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Once upon a time in New York

I bought my Penguin paperback of Moby-Dick on February 23, 1988. I’m certain of the date because it’s scrawled on the first page, just above a thumbnail biography of Herman Melville. I used to have a habit of noting a book’s purchase date on its first page, and sometimes I would add the store where I bought it, though I only added the city in this case: “NYC.” I remember the circumstances vividly. I bought Moby-Dick at St. Mark’s Bookshop on St. Mark’s Place while headed to see, for the third time, a Brazilian-themed production of A Midsummer’s Night Dream at the Public Theater. Then, at a stationery store, I bought a blank greeting card with a Monet landscape on the front. The card was for Elizabeth McGovern, who was playing Helena in A Midsummer’s Night Dream, and I inscribed the card at a coffee shop cater-cornered from the Public Theater on Lafayette Street. “I’m an actor and writer in town from L.A.,” I wrote, “and I’m planning to see the play tonight and I’d like to say hello afterward,” describing myself briefly—“I’m tall and wearing a black leather jacket”—so that Elizabeth McGovern—or “Liz,” as she was known to friends—could recognize me after the performance. I listed a few mutual acquaintances without mentioning Orrin, as I’ll call him, who was also in the cast of Midsummer and had advised me against trying to contact Elizabeth McGovern, and I certainly didn’t mention that I had seen the play twice already. She might take me, rightly, for a stalker.

An hour or so before curtain time, I bought a ticket at the Public. I had wanted to work there ever since I moved to New York from Virginia, but I could never infiltrate the Public or Playwrights Horizons or Circle Rep or any of the other prestigious Off-Broadway theaters. My paid acting and writing jobs had all been in film and television, so it made sense for me to live in Los Angeles, where I had spent most of the previous year. I met Orrin in L.A. I hoped he wouldn’t spot me, yet again, in the lobby of the Public. Staffers didn’t wear uniforms, but I noticed a kid, slightly younger than me, who looked like a probable staffer, and I approached him with the card in hand and asked if he could deliver it backstage.

“Sure,” he said. “Who’s it for?”

“Elizabeth McGovern.”

The kid’s helpful expression dissolved. “Oh,” his eyes seemed to say, “a stalker.” Still, he took the card and hurried away, possibly to alert the cops or bouncers, and I busied myself elsewhere until curtain time. My memory of that hour is hazy, but if I returned to the coffee shop to begin Moby-Dick, I doubt I got much further than “Call me Ishmael.” Orrin had told me that Elizabeth McGovern was reading Moby-Dick, and I would brandish my copy as an ice-breaker or, as I dared to imagine she might interpret it, a potential sign of destiny. Stalkers are often deluded romantics, if “deluded romantic” isn’t the redundancy I believe it is.

*****

Walking to school in Ordinary People

My obsession with Elizabeth McGovern started with Ordinary People, the movie that launched her as an It girl of the early eighties. I was in the midst of my James Dean phase when I saw it, mumbling my way through acting classes in thrift-store clothes bought near my flat on the Lower East Side, and Ordinary People was about a kind of James Dean character, played by Timothy Hutton, though his family had money, unlike mine, and his teenage angst, unlike mine, had a tidy cause: his brother’s death, which led him to attempt suicide, a subject avoided by everyone in the movie save for his therapist and Elizabeth McGovern, his love interest and classmate. She reminded me of former classmates of my own in Virginia, preppy girls who wore plaid skirts and knee socks and Fair Isle sweaters, and favored the “wedge” hairstyle popularized by the Olympic figure skater Dorothy Hamill, and greeted friends pretentiously with “Bonjour” or “Hola.” All of that was true of Elizabeth McGovern in Ordinary People, but she was the bighearted opposite of preppy girls I had wooed in vain in Virginia. Misfits, especially poor misfits, weren’t on their menu, and I aimed to punish them and other former classmates, those who rejected me socially, by becoming the James Dean of our generation, and an equally famous paramour would salt the wounds. A sample caption for a fantasy paparazzi photo: “Elizabeth McGovern, an Oscar nominee for Ragtime, with her boyfriend, Darel Haeny, soon to be seen in Roaring.” I spelled my name “Darel Haeny” at the time because I considered it more eye-catching than “Daryl Haney,” and Roaring was a screenplay I co-wrote with my manager (the title, which I hated, was his); but even if Roaring had been realized on film, it surely would have starred a celebrity and not Daryl Haney, as I reverted to spelling my name on hearing “Darel Haeny” mispronounced once too often. However, Elizabeth McGovern really was nominated for an Oscar for Ragtime. It was her second movie, and she was only twenty.

She lost the Oscar but won an Obie, the Off-Broadway counterpart of the Tony, the same month she appeared on the cover of Newsweek. People named her one of that year’s twenty-five most intriguing personalities. Harper’s Bazaar declared her one of the world’s ten most beautiful women. Was she that beautiful? “She looks like Tweety Bird,” a young actress remarked to me. “She walks like a duck,” another young actress said. They were jealous, presumably, but I knew what they meant. She had a round face and puffy cheeks, and there was something a bit gawky about her, but her peachy skin and periwinkle eyes made her springtime personified, as far as I was concerned, while I identified her dark hair with winter, for whatever reason, and in Ordinary People she was shown walking to school on a path covered with dead leaves, and she never entirely lost that autumn association for me. It was hard to picture her in Los Angeles, mythically a city of perpetual summer, but she moved from Evanson, Illinois, to an L.A. suburb at age ten, when her father became a professor of law at UCLA. (He had previously taught law at Northwestern University in Evanston.) Academic parents were practically mandatory for the preppies I knew in Virginia, and if any of those preppies had been interested in acting, they probably would have studied at exclusive Julliard, like Elizabeth McGovern, and lived near Julliard in uptown Manhattan, also like Elizabeth McGovern, and upscale uptown and boho downtown were worlds apart in those pre-gentrified days. I had swapped the class divisions of Virginia for the class divisions of New York and show business.

