In one sense, in the most obvious sense, my parents were a very mismatched couple.
My father was extremely intelligent, although his was a narrow intelligence better at problem solving than nuance, with a sort of sledgehammer approach to complex questions; he had been a math major in college, and those habits of mind were innate and ineradicable. And he had principles, along with that frequent concomitant of principles, inflexibility. My mother, on the other hand, was in many ways rather childlike, not at all sophisticated intellectually or culturally, but not lacking a sort of inchoate emotional insight. Her sense of right and wrong, in contradistinction to my father’s, was largely transactional: Friends were right whether they were right or not, and people she disliked were always and necessarily wrong. And since her affections were somewhat unreliable, even capricious, people went from being right to being unforgivably wrong rather suddenly, without any obvious change in their behavior or ideas. My father’s word could usually be depended on, my mother’s promises were subject to whim and mood and convenience.
They often drove each other crazy.
But in another sense, as I can see in retrospect, they were actually well-matched. Through an accident of psychology and personal history, their respective needs fit together like two pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, a near-perfect symbiosis. For one thing, my father, who regarded himself — wrongly, I should say — as physically unattractive, needed for his own self-respect to be seen with a glamorous woman, and my mother definitely qualified. He also needed to be looked up to, to be deferred to, to be admired, even to be seen as intimidating. He needed always to be right, to be in a position of setting other people straight. Whereas my mother needed someone who could serve as a stern father to her as well as a romantic partner, someone who would tell her what to do and what to think, and who could dependably explain to her on a regular basis why she was wrong. It wasn’t merely my father who played this role; even many of her closest women friends tended to be domineering. Of course, she often resented the bossiness and rebelled against it, but she also required it and sought it out. The rebellion was a predictable step in a choreographed pas de deux.
So while both of them sometimes bridled at the irritations and frustrations the other caused them, they had a mutual dependency that it would be wildly unfair to call a folie a deux. It may have had its quirks, but on some fundamental level, the marriage worked. Unlike many of their show business friends, they weathered the storms that occasionally beset them and stayed together.
My mother was a singer. She worked in both musical theater and nightclubs around L.A., and in my early years she still aimed and hoped for national fame. My father was a writer, first in radio, then in television and movies. His career was going fine until he was blacklisted in 1954. As soon as he refused to name names when interrogated by HUAC, he was fired from the sitcom I Married Joan where he’d been a staff writer, and fired by his agency (which, as he said later, was paradoxical, since they worked for him), and found himself unemployable in the only profession he’d ever had. For a while, at least, his work life came to a screeching halt.
Although we were never destitute, it was a substantial setback for the family. We economized, lived on his accumulated poker winnings, and moved to a smaller house in a poorer neighborhood. After a while, he began to work again, using friends as “fronts,” who would take meetings for him and put their names on his scripts; it was traditional for fronts to take a commission for their services — the practice was common enough that there was a standard going rate — but I believe most of his friends were willing, generously, to waive the fee. (I’m not being ironic about the adverb, incidentally; there was an established market for fronts, and forgoing the money was a sacrifice and genuine act of friendship on their part.) After about four years, our situation had improved sufficiently so we were able to move once again, to a somewhat better neighborhood in West Hollywood. But we remained in more straitened circumstances than we’d been in previously.
We moved to San Francisco in the fall of 1956, just after my eighth birthday. The move was understood to be temporary, more of an extended visit than a permanent move. My mother had been hired as the house singer at a legendary North Beach nightclub, the Hungry i. She’d already had a couple of gigs up there, at the Hungry i itself following a couple of appearances at its sister club, the Purple Onion (the latter apparently serving as a kind of audition for the more prestigious venue); while she’d been away during those engagements, my father ran the household like a benevolent drill sergeant, and although it may have been hard on him, the three of us — he, my sister, and I — actually functioned with impressive efficiency. He was doubtless unhappy with the situation, but it played to his forehand. We formed an assembly line in the kitchen, both when preparing meals and cleaning up afterward. But now, although her being hired for this extended run at the Hungry i constituted a major career coup, it also involved a really extended absence. An open-ended absence. It required family involvement.
My father may have agreed to the move reluctantly. I don’t know what conversations or arguments preceded it, but I doubt he relished the prospect of being in a situation where he would be viewed as an adjunct to his wife. To what extent the prospect of her income was an inducement to him to agree to the move, and to what extent he was simply going along with her ambitions, I’ll never know.
