Here is the first in a new series of Numéro Cinq essays called “Childhood.” The idea is for writers to evoke the place, time and ethos of their childhood in words and pictures, not childhood in general but a particular childhood, not their children’s childhood but their own. Steven Axelrod has been writing on and for NC almost from the beginning. He’s a very witty and loquacious participant in NC contests and a fine observer of the world in his own Open Salon.com column. He wrote a lovely “What it’s like living here” piece about Nantucket. I had often heard him talking about his father, and so it seemed appropriate to ask someone like Steve, for whom childhood was so important, to write about his childhood. As a point of entry, it’s helpful to know that Steve’s father was George Axelrod who wrote the play The Seven Year Itch and the screenplays for such movies as Breakfast at Tiffany’s, The Manchurian Candidate, and How to Murder your Wife.
By Steven Axelrod
For years I wanted a dog desperately. Wandering the stacks of the New York Society Library on 79th street, I discovered the works of Albert Payson Terhune, and with a boyish, single- minded passion, shared his love for a succession of collies and hunting dogs in books like Lad: a Dog, Buff: a Collie and Lochinvar Luck. Terhune is largely forgotten now, possibly because he really didn’t seem to like people very much. His works introduced me to a number of racial epithets which my Mom used as teaching tools, to explore the fascinating world of human bigotry. “’Chink’ is what people call the Chinese, so they can feel superior to them,” she informed me. “It’s fun to feel superior to other people, especially when you’re not.”
She was stubborn on the subject of dogs, though, knowing full well that the bulk of the care and feeding of any pet would fall on her. And of course we lived in an apartment, not the ideal environment for a herding animal; but Central Park was just three blocks away.
I actually found my dog in the park during a dreary Sunday softball game with a bunch of kids I didn’t like, a group I didn’t want to be part of, the uncool group at school. But during a long, dreamy session in the outfield (even in this crowd, I played deep left), I struck up a conversation with a lady walking a collie. Someone scored a homerun during our conversation, but the dog was due to have pups in a few months, and the lady took my number. She called me when the litter arrived. Even at age nine, I was much better at chatting up interesting strangers than I was at baseball, where I achieved a rare incompetence trifecta: I couldn’t hit, throw or catch. I could run all right, but I preferred not to.
The images release themselves, out of order, seemingly at random: my collie darting back and forth ecstatic in his first Central Park snowfall, taking a bite from a drift and leaping away, barking loud enough to wake up all of Fifth Avenue; and his snout, pressed to the rear window of the car that took him away two years later, when my allergies made keeping him impossible. And the counselor at camp that summer, who built a splendid impossible tower of tooth-picks and threw it into the final bonfire, the flames torching it all at once, the sudden light blinding, the heat intense, the crackle deafening and the column of smoke rising like a cobra from a basket, its hood dispersing against the high clear stars.
Camp Killooleet, Hancock, Vermont: my four summers there arrange themselves together into an unfinished puzzle, the perennially incomplete jig-saw on the Main House table. Did Pete Seeger ever really visit? His brother ran the place, and I’d heard about Pete coming to sing at the occasional campfire by the lake, before my time, and I told people he came because it made the place seem so cool and special. But that space in the junk drawer of my childhood is empty, the keys I was looking for aren’t there, probably because I never put them there to begin with.
But the big fires in the flagstone fireplace on chilly Vermont mornings were real, and the climbing trees, and the wild blueberries growing in the cracks between the rocks on the Franconia Ridge, when we hiked up Mount Lafayette, and the stony taste of the icy, deep-well water from the drinking fountain on the ‘rhythms ground’, the patch of trimmed lawn where we held square dances, with back-country callers from Rutland and Winoski telling us to Do Sa Do and Allemande Left. I took Amy Goodman to one of those dances, and held her hand, walking her back up to her cabin from a campfire one night later on, and sang her a terrible but heartfelt version of Dylan’s “I Just Want to Be Friends With You” when she thought I was trying to take advantage of her, after my first failed kiss.
I wanted to come back to the camp as a kitchen boy, a few summers later but that was forbidden by my father, which I later came to understand meant it was forbidden by my step-mother. She ruled him and he ruled my mother from a distance of 3000 miles, and that meant, in animation terms, and yet with very little exaggeration, that my life was controlled by Cruella DeVille.
