I've been thinking a lot about the wonders of a great city recently. Not about the way they came about, the huge buildings making you feel like an ant among giants, the infrastructure needed to keep ten million people living and moving about it, nor the incredible influence that some people wield throughout the world from within it. It's about the ability to meet amazing people when you least expect it. That you can meet the son of James Agee at a party (true) or how you can sit in front of Nichols and May at a screening (I'll write about that one later) or just seeing the Bee Gees walk right by you on the street (that happened to Amy). So hopefully, this will be the first of a series of the joys of New York and some of the chance meetings we've had over our years living in or nearby the city. And pardon me if my memory fails me at times. I don't keep diaries and some of these events happened many years ago.
The first one that comes to mind was at a screening of a William Wyler series in early 1995. The Museum of Modern Art was projecting a few of his silent works that had been recently discovered and as such, needed a pianist for the film. Since he had performed scores for these films admirably a few months before in Pordenone (Le Giornate del Cinema Muto is an incredible yearly event devoted to silent films), MoMA brought Philip Carli down from Rochester to perform them again. As we were friends and there was to be a reception after the film, Philip invited me to the screening. The film was presented by Wyler's daughter Catherine (a great friend to cinema) and, to my excitement, the still-lovely Teresa Wright. Amy and I had just seen Hitchcock's SHADOW OF A DOUBT just a month or two before and it reminded me once again how this incredible actress had been the heart and soul of this (to my - and Hitchcock's - opinion, his best) film and still better, THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES. Her acting was effortless, it was always the character present on the screen and not the actress -- she seemed that her bags were always full. (It's Amy's and my reference to films where the acting and/or directing is so fake that it's the kind of movie where you can see that the suitcase of gold the character is carrying is obviously empty.) Ms. Wright told a funny story of working for Wyler (he seemed to have a sadistic streak) and she proved to be as charming and smart as her acting.
To my surprise (and consternation, since I like things to be familiar -- I'm not the greatest of social animals) the reception was not being held at MoMA, but it turned out to be a private party at Catherine Wyler's apartment in the sky around the corner from the museum. It was one of those modern, all-glass window apartment with magnificent views of the city. It was impeccably designed with beautiful modern art. I remember a neon sculpture of bright red lips. This might remind you of the great episode of TV's The Odd Couple, "Take My Furniture Please" (you can see it on YouTube) where Oscar refurnishes the apartment with two chairs shaped like a human hand, but you'd be wrong. It was really a lovely sculpture that fit the apartment.
The first thing I did when Philip and I arrived at the reception was to look around the room and then search for Teresa Wright. She was nowhere to be found to which I had mixed feelings. I was sorry I couldn't meet her but at the same time, what the hell was I going to say to this wonderful person that was going to be new or interesting. (Again, see above regarding social awkwardness, especially in those younger days.) So I talked to Philip for a while and then was there standing by my awkward self. A very nice, distinguished older man was also by himself and came up and introduced himself as Bob. We started talking about why I was there and he was interested on how I had become an accidental film archivist who was invited to a party by the pianist. After a short while, I got tired of talking about myself and asked what he did for a living. He said that he was a playwright and started telling me how he got started. He was in WWII in the military and while there, wrote a play that won a prize and he was on his way. He talked about those early days with some grace, and of course, I was wondering who was this man with such a great story. It was then that a mutual friend -- I believe it was Marie Nesthus from the New York Public Library's film division who knows everybody -- came up to us to say hello and said to me, "You must be a fan of Tea and Sympathy."
Well!... It took me a few seconds but I soon realized that "Bob" was Robert Anderson. He was indeed a fine playwright and at the age of nine I had seen the out-of-town tryout of "You Know I Can't Hear You When the Water's Running" at the Cape Ann Playhouse near where we vacationed. (Honestly, I can't remember much of that experience except I was delighted there was an operational shower on stage.) So, I pretended to be hip and cool and smart knowing all along who he was and told Marie, "Yes, I am!" So we three continued chatting like old friends when Bob turned to me and asked how I was finding the party.
I was enjoying their company so I told him that it was great being there but I was disappointed that I didn't get to meet Teresa Wright. Okay, there's many of you groaning loudly now. Everybody who knows theater or film knows that the two of them were married and by then divorced.... Except for me. I never really cared about such information. My expertise always ran towards cinematography, editors, and film stocks. Reading about stars was so... so... well everybody else did that. So honestly, I didn't know.
Then, Bob told me that he and Teresa came together and she was in the kitchen absolutely starving because no one had bothered taking her to dinner during the film. (Maybe she had wanted to see that rare Wyler film, but I was never certain on those facts.) He took me by the arm and said, "Let's go say hi." I quickly went over to my friend Philip and told him to follow me. He asked why, and I replied. "No time for questions. Just follow!"
At some point -- perhaps even later -- Marie told me that Bob and Teresa had been married but that their "divorce was made in heaven." They were truly great friends and remained so until her death.
So we went into the kitchen and here’s where my memory fails me. I remember her sitting on the floor when I entered but there had to have been chairs in the kitchen. I mean, really... why would she have been sitting on the floor?
I do remember that she had rummaged through her friend Catherine Wyler's fridge and found some cold chicken. She was happily eating away so I felt I was somehow disturbing her, but Bob quickly introduced me as a new friend and Philip as my friend.
Here's where you're going to hate me. I should be telling you about the incredible stories she had about Hitchcock or how she first met Bob, or how...
Sorry, that's not the case. We talked about how hungry she was. How she found the chicken in the fridge, and then what we thought of the movie that night. It was a wonderfully normal conversation.
I can say, that having met a few stars, that there's a reason why the cream rises to the top. Even in her 70s, she was still a beautiful, magnetic woman. Just as charming as you would expect.
All too soon, Bob told Teresa it was getting late and they had to leave. They said their goodbyes and soon departed. Philip and I remained at the party a while longer, but then I left to go back home and tell Amy about my wonderful experience.
Bob and Teresa and I didn't remain friends forever. That's not how things happen, at least for me. I never even saw them again. I had my own life and they had theirs. But when Teresa died in 2005 and Bob died in 2009, I did have left that memory of a wonderful evening in New York City.
And now, perhaps I can ask my best friend and partner, Amy, to write about the first time we met Fay Wray! Or perhaps Nancy Gerstman.
Really lovely piece, Dennis. And rings so true: I can’t tell you of how many people’s stories I laughed at and then couldn’t remember afterwards…. particularly at NYC parties! But you did remind me of a very beautiful early girlfriend, who, if I recall correctly, was Robert Anderson’s niece, the daughter of his brother, who acted as his agent. We were at university together, and I dated her for quite a while. Very fond memories. All best to you and to Amy.