George Axelrod was a great Hollywood screenwriter who defined highbrow comedy and male-female relations for an era. In truth he may not have so much defined male-female relations as reflected them, the last “classy” gasp of the postwar male dominance in a culture that was fast changing. NC Contributor Steven Axelrod offers here a gorgeous addition to our Fathers Series, his loving but frank look at his father’s life and legacy, a monumental essay from the guy who knew because he watched, as only a little boy can, his father bestriding his world like a god, like myth itself, and finally crumbling from the pedestal.
My father,was afraid of everything, and he passed most of his fears down to me. Some of them remain latent, drugged guard dogs stirring in their sleep at a snapping twig or a heavy footfall: moments of agoraphobia checking into a big hotel in a new city. I consider hiding out in the room, I inventory the miniature bottles of booze; then I button myself up to the neck and the feeling passes, like a chill. I hesitate before boarding an airplane, flinch before walking into an elevator and I feel the ghosts of my father’s phobias haunting me, like his voice in the back of my head, that wry half-drunk ongoing commentary: “That was a room-emptier, dear boy.”
Yet he was capable of convulsions of courage. After stalling for weeks, my step-mother Joanie running interference for him with the studio or the producer or the star (“When I say I have sixty pages, it means I’m about to start”), my father would lock himself in a room and work for thirty hours straight until he finished the script, turning it in on time and camera-ready. It might seem like mere mulish persistence, but nothing frightened my father more than a blank page and a deadline.
In high school he sat with the visiting football team’s fans and cheered on the opposition. Then he took a bat from the athletic department, arming himself against the drunken jocks he knew would storm his room, seeking revenge. He never graduated from high school, though he told me his P.E. teacher there gave him the best advice of his life. “You’re useless at sports,” the man said. “You should play with the girls.”
Dad told me: “I’ve been doing that ever since.”
Women never scared him, I have to give him that.
A Self-Made Man
He arrived in New York City before World War II, with no credentials, no real education and a family who disapproved of his ambitions. He walked into radio writer-producer Goodman Ace’s office looking for a job. The interview was a brief one: “Come back tomorrow with ten jokes.”
He worked for several years on “Mr. Ace and Jane” and “Easy Aces” writing the type of malapropisms that would be associated with another cunningly professional air-head, Gracie Allen, years later: “He lives on the poor side of town, in those Old Testament houses,” and “You could have knocked me over with a fender.”
My father always had faith in his own talent. He never had much beyond it to trust. His grandfather was a tyrant, his father was a tyrant’s prey who gave up his own career in show business under the threat of disinheritance. His grandfather, Jacob Axelrod, was the son of a Silesian rabbi, a Tzadic of the Hasidim, and Jacob was next in line. He fled that responsibility and arrived at Ellis island with fifty cents in his pocket. But of course he also had the steel to stand up to the absolute ruler of his fiercely insular religious sect, the arrogance to defy his father and the courage to sail away into the unknown, owning nothing and knowing no one. Fifty years later he was a different kind of king – a real estate maven who had bought and sold dizzying amounts of property in lower Manhattan. No one knows quite how he did it; or why, ten years later, he threw himself off the roof of one of his own buildings.
When my kids were little, my ex-wife took them to the refurbished Ellis island, where my daughter found old Jacob’s name on an interactive computer list of 19th century immigrants. “That’s Daddy’s ancestor!” she said.
“Yours, too,” her mother reminded her. It was a stunning moment for a twelve year old girl. She asked me about Jacob, but I never found out much myself – how he created his empire, or came to regret it so profoundly. But his son Herman, who attended Columbia University with Oscar Hammerstein and collaborated with the great lyricist on some collegiate Varsity shows, received an ultimatum from Jacob: if he didn’t abandon show business and join the family real estate firm, he would be disowned and disinherited. So he knuckled under.
Interestingly, Hammerstein’s father was similarly hostile to his son’s career choice. But the old man died before Oscar graduated. Herman had to wait another thirty years for his own freedom. The day after Jacob’s funeral, Herman quit the real estate business and took up painting and sculpture. His work had been exhibited in a dozen museums by the time he died.
Unfortunately, he never learned the essential lesson about parental tyranny: quarantine it in your own generation. Almost against his will, it sometimes seemed, he passed the paternal cruelty down the line, along with his brown eyes and his creativity.