I learned that Elizabeth McGovern lived uptown through “Captain” Arthur Haggerty, the best-known dog trainer in New York and a frequent guest on Late Night with David Letterman, though, since I didn’t own a dog or a television, I had never heard of Captain Haggerty before we met in Frank Corsaro’s acting class. He was a fiftyish man with a shaved head and a sumo wrestler’s build, a good type for a scene I wanted to perform in class, and he agreed to be my scene partner as long as we rehearsed at Captain Haggerty’s School for Dogs, where some of his pupils were kenneled out of sight and silenced by Captain with a single command—“SHUT UP!”—when they barked during rehearsal. His assistant, meanwhile, manned the phone, and one day she interrupted rehearsal to announce that she’d just gotten a call from Elizabeth McGovern.

“Oh my God,” I said. “I am in love with that girl. I want to marry her.”

“She has beautiful breasts,” Captain volunteered. He had seen Ragtime, obviously. Elizabeth McGovern had a nude scene in Ragtime and a Boston terrier in urgent need of Captain’s housebreaking services. Rolling Stone had recently run a photo of Elizabeth McGovern and her Boston terrier in a short item about her latest movie, a romantic comedy with the apropos title of Lovesick. I had pestered my manager, John, to introduce me to her, but John had only met her once through an actor named Todd, and Todd wasn’t about to introduce to Elizabeth McGovern or assist me in any way after hearing John praise my acting talent. Now, maybe, I could meet her at Captain Haggerty’s School for Dogs.

As Evelyn Nesbit in Ragtime

But she was never at the school when I was there. I asked about her, of course, and Captain affirmed his judgment of her breasts, while his assistant said she was very nice and lived on the Upper West Side. Somebody else supplied the intersection, and I walked past it the next time I went to the Thalia, a repertory cinema on West 96th Street, and decided Elizabeth McGovern lived in a particular building, and for weeks, whenever I saw a movie at the Thalia or otherwise found myself on the Upper West Side, I would return to that building and stare at the windows, wondering which were hers, and sometimes loiter for a few minutes at the corner or across the street, hoping she emerged from the building and so corroborated that I had it right. At least Jay Gatsby, one of the foremost stalkers of American literature, knew he had Daisy Buchanan’s residence right, but her dock was rigged with a green light that directed his gaze and reinforced his yearning.

One summer day, I dropped by Writers & Artists, a talent agency in the Fisk Building on West 57th Street. Writers & Artists represented Elizabeth McGovern, but my visit was unrelated to her. I was with John, who had some business there, and we had just left the building when John froze on the sidewalk and said, “That was Liz McGovern,” motioning toward a tall girl in new jeans and a yellow polo shirt. Her back was to us—she was walking in the opposite direction—and I thought John was mistaken or putting me on, so I turned around and followed her. She entered the Fisk Building and crossed the lobby with me four feet behind her, and as we neared the bank of elevators, an elevator door opened and a girl stepped out, a girl who knew the girl I was following, and they stopped to chat, and finally I saw the face I had longed to see in life since Ordinary People, and no images—or words, for that matter—could do it justice. She glowed: her skin, her eyes, her smile. I fled before she noticed me gaping. Then, outside, I reproached John for failing to introduce me when he had the chance. Why didn’t he say hello?

“Because,” he said, “I ogled her before I realized it was Liz McGovern and she saw me do it, so I didn’t want to remind her we’d met before. Did you speak to her?”

“I couldn’t, goddamnit. I don’t want to meet her like that.” But I did regret running away so quickly. A glance could reveal instant attraction, I believed, and I hadn’t waited for a glance that proved or disproved reciprocal attraction, even if nothing came of it.

*****

My playwright friend Peter, who had been produced at the Public Theater, knew Elizabeth McGovern, but not well enough to arrange an introduction. He had a celebrity crush of his own, Rob Lowe, and when he teased me about my celebrity crush, I would retaliate by saying, for example, “I hear Rob Lowe is cheating on you with Nastassia Kinski.”

“Oh, that Rob. At least it’s not with Dudley Moore.”

Dudley Moore was Elizabeth McGovern’s costar in Lovesick and her rumored lover offscreen. I was mystified by the rumors, since he was half a foot shorter than her and old enough to be her father. Surely she would prefer a tall, young James Dean type who read classic literature and could turn her on to hip New York, or so I joked to friends. I always treated my crush on her as a joke, while part of me believed that I might genuinely have a shot at dating at her if we met through someone with clout, like Peter. Once, after he had coffee with Elizabeth McGovern, Peter called to inform me, and I said, “Great, thanks. I don’t suppose you could have called me while you were having coffee. I could’ve joined you, you know.”

“It wouldn’t have worked. It wasn’t just the two of us.”

“Did you talk about me?”

“I’m hanging up now.”

Then calamity struck: Elizabeth McGovern became betrothed to Sean Penn, her costar in Racing with the Moon and, according to Rolling Stone, “the next James Dean.” I refused to accept Sean Penn as the next James Dean, though my James Dean phase had ended. I was growing up, a little. I had a girlfriend, and we lived together in Soho, across the street from Madonna, who married Sean Penn soon after he broke up with Elizabeth McGovern. By coincidence, not by design, I broke up with my girlfriend at the same approximate moment, and for a period I crashed on the Upper West Side, where I occasionally passed Elizabeth McGovern’s building, assuming she still lived in that building, if she had ever lived in it in the first place; but I never saw her on the Upper West Side, just as I didn’t see her outside the WPA Theater when I attended a play she did there. I met more and more people who knew her, and one of them told me that she was now involved with Rob Reiner, a beauty-and-beast combo as unpleasant to me as the Dudley Moore rumors and, possibly, the engagement to Sean Penn. “Please introduce me to her,” I begged. “This is a goddamn emergency!”

With Dudley Moore in Lovesick

Finally, at the Actors Studio, I had another brush with her. I was an observer at the Studio, not a participating member, and one day, after a session, I went downstairs to use the pay phone and found myself waiting behind Christopher Walken, who was waiting behind Harvey Keitel, who was waiting for a girl to finish her call. The girl was facing the phone on the wall, her back to the line, and suddenly she turned to survey the line and shock me inadvertently. She didn’t glow as she had glowed in the lobby of the Fisk Building four years earlier. She looked at Harvey Keitel, then at Christopher Walken, then at me. Our eyes met for a second or less. Then, listening but not speaking, she turned back to the phone and replaced the receiver and hurried away. I didn’t follow. I had gotten the glance I wished I had gotten at the Fisk Building, and it didn’t reveal instant attraction or even modest curiosity. On the other hand, she was rushed and distracted, and she hadn’t been perceptibly impressed by Harvey Keitel or Christopher Walken, so I was in famous company, at least.

