In 1958, the Pope declared Saint Claire the patron saint of television. Don't ask me why.
Khruschev came to power that year, and Nabakov's book “Lolita” was published in the US. It's also the year Billy “Miami” Coulter committed professional suicide. I was there when it happened. I tell you this because it marked something of a change in my life as well.
These are the things I remember.
On Saturday, I met Billy in the Village for lunch at a place called “The Purple Cukes.” By day, it was a restaurant. Served the best lasagna in all the civilized world. At night, it was a place that sold more drinks than food, and people like Billy convened for social reasons, hence the name, which was a kind of in-joke for gay men, most of whom were thoroughly stashed in the closet back then, for fear of losing their day jobs.
Billy, who everyone called Miami back then, was sitting with a man he introduced to me as “Ramon, a Spaniard.”
“Ramon, meet Jesse. Jesse? Ramon.”
He leaned against Ramon and whispered loud enough for me to hear, “Ramon, dear boy, Jesse's not like me, but is, for all practical purposes, straight as straight can be, a regular Jack Armstrong, all-American boy.”
Billy sighed, blinked twice and said to me, “Isn't Ramon beautiful? But like you, he too prefers boobs and innies on all his sexual partners.”
I said, “Billy, for Chrissakes.” I was from Iowa. I'm still from Iowa.
“Don't worry, Jesse, I'll be good. Besides…” He sat up straight in the booth, put his hands on the table, face all serious, “…this is business. Did you read the play?”
“Yes, I did. It's …”
He cut me off, grinned like a cat with feathers in his teeth, said, “It's brilliant. I should know. I wrote it. Will you take the part of Manny?”
“The lead? In a heartbeat. When do we start?”
“Easy, boy, easy. We'll meet with the money man today. Everything, even art runs on money. We're all whores of one kind or another.”
I looked around. The Purple Cukes was hardly a proper place for a wine and dine.
“No. After lunch, we go to my place. Ramon, here, has consented to play Gonzales.”
“So, who plays …”
Billy smiled and said, “I wrote that part for Gwen Thomas. Do you know her?”
“But, Billy, Gwen would never …”
“She won't work with you, I know that. Just kidding. I've heard the stories, you naughty, naughty boy. Don't worry, I found a woman who's perfect for the part of Lucille, name of Angela Pierce. She literally is Lucille. You don't know her. She's… a singer, but she's a natural, has the most perfect accent for the part of Lucille, what I call ‘high Loosianne' and sooo airy, breathy is the word, I believe, like Marilyn Monroe with a taste for Proust and a fever.”
Ramon had said not a word as yet, but when he did, his English came off with a curious British inflection, “Jesse, I recognize you now, you're the fellow who does the pushups in that Bromstein play… off-Broadway. Brilliant vehicle, that. The play is not that good, I hear, but you got wonderful reviews. What a fantastic idea. Who would have thought of pushups as a way for an actor to…”
I cut him off. “Show closes tomorrow.”
“Oh.” He picked up his coffee cup, sipped twice, put it back, and said “I'm sorry to hear that.”
We went to Billy's place after lunch, a massive apartment in the West 50's, beautifully furnished in what was called ‘modern,' the height of fashion, blonde and Swedish. I'd always believed he owned the building, though, in retrospect, perhaps not. I doubt that Billy would have relied so much on someone else to produce his plays if he was as wealthy as everyone thought. Nonetheless, Billy came from money. His father owned land in Florida adjacent to the strip in Miami, the city where Billy was born and raised, hence the nickname.
The money man we met was Benjamin Stone, who had not yet moved to Hollywood, but produced some of the better plays and musicals on Broadway. There was a vacuum out west in those days, due to long standing vacancies created by McCarthy inspired blacklists. It eventually sucked quite a few big names out there from New York, but people were still shy of taking the risk. Stone eventually took a few people with him when he made the move. Everybody knew he would and tried to remain in his favor.
After the introductions, Stone waved a hand as if to assume command. He lifted the script he'd brought and flipped through the pages with his thumb as he spoke.
“Billy… loved the play. We're all really excited about it. You've got a real hit here. Pure drama. Hits you like a two by four and then cuts your heart out for good measure.”
Billy smiled. “So when do we start, Ben? I think we should try to…”
Stone waved his hand again. “Hold on, Billy, two things we wanna change first. Nothing big, but they are deal breakers. We gotta have ‘em before we can commit.”
Billy turned his head to the side as though surprised. “Two things?”
“First, the setting. Instead of Deep South, I think maybe you should do a little rewrite, set it in the Mid-West, Kansas maybe.”
Billy looked shocked. “What?”
