Thursday, October 1, 2009


I’ve neglected this blog for months, too consumed with living my life to write about it. There’s much to tell: This summer I had a book published, toured many cities to promote it, and got more attention and approval than I’ve ever known. But all that can wait. Right now I’m haunted by the time-bending, at times surreal experience of attending Judy Collins’s latest opening night at the Café Carlyle.

Judy has been touching my heart since my teens, when I discovered two albums she made in the early ‘70s, just before she bid the waning folk movement goodbye. Living and True Stories (and Other Dreams) are deliciously sad collections of folk-art ballads; they cover subjects ranging from Che Guevara’s execution to the lingering ghosts of childhood. The classically-trained Judy gave those songs an arty formality, but even at fourteen I sensed I was hearing an emotionally fragile woman. Only later did she speak of her raging battle with alcoholism, which my father shared. But her only revelations then were in song; the Judy I first saw on TV remained hidden inside floor-length, folk-hippie dresses and hardly talked. “I was in another world behind that guitar,” she told me in a 2007 interview. The young Judy’s famous blue eyes – big, mournful, and distant – suggested the true story.

Decades later, with demons tamed, Judy Collins has risen above her former self in many regards. Throughout her bright-spirited 90-minute show of Tuesday, September 29, I thought of how she began her career as the most populist sort of entertainer : a Woody Guthrie-inspired troubadour, singing for and about the people. Now Judy is 70, and she and her wondrously intact soprano are ensconced at the most elitist, exclusionary nightspot in New York. She sells out the Café Carlyle nightly at a music charge of $125-$175, plus the comparable (and mandatory) cost of dinner.

Judy’s nearly waist-length mane of hair was platinum and swirled, and she wore a sequined pants suit. Beaming, she told the audience of her kinship with Elaine Stritch and Barbara Cook, theatrical doyennes who play the Carlyle, and raved of how much at home she felt there. She bubbled over with stories about her liberal Denver upbringing; her blind father Chuck, a singing radio host; the classical piano studies she traded for the call of folk and the social revolutions of the ‘60s. Risqué-for-their-time witticisms by Dorothy Parker and Mae West took their place in her show alongside Dylan and Leonard Cohen songs; she even revived yesterday’s news by saluting Susan Boyle with “I Dreamed a Dream.”

It was a precarious balancing act, and such is her magic that she managed to pull it off, rivetingly. But the uptown Judy has been in the works for a long time. In 1975 she recorded Stephen Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns”; thus began her long struggle to shake off the folk label, which by the mid-‘70s had become quaint. She ceased to play guitar onstage for years. Art songs by Sondheim and Ned Rorem appeared in her repertoire; so did “Junk Food Junkie,” proof of how anxious she was to show people she had a sense of humor.

Judy has since reembraced her folk roots; now she performs mostly with her own guitar and with a talented pianist, Russell Walden. The enduring purity, agility, and silvery sheen of her voice elicit gasps. She sings the murderous tale of “Anathea,” with its high-flying refrain, effortlessly in her original 1963 key. My favorite moments of hers happen when she sits at the piano and lets loose her billowing, Debussy-esque waves of chords. In autobiographical originals like “My Father” and “Secret Gardens,” her picturesque imagery floods the mind. Her soulfulness hasn’t diminished; clearly she more than remembers the old pain.

But her current setting seems incongruous for Judy, even at her artiest. I looked around the Café and saw older women in Chanel suits, trimmed with pearls as big as marbles. They sat with gray-suited, Rolex-wearing men, bald, bespectacled, and looking like retired bankers, as some of them surely are. The couples stared at Judy with wistful eyes. With only the gentlest prompting from her, they eagerly sang along with songs of youthful idealism, from “Over the Rainbow” to “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.”