*****

A year later, I flew to L.A. to star in a Roger Corman movie. I planned to stay only until the movie wrapped, but it immediately begat more work, which kept me in L.A. for another six months. Orrin auditioned for the Corman movie. He was bicoastal, an increasingly quaint term in an era of preposterously overpriced rents. I wanted to be bicoastal, but I held the lease on a place in Brooklyn with a fluid cast of roommates and I couldn’t fill the frequent vacancies from afar. No, for the time being, I would have to commit to L.A., a city I didn’t love but seemed to love me, offering me the kind of opportunities reserved by its rival for the privileged, with token exceptions that proved the rule. New York is one of the great unrequited crushes of my life, and when I returned in December to officially terminate my lease and ship my belongings to L.A., I lingered for a long goodbye. There were nightly games of poker and pool with friends, and we bar-hopped and club-hopped till last call at quarter to four in the morning. Interrupted flings were resumed and new flings initiated. Weeks passed, and at one point I bought a biography of Jack Kerouac and wrote, on the first page, the purchase date—“8 Feb. ’88”—as well as the bookstore—“Shakespeare & Co.”—and this unique note: “How many days to L.A.?” By then, I’m almost positive, I had seen A Midsummer’s Night Dream twice. It opened in mid-January, Google reminds me, and I read the New York Times every day and the Village Voice every week, so I would have known about it while it was in previews. Well, well, well. Orrin was doing Shakespeare with Elizabeth McGovern. I would have to renew acquaintance with Orrin in the lobby of the Public, where actors mingled with well-wishers before and after performances, and if a certain someone happened to pass us in the lobby, maybe Orrin would flag her down as a favor to me and vouch for a few of my virtues. He owed me such a favor, by my reckoning. I had introduced him to a lusty Nordic type—I called her the Viking— in L.A. The Viking was too imposing for me, but she made a snack of Orrin, and vice versa. Orrin was lusty in his own right.

He received me warmly in the lobby of the Public, but he hardly had a moment to speak, and the certain someone was nowhere in sight. He invited me to see the play again as his guest. I sat next to his latest girlfriend that time, and he left with her almost as soon as the performance ended. I tried to stall him. I asked for help in meeting one of his castmates, and he guessed without a hint or pause the castmate I had in mind.

“Liz,” he said. “This isn’t a good time to meet Liz.” But that was as far as he went at the Public. He was more forthcoming later on the phone.

“She just broke up with Rob Reiner,” he told me, “and she sits around reading Moby-Dick and eating a lot of popcorn and drinking a lot of coffee, and do you know what happens when you eat a lot of popcorn and drink a lot of coffee? Do you?” he repeated for dramatic effect. “You fart. We’ll be on stage in the middle of a scene and she’ll let one rip, a silent but deadly one, and I’ve got to just stand there in this cloud of blue smoke and gag through the rest of the scene. Trust me, you don’t want to be around her right now. She’s not in a good place.”

Saved by Madonna

But I was in a good place, now that my career was kicking in, and I rarely thought of the preppy girls who rejected me in high school and laid the foundation for my crush on Elizabeth McGovern. The very notion of a celebrity crush seemed puerile to me now, but something of this one had stuck after years of moonstruck speculation, and if nobody was willing or able to introduce us, I could introduce myself. She was single again, but, farts or no farts, she wouldn’t stay single for long, and I knew where she spent part of every day, except when the house was dark, and I was far more confident than Darel Haeny, so that I wouldn’t gape or fawn or otherwise embarrass myself as that green kid would have done. It was a good idea. It was a bad idea. Back and forth I swung, and I had to act before Roger Corman or some other producer offered me a job that would force me back to L.A. Should I bring or send her flowers? No, flowers were too solicitous. I should keep it simple with a backstage note that cited some of the people we knew in common, people like Peter, not Orrin, who might speak ill of me if she showed him the note to confirm that I wasn’t a stalker—“He is a stalker, and he farts!”—and I could manufacture a coincidence by buying a copy of Moby-Dick, a book I intended to read anyway, and if Moby-Dick or something else sparked a conversation in the lobby of the Public, I could invite her to have coffee across the street, where I would feign surprise if she mentioned, for instance, her breakup with Rob Reiner or the Boston terrier that used to have a problem of the excremental kind.

Lord, what a fool this mortal be, to paraphrase the catchphrase from A Midsummer’s Night Dream.

*****

I wasn’t eager to see A Midsummer’s Night Dream a third time. It was an agreeable production with a competent cast, but as a broad rule, I preferred and prefer Shakespeare’s histories to his tragedies, and his tragedies to his comedies, and the fairy characters and transformative spells of Midsummer work better on the page than they do on stage. Then again, I’ve never seen a British production of Midsummer, and the British could surely pull it off, with their overall feeling for Shakespeare that’s as much a matter of blood, I’m convinced, as it is of training and tradition. Even mediocre British actors make music and sense of Shakespearean language, while American actors sound off-key and clueless by comparison. Marlon Brando is among the anomalies. He electrified as Mark Antony in the 1953 film adaptation of Julius Caesar, and if he had played Oberon, the king of the fairies, or Theseus, the Duke of Athens or Bahia or wherever in Brazil this version of Midsummer was set, I would gladly have seen it a third time. As it was, I thought of skipping the play after dropping off my card with the Monet landscape on the front and returning to the Public when the play was nearly over; but if I did that and something freakish occurred, if a stage light exploded or a heckler got ejected or an actor collapsed mid-soliloquy, I would know nothing about it, and I would have to know to comment persuasively later.

