Monday, July 16, 2018

MY LIFE WITH JOHN STEINBECK by Gwyn Steinbeck, love & adventures of "the forgotten wife."

"... a compelling  story, with many biographical details, asides, and anecdotes that make it well worth the price of admission. Published here for the first time, it’s a genuinely significant literary discovery. Her memoir sheds light on the part of Steinbeck's life that has been in shadow over half a century."  --Jay Parini, author of John Steinbeck: A Biography

Discovered--GWYN CONGER STEINBECK. New book relates love and adventures of the "forgotten wife," muse to the Nobel Prizewinning author of American classics
MY LIFE WITH JOHN  STEINBECK: by Gwyn Conger Steinbeck The Story of John Steinbeck's Forgotten Wife

Who was Gwyn Conger Steinbeck? Unlike Steinbeck's first and third wives, she's unmentioned in standard editions of  classics, such as The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men.  But that's about to change with the publication of MY LIFE WITH JOHN STEINBECK: by Gwyn Conger Steinbeck, The story of John Steibeck's Forgotten Wife. (Lawson Publishing Ltd. Sept. 6th.). The ms, lost since 1972, was recently discovered in Wales. The book includes her introduction, that of journalist Douglas G. Brown and the acclaimed John Steinbeck biographer, Jay Parini.

The book reveals the missing voice of  Gwyn,  "the forgotten wife," mother of his two sons, during a 6-year marriage that included the tumult of World War 2. When she met Steinbeck in 1939, Gwyn was a professional singer, working for RKO radio and CBS in L.A. She was an independent young woman, lively and radiant in her love for the great man wooing her--14 years her senior. He was impressed by her beauty and magnetic presence.  For women of her era, many of whom had to leave jobs after the war, marriage was considered a woman's true career--love was life. This journal is her story of that adventure, often "on the road" with a restless Steinbeck, criss-crossing continents and making homes. She later wrote:.

"Tremendous love existed between us....Sometimes, love made us better than we were, it does that with everyone. My love for John was such that I had no hesitation in giving up everything I had for him, which I did. That was a mistake. Although out relationship brought happiness, it also brought unhappiness. At one point, I became the Indian woman, walking three paces behind the master."

My Life with John Steinbeck is on target about people and places. A newlywed on 78th St in NYC., Gwyn was alone after John suddenly decided to go to war. But later they enjoyed snowstorms and high society, carousing with the  Robert Benchleys and Burl Ives among others. They moved to Monterey for sojourns with Steinbeck crony Ed Ricketts in his eccentric Lab. There were treks to Mexico, a story of an elegant party at a Russian Embassy, and one about being pregnant and sick by the side of a road.. 

Gwyn says Steinbeck was "in love with love." But for much of their time together, she was completely in love with both the great writer and the flawed man. She gave him complete quiet to work and, when needed, her full attention. The Moon is Down, Cannery Row, The Pearl, The Wayward Bus were written during their years. Gwyn  tried to be the "Amazon" Steinbeck expected; until their sons' births which she linked with the mysterious "death of their love." When she asked for a divorce (finalized 1949) she could  no longer live with him. He may never have forgiven her. Considering the character of Cathy in East of Eden, is said to be modeled on  Gwyn, that may be so.

How often do we hear about the costs of being with a famous man? When is trading up self-abandonment? Gwyn’s story is an enigmatic look at an "Everywoman" of her era, who took marriage as her vocation and  enabled a great man to pursue his work.  Yet the ideology of giving "all" came at a steep price.  I was moved by the pathos of her efforts to make home--not one but many--an attractive place of comfort, if not security. Just as she was putting down roots, her home was gone, lost in another unfathomable whim. 

2018, the 50th anniversary of John Steinbeck’s death (12/20/68), may be the year of the woman. How fitting for Gwyn Steinbeck's journal to be published.

Lawson Publishing LTD is located in Powys, Wales. Publisher Bruce Lawson is pleased with the release of GWYN CONGER STEINBECK: My Life With John Steinbeck in  the U.K. and the United States.

Douglas G. Brown, Editor

Douglas G Brown was a British and American journalist, feature writer and one-time columnist who became editor of the Palm Springs Desert Sun. His brother, John Brown, who inherited the manuscript for My Life with John Steinbeck, decided to publish it with Lawson Publishing Ltd as his late brother’s legacy.

Bruce Lawson, Publisher
Bruce Lawson was born and educated in Kidderminster. After working in Ireland and Jamaica, where he became a rugby international, he returned to the UK to run his own Chartered Accountancy Practice. In 2013 he wrote and published Charles Rolls of Rolls-Royce. Bruce now lives in Montgomeryshire and is the director of Lawson Publishing Ltd. He has made an extensive study of Steinbeck’s early life and worked for two years, bringing My Life with John Steinbeck to publication..