He sent George to the Hill School which the boy hated; just as George sent my brother to Hotchkiss, which was just as bad. This heartless dictatorial compulsion loomed like a Biblical curse over all of us, and my brother never had children partly because he feared it so much. Would he have sent his own kids to military school and threatened them with exile if they didn’t join the family law firm? We’ll never know. But none of us would have been surprised.
So my father launched himself away into the unknown just as his grandfather had done. Unlike Jacob, he had no gift for intimidation, no uncompromising greed, no lust for power – just a wry sense of humor and a working typewriter. It turned out to be enough.
“Just finish something,” my mother told him. “You’ll sell it.”
The Best Day
So he did, which led to one of the great high points, the days he always rated ‘10’, in his life. This was the best one of all.
My father’s play, The Seven Year Itch, had opened and by the time rehearsals were finished he was sure he had a useless mess on his hands: snappy first act, weak second act, disastrous finish. Emlyn Williams — best known for writing The Corn is Green — was performing in a play about Charles Dickens a block away and helped trim Itch with something he called “interlinear cutting”: taking out individual words, clipping the play sentence by sentence without losing any major scenes. It worked. The play improved. It got tighter, and most of all shorte, but it remained flawed. My father was terrified of the reviews, and he stayed away from the traditional Sardi’s vigil of getting quietly drunk and waiting for the New York Times to hit the street. He left the theater after the first act and went home to bed.
He woke up the next morning to find no food in the refrigerator. My mother, two months pregnant with me, was busy with my brother Peter, fussing and colicky at age four. Their bank account was over-drawn, so he pulled on his Burberry raincoat, too thin for the early winter chill, and walked out into the spitting wet snow to beg a small cash advance from the box office.
The date was November 20th, 1952. The time was eight thirty-five in the morning.
He arrived at the theater, shivering, and just stood across the street, staring at the vision of his life from that moment on, absolutely and irrevocably transformed. The line stretched from the box office down 46th street, all the way to Eighth Avenue and around the corner, men and women in their bulky coats, shuffling in the wind-whipped sleet waiting for the box office to open two hours later. The first of them must have arrived before dawn.
He stood a watched them for a long time. Then he got his advance and took a cab home to read the reviews.
Six months later he was in Hollywood.
A year later he was divorced.
“People often ask me, which is more rewarding – parenthood or writing,” he used to tell me. “It’s funny because you and The Seven Year Itch were born in the same year. Itch is more successful than you, funnier than you, richer than you, more popular than you. It’s held up better than you. I’d say it’s no contest.” I tell people that anecdote and observe with detached amusement the shock on their faces. The remark was only incidentally cruel; much more than that it was simply an irresistible joke, one which he knew I’d get, and more importantly, one aimed more devastatingly at himself than at me.
He was a bad father, I suppose. But I inherited from him a need to be entertained and a delight at being amused that rendered his mundane failings irrelevant. He could always make me laugh.
Almost twenty-five years after Itch’s triumphant opening, he failed in his struggle to get another play, Feeling No Pain, mounted on Broadway. The gimmick of this new musical was that the protagonist had rented the theater for the night of his fiftieth birthday, to review his life in front of an audience of friends and enemies, colleagues and critics, before committing suicide on stage in the dramatic finale.
He wrote the lyrics for the songs, whose titles reveal his state of mind – “Are you Gonna Change” (The answer, emphatically no); “The Ladies Love Me” and the title number.
Jerry Lewis was committed but backed out. Jack Lemmon signed on but begged off when his wife Felicia balked at moving their kids across country for the length of the run. With no star the project fell apart. I may have the only extant copy of the play, and even that manuscript remains incomplete.
The partial script gives some hints about why his first marriage failed. Richard Bender, the protagonist, imagines the relationship as a serialized radio soap opera. He brings out the performers and the mikes in the stripped-down stage version of a radio station recording studio:
Okay, take it. We’re on the air.
(An ORGAN PLAYS a RADIO THEME; in the manner of radio actors, they drop the pages to the floor as they finish them)
(As the announcer)
Ladies and gentlemen, once again we take you down Fifth Avenue to the corner of West Eleventh Street, up three flights and into apartment D for another heart-warming episode of ‘Our Gal Sarge’, a story which poses the problem: Can an attractive, well born, socially conscious young housewife, mother and ardent worker for the League of Women Voters find romance and happiness married to a handsome but frivolous and dissolute comedy writer so lacking in political awareness, that he would not even work for Henry Wallace?