For this crowd, the flowers haven’t gone. They’re purchased at the Carlyle florist in $200 bouquets, or planted by landscapers at those customers’ Hamptons homes. But as I watched the transfixed faces of Judy’s Carlyle fans, I had to wonder: What long and winding road took them here? Did any of them ever roll around in the mud at Woodstock? Burn their draft cards? Attend a Vietnam War peace rally, take LSD?

Walking home through Central Park after the show, I phoned my friend Barry Dennen, a gifted actor-singer, now in Los Angeles. Like Judy, he came to New York in the early ‘60s. Barry knows a thing or two about extraordinary women who change in unexpected ways. His 1997 book, My Life with Barbra, astutely recalls the time in which he lived with and mentored the pre-superstar Streisand. She, of course, is back in the news, having released a new “jazz” album of standards and done a launch show at the Village Vanguard, the kind of club for which Dennen groomed her. But clips of that event, posted on AOL, again confirm that Streisand has lost all touch with the brash, hungry, emotionally spontaneous girl she once was. Now careful and queenly, she seems afraid to revisit her past self, even if she might wish she could.

Happily, Judy Collins doesn’t share that fear. But I asked Barry if he thought her Carlyle fans had ever indulged in any true ‘60s hellraising.

Not much, he said, if any: “They were Democrats who made their first money and became Republicans.” Through Judy, he believes, “they’re trying to recapture their youth and their lost dreams.” In this pampered setting the Carlyle swells can do so without dirtying their hands, swept back in time by a woman whose ageless voice makes them feel young again.

Finally Judy floats off stage, accepting one of those Carlyle bouquets from a staff member as her fans cheer. Waving, she vanishes quickly through the back door. Checks are left on tables, and out come the American Express platinum cards. I spotted the bill for a table of four: just over $2,000. The recipient didn’t flinch. For what Judy had just given him, no price was too high.

Friday, May 29, 2009


Home 'round midnight in Manhattan, playing Antony & the Johnsons on continuous loop ...

Tonight's blog edition was supposed to celebrate the heroic qualities of British androgyne Antony and other talented misfits, who make the alienated feel less alone. But due to a flood of requests, this time I shall tell the tale of my recent alien roommate in West Hollywood:

Sam, the Demon Cat of Fountain Avenue.

I had settled into the duplex of my friend Darren Ramirez, the glamorous bon vivant. We'd met at a 2004 New Year's Eve party at the Copacabana Palace in Rio. Darren was now off to Costa Rica, and it was my job to look after his cat. For ten days I tended to this fiery, stalking creature, in a house that some believe is haunted by the ghost of Marilyn Monroe.

You see, sixty years ago she lived here. Her visage remains, for Darren has created photographic shrines to Marilyn in the guest bathroom and living room. It was long past midnight on my first day at Darren's, and I was upstairs in my bedroom, wearily sending out emails to media figures about my forthcoming Lena Horne biography. The role of frantic self-publicist on the gangplank to publication was getting me down, and though almost every non-celebrity author of today must see to his own promotion, I'd been complaining to anyone who would listen. I was in a foul mood. Suddenly I heard blood-curdling shrieks. I rushed down the stairs. There in the living room, slithering back and forth beneath an easel that holds a book of André de Dienes's Monroe photos, was Sam. Eyes flashing and fangs bared, he screeched "Meow!"

"Awww, Sam, what's wrong?" I cooed. I approached him gingerly and tried to pet him. He clawed at my hand. No amount of tender words or touches would quiet him. Each day from morning till the wee hours Sam was on the warpath, as this 4AM surveillance video will illustrate.

Sam's diabolical cries are well known to the neighbors in this posh, Spanish-exteriored mini-complex of apartments. One day he sat in the front window, wailing away in a cat-to-man dialogue. I peeped outside, and there stood Josh Evans, the filmmaking, animal-activist son of Robert Evans and Ali MacGraw. I'd met him on the day I arrived. With the same skeptical look that you see here, Josh had asked if my habit of sleeping quite late (Darren had spilled that particular bean) would interfere with my feeding of Sam. I assured him it would not. I don't think he believed me.