Monday, June 25, 2018

Lonz Cook's A LOSS TOO GREAT, when "happily ever after" is DOA., a man's love story

A LOSS TOO GREAT (Elevation Books, May) begins with Tom's arrival home to discover his beloved Mary dead on the floor.  How she got there and what happened to the "happily ever after" of this attractive hardworking couple is a kind of parable for men about the fantasy of romance vs. real-life love.  Lonz Cook unfolds a story that reminded me of Erich Segal's iconic "Love Story,” but  shows how loss changes the man. This husband and father is tested and his strength changes his connection to life. in profound ways

In the beginning, Tom and Mary, a happily married couple, are looking forward to "empty Nester" status. Tom eagerly looks forward to  exploring new places, bike trips in nature, concerts and ,most of all, hot  romance with Mary, his ideal soul-mate. He's smitten with her incredible beauty, undimmed by the years, her intelligence and intuitive understanding. His fantasies are a glossy brochure of "the good life," beautiful hotels, cruises, beaches and woods filled with happy couples sipping wines.

As newlyweds, he had surprised her with keys to their Baltimore fixer-upper, they worked side by side restoring the place to an elegant home. He was the sole bread winner but loved how appreciated she made him feel with great meals and always looking great, even after a day of chores and coaching Tom, Jr. Now, he surprised her again with a realtor's keys on a trip to San Francisco.  He was taking their gracious married life to a new setting. But Mary balked at the notion of a new lif, when Tom Jr's room was in Baltimore. Tom was thinking of heights they could achieve now that their son, who had eschewed college for the Army was away. An Army man himself, he didn't see a problem, but somehow Mary wasn't on the same page. .

Love amid luxury travels, their rekindled great romance, all tom's expectations were cruelly upended with news of their son's death. Mary's paralyzing grief meant Tom's love  transformed. Soon he was the caretaker, working with her psychologist,  patiently working for her to come back to him. When he is offered a promotion to San Francisco, Tom gives her the key to the Victorian. But the hard working success oriented, man who seeks perfection in his life, now has to take life day by day and hope she improves in a new city. Grief is a sibject he knows well, he's studied it.

In a “Hallmark Special” kind of way,  Tom meets many kind good natured people who helped him, because they respond to his friendly people-oriented approach to life. He's fun, has a good sense of humor.  He's also a can-do employee revered by his employer. But in his new role in a new city, he overdoes this, being watchful of his ailing wife. His efforts do pay off, he allows himself to think she's returning to herself, when he finds her on the floor. 

This loss is too Great. Tom's entirely changed, Unable to imagine life without his wife, he avoided personal contact. He's completely withdrawn, uninterested in what he used to enjoy. His hold on life is tenous, when Mary is everywhere. When he takes a leave of absence, he goes in search of  what he doesn't know. He starts with a bike trip, painful without her following, but the trees are still beautiful. He tentatively tries to find interest in women and is surprised to find it's still there and feeling is reciprocated. He tries his drive as an athlete and finds he's good.  Slowly, he brings himself back to life, but he's a different man.  

A LOSS TOO GREAT is about the way a man loves in fantasy vs. the deeper love that evolves through real life.  I liked that Tom was an intellectually curious and sensual man. Through his love for his emotionally fragile wife, he is able to change. He gave his all to win her back to life. And when he lost, challenged himself to see if life without her was worth living. This is a serious romance with a resonance for men and the women who love them.



Friday, June 8, 2018

ALTERNATIVE REMEDIES FOR LOSS, a young woman's grief drives journey to maturity in this novel, sad, funny and true

Olivia, Joanna Cantor's narrator in Alternative Remedies for Loss (Bloomsbury Publishing, May) is  twenty-two, pretty and privileged. Her family isn't rich but comfortably middle class. Sharply aware and self-critical, Olivia knows she's cushioned by her family and yet is unable to stop herself from messing up. She tests her limits in a spiral less coming-of-age, than a struggle to manage the emotional turmoil after her mother's death. She wonders what would happen if no one helped her pick up the pieces--like her mother did. She is profoundly alone, trying to figure out not just her place but what, if anything, has value.

Olivia's angst reminded me of The Sorrows of Young Werther, Goethe's autobiography.She is a heroine just as self absorbed and overly serious. But she possesses a wicked sense of social mores and a meter for hypocrisy equal to Austen's Emma. Olivia's ruthless perception spares not her brothers, complacent in their relationships, nor her father, who shortly after the funeral introduced his new woman and even asked her on the family trip. Planned by her mother as a cultural trip and now a remembrance had become a meaningless diversion. Her mother had always wanted to go to India, and had included  a visit to a real ashram. Her father arranged for shopping and restaurants like home in an Indian setting. Olivia's alienation deepened, when she returned to New York City.

Through her brother's connections,Olivia had an entry-level job at a film company and, though she worked hard, her sideline was dabbling in dubious affairs. Though Olivia questions her behavior, she lets it go and decides to ditch school and work after the summer. Her father, angry when he learns she's not going back to Vassar with one year left, is over the top, when she loses her job for an unfathomable offfense. Numb with grief, Olivia faces being without an income, apartment or boyfriend with huge self contempt and escapisim. She's a party girl adrift on temporary couches.