(He puts his hand over the mike and speaks to the audience)
These things were always written from the woman’s point of view.
My mother’s point of view? “I stuck it out for his psychoanalysis, but he wouldn’t stick it out for mine.” In fact, she thought my father’s psychiatrist was the heart of the problem. His solution to the problem of George’s phobias was “Just take a drink, it’ll calm your nerves.”
He took the advice and it almost killed him.
My mother wanted him to write something great; she wanted him to stop drinking and save his money. He wanted to write sex farces, get bombed and when he ran out of money just make more. My mother was a depression baby; my father just thought she was depressed.
Joan Stanton, the stunning blond he met on a Fire Island beach that summer, saw things his way. When the call came from Billy Wilder, inviting George out to Los Angeles as the Seven Year Itch movie screenwriter, my mother begged him to save his soul and stay in New York.
Joanie booked the plane tickets.
She was always good at handling the details.
The Golden Age of Hollywood
They lived quite a life, and I saw brief glimpses of it on school vacations: sitting around the pool with Tony Curtis, planning “Gemini” birthday parties, spending money in style, with houses at the beach and in town, freezers full of steaks cooked on the built-in electric charcoal grill, the screenings and openings (Though he had to get drunk to attend them); and the movies themselves, on which his reputation still rests – Bus Stop, Breakfast and Tiffany’s, The Manchurian Candidate, How to Murder Your Wife. The banner quote in the Life magazine article about Murder, summed up his attitude in those days. Was Italian newcomer Virni Lisi a star? ”SHE’S A STAR BECAUSE I SAY SHE’S A STAR.”
The embedded video is from home movies taken by Roddy McDowall at Dad’s Holmby Hills house in the mid sixties. This was his glory time and you can see it in these silent sun dappled moments caught by Roddy’s ever-present 8 mm camera.
Glamor floated in the air like pollen. But it rarely merited more than a sneeze. I remember one afternoon, inspecting the wedding invitation from Frank Sinatra and Mia Farrow: a big glamor portrait of them, with the date and the RSVP inside. Mia Farrow’s mother was Maureen O’Sullivan, who played Jane in a series of Johnny Weismuller Edgar Rice Burroughs adaptations. Somehow this detail crystallized the absurdity of the affair for my father. He laughed and said “Me Tarzan, you Frank Sinatra’s mother-in-law.”
It was an immensely attractive world, a privileged realm of celebrity, warm winters and ripe orange, a sunlit David Hockney world of pale blue swimming pools and cool Mexican tile. An Architectural Digest world of dinners on the patio with views of the city lights, brilliant nights of conversation with the startlingly life-sized people most people would never meet, cashmere against the desert chill; palm trees swaying and bougainvillea blooming red among the faint smells of cut grass and eucalyptus. “One of the great pleasures of success in the movie business,” my father said to me on one of those evenings, “Is that the people you most want to meet want to meet you just as much.”
It was paradise. But it couldn’t last.
My father started directing his own scripts, resulting in a brutal pair of flops. First came the quirky masterpiece Lord Love A Duck (“An act of pure aggression”), which “went from failure to classic, without ever passing through success,” as he liked to put it.
Roddy McDowall played Tuesday Weld’s high school fairy godfather in that odd dark film, guiding her with faultless cynicism through the obstacle course of teen-age life, even organizing the death of her odious step-father. Ruth Gordon played the batty mother-in-law whose tart “In our family we don’t divorce our men, we bury them” summed up her caustic point of view. Ultimately Mollymauk, as Roddy’s character calls himself (“A bird thought to be extinct, but isn’t”) engineers his protégé’s rise to movie stardom, in the appropriately titled “Bikini Widow”.
The scene where Mollymauk teaches Tuesday Weld’s character to manipulate her father into buying her a load of cashmere sweaters is worth the price of admission all by itself. There’s a simple equation to remember, he explains: father + divorce x guilt2= sweaters to the 12th power.
