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!


1 comment:

  1. How fabulous for all of us you've joined the "masses of bloggers". Your first entry is above and beyond anything out there. After reading Liz Smith's review of your upcoming book, I can't wait to read it! With all best wishes for your well deserved success, Elizabeth Avedon.