29 January 2013

Wendy Lawless & ‘Chanel Bonfire’

Wendy Lawless’ Chanel Bonfire is subtitled A Memoir, but really it might have been called “A Thrilling Tale of Survival” or even “A Most Dangerous Book for Girls.” I’ve known Wendy for years, since she began dating a friend from the Columbia Writing Program, David Kidd, and I’ve heard some of the stories she tells here: I even read a couple of chapters in manuscript. Yet I suspect that no amount of familiarity could prepare me for the full impact of Chanel Bonfire.

How on earth did Wendy survive her mother — to say nothing of how Wendy and Dave managed to construct one of the sanest households I know, inhabited by two of the coolest children I know? Wendy’s mother, Georgann Rea, was a monster of narcissism whose pursuit of her own fancy led her to upend and sometimes jeopardize her daughters’ lives again and again; she drank too much and spent too much and dated recklessly. It goes almost without saying that she suffered from mental illness, yet numberless people fell for her most outlandish self-dramatizations. Reading the book, I found myself mentally pronouncing her name “Gorgon.”

Wendy spent much of her youth apologizing for her mother and covering over her worst faults and lapses, largely but not entirely in order to protect her younger sister, Robin. But Wendy has come to terms with the truth now, and by “terms” I do also mean language, and that much at least is no surprise: any actor who can handle the furious wordplay of David Ives’ All in the Timing, as Wendy did Off-Broadway, must wield the language dexterously, and Wendy does.

One of my favorite people —
and now she’ll be one of your favorites, too.

Yet there’s not a single note of bitterness in the book, even when she’s describing, for example, how Georgann kept Wendy and Robin apart from their father for years (telling them he no longer loved them, telling him nothing at all) or how Georgann vamped Wendy’s boyfriend and drove him away. Instead, Wendy writes with a serene objectivity and a healthy dose of wit that led me to call the book “horricomic.” Her prose can be laugh-out-loud funny, even when it’s breaking your heart.

It all seems so glamorous, on the surface, as Georgann indulges in designer clothes and vintage wines and spins around Manhattan nightclubs and London salons. But there are all kinds of price tags attached to those fancy labels. Georgann is indifferent to her daughters when she isn’t actively hostile (and violent, especially toward Robin), and every time she jets off to a new man and a new address, she forces the girls to make their way in another new environment, alone. They’re perpetual outsiders, constantly on the move, and with a military-surgical precision, Georgann cuts her daughters off from everyone they care about, especially adults who might save them: their father, their stepfather, a beloved nanny.

Awful as the details may be, Chanel Bonfire is never depressing, not only because of Wendy’s wryly humorous perspective but perhaps also because at heart the book is a coming-of-age story, and we watch (white-knuckled at times) as Wendy wins her independence from Georgann. It would be rather hard to believe her victory, if we didn’t hold the evidence in our hands. And, as I say, I can testify that, in this regard, Wendy isn’t acting. She’s writing — exceptionally well — and living proudly with her own grace and intelligence.

Further proof of victory: Wendy and Dave’s children
are people you actually enjoy spending time with.
WVM, with a Lawless Kidd, Paris 2008.
Photo by Wendy Lawless©

Chanel Bonfire is available for purchase directly from the publisher, Simon & Schuster, here; you can purchase from Amazon, as well, by clicking here. The website for the book can be found here.

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28 January 2013

Stanley Karnow

With malice toward none, with crosswords toward all.
Photo by Catherine Karnow©

Stanley Karnow has died. I knew him for about three decades; for many of those years, he knew me as “Paul Jefferson — you know, Cathy, that boy you went to school with.” But over time, he learned to call me Bill, and we became friends. At one point I was supposed to be his research assistant for a book he never wrote, on Jewish vaudeville comedians, but he was a mentor just the same, particularly because so many of the things I’ve tried are things he’d done already, and excelled at: journalism, writing books, living in France. I sometimes had the feeling that he watched my fitful progress with an especially amused and always affectionate appreciation.

Whether I was Paul or Bill to him, I found it flattering enough to have made any impression on him at all, especially at first. Cathy introduced me to her parents with pleasure and anticipation of my good fortune, a build-up and a kind of drumroll, as one might introduce a school friend to prominent actors or heads of state: if there is one trait the Karnow children share beyond the family name, it is a perfect awareness of how remarkable Stanley and Annette have been.