Then came The Secret Life of an American Wife. My father judged movies by their titles as he judged champagne by how hard it was to get the cork out, with equal success. Even he knew that the film’s clumsy name boded ill. He preferred The Connecticut Look but studio marketing people worried that foreigners wouldn’t understand it. , (“What do you think she’s talking about when she refers to her ‘rapidly spreading Connecticut behind?” I remember him shouting at some studio bean-counter)
Except for a lovely one act chamber piece between Anne Jackson and Walter Matthau buried in the middle of the picture, it deserved the ignominious fate that spiteful critics and an indifferent audience forced upon it.
With the drinking getting worse and the failures piling up behind him, even Joanie, who was so good at manipulating people and bullying them, couldn’t get my father’s career back on track. She used his friends and colleagues to build her own decorating business, and would gladly tell anyone who asked (and some who didn’t) that she’d been the real breadwinner in the family for decades. She owned a shop in Beverly Hills called The Staircase, which featured the circular staircase from The Seven Year Itch as its main decorative motif. She sold Porthault sheets there and expanded her business exponentially with a Who’s Who of Hollywood celebrities. She had the glow of a pregnant woman when she was in the middle of some massive Bel Air renovation; my father used to say “She’s lovely when she’s with house.”
“What Have You Written Lately?”
And so, after raising two children (one from Joanie previous marriage, and a daughter of their own), after flipping twelve houses (including one on Carbon beach they sold because Joanie couldn’t stand the sound of the ocean), after their opposite career trajectories, hers to the top of what you might call celebrity interior design, and his to the bottom of a world he had owned in another era, she handled his induction to the Bette Ford Centre, and paid the bill for his rehab.
They’d been separated for a while before that, and Dad had been living a different version of the high life, a mockery of his earlier glory, paying a spectacular Las Vegas hooker full time wages to act the part of his girlfriend, and later, moving back to London, almost killing himself in a savage bender after a battle with the Grosvenor Estates over the matter of a bicycle left in common hallway.
He returned from his ordeal in Palm Springs hurt and humbled, beaten but not broken, determined to stay sober for as long as he could. And I couldn’t help thinking of Neil Simon, with whom he’d toiled in writers’ rooms in the late forties, with whom he had clashed over Dad’s miscasting of Simon’s weakest play, during the winter of 1966. Walter Kerr memorably began his review of The Star Spangled Girl this way: “Neil Simon didn’t have an idea for a play this year, but he wrote one anyway.”
As alcohol scuttled my father’s career in the seventies and eighties, Neil Simon steamed along imperturbable and majestic, like some Cunard luxury liner of comedy. Even his wife’s tragic death and his private struggle to start living again generated a hit play.
Maybe his shrink said “Man up” instead of “Hit the bottle.”
It was a peculiar sad time, those decades of ruminant sobriety between Dad’s stay at Bette Ford and his reversion to white wine on his death bed. He was struggling to start his career again, taking meetings just as I was, doing odd writing jobs for mentally defective, drug-addled producers, just as I was doing. He was a has-been, I was a never-had-been, but nevertheless, we had a lot in common.
One incident in particular sums up that era. It was the spring of 1978. He was called into a studio meeting “with a bunch of twenty year olds” who told him they wanted to do a glamorous World War II period piece thriller, full of romance and intrigue, set on a train. He told them, “It’s been done. The picture is called The Lady Vanishes.” Blank stares. “Directed by Alfred Hitchcock?” Nothing. He told them to screen the 1938 classic and get back to him. Sure enough, they called the next week and set up another meeting. “We loved it,” they told him. “It was awesome. We want you to write it.”
He explained that it had already been written, generally the first step in the film-making process.
“No, no,” the twenty year-old VP development told him. “The movie’s in black and white. We want you to write it in color.”
So he did, carefully annotating the green plush sofas and the red wine.
Dad was flown to the location to coach Cybill Shepherd on her line readings, but his ideas didn’t register and his opinions didn’t prevail. “Let’s see what she brings to it,” the director finally decreed. “As far as I could tell,” Dad told me, “She brought a nice head of hair and a Porsche.”