With nothing else to do, she helps her brother clean out her mother's things and comes across a mysterious photo of her mother with a letter signed by an unknown man.. She thought she knew her mother? Her world already rocked, Olivia goes on a quest to learn more. The trip will take her back to India, to the shallows and depths of her soul. And what emerges in the end is knowledge bigger than herself and a new sense of being whole.

Olivia's passage is moving and shocking and unpredictable, as the life she's reclaiming. Nothing works out, because in the end, nothing is expected until she discovers what is true and matters. She's a great character and her coming of age happens on a couple levels. Her mother's passage underlies this journey.  Recommended.


Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Torn Page's HAMLET, alive and tribal in an intimate setting. Access Theatre, June 2nd & 9th

There's been a fashion of  professional theater performed in apartments but until this HAMLET, I hadn't experienced this. A real surprise  how unexpectedly alive and vital this production was in an
intimate chair-filled livingroom where actors and spectators were on the same level. This wasn't experimental as much as a classic restored to the bones of what's essentially a family play--dysfunctional to be sure but a moving discovery in this audacious show.

The lead (Melissa Nelson) is a young woman, who looked like a Danish boy yet within minutes commanded with a rational self-possession that trumped her torment. Despite the many cries of "Madness!" and her circumlocutions of language, you question that charge. Relentless as any prosecutor, Hamlet investigates her stepfather and mother, accused by her father's ghost.

Though you know the stages of her investigation, the process and outcome, this performance, rational and impassioned, is riveting. Also surprising is how, possessed by her mission, she slipped over
chairs to turn on music without a pause.

The rest of the cast is equally adept. Though the ostensible logic hinges on Hamlet's "madness," and denial of the crime of The King and his Queen and you know it's false, ( Khari Constantine) King Claudius was so personable, it was hard to believe him guilty. He also slipped into the role of the "Player King", undetected by me. (Gayle Staffanson) his lady Gertrude, was so sensual, pleasure seemed a natural right. It was horrifying to see her try to manipulate her son back to "normalcy."

Laertes, the much wronged brother of Ophelia and son of Polonius, is played convincingly by another young woman (Kiran Rhe). Noble and manly in a decent way, you a feel loss, that he's a victim of  Hamlet's one "Mad" act in this play. (Bruce Barton) Polonious was perfectly matched in both dignity and foolishness, as was (Gigi Coovrey, also the Player Queen), his daughter's sensitive but not neurotic Ophelia.

(Andrew Gonzales) Hamlet's only genuine friend, is steadfast, seeing through subterfuges of the spies around his Prince, such as Nicholas Cocks' Guilderstern, who's a less than guileless betrayer. He and Rosencrantz make a contrasting pair.

Last and most surprising is (Vincent Santvoord) the Gravedigger, whose language is a knowing counterpart to that of Hamlet. The Prince well understand's this "fool"s  barbed double meanings. The two are most alike in this play. The Prince's fateful truth and the Gravedigger's humor are two sides of the same question.  Santvoord's words challenging the Prince and the reality underlying all human deeds, heroic and otherwise, is completely entertaining.

In the intimate setting of this show, sounds underscored tribal feelings. Drums, didgeridoos and voices, alternated or exclamations,evoked some medieval hall with a lot of spilled mead as the saga unfolded. The production was adapted and directed by Matthew Gasda.

I saw May 20th weekend but Torn Page will again offer HAMLET June 2 & 9 at Access Theatre.
380 Broadway.


Friday, May 11, 2018

Meet Jex Blackwell, a gritty teenage post punk heroine with a genius for medicine by P. William Grimm

Jex Blackwell Saves the World (Pelekinesis, May) by P. William Grimm was both refreshing and a complete surprise. Grimm an American writer and fillmaker, has written novels and short story collections--The Seventh and Counselor, Valencia Street and Sick Sense of Hubris.
He 's published in lit blogs, like Eclectica Magazine and HTML Giant. His influences are Kurt Vonnegut, Joan Didion, Charles Bukowski, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett. So he likes the truth, outrageous or otherwise, and a mystery with soul and style.

Grimm's final inspiration is  Encyclopedia Brown, a series of kid's books about a boy genius. Grimm thinks of Jex Blackwell as a "Dadaesque homage" to that series. So this is kind of an adult YA mystery, written like an underground graphic novel with a heroine (not unlike orphaned Anne of Green Gables or headstrong Jo in Little Women). Jex is aware of her potential and completely invents herself at aged 16. She wants to do good in the world, while she can't resist the siren song of unfettered adventure (Tom Sawyer anyone? Substitute the black top roads of L.A. for the River).

