The circus is either in town, or it isn't

Elaine Stritch tore off her black vest and white dress shirt in front of me, then fumbled around in only a bra and black stockings. She had just barreled off the tiny stage at the Café Carlyle, chased by wild applause, and was now at my elbow, cursing and thrashing and jiggling through a costume change for her encore. A gentleman would’ve averted his eyes, but I am not one. I am an admirer of Broadway divas, a wannabe broad myself, and here was the grande dame, nearly naked in front of me in her 80-year-old splendor, reeking of Max Factor and Gold Bond, demonstrating quite literally how a true performer must be vulnerable, always, even when projecting strength. I almost offered to help her, but then thought about the consequences if such an advance was unwelcome. When clothed, she squirmed her way back to the stage, through upper crusties scrunched shoulder to shoulder, and caterwauled through “You Gotta Have Heart” like her life depended on it. Which I think it did.

 From the documentary "Just Shoot Me," with accompanist Rob Bowman in the background. (Isotope Films)

From the documentary "Just Shoot Me," with accompanist Rob Bowman in the background. (Isotope Films)

Stritch was a visceral performer. Her artistry came from the guts. It was intestinal. And without a stage she would’ve starved. Her talent was one thing; her need was another. Her need to perform was just a little bit greater than her ability to perform. I adore her for that intransigence.

I swear to Sondheim: I was listening to her one-woman show “Elaine Stritch at Liberty” for the hundredth time this very morning. A couple hours later, Twitter said she was dead at 89.

The smaller show at the Carlyle, where she lived for a time, came after “At Liberty.” I saw it with friends on Oct. 18, 2005, and I took notes, because I knew it would be special. She entered beside me too. As the audience was applauding her imminent move to the stage, she chanted a mantra I couldn’t decipher, did a couple stretches and lunges, and then ran out into the audience toward the stage, where she jumped into “Yes I Can” with the volcanic testosterone of a football coach marshaling his losing team at halftime.

She then put the audience in her pocket by saying that it was “you and me against the world.” She gave out her room number at the Carlyle (309) and its phone number (which I still have written down). She threw out anecdotes like confetti — about old flames (“Here lies Kenny Reardon — about everything”), her friend Noël Coward (“'Good show, Stritchy, but I asked you to behave, not behave like a fucking geography teacher'”), glamorous parties on yachts (“I vaguely remember falling up the gangplank), rivals like Barbara Cook ("Oh please don't sigh") and a chaperoned date with Sinatra:

Sinatra: “People in the theatre are goin’ nowhere.”

Stritch: “It’d like to know where you are going, Mr. Sinatra.”

Sinatra: “Get her outta here.”

Elaine Stritch had balls, brass, brass balls, whatever you want to call it. She sank into alcoholism but surfaced. She aged publicly because her vanity was detached from her body (though thankfully not from her wardrobe). In the recent documentary "Just Shoot Me," she is rattled by the growing prospect of her death. Her terror is there on-screen, 30 feet high. Who would allow an audience into such a performance, as death waits in the wings? Stritch would. It was the only way to stay alive.

At the Carlyle show nine years ago, she did not sing her two signature Sondheim songs, “I’m Still Here” and “The Ladies Who Lunch,” but they weren’t necessary. She’d already done them definitively, for posterity:

The songs she did sing were choice and revealing. When she sang “I Want to Get Married," 60 years seemed to melt off her face. When she sang “That’s Him” and “I’ve Been Alone a Long Time,” it was clear that her audience was the only lover she had left. Greater than the songs, though, was her patter in between them. She said two things in particular that guide me to this day, in some way.

At the end of a rambling anecdote: "The circus is either in town, or it isn't." This is one of the truest, simplest statements about life, right up there with Gilda Radner's "It's always something."

And: “Live expectantly. Expect better things. Right up to the end of your life, and beyond that. Widen your horizons. Get an ever-greater circle of friends in your life, if you’re lucky. And create for yourself every-day usefulness."

She said this because she'd lived it. Her gruffness masked an excitement over What Comes Next. Life, for Stritch, was a free-for-all. I loved how she accepted awards. I love how she said "fuck" on the "Today" show five months ago. I loved that she got good work on network television in her 80s. And I loved that she could be counted on for something like this Letterman bit in 1996. Who else could've pulled it off?