No lights exploded that night. There were no hecklers. None of the actors collapsed, despite the alleged flatulence. Maybe Elizabeth McGovern had changed her diet. Her performance was the same. She played Helena as a kind of exasperated wallflower, coltish and a bit nasal, and she was effective: comedy was more her métier than drama, I had come to decide. Evelyn Nesbit, her character in Ragtime, was a real-life siren at the center of a sensational murder case in Gilded Age New York, but she was mined for laughs by Elizabeth McGovern, who implied an unwritten line: “Somebody killed for me?” The fictional siren and object of Robert De Niro’s decades-long obsession in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America was played by Jennifer Connelly in the movie’s puberty scenes, but the obsession became less credible when Jennifer Connelly matured into Elizabeth McGovern, who didn’t seem to own or recognize her sexual power, not just in the movie but generally. There were hints of the wallflower in everything I had seen her do, and the charm of it had started to fade for me, if it hadn’t faded already, but that was voided by the image of her reading my card in her dressing room before the play that night. Finally, I thought, she had tangible proof of my existence, and she knew I was now watching her, unless that kid, the staffer, had ditched my card after I gave it to him in the lobby. But he wouldn’t do that. Would he?

Backstage with De Niro in America

Orrin’s girlfriend was in the lobby when the play ended. If she had been in the audience I would have noticed her—it was a weeknight and the house was half full—so she had evidently turned up after the play, and since avoiding Orrin meant avoiding her as well, I ducked behind a column before she saw me. There were several columns that made for convenient hiding places, but Orrin appeared quickly and disappeared with his girlfriend, freeing me to mill openly, and soon the lobby was almost empty except for me and a gay couple with the buzz cuts and trimmed facial hair and pristine lumberjack clothes that were then the norm on Christopher Street. What had happened to Elizabeth McGovern? As far as I knew, there were no stage doors at the Public, so she must have exited through the lobby invisibly, on cat feet, a third time.

But she hadn’t. Here she was, walking toward me in ankle-high basketball shoes and a plush coat almost as dark as her black tights, a boho style she wore well. She looked better than she had looked ten or fifteen minutes earlier, taking a bow onstage. Her hair was attractively disheveled. Her skin shined if it didn’t glow. I was about to speak, to say hello, but she walked past me and over to the gay couple, greeting them instead. She was friendly or friends with one or both of them, clearly, and I was a stranger, so of course she would speak to them first. She would get to me in a minute, I thought, and I expected a glance that said as much—“Oh, hey, you must be the guy who sent me that note”—and I moved a little closer when there was no glance and stared in lieu of clearing my throat—“Ahem!”—or otherwise intruding, but she went on talking to her friends, oblivious to me or pretending to be. I wasn’t close enough to eavesdrop, but whatever she was saying, she said it theatrically, mugging a bit and gesticulating, and I began to wait theatrically; I paced and stopped to stare or thumb my copy of Moby-Dick, then I paced again and so on in a pantomime of waiting that pleaded for attention. Eventually one of her friends murmured a question about me, “Do you know this guy?” or “Do you have plans with him?” or something like that, and she shifted her gaze a hair in my direction and said, tersely, “No.” Her flashing glance at the Actors Studio had been a study in duration compared to this one. Then she resumed chatting with her friends.

I gave up. She may or may not have gotten my card, but the situation was too awkward to continue in any case. I went to make a call on the pay phone in a corridor to the side of the lobby. I had wasted the evening by seeing the play again, but the night was still salvageable, and the purpose of the call was to get the night rolling. The phone was at the end of the corridor, and I headed back to the lobby after hanging up, and there at the other end of the corridor, alone and again walking toward me, was Elizabeth McGovern. She passed me again, eyes averted. Apparently she needed to use the phone, but here was my chance to speak to her, if I could summon a voice. My confidence had ebbed in the lobby.

“Did you get my Monet?” I managed to say; and she slowed and turned with a puzzled expression.

“Oh,” she said, “yes. Thank you.”  She beamed as she said it, still moving toward the phone, and I reached for inspiration to stop her. I had a short reach. Essentially I repeated what I had written in the card—I was in town from L.A., and we shared friends and acquaintances, and I just wanted to say hello—and she half turned and said again, “Thank you,” not beaming so much as smiling politely. Then, having gotten to the phone, she went to make her call. Her back was to me. I left the theater.

It was a mild night for New York in winter and a quiet night for New York in any season, or so it seemed, but I was numb to the point where sound and temperature barely registered. I walked a block from the Public to Astor Place, and as I was about to cross the street, the last few minutes caught up to me suddenly with the force and sensation of a blow to the head, and I steadied myself against the big black sculpture of a cube near the Astor Place subway station, rubbing my brow to relieve the pressure I felt there, or really—that is, unconsciously—I think I was trying to rub reality through my brow and into the part of my brain that was stunned to discover how deluded I’d been about this person, the part that didn’t treat my crush on her as the joke I knew it was in the sensible part of me. I should have listened to Orrin when he warned that now wasn’t a good time to meet her, but there would never have been a good time; I had seen nothing in her eyes when they met mine that day at the Actors Studio, and I had to embarrass—no, humiliate—myself to learn what instinct told me then, even though my attraction to her had since largely faded. Was I out of my mind? I must be, I thought while I walked in a daze around the cube sculpture, again and again, as if that would help to repattern my brain, and maybe it did help: I’m obsessive by nature, but I would never obsess again about her.

*****

A few days later I called Peter. He was often away overseeing a production of his work or serving as writer-in-residence at this or that regional theater, so we hadn’t spoken in a couple of years, but he surprised me by answering his phone and I surprised him by announcing my move to L.A. I had called to leave a message about the move, but naturally, once we started talking, I recounted my encounter with Elizabeth McGovern, and he laughed gently here and there and said, when I had finished, “Well, you know how the Public is. It’s sort of gothic-looking, and it’s got those stairs by the phone, and she may have had Phantom of the Opera fantasies of you chasing her up and down the stairs.”

“I never thought about that. I guess I thought my motives were transparent. I never thought she would find me threatening.”

“Well, you are pretty cute. Not as cute as Rob Lowe, but cute.”