Jex's turf is underground culture, especially the music scene of  Los Angeles. Here's a description, "Tonight the best band in the world is a Macedonian anarchist punk collective, banging away in a sweaty, sultry basement somewhere in the middle of Echo Park. There is no stage and so the band is eye level with the crowd, which consists of maybe two dozen people. All four band members are consumed with their music,the guitarist particularly animated, dancing up and down with abandon. The female singer twists and turns with the music, wrapping the microphone cord around her body like a cocoon, yelping loudly in Macedonian over the chug of the rhythm section, bass and drums."

And where does this scene take us? To Jess diagnosing a sick musician who faints and helping him  to recover. As her sidekick tells someone "Jex is a total bad ass. She can figure out what's wrong with anyone. And I mean anyone. I have seen the craziest shit and Jex is just cool as balls and totally figures it out-like out of nowhere. She's punk Sherlock Holmes for sure, but for, like, medicine."

In her gritty environment, Jex navigates with zen cool and just when you may think this is  predictable urban territory--drugs, squats-- the story shifts to a baby in trouble and how Jex quickly figures out the problem and aid. It's not just the story that's unexpected but the girl. Jex is  a person of complex contradictions even for a teen. She's sophisticated but pure, completely practical with superb timing, yet impulsive and artsy. Jex cares about no one and everyone. She sees through people and wants to save everyone. And you believe she might--if she grows up.

Jex Blackwell Saves the World is an inspiring book. While teens may like it because she inhabits the "outsider" world of a kid without parents or school, they may admire her real ambitions and how she works to change her world. Parents may sneak it out of their room for Grimm's gift at spinning outre atmospheres and truthful emotion--all too reminescent of youth.

When in fiction has there been a girl this independent--this heroic? Jex does what she wills and takes responsibility--while trying to suss out the big picture. If she saves herself from all the wayward temptations of a footloose punk, she could do anything--even rescue and heal our planet.

Recommended for the fun of it.


Monday, May 7, 2018

Katrinka Moore's WAYFARERS narrates the journeys of nomads on an Earth where people are passing through.

I don't read a lot of poetry but every time I read Katrinka Moore's work, I am not reading words on paper, I am seeing images; fleeting, miniscule, delicate, vanishing. A former dancer and choreographer, before turning to poetry, Moore's poems are constructed with subtle nuances and sudden gestures, wild movements and still forms that mirror the natural world.

Her book Numia about a wild girl in forestlands had the shock of discovery as we, like Numia, are part of nature's beauty, terror, joy in a place that hasn't a human touch. In Wayfarers (Pelekinesis, April) nomads pass through barely habitated terrain--where their purpose leads. Some seek escape, others look for a place to stay the night or just pass through. Regardless, they find beauty, danger, the eternal, or what defies human understandings. These poems are about the terrain or traces of humans among other mysteries. Evocative illustrations with text.

The book is divided into three sections: I The Rolling World, II A Crossing, III Dwelling.  Favorites   from each:

Part I

Before they leave
the woodlands she cuts a forked
stick, witch hazel

ties it to her pack.
Now on the high plains she takes
it out, holds

a prong in each hand
paces, waits for the vertex lightning-
like to dip or twist--

pools of water
inside the earth, silent
as ice.

Part 2


Her mother left behind, the
river. A thousand miles
of dusty road. A crow
blocks the way, eating
carrion.  They pull around,
crush a prickley pear. She
knows to throw spilled salt,
knock on wood, but how
to stave off this dark sign?

Empty space left ajar, slive
in the margins.

Part 3


water waves mute   sound waves and
she drifts through     silent sun rays
refracted, misty   her hair unspools
slow-flapping     wings

light body buoys skyward     gravity
draws bottomward   she hovers   floats
in mote-filled quiet     going nowhere

yields  kicks  rises   breathes
awash in the air  she listens


Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Royal romance in real life and genre fiction. AMERICAN PRINCESS meets ITS HARD OUT THERE FOR A DUKE & THE DUKE'S DAUGHTERS

I am  not exactly a royal watcher, though I grew up with Elizabeth Captive Princess: Two sisters one throne. I was 14 and so was she as the book opened. Ialso had a difficult older sister.  But Elizabeth I's angst wasn't just about wanting freedom. She wanted to stay alive. Her half-sister, Mary Tudor, who had ascended the throne, was jealous. Though Liz's mother was beheaded by Henry VIII, branded a whore and witch, the young princess's beauty and lively personality, meant she was a threat to the ailing "Bloody Mary." Young Liz was shut up in the tower, lost her first boyfriend to the ax, and had to deal with treacherous advisors--far worse than interfering parents.

I remain interested in how being a royal can make your life better or worse. How does a royal have a personal life, when all actions are scrutinized by Buckingham Palace (the firm as Harry calls it) and the media? What happens when one's actions create official mayhem? Is there any slack in a system, where you can't truly quit or be fired, though there is severance.  Edward VIII and Fergie still show up in media and he's long gone.

