Friday, May 3, 2013
Birthday Girl: Hallelujah, Betty
Basya Cohen was born 96 years ago today, in Brooklyn. Over the following nine decades, she turned herself into Betty Comden, one of the brightest lights of Broadway and one of a small handful of people - many of them, like her, self-created, smart, funny women of unconventional good looks - who can be considered quintessential New Yorkers. And of all the strange and wonderful things I've gotten to do in my own five decades to date, knowing and working with her is one of the two or three things of which I'm proudest. It wasn't for all that long - three or four projects over five or six years - but I had the incredible good fortune to watch her at work, in tandem, of course, with Adolph Green, and I did my best to make myself both useful and unobtrusive, both of which I think she appreciated.
Eventually I made the decision to leave New York, and that meant leaving behind Miss Comden and the others of her extended circle with (who am I kidding? for) whom I worked. I decided that as tempting as it was, being the Nice Young Man who helps out in a pinch was not a long-term career strategy, and that all the exciting opening nights and terrific travel, the enviable Rolodex and the easy familiarity with people whom I was raised from earliest childhood to revere, wasn't a trade-off, long term, for one's own life. It was a wrench, and it's been sad ever since to watch them go, one by one, while I've been on the other side of the world.
Not long ago, though, I ran into someone from those days, a man who is now a Power to Reckon With, in fact, in rarefied circles of High Kultcha. He was surprised to find me, a former Nice Young Man, way out in the Sandlands, and we had a long and surprisingly philosophical chat over drinks, at one of the silly places here sixty-odd stories up looking out at the sand and dust and distant water. I told him that, wonderful as it had been, I had seen too many too-old people still trying to be Nice Young Men, and I thought it might be soul-killing. He looked at me thoughtfully, a look you've seen in the Sunday Arts and Leisure Section, and told me something very nice: he remembered me, he said, because he was backstage at some rehearsal once, when I was working for a friend of Miss Comden's, a very great figure indeed who was revered for his art and notorious for his fondness for the young and handsome. He was standing with a couple of the hard-boiled old timers who do the heavy lifting of making art look easy - lawyers, producers, managers, the unsung backstagers - and one said to the other, watching me be a Nice Young Man to, at the moment, a very tetchy and impatient legend, "well, if nothing else, I'm glad he finally hired one who could type." Meaning, he said, one who wasn't pretty and useless and in it for the room at the Four Seasons or the table at Le Cirque. "I thought," he said, "You'd probably do fine."
I have. I still regret Miss Comden, though, and I hope that she had, through those later years, a Nice Young Man to keep things humming for her. She deserved it. "Make someone happy," she wrote, "Just one someone happy." As far as that goes, that's me.
(Hmmmm. I just checked, and apparently I used the self-same title for a birthday post for Miss C. in 2009. I stand by it, though, both as a little play on one of her lesser shows and as a fine expression of how I feel about her.)