In fact, since we lost touch, he had met Rob Lowe at a regional theater where Melissa Gilbert, Rob Lowe’s on-off girlfriend, was doing a play. He spent the better part of a day with them, so he could technically claim to have had a date with Rob Lowe, though I gathered that personal contact had been almost as deadly to his celebrity crush as it had been to mine.

“He said he was trying to improve himself by reading more books,” Peter told me. “I said, ‘Oh, like what?’ and I thought he was going to say, you know, Leaves of Grass or The Brothers Karamazov, but he said, ‘Well, right now I’m reading a book about the Actors Studio.’”

That was the last time I spoke to Peter, who later had some success as a television writer. Orrin also had some success in television, costarring on a crime show, and John, after we parted ways, became the manager of a multimedia phenomenon whose empire began in television. Elizabeth McGovern, meanwhile, moved to England, the genesis of the preppy look, where she married a producer-director, had two daughters, and worked predominately in television, enjoying a second wave of fame as Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham, on Downton Abbey. Few remember the first wave, so that when I refer these days to Elizabeth McGovern, as I very seldom do, she’s usually confused for Elizabeth Montgomery, the lead witch of Bewitched, and I’ll say, “No, no, she’s on Downton Abbey. She’s the American, and Shirley MacLaine plays her mother.” I can’t say more because I’ve never watched Downton Abbey, or Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad or any of the other TV shows that obsess or obsessed most people I know. Nor, despite numerous attempts, have I read Moby-Dick, the story of a singular obsession that ends badly; but I was familiar with that story long before I bought the book, and I would give my farewell New York performance of it offstage, like always, at the Public Theater.

My copy of Moby-Dick

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D. R. HANEY is the author of a novel, Banned for Life, and a nonfiction collection, Subversia, the inaugural publication of TNB Books. Known to friends as Duke, he lives in Los Angeles.

38 responses to “The Phantom of the Public Theater”

  1. Peter Winkler says:

    So, do you feel that the two saddest words in the Engish language are indeed “what if?”

    • D.R. Haney says:

      I think the two saddest words in the English language are “no comments,” or they were until I saw that you had changed that a second ago. Thanks very much. It’s a drag to feel like nobody, not one soul, has read or ever will read something you’ve written, you know?

      I don’t feel like there were any missed opportunities in the situation(s) I wrote about here. It took the wind out of me at the time, but if something were meant to happen, it would have happened, with this person anyway. Now, there are others…

  2. Peter Winkler says:

    Alone again, naturally.

    • D.R. Haney says:

      I believe that’s a suicide song.

      I rushed posting this thing, just because it caused me so much agony, and I always think posting something will end the agony, when of course it only intensifies it. Anyway I fucked it with some more, and I’m happier with it now than I was last night. I wish I had waited before alerting you to it. Oh, well. Live and don’t learn. That was allegedly Proust’s big realization as he was working on A la recherche: that contrary to conventional wisdom, people never learn from experience.

  3. Zara says:

    Lovely, overdue, piece, D.
    Your stories are always so full of little charms and unexpected turns. I almost believed your would end up getting the girl in this piece!
    We really must talk and get the reading series back on track!
    This is a lovely piece. As your pieces are.
    Nice to see you back again. Hope you are well
    x Zara

    • D.R. Haney says:

      Thanks, Z. I’ve been telling you for months that this piece was in the hopper, but I wasn’t expecting it to run so long, which is what I say about everything I write lately. Anyway, I’m glad it seems to have worked for you, and I do think it’s something I can adapt into a radio piece. I’m working on a couple of others that I think could work for radio also, as I’m sure I’ve mentioned.

      Hope you’re well also, but we’ll speak soon enough, I hope, so you can fill me in audibly then.

      XX

  4. Peter Winkler says:

    It only occured to me earlier today, but most of the stories posted here elicit no comments.

    • D.R. Haney says:

      They used to elicit a lot of comments. The message boards at TNB were probably the most active of any site of its kind. There were a few factors that changed that, including Facebook, which is like Walmart putting all the mom & pop stores out of business.

  5. Peter Winkler says:

    Salon and Slate continue to get lots of comment traffic, and there are blogs like thepassivevoice.com that remain quite lively. It’s may be tempting to blame Facebook for siphoning off the traffic from TNB, but I don’t think that’s it. I am not familiar with the history of TNB, so I can’t analyse further.

    • D.R. Haney says:

      Well, I can tell you that people who used to comment here now comment instead on Facebook, but that’s commentary, not traffic, which I don’t think are the same. I didn’t literally mean by my Walmart joke that Facebook was putting other sites out of business, though personal experience leads me to think it has definitely influenced the way people interact here, and if it’s happened here, I would tend to think it’s happened elsewhere. I never paid much mind to Slate, but Salon solicits commentary in a lowest-comment-denominator way it didn’t used to do, so that the boards there are much more active than they used to be. Anyway, I did say explicitly that Facebook was one of a few factors at work in this situation, and not the only one.

  6. Pete says:

    In the end, a fine piece. Things started off uneasy; along with the very sincere young-lad-with-a-crush narrative, sometimes the imagery was just extreme enough to give the proceedings a creepy vibe. As I read on, though, I felt for you. I wanted to toss it all off as so much adolescent obsession, but I was readily reminded how crushes not only can gnaw at your insides but are also kind of a lot of work. Really now, how much do we have to work the phone, coordinate with our friends and carefully orchestrate the perfect time and place so the script of our long-gestating romance can really unfold? Annoying.

    • D.R. Haney says:

      It really is, and that’s one of the things I was trying to convey by writing this thing: the frustration, which went on for years, of trying to arrange an introduction to this person. It shouldn’t have been that difficult, in theory. We were in the same milieu, after all, but we were at different ends of it, since she was successful and I wasn’t, so that diminished the odds of my running into her at auditions — though I would occasionally run into famous people at auditions. I once shared an elevator with Kevin Bacon, for instance, as we were leaving Robert Altman’s office on Central Park South.

