Thursday, January 15, 2009

In Which Your Host Reveals All

Or at least some.

Bloggerista Extraordinaire Shirley has turned us on to the Interview Me Meme. Always eager for an excuse not to have to think of my own content, I volunteered. Here's how it goes:

You have to link back to the original post and also to your interviewer's post and include the following:

Want to be part of it? Follow these instructions:

1. Leave me a comment saying, "Interview me."
2. I will respond by emailing you five questions. I get to pick the questions.
3. You will update your blog with the answers to the questions.
4. You will include this explanation and an offer to interview someone else in the same post.
5. When others comment asking to be interviewed, you will ask them five questions.

The five really quite thoughtful and wonderful questions Shirley sent me are:

1. You and Mr. Muscato are being chased out of town. Where are the expats going to land next?

Quickly throwing the family silver, my manuscripts (memoirs, of course – didn't Oscar say one should always have something scandalous to read on a journey?) and a few other essentials into our ragtag assortment of suitcases, and bundling Koko and ourselves into the MuscatoMobile, we set off into the desert. Presuming we make it past the border guards unravished (alas), we arrive in glittering Dubai – and immediately depart, as the idea of spending more than the odd weekend there is infinitely dreary.

I suspect that in the real world we would end up back on the Nile in dear old Cairo, preferably in a high-floor flat with views in the glam Zamalek district. In my dreams, where one needn't worry about dull things like jobs and income, it would be a tidy little Regency maisonette in a quiet street in Maida Vale or St. John's Wood, London, with a winter getaway on the Red Sea.

2. You and everyone at the Café are so glamourous and elegant. Having said that, what has been your most unglamourous and inelegant moment?

Two answers, one up, one down; both involve bruising, although neither in any of the ways your dirty mind immediately assumed.

Light-hearted version: I was appearing in a woeful revival of a creaky and never quite first-rate musical, twenty-odd years ago. It was opening night. My character was the first to enter after a brief number at the top of Act Two. This entrance followed a fairly elaborate stage change, in which flats representing a Greenwich Village street had to fly up and platforms that combined to create an apartment set had to roll downstage. The leading lady and some comedy policemen did their bit, exited... and nothing happened.

Curtain going down... Silence reigned. After a few moments, the stage manager pushed me out, hissing "do your scene on the street!" As this involved a lot of business with on-set props, that would have been a challenge, but I followed orders.

Just as I passed the threshold of one of the set's doors, the crew got their act together and hastily raised the flats. Unfortunately, they raised me, too, by one leg, caught in the doorframe. I vaguely remember sailing up toward the flies, and even thinking how interesting it was to see the horrified expressions on the faces of the people in the front row of the balcony from their level. I also realized that the flies into which the flats flew were quite narrow – a great deal narrower than I – and that I was not all that interested in being sliced to bits. I disengaged my leg, let go (I'd grabbed the door jamb with one hand en route), and fell. Remarkably, I landed on one of the daybeds in the apartment set that was then rolling out under me. Unbowed, I stood, walked to the edge of the platform, and actually started the scene.

But – I got only one line in before somebody backstage got the idea (perhaps from the howling audience) that something was wrong – and yanked the platform back to see what the matter was. That pitched me straight forward on my face onto the stage. I lay there for a second or two, and then realized with concern that the apartment-platform (the crew having found nothing amiss aside, I suppose, from the mussed daybed) was now heading back at me. I hastily rolled downstage and avoided falling right into the orchestra pit only because the conductor pushed me back up. After a brief pause to assess whether I'd broken anything and for the audience to settle down, we finished the scene and the act.

Later, I didn't remember a thing after being pushed by the conductor, and I was quite completely black-and-blue on one side from shoulder to ankle. I also had total subservience from the crew, who had come so close to killing me, for the (blessedly short) duration of the run. I've never again been able to listen to any recording of this particular show, even though the original stars one of my idols.

Gritty urban version: walking home up Ninth Avenue at 4:00 in the morning in the rain after having been beaten up by a mugger and then having to spend two hours in the Times Square police station. Black eye, loose tooth, various other contusions. No fun.

3. In your opinion, who is the ultimate diva, present or past?

Time is an essential factor in such things, so I would argue that no living person can claim "ultimate" status. Modern technology has rendered fame comparatively achievable in ways that would have been unthinkable in the past. We may think that Madonna or Britney are famous, but they've got nothing on people like Mary Pickford or Charlie Chaplin, whom the whole world knew at a time when there weren't any other such superstars. Stars like Crawford, Streisand, Garland – all astonishing and hugely influential, but all hark back to earlier models.

You have to go back before mass media to find the ultimate, the ones who set the pattern and the expectations. Then you have to choose the one of those who still has some kind of relevance, some currency, as compared to greats like Pavlova, Jenny Lind, or Maria Malibran, who were pioneering megastars and are still known to some and well-known to a few, but who don't particularly resonate otherwise.

