Tuesday, March 3rd, 2009
When Kipp Friedman was 16 years old, he moved with his recently divorced father, the novelist and playwright Bruce Jay Friedman. Here’s the second part of “Life With Father,” about Friedman’s year in the center of the late seventies arts scene in New York. You can read the first part here. —Elizabeth Minkel
One of my fondest memories of living with my father was the night we were invited to a Knicks game at Madison Square Garden with Peter Falk, who was at the height of his “Columbo” popularity at the time. We all rode in a limo together, and when we arrived at the Garden, people started noticing Falk and would begin shouting, “Hey, Columbo!” Falk rolled down his window and assumed his gruff TV detective voice, signing the occasional autograph. We sat along the center court, just below where the TV cameras broadcast the game, and marveled up close at the basketball wizardry of my childhood hero Walt “Clyde” Frazier and his equally gifted backcourt partner Earl “the Pearl” Monroe. After the game, we continued the party at Toots Shor.
No matter where we went, or whoever he introduced me to, my father taught me to never feel out of place or intimidated by people, no matter how famous they were. He said that if you truly admired someone’s—anyone’s—work, it was okay to go up and tell them so. I had a chance to do just this when I met Darren McGavin at a New Year’s Eve party. In retrospect, McGavin might have been humoring the 16-year-old who told him how much he admired his work, especially on “Kolchak: The Night Stalker,” but he seemed to respond with genuine appreciation.
I rarely received direct writing advice from my father, but the subject of writing—and a writers’ life—was unavoidable. Each room had bookshelves lined with fiction and nonfiction, and magazines and manuscripts were strewn about the apartment. He once told me that when Ernest Hemingway was asked the secret to becoming a successful writer, he responded that aspiring writers should begin at “first light,” preferably around 4 a.m. This was a clever ruse, my father said, designed to exhaust and frustrate an entire generation of potential competitors. This anecdote wound up in The Lonely Guy’s Book of Life, under the subhead “The Hemingway Legacy.” While I was working on an English paper for school, I remember asking him what he felt was the secret to good writing. He thought for a moment, and then answered: “Specificity” and “authenticity,” which made me think of the “The Graduate,” when young Benjamin Braddock is advised to go into “plastics.” Of course, my father was right (as was, it turned out, the advice about “plastics”), but I had hoped that he would be a little more descriptive.
On most days, my father would get up fairly early, eat breakfast, read the New York Times, and scan a few other newspapers and magazines before making his way upstairs to his office, where he would resume his work. With his door closed, I could hear him banging away on his old typewriter with machine-gun intensity. By late morning or early afternoon, he would come downstairs and start the second half of his day. Often he would go for a quick jog along the East River pathway that ran parallel to FDR Drive. For a time I went jogging with him, but he said he liked to use these moments to gather his thoughts and work out problems. After showering, he would emerge in a terrycloth bathrobe and typically pour himself a screwdriver, always pointing out the health benefits of the orange juice. At least once a week he would head uptown to Elaine’s to meet friends.
My father typically worked alone, although when he was writing a movie script he would commonly refer to the process as “committee work” because all the people, including actors, directors, and producers, would try to influence the script. While I was living with him, he began working on a screenplay with a writer named Arthur Birnkrant. Arthur had approached him in a deli a few years earlier, not long after my father’s novella, Our Lady of the Lockers, was published as a cover story in New York Magazine. He recognized my father from a drawing that accompanied the article, and over time he finally convinced him to collaborate on a screenplay.
From the start, it was obvious that this would be an awkward partnership. Arthur was a product of old-school Hollywood: short and scrappy, he had a large head atop his bantamweight frame. He was in his late sixties, and he taught screenwriting classes at the School of Visual Arts. He spoke in a slow, deliberate manner as if he were delivering a lecture and you were one of his students, which forced you to practically hang on his every word. Arthur began his career as a lawyer for trade unions in the thirties before heading off to Hollywood in the forties, where he would be blacklisted during the McCarthy era, effectively shutting him out of the film industry. My father’s story was about a gruesome crime in a health club perpetrated by a homicidal cross-dresser, and I could easily imagine Arthur stubbornly advocating to insert New Deal-era, socialist themes into the script.
Ultimately, their collaboration would not result in a film, but I became friends with Arthur and would occasionally visit him and his wife, Ruth, in their tidy, book-lined apartment on East 62nd street. The last time I saw Arthur was when I visited him at the sprawling Rusk Institute on 1st Avenue. He told me that he saw the screenplay he was working on with my father as a final chance at redemption from an industry that had turned its back on him. His body was now riddled with cancer, and he lay in bed hooked up to a series of IV tubes. In a faint voice, he said he had dreamt of himself as a boxer who was given a final shot at the title, and he came out swinging “like a tiger.” (Later, my father told me that Arthur had fought to include his boxing “like a tiger” vision in the screenplay as a metaphor for the struggle of the common man over life’s injustices.)
I recently rediscovered a college letter of recommendation that Arthur was kind enough to write on my behalf. In summing up my attributes, he wrote: “He is endlessly curious about life, especially our species…He is gritty, but not gaudily so. He is witty, but understates it.” He ended the letter with: “P.S. Lest the reader of this litany worry about saddling the school with a person of virtue, please rest assured that Kipp’s potential for mischief is unimpaired, and that he is as vulnerable and as subject to the ‘discontents of civilization’ as the next fellow.” Arthur was gritty and witty, too. And I wouldn’t be surprised if he had fought to include references to the “discontents of civilization” in the screenplay he was working on with my father. As a graduation present, Arthur had given me the complete works of William Shakespeare, which occupies a coveted position on my bookshelf.