What else to say? Need something bad enough and you can stay good at it until you die. Everybody rise.

Joan Fontaine (1917-2013)

A former pen pal of mine died yesterday at her home in Carmel, Calif., at the age of 96. She was a movie star. My grandfather's best friend Ed somehow got to know her in London, and once helped her move into a new flat in Dolphin Square (so the story goes) and this friendliness eventually extended to my grandfather's sister-in-law, my great aunt Loretto, who started a written correspondence with Ms. Fontaine that eventually extended to me. For my birthday, my great aunt requested a signed head shot, which I received as a freshman in college. I wrote a thank-you letter that included a question about her Hitchcock movie "Suspicion," and Ms. Fontaine responded that yes, indeed, the shit ending was a severe compromise in order to satisfy studio bosses and sentimental audiences. We traded brief notes for a while. Nothing revealing. She inquired about "my studies." I inquired about her health. Just pleasantries, a couple lines here and there. Joan was generous that way with fans, sending autographs and notes until shortly before her death. For more revealing information, take a gander at her feisty responses to Vanity Fair's Proust questionnaire in 2008 -- What do you consider the most overrated virtue? "Virginity." How would you like to die? "In bed—alone." -- and Self-Styled Siren's sweet remembrance, with links to individual posts about her films. No, I haven't seen all her movies. Yes, for a brief time I would check my tiny mailbox in my dorm and there would be an envelope from a movie star, looking in on me like another great aunt. The world can be weird that way.

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Keep calm, and carry on

An obituary for my grandfather. 

 There he is, 33 (or 34?) years old at center, at Offermann Stadium in Buffalo for opening day of the Buffalo Bisons' 1946 (or 1947?) season.

There he is, 33 (or 34?) years old at center, at Offermann Stadium in Buffalo for opening day of the Buffalo Bisons' 1946 (or 1947?) season.

Sometimes it’s easier for me to understand life in terms of movies, so early on I started looking at my grandparents as Hollywood stars. My dad’s mother was Barbara Stanwyck, because they bore a striking resemblance to each other in their youth. My mother’s stepmom was Bette Davis, because of her eyes. My dad’s father is Jack Nicholson, because of his mischievous temperament. And my mom’s father, Don, was Burt Lancaster, because he was simply, quietly, the essence of graceful masculinity, and a grateful practitioner of humanity, of the act of living. He died last Tuesday morning, Nov. 23, in his sleep, at 97.

He’d been feeling tired. On the previous Saturday, he got up to the use the bathroom at his assisted living home in Fort Erie, Ontario. When he laid back down he said that he would not be getting up again. He was right. That day he watched his beloved Notre Dame win. The next day he watched the Buffalo Bills win. And then within 36 hours he eased off on a cloud of morphine, the nonagenarian equivalent of a humble bow, mentally and physically sharp but ready for the end.

It’s hard to fathom his longevity. He was born in 1913. Woodrow Wilson was four months into his presidency. Women couldn’t vote. Prohibition hadn’t yet been enacted. A first-class stamp cost two pennies. The U.S population was 97.2 million. Life expectancy was 50. Among many other sweeping changes, he has witnessed the gradual automation of reality. If I live to be 97, it will be the year 2080. I wonder if it will be physiologically possible at that time to organically possess the same dignity, charm, humility and awareness of self as he did.

He was the last of nine children born to a railroad switchman and a housewife. His first crib was the bottom drawer of a dresser. Shortly after he was born the family moved to South Buffalo with a horse named Lilt and a buckboard wagon (the streets were being paved for the first time). They got a nine-passenger Paige touring car, which is how they ferried him to the hospital when he contracted the flu during the 1918 pandemic, which killed 50 million people.

My 5-year-old grandfather was brought to the “pest house” behind the old Meyer Hospital to lay beside the infected masses. He’ll be dead by morning, a doctor said. A priest gave him last rites.

“If he’s going to die, he’s going to die at home,” said my great grandmother Magdalena, all 4-foot-11 of her. She ordered his brother Norman to wrap him up in a steamer rug and put him back in the car.