They were not like other people; I’m pretty sure they never tried to be. Perhaps the trick was that they never tried not to be, either. They were who they were, and they were awfully good at it.

Father and daughter at the Vietnam Memorial.
Washington, July 2009.
Photo courtesy of Catherine Karnow.

We watched them this summer, in a series of film clips that Michael pieced together and in a slide show that Cathy presented, as part of a memorial celebration of Annette, who passed away in 2009. There they are, merrily trotting the globe together, and what struck me was how glamorous and fun they made even the most ordinary activity. Annette was still a beauty to the end, and yet it was almost startling to see her young again: she’s like a movie star whose name you can’t quite remember. And always at her side is Stanley, looking absolutely tickled to be with her.

When at last they settled in Maryland, and I came to know them, I felt that Stanley and Annette’s home was a household and that I was stepping into a kind of living novel, a great family saga peopled with fascinating characters. I’ve had this sense sometimes with other families, but always with the Karnows, and for Stanley of course narrative held a privileged place, not only in the prize-winning books he wrote but also in the stories he told over the table.

In recent years it seemed he was always in the middle of a story and constantly being interrupted by the kids, who remembered the past in their own way or who had heard the story many times already. “Will you just let me finish?” Stanley would holler, and sometimes we did and sometimes we didn’t, and sometimes he’d interrupt himself with another story altogether.

Stanley explains it all for you. August 2012.
Photo by WVM.

He was, as you can imagine, the biggest character of them all. He thrived on good food and good wine and good books and better friends. People and politics were puzzles to be solved — but only after he’d finished his crossword in the morning. He had an appetite for argument, and a voice that was made for it, though he did prefer to win. He could tell a joke so slyly you were hardly aware he’d done it: when “People Power” toppled the Marcos government in the Philippines, he told me, “Things are shaping up very nicely for television treatment there.” (He’d already begun his book on the subject, which did in turn become a PBS series.)

He’d traveled from Brooklyn to Harvard to Paris to Algiers to Hong Kong and Saigon and Manila; he’d rubbed elbows with starlets and philosophers, potentates and peasants, because really, what else would you do with your life?

Thus it’s no surprise that the kids wound up doing exceptional things, too. Photographing victims of Agent Orange — not to mention Prince Charles. Creating television series. Deciding the law. After all, what else would they do?

And yet the achievement for which I’m most grateful to the Karnows is simply this: they shared their parents with me. I’m proud to be Paul Jefferson.

Extended family portrait, August 2012

In 2009, Stanley and I had a long talk about his career, his books, and the world as he’d lived in it. You can find the first part of that interview here; the second part is here. Stanley’s Amazon page — which at the time of this writing omits a few of his books — can be found here.

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22 January 2013

Dear Downton Abby

The recent death of Pauline Phillips, better known as “Dear Abby,” has reminded us all of the value of good advice when it comes to proper behavior and personal problems.

Of course, there’s one place where everyone behaves properly — and everyone has terrible personal problems. Perhaps they need an advice columnist.

Wake up and smell the Montrachet, kids!

Dear Downton Abby,

Today, my supervisor upbraided me sharply because I did not know the difference between a soup spoon and a bouillon spoon. I am quite out of sorts. What should I do?

Clueless with Cutlery

Dear Clueless,

Tell him to go use the spoon for an aspic.

Dear Downton Abby:

I am the victim of a most unfortunate circumstance. After making the intimate acquaintance of a foreign gentleman to whom I was not wedded — he expired most suddenly, requiring a good deal of subterfuge on the part of myself, my mother, and one of the parlormaids. Do you see any potential harm in concealing the truth of this incident from my fiancé? I would drop the match altogether, but Granny says it’s a good one, and really, my prospects are otherwise dim. Moreover, my fiancé is the only person I have ever known who can inspire me to any sort of facial expression. Please help!

Somewhat Sullied Virtue

Dear Sullied,

The longer you string your fiancé along, the greater the risk that he’ll take up with some wishy-washy blonde heiress. Tell him the truth or don’t — but grab him while you can!