During the late summer of 1977, I joined my father on a business trip to Martha’s Vineyard, where he would continue to work on the screenplay with Arthur. The Birnkrants were staying in a charming cottage linked to a rocky beach by a scenic, winding path overlooking Nantucket Sound. We stayed in a cottage nearby, and I would hit the beach while my father and Arthur continued to spar over their screenplay. After they were finished for the day, my father and I would explore the island, including the fishing village where scenes from “Jaws” were filmed, and the more commercial district of Edgartown. At night, we dined on fresh lobster and New England clam chowder. One morning, we were greeted outside our cottage by a distraught elderly lady in her bathrobe, informing us in a choked-up voice: “The King is dead.” That’s how we learned Elvis Presley had just passed away.
Martha’s Vineyard was renowned for its summer parties, with the titans of the entertainment and business industries who summered there, and sure enough, we were quickly invited to the kind of garden party one would find parodied in a New Yorker cartoon. There were rumors that Carly Simon, James Taylor, and Neil Young were on the island and might be in attendance. My father had a friend staying on the island—a niece of historian Barbara Tuchman—who had invited us to a late afternoon cocktail party given by her parents, but she had evidently forgotten to inform them that we were coming, a serious breach of etiquette. When she introduced us, we received an icy glare from her mother who, visibly upset, proceeded to browbeat her in front of us. (I remember my father’s bemused reaction, commenting that being a best-selling novelist just wasn’t good enough anymore.)
During the party, we struck up a conversation with a high-ranking Dartmouth faculty member who, when told I was starting to explore my college options, insisted that I apply to Dartmouth, personally guaranteeing my acceptance there. Balancing a drink in one hand, he took out a notepad and asked for my name and, although tempted, I politely declined. Later that evening, we ran into my father’s friend, still smarting from her mother’s earlier tongue lashing. Apparently fueled by too much alcohol, she had driven her convertible erratically across the grounds of her parents’ compound, accidentally slamming it into another vehicle, where it remained stranded by the side of the road. After spending some time trying to calm her down (I remember her tears had smeared eyeliner across her pretty face), she took us to a converted barn where my father’s friend William Styron was staying (my father wondering out loud if a Pulitzer Prize-winning author was also deemed unworthy of polite company at the garden party.)
By the winter of 1977, it was time for me to start thinking seriously about college. I applied to the University of Wisconsin at Madison largely on the recommendation of an attractive girl from my science class, and because of its exemplary reputation as the number one party school in the nation at the time (two perfectly legitimate reasons, I figured, to choose a school). Arthur Birnkrant had shared his own bit of advice, telling me a story about a renowned music professor at UW-Madison who was haunted by the lonesome sound of trains that passed by the campus, thinking that that would somehow help in my decision.
My second college choice, however, was the University of Colorado at Boulder, which led me on another mini-adventure with my father. One of his long-time friends, a struggling writer named Tony Tuttle, said he was on good terms with a woman on the English faculty at UC-Boulder who might be able to pull some strings to improve my chances of acceptance. So my father and I packed up our bags and spent a week in Colorado. When we finally met the English professor at her home, she was cordial but slightly confused, and it soon became clear that her friendship with Tony wasn’t as strong as Tony had implied. She wasn’t going to go out of her way to help.
We took a stomach-churning flight on a 12-seat airplane to the nearby Aspen ski resort, where we spent the latter part of the week skiing. My father purchased a beige Stetson cowboy hat for me like the one I saw Billy Kidd wear on television. My father had never skied before, and after a couple of days on the slopes, he must have become overcome by the Rocky Mountain altitude and decided to hang up his skis for good. Only when we returned to New York did he discover that he had developed pneumonia-like symptoms from two collapsed lungs.
By early 1978, I had chosen to attend the University of Wisconsin after all. With my college decision wrapped up, the school year seemed to pass like a blur. One morning I remember waking up and declaring that I’d like to visit Israel. No one in my immediate family had ever visited the Jewish state. I can’t say exactly what led me to want to explore my Jewish heritage, although I do recall feeling a tremendous sense of pride following the dramatic rescue of Israeli hostages at Entebbe, Uganda in June 1976, and choking up at the news footage of the rescued Jews touching down in Israel. Soon after the rescue, I remember my father wore a sweatshirt around his apartment that read “Uganda is a Sissy,” with a drawing of the rotund Ugandan dictator Idi Amin Dada peeling a banana. As a high school graduation present, my father arranged for me to participate in a five-week youth tour to Israel during the summer of 1978. Upon returning from Israel, I spent two weeks hurriedly preparing to leave for college and was gone.
The year and a half that I spent with my father went by all too quickly. But its impact remains with me to this day. My father once likened this time together to the “Mame,” the play about an orphaned boy who goes to live with his free-spirited Auntie Mame and has all sorts of adventures. In my mind, it was more like “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father,” the television show about a widower whose young son helps him adjust to life as a single dad. In reality, it probably was a little of both; I’d like to think that we were able to help each other out during an important transitional period in our lives. He was at an intermission stage in his personal and professional life, and I was on the cusp of adulthood.
Postscript: Whither the Black Room. After I left for college, my middle brother, Drew, would eventually move in with my father. In preparation for his arrival, my father thought it was time to paint the Black Room a cheery, bright color. On the night before the painters arrived, his friend Terry Southern (“Dr. Strangelove,” “Candy,” “The Magic Christian”) arrived around midnight, fresh from an evening of excess, and decided to crash in the Black Room. The next morning, the painters arrived and quietly worked around the still slumbering Southern and left without managing to stir him. When Southern finally awoke, he became extremely disoriented from the brightly colored room, wondering how he had gotten there, and quickly made his exit. My father loves that story.
Be sure to check out our interview with Kipp Friedman.