21 October 2012

Progress Report 18: Message in a Bottle?

A Woman’s Career, At a Glance.
Photo by WVM.

Madeline Kahn was an intensely private person who would never have written an autobiography, much less cooperated with a biographer. She left a remarkably thin paper trail, with only a few playbills from her stage career and no more correspondence than what lay in and around her desk at the time of her death, in 1999. Instead of a diary, she kept a single spiral notebook with several years’ worth of musings, observations, notes for an act that never happened; she also kept appointment books — and these, mercifully, have survived.

To the extent that there’s any “Sweet Mystery” to Madeline’s life, the books do require a fair amount of detective work. The personal notebook contains no dates whatever, so I have to make educated (I hope) guesses as to when she wrote a particular page. In the appointment books, dates are easy to spot, but Madeline will sometimes write “Rehearsal,” without any indication as to what, precisely, she was rehearsing. “Audition” is another tough one, since like any actor she didn’t always get the parts she auditioned for. She wasn’t trying to make this easy for me: she just wanted to be sure she showed up on time.

I do occasionally find hints that, wherever she may be now, she doesn’t entirely disapprove of the work I’m doing. One of the most surprising came the other day, as I was going through the personal notebook. On the third page, there’s an entry that looks very much like a message for me — not just her future biographer, but Bill Madison, specifically.

Madeline as Esperanza the Gypsy Queen, from Lucky Luke (1992): Maybe she could read these portents.

I worked for Dan Rather at CBS News in a variety of capacities from 1987 to 1999. Among the most sacred of my duties was the guardianship of the “Ratherisms,” the colorful expressions Dan uses to keep his reporting lively during longer, live broadcasts, especially election-night coverage. The Ratherisms were stored in a big binder and, as needed, written out on index cards; we culled them from oral tradition, books, the sports page, almost anywhere — and some were entirely original.

Now, Madeline never met me, and even if she had, it’s doubtful that she’d have had reason to know that I was the curator of the Ratherisms. So how do we account for Page 3 of the personal notebook?

With the underscored title “Bill,” Madeline jots down four Ratherisms:
That person makes me do this (telescope.)
" " has more nerve than a toothache.
— is flying on the wrong trapeze.
— ought really to be in costume at all times.
The first might require a bit of pantomime, or else rephrasing (“makes me close down like a telescope”), but the three others are Rather-ready. It’s uncanny.

Please note that she does not split the infinitive “to be.”
Photo by WVM of a photocopy by WVM.

Presumably Madeline had encountered someone whom she found so annoying that she had to look for fresh ways to express herself. But I have no idea who the fellow was. A colleague? A character? Me?

If she did have a premonition that the Keeper of the Ratherisms would someday write her biography, I confess I’d prefer to find a list of colorful descriptions of how charming “Bill” can be.

Ah, well.

1 comment:

message in a bottle said...

On the third page, there’s an entry that looks very much like a message for me.