecting of the Gordian (traffic) Knot awaiting us. Thus for the next two hours I found myself trapped in Aunt Dolly’s purple Impala with Tina and Hal, Tina a twenty-year old prostitute, Hal her unemployed beau. And for those two hours of inching toward Columbia Records, I interviewed Tina (for Hal would only grunt when spoken to) and she told me many spine-tingling tales of her life as a hard drinking pot smoking cocaine snorting hooker in an upscale spa for wealthy businessmen and show business executives.

Tina had a honeyed voice, huge brown eyes, a fine sense of humor, and a particular sorrowful beauty I’m a hopeless sucker for. So, yes, I fell in lust with her and thought if we could somehow jettison her boyfriend, I might convince her to crash with me at Aunt Dolly’s until my first hit record provided us with sufficient funds to buy that farm in Mendocino. But after an hour stuck in that jam with her, I fell entirely out of love and thought I would play the field a while longer.

The story Tina told me that I remember most vividly after forty years is of the elderly movie producer who availed himself of Tina’s services every Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday.

“He likes me dressed up like a little girl, pig tails with big red ribbons, and he talks baby talk to me while he undresses. His suits must cost thousands of dollars, and he is so fussy about hanging them up just so. Then he sits naked on the edge of the bed with a stack of hundred-dollar bills beside him, and he begs me to take my clothes off.

“And I act like a stubborn little girl and shake my head and pout and say ‘No!’ until he crumples up a hundred-dollar bill and throws it at me. Then I pick up the bill, smooth it out, and start a pile of my own. Then I take off one piece of clothing and he begs me to take off more, but I won’t until he crumples up another bill and throws it at me. And if I play my part right, I can make three thousand dollars because he’s paying for each shoe, each sock, each ribbon in my hair, my belt, skirt, scarf, sweater, blouse, and I’m resisting the whole time, making him throw more and more bills as we get closer and closer to nothing left to take off.

“Then when I’m naked, he tells me to come over to him, but I won’t until he throws more bills. Finally I come close and let him catch me, and then he makes me lie over his knees and he smacks my bottom and tells me what a bad little girl I am. What a terrible girl I am.”

“And then?”

“That’s it. No sex for him. But he’s happy. He always leaves happy.”

(This article originally appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser October 2010)

Todd and his impressive stack of unpublished works await inquiries from producers and directors and publishers at underthetablebooks.com