Wednesday, June 30, 2010


Harry Mathews My Life in CIA (Normal, Illinois: Dalkey Archive Press, 2005).

I have long felt that Harry Mathews is one of the best American fiction writers who came of age in the mid-twentieth century, and his newest fiction confirms my opinion. Mathews’s 2005 work, My Life in CIA, might be said to represent a late-career shift in style and subject, imbuing his work with a new accessibility not unlike that of Gertrude Stein, whose late-life The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas has generally been represented by critics (including myself) as a simplification of her previous bravura techniques. Like Stein, Mathews appears in this work to be writing an autobiography, strange as that lived experience may seem, a work very different, for example, from his earlier convoluted tale of an obsessive journalist (hero of The Journalist) who uncovers shockingly “secret” information about his family and friends.

For one personally acquainted with Mathews as I am, the facts of this seemingly experiential recounting of his illusionary life as a CIA agent at first seem almost plausible. The tall and trim, often behatted Mathews—whom many individuals also mistakenly perceived as being gay (in part because he had several gay friends, John Ashbery among them) and as a man of “independent means” (even I presumed this, since he had, it appeared, two addresses in France, a Key West abode and an apartment in New York)—seemed almost to match the image one might conjure up of a CIA operative (although one must admit Mathews dressed, when I met him, far too foppishly to fit the mold.) In Paris of the early 1970s, accordingly, friends and strangers alike suspected that he was an agent, and the more he attempted to deny it the firmer they grew in their beliefs. The fact that he had a diplomat friend who became ambassador to Laos in the midst of the Viet Nam War and that Mathews visited him in Laos in 1965—information leaked, unknown to him, by real agents and perhaps members of the French Communist Party—gave credence to the gossip.

Understandably, Mathews—in reality an experimental author sympathetic with several liberal and leftist causes and the only American member of the French-based group of writers, mathematicians, and scientists called the Oulipo (Ouvrior de literature potentielle) who employ a wide range of formal constraints in their literary endeavors—grew increasingly distressed by these rumors. In 1972 Mathews met two Chileans, Silvia Uribe and Enrique Cabót, who encouraged him, along with other French friends, to enjoy his unwanted celebrity by embracing it, to pretend he was an agent, a game which might also give him entry to different elements of French society and, if nothing else, provide him with an entertaining avocation.

Part of the great fun of this “fiction” is Mathews’ recounting of how he goes about—often unwittingly—to establish his CIA identity, reasserting the rumors with more concrete evidence. Since most agents hide their activities behind fabricated employers, Mathews creates a mythical travel agency (named after his real avant-garde journal of Locus Solus), listing himself among other non-existent directors. The company, amazingly, attracts the interest of some who ask him to lecture and, others, ultimately, who hire him for covert deliveries of documents. Most of his efforts to establish his “CIA connection” are ridiculously ineffective: observing that someone appears to be following his footsteps, the author takes absurdly convoluted walks, marking his tracks in chalk upon certain buildings along the way, even renting a car to stage an imaginary “drop.” But when he meets a supposed businessman, Patrick Burton-Cheyne—a new acquaintance whose employment involves him in activities seemingly in synch with that of an undercover agent—Mathews is educated in new ruses which grow increasingly complex, ending in attempts to make contact with the French Communist Party and other organizations.

At this point, the reader also begins to realize that the seemingly plausible “adventures” of the author begin to move into the realm of marvelous fabulation, as Mathews describes various escapades, including several sexually unconsummated encounters with a beautiful woman and an interrupted sexual episode with a weaver of Turkish rugs, which ends with him being rolled up in the rug and his accidental delivery to a party of right-wing conspirators who, after a lavish dinner, play an Oulipean-like game of Squat in which he is forced to improvise lyrics rhymed with words such as swastika, haddock, jonquil, plectrum, gardenia and farthing while he and others dance.

As the story moves forward, Mathews—without completely perceiving the extent of his involvement—is caught up in a vortex of coincidental assumptions and events inevitably leading to his attempted assassination by individuals from both the political right and left. His advisor and friend Patrick disappears, and after failing to gain access to the Communists, he is warned for his own safety to leave France. His final escape reminds one of something out of a James Bond movie, as he seemingly kills one of his adversaries and apparently eludes his enemies by joining up with a family of sheep-herders.

