The first time I saw a woman naked was in late 1970 while attending the final performance of my father’s off-Broadway play Steambath at the Truck and Warehouse Theatre on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. I was 10 and my father thought it important that I see his satirical play depicting the afterlife as a steambath and God as a Puerto Rican attendant–despite its brief nudity and use of profanity–before it closed. My attention, however, was somewhat distracted by my older brothers’ glowing accounts of the play’s nude shower scene, so when an attractive blonde actress strolled across the stage, nonchalantly disrobed and quickly showered–making a gleeful squeal as the water splashed across her body–I should have felt more excitement. Instead, it happened so suddenly and matter-of-factly that I felt more like a voyeur self-consciously peeping through a keyhole.
We left the theater into an awaiting limo and as we drove off my father asked the driver to stop momentarily and in hopped the pretty actress whom I had earlier seen naked. She was dressed in what appeared to be the same white terrycloth bathrobe that she wore in the play. As she took a seat next to us, I could detect the scent of herbal shampoo in her hair and feel the warmth her body still radiated as if she had just stepped out of a shower. In my giddiness I hardly noticed my mother’s absence.
I’m not sure when it first dawned on me that my parents were having marriage problems. Growing up I had heard the story about a party my parents held at a rented beach house while we were staying on Fire Island during the summer in 1963. With the alcohol flowing, my father left the party with an attractive blonde woman. Suspecting something was awry, my mother followed them onto the deck where she promptly found them and reached for a sprinkler hose, watering them down. The blonde woman screamed, “I’m a lesbian! I’m a lesbian! I don’t even like men!” while my mother’s girlfriend, Gerri, shouted, “Oy Vey!” Dripping wet, my father began laughing and the blonde woman ran off. My parents weathered that storm, and it even became a source of humor, but apparently there were other forces at work that would put greater strains on their marriage.
Maybe because I was the youngest and less observant than my older brothers, it never occurred to me that anything was out of the ordinary in my parents’ marriage. Indeed, I knew a number of classmates whose parents were separated or divorced, so I reasoned that my parents’ still intact marriage was somehow stable and secure. Looking back, though, as pleasant and magical as my memories were of a childhood as the son of a successful writer and an equally creative mother, there were a number of early warning signs of trouble brewing ahead.
One of my earliest memories that all was not as it appeared occurred in 1968 when I was about seven. I had just returned home from school when my mother introduced me to a man who spoke with a German accent named Marc M. who turned out to be Swiss. He was handsome, in a Maximilian Schell sort of way, with dark wavy hair, and he had an old world, courtly charm. My father was away on business at the time. Marc was visiting, ostensibly, to view my mother’s exhibit of Plexiglas art and jewelry creations that she kept stored in a large pantry room off the kitchen area of our home in Great Neck, New York. She was preparing for a showcase of her work at a Manhattan gallery and the room was teeming with odd-shaped bits of multi-colored futuristic Plexiglas creations. Items scattered around the room included over-sized rings, necklaces, bracelets, end tables, ash trays and decorative cubes, as well as sheets of bubble wrap which I enjoyed popping.
The only reason I recall this chance encounter back in 1968 was because my white corduroys were still wet and clingy from peeing in my pants on the long walk home from Clover Drive Elementary School, and I felt a rash forming on my inner thighs. With moist fingers I sheepishly shook Marc’s hand and I could sense from his nervous smile that this was an awkward moment for him as well, only for different reasons. While tending to my wet corduroys I could tell our middle-aged housekeeper Mrs. Sullivan was clearly not pleased by Marc’s presence. She came up with a nickname for Marc—“Nazi Monkey”—which she would utter a bit too loudly.
Marc, I would later learn, was a lounge singer whom my mother had met during the summer of 1967 at a restaurant where he was performing in Bridgehampton, Long Island. We were staying at a rented beach house in nearby Amagansett. During the fabled “Summer of Love” I memorized the words to the Beatle’s latest album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, given to us by my father’s friend the writer Terry Southern, whose picture was on the celebrated album cover (shown standing in front of Lenny Bruce and next to Dylan Thomas and the singer Dion) and who was staying with his family in a beach house not far from ours. I was too busy singing When I’m Sixty-Four with Mrs. Sullivan to possibly notice that my mother had begun a relationship with another man. Most of the summer my father remained in Manhattan, working on the production of his play Scuba Duba, ironically, a tense comedy about a New York couple vacationing in the south of France when the wife decides to run off with a black scuba diver.
