28 November 2007


Tree at work: Who knew liquor came in other colors?

On my most recent visit to New York, I was able to go out with Fredd Tree after work one evening. This is a rare treat, a chance to hang out with one of the city’s most vivid characters, and to hear some of his many stories recounted for me alone. But it’s also risky, because Tree is a barman. And a barman who has spent the earlier part of his evening serving other people is ready, when the time comes, to begin drinking himself. To him it seems only sensible that his companion keep up with him, drink for drink. Tree’s capacities outpace my own, by a long shot: he’s immensely tall, for one thing. And even when he has drunk a prodigious quantity, he hardly shows it. If you are still in any condition to notice, you will see that Tree has begun to twinkle. It is a curious phenomenon. He has a smile for everyone. This is not usual for Tree, when sober, but inebriation inspires in him a bounteous goodwill toward all mankind. Which in turn inspires him to order you another drink, whether you can handle it or not.

He has been something like the unofficial mayor of the West Village for more years than anyone can calculate, although he lives in Chelsea and he is not terribly old. He was born famous. Nobody calls him Fredd; everybody calls him Tree, and everybody knows him. When you are with him, you are welcome everywhere: even the lesbian bars keep a stool ready for him, and the women buy his drinks. His arrival is an occasion.

His social life keeps him busy. He is the favored escort of certain actresses, including Joyce Randolph (Trixie from The Honeymooners) and Rue McClanahan (Blanche from The Golden Girls); he often squired the late Ruth Warrick (the first Mrs. Kane in Citizen Kane, and the irascible Phoebe Wallingford from All My Children). He is a driving force behind the Bartenders Ball, an annual orgy in which, for one night, the folks who pour drinks are served, lavishly; he’s a member in good standing of the Imperial Court, a charitable organization that features, among other things, elaborate presentations of drag artists in even more elaborate gowns. (Until recently, Tree had never worn a dress. The result persuaded absolutely nobody that he should do so ever again — although there are photographs to document the historic event. Instead, Tree wears tuxedoes, and he owns dozens of them, far more than any classical musician I know.)

Tree claims descent from some branch of Russian aristocracy, and he wears his inherited medals proudly and throws parties for the Russian New Year and Easter. He’s a Stonewall veteran, arrested on the first night of the riots that marked the beginning of the modern era in gay politics. Tree managed to slip free of the police that night, but he witnessed everything, and he has contributed oral-history interviews to a number of archives and universities. Now he tends bar at the Stonewall.

He used to tend bar at the Ninth Circle, a hustler bar with a fabled history. It was on a bathroom mirror there that Edward Albee saw a cryptic message in lipstick: “Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Rock Hudson was a frequent customer and a friend, and Tree would cover for him: people would say, “Isn’t that Rock Hudson?” When his hair was its natural grey, they weren’t sure. So Tree would answer, “No, that’s my friend Roy.” Which was his real name: Roy Harold Scherer, Jr. Ever discreet, Tree would help Hudson find dates. He wasn’t so successful with Elton John, who still blames Tree for some encounter gone awry.

Andy Warhol used to sit at one end of the bar. He’d speak to no one and doodle on cocktail napkins — and at the end of every evening, Tree would scoop up the doodles and throw them out. “Do you realize what those things would be worth today? I could have retired on that,” he says.

The actor and playwright Harvey Fierstein was perhaps the first person to urge Tree to write his memoirs. He even offered to help. But so far, no book. I sometimes wonder whether any book could capture Tree’s personality, or match the charm of hearing him tell the stories aloud. Even Harvey Fierstein would be hard-pressed to do him justice on the page.

River Phoenix became a good friend, near the end of his too-short life. He once invited Tree to a performance by his rock band, Aleka’s Attic. Tree hated it, and said so. River didn’t mind. For Tree doesn’t flatter and he doesn’t fawn. If he deigns to spend any of his time with you, it’s because he genuinely gives a damn. And you feel rather special as a result. I suspect that’s one reason that so many famous people are comfortable with him.

Tree got his training early, working as a gopher for the pioneering rock impresario Allen Freed and on The Ed Sullivan Show when he was in his teens. It’s almost impossible to name a postwar celebrity he doesn’t know, one way or another, and some surprising people he’s known very well indeed: an old photograph shows the young Tree on the subway with Buddy Holly and the Crickets, on their way to an afternoon at Rockaway Beach. Just a handful of friends hanging out.

That picture is kept in Tree’s apartment, a space hardly any bigger than he, that is stuffed with memorabilia. Tree is a compulsive collector, and he long since began using the ceiling to display objects for which he had no room on the walls and shelves. We are not certain where he sleeps; there is a foldout couch but no room to unfold it, or him. He must sleep sitting up. If he continues to collect, he will have to sleep standing, or forego the practice altogether.

He has seen every kitschy old movie ever made, and owns most of them on videocassettes. If you want to talk about the films of Judy Canova, Tree is your man. (And if you do not know who Judy Canova was, get out of his way.) He collects the aforementioned tuxedoes, in every color, as well as autographed baseballs and photographs and every kind of tschotschke, and he corresponds with the universe.

He even figured out how to correspond with Katharine Hepburn, who was notorious for not responding to fan letters from men. (She never answered my marriage proposal, for example.) But she was well brought-up, and so when Tree sent her flowers, she wrote a thank-you note. Every single time.

His apartment resembles the Soane Museum in London. But where John Soane collected architectural artifacts and antiquities, furniture, paintings and bibelots, Tree collects popular culture. Future scholars will spend several lifetimes studying Tree’s treasures. The tomb of Tutankhamen did not yield more.

Behind the bar, his comic repertoire is largely based on insults and abuse (“Everybody has the right to be ugly, but you abuse the privilege”) and on quick, usually corny anecdotes. The Stonewall used to serve only bottled beer and two kinds of alcohol: brown and not-brown. However, under new management it’s become a popular hangout in recent months, and the bar is abundantly stocked and very crowded. The varieties of bottled beer have multiplied, and other drinks must be mixed, in great numbers and a shimmering rainbow of colors and flavors. Tree is too busy now to spin longer yarns.

But get him alone, and there’s no end to the stories. You will hear about the city’s seamy sexual underbelly in years gone by, and about the price of coffee in Rio de Janeiro last week. You will hear the most intricate political machinations of the Imperial Court, and you will hear rapturous appreciations of nine-course meals and of the song stylings of Deanna Durbin or Marie Blake. You will hear perceptive character analysis of the men and women and the folks in-between who made New York what it is, many of whom you never heard of and most of whom you will never meet. Some of Tree’s stories I’m unable to quote because they’re too racy for this blog (which is read by my mother and other delicate sensibilities). Others I’m unable to quote because Tree bought me another round.

Maybe I’m a bit of a pushover: tell me a few stories and feed me (or buy me a drink), and I’m yours. But Tree long since passed that easy threshold of my devotion. I’ve grown to admire him so much. His zest for life is gargantuan. And if I can’t ever quite match that zest, any more than I can match his experience, I can at least say with pride that I know him. Better yet — Fredd Tree is a friend of mine.

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