Empty food cans piled up, but the Demon Cat stayed on the prowl. One night he flew onto the dining-room table and, with a swift push of his head, knocked my dinner plate onto the floor. For the next half-hour I picked couscous out of the antique rug.

By this time I had started to envy Sam. What a life, I thought -- to walk around all day screaming out one's dissatisfaction and to be endlessly petted and soothed in return. Sam seemed to sense a kindred spirit, and he stopped scratching me. Josh picked up on our newfound rapport, observing that Sam and I had "bonded." Ace entertainment reporter Susan King had come to the house to interview me for a Los Angeles Times feature, and Sam had warmed instantly to her maternal air. Before she left, we went in search of Sam. Where had he gone? I walked upstairs -- and there he was, curled up on my foldout bed!

At last came Departure Day. Darren was due back that afternoon, and my gentle, blue-eyed friend Joe Kirkendall (left) came to drive me to the airport. Sam was hiding under a table. Clearly he did not want to say goodbye.

Joe and I set out for LAX, and I got to thinking. A kitty-kat can howl for hours and still seem adorable; and if you're Marilyn Monroe, the needier you are, the more seductive you'll seem. But if you're a writer who's having his third book published at a time when getting a book published is harder than ever, and the advance reviews are great, and a few things are wrong but most everything is going right, then it's time to quit moaning and relish the moment. The future could well be bright, too!

Don't you agree?

Friday, May 22, 2009


In my underwear for eight hours in front of the computer ...

And resenting the upcoming holiday weekend. How dare the post office be closed on Monday? I've got packages to send. I have a book coming out, and it's about Lena Horne, as all of you patient readers are quite tired of hearing. My fingers are almost bleeding from pounding out emails every day to radio hosts and book editors, asking if they'd received the galley. Many have not. But what a joy when an interviewer whose mercy you've begged hits you right back with a yes, as did Kris Welch, host of Living Room at KPFA in San Francisco.

"This sounds great!" wrote Kris. "I LOVE Lena Horne, her fire and her style, not to mention her prodigious talent. Send me the book!" Just as excitingly, has finally corrected my grossly botched listing. Pre-order away!

On this sultry afternoon, I am flashing back to my recent trip to sunny Southern CA. On April 23 I moved from my friend Joel Thurm’s rustic Laurel Canyon home to Fountain and La Cienega, and to the old-Hollywood-style glam apartment (see below) of my friend Darren Ramirez, the most debonair man in Los Angeles. I was there to cat-sit during Darren's ten-day visit to Costa Rica. Before he left, though, we were taken to dinner by one of his longtime friends, retired couturier-to-the-stars Jimmy Galanos (at Darren's left), now 84. Jimmy outfitted Nancy Reagan, Rosalind Russell, Diana Ross, and other renowned women of means in his class-chic designs. Having closed his design business eleven years ago, he now does art photography, for which he has a genuine flair.

The nattily dressed, ascot-wearing Greek welcomed Darren and me into the Beverly Hills house where he has lived for over forty years. We walked through room after dark room of shiny black marble, gaped at the hundreds of art books and biographies on display, paused before the little sculpted heads inside lit glass cases.

After showing us lots of his colorful abstract photos, he took us to Murano, a West Hollywood restaurant with Murano glass chandeliers and reasonable prices. In the opposite corner we spied Janet Jackson sitting with boyfriend Jermaine Dupri. She wore a wide-brimmed white hat but no dark glasses or other camouflage, and sat facing the room. She gave off a friendly and relaxed vibe; I heard her laughing with the waiter. Nobody bothered her. Angelinos are used to seeing stars.