Neither my sister nor I wanted to go. This would be the fifth residence in our short lives, and all that moving around, with all those new houses, new neighborhoods, new schools, new routines, new people (and loss of old friends), was disorienting, literally unsettling. And as it turned out, these uprootings were just a beginning. The family ultimately ended up living in thirteen different residences before I left for college. I never used to think of my father as a rambling man — he was too set in his ways, too much a creature of habit, for that appellation to be easily applied to him — but in retrospect I have to admit that the man nevertheless rambled to a fare-thee-well. The absence of stability this engendered, of a sense of settledness, has never left me.
At the time of the move to San Francisco, we’d lived in our then-current LA house for only a few months. That had been a wrenching move in itself. Now we were moving again. My parents tried to present this new move as a great adventure, but neither my sister nor I was buying. We’d just begun to learn to navigate our West Hollywood life, had just developed some intense new friendships, and now we were forced to abandon it.
We drove to San Francisco. The drive in those days — Highway 5 didn’t yet exist — seemed interminable. I don’t think I’d ever been quite so bored. It was an overcast autumn afternoon when we finally drove up to our rented house near Golden Gate Park. It was a characteristic San Francisco house, narrow and tall: It had a small foyer on the ground floor level, with a door leading off to a garage. The garage had a large sort of bas-relief of a spider on one wall, a creepy touch I rather liked. A steep flight of stairs led up from the foyer to the actual first floor, and then another flight of stairs led to the bedroom level. On the first floor there were two living rooms, an “east” living room and a “west.” Fancy schmancy. The TV was in the east living room, so the west one never saw much action. The furniture and appointments — the house was furnished — were very old-fashioned, almost Biedermeier in appearance (not a concept in my vocabulary at the time, of course). The whole thing felt forbidding, nearly haunted, to me. But then, I didn’t want to be there. There was no way it was going to feel welcoming. I cried that night, telling my mother I wanted to go back to L.A. That wasn’t, obviously, on the cards.
My sister and I enrolled in the nearby public school, the Argonne School, my sister in the fifth grade, I in the third. It was walking distance from our house. I still remember our teachers’ names: Mine was Miss Brown, my sister’s was Mr. Cohen. Our principal was named Mrs. Peabody. (My mother told me she was afraid I would laugh at the name when I was first introduced to the principal, but I managed to keep my pre-adolescent naughtiness in check.)
The strangeness of our new existence set in early. For example, my parents’ social life didn’t resemble their social life in Los Angeles, where most of their friends had been male writers and their wives. In San Francisco, their racially diverse circle consisted almost entirely of cabaret performers, with the women as prominent as the men, and most of them folk and jazz musicians. They addressed my mother by her stage name, Julie Tate, rather than her real name. My father must have hated the whole scene. For one thing, he was virtually tone deaf, utterly uninterested in and indifferent to music. But perhaps even more importantly, he saw himself as a supernumerary in this setting, a mere spouse, a hanger-on. And he was used to being the dominant partner in the marriage, the smart one, the verbal one, the funny one. The one with opinions that needed to be heard. Here, those qualities seemed to be less valued. And my parents weren’t part of this world because of him. He told me years later how much he disliked being “a stage-door Johnny.” Of course, this was a reflection of his own wavering self-esteem, a state of mind perhaps exacerbated by his recent blacklisting and the consequent decline in his professional standing; it’s unlikely the people my parents were mixing with regarded him that way even granting that he wasn’t the primary focus of their attention. But he had a deep need to be in control in social situations, and that wasn’t easily achieved in this new setting.
The headliner at the club was often a star comedian, and with these, on the relatively rare occasions when they mixed with the locals, my father was somewhat more comfortable, at least if they treated him as a peer. Phil Leeds, later a successful actor but then a stand-up, was the star one week, and he had been an old friend of my parents dating back to their New York days. Mort Sahl, starting his career at the time, was a new friend; I recall an al fresco lunch with him and his then girlfriend in Sausalito. On the other hand, Professor Irwin Corey was the headliner one week and he and my mother had some sort of contretemps, the exact nature of which she never described. But he scared her. He was, in general, a scary, out-of-control presence, but something specific and unpleasant appeared to have spooked her. I don’t know if my father had any dealings with him at all.
My mother worked six nights a week. This meant she got dressed up and made up in the late afternoon, no longer looking exactly like my mother, but rather some glamorous clone, still recognizably the same person and yet utterly different: Fancy hair-do, prominent false eyelashes, neon lipstick, distinctive perfume. I was too young to understand the concept of sexiness, but that was obviously the impression she was going for — what the job of chanteuse required, at least in those days, unless you were Kate Smith or Ella Fitzgerald — and without understanding why, I certainly found the effect disquieting. She was my mother and yet at the same time she was this other person, Miss Julie Tate. There was something profoundly alienating about the whole business.