American Princess: The Love Story of Meghan Markle and Prince Harrry (William Morrow) by Leslie Carroll, author of Royal Romances, is both a wedding prequel and a biography of a royal romance. Because the British monarchy is a family business, the book shows what each partner brings to the table. It's love as a very critical business transaction. It also investigates why this particular marriage is making history. The obvious facts are that Markle's a biracial American divorcee, who's a successful actress. With all that going against tradition, why has she been embraced by the Queen?  Could it be the monarchy has learned from past mistakes?

Harry's father, Prince Charles, was unable to marry his lady love, Camilla Parker Bowles, because she was divorced and not a virgin. But for decades they carried on an officially ignored adultrous affair. Charles' Aunt Margaret was unable to marry her beloved Townsend, a divorced officer who had served the Royal family. His great Uncle Edward had to abdicate the throne to marry Wallis Simpson, an American divorcee. There is also the actress factor. Once considered equivalent to prostitutes and inappropriate for mistresses, let alone a Royal wife, yet one of Harry's forebears had an actress mistress who bore him ten children before she was discarded. Clearly, love outside the royal system has been costly for "the firm," mostly in prestige and credibility as the example of impeccable British character.

Queen Elizabth II, now in her nineties, simply liked Markle when they met and wanted her grandson to be happy, according to Leslie Carroll.  The Queen broke protocul and, though Markle was not yet married, invited her to partake in palace Christmas festivities. Whatever reason for the shift, it's a welcome diversion after the publicly dysfunctional marriage of Diana and Charles, before her tragic death. This past weighed heavily on Diana's sons, who were not allowed to publicly show grief. Harry the youngest, seemed the most affected; barely passing school, carrying on with girls and liquor ( falling down drunk) until he discovered his purpose in the military. He has also found satisfaction in continuing Diana's charities.

The general rule is the more removed a royal is from succession, the more freedom is allowed. With Elizabeth II's succession and children, Princess Margaret was allowed to wed a racy photographer and become a pop culture icon. As the heir, William's life was laid out for him and though, he did marry a commoner, she has provided an heir and been well-liked. Harry can now be the "interesting" royal. Yet it was rare in his circles to find a woman comfortable in the public eye.

Meghan has the poise of a professional actress, better yet, she's giving up acting to dedicate herself to causes they can further together. She brings Hollywood glamor, American pragmatism and 21st century multiculturalism- a perfect royal ambassador. And she wants the platform. An educated self possessed personality, Meghan understands the opportunity and is willing to do the trade-offs. This is  Carroll's bright assessment, along with her praise for Meghan's clothes and details of the racy wedding dress she'll probably select.

The royal event should be fun.  I may watch selectively and hope Harry will stay a "wild card" after his marriage. In American Princess earnestness and idealism is trumpeted in this union. But Harry's  public narrative was one of sin and repentence,before he matured to become a brave soldier set on Afghanistan, curious about people and places. He's said to have Diana's "common touch." He has a special interest in Africa. Apparently he and Meghan courted in a tent in Africa--a chance to get to know each other without other people. Now that is real-life romance.

Romance novels, "bodice-rippers" are a genre I'm ambivalent about. It's kind of soft core porn for women, who are conditioned to well worn narratives of romance. I am a sucker for romance but like it without the formula--great looking heroine and hero, difficulty that keeps them apart. They love thwarted and work mightily to overcome the obstacle and enjoy a well earned erotic fulfillment-- with a lifetime of marital bliss.  Juxtapose thisgeneric female wish fulfillment with that of male porn fantasies and you can understand the cultural disconnect about what's romantic, between men and women.

Then think of Meghan and Harry in that tent, newly acquainted with each other. Meghan was thinking of exit strategies, in case it was awful. Both had  the courage to go to an isolated place and see if they liked each other. Loved that. Real life.

Maya Rodale's It's Hard Out Here for a Duke is real within the genre. I read her Lady Claire is All That and thought it might be good on PBS' masterpiece, if they would do the steamy parts. These are Regency romances, great costume and dialogue that manages to sound authentic and be humorous for our time. In this series Keeping up with the Cavendishes there are stories about three sisters and a brother who leave America and their horse farm for England, after they suddenly learn their father was a Duke.  James, the brother, is expected to become the new Duke, subject to the rules of the Haute Ton of British society.

In Lady Claire, the focus is on the oldest sister, a gifted mathematician, uninterested in marriage, clothes, and the norms of high society her aunt is pushing. Yet her genius leads her to colleagues, an intellectual world unavailable in America at that time, and naturally a romance not of equals but opposites. It is also  formula but not as predictable in the reversal of beauty and brawn to opposite genders. It is fun as is the prequel It's Hard Out There for a Duke, the story of the brother journeying with his sisters. He finds love incognito and then, ironically, must fight for it with his new title. This book is more predictable in plot, but fun and the steamy parts are engaging.