The near-misses and dead-ends continued: the script he wrote with Joan Rivers that the fine intellects at Universal determined to be ‘too vulgar’ (but wasn’t that the point?); another original that featured an impossibly boring Secretary of Defense (Even when warning the president of imminent threats, he’s so dull that the President nods off, the red telephone “slipping through his nerveless fingers”). The man happens to be a separated-at-birth triplet. One of his brothers is a brilliant stand-up comedian, the other a drunken, gambling addicted sociopath. When they all get together, hi-jinks ensue. It was called The Importance of Being Irving, and like so much that Dad wrote, it fell apart in the third act. He knew it, and tried to get various writer/stand-ups to help him revise and star. He said he was ‘too proud’ to ask his pal Steve Martin, who would have been perfect for the role and could have helped with the writing also. Too bad: I really wanted to see that one.
Then there was Grandpa. Like so many abortive projects, this could have been the one that turned things around for him. He described the origin of the project in one of his famous one-page letters:
What could go wrong? It started with a few months of radio silence from John Hughes, then a full page ad in Variety clarified the situation. Hughes was making Home Alone 3, and the subtitle was Lost in New York. Hughes had taken what he needed from George’s idea and left him with the unsalable remnants. Or so it seemed to my father. He no longer had the heart to begin again.
In 1988 my step-brother Jonathan organized the re-release of The Manchurian Candidate, and the video below — a round-table discussion with star Frank Sinatra and director John Frankenheimer — gives an invaluable glimpse of my father during this difficult period.
Twilight of the Gods
George and Joan were back together after his boot camp stint of high-toned rehab in Palm Springs, and the Sunday lunches remained a pleasure, a luxurious testing ground of excellent food and sophisticated talk. To this day I judge people at least part by how well they would have fit into those long tipsy afternoons overlooking the smog-bound clutter of the city and the blue desert of the Pacific. Would Joanie have said of this girlfriend or that one, “Charming girl, very bright. Wonderful addition to the life.”? Would my father have flirted with her shamelessly, asking her his patented trick questions (“When did you know you knew?”), while Joanie sipped white wine, and watched out of the corner of her eye while she discussed the seating hierarchy at Morton’s? I often think about that question and I always know the answer.
Of course Joanie ruled those gatherings with her perfect social graces and her iron will. But she let George hold court at the table. She ruled him in every way, until the very end, when she gave him an order he couldn’t follow. Dying of cancer just after the 9/11 attacks, she wanted him to take a Krevorkian-style cocktail of drugs and die with her. I know it sounds like something out of a gothic novel or some camp film with over-the-hill movie stars, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, perhaps: a deranged, wild-haired Bette Davis, screeching “we’re going to die TOGETHER!” But if you knew Joanie, nothing could surprise you. This was a woman who could break the lock of her teen age daughter’s diary, breeze past the pathetic note asking her not to read further, and then not only read it cover to cover, but declaim the dirty parts aloud, to her daughter’s hated boyfriend, the next night at dinner.
My father managed to refuse her somehow, despite the giant force of her will. She actually was weakening at last, like an exiled dictator or a great writer falling into dementia, and he lived two more years after she died. They were bedridden years, he needed help with the mortifying basics of life, but he was still able to fly an entourage of medical personnel with him to Las Vegas for a final gambling blow-out, still able to make me laugh over a good bottle of Pouilly Fuisee.
Of course I couldn’t help thinking that he was burning through the last of what would have been my inheritance – money saved and still coming in from both his work and Joanie’s, as projects she had initiated – like the new nursery wing in Norman Lear’s Vermont mansion – rolled on without her.
And then he died and I flew out to Los Angeles for the memorial service.
I knew I was going to speak in front of the gallery of his surviving friends and I flew out a week early. I spent the time writing and memorizing my eulogy. I could feel the ghost of my father’s own nervous panic addressing a crowd, and I fought it down just the way he did in his later years, when he couldn’t get drunk first any more: relentless preparation and unlimited effort in the name of making the excruciating look easy.
The euology isn’t much, really — just a hint of who he was, like the menu posted outside a four star restaurant or a photograph of the Grand Canyon.
This is what I said:
A Brief Farewell
I’ll make this short, because that’s how Dad liked it. He had a rule at dinner. Everyone wanted to tell the story of the book or comic book they had just read, or the movie or TV show they had just seen. That was fine, as long as they could do it in three sentences. It was great – all you’d hear for minutes at a time was the sound of grinding teeth as various kids tried to boil down a Star Trek episode, or Lawrence of Arabia … or Moby Dick into three sentences. You could almost hear them: “OK – there’s this whale … no. There’s this guy who was chasing the whale … no, wait …”
It was okay. You were better off listening at that table, anyway.
