Diana Rigg died this week. A fine actress, the clip above shows her in a few of her famous roles.
But my favorite thing that Diana Rigg ever did as an artist was to write a book called No Turn Unstoned: The Worst Ever Theatrical Reviews. Stung by unkind reviews that she had received over the years, to cheer herself up, Rigg compiled a book of horrendous reviews that other celebrated actors had received over the years. If you can get a hold of a copy, it’s a fun read.
On my way home yesterday, my attention was caught by a gentleman sitting in the middle of Union Square at a makeshift table. He was contemplating his manual typewriter, or at least the piece of pastel-colored card stock that was rolled into his typewriter’s batten. The sign hanging from his table said POET FOR HIRE, so I asked him if he could write a poem for me. I told him I didn’t have a lot of cash on me, but I could pay him $5, all the cash I had on me. After a brief conversation he agreed to write a poem for the $5, although it was evidently below the going poetry rate. He asked me a couple of questions about myself, and then asked what I would like the poem to be about. I looked down at his typewriter and suddenly at a loss, I asked for a poem about typewriters. He nodded, murmured, “Very good,” and then said I could also have the poem be about another subject as well. I felt like I needed to reach deeper, so I told him about what had been on my mind for the last few weeks: death. “Uh-huh. Typewriters and Death,” he nodded, unfazed. Rolling a new sheet of stiff pink-colored card stock into the typewriter, he told me to come back in ten minutes.
I was feeling guilty that I had had so little cash available, so I went to a nearby food stand in the park and bought an apple, brownie, and croissant for the poet. I wandered back into the area after ten minutes, and he called me over, telling me the poem was ready. I gave him my $5, and the snacks, which he seemed to like. The poet, Benjamin Aleshire, introduced himself, saying that he was originally from Vermont and now based in New Orleans, but he had spent the last five years going around the world making his living by selling his poems for hire. He was stopping off in New York City for a few weeks now before knocking around Europe. He pulled the poem out of the typewriter and handed it to me. I was a little shy about reading the poem in front of him, as if it were a birthday present one didn’t want to open in front of guests, but I felt I kind of owed him a reading there. It turned out to be a very good poem. I blushed at reading it, thanked him, and took my leave.
I’m looking at all these books on my bookshelves, and wondering about how they have followed me all these years. There are other books, too, books I once thought indispensable which are now sitting in a basement, books that have now not been touched in over two decades. I always thought I would have them. They are still there, as far as I know.
There were more, the books that I grew up with, before my marriage, that I stored in my parents’ house. When my parents remodeled the house, they packed them up, and eventually the boxes of books were moved to the garage. Years later, they told us they were selling the house. We went to the garage to scavenge and sort through the books, eagerly anticipating the reunion of old acquaintances, but on opening the boxes it became clear that there would be no homecoming for these books—they were filled with mold, little bugs, covers were stained, pages were crumbling. I left my friends behind.
When I was in my twenties, I would move from apartment to apartment, roommate to roommate, as one does at that age, and I’d always leave something behind—an old coat in the closet, a sweater in some bottom drawer, a throw rug underneath a piece of furniture. But never, never, ever did I leave behind so much as one book, they traveled with me, as if they were my children.
I remember once in those days, when I was a college student, walking along Amsterdam Avenue in Manhattan, near where I lived. I saw a pile of books on the sidewalk, and they stopped me. They looked interesting—the sort that appealed to a geek like me—vintage mathematics books, some science, some history. Never too proud when it came to books, I rummaged through them until I saw the nameplates inside them; I was stopped in my tracks when I realized that they were the books of the professor who had just died in my girlfriend’s apartment house. I didn’t know then, you see, that that’s what happens. It’s not like the books get adopted by the ASPCA. When all is said and done, the contents of the apartment gets dumped once the family has gone through the belongings, while the rest ends up on the sidewalk waiting for the garbage truck. At the time, this was a horrible revelation to me. That a person’s life—for what else, I thought, could you call the books that a person has owned?—would just be dumped on the sidewalk unceremoniously when he or she dies, was just too sad for me to contemplate.
So I look around at all my books now, and I wonder how many of them are going to get dumped on the street when I go. I’ve got a fair amount of magic-related items that, let’s face it, nobody normal is going to want. I’m in generally good health, but I’m at the age where I’m wondering what to do about this. I suppose they could be sold for some money for my family, but the truth is, my wife and surviving relatives wouldn’t know what to do with them, nor would they know how to evaluate and value each item. And yet I think it would be a shame were they to end up on the street or in the dump. So what I’m thinking about now is, to whom could I give them before I go? I guess this is a morbid thought, but if there’s anything that gets me going, it’s the thought of my limited time on this planet. It’s probably the thing that has kept me at the writing keyboard these past few years—knowing that if I don’t do it now, it’s not likely to get done later. And if I don’t figure out now what to do with these books, they’ll end up on the sidewalk. So I’m trying to get to know some young magicians who one day might appreciate such a collection.
The Players, Shakespeare said, are the abstract and brief chronicles of the time. What is it that we who are the brief chroniclers do in this brief time? Artists hope that what they’ve made is forever, or at least has a lasting impact. It never seems consciously that what I do is a fight against the dying of the light, but the closer I get, the more I understand. Do not ask for whom the sanitation worker comes. S/he comes for thee.
I’ve heard this story told about a number of actors. But the best evidence has it belonging to Edmund Gwenn, the actor who played Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street.
Gwenn had had a long friendship with George Seaton, the director of Miracle on 34th Street. Seaton and Gwenn often argued about which was the more difficult—playing highly dramatic parts or the more comic ones. Seaton insisted that the height of the player’s art was tragedy, while Gwenn, who had toured England as a journeyman rep actor playing Shakespearean tragedy and comedy, maintained strongly that it was more difficult to make an audience laugh.
Gwenn was considerably older than Seaton, and in the late 1950s fell into ill health at the Hollywood Motion Picture Actors’ Home. Seaton would visit him from time to time, but on one particular day, Gwenn was in his bed, looking very tired and ill.
Seaton, sad to see his old friend so sick, said, “This must be very, very difficult for you.”
And Gwenn replied weakly, “No, no, no. You still don’t understand, George. Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.”