My sister and I were allowed to see her perform a couple of times. I say “allowed to,” but it really wasn’t our idea or necessarily our preference. It was meant to be a treat for us, but it wasn’t. In fact, I found it literally nauseating. Anxious for my mother — or for her unfamiliar avatar up there on stage singing — worried about the rowdy, often drunken audience applauding her, and feeling incredibly young, incredibly intimidated, and incredibly out of place. Years later I compared notes with my sister and it turned out she had had the same reaction. But we didn’t speak of it back then. This was supposed to be a treat and we had to regard it as such. The idea of declining to go, or even expressing any discomfort or reluctance, was out of the question. Gratitude and eager anticipation were the only acceptable responses.
Initially, my mother used to feed my sister and me dinner before heading off to North Beach. And of course, since her nights were so late, she slept in most mornings, getting up after my sister and I had already fed ourselves and left for school. It wasn’t really a workable arrangement, especially after my father left the country (I’ll get to that in a minute). So early on, she hired a sort of nanny to take care of us and prepare some of our meals, a young woman recently arrived from Germany named Ingrid. Years later I asked my mother about how she had chosen Ingrid and she told me it was a sort of dare she’d given herself. The Nazi period wasn’t so very far in the past at that point in time, and both my parents were still very queasy about all things German. No Olympia typewriters, no Volkswagens, no German electronic equipment. Just hearing the German language spoken could set their teeth on edge. So my mother’s decision to hire Ingrid was odd, out of character, downright puzzling. Ingrid had been staying with an aunt and uncle in San Francisco, and when my mother told the aunt that we were a Jewish family — a test, I suppose — the aunt assured my mother that this was not a concern for them at all. So Ingrid came to live with us. It proved to be a mixed blessing, although I hasten to add she showed no sign of being a Nazi.
A few weeks after we’d arrived in San Francisco, my father suddenly announced he was going to London for an indefinite period. A friend of his, a fellow blacklisted writer, was producing and writing a TV show in the UK, and he offered my father (or my father requested — there is much about this story that is, of necessity, pure surmise on my part) a writing job. Years later, my father told my sister he had felt so uncomfortable in San Francisco in his role as singer’s husband that he simply had to get out. While I don’t doubt this aspect of things, I suspect more was in play: I think he was feeling balked professionally, personally, and even sexually, and also was just plain restless, impatient with marriage and with family life. He needed a sabbatical.
He apparently fell in with a crowd of international expat leftists centered around Hampstead. The Canadians Reuben Ship and Mordecai Richler, the Southern Rhodesian Doris Lessing, the American Cy Endfield, many others. (Richler’s novel A Choice of Enemies, admittedly not one of that fine novelist’s best, deals with this milieu.) I think it must have been quite exciting for him, a vie de la boheme long denied him in his stolid bourgeois American life. But also daunting. He told me years later that those Hampstead Reds were a very wild crowd. He probably enjoyed it at first and then eventually recoiled from its lack of structure. This is guesswork on my part, but structure and discipline were important to him, and I can well imagine his ultimately finding the quasi-beatnik, proto-hippie milieu chaotic and disorienting.
He wrote letters fairly regularly, to my sister, to me, and many to my mother. The letters to my sister and me were chatty and breezy and amusing, but I think those to my mother must have been earnest, full of self-justification, maybe also confession, maybe stabs at negotiation. She saved those, and when, decades later, my sister and I moved her out of the last house she had shared with my father, we found the cache of letters in a shoe box. I was very curious, but didn’t have the heart (or was it the guts?) to look at them. Later, after she died, I thought I might be able to stand it, but they were gone. She’d probably destroyed them. Either that or they’d gotten lost during one of several moves she made during her widowhood.
After my father’s rather abrupt departure, my mother foundered a bit as a mother, although she was doing fine as a nightclub singer. She was totally out of her depth on the home front, flailing, frantic, arbitrary, alternately indulgent one minute and demanding the next, a warm maternal figure when she was in the mood and a stern disciplinarian on occasion, especially when she had an audience. I much resented that last part; in those situations it was clear to me even then that she was just performing, playing a role for the benefit of any onlookers who might have been in the vicinity, and that my sister and I were mere props.