Famous Monsters of FilmLand
I remember the day Joanie caught me alone in the big sunny kitchen in the Carolwood Drive house, all that blond hair, the long face, the spike nose and those intense brown eyes, looming over me. She could intimidate an attack dog. “You’re ten years old. It’s time you understood. Your father is an alcoholic.” She flensed me with the details of that caustic revelation: she covered for him with the studios, dried him out before meetings and indeed, her favorite interjection, had been making all the money in the family for years. The manic gusto, the sadistic glee on her face, terrified me.
She hated my mother and one August morning I woke up out of a dream with the perfect solution, five words that might win her over, defeat her, use her weight and momentum against her, emotional judo: “Can I call you Mom?”
But I could never manage to say it. I couldn’t even look her in the eye.
The Fatherhood Tour
Fortunately, when my Dad came to New York it was usually on business and he was usually alone. He showed up in my life the way his pal Frank Sinatra appeared in Las Vegas: big splashy two week engagements. The limousine cruising down 82nd Street (he liked me to wait on the sidewalk in front of the building so he wouldn’t have to go up to our apartment), the lunches at the Oak Room at the Plaza — cream of Chicken soup, and baskets of warm bread with sweet butter, which still tastes like wealth and luxury to me (Mom always used salted butter at home).
Then there were the times he was actually shooting movies in the city: crouched under the awning of the Regency hotel, standing behind venerable cinematographer and famous crank Leon Shamroy, watching Anne Jackson run for a taxi through the Hollywood rain over and over again; watching Laurence Harvey jump into Central Park lake on a chilly afternoon in early December (for that famous scene in The Manchurian Candidate). And best of all, being pulled out of a dreary seventh grade math class and whisked (there’s really no other word for it) down to the docks in Brooklyn to watch the filming of How to Murder Your Wife.
I wanted to be a writer – I had scribbled a few Terhune-like dog stories about my own collie, and written clumsy but not completely awful portrait of the elevator man in my building (I noted the most interesting fact about him: he came to work every day with a gun in a shoulder holster under his shiny black jacket) – but hanging around with Jack Lemmon and Virna Lisi effectively corrupted my youthful artistic ambitions. I started my first screenplay the next morning. (There were dogs and movie stars in it, that’s all I remember.)
I was a veteran air traveler by the age of ten, New York to L.A. and back, charming stewardesses (that’s what they were called back in the TWA days) out of metal toy model 707s and slyly ordering the kosher meal because it had to be made specially and was always better than the standard offerings. I flew first class (there actually was a ‘first class’ in those days), loving every minute of it. The meals were great, though my Dad disdained them as ‘toy food’ (Much in the same way that Ryan O’Neal was a ‘toy actor’). Our Manhattan home felt like a toy apartment when I returned from L.A.,
I had a guest star Dad, but I also had a Mom who played the flute and started her own dancing school in Dalton’s basement when she figured out that the one on Park Avenue was segregated; who said things like: “Who cares what the neighbors say? Fuck the neighbors!” and “We can do what we like – there are no grown-ups here,” and “You do what you have to do, when you can.”
And I also had a collie.
Stars over Manhattan
I was letting my Duffy run off the leash on the steep slope in Central Park near the 79th Street transverse that everyone referred to as ‘dog hill’ on thenight in November of 1965 when the lights went out in New York City. I watched the blackout move like floodwater, north to south, until the whole city was as dark as rural Maine or the open sea. Some of the other dog owners thought it was an attack; I thought it was an adventure. All the light of a million windows had been transferred to the sky – I could see the stars in Manhattan for the first time in my life, swirls of them, masses of them, presiding over a disarmed baffled innocent world. Cars inched through the intersections as I made my way home. Apartment buildings loomed above me, mysterious black cliffs, the walls of a sharp-edged canyon designed by diligent demi-god drafting students. People called out to each other. I heard that the next blackout, a few years later, sparked violence and looting. But this was a curiously intimate disaster. When I got home we cooked dinner on the gas stove and my Mom read stories of heroic dogs aloud by candle-light.
Just before I went to bed that night I turned to her and said, with a sober, carefully-considered tone that startled and touched and amused her, “I’m having a happy childhood.”
I didn’t know what she meant and the only thing I had to hold onto was my stuffed tiger. I clutched him to my chest.