Just as the author-narrator finds himself moving from what might be a very real dilemma to a fantastically absurd series of events, so too do we, as readers, experience a shift from a very plausible autobiographical tale to an entertaining invention. By book’s end we no longer can separate the “real” (his life in Paris, his friendship with the noted author Georges Perec, his involvement with Oulipo, etc.) from completely fabricated situations. Just as Stein weaves real events into a fictional autobiographical story with herself as the center of grand adulation, so too does Mathews present himself within the context of a great adventure worthy of being filmed by a major American studio. Even the author believes what he overhears in an East German café, that he has been “terminated with extreme prejudice”; for the prejudice emanates, perhaps, not only from some unknown outsider, but from the author himself.

Like Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Mathews represents his life through the voice of a being that is as fictional as any reader’s representation of his or her self. While it may be wonderful if others could perceive how exciting each of our lives has been, we might also find ourselves, like the hero of Mathews’s fiction, in great danger. For, if nothing else, our lies and selfishly coincidental participation in villainous acts would turn everyone against us, perhaps even our own consciences. Are not all Americans, for example, covert agents behind the war in Iraq? Were we not all, as political activists argued, somehow involved in the atrocities of Viet Nam? Perhaps that’s why so many Americans resist all attempts to describe and reveal the events of our own lives; for only those who remain ignorant of their involvement in the world can pretend to the innocence to which most of our countrymen seem to aspire.

Los Angeles, August 1, 2006


Betty Garrett in an early movie

Elaine Stritch

Betty Garrett: Closet Songwriter, with Betty Garrett, Debra Armani, Daniel Keough, Jack Kutcher, Robert W. Laur, Barbara Mallory, Lee Merweither, and Andy Taylor, Los Angeles/Theatre West [the performance I attended was on Sunday, November 18, 2007]

Elaine Stritch: At Liberty at the Carlyle, with Elaine Stritch, New York/Carlyle Café [the
performance I attended was on Friday, January 18, 2008]

Over the last few months I have witnessed two performances by musical legends, each woman recounting memorable events in her life and singing some of the notable numbers of her career. At ages 89 and 82 Betty Garrett and Elaine Stritch both are old enough to declare as Stritch does in her At Liberty at the Carlye, “I’m Still Here.” And in both cases, their primarily geriatric audiences attended these potentially embarrassing self-celebrations with total love and devotion.

My companion Howard and I saw Garrett on November 18 at what was to have been Los Angeles’s Theatre West’s last performance of Betty Garrett: Closet Songwriter, although the show was later extended for another week.

Garrett—whom we both loved for her acting in several film musicals we own on DVD—had chosen in this show to sing, along with seven other actors, music for which she had written the lyrics, and accordingly she didn’t have as rich material to work with as the slightly sassier and brassier Stritch. But along with her long-time friend Lee Meriwether (actress, journalist, and former Miss America winner) and other Theatre West regulars she entertainingly presented a medley of 28 songs interspersed with memories of her career.

Like Stritch’s life, Garrett’s is a story of amazing fortune and darkly sinister events. Beginning on Broadway as an understudy to Ethel Merman, Garrett’s career quickly rocketed as she performed in several plays and the musical revue Call Me Mister, where she famously sang “South America, Take It Away,” winning her the Donaldson Award. In 1944 she married actor Larry Parks (star of The Jolson Story and Jolson Sings Again) and moved to California, where she acted in a string of successful films, including Words and Music (1948), Take Me Out to the Ball Game, Neptune’s Daughter, On the Town (all three 1949), and My Sister Eileen (1955).

In 1951, however, Parks was subpoenaed to appear as one of a group of individuals connected with Hollywood before the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Of that group, only Bertolt Brecht and Larry Parks testified; ten others (Herbert Biberman, Lester Cole, Albert Maltz, Adrian Scott, Samuel Ornitz, Dalton Trumbo, Edward Dmytryk, Ring Larder, Jr., John Howard Lawson, and Alvah Bessie—a group which came to be called the Hollywood Ten) refused to answer questions and were all blacklisted.