At home, Don remained mostly unconscious for a week. His father rigged a cot in the dining room. His mother tried to feed him butter soup. Seven days after the dire prognosis, he woke up and recovered. Without the stubbornness of my great grandmother and the heartiness of her son, I — we — would not be here today.

During high school at St. Joe’s he drove a $45 car with a milk crate for a front seat. He met his future wife, Catherine, at a party on West Hazeltine in Kenmore. He played baseball. He loved baseball. He’d jump freight trains to play ball as a ringer in Niagara Falls leagues (earning $15 a game) during the Depression.

In 1929, when he was 16, he was part of a ragtag underdog team that won the American Legion Junior World Series in Louisville, Ky., which was “the most momentous thing ever to boost amateur and youth baseball in Western New York,” according to The Buffalo News. Fifty thousand Buffalonians celebrated the team during a parade on Main Street. A fleet of Pierce Arrow automobiles took them down Broadway to City Hall.

“We worked out for two and a half hours in the evenings, taking batting practice in the cage, going over fundamentals and sharpening our defensive talents in Bison Stadium, which, of course, to us teenagers was a bonus baseball thrill,” he told the News decades later. “Those drills proved to me, and I’m sure to many of my teammates, too, that you don’t have to be an expert if you apply the basics through life. In other words, work together.”

That October, the team was invited to the World Series in Chicago. Cubs versus the Yankees. A bunch of puny 16-year-olds on an all-expense-paid trip to the greatest event in baseball — naturally, they got a little rowdy at the hotel one night, and a neighboring guest knocked at their door. It was Babe Ruth, who told them to settle down. They managed to get a ball autographed.

During his first year at Notre Dame in 1931 he bought a 1927 Model T with glass windows, wooden floorboards, treadless tires, a crank and a wire choke — the “whole catastrophe” as he’d call it — for $35.

His older brothers Martin and Norman founded a men’s clothing business on Seneca Street in South Buffalo in 1919, after they got out of the Army. When they opened a storefront on the west side of Main Street in downtown Buffalo in 1930, they needed help. My grandfather gave up college to pitch in. He drove the Model T back to Buffalo after his freshman year and joined the business, which by 1936 had chromium chandeliers, wrought-iron railing, ivory-and-black-checkered linoleum floors, black oak woodwork with a silver fill, and a second-floor tailor shop.

He married Catherine in 1941. One of my favorite photos is their kiss on the steps outside the church, a tight cloud of rice suspended above their heads. He enlisted in the Army on July 28, 1942, weighing 146 lbs at 5 feet 10 inches. During the war he was stationed in San Angelo, Texas, where he was a sergeant serving as a truck master in the motor pool.

He stayed faithful to his university. He was named Notre Dame Man of the Year in 1959 at the Hotel Lafayette in downtown Buffalo, and cited for his 20 years of alumni activity and “rich moral leadership.” He would remain involved for the remainder of his life, writing newsletter updates as a representative of the class of ’35, calling phantom phone numbers to figure out which classmates were still alive and what they were up to. He opened his own offshoot of the clothing business in 1962 at 620 Main St., and specialized in men’s suits, outercoats, formal wear and rare fabrics. He could size a man up, literally, just by looking at him. He knew acquaintances by their measurements.

Catherine died in 1964. In 1967, Don married my grandmother, Patricia. He retired in 1975.

All this before I was born. Before my parents even married. The Don I knew did not come with this biography. He is, firstly, a haze of childhood memories. A rickety hot tub behind his cottage near Lake Erie. A backyard stone statue of St. Francis, by whose feet we’d place bits of bread for the birds. A game of badminton. A vintage dice-rolling cage that rang as you spun it. Poker games with plastic chips. A shed smelling of shoe shine and sawdust that had to be propped up with a car jack because it was sinking into the ground. A tandem bike. A couple knocks on the hood of the car as we backed out of his driveway after a visit. An interjection of “Mozzarella!” every time we took a photo together. (He was classier than “cheese.”)

He found many ways to be dapper after his retirement from the clothing business. He wore a top hat to my parents’ wedding in 1981. He was fond of garish plaid pants, off-color sport jackets, goose-down vests, ascots, unknotted ties, shockingly green corduroy pants and — for any occasion, even during winter — Birkenstocks with dress socks (in which he will be buried). I imagine he was dapper even when he did the 5K nude run at Lily Valley Nudist Camp in Fort Erie. He was in his 90s at the time, but I’m sure he was as dignified as possible.