A few years later, while I was away at sleep-away camp, Marc and my mother would run off together—at least for the summer. Almost daily I would receive picture postcards as they traveled throughout Europe. The postcards first arrived from Switzerland, where she was staying with Marc’s family. They showed idyllic images of the famous Alps, bars of Swiss chocolate, Swiss cheese and lots of dairy cows. Soon I would receive a flurry of postcards from Austria and Germany depicting medieval castles with moats, and then more castles and country scenes from Spain and Portugal. I would also receive occasional letters from my father who was on the road with his latest play, Turtlenecks starring Tony Curtis, which was having out-of-town runs along the East Coast. He was consumed with anxious hopes that his play would make it to Broadway (it closed out-of-town). I remember he wrote optimistically of how Sammy Davis had loved one performance. Despite my parents’ separate paths that summer, it still seemed all was business as usual, and I assumed our family would be back together when I returned from summer camp.
And my parents did return by the end of the summer, only I would soon discover that my mother had replaced their king-sized bed with matching antique twin brass beds. Although the beds were spaced only a few feet apart, to me they represented a bigger gulf than the geographic distances that separated my parents the previous summer. Their bedroom had always been a refuge of sorts where my brothers and I spent evenings watching family movies on their color TV like The Wizard of Oz and It’s a Wonderful Life. With the arrival of the twin beds, I remember feeling somewhat confused as to where to sit, thinking I would be showing disloyalty by choosing one bed over the other; instinctively, my brothers and I would soon retreat to our own rooms to watch TV.
Unbeknownst to me, my father had begun renting an apartment on the 30th floor of the ultra-modern Phoenix high rise building on East 65rd Street and Third Avenue in Manhattan. He would call it his “tower of steel and glass.” This is where he holed up during his increasingly more frequent overnight stays. Somehow I failed to connect the dots and saw his absences as nothing more than his occasional business trips to Hollywood where he would work on screenplays. Despite several trial separations, my parents made a number of valiant attempts at reconciliation, although I’m not sure if they ever went to the extent of actually seeking marriage counseling. One such memory of this period sticks in my mind: my parents were sitting happily together on an overstuffed chair one summer morning in East Hampton. My mother was in her nightgown, with my father joking that this was their “third” attempt at reconciliation. They were laughing, even flirting with each other, and all seemed so natural to me; in retrospect, it was probably the last time I saw them so happy together.
By the fall of 1972 my mother would become more open with me and my brothers on how they were seeking ways to save their marriage, which had a ring of optimism–like saving the whales–at one point even raising the notion of moving the family to Italy, far from the distracting New York influences that she thought were pulling them apart. I think my father mostly indulged her ideas, but when push came to shove, we sold our house in Great Neck, New York, and moved into Manhattan. Just prior to our move, my mother held an estate sale and a line of neighbors and antique dealers queued outside our home one bright Saturday morning. I remember neighbors squabbling over our family’s possessions; it was as if vultures had descended upon our living room, picking apart a carcass.
My parents’ final attempt at reconciliation coincided with a mostly dispirited family vacation to Puerto Rico during the winter of 1972. We stayed at the San Juan Hilton and visited brown-sanded beaches dotted with palm trees, and explored much of the verdant countryside as well as the capital city of San Juan. One night we visited a restaurant in downtown San Juan recommended to us by my father’s friend Mario Puzo because of its reputation for wonderful paella. The restaurant was located in a Spanish Colonial-era home with a huge tree growing in the middle of the dining room. Leaving the restaurant, my father amusingly pointed out all the transvestites prowling the streets. They looked like heavily rouged stevedores and cab drivers in poorly fitted wigs and loud, patterned dresses. Unlike previous family vacations, my parents’ steady bickering, followed by long silences, became more obvious and we could see them literally splitting apart before our eyes. While visiting a rain forest, a guide pointed out a peculiar plant that shriveled and shied away from human contact called the “touch-me-not” plant. This strange plant seemed to embody the fragile state of my parents’ marriage at the time.