The Duke's Daughters by Megan Frampton trods much the same territory, the attraction, the slow burn, as it cannot be fulfilled (here because the gorgeous young man is a "bastard"), then the abandonment to love. The erotic nuances are on time and earned, for those who identify with the  well-born young lady with altruism and "heart." I found Olivia not so appealing, because she's a bit like Regency Barbie. The author believes she has advanced beyond the concerns for clothes and dances, that occupy other young women because she realizes there are a world of people who are poor and can use her help. Olivia, who often  assumes her reactions and goals are shared by others, seemed less adorable than self-absorbed (shall we hint at narcissistic?).

The author mocks her gently when others find her tedious or wrong-headed but somehow she's forgiven "for being like her mother" and triumphs because she's passionate, "beautiful and kind."
I finished and got the erotic pay-off but had to ignore the heroine's boring idiocy. The "bastard' was less predictable and seemed emotionally more real. I thought he could have done better.

I recommend American Princess, if you want to know more than the headlines about Meghan and Harry. But there are no juicy reveals, like "The Crown" series. And Maya Rodale's Cavendish series seems fun (I only read two), if you like wit with the romance genre. If you are reading for erotic release, both fictional romances deliver. The real-life one is private, not for public consumption. But there is enough factual information a true royal watcher can imagine.


Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Why did Eagle Scout Charles Whitman become a mass murderer? MASS exposes patriarchy & the hidden codes of violence in America

MASS: A Sniper, a Father, and a Priest by Jo Scott-Coe (April 4, Pelekinesis)

With the disturbing acceleration of mass murder shootings, it's easy to forget the first big one. On August 1, 1966, Charles Whitman, after slaying his wife and mother, climbed the clock tower at UT Austin and shot about 50 people, including the fetus of a pregnant woman. His was the first televised mass shooting and "domestic terror" spectacle in American history.

Twisted, mentally ill, yet, as author Jo Scott-Coe shows in MASS: A Sniper, a Father, and a Priest, mass murderers don't develop in a vacuum. In this deeply researched nonfiction, she traces Whitman's path from his childhood with a violent authoritarian father, brutalized mother, and two younger siblings, also struggling to survive. In this "all American" family the father had a plumbing business, the mother did the accounts and catered to his many edicts, while trying to raise their children to become decent people. As a devout Catholic, that also meant regular attendance at Mass and reverence for those that served God.   

Charlie was expected to adhere to his father's tyrannical (and often arbitrary) rules--or else. Beatings were a common fact of his and his mother's life. At nine, Charlie became an altar boy, a respite from the highly structured and violent household filled with guns. There's even an infamous photo of toddler Charlie at the beach, supported by two guns planted in the sand. High school classmates remembered his frequent welts and bruises. The mother was treated by the family doctor for "abuse related' bruising. Of course neighbors witnessed events--screaming, sons being hurt. Any local priests who counselled the mother would have had no vocabulary of "domestic abuse." And in the social ethic of the 1950s-60s, in Florida,  no one interfered with a father's rights to keep his family on a leash, though many thought it too tight.

There was also the Church culture of the time. Priests were 
assigned to parishes as needed. Anonymous in the confession, they were somewhat interchangeable to their flocks, who did not know the length of assignments. Priests were often careerists with a "calling," wanting to do a good job and rise to a better post. There were also priests, who wanted a refuge. The priesthood offered  a livelihood, an insular but collegial world and, if homosexual, protection from prosecution. A troubled priest, one who posed difficulty for the Church, was easily transferred elsewhere with few notes as to the reason. While Charlie's father had no particular religion, he allowed participation in the Church, the place, where young Charlie Whitman first met a priest named Gilles Leduc.

Leduc, like Graham Greene's "whiskey priest," was a strange, deeply flawed man. Small and homely, genial yet apart, Leduc was transferred frequently by his superiors for largely unexplained  reasons. In this book, where clues are like pieces of a jig saw puzzle, Scott-Coe, discovers that Leduc, an inoffensive man who kept to himself, managed to navigate the system and do what he liked. He was a  heavy drinker, who mostly hid its effects, and he liked to make himself popular with his young charges. Charles Whitman, who was his alter boy, was also in the scouting program Leduc helped to lead at the church. At 12, Whitman became the youngest ever to attain the status of Eagle Scout. As an adult, Leduc also went through an adult ceremony for that award.

The time-lines of both men continued to intersect in disturbing ways. Leduc's trajectory goes from parish to parish in various states, after dubious financial transactions, a party house in Texas, a fancy car, drinking frat style parties more akin to playboy than priest. Though Leduc's career was downhill, transferred to posts of always lesser status, reasons are few and he appears in good standing with the church. Some kind of protection must have existed, reasons Scott-Coe, because his outrageous behavior, often hiding  his "calling,"was not openly recorded. Questions abound about the money for his lifestyle and his appeal to younger men, who found him a fun "anything goes" kind of guy..  