      When I tell people I stalked Elizabeth McGovern, I think they often imagine a much darker scenario, shades of Mark David Chapman, than the docile way I went about it, though even that way is a bit creepy, I know, just as I know the earnest-youth thing can be tough to take; and I figured there would be readers who wouldn’t find me sympathetic in the slightest, and maybe that’s a reaction I deserve. But it happened, and if I were ever going to write about myself at that time of my life, this seemed maybe the most revealing way to go about it, since that poor girl symbolized just about everything I wanted or thought I wanted when I lived in New York and before, as a high-school kid in Virginia, and it’s almost as if I forced her to reject me so that I could leave my adolescent self behind, once and for all, when I left New York, if I’m making any sense. Anyway, I’m happy that, ultimately and despite its flaws, the piece came together for you and that you took the time to tell me so. I received a lacerating comment from a stranger on Facebook, so yours helps to balance that one. Thank you.

  7. Duke! I’ve missed your stories!

    Wow, Elizabeth McGovern really blew every opportunity she had here. That scene you describe at the phone bank waiting behind Harvey Keitel and Christopher Walken, by the way — how surreal.

    They called Sean Penn the next James Dean? That’s so strange to me. I think of Sean Penn as being his own unique brand of actor. Even with his early stuff, I’m not reminded of Dean. Curious.

    I agree with you about Shakespeare’s history plays. I’m always saying the Henriad is my favorite. And at Richard II, in fact, I made that humiliating attempt to speak to Ralph Fiennes and then wrote far less interestingly and eloquently about it as you’ve written about your meeting-the-crush-in-person humiliation here.

  8. One more thing! I was just posting this link to Twitter with the first the photo you include of McGovern here, and it occurred to me she looks, in that shot, like a baby-faced Elizabeth Taylor.

    • D.R. Haney says:

      Yes, she did have a little bit of an Elizabeth Taylor thing going on. There was also a resemblance to Stockard Channing, who in turn resembled Elizabeth Taylor. What’s funny to me is that I approached Elizabeths Taylor and McGovern each with a book as an ice-breaker — “Life Goes to the Movies” in the first case, when I was a teenager. I only realized the book similarity when I was halfway through this piece.

      Like you, I’m confounded that Sean Penn was ever considered the next James Dean, but here’s proof, though I know you won’t require it:

      https://goo.gl/zOai3H

      I thought of your fondness for the Henriad when I wrote about my own preference for the history plays. I was in an odd production of Richard II when I was twenty or so, and my classical monologue for auditions — because, as an actor, I always had to have monologues on standby for auditions, you know — was Prince Hal’s redemption speech in the third act of Henry IV Part I, the speech where he says he’s going to quit his profligate ways and kill Hotspur in battle. I just checked YouTube for clips of that speech, and all I could find was this, which is enough to make me eat my words about the superiority of British Shakespeare acting. I would have smoked this clown in a Prince Hal competition, trust me.

      https://goo.gl/3pd4Xz

      In truth, though, it was Hotspur I always wanted to play more than Prince Hal. I saw Mandy Patinkin play Hotspur, and I wasn’t particularly impressed. I also wanted to play Coriolanus one day. So did Richard Gere, I happen to know. It was Richard Gere’s dream (or one of his dreams) to play Coriolanus on Broadway. Have you seen the Ralph Fiennes Coriolanus? It’s on my Netflix list, but whenever I think of watching it, I always hesitate and choose something else.

      As I’ve said to you before, Cynthia, you’re in my thoughts more than you know, and I’m humbled that you took the time to read this thing, which I wrote for the book that will hopefully one day be a book, God willing.

  9. Tammy Allen says:

    Hi Duke, I too had an obsession with Elizabeth McGovern. I wanted to be her so much. I was pretty, cute, but terrified of everything. I finally came out of my shell as a model and then a musician. She continues to have that face. I understand. Tammy Allen

  10. Tammy Allen says:

    I thought your writing of the story was honest, slightly heart-wrenching and beautiful. Who doesn’t love her. I had a completely unrelated and less realistic crush on Bill Paxton. I met him at a party and he was so nice to me. I weirdly look like Sigourney Weaver. I think he saw that in me. He has just wrapped the first Alien. Same thing happened with Barrry Tubb “Wolfman” in Top Gun because I have a Kelly Mcgillis vibe too. That’s the closest I got to celebrity love, unless you count the millions of desperate producers that wanted to marry me. lol Don’t get me started on Rockstars. I’m like Pamela Debarres.

    You are an amazing writer. Please keep writing! xo – not stalking you.

    • D.R. Haney says:

      Well, I’ve never gotten a stalker vibe from you, Tammy. I don’t believe I’ve ever been stalked, unless it was online. I had a roommate who was stalked by his ex-girlfriend, but she wasn’t menacing so much as pathetic. My God, she was obsessed with him! Once she came to our place and we pretended not to be home while she sat on the stairs outside the door, and eventually we had to give up pretending we weren’t home, since she clearly wasn’t going to leave.

      I know Pamela Des Barres, a little. As a matter of fact, I’m working on a piece in which she figures. Where did you meet Bill Paxton and Barry Tubb? They’re both from Texas, interestingly, and Barry Tubb was a rodeo champion, if memory serves. I remember when he was involved with Kelly McGillis, which I found odd, since I was always being told that she was a lesbian. Of course people said and say that sort of thing about everyone, but I heard it from her one of her classmates at Julliard, and maybe more than one.

      Were you ever in Gin Blossoms? Have I asked you that before? If so, I’ve meant to ask it. I knew you modeled. Elizabeth McGovern had the height and figure of a model, which a lot of people didn’t realize because she didn’t have the angular face of a model. Every time I saw her in person, I was surprised by how tall she was.

      Alas, I’m sure I will continue to write. It ain’t much of a life, but I’m sure you already know that.

  11. Tammy Allen says:

    I lived in LA from 1980 to 86. One of my friends is the daughter of Pricilla Coolidge. I got invited to Cassie Kristofferson’s 9 or 10th birthday party through my friend Laura Satterfield. Rita Coolidge is Cassie’s mom. Bill Paxton was there and he kept talking to me and seemed very interested in me. Michael Anthony Hall was there too. After the party we all went over to Bill’s apartment in Venice. Things get a blurry then but I do remember Michael Anthony Hall was a total bastard and asshole.
    After that I never heard from Bill again. (No. I didn’t spend the night, unfortunately.) I used to drive by his apartment hoping to see him.

