May 25, 2014
As a child, Marie Menken filmed me on an almost consistent basis. I’m not sure what happened to the film footage, but I have heard rumors that the Andy Warhol Foundation got hold of the footage and was doing a preservation job on it but you know, who knows. No one tells me anything. Some people own their history. I’m one of those chaps that don’t own a thing, including my history. Shit, I’m lucky that I have a roof over my head, you know what I mean? All I know, ever since I was a kid, I wanted to be a part of the book biz or movie world in Manhattan. As a child I used to watch “What’s My Line” and I was impressed by a member of the panel, who to me at the time appeared to be sophisticated, witty, and charming. Three things that I ain’t had at that time. But if I drew from a master, well…. Bennett Cerf was a genuine deal.
The fact he was born in Manhattan, and went to school in Manhattan, and got a job in Manhattan as well as co-founder of Random House publishing, of course, located in Manhattan, makes me a huge fan of Manhattan. But only on the streets that are numbered. I try to avoid lower Manhattan if it was the Red Death plague. In my mind, Manhattan stands for order, organization, and the good tasting martini. Lower Manhattan I feel is a trap of some sort. Once you’re down there, you are totally confused with the streets with names, and I do have a pet peeve against streets that actually have names.
I first went to Manhattan to be an actor. I was 16 or 17, and in my mind that was the right time to get serious about entering the world of stardom. The only job I could find, and it wasn’t really a job because I had to volunteer my services, was to work with Marie. Since I was a film nut, I used to go to the Musuem of Modern Art’s film program, and I became totally obsessed with the silent movie actress Marie Doro. She has 18 films to her credit, and of the those 18, only one fully exists. The others only exist in parts or are totally gone missing. Marie Menken was a fan as well. We’re both drawn towards artists who are lost causes. The only Hollywood actor we admired was Steve Cochran, mostly due to the fact that he died on his yacht, with three female “assistants, ” who didn’t know how to pilot the boat back to shore. So with his dead body (from a heart attack), the boat was floating off the coast of Guatermala for ten days. Eventually the boat drifted to the shore in Port Champerico.
Marie thought this would be a suitable subject for a film, so I went up to her studio, to start shooting the film. What’s unusual about this film was that it was shot in her studio as well as on the roof-top of her building. I was way too young to play Steve Cochran (who died when he was forty-eight), but the illusion of youth was very much the theme of her work at the time. She built a fake boat on her roof, and occasionally her husband Willard Maas, would throw buckets of water in front of the hand-made set to make it ‘sort’ of look like we were in a body of water or ocean. I didn’t understand it at the time, but Marie was more interested in capturing a ‘feeling’ than a narrative about Steve, the three assistants, and his yacht. It was the first time in my life when I realize that the narrative is not the deal, but the adventure or journey is the “it.”
I was shocked to know the social circle that she hung out with. For instance she knew my idol Bennett Cerf, and she was kind enough to recommend my services to Bennett. At the time, I had no real work skills, but I told Cerf I just wanted to learn about the publishing business as well as Manhattan life, as long as I can avoid the lower half of the island. He said “absolutely,” and my main job was basically to make sure all the pencils were sharpened. It was a massive job, because there are a lot of pencils in the Random House building. Within three months, not only did I know a bit about the publishing world, but I became an expert on the pencil. The pencil was the weapon or tool of choice in the world of Random House. For one, it never ages like ink, and two, you can erase your work with an eraser. A remarkable invention if I may say so!
Well, as I said earlier, history doesn’t owe me anything. I eventually had to come back to Los Angeles, and get a job at a bookstore,where oddly enough, they had a huge supply of pencils for use in work. I took care of that department, and mostly took care of the books regarding film history. But I won’t lie to you, that I get a frog in my throat whenever I come upon a book published by Random House. Especially the one on Marie Menken, where of course, my name does not appear in the text or in the back of the book, known as the index. I feel like I don’t exist. But then again, what is an existence, exactly?