In delighted receipt today of the complete box set of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, recently released a mere four and a half decades after it aired. I’ve placed it underneath my framed copy of the Rolling Stone cover (March 26, 1976) featuring star Louise Lasser, which I’ve carted around to at least 15 homes since then. 38 discs! 325 episodes! Plus 10 complete programs of Fernwood 2 Night!
If you were around for the original broadcast — way too weird for network, it began in syndication — MHMH is a scenic tour of the cultural trash fire of these United States. The show was hugely popular in its time, also a source of anxiety for viewers since, as a twisted soap, it broadcast five nights a week, and in those days the episodes were on and gone. (Woman I heard leaving a major Broadway revival: “God, I wish we’d seen Mary Hartman instead.”) It’s a very strange series: funny as hell but in a queasy, hypnotic sort of way. To see a thought entering Louise Lasser’s mind is an experience in itself. In that blank hang time before something registers — that her grandfather is the Fernwood Flasher, for instance — you can see her foreknowledge that whatever it is, it’ll be a bummer; she’ll have to cope with it; and when she’s done coping with it, everything will be worse than before. Every now and then the whole show has that feel, as if it’s lifting off like a trash bag in the breeze.
Wonderful stuff. 325 episodes. Right now it’s the next best thing to a vaccine.
The other day I ran across one of my old reporter’s notebooks. In it I found raw notes on a subject I’d long forgotten: the time I met a Buddhist who was working for Donald Trump. This was way back around 1990 when he was bringing his magic touch to the Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City. I was in town on another story, wandered inside and discovered that in preparation for opening, the decoration of the “Seventeen Acres of Pure Pleasure” had fallen to Pema Wangyal, a painter of sacred Buddhist imagery. He came from Tibet.
“This is Brahma!” he cried, pointing at a floating emperor with four faces and four arms who was riding a flying goose in the Buffet Room. “A very magical Hindu god!”
Wangyal, I recall, had a thick ponytail and a super-mellow attitude. He was calm even when he was hollering, which he had to do a fair amount amid all the hammering and hubbub. Even though the room was a mess, his murals were almost finished. The artist pointed out panels of sloe-eyed kings, lovers, ministers, hawks, pelicans (“a symbol of fertility”) and more. They were replications, he explained, of 16th and 17th century designs of the Raiput, or southern Indian, style…
I asked if he was surprised to find himself working in a casino.
Having once meditated for five months on the interdependence of cause and effect, he said, very little surprised him. “Besides, I visualize everything as not strange. I visualize it as beautiful. Transform everything into heaven: that’s Buddhist teaching. If I say ugly, ugly, that’s going to bang in my mind. After two days, I’ll drop my brush and take off.”
A buzzsaw started up. Eeeennnnnhh. “You hear that?” he asked unnecessarily. “I visualize that as a beautiful instrument.”
Half a dozen painters were at work in the Buffet Room and elsewhere around the Taj, but Wangyal was boss, the only Eastern artist on the project. To solve a recent squabble — everybody wanted to paint figures, not backgrounds — he had taken a turn doing spiraling vines and clusters of flowers. “That’s ok,” he said. “I bring no ego to this.”
In my hopelessly Western way I was finding it hard to believe that nothing about this scene bugged him. What about the delusional color scheme? What about the strobing acrylics he had to use? “Casino logic,” he said, and shrugged.
Wangyal said he’d been reared a Buddhist in a tiny, ice-crusted village near the Nepalese border. He specialized in Tibetan t’hanka, or scroll, paintings (“portable, good for nomads”). T’hankas, he explained, often depict scenes from the life of Buddha, or mandalas; the colors (outside of casinos) are created from ground-up minerals, including lapis lazuli, malachite, rubies and gold.
He baffled his relatives by leaving town in his late teens. Why the wanderlust? “Karma,” he said. Soon he was painting murals in Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu, at the monastery of the Swyambunath. Otherwise known as the Monkey Temple, it is famous for its hundreds of frisky baboons.
“The monkeys were my best friends,” he said. “There is a hole in the center of the temple, which sometimes would fill with rain. The monkeys would swim and splash. Leap from trees. It was so beautiful.”
Wangyal led the way out of the Buffet Room headed toward the elevator, chatting through a punishing fire alarm test — wheep wheep wheep — that had others standing with fists clamped to their ears. “Those monkeys would jump on people,” he said. “Especially Westerners.”
On the floor below was the coffee shop with more murals. There was a 17th century prostitute on horseback approaching a luminous palace and a prince in a gazebo being fanned by a slave. “He’s using a peacock feather,” said Wangyal. “Removes all negativity.”
I asked him what he’d do when this job ended. “Whatever God gives,” he said. Then for reasons I can’t remember he took me outside. Heading toward the exit, we passed the Oasis Pub, which he and other artists had also painted with traditional Indian filigree, this time in raspberry and blue to match the rug.