    I once was working as a Production Coordinator on a film that I can’t even remember the name of – (never got released) I think it was Romeo Returns? Cast: Frederick Forrest, Veronica Cartwright, Jenny Wright and Barry Tubb. I had to pick up Barry from the airport because he had just wrapped Top Gun and was flying in for this film in LA. The production office was based in the producer’s home in Silverlake.

    (Did you know Jenny Wright was either married to or lived with Nicolaus Cage? Side note. I had to take the script to Jenny and Nicolaus answered the door and asked me in. It was a semi-highrise apartment in Highland Park. The front room was flanked by shark tanks on every wall. It was wild.) Okay so…

    Fredrick Forrest was on the film and I’m not sure how this happened but he asked me to quit the film and be his personal assistant. I was making $50 a day as the coordinator. He offered me $400 a week cash. So I took it. He was a trip. There so much more to this story.

    I read Pamela’s autobiography “I’m with the band.” I related to that statement a lot. .
    After I graduated from ASU with a degree in painting I promptly became a musician. I taught myself to play guitar and write songs. My first band was The Doids. Horrible lol.
    I ran a local club and booked local and national acts. I heard about the Gun Blossoms and I went to see them and asked if they would like to play The Sun Club. They said yes and eventually became kind of a house band. I was soon engaged to the bass player Bill. I was madly in love with him. He stopped coming home when they got signed to a major label. He broke my heart. I moved to Tucson less than a year later because I couldn’t stand it.

    So there you have it. There are tons of stories to be told about me and crazy experiences. I just get blocked and ahead of myself when I try to write stuff. I write for an ad agency. I write poems and songs but I just can’t get past the writing of a real piece of anything.

    BTW, I might stalk you if I lived in LA. Not really but I like you. You seem genuine, funny, sad, complicated, etc. It’s intriguing.
    Tammy

  12. D.R. Haney says:

    That party for Cassie Kristofferson was probably after Kris and Rita had split up, yes? I thought of them as the couple of the seventies, as seen in this record-sleeve photo, one of my all-time favorites:

    https://goo.gl/NuLCXN

    I did know that Jenny Wright was with Nicolas Cage. Jenny and I had a number of friends in common in NYC, and I later got to know her sister and brother-in-law very well, so I was always hearing updates about Jenny.

    I think Anthony Michael Hall was having a bit of an identity crisis around the time you met him. He was very young and he’d become famous as this freaky kid in those John Hughes movies, and he was trying to rebrand himself, as we would say now, or we would’ve said about at the height of the “branding” insanity a couple of years ago.

    I’d love to hear your Frederic Forrest stories. He’s another Texan, and a very underrated actor. I just checked IMDb and saw that he hasn’t worked in almost ten years. I guess he retired. Good for him.

    Did you ever see the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion in the nineties? I was a fan back then, and I understood that they had a huge following in Tucson. I have a record of them playing at the Hotel Congress in, I think, 1996. It’s hard to believe that was almost twenty years ago.

    Writing is mostly elbow grease, and if you apply it long and hard enough, I’m sure you can realize some of your crazy experiences in prose, though if you can realize them already in verse, that should do just as well, it seems to me. Do you still play for others or just for yourself? I’ve barely touched a guitar in the last couple of years, except to occasionally retune the three I have sitting on stands next to my book shelf.

  13. Tammy Allen says:

    Rita was at the party but not Kris so yeah I think they were divorced.

    Do you ever talk to Jenny? Ask her about that crazy movie with Barry Tubb.

    Yeah, I thought years later that Anthony M.H. was just trying to rebrand or rebel.

    Fred was one kookie guy. I had to buy everything in threes… cereal, orange juice… anything at all had to be in threes. I liked him even though he was a bit gruff, but I think he was always in character so I kind of work for the guy he was playing in the movie.

    I’m sure I was working at Congress when Jon Spencer was playing, I think that’s why I don’t remember seeing him. I worked in the Tap Room just off the club entrance.

    I have 3 guitars by my bookshelf too. I keep saying I’m going to take my Martin for a tune-up, but I haven’t yet. My fingers are like butter.

    I write stuff all the time, I just don’t flush it out and really turn it into a song.

    Maybe we should message each other through email or Facebook. I have few Fred stories among others.

    Cheers. Tammy

    • D.R. Haney says:

      Well, we already message each other, but the next time we do, I’ll have to ask specifically about Fred.

      I never met Jenny, no, which is funny, considering how many people I knew who knew her. One of them gave me a recent update, but I’ve forgotten the details. The last I remember, she was living in or near San Diego. Of course she left the business a long time ago.

      I’m impressed that you own a Martin. All of my guitars are electric, but I don’t have a Telecaster, and I’ve coveted one forever. Not that I would play the goddamned thing even if I owned one.

  14. Tammy Allen says:

    I have a good Tele story. I played an American blonde in one of my bands.

    Have you ever heard of Musicians Code? When a musician needs money, he may sell an instrument to another musician for less than it’s worth. If the musician wants to sell the instrument later, he has to give the original musician the opportunity to buy it first. OR if the original owner has the money and wants to buy it back at any time, the purchaser has to give it back for the same amount.

    That was a mouthful.

    Anyway, I bought the Tele from a friend. He was a junkie at the time. I told him to get his shit together and I will sell it back to him at the same price, but only if he wasn’t using.

    7 or 8 years later he was clean and I sold it back to him. I loved that guitar. He lives in LA now. He came into town about a year ago to play with his new band. After he played I sat on the stage playing that guitar – unplugged for 30 minutes. I think I almost cried.

    • D.R. Haney says:

      That is a good story. And the bit about the musicians’ code didn’t read like a mouthful.

      It just occurs to me: you never read Banned for Life, did you? I’ll have to send you a copy, when I can afford to do it.

  15. Tammy Allen says:

    I just bought a copy on Amazon. For some reason, I didn’t know you wrote another book.