A few years ago, at a memorial dedicated to the Hollywood Ten and an unstated apologia for the Writers and Directors Guilds’ complicities with the HUAC and McCarthy hearings, Howard and I saw Billy Crystal enacting Parks’ tormented testimony as he attempted to allay the questions of committee members. “I would prefer, if you would allow me, not to mention other people’s names. Don’t present me with the choice of either being in contempt of the Committee and going to jail or forcing me to really crawl through the mud to be an informer.” Later: “I don't think this is American justice...So I beg of you not to force me to do this." Reminding the committee that he had two small children, Parks confronted his questioners: "Is this the kind of heritage that I must hand down to them? Is this the kind of heritage that you would like to hand down to your children?" The committee insisted, however, that he name names. Although Parks was, accordingly, not added to the blacklist, his contract with Columbia Pictures nonetheless was soon cancelled and he made only three more films.

So too had Garrett’s film career ended, and the two of them had no choice but to form a musical team appearing in nightclubs and theatres across the United States, later, like Stritch, performing in England.

Betty is anything but bitter, and her lyrics, if at times satirically biting, are never cynical. While a large number of her song lyrics are mere rhymed ditties and “patter” songs, a few of these pieces, in particular “Remember Me” (a song written for her grand-daughter), “Lack-a-Daisy Day” (a number she performed with her husband on tour), and a song written for her close friend Lloyd Bridges and his family, “Bridges of Love” are charming songs, the first and last moving, if somewhat sentimental ballads. I believe the entire audience left Garrett’s show with even more admiration for her musical and acting contributions and her lifetime of sustained energy.

I had seen Stritch’s At Liberty on DVD several times, so I was prepared for the sometimes raw and down-to-earth humor of her artful autobiographical tribute to her survival and past. The treat for me was to see her so close-up in the Carlyle’s small dining room accompanied by the youngest person in the room, 15-year old Felix Bernstein, son of my dear friends Susan Bee and Charles Bernstein.

Felix, who is quite knowledgeable about musical theater and is an aficionado particularly of Stephen Sondheim, enjoyed this show which included three numbers by Sondheim: the previously mentioned “I’m Still Here,” and two songs from her legendary performance in Company, “The Little Things You Do Together” and “The Ladies Who Lunch.” But we also both took joy in her two Noël Coward numbers, “I’ve Been to a Marvelous Party” and Sail Away’s hilarious “Why Do the Wrong People Travel?” And who could not find pleasure in the simple “Something Good,” a song, Felix pointed out, with both music and lyrics by Richard Rodgers. Stritch’s perfectly timed telling of her travels each night from her role—like Garrett—as an understudy for Ethel Merman in New York to the New Haven production of Rodgers’ and Hart’s Pal Joey, where late in the show she performed the fabulous “Zip,” is one of the best skits of the show. Later, she would star in the national company role of Merman’s Call Me Madam.

Stritch’s humorous tales of her strict religious background (her uncle was Roman Catholic Archbishop of Chicago Samuel Cardinal Stritch) and her descriptions of her relationship (or perhaps one should say, lack of relationship) with Marlon Brando and intended marriage to Gig Young are alternatively funny and sad. Stitch was clearly unlucky in love (throwing over Ben Gazzara for Rock Hudson) until she met and married, later in her life, the British actor John Bay, living in London with him until his death. At the heart of Stritch’s stand-up comedic presentation of her raucous life is a painful story of alcoholism and near death from diabetes. She wrote this show, in part, she proclaims, to get back her life, to recall all those events from which alcohol had kept her from completely experiencing.

Both Felix and I loved the evening, and although I had come into Stritch’s performance believing that this may be her last act, I am now sure that, given the gusto with which she performed her closing show on January the 18th, she will be back, still here for years.

As we took the taxi back to the West Side, Felix asked me two questions that deserved more discussion than we had time for. He queried how Noël Coward had become such a legendary figure in a time when there was no television, no cell phones, no easy computer downloads for songs as there is today. I reminded him that most large cities had several newspapers, many of them filled every day with news on actors, writers, and other celebrities of the moment. And, I might have also added, there was radio, with a very large audience and a wide variety of shows. Instead of the tabloids there were a number of quite popular fan magazines which reported on both theater and film.

Knowing of my great love and knowledge of New York theater and its history, Felix later asked: “I can understand why I love theater; I live here and witness it; I can see it almost any day. But how did you fall in love with musicals and plays growing up in such a distant place as Iowa?”

“Imagination,” I answered. “I never got to New York until college, but I lived in New York in my imagination for years before that.”

Los Angeles, February 14, 2008