You could learn a lot at dinner; sometimes meals turned into informal writing seminars. My Dad loved verbs, and he hated adjectives. Once he challenged me to describe something we were eating, some little meat pastry. I said it was flaky and savory and delicious. Three adjectives: no good. He used two nouns and a verb: “calories, lashed together with garlic.” He taught me Logan’s Law: (The theatre director Josh Logan was a great mentor for him and one of his best friends for more than thirty years) “A hit movie or play is a series of scenes culminating in a final scene through which the hero learns something about himself, always emotionally and always for the better. “ And it’s true – from Breakfast at Tiffany’s to Rocky to The Lord of the Rings. Dad said a great thing about cutting once that always stuck with me. ‘You turn the story upside down and shake it. All the loose stuff falls out.”
He was always proud that he put a phrase into the language with the title of The Seven Year Itch. But he put a lot more phrases than that into my language. To this day I can’t look at a fattening dessert without hearing him saying “..and the best part is … it tears the weight off you.” I can’t sit looking at a blank page without his credo coming to mind: “Will write, if cornered.” I looked at the airline meal on the flight out here, and heard him say “Toy food.”
And as for the word ‘totter’, they should just retire it from the language now that he’s gone, the way they retired Wayne Gretzky’s number when he quit playing hockey.
Dad could be a tough audience. I’ll never forget watching a young comedian trying his act on him one Sunday at lunch. Dad just sat there saying, “Good. That’s funny.” But he never even cracked a smile. Finally the comic got exasperated and said “Don’t you ever just laugh?” Dad shrugged. “No,” he said. “But don’t feel bad. My eyes are twinkling merrily.”
I wrote a suspense novel and asked him to cut it. He took more than a third of it out. When I complained, he shrugged and said, “I could cut a minute thirty from the Book of Genesis if I really had to.” The edit was a huge job and a lot of work, taken from his own busy schedule. But the gesture was typically generous. My friends and I often heard him ask, “How much money would change your life?” If you thought about it and told him, he’d give it to you. It didn’t always take much. One night when my friend Stephen Salinger was broke and waiting on tables at Ma Maison, my Dad tipped him a hundred dollars. It did the trick; Stephen never forgot that night. Dad once ordered a bottle of Mouton Rothschild ’59 in the Oak Room at the Plaza, just to show me what great wine tasted like. When he knew I needed it desperately, he swept me off to London for my senior year of High School … and thirty two years later, it’s still the best year of my life. I learned much more from him than I did in school – antiquing on the Portobello road, or at the Turner show at the Tate. He had to drag me out to see the Noel Coward tribute at the British Film Institute. Hey, I was seventeen. It was a great night as well as Coward’s last public appearance ever.
It’s strange, standing in this house without Dad and Joanie here. Not even this house exactly… there have been so many over the years. This is just the most recent one. All of them, from 1018 Benedict Canyon to 301 North Carolwood, from 56 Chester Square to Malibu to Lloydcrest Drive, all had the same spirit. And most of them had the same bar. I got drunk for the first time in my life at that bar. And I don’t think I’m the only one. Anyway … for most my life these houses have been like the world capital of wit and sophistication. If any of them are haunted, there are going to be some great parties going on, with some very classy ghosts.
Dad was a wonderful host, but he was cripplingly shy.
He was full of contradictions, mostly between the cynical things he said and the big-hearted way he lived. He used to say there was no one as tedious as a reformed drunk. But he was one himself for the better part of two decades with no loss of charm or style. An English magazine once asked him to comment on the phrase “All the world loves a lover.” He said, “Funny you should ask. Right now my son is in love, my daughter is in love, my cook is in love, my secretary is in love, even the man who picks up my trash is in love. They stand under my window all night long, baying about it. So in response to your question, I would have to say that all the world does not love a lover. In fact all the world is bored to tears by a lover.”
This from a man who was married – with a one short break – to the same woman for more than fifty years. He had nothing against love. He just couldn’t take it seriously.
If there is a heaven, and I know he didn’t believe in that stuff, I can picture him at some celestial Ma Maison (The number is still unlisted), St. Peter bringing him a bottle of white wine to the table instantly. Dad is ordering lunch – that was his specialty just like Patrick O’Neal’s character in Secret Life. There are some old friends around the table. Maybe he’s even pausing between courses, looking down on this gathering today, listening to my little speech. Not laughing, of course.