    • D.R. Haney says:

      Oh, that was you. I just noticed that a copy had been sold on Amazon. I can always tell. Anyway, thanks. I really would have sent you a copy free, though!

  16. Tammy Allen says:

    I know you would have. I want to read it now. I’m currently bookless.

  17. Tammy Allen says:

    Got it yesterday. I’ll let you know when I’m done. BTW, I’m a VERY slow reader. I like to chew the words.

  18. Aitch Cee S says:

    A superb accounting of para-social relationship. And brushes with celebrity–that bank line! I remember well the days of Ordinary People and Taps, Hutton and Penn McGovern were def. the IT young stars;serious actors.
    Evelyn Nesbit is the precursor or prototype of the pin-up and really the “super model” too. She was never in control of her life, others molded her into their idea of beauty and glamour and burgeoning mass media culture.

    • D.R. Haney says:

      I wasn’t notified of this comment, Aitch Cee S, and just happened upon it — thanks. I agree with you about Evelyn Nesbit. She certainly was the prototype of the pinup and the supermodel. In fact, as you know, she was something of a supermodel, though the term was a long way from being invented. She posed, I think, for every leading illustrator in New York of her time, as well as a number of photographers, and I believe her face was used to advertise various products. If she was molded by others, it’s because, per later models, she started as a mere teenager. She’s said to have been very intelligent.

      • Aitch Cee S says:

        Nesbit is another tragic story, husband Harry Thaw who killed her former lover Stanford White, was a maniacal abuser. Thaw’s family hated Evelyn and she never saw a dime from them. Eventually she ended up in LA, like everyone does it seems. I think she is buried in Culver City.
        Liz McGovern is great as Cora in Downton Abbey. Still beautiful she hasn’t screwed up her face! which is refreshing.

        • D.R. Haney says:

          Once, in the acting class mentioned in this piece, the one taught by Frank Corsaro, I played Harry Thaw in a scene from a play about Evelyn Nesbit. It was written by a friend of Frank’s, someone he knew from the opera world (Frank worked primarily in opera after starting as a director of Broadway and Off-Broadway plays), and he had taken a shine to me after seeing me perform the very scene mentioned here, the one I did with Captain Haggerty (it was from David Mamet’s “American Buffalo”), so that he handed me this play and basically requested that I do a scene from it in the class, which he would attend whenever he was in town from San Francisco. My scene partner was named, I believe, Lily Roach, a very pretty and talented actress, originally from Texas. She lived in the famous Dakota building with her husband, a movie producer, and we rehearsed at the Dakota. That was the only time I was ever inside the Dakota, which fascinated me because of the John Lennon murder and because “Rosemary’s Baby” was shot there. Anyway, the scene called for Harry to beat Evelyn with a belt, and the stage direction had the beating occur behind a dressing screen, so it would be heard but not seen, and to me that seemed kind of corny, so when we presented the scene in class, I was chasing Lily around with a belt and snapping it on the floor and she was screaming bloody murder and so on, and when we finished, Frank asked his friend to comment, and his first remark was, “Well, you can’t really show the beating. Nobody would survive a beating like that, and that’s why I had it occur behind a screen.” I was confused by his logic — if nobody could survive such a beating, why so much as imply it? — but anyway, he approached me after class and offered to buy me dinner, and he really blasted me during that dinner, boy. He elaborated on every flaw he perceived in me as an actor and a human being, and I was only about twenty, and he was this old man (as I perceived it) in his fifties, which gave his words weight and authority, though occasionally he would return to his original impression of me, the one he formed after seeing me perform that scene from “American Buffalo,” as an unusually sensitive and intelligent kid. He offered a new version of that impression during dinner, one that may sound more complimentary in the retelling than he intended it. “You’re very complex,” he said. “A lot of people like to think they’re complex, but they’re simple compared to you.” What he meant was that I tied myself in knots, that I was endlessly “self-censuring,” a term he used again and again, and no actor can be that self-censuring and succeed. No, an actor has to be spontaneous and constantly, unhesitatingly emotionally accessible, or so the prevailing ideology of the time had it. I believe, somewhere, I still have the letters he wrote me before that dinner killed our correspondence, though I long since lost my copy of his play. I don’t believe it was ever produced, but I just googled “Evelyn Nesbit” and the name of Frank’s friend and, interestingly, I was directed to a NY Times article that references Nesbit, Elizabeth McGovern, and Frank’s friend, who had directed another movie the same year “Ragtime” was released: “Lulu,” which, the article says, “is billed as an original interpretation of the play by Frank Wedekind and the Alan Berg opera.”

          http://www.nytimes.com/1981/08/30/movies/after-summer-s-superheroes-comes-a-serio-comic-autumn.html?pagewanted=all

        • D.R. Haney says:

          Oh, and yes, Liz McGovern (if I may call her Liz) still looks great, going by recent pictures and not by “Downton Abbey,” which I’ve never watched, as I wrote in the piece. I believe she’s too classy to go the showbiz surgery route. Her classiness was one of her erstwhile appeals for me — but, again, I’m repeating what I wrote in the piece.

  19. V.K. says:

    This was a good read. Being obsessed helps one hide from themselves.

    • D.R. Haney says:

      Thanks not only for the comment but for causing me to take a new look at this beast and tweak it a little. No piece of writing is ever finished, it’s said, but abandoned — very true, methinks.

      I probably could have offered a broad theory of obsession at one point. Now I tend to think it’s case specific, meaning that for some it might be a form of hiding from oneself, while for others it’s so integral as to be the self, or anyway part of it. I believe that’s how it is for me. Obsessiveness runs in my family. But my obsessions are no longer as intense and long-lived as they used to be, except when they pertain to writing. Maybe, as I’ve taken writing more seriously, that’s supplanted the sort of obsessions that used to plague me, mostly about people and flaws I perceived in myself.

      • VK says:

        I missed your reply, but like it!
        When someone is beautiful like Elizabeth McGovern, it can be a burden.
        People tend to place projections and expectations on a
        person. It makes it difficult for someone to relax around others. A person can’t help but feel the intensity of the projections and know that they will eventually be seen as a failure as unspoken expectations go unmet.

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