After I went off to college, our relationship was conducted largely via correspondence, both written and digital. He’d send letters once a month, stuffing newspaper clippings in the envelope, always signing off with “Love to you all, Papa Jake,” because everyone always called him Jake. In almost every letter, he’d refer to his present situation — whatever it was — as “the good life.” He’d always alert me when the ice on Lake Erie was breaking up in the spring.

Here’s a note from 2008, after he’d moved into the assisted living place, which he referred to optimistically as “the club”:

I am learning how to play pinochle! The locals have an “enthusiastic,” vocal pinochle game most every evening. So far no betting and/or gambling. I asked Hazel and Harry regardez this omission. I am now “vice president” in charge of figuring a way to separate some of the residents from their $.

He had a charming way with words. During one Thanksgiving dinner years ago, I remember him saying, “Make sure to take the toothpicks out of the sandwiches; you don’t want to perforate your bladder.” At brunch in Buffalo for my 23rd birthday, he asked me, “Are you duly impressed by the vagaries of maturity that await you?” And he never really said “Goodbye.” He always said “Carry on,” with a vaguely aristocratic accent. “Callyohn,” it sounded like. In other words, “Keep doing what you’re doing, enjoy yourself, get on with the business of living.”

At his 95th birthday party, I asked him to reveal the secret to longevity. “Keep breathing,” he said. He was always big on the saying “Everything in moderation.” Once I heard him tack on a qualifier: “Everything in moderation, including moderation.” Or maybe I just imagined that.

He was many things to many people: uncle, great uncle, husband, boss, host, clothier, teammate, poker buddy and dear ol’ dad to three darling Jacobi girls (one of whom is my mother). But I can only speak about him as a grandfather to me, my two brothers and two cousins. He didn’t spoil us. He didn’t lecture us. He never raised his voice. He never complained about anything. He was simply, quietly, a model for living: Engaged with the world, well-traveled, humble, debonair without pomposity, attired precisely but not for ego’s sake, a lifelong caregiver who gracefully received care at the end of his life, who remained totally alive even after all his peers died, even as he gradually lost independence and mobility. The basics of living. “You don’t have to be an expert if you apply the basics through life.” The good life. That is his gift to me, to us: His example.

The most basic thing of all: Family. I said before that Don reminds me of Burt Lancaster. I think of that scene in “Field of Dreams,” when a young Moonlight Graham decides to walk off that mystical diamond to rescue Kevin Costner’s daughter. He knows he will be consigned to old age, but he does it anyway. A rookie in stirrup socks crosses the gravel line and becomes an old man in slacks played by Lancaster. That’s kind of what happened in 1932. My grandfather came home to Buffalo to help the family, when he could’ve stayed at Notre Dame, lived independently, gotten a college degree, maybe played ball at a higher level. Because he came back, he married Catherine, and had my mother, who had me. Raising children is itself a selfless enterprise, but sometimes — when I must remind myself to be decent — I remember that I am a product of this specific selfless action.

At Thanksgiving two years ago, the family played Wii baseball after dinner. It sounds stupid, but I was weirdly thankful to be able to play the game — even a ridiculous, automated-reality version of it — with my grandfather, 80 years removed from his triumph in Louisville. I will remember the look on his face as he got the hang of batting with the controller. It was a look of gratitude. One more chance to do something he loved. Another one of life’s small surprises.

“He was supposed to live forever,” my mother said more than once during the days after he died. He will, one way or another. You can’t live such a long, full life and not reverberate through family, friends, strangers, generations. A 97-year-old man died and his wake and funeral are attended by the second, third and fourth generations of people he knew. That’s some kind of immortality.

While cleaning off his desk at “the club,” my aunts found a handwritten note dated Aug. 28, 2009. It had some meandering remarks regarding his eventual death:

It has been a grand life. You all made it so. … No artificial help after 97. It should not be needed. I will be happy to stop breathing. Catherine told me so.

He died like he lived — with a Burt Lancaster kind of grace that paralleled his favorite sign off, which now becomes an instruction: “Carry on.”