For sheer diva-dom, total excess, extraordinary longevity, and breadth of impact, I don't think you can do better than the divine Sarah Bernhardt, the greatest of all femmes fatales. In a career that stretched from the 1860s to the 1920s, she was not only a star actress, but also a sculptor, producer, writer, and teacher, a woman who had huge influence on opera, literature, fashion, and international pop culture in general.
The Divine Sarah, by the Divine Andy
She had pet leopards decades before Josephine Baker walked her cheetah on the Champs-Élysées, she exploited a penchant for things Gothic a century before Cher (a famous photo shows her sleeping in her favorite coffin), and her string of lovers was said to include the Emperor of France, the Tsar, the Prince of Wales, and the Pope (beat that, Paris Hilton!) – not to mention at least one fetching young girl painter. She parlayed odd looks (skinny by the day's standards and with a mop of frizzy red hair) and an angelic voice into a long life that took her from illegitimate birth as daughter of a Paris courtesan to every great theatre in the world, the Legion of Honor, and a state funeral.

Without Bernhardt there would be no Bara (she was the first vamp), no Garbo (she was the first Camille), no Callas (she was the first Tosca, albeit non-singing), maybe even no Yves Saint Laurent (she was notorious for going out and about in her own variations on men's evening clothes – the original le smoking pour femme!).

She is the role model, knowingly or not, for every diva since, in every medium, from the greatest soprano the most disposal pop starlet, and she still utterly outfabs all but a very, very few. Brava Sarah!

4. It's Oscar night and you just won the coveted award. Without disclosing your age or dress size, who are you wearing and what will you say?

Hmmm. If I'm getting Best Supporting Actor (I'm a realist – and definitely more a character than a leading man; and it's probably for playing the heroine's gay best friend, Nathan Lane having proved unavailable) – a conservative black evening suit, black patent-leather gentleman’s pumps with grosgrain bows, highly starched Mao-collared linen shirt, my grandfather's studs and cufflinks – and a smashing Van Cleef & Arpels diamond and emerald brooch.

If it's Best Actress (in dreamland) – pre-war black velvet Schiaparelli, towering Roger Vivier strappy sandals, a dramatic full-length ermine cape (left at my seat, of course, as I go onstage) and as much smashing Van Cleef & Arpels diamond and emerald loot as my publicist can secure, plus a couple of knee-length ropes of pearls (I subscribe to the Queen Mary, more-is-more school of bijouterie. Hell, I don't see why more nominees don't go for tiaras).

Now, the speech. What to say? I think I'd go the Ruth Gordon route. Short, snappy (but working in the title of the picture - Forgotten Beauty, a biopic of Kay Francis - to boost ticket sales!), and thanking only my director, my vaudeville grandmother, and Mr. Muscato.

5. Everyone has guilty pleasures. What is one of your guilty pleasures?

Aside from Upen Patel and imagining myself (or him. Or myself and him) in knee-length ropes of pearls? Blogging. No one IRL knows I do. I’m starting to find that strange.

So now you know. Who's feeling brave? Just ask, and I'll send you five questions...


  1. Ok I'll go for the plunge. Interview me.

  2. Brava! Brava!

    Fantastic answers! You are steeped in elegance, glamour and culture!


    wv: poluesh
    as in:

    "I might be drun', but I can shtill outrun the poluesh."

  3. Fabulous answers! So thorough and clever that I dare not ask to be questioned.

    Most fascinating for me (of course) is trying to figure out the "creaky and never quite first-rate musical" in which you appeared (and almost perished).

    I'm leaning toward a Comdem & Green musical that I adore. Per chance was Maureen Lipman your leading lady?

  4. Oh, darling, you've lived The Glamorous Life, and then some. And was the musical perhaps "Wonderful Town"?

  5. Bravi, Bill and TJB. You've nailed the show, although, Bill, you flatter me - our version was many rungs sub-Lipman, being in that gray area that separates regional rep productions from community theatre.

    Our leading lady's chief virtue seemed to have been that her mother had been on Broadway in the 40s, which is how she had come to the attention of the director, a superannuated old thing with one of those "Beverly Leslie" queen names - Tracy Kelly or Terry Allan or something like that. The same connections did get us an opening night telegram from Miss Comden, which was a treat...

    It was all pretty dreary, actually, although there were a couple of wild nights après show - WT does call for a chorus versatile enough to be Irish cops, Brazilian sailors, and beatniks, after all!

  6. Me, Me, Me. INTERVIEW ME.

    Sort of like Shirley, I mostly think of you in your glam expat life. I'm glad to hear about your pre-Cafe exploits, you scamp, you.

  7. oh my goodness! I just want to meet you so bad...and sit at your feet and listen to the stories...all of the glorious first-hand stories that I can never experience....can you hear the longing and slight whine in my voice??? I feel so theatre starved here in very famished of anything artistic. I can't possibly live here anymore...really. REALLY!

    I thought you were going to say Ellen Terry but you surprised me with Sara...and convinced me of the truth of the matter :)