Whitman, smart and handsome, was alternately a hardworking and indifferent student. He escapes his father for the marines, where he learns to be a sharpshooter.  But he didn't particularly like the culture and was happy to win a scholarship and become a college boy. Somehow during that time, he resumed his connection with Leduc, meets his future wife (a Non-Catholic) and he loses his scholarship  and returns to the marines. After a court martial and discharge take him back to Texas, an internship post at NASA proves to be fairly close to Leduc's party house and you wonder, since his life begins to unravel, what kind of influence this second "Father" had over Whitman.

There is also the fact that Leduc presided over Whitman's very hasty marriage. Why the haste?  There is a letter to his fiancee, joking that he hopes he's not a homosexual. There's also the fateful connection between Whitman's mass murders, just after Leduc's posting to Alaska.  The FBI interviewed the priest but learned little. There was not much record of a relationship beyond the family parish, church scouting, and the wedding. But when Scott-Coe's facts mount up, the huge puzzle comes into focus and other questions become inevitable.

How was the impressionable young boy, seeking an alternative from his brutal father, influenced by the priest who hid his drinking from his Superiors, until he couldn't--loved to party, drive a fancy car,  and wear unpriestly loud shirts?  This Father knew how to game the system, ignore the rules. What's tantalizing are the implications of the  relationship. Leduc had an arsenal of guns in his party house, yet officially downplayed ownership. Whitman's Catholic faith wavered after he re-established contact with Leduc. He also got into trouble in the Marines for loan sharking, in scams reminiscent of Leduc's own. The two seem bonded by toxic permissiveness.

In MASS,  the most shocking revelation is how Whitman, in his madness perverted "God the Father" so  mass murder was a kind of redemption. In a rambling letter, he talks of murders with a knife of his sacrificial lambs, his mother and wife--each in her own house. (His mother had finally separated from his father.) Whitman had saved both from their "pain." In his mind, the Deity and his own father appeared to have merged. Then, from the Tower, guns were the ritual objects of his horrific "mass" homage to his father, "The Father," Patriarchy,  which had caused such  suffering. Whitman took on this mantle, at once God and the long suffering son in a horrifying ritual. 
 Death was the salvation he offered and desired. 

Most gun debates refer to the mental illness of mass murderers, as though it's isolated in the individuals, instead of a result of the family and society in which they developed. Not since Don DeLillo's Libra has a book looked at assassination with such depth, making profound conjecture from the known facts. In Libra, DeLillo is the poet of factual information with leaps of insight that ring true. Jo Scott-Coe traces  Nemisis--the agent of the inevitable tragedy-- from Leduc to all who contributed to the insanity of an American Mass murderer. 

Then there's the collective culprit, an America that madly still equates ubiquitous guns with white male privilege. It is a fact that the framers of the 2nd Amendment, meant to legitimize weapons for frontiersman fighting the British. Those frontiersmen were in a war for equality with patriarchy's privilege--the Crown. Would they have recognized the rhetoric of the NRA? 

This is a strong and important book. Jo Scot-Coe's MASS shows how Americans, who see mass murder as a phenomenon centered on deranged individuals, ignore the tragedy of  the violence underlying our homes and institutions. Tacitly or not, the right to kill is condoned by that experience. 


Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Regeneration Theatre's AS IS, tranformative love during NYC's AIDS epidemic

William M. Hoffman's 1985 play AS IS, which won a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play and an Obie for Playwriting, uniquely personalized the AIDS crisis. Regeneration Theatre's revival movingly reminds us how acutely personal "political" can be.

Imagine what it would be like in our politicized time if members of an "outsider" group were getting sick and dying from an unknown virus?  Even this winter of 2018, no one is talking about the fact people are dying from flus not covered in shots--a strange and scary development. So what was it like in New York, when AIDS began sickening young gay men? Everyone knew or worked with someone. But no one openly talked  about it, until the "Gay Plague" grew to encompass so many people it could not be ignored. Intolerance grew with the public's fears.

Disclosing you had been diagnosed with HIV virus was akin to a leper ringing a bell. People did not literally bolt doors and throw rocks, but the stigma was huge. Sickness meant lost jobs and medical care, housing, and often family. The Calvinist streak in the American character justified discrimination,"Gays are perverts and deserve it." "They brought it on themselves." No one wanted to work or live with  a person with AIDS. Such attitudes were common, even when babies were born with HIV.

AS IS focuses less on the ostracism and political fight for medical treatment than extraordinary love and friendship amid the crisis. The main characters, Rich (Brian Alford) and Saul (Robert Maisonette) are at the end of a long-term relationship when AS IS opens. But when Saul learns Rich has the virus, he asks him to stay. Despite Rich's affair, Saul's committment is intact. Like any good marriage, behind the habit,  is humor, understanding and love. Rich's a charming idiosyncratic writer/poet. Saul, a funny photographer, earthy and direct. They had shared meals and comfortable sex, a Paul Cadmus painting and a circle of friends. Separately, Rich's illness had cost him his job and medical coverage. With savings spent on medical bills and no rent, Saul, the practical mainstay, would make life work. 