Standing with our backs to the ocean, we contemplated the Taj’s seventy domes and minarets (sixty-six more than its namesake). Wangyal pointed out the raucous candy striping on different domes, the expanses of pink.
Prompted by the Fosse/Verdon eight-parter, I’ve been following Chicago in its many manifestations backward into the past. Among my discoveries: Susan Misner, who plays Fosse’s pre-Gwen wife Joan McCracken (famous in her own day as “The Girl Who Fell Down”), and who previously played the long-suffering Sandra Beeman on The Americans, appeared in the movie version of Chicago as Merry Murderess #1: “You know how people have these little habits that get you down?….You pop that gum one more time….” She’s a sensational dancer:
For reasons that need not detain us I recently bought a South African cookbook published in 1891. Old cookbooks are the trippiest things this side of Doors of Perception. I remember seeing a first edition of The Joy of Cooking a few years ago which contained a recipe for something involving possum. It entailed keeping the main ingredient in a cage out back for a week while fattening it up. The past is another menu.
Anyway I thought I’d share a couple of entries from Hilda’s Where Is It? Of Recipes in case you’re tired of the same old Mediterranean salsa and would like to try something new. To be clear, I’m not saying they’re all silly. I’m sure some would be delicious, but sometimes the ingredients make my hair stand on end, and I’m not the target market for “A Pleasant Gruel.” Whopping great booze recipes however.
BLOATER TOAST: 1 teaspoon full of bloater paste, 1 teaspoon of anchovy sauce, 1 tablespoon of cream, 1 oz. of butter, a little cayenne — spread on toast. That’s just mysterious.
CURRY SOUP: Head and feet of sheep…. That’s as far as we’re going.
FOR HORSES SEIZED WITH VIOLENT SPASMS OR COLIC: 50 drops of Laudanum, 1/2 pint of whiskey, 50 drops of peppermint oil. This would never have gotten as far as my horse.
The touch of malicious joy I expected to feel about this news story didn’t materialize because the whole thing’s so depressing. Kosoko Jackson, who is black and gay, has been freelancing as a “sensitivity reader” at major publishing houses — which means, as you are no doubt aware, working as a member of the imagination police screening manuscripts for things that might trigger offense in any number of identity groups. In what Jennifer Senior in the NYT called a “karmic boomerang,” Jackson’s debut YA novel, A Place for Wolves, has incited the wrath of some of those very groups who’ve come at him like a torpedo of bees, to the point where he has asked to have the book withdrawn. He has presumably been sent somewhere for regrooving, after which I expect he’ll have a tough time writing a sentence for a long time to come.
It does no good to cite oh anyone, E.M. Forster, how we’d have to set fire to A Passage to India to satisfy the inquisitors re who gets to imagine what or whom. I’ll just invoke the cry of Arthur Wellesley, first Duke of Wellington in 1824, “Publish and be damned,” or I would except I’ve just discovered he was one of the architects of the Raj who wallowed in plunder…. Rats.
Herewith the cover of Writers’ Chronicle for Jan/Feb, slugged “A Room Without Men,” and my letter to the editor regarding it published in the Mar/April issue.
Dear Editor: I am appalled by your latest cover (“A Room Without Men”) featuring women painting out a man’s face. What about A Room Without Blacks? Or a Room Without Whites? If your cover showed the reverse — men painting out a woman’s face — your headquarters would be attacked. This kind of exclusionary, anti-male propaganda helps no one and makes a mockery of the ideals of diversity and community toward which we the enlightened are supposedly striving. Diversity — make that life — includes men, even white men. An irritating state of affairs, but there it is.
Like all old saws, the old saw that the past is another country isn’t always true as the convulsions in Virginia re blackface vividly remind us. It reminds me too of my own turn in blackface, which is how I broke into show business.
A minstrel show was our first-grade play so we all corked up. This was in rural Maryland in the 50s. I don’t remember much from that year. I remember the smell of mimeograph paper, and I remember a kid in the corner. He was sitting on a stool with a dunce cap on his head like a mule in the rain. (Okay, that past is another country. I hope.) Anyway, in an environment like that it’s not amazing how the teachers chose to showcase our cuteness. We performed a full slate of minstrel sketches of which I recall two in particular. One was the Tambo and Bones routine — one squirt piping to another, I swear to God, “Who was that lady I saw you with last night?” — and the other one a dance routine in which I participated.
I participated in two ways. First, I was given some kind of loose-limbed, jivey dance to do. Second, I was told I wasn’t good enough so they gave it to Billy Groff and I had to stand there clapping for him instead. It was one of those moments of searing humiliation a kid never forgets.
So that’s two shots of poison in one hypo. And they stay in your blood. They dilute and diminish over the years, but CSI could still find them.