Stone waved his hand again. “Shouldn't be that difficult, really. And your by-line, Miami Coulter. I think you should use your given name, not your nickname, and use Billy, not William. This play's a hit and when we…”
Billy interrupted. “What's wrong with Miami? People have called me Miami for as long as I …”
Stone waved his hand. “Perceptions, Billy. The reasons should be obvious, I mean, look… your play's set in the Deep South, your nickname's on the script, Miami? Come on… Put it all together, it sounds like you're trying to emulate Tennessee Williams to a point where any fool can connect the dots… plus, add in the fact that, like him, you're…”
Stone shook his head, waved his hand. “Well, that's not the word I would…”
“As a three dollar bill. Yes, darling, I am. So what? I'm a queer. You're a Jew. Everybody's something.”
Stone went silent.
The meeting went south.
Billy leaned forward in his chair. “Tennessee Williams is a god! Why wouldn't I wish to emulate Tennessee Williams? But I'm not. And what's any of that got to do with this play? My play? This whole story breathes the Deep South. You want Kansas? They don't grow cotton in Kansas, do they? And even if they did, I don't know shit about Kansas. What's more…”
Billy paused. He was truly angry and the words began to resemble his mood, ugly.
“What's more, isn't it Saturday? Shouldn't you be in shul, Mister Stone? Or is it Stein?”
Stone's eyes narrowed. Without waving his hand, Stone quietly said, “What are you trying to say, Mister Coulter?”
Billy was livid, but controlled. He stood and with the most pronounced southern accent I ever heard him intone, said, “I'm not tryin', Stein, I'm sayin' it, an' what I'm saying is that I think you want too much… and for what? The money? I can find money, sir, and I don't need to go to the goddamned Jews to get it. Perceptions, my ass! In fact, kiss my ass!”
I could not believe he said that.
Billy wasn't like that. I don't know where it came from. It all happened so quickly that I was literally shocked by how fast it went bad. I'd never heard Billy talk like that before, ever. I tried to intervene, but it had gone too far. It was over.
Stone left without saying another word.
I offered to go after Stone, bring him back so Billy could fix it, but he said it was okay, that he'd find the money, but he didn't. Never got his play produced. That's when everyone figured out that Billy didn't really have the money they thought he had. Then it got bad for him, kind of like blood in the water to the sharks when people in the business see your vulnerabilities.
Nobody would touch his play after Stone got to talking around town. In fact, from what I heard, people started dropping Billy from every sort of inclusion around town.
He more or less disappeared.
Ramon got a job as a waiter in a restaurant in Spanish Harlem and met Fidel Castro when the Cuban came to New York to speak at the UN. I ended up driving a cab for a few months and, curiously, wound up taking Ben Stone to the airport when he made his first trip out to Hollywood. That was my big break.
Meantime, Billy went to California, tried to get into pictures writing screenplays, but was shut out as surely as if he'd been blacklisted. Ramon wound up moving to Havana where he became some kind of cultural minister for the Revolution, got married to an actress down there, and they had eight children, all girls, pretty little Communists, one of whom is now Stateside, a young woman named Esmeralda, if you can believe that, getting starring roles in Indie films.
Me? Well, when I picked him up in the cab in front of Sardi's, Stone recognized me from the play I'd done off-Broadway. He said, “I know you. You're the pushup guy.”
People forgot about the play, but always remembered the pushups.
He also remembered me as one of the two actors present when Billy Coulter went off on him. When he mentioned that and said something nasty about Billy, I agreed with him. I even bad-mouthed Billy myself, called him a limp-wristed Nazi. Then, I segued into a pitch, told Stone how hard it was to get parts in New York, said I was thinking of taking a trip out to Hollywood. He wrote a number down on a card, gave it to me, and said to use his name as a reference. Three weeks later, I was on a movie set in California and I've been working steady ever since.
Well, not ever since. I've more or less retired, but steady work made that possible.
In 1997, Billy Coulter died of AIDS in a very bad hotel in Fresno, what they used to call an SRO, single-room-occupancy, the kind of place where retired priests and alcoholic salesmen go to die. He might have been broke for all I know, Billy. Must have been. I saw the place where he lived. It was really bad.
I went to his funeral and it was the Who's Who of Village ex-pats, Broadway has-beens, and Hollywood hangers-on in Southern California. There's quite a few. Big club. Might surprise you. A lot of those people knew Billy, liked him, called him a friend, said it was a shame that a gifted man like that never lived up to the promise he demonstrated back in New York. I doubt, though, that if any one of those people ever had the chance to do so, they would have given him a break. The man was brilliant, for certain, but that's no guarantee of a payday, is it?
Everybody wants a payday.
They call it art, but in the end, it's all about the payday.
Life is hard.
In 1958, Billy was a good friend to me, willing to give me a lead role in his magnus opus, a play that both of us knew could have been, would have been a big hit, maybe led to a film. Do I feel bad about what I said about him to Ben Stone that day in the cab?
Of course. I'm from Iowa. I'm still from Iowa.
Would I take it back? What I said? If I had it all to do over again?
Sure, I would.
All rights reserved.
You may have seen a shorter version of this here. One of eight loosely linked and 'traditional' short stories I'm going to re-write after the novel's done, set in the 50's... Might try pawning it off as a collection.
Love short stories.
Love the 50's.