23 September 2014

Progress Report 22: A Cover, an Endnote, and a Finishing Line

As Madeline’s 72nd birthday approaches, I’m emerging from the latest stint of high-pressure deadlines and 12-hour workdays — but at least there’s something to show for it. We have decided on a title, the art department at the University Press of Mississippi has cooked up a cover, the spring catalogue is at the printers, and at last we know the official release date. Madeline Kahn: Being the Music, A Life will be available for purchase in both hardcover and electronic editions beginning in May 2015.

Perhaps not surprisingly, we went through several different titles. One of the most obvious choices wasn’t quite right. Yes, we could call the book Sweet Mystery, but with few exceptions, Madeline wasn’t a terribly mysterious person. Ultimately, I kept returning to an anecdote that Alan Arkin shared in his memoir, and to a sentiment that Madeline also expressed on a few other occasions. Why, Arkin wanted to know, did you become a performer? Madeline told him that, when she was a tiny child, she spent hours playing and replaying a recording of Ponchielli’s “Dance of the Hours.”* “I wanted to be the music,” she said.

There have been times I’ve sensed Madeline, almost as if she were looking over my shoulder as I wrote. I had that feeling when I saw the first draft of the cover art — with her name misspelled. I could just picture her shaking her head and saying, “Really? Somebody writes a book about me and they can’t even get my name right?” But she would have liked the art director’s excuse: he was so bewitched by her smile, he said, that he didn’t notice the spelling.

Please note: “The Wrath of Madeline Kahn”
was not one of the titles we considered.

Most of my attention was devoted to the final revisions, and as that term suggests, once those revisions are completed, I can’t make further changes. That’s a nerve-wracking state of affairs, particularly when fact-checking leads to new sources, new revelations, and even one new photo. I heard from my last interview subject — John Cullum, Madeline’s co-star in On the Twentieth Century — at 11:20 a.m. on the day my revisions were due. (Naturally, I asked for an extension, because it’s a university press and I figured they were used to extensions.)

When I got to the last page, I found myself almost misty-eyed. Not the chapter on Madeline’s death, mind you, but the last endnote got to me.

Just then, I came across something that Ken Burns said about Theodore, Franklin, and Eleanor Roosevelt, the subjects of his latest documentary series. “I love them,” he said, “the way you love complicated people in your own life. …I cried in the edit room when they died, all three of them. That doesn’t mean I'm sentimental and nostalgic. That’s just the way you feel when you get close to people.” I understand.

Natural beauty: In the fourth-season premiere of Cosby,
with Phylicia Rashad.

I’ve learned a lot about Madeline, and while I hope I haven’t developed a proprietary, projected, overly personal attitude toward her — which is to say that I hope I haven’t turned into Charles Kinbote in Pale Fire — I do still like her tremendously. I’ve discovered or rediscovered certain of her films and television work, and that has meant extending and broadening the pleasures I find in her performances.

And I’ve come to realize that, when she was at her lowest ebb, beset by every kind of pressure and fear during the run of On the Twentieth Century, she was in many ways at her most admirable. The experience might have broken another woman — certainly the universe seemed to be trying to break Madeline. But she kept going, and in the end she showed real courage.

She showed courage, too, when she fought to stay with another show, the sitcom Cosby, years later. This time Madeline didn’t have to deal with a hostile director or a demanding musical score: the challenge was greater by far. She worked as often as she could, at first telling no one she was ill, wearing wigs to cover the hair loss from her chemotherapies. By the show’s last season, however, she’d found the confidence to wear her own silver, short-cropped hair. She even got one last glamour part, as a sexy Russian spy in a dream sequence inspired by Cosby’s first TV series, I Spy. She was months from death — but she was still Madeline.

Many people seem smaller, the more one studies them. Madeline Kahn wasn’t one of those people. I’m not ready to say goodbye yet, and I’ve still got plenty of work to do on the book. But when the time does come, I’m going to miss her.

One last glamour part: With Robert Culp.

*NOTE: Like most people, Madeline knew “The Dance of the Hours” not from Ponchielli’s opera La Gioconda but as the ballet for hippos and ostriches in Disney’s Fantasia. There’s a chance you may know it, too, as the melody that inspired Allan Sherman’s “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah.”


Anne said...

Gorgeous cover...her vitality and great smile zaps one...as in life.

Bill, your writing always gets me. Your emotional stance towards your subject is exactly right for a biographer. Love and a touch of awe...

The importance of this work and the importance of the treasures of heart and mind you spent in creating it, cannot be overstated

What would have been forever forgotten, you have brought back to our remembrance. Besides every thing else, it's a rescue mission of a high order imo . Indeed, a quest.

I don't doubt Madeline's spirit was often there with you. How could it be other wise? To me just your amazingly dedicated work upon her story alone would be a call that can't be refused.

I'm sure Mr. Burns missed the Roosevelts after the wrap up.I missed them after just a week, much less the years he spent with them .

Robert K. Massie worked on a book about Catharine the Great for 8 years and the last thing he said was " I miss her". The reader did too

When we close your book and even before, we too will say " I miss Madeline "

That's her achievement and yours

Thank you!

Anonymous said...

I was lucky enough to have Madeline Kahn for the short period of time she performed on Broadway in "On the Twentieth Century". I believe she was only in for about two months.

She was absolutely wonderful, along with John Cullum, Imogene Coca, and a then-unknown Kevin Kline. There was something about her which just shone on stage, combined with a wonderful singing voice.