Dear Downton Abby,

The new footman is rather dishy. How can I get him to notice me? I’ve tried “accidentally” dropping by whenever he changes his shirt. Perhaps some sort of trickery would help my cause. Stealing his trousers and then pretending to find them and return them to him might do the job.

Surpassing the Love of Women
(P.S. I am not female.)

Dear Surpassing,

Fresher breath will make a difference! Try Entailmints, the new candy from Altoids!

Dear Downton Abby,

I seem to be the only person in the English-speaking world who truly cares that me husband is in prison for a crime I refuse to believe he may actually have committed. What should I do?

Keeper of the Flame

Dear Keeper,

Whatever you do, don’t just sit around reading his letters!

Rich people’s problems

Dear Downton Abby:

I recently received a substantial bequest from the estate of the late husband of my late fiancée. Of course I cannot accept the money. How best may I tell my wife of my decision?

Unbending Rectitude

Dear Rect,

Your question bores me. Shut up and take the money.

Dear Downton Abby,

Everyone treats me like a child! Perhaps ’tis because of me freakish inability to age — but that’s true of most folks in these parts, due to the mysterious properties of the local water, which is why we’d all like to stay on here. So I think ’tis more likely because of me lowly position in the household, but I digress. I look like I’m about 14, but I’m in me mid-to-late-20s now and I’ve been married and widowed already. Nobody understands that I have me needs, like any healthy girl. The footmen won’t even notice me! (Except for me husband, and he’s dead, like I told ye.) I’m at me wits’ end, I don’t mind telling ye.

Heat’s in the Kitchen

Dear Heat,

Have you considered another position?

I say, what’s that crashing sound?

Dear Downton Abby,

My husband invested and lost our entire fortune in a foolish business venture; lately I have learned that he has been mismanaging our estate, as well. A recent visit from my mother reminded me that I am in fact Jewish. What are the rules for divorce among Jewish people?


Dear Raspondent,

You can get one, maybe. I should be a rabbi, in your opinion?

Dear Downton Abby,

What is a “weak end”?

Countless Confusions

Dear Countless,

It’s what you get from too much horseback riding.

Readers, are you a middle child? Are you sibling to a middle child? We all know the resentment and loneliness — to say nothing of financial hardships — that can result. Write today to ask for a copy of my free pamphlet, Combatting Jan Brady Syndrome.

Lady Jan?
(Without the goo-goo-googly eyes.)

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20 January 2013

To an Athlete Lying Young

From A Shropshire Aunt*
The times you won the Tour de France,
We fanned the fire of your pants;
Man and boy heard you deny
The dope that brought you victor-y.

To-day the road your girlfriend came —
Though you’d not Google once her name
To find she neither lived nor died —
Will not permit your face to hide.

Smart lad, to put the truth away
From fields where myth holds greater sway!
For brightly though the laurel grows,
It’s slower than a puppet’s nose.
Those wars and murders, poisoned air,
Rough politics: we do not care!
Of you alone the public chatters,
Instead of weighty, vital matters!

So smile, before the spotlights fade,
And don the mantle that you’ve made!
O’erwhelm the papers! Command the news!
Consent to countless interviews!

Endure the late-night comic’s joke,
Until to Oprah you have spoke!
Forget that once you played a sport —
You’re on the nightly news report!

And though your honor is the cost,
Take heart, stout lad! All is not lost!
Just contemplate the question cruel:
Was’t you or we the bigger fool?

*NOTE: An obscure but terribly pertinent reference of which I am exceedingly proud. Check The Importance of Being Earnest if you don’t believe me.

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13 January 2013

U.S. Government to Be No Fun at All in 2013

No, you can’t have one.

WASHINGTON, DC -- The United States government will be no fun in 2013, the totally unfair and mean old White House confirmed on Friday, after rejecting one petition to allow several states to secede from the Union and another to authorize immediate construction of a Death Star. On the White House website, “We the People” petitions obtaining more than 25,000 signatures within a one-month period are guaranteed a response that is virtually certain to throw a wet blanket over public enthusiasm of any kind, and just generally take all the thrill out of everything.

I’ll bet other governments let their states secede if they want.

These were not the only spoilsport responses from the “Bummer” Obama Administration, announced late Friday both to avoid scrutiny from news media and also to ruin everybody’s weekend. Here are some others:

Actor Taylor Lautner will not be named U.S. Secretary of Awesome.

Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” will not be declared the U.S. National Anthem.

The United States Cavalry will not be issued unicorns.

Charlie Sheen will not be required to return to the cast of Two and a Half Men, so we are stuck with Ashton Kutcher.

The 113th Congress will not be deported. At least, for the time being.

People who give away plot spoilers for Season 3 of Downton Abbey will not be prosecuted for treason.

President Obama will not sign an executive order requiring the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to add Ben Affleck’s name to the list of nominees for Best Director at this year’s Oscars ceremony.

The U.S. Treasury will not mint a $1 trillion platinum coin, and even if it did, you couldn’t have it.

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09 January 2013

Interview: David T. Little

This is a big week for composer David T. Little. Call Soldier Songs an opera or a song cycle or a stunning musical-theatrical experience: in any case, the piece is receiving its New York premiere this weekend (performed by baritone Christopher Burchett as part of the Prototype Festival series), at the same time that it’s released on CD (sung by baritone David Adam Moore, a passionate advocate for this piece).

And these exciting developments come nipping at the heels of the official announcement by Fort Worth Opera that Little’s work will play an integral role in the company’s ongoing commitment to contemporary music. Fort Worth Opera’s general director, Darren Woods, has commissioned Little and his librettist, Royce Vavrek, to write a new opera for the 2016 season centered on President John F. Kennedy’s visit to Fort Worth in 1963 — the last night and morning of his life.

In addition, within the next few seasons Fort Worth Opera also will produce Dog Days, the stunning opera that set the entire Eastern seaboard buzzing about David and Royce when it had its premiere at Montclair State University in October (produced by Beth Morrison and Peak Performances). Suddenly, they’re the hottest young composer–librettist team in America.

I’m still sorting out my responses to Dog Days, but make no mistake: I’m a true believer. David’s music encompasses “classical,” electronic, and heavy metal to reflect his own tastes (he’s a drummer, too) and also to express character with complete and unflinching honesty, no matter how tender or how intense the dramatic situation. That’s why I’m proud to play a very small part in the process of writing the JFK project: I’m contributing research and background interviews that will help David and Royce construct their opera. (It’s a job not unlike holding the bag while somebody else makes Shake ’n’ Bake. But at least I can say I helped.)

This week seemed like an exceptionally good time to check in with David as he looks back at where he’s been and charts the path he’ll be following for the next few years.

I feel a song coming on: Kennedy in Fort Worth, November 22, 1963.

WVM: Soldier Songs will have its official New York premiere this weekend.

DTL: It’s very exciting. The piece had its first showing in 2006, performed by Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble, and sung by Timothy Jones, who is wonderful. Then in 2007, I met Beth Morrison and started working with her on this project, and did the New York showing in 2008, with David Adam Moore singing and directed by Yuval Sharon. That was really the workshop for this performance here, which is a fully staged. The world premiere was in New Haven, as you know, in 2011. It’s been interesting to watch the piece evolve over the years. We’ve been in rehearsal for this performance, and it’s continued to evolve. Details are being tweaked, and it’s been really great. It’s really exciting to be part of a piece that’s still growing and changing and feels very alive.

This performance, we’re coordinating with the release of the CD, which David is on. Christopher Burchett is singing this set of performances, which I think was just a scheduling situation. It’s great to have two Soldiers now for the piece, as we try to get it out around the country and into Europe.

WVM: It’s officially billed as a song cycle, but it’s very dramatic, and it has the potential to draw out some very powerful emotions from the performer, as it’s done with David.

David Adam Moore and Sam Poon in Soldier Songs at the International Festival of Arts & Ideas, New Haven, 2011.
Directed by Yuval Sharon, produced by the heroic Beth Morrison.