I’ve seen a lot of them, too, in my twenty or so trips to Los Angeles, a place that seduces me even as I turn up my nose at it. In L.A., almost every creative effort is judged in terms of the grandiosity of movies and TV. Smaller endeavors are smirked at, even greeted with hostility, if they’re noticed at all. A cabaret act in Los Angeles, for instance, is roughly tantamount to a piece of gum stuck to the bottom of a park bench. “I could never live here,” say I, Mr. Labor-of-Love, to anyone who will listen, adding: “I’m a New York guy.”

In many social settings there I am asked, “So what do you do?” – less in a tone of curiosity than of interrogation. The subtext is, Should I be spending this moment talking to you? What can you do for my career?

I’m a writer, I say.

“Oh!”  Their attention is piqued.  “What do you write?  Screenplays?  TV?”

No, I write books.

Oh.” The disappointment is obvious. Their eyes shift instantly to a place beyond my left shoulder, and I am switched off like a bathroom light.

So imagine my surprise when I took the bus (I can’t drive) to UCLA on Saturday, April 25, to attend several panels at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Booksan annual weekend event. There I wandered through grassy grounds amid thousands of clearly book-loving locals. “What the …” I thought. "We sure don’t have anything this fabulous in New York!" I saw white tents galore, housing the wares of big-time publishers and many others I’d never heard of, one of them specializing in Satanic books. Inside the halls were panel discussions and one-to-one interviews galore. Many were sold out. 

I attended one panel, “City Life:  The Manufactured West,” specifically to accost the moderator, Patt Morrison, a local smart-cookie NPR host who interviews many authors. There she was, so Southern California in her sombrero and shades. She carried a tote bag filled with notebooks and pens and such; with her NPR training, everything was timed and prepared to a fare-thee-

well. Afterwards she left quickly, with me in hot pursuit. I caught up to her and introduced myself, commending her on the great job she’d done. She responded warmly. I dropped my big, red Stormy Weather galley into her already heavy bag, and off I went to my next stops.

Inside Broad Hall I attended an interview between Dave Ulin, the L.A. Times book editor, and Dave Cullen (right), the Denver-based investigative reporter and author of the ten-years-in-the-works Columbine, his first book.

Was I impressed! Dave Cullen is passionate, tireless in his search for the truth, unguarded, and smart as hell. As Marianne Faithfull once replied when asked what had drawn her to Mick Jagger:  “He was just my kind of guy!” I’m reading Dave’s book – a page-turner that inspires trust from page one. He accomplishes the unimaginable: In his hands, mass-murderers Eric and Dylan emerge as humans, not monsters, monstrous though their deeds.

Afterwards I waited on line in the sun as he sat inside a little tent, signing copies. He chatted with everyone on line, asking them where they were from and answering questions about Eric and Dylan. When we met I told him of my efforts at self-publicizing my book. He asked me if I was on Facebook, and if I blogged.

Facebook ... ugh. That bastardizer of the word "friend," that

instigator of needless dialogue. I barely knew how it worked – and the Los Angeles Times had just dismissed it as “so yesterday”; Twittering was now the thing.  The thought of badgering people throughout the day with the trivialities of my life makes me want to heave!

But because Dave told me to, I joined Facebook. Within 72 hours, felicitous connections had resulted. And I am writing this blog, to add to the dense, sky-high thicket of overcommunication. If you like what you read, post a comment. It gets lonely around here. Then I'll tell you about Darren's haunted (by Marilyn Monroe?) apartment and stalking, yowling Sam the Cat ...

Saturday, May 16, 2009


Saturday afternoon in New York, cross-eyed before computer...

... and sore of foot, knee, and back, having carted galleys of my forthcoming biography of Lena Horne all over Manhattan yesterday. Nowadays an author must not only write the book but be his own publicist, events planner, secretary, messenger, and damage-control consultant. 

If you want something done right, of course, you have to do it yourself, and I certainly take pride in having become a can-do guy. Lena's expression in the photo above touches me in a deep place, however, as I battle the maddeningly bureaucratic over a listing for my book that is so botched, it's a joke. But I'm not laughing. After weeks, they haven't corrected it. Please, my loyal three readers, do not pre-order the non-existent paperback version of my book that they are offering.