Still, she must have felt abandoned at the worst possible time, when her career was possibly hanging in the balance and two uprooted and unhappy children were in her sole care. And since she’d been so accustomed to deferring to her husband and letting him organize our lives, she was pretty clueless about how to be a single parent. And my sister and I were struggling as well. We both had playmates — there were kids on our block and kids from our school with whom we were on perfectly fine terms — but no really close friends. No one with whom either of us could form a bond as tight as what we’d known in LA. And there were some painful hiccups. My sister had her tenth birthday that fall and had a party for a group of her 5th grade classmates. And one of them, as we sat around the kitchen table for cake and ice cream, started spewing racist garbage with prolific and creepily enthusiastic use of what’s now referred to as “the n word.” It was horrible; I don’t recall anyone objecting out loud, although there was some queasy laughter and some uncomfortable looks on the faces of some of the girls. But it ruined the birthday for my sister and remained a permanent painful memory for both of us.
We’d been brought up by parents whose radicalism was in large part fueled by a commitment to integration. We’d been sent to a summer day camp boasting a racially diverse group of campers and where at least half of the counselors were African American, and at which we sang civil rights songs and had prominent African American visitors (including Harry Belafonte, who had an annual gig at the nearby Greek Theater), we were shown films about the value of diversity, and oh yes, we also went swimming and bike riding and so on. But the passion for racial equality my sister and I felt was deeply ingrained, instilled in us from a very early age. Which made that girl’s venomous outpourings almost impossible to credit and totally impossible to tolerate.
And it wasn’t an isolated occurrence. I also recall some of my playmates on the schoolyard doing the same thing, expressing the same sentiments and using the same language. They must have been repeating what they’d heard at home. Which is as puzzling now as it was dismaying at the time; San Francisco had the reputation even then of being an especially liberal city, but this sort of thing happened several times, and in my experience nothing remotely similar had ever happened in LA. And again, I don’t remember any of the kids objecting. Including, I’m embarrassed to admit, myself. At eight years of age I didn’t have to the strength or courage to speak up. I think I just turned away and put some distance between myself and the kids saying those things. After one such incident on the schoolyard, I do recall mentioning my discomfort at what I’d witnessed — in truth, it went beyond discomfort, it had made me almost physically ill — to another boy in my class (I even recall his name: Richard Kitten). And was relieved when he agreed with me. He seemed as disturbed — as oppressed and even bewildered by it all — as I.
In addition, this was an election season, and an overwhelming majority of the kids in my school were sporting “I Like Ike” buttons. My family were Stevenson supporters. It was impossible not to feel not merely outnumbered, but alien, out of place. (I just checked and learned that Eisenhower did indeed carry San Francisco County, but not by all that much…our school district, middle class and overwhelmingly white, seems in retrospect to have been somewhat anomalous.) One kid was briefly the alpha male in our class because he had somehow gotten his hands on a “We Like Ike” button, which, he assured us, was far superior to an “I Like Ike” button. “I Like Ike” buttons, he implied, were a dime a dozen. And so they were, at least in our school.
I went trick or treating that Halloween alone, or rather, accompanied at a discreet distance by Ingrid. Quite a contrast with the group scenes I was used to back in Los Angeles, wandering the streets and going house to house with a crowd of costumed friends. It was a lonely business, although I got a reasonable amount of candy. And a dime from a distinguished looking older man who stopped me on the street, told me I was the first child he’d encountered all evening who hadn’t ask him for anything, and thereupon pressed the coin into my palm.
Christmas and New Years were similarly drab. My mother’s initial plan was to substitute Hanukkah for Christmas, something we did not usually do in our family, despite being Jewish. This wasn’t only because our household was fiercely secular. It was also, at least in part, because my mother’s birthday was on Christmas Day itself, so, even though we weren’t celebrating the birth of the Christ child, we did have something closer to home to celebrate. But this year she declared we would celebrate Hannukah. We would light a menorah and she promised my sister and me eight presents apiece rather than one. But she forgot after a few days. The menorah was abandoned and no further presents were forthcoming. No hard feelings — even back then I don’t recall having felt especially cheated or deprived. The plan had simply fallen by the wayside. She had other things on her mind, and so did we. New Years Eve, my sister and I watched the Lawrence Welk show until midnight rolled around. My mother was working that night — New Year’s Eve was a big money-making occasion for night clubs, obviously — and Ingrid didn’t see fit to order us to bed before the magic hour. She might even have been out partying herself.
