UNITED STATES—When I meet an idol back stage it is seldom easy to convey all their work has meant through the eons, how it has filtered through and shaped my life. It happened to me last week in Beverly Hills where Dick Cavett was playing himself in “Hellman v. McCarthy.” All through high school I used to have lunch with Dick Cavett and his remarkable guests on PBS, thanks to cable TV in rural California.
He had a role in getting me to New York, no doubt. Once there, following the example of how Cavett, as a college student, met Groucho Marx after the funeral of playwright George S. Kaufman led me directly to Orson Welles and, to this day, has enabled me to drop an ungodly number of names.
I was a Freshman at Columbia College in New York, when I read about the death of L. Arnold Weissberger in The Times. The name rang a visceral bell. Weissberger was an entertainment lawyer and the person to whom fan mail for Orson was addressed. Since I had written Orson a letter while I was in high school saying, “How can I grow up to be you?” I sent it to Weissberger’s New York address. When Orson didn’t respond, I wrote the same letter again. A memorial service for Mr. Weissberger, whom I felt as if I knew intimately after mailing him two unanswered letters, was being held at a Broadway Theater, the Royale on W. 45th Street. I skipped Mr. Rosenberg’s Literature Humanities class to be there on a winter’s morning.
Photographers pressed against the mulberry velvet ropes in front of the box office and they snapped pictures of everyone entering, including me. Inside, cocktail music floated from a grand piano. From my seat, I gazed at a bare stage and in the center of the stage was a table with a black bowler and a vase with a single white carnation. (So Mr. Weissberger wore a bowler and a lapel carnation.)
Slowly and ceremoniously the celebrities filed in. There was Agnes De Mille, choreographer and sister of Cecil B. DeMille. Otto and Mrs. Preminger. Betty Comden and Adolf Green, the creative team who gave us “Singin’ in the Rain.” Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and Lauren Bacall. Here came Hermione Gingold, using a stylish cane and the arm of a handsome young man.
Most of the seats were occupied by coats of Russian lynx fur, and British flannel, and a rarified perfume filled the air. Forever unidentified to me were a rich and beautiful bronzed couple who might have just flown in from Aspen. There were others, perhaps once as rich and as beautiful and just as close to L. Arnold Weissberger, in threadbare overcoats and stooped by age. Did they come in to get out of the cold?
Onstage the eulogists solemnly entered and each sat in a row of chairs. Martha Graham, Ruth Gordon, Garson Kanin, Lillian Gish, a foreign-accented dramatic woman with a dramatic scarf to match, plus Orson Welles and Meryl Streep, fresh from “Kramer Vs. Kramer.” This was the order of performance; Streep was like the hot new kid on the celebrity block.
One by one, they spoke and I became convinced that L. Arnold Weissberger was one of the finest human being who had ever breathed and it brought a tear to my eye, even, though I’d never met the man. Now and then acknowledgement was made to his bereaved life partner, Milton, who sat an in the theater.
Orson shined, quoting the Bible and remembering when he first knew Arnold Weissberger during the times of Shakespeare in Harlem. When the rehearsals ended Mama Weissberger, Arnold’s mother, would bring homemade matzo ball soup to the theater.
When the memorial was over, there was a crush of people between the Royale’s box office and the curb. Orson was stepping out amid the crowd, looking rather helpless. I was itching to greet him and say what a fan I was (that’s what got Cavett a lunch invite with Groucho at the Plaza Hotel. (“I’m a big fan.” “If it gets any hotter, I could use a big fan… “ and they were off). I was only a couple feet away from the eminence of Orson clad in black. I saw my idol dip down between many heads crowded around.
“Mr. Welles, Mr. Welles…”
His head dipped down to be engulfed in a waiting limo. And I saw on the back of Orson, this god’s head, a bald patch very similar to the bald patch my own very mortal father had. That was a discovery I can thank Mr. Cavett for: unworthy of my idol and yet it’s a little piece of reality, like the fact that Walt Disney had a smoker’s cough or Che Guevara terrible B.O. after being in the jungle. These ungainly details can keep a God alive and real and help make one, beyond a mere dropper of names, a raconteur.
Humorist Grady Miller is the author of “Late Bloomer,” comic essays, available on Amazon