But perhaps his eyes are twinkling merrily.
Right now, I’d be happy to settle for that.
I tried to side-step any obvious sentimentality. He hated sentimentality. He used to say every Steven Spielberg movie could be titled with the prefix, “How I spent my summer vacation” (As a sharecropper, in a Japanese internment camp, hiding an alien, chasing a shark, saving Jews from the Nazis). He would walk out of a play if the curtain rose to reveal a refrigerator on the stage (he hated ‘kitchen sink’ drama) and once dragged me out of Man of La Mancha in a theater with no center aisle.
My stepbrother was brusque and succinct at the memorial service, my brother and sister read from prepared notes, though Nina’s gesture of chucking her cell phone into the swimming pool felt spontaneous. Our father hated the telephone (“For a dime anyone in this country can ring a bell in my house”) and he especially hated cell-phones.
Everyone seemed to think I spoke extemporaneously. Dad would have liked that. And I killed.
He would have liked that best of all.
Steven Axelrod holds an MFA in writing from Vermont College of the Fine Arts and remains a member of the WGA despite a long absence from Hollywood. In addition to Numéro Cinq, his work has appeared at Salon.com and various magazines, including PulpModern and BigPulp. A father of two, he lives on Nantucket Island, Massachusetts, where he paints houses and writes, often at the same time, much to the annoyance of his customers.
Click here for the complete NC Fathers Series.
I am new to NC–this is the first piece I’ve read here–and oh my what an introduction. Your observation about the eulogy, “just a hint of who he was, like the menu posted outside a four star restaurant or a photograph of the Grand Canyon” is so beautiful, even though you succeed in compassionately evoking so much about your father’s complexity in the different epochs of his life. Thank you.
Thanks, and welcome to NC. I think of it as a four star road side restaurant on the information super highway. Cheers!
Perfect description of this wonderful website: “[F]our star road side restaurant on the information super highway.”
Spent high school and junior high in Falmouth on the Cape and may have been conceived in a Nantucket B&B. Looking forward to reading your Nantucket fiction, Mr. Axelrod!
(PS – My husband and I were once in a video store in the early 90’s, and a somewhat clueless clerk had re-stocked “How To Murder Your Wife” in the How-To section, along with the cooking, bike repair, and crocheting videotapes) 🙂
Lovely tribute, Steve.
What a gem. Really enjoyed this, Steve.
Thanks for re-posting on Facebook. I may not be going viral, but I definitely feel a cold coming on! Internet disappointments: “I thought I was going viral, but it was just an allergy thing,”
How wonderful Steven! This new art form of Internet essay did justice to your father and to your life with him. The links added so much, but it was your perfect writing that performed the honors.
And you killed it! This essay is like your eulogy. You inherited your father’s gifts, including that sweet generosity of spirit coupled with a deadly wit.
I laughed all the way through at your father’s jokes and at yours. I was totally entertained and deeply moved. Sorry for all the adjectives!
Fascinating snapshot of a bygone time and very brave writing. The home movie was stunning. Best regards.
P.S. You look very much like your dad!
I’m delighted yo have come across your essay about your father on Facebook. I’ve long been in awe of what your father accomplished in “Manchurian Candidate,” which is the subject for an essay of my own. It’s an all-but-perfect movie; as I remember, it was re-released in ’88 on Mother’s Day weekend . I’m sure you can appreciate the tastiness of such a timely event.
Manchurian was my initial interest in projects Axelrod (I even saw Lord Love a Duck in a theater after either Judith Crist or Pauline Kael raved about it. I didn’t understand a bit of it, being 14 at the time). I wanted to say something about this essay and how impressed I was by it. Writing about one’s father is tough enough; writing candidly and thoughtfully and yes, bravely about a father who also happened to be a terrific writer is a task I can hardly imagine contemplating, let alone accomplishing so well. A few years ago, I remember pitching you, as a fellow contributor to the late lamented Open Salon, for a story about your father as part of an anthology about fatherhood I imagined I could put together. You cheerfully agreed and I just as cheerfully said thanks and never went much further with the idea. It strikes me now that this was a good thing. Your essay would have put every other contribution in the shade.
Thank you for writing such a revealing, insightful and, yes, entertained reminiscence. Jeremiah