What I can see now, at this remove, is that I began to suffer a real emotional breakdown, or at least what can pass for such a thing at age eight. I started pleading illness to avoid going to school; my mother tried to talk me into going, but usually gave up after I convinced myself I was sick and told her how bad I felt. This happened several days a week, and sometimes all five in a row. I would stay in my pajamas, plant myself in front of the television, and rarely get up again. I watched soap operas, quiz shows, old movies, whatever sitcoms were in syndication during the daytime hours (I remember one with Betty White, Del Moore, and Jack Narz called Life with Elizabeth), re-runs, and I waited impatiently for the Mickey Mouse Club to begin at 5:00. I became obsessed with the Hardy Boys serial; I felt Joe and Frank were my best friends in San Francisco, far closer friends than any I had made at school. My sister joined me in front of the television in the evening. We watched sitcoms, westerns, variety shows, detective shows, even Lawrence Welk. We were both feeling isolated, although I think she was handling it better than I, or perhaps just hiding it better than I. At least she was going to school most days. But we were both under stress: Lonely, with an absent father, in an unfamiliar setting, lacking close confidants, with an eccentric young German nanny and an only semi-recognizable mother, a mother who wasn’t coping all that well with the twin demands of a career and single parenthood.
The other way my sister and I occupied ourselves in the evening was gathering in Ingrid’s room, lying in the dark, and listening to her as she told us stories about her life in wartime Germany. These were pretty horrifying. Stories of typhus epidemics — including details of the grotesque symptoms of various strains of the disease — privation, hunger, physical danger. I once asked her to stop, so upsetting did I find these, but my sister overruled me and I gave in and stayed in the room. And the odd thing is that telling these stories seemed to give Ingrid a strange sort of comfort; despite the deprivation and even terror she described, she was homesick, nostalgic for her previous life. Occasionally even maudlin. There were even a few times when she suddenly started sobbing without any obvious provocation. I suspect in retrospect those might have been occasions when she had paid a surreptitious visit to the liquor cabinet, largely unused once my father had left the country. She was clearly suffering her own level of stress and could well have been covertly self-medicating.
And then my mother started dating. At first these were just one-offs, and clearly nothing serious. A few times in those months a different man would come and pick her up and they would go out. I assume these were night club patrons who had gathered up their courage and approached her between sets and asked her out — I don’t know under what other circumstances she could have met them — but it’s another of those questions that must remain forever unanswered. She mostly came home at a reasonable hour, and there was rarely a repeat with any particular guy. But then she started seeing one fellow, a doctor, and he was a presence for a while. He clearly meant business and Miss Julie Tate apparently wasn’t immune. She even went to an afternoon football game with him one afternoon, an activity so outside her normal area of knowledge or interest that she obviously had to be taking this guy pretty seriously. She even pretended to be enthusiastic about the experience when they returned to our house and the two of them described a particularly spectacular play. And he was clearly very serious about her. In addition to everything else, he made an effort to ingratiate himself with my sister and me, which was in itself a cause of uneasiness for us both. Whether because he was genuinely nice or because he was trying to make a point for my mother’s benefit, he was especially attentive to me. Guy to guy. I felt guilty about finding some comfort in his solicitousness. I clearly yearned for an older male figure in my life, and this guy was at least at hand. However, it also felt like a betrayal of my father, even though my mother assured my sister and me that we shouldn’t be concerned on that score. But then, she was going to deny any threats to the family unit, wasn’t she? Until and unless, of course, they actually materialized.
But, at least in her later re-telling, they never did. Her version of what happened, which may or may not have been complete and unexpurgated, was that she wrote my father and told him that she was still holding out but that she had other options and didn’t see any point in holding out much longer. Which, in her telling, was sufficient to carry the day. He was back in San Francisco, and back in our lives, in under a week.
Was his return in some way conditioned on her quitting the gig at the Hungry i? I don’t know the answer to that. I doubt it, but I can’t be sure. One thing is sure, though: One way or another, either tacitly or overtly, either intentionally or unconsciously, he had sabotaged her best chance for a big career. His leaving had sent a very clear message. Within a few weeks of his return to the family fold, we moved back to Los Angeles. And those months in San Francisco proved to be the high watermark of my mother’s professional life. Not the end of it — she continued to get occasional engagements at a variety of Los Angeles clubs — but it was certainly the most glamorous and prestigious gig she’d ever secured for herself. Nothing that came later compared to it.
For my sister and me, getting back to Los Angeles was an occasion of unutterable relief. But also a lesson in disappointment, one I was to re-learn many times subsequently. Some friends had changed, were no longer the perfect soul-mates they had previously seemed. I’d outgrown some favored activities, or they’d otherwise lost their luster. Some of the things I had missed the most were no longer available, or, even more upsetting, were no longer all that appealing. Much I had longed for was gone for good, unrecapturable. Times of one’s life seem blessed only in retrospect. If for some reason you leave Eden, when you return it’s no longer the same garden you left.
Tags: Cy Endfield Doris Lessing Hampstead Hungry i Mordecai Richler Mort Sahl North Beach Reuben Ship San Francisco Sausalito The Argonne School West Hollywood