Eons later, my kids’ fourth-grade play was a parable about environmental awareness. A wood-chopper in the rainforest fell asleep and the spirits of the forest appeared and fluttered and whispered to him and he woke up a changed man who would no longer chop down (yay!) trees. It was brutally boring. It also pissed me off. Elementary-school plays should be kids having a big old silly ball. I will brook no argument on this.
Miles better than a minstrel show, absolutely. Still…
Past and present: no and no. We need another another country.
A new book about the ad business, The Adman’s Dilemma, brings to light a cool attempt to monetize poetry far from the halls of Hallmark. In 1955 the Ford Motor Company was so flummoxed about what to name their fabulous new midsize model that Robert B. Young of the Marketing Research Department reached out to Marianne Moore, the iconic poet, for help. It was all balls of paper around the office, and the guys were wondering if she might have some ideas. For inspiration, Mr. Young wrote, “you might care to visit with us and muse with the new Wonder which is now in clay in our Advance Styling Studios….All we want is a colossal name (another ‘Thunderbird’ would be fine.”
Miss Moore said she’d give it a shot, which frankly makes me like her poetry better. Over the next few weeks they exchanged several letters — in which, to give him his due, Mr. Young’s literate and sprightly style outshone hers. But I’m taking too long to get to the names. Herewith a sample of her suggestions:
Ford Silver Sword
Triskelion (three legs running)
Pluma Piluma (hairfine, feather foot)
Andante con Moto (description of a good motor?)
Turcotinga (turquoise cotinga — the cotinga being a solid indigo South American finch or sparrow)
Tir a l’arc (bull’s eye)
Ford Faberge (that there is also a perfume Faberge seems to me to do no harm, for the allusion is to the original silversmith)
The Intelligent Whale
Hurricane Hirundo (swallow)
Hurricane Aquila (eagle)
Hurricane Accipter (hawk)
….43 in all.
Separate and last she sent in on December 8, 1955:
Mr. Young, May I submit UTOPIAN TURTLETOP? Do not trouble to answer unless you like it.
On December 23 Miss Moore received a bouquet of roses, eucalyptus and white pine with a note from Mr. Young:
Merry Christmas to our favorite Turtletopper.
December 26, her reply: Dear Mr. Young, An aspiring turtle is certain to glory in spiral eucalyptus, white pine straight from the forest, and innumerable scarlet roses almost too tall for close inspection. Of a temperament susceptible to shock though one may be, to be treated like royalty could not but induce sensations unprecedented august…..
Nearly a year went by. Then in November 1956 Miss Moore received a note from a Mr. David Wallace in Marketing telling her the company had, as we would say today, gone in a different direction:
“We have chosen a name out of the more than six thousand-odd candidates that we gathered. It has a certain ring to it. An air of gaiety and zest. At least, that’s what we keep saying. Our name, dear Miss Moore, is: Edsel.”
I’m fresh from seeing a very strange movie called Titanic. It is indeed another film about the sinking, the difference being that this one was made in 1942 under Hitler’s regime and all the characters speak German. The movie elevates English greed and bumbling to towering heights, and the lone voice of sanity is (totally fictional) First Officer Pederson, the only German on board, who practically begs the stupid owner and the stupid captain to slow down because if we hit an iceberg at this speed then oh the humanity. Production notes: the film was conceived and propelled by Goebbels despite the enormous costs as a great propaganda vehicle. Partway through the filming the director, Herbert Selpin, made some complaint about the regime so Goebbels had him killed. A new director came in to finish filming the traumatized cast. Finished at last! Time for the premiere! But by then the Allies were bombing Germany all up and down so Goebbels blocked its release on the theory that the public might be demoralized by a film full of death and panic when they were getting so much of it right outside.
But, to return to first principles, it’s watching characters like buffoon John Jacob Astor and his idiot countrymen freaking in German that stays with you. The sinking stuff (water pouring in etc.) is very well done.
Outstanding creative writing advice via Muriel Spark. This is the opening of her novel Finishing School:
“You begin,” he said, “by setting your scene. You have toseeyour scene, either in reality or in imagination. For instance, from here you can see across the lake. But on a day like this you can’t see across the lake, it’s too misty. You can’t see the other side.” Rowland took off his reading glasses to stare at his creative writing class whose parents’ money was being thus spent: two boys and three girls around sixteen to seventeen years of age, some more, some a little less. “So,” he said, “you must just write, when you set your scene, ‘the other side of the lake was hidden in mist.’ Or if you want to exercise imagination, on a day like today, you can write, ‘The other side of the lake was just visible.’ But as you aresettingthe scene, don’t make any emphasis as yet. It’s too soon, for instance, for you to write, ‘The other side of the lake was hidden in the fucking mist.’ That will come later. You are setting your scene. You don’t want to make a point as yet.”