Why had they ever separated?   A real strength of Regeneration's production is how it recreates the post Stonewall world of quick pick-ups, ephemeral romance and gritty sex. Adventurous, exploratory, ecstatic, or perverse, AS IS shows how a group that came of age hiding "forbidden" sexual longings, went wild in the open gay bars, clubs, trysting places--where freedom was an aphrodisiac. Pat (Rick Calvo), Barney (Mario Claudio), and Chet (Daniel Colon), in clever staging, make these temptations human and palpable.

For Saul and Rich, this freedom is not regretted but fond memories of youth and erotic discovery mostly over once they found each other. Rich's dalliance and Saul's pain disappear in the daily crisis they manage--sometimes well or not. Saul's emotional strength is heroic, yet as Rich's disease progresses,  he also succumbs to desperation. Then something transformative occurs beyond the "Acceptance phase" mirrored in their support group. There's a kind of grace in these men.

Though the world seemed against AIDS victims, AS IS shows how people helped each other, lovers, friends and complete strangers. There's the AIDS hotline where Pat and Barney, patiently answer frightened callers and talk of changed lives. Volunteers were crucial in the crisis, as they are in AS IS.
The play is framed by a Hospice Worker played by the luminous Jenne Vath, who goes from would-be saint to atheist angry at God. Hers is a fierce and brilliant mercy.

Also notable is Colin Chapin, as a hapless but sincere brother and Aury Krebs' compassionate friend. Sara Minisquero did affecting character work, as a silent business partner in a hard trade bar and a voluble wife infected with AIDS along with her unborn child.

The director of this play, Marcus Gualberto, made this material fresh in a time, where health care, as a human right is questioned, along with compassion for the sick. In AS IS human dignity is a reality worthy of respect.  A triumph of this play is to make the lives well-lived the significant story. Having experienced this time myself, as the friend who served as family, I was greatly moved by the kindness and accuracy of this production.

(Below Brian Alford and Sara Minisquero)B


Friday, February 2, 2018

Imperfect Love, a serious comedy, basis of 1998 film Illuminata, perfect for 2018's sea change of real vs. fake

Imperfect Love by Brandon Cole was the basis of Illuminata, a 1998 film he cowrote with John Turtorro and, in an unusual quirk of fate, the play first made into a film is now at the Connelly Theater in New York (thru February 18th.). I found it unexpectedly timely for 2018, though it first appears a period piece.

We currently ride a wave of social and technological change, where the old verities, values and attitudes have suddenly become suspect, called to question, even irrelevant.  In Imperfect Love, the 19th century verities about love, the roles of men and women, class and status were celebrated in a mythic theater driven by tumultuous passion and poetry. As Imperfect Love begins, the old plays have lost ground to the  new nordic realism of Ibsen and Strindberg. Plays of the mind, psychologically driven, are replacing the "elevated"emotion of the Italians.

This clever play surfs the wave, shifting from mythic reality to our modern psychological age. Imperfect Love opens with the "set" pieces of the era, the prima donna Eleonora Della Rosa, (modelled on Eleanora Duse), her long-term lover, poet/playwright Gabrielle Torrisi (based on D'Annunzio and played by Rodrigo LoPresti)), a commanding leading man and two contrasting clowns--one a provocative firebrand, the other a sensitive devoted to the leading lady. All play against a sumptuously painted mural of a theater in Rome.

What opens as a comedy from a different time evolves another dimension. The "gods" of this set-up are the offstage producers with the power to open or close the play. The dilemma is the playwright and actress' long term affair and the play he's written for her. The complicated actress played with high tragicomedy by Cristina Spina, is her own mythic creation. Actress, woman, lover, she supposedly seeks a life of emotional/spiritual resonance from art, yet she's also an ambitious careerist. Her drives are the fulcrum of the play.

Yet they are in comic concert with Gabriele Torrisi's tortured playwright, full of position and found wanting by all--personally and professionally. Genius or has-been, faithful lover or betrayer (with no less than the mythic Sara Bernhardt)? Rosetti, Byron might understand the function of his lines, stepping stones for his lady's emotions, as he interprets their divine passion.

Reality and confusion are choreographed by the two clowns. Are these buffoons writing Rosa's lines, filling-in for the playwright, or not? You're never sure. The play is everything and their family, but also their bread and butter, And is Rosa, like any worthwhile muse, actually giving (not just inspiring) her lover the lines? This may be a last stand for the mythic theater of love, but  the buffoons put us in existential Beckett country with their hilarious machinations.

Is the show being cancelled? Have the ciritcs killed it, is the playwright no good, about to run off to Paris? Will Rosa dump all for Ibsen? Do the owners exist? On the cusp of a sea-change, all are revealed as careerists with real ambitions, ruthlessness in a world of Imperfect Love. The clown Marco is played by Ed Malone and Beppo, by David O'Hara. They are incidentals completely pertinent in our world of Fake vs Real News. Smart of Michael Di Jiacomo, director to delineate the boundaries.  My congrats to Brandon Cole for this play making it to the stage at this time.