Meanwhile, I have fired off countless email pitches for Stormy Weather and sought advice from fellow
authors. The distinguished Mexican-American writer and longtime NewsHour contributor Richard Rodriguez (above left) coached me, as did Sheila Weller (above right), whose delightful last book Girls Like Us:  Carole King, Carly Simon, Joni Mitchell – and the Journey of a Generation made the best-seller list thanks to her own persistence.

At times like this, I seek inspiration from my current Bible of self-promotion, the recent book Where’s My Fifteen Minutes?, whose pushy and slightly desperate title appeals to me. Its author is the L.A.-based PR wizard and Larry King Show favorite Howard Bragman. Howard, who runs a firm with a staff of 20, raises the heartbeats of those who prize the words "bear" or "daddy." 

But I mostly prize his expertise. He answered my long-winded request for suggestions by insisting:  "Just tell me the bottom line!" Much of his book deals with a level of publicity (Oprah, Larry King, Entertainment Tonight) that only a handful of us ever attain. But therein lies the inspiration. For me, Howard's life-message in this book is:  Think big! Think big ... yes. Something I've never found it easy to do. Thinking small is easier. Safer. Obscurity is generally the result. If, like me, you are ready for your close-up, go play with the Big Boy, Howard.     

Oprah hasn't called yet, but July will bring launch events for my book at the Paley Centers for Media in both Los Angeles and New York. TCM has chosen Stormy Weather as its August Book of the Month. I’ll read at Harlem's lovely Hue-Man Bookstore (June 29), will be interviewed by Considering Doris Day author Tom Santopietro at Barnes & Noble-Lincoln Center (July 1), will appear at L.A’s Book Soup on July 11. Atlanta’s venerable Margaret Mitchell House is having me on July 22. Alan Eichler, the miracle-achieving L.A. publicist who kept Anita O’Day going for over 20 years, landed me an upcoming feature in the Los Angeles Times, to be written by the paper’s lovable entertainment reporter Susan King. Lots more groovy stuff is in the works.

See what a little tenacity and a famous book subject can get you?

My recent exploits in Los Angeles weren't all work, as my next entry will explain. They included a night out with a former dress designer for Nancy Reagan and Diana Ross, a fairly close-up Janet Jackson sighting, and communing with the ghost of Marilyn Monroe in my West Hollywood home-away-from-home -- Marilyn's original and seemingly haunted Hollywood apartment of 1949. 


Sunday, May 10, 2009


Middle of the night, home in New York


I give up.

Until now I’ve fought long and hard against the idea of joining the masses of bloggers, tweeters, and Facebook “Friends,” whose tidal wave of postings makes me wonder if this First Amendment is all it’s cracked up to be. What self-indulgence, what narcissism, I thought. Why should anybody care about my day-to-day life, or almost anyone's? And as somebody whose livelihood consists of selling my words, I maintained a smug attitude toward turning my personal diary into a blog.
Ruth Brown
summed up my sentiments in the 1989 Broadway spectacular Black and Blue: “If I can’t sell it, I’ll keep sittin’ on it. I ain’t about to give it away.”

Well, times are tough, and nobody’s buyin’. So here it is, my debut blog entry, for the reading pleasure of all three of you. It was Dave Cullen, author of the riveting new book
, who convinced me to try. (More about him the next time.) And who knows? What follows might amuse someone. Stranger things have happened. I’m busy trying to spread the word about the June 23 publication of my book Stormy Weather: The Life of Lena Horne – the first major bio of a woman whose story comprises almost everything that made the last presidential election happen.