DTL: When I first wrote it I called it a song cycle, but I always intended it would be staged. Hence the title and the structure, and the idea of using songs is important to it. But as the piece has lived and evolved — at the time I didn’t realize I was writing my first opera, which is good, because I would have been more freaked out. But it really is an opera: it has the dramatic arc that one expects from an opera, though it’s a little unusual perhaps. That was when I started to realize that I thought like an opera composer. It was funny because it was as much a discovery for me. A lot of different changes came along for me as a composer, one being that I really was interested in writing opera and dramatic pieces. The other being an aesthetic shift, my decision to embrace all the kinds of music that I grew up with, from death metal to musicals. That’s the most honest expression of who I am. It turned out that it worked really well in the context of a dramatic work. At the premiere in Pittsburgh in 2006, I didn’t know if it was going to work. I was frightened, sitting in the house. It was the only thing on the program. I thought, “Here we go, this could be really a disaster.” In the end I was happy to see that the audience responded to it, the musicians responded to it, and the singer responded — but I felt like it worked, it was successful as a piece from the perspective of a composer. That experience gave me the courage to think maybe I could write a bigger piece, with other characters and conversations. At that point I thought, “I really need a librettist,” and that’s when Royce and I started working together. The libretto to Soldier Songs, I wrote it, but it was largely pulled from interviews. The songs are mostly first-person. They’re sort of declamatory in a way. I thought, “Let me think beyond that.” It wasn’t my area of expertise, so I sought help. I started working with Royce. We did Dog Days, and now we’re embarking on this very fun JFK project.

WVM: Months after the premiere, I’m still processing Dog Days. How do you feel about it, at this point?

DTL: I am really, really happy with it. I’m happy with it as a piece. Similar to Soldier Songs, there’s a sense of as a composer: did I do what I set out to do? I’ve been happy. There haven’t been too many things that Royce and I talk about revising, maybe one tune, or one line. The response has been just unbelievable. I feel so grateful that the audiences who saw it and the press responded so strongly, and that people want to do it again. I think that’s always the fear when you write something this big that takes four years, if you can get just one performance. You can guarantee by not writing it unless there’s one performance guaranteed, but that can be it, the only time it gets done. With both Soldier Songs and Dog Days, there’s interest in giving life to these pieces in terms of repeat presentations. I’m looking forward to bringing Dog Days around the world. I feel good about it as a piece. It got into a lot of issues that are really heavy that Royce and the director, Robert Woodruff, and I thought very seriously about for a number of years. That people are still processing it after the premiere, that’s really meaningful. As an artist, it means a lot to see that the piece has a lasting impact, jars you and makes you think about something in a different way than when you entered the theater.

John Kelly and Lauren Worsham in a promotional portrait for the world premiere of Dog Days, 2012.
Robert Woodruff’s production, seen at Montclair State University thanks to Beth Morrison Projects and Peak Performances, will travel to Fort Worth.

WVM: Darren Woods has been very eloquent the past few days, talking about how he feels very smart, having commissioned you to write the JFK opera for Fort Worth even before he heard Dog Days — and now you’re the hot new composer everybody’s talking about.

DTL: It was great going into Dog Days knowing that we were already talking with Darren and that we had a project that we could do together after that show closed. It helped us feel that, even if Dog Days didn’t get performed a lot, we’d still have the JFK project, which will be great. Darren took a chance on us, which we really appreciate. I know Darren heard Soldier Songs and Vinkensport, the one-act that we did, but Dog Days is a different piece, and he hadn’t heard it yet, so I’m grateful that he took a chance and that he feels it paid off. We’re excited to write him a really great piece!

WVM: Let’s talk just a little about JFK — though of course we can’t give away the store here.

DTL: The material for JFK is so rich…. As soon as Soldier Songs closes, I’m just digging through all of the documents and research, and Royce and I are getting together in Fort Worth to start brainstorming, to see the sites, and get working. But the story, and the reason I was initially so excited about it when Darren approached us, there’s so much there and all these little details that, in context of what happened, feel so profound, whereas in the moment they were just part of everyday life. Those things, personally I find really exciting. The story has a lot of that, and the characters are complicated, interesting, conflicted characters. I mean, LBJ — come on, what an amazing, complicated person he was! Kennedy, too, and Jackie, they were amazing people. It’s going to be surprising, and I’m going to tell a really great story, and illuminate something that the audience can take away with them and make part of their own experience. I feel this material is great for that. I know Royce is very excited to get to work!

Soldier Songs plays January 11–13 and 16–18 in the Prototype Festival at the Michael Schimmel Center for the Arts. For information and tickets, click here.

The CD of Soldier Songs is available here.

For more information on Fort Worth Opera, click here.

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