When we moved into Manhattan, I first stayed with my father in his apartment at the Phoenix for a few days while my mother and my older brothers prepared for the move into our apartment at the El Dorado twin tower high rise building on Central Park West and 90th Street. My father’s apartment at the Phoenix offered a dizzying panorama of mid-town Manhattan, especially at night, when the city seemed to light up like a million candles. He decorated the apartment sparingly with dark-leather couches, contemporary track lighting and unfamiliar furniture and dinnerware, but I did recognize one item: an abstract painting made of overlaying white strips of plaster that my mother had purchased at an art gallery in East Hampton the previous summer. The piece reminded me of a body cast that had completely splintered apart with the plaster dripping white dust whenever it was touched. I remember how messy it was, clinging to your clothes as you passed, and he soon discarded it.
After a few days of living like bachelors, I rejoined my mother and brothers at the El Dorado across town. My father, however, would remain at the Phoenix, choosing instead to visit us for dinner on weekends, and then leave. It was as if my parents were now dating, and my mother wanted to make sure he had a nice homemade meal (prepared by our housekeeper Mrs. Sullivan, of course). After dinner, my father would relax in our apartment’s living room and library where he would smoke his Macanudo cigars and sip cognac while reading or listening to records. The next morning the room would still smell of his cigars and sometimes I would re-light the butts I found in ashtrays and turn green after a few ill-advised puffs.
My father soon stopped visiting us at our apartment altogether, and within a few months, my mother would announce that there would be “some changes” and “belt-tightening.” The only change I noticed at first was that she had purchased about a dozen loaves of rye bread that quickly grew stale–my mother’s futile attempt at economizing. She would, however, begin actively seeing other men. Mrs. Sullivan would pass judgment on her dates. David was a clean-cut, well-dressed businessman whom Mrs. Sullivan thought was marriage material for my mother, but whom my mother found “too boring.” Mrs. Sullivan was clearly unimpressed with Steve, though, a long-haired acting student who rode a motorcycle and who was a Vietnam vet. Then there was a man whose name escapes me who looked to be no older than my oldest brother Josh, then about 18. In an attempt to win favor with me this latest suitor would tell me all about his belief in out-of-body experiences.
One day while my mother was talking with Steve on the phone in the kitchen, my brother Drew walked in and my mother, knowing Steve was an acting student, announced: “Oh, Drew just walked in! He does wonderful imitations. Would you like to hear one?” She handed Drew the phone and walked out of the kitchen briefly. Seizing the opportunity, Drew launched into a pitch-perfect Edward G. Robinson: “Listen, you!...Do you know how old my mother is...See?” When my mother returned, he handed her the phone. Steve must have been in shock, and said something that disturbed her because my mother screamed into the phone: “What did Drew say to you! What did he say! Oh my God!” Drew walked out of the kitchen with a look of contentment and that was the last we ever heard from Steve the actor.
Occasionally, Marc M. would reappear, like a long-lost uncle, with Mrs. Sullivan reprising the “Nazi Monkey” nickname she had given him years ago. Once, Marc and my mother even attempted to set up her slightly overweight girlfriend, Karen, on a double date with Marc’s friend, Helmut. When Helmut finally met Karen, he backed away from her in a panic, stuttering in broken English: “No! No! Please! Please!” sweeping his hands defensively, before making a hasty retreat.
My father also began dating more openly. He soon introduced us to his latest girlfriend Hesu, a tall, attractive Korean woman with an oval face about half his age. One weekend, we spent the whole day with my father and Hesu, going to see a restored version of the film Citizen Kane, followed by dinner at a Korean restaurant where Hesu took over. I remember how she imperiously barked orders in Korean at the cowering wait staff. I wasn’t sure what Hesu did for a living, but my father joked that she enjoyed partying with members of the Rolling Stones. He would also tease her in our presence, claiming that she was a Korean War orphan whom he had rescued off the streets of Seoul. By this time my father had moved into a studio apartment off of Madison Avenue and 63rd Street.
For several years I would shuttle back and forth between the apartment I lived with my mother and brothers on the Upper West Side and my father’s studio apartment on the East Side. Although long separated and clearly dating others, my parents’ marriage still remained technically on the books. By the time they finally got around to the divorce in 1976, it seemed more of an afterthought. My father told the presiding civil court judge to give my mother whatever she wanted and my mother countered that she only wanted enough to live on. Noticing how amicable my parents were, the hardened judge asked, half jokingly, why they were getting a divorce.