StormyWeatherCover copy

Liz Smith gave me hope in her staggering advance review. So did my new pal and big sister, author Sheila Weller, who provided this goose-pimply blurb:

I was transfixed by James Gavin’s empathic but clear-eyed biography of Ms. Lena Horne, who lived one of the most under-estimatedly heroic lives of the last century … Despite the book's seemingly endless cast of supporting stars (from Ethel Waters to Billy Strayhorn to Joe Louis to Ava Gardner – all smartly and freshly revealed) and mythic environs (from Harlem's Cotton Club to the Village's Cafe Society to L.A.’s M-G-M lot), Gavin never loses sight of his commandingly researched theme – racism, and the fight against racism … This serious, luminous book, despite the pain it describes, is an irresistible read.

I hope that others agree. Meanwhile, I am just back from two weeks in L.A., where I went in search of advance publicity, as well as to do a coveted interview for a documentary recently begun by myself and Raymond De Felitta, a talented filmmaker. (His upcoming feature, City Island, starring Andy Garcia and Alan Arkin, just won an Audience Award at the Tribeca Film Festival.) Our project is based on my first book, Intimate Nights: The Golden Age of New York Cabaret.

Oh, the sources who have died since 1991, when the book was first published. But so far we’ve taped interviews with Shelley Berman, Orson Bean, Kaye Ballard, Dixie Carter, Robert Clary, Barry Dennen, Liz Smith, Dick Cavett, Julie Wilson, Village Gate owner Art D’Lugoff, Charlotte Rae, Bruce Vilanch, Marc Shaiman, and Scott Wittman. What fun!

Dick Cavett and Raymond De Felitta, March 2009

April 15 was the happiest tax day of my life, for I got to interview Lily Tomlin. We’d contacted her directly, and she made us jump through no flaming hoops. She gave us the date, and drove from Studio City to Beverly Hills to see us. She sent her makeup and hair person on ahead of her, and didn’t ask us for money; she phoned from her car to tell us she’d be about twenty minutes late. How refreshing! Raymond and I sat in the reception room of his Beverly Hills agency, awaiting her arrival. The door flung open, and in charged the woman we’d so long adored.

We escorted her downstairs to a basement conference room. Lily was on overdrive, tense and a bit flustered, as she fretted about her makeup and hair and how to look her best on camera. (She needn’t have worried; she looked terrific.)


And once the camera rolled, we fell in love anew with one of the smartest, funniest women in America. For over two hours she told us the little-known story of everything that led her to Laugh-In. We heard about how she left Detroit to become a kooky artistic misfit in the East Village; how she made her first big noise in the revues at the Upstairs at the Downstairs and the Downstairs at the Upstairs, where she performed from 1966-1968. She even opened for the reigning café diseuse Mabel Mercer, whom she adored. Lily recreated some of her still-hilarious early characters for us, including Lupe, the World’s Oldest Beauty Expert. She connected all the dots of her life; she laughed at herself. At the end she posed for pictures with us and even told us she’d had fun.

The next day, someone drew my attention to the
YouTube clip
that everyone had seen except me: her spectacular meltdown in a car during the making of I Heart Huckabees (2004). Her dissatisfaction with director David O’Russell was suggested by such outbursts as: “FUCK YOU, FUCK YOU, FUCK YOU, get the fucking thing together, fuck you! … Goddammit, you fucked it up, goddamn you!”

What a bitch, one might easily conclude. But after some of my own experiences in Publishing Land, I get Lily’s frustration – oh, how I get it. You’ve sweated blood and bullets over your project. You want so badly for it to be good. You're scared to death over how you're gonna come out looking. Your future may hinge on how this thing is received. (Admittedly, you're neurotic to begin with.) You want everyone involved to care as much as you care, to band together and rise to the highest standards. Most of them don’t. Why should they? Their names aren’t on the marquee, or the book jacket.

Watching Lily’s volcanic outbursts, I shouted inside, “
Yes!” Better than any Buddhist chant, her words in that video cleanse my soul; they are my vicarious primal scream, as I move forward in my quest to make this book a success.


COMING UP: More adventures in Hollywood!