I first visited Manhattan in 1953, when I was 13, the guest of Vandy, my godmother. An avid reader of movie magazines, I asked if we could dine at the Stork Club, then one of the most celebrated nightspots in the world where glittering movie stars and celebrities always were being seen. And so, rather than instructing me in the Nicene Creed, Vandy took me to the Stork Club for lunch.
Everything was as I pictured it, down to the Stork statuette on the table, and—would you believe—sitting at the next table was raven-haired starlet Piper Laurie with a slick-looking power player of some sort. This was the kind of crowd I’d always dreamed of running with, and I resolved then to move to Manhattan one day. Fourteen years later I made it—staying for another 45 years.
When I first arrived, the only people I knew were an uncle and aunt, and sometimes I’d go over in the mornings and watch TV game shows with her, a ritual that included drinking three or four martinis. We’d have a big Greek salad around 1:00, she’d fall asleep, and I’d stagger home. I thought this was all very cool, of course, and I now had two older women to thank for showing me the ways of the city.
My first job was the story editor of a film company, Saturn Pictures. I was responsible for evaluating submitted scripts, except they were usually treatments (outlines) of scripts, so you couldn’t tell anything: In this moving and crucial scene, Brogan confesses to Lucille in wrenching detail why he’s both attracted to—but also repelled by—her contradictory behavior.
We finally produced a film called Sidelong Glances of a Pigeon-Kicker. The last scene called for the hero, a cab driver, to attempt suicide by driving off a wharf into the Hudson River. After assorted preparations, the cab took off, picked up speed, sailed into the air, and hit the choppy water with a mighty belly flop. It occurred to me later that dozens of motorists on the West Side Highway must have witnessed this bizarre event, probably saying to themselves, “There goes another cabbie committing suicide,” never giving the fatal plunge another thought.
Movies and TV shows were always being shot on the Upper West Side, where I lived. A camera crew would be in your lobby one morning…or ten cars from the 1920’s would be parked on your street…or Bette Midler would be hailing a cab on the corner. One morning a cemetery sprang to life on a steep hill in Riverside Park leading to the Hudson River.
The line between reality and make-believe often blurred. The morning after seeing An Unmarried Woman, which features a scene of Jill Clayburgh jogging along the East River, I went jogging along the Hudson River and passed Jill Clayburgh jogging along the Hudson River. I shouted something stupid like, “I’m big fan!” and she smiled and waved: a scene being filmed, perhaps, for a new movie in the making.
So many quirky encounters:
—Sarah, Duchess of York (“Fergie”), having drinks at the Plaza Hotel Palm Court, a large palm separating our tables, allowing me to eavesdrop on the discussion about her Weight Watchers’ contract.
—Salvador Dali sweeping out of the St. Regis Hotel with cape and cane, mustache majestically twirled, one sidebar in a hair curler.
—Dustin Hoffman and I attending an 11:00 a.m. showing of a movie, the only people in New York doing so.
—Tiny Tim, of Tiptoe Through the Tulips fame, buying seven Mars candy bars at a drugstore.
Our apartment at 91st and Riverside was home to several pretty well-known folks, including Harvey Evans, one of the Jets in the movie of West Side Story. He and I cohosted a Fourth of July party one year, and I was chatting with famed singer Barbara Cook when my friend Barbara Crook happened along. Such moments occur rarely in life, and it was with great flourish that I proceeded to introduce them.
Another neighbor was Tanya Roberts, one of Charlie’s Angels in its last year. After the show closed, she starred in various “erotic thrillers,” and I prayed for the day when just the two of us would get stuck between floors and I could tell her how I enjoyed her portrayal of the redheaded slave girl in The Beastmaster, “especially that scene when you take all your clothes off, revealing your beautiful naked body, and go swimming in the lagoon.”
Street and subway performers were part of the entertainment mix, of course. Worst was the guy I got trapped on the subway with twice, who’d instruct the passengers to look around and determine who the ugliest person in the car was: “Come on, check your neighbors out, don’t be shy, you’re probably not as ugly as you think.” Finally, you couldn’t stand it any longer and looked up, preparing a distancing, can-you-believe-this half-smile for anybody you happened to make eye contact with. The shameful truth: You wanted to see who the ugliest person in the car was.
Celebs came in many shapes and forms. One of the occupants of a first-floor apartment on the next corner would often stand at the window and make faces at passersby, some of whom would make them back. He was Kokomo Jr., a performing chimp (a regular on the NBC Today Show), who shared quarters with his owner, Nick Corrado.
Curiosity finally got the better of me, and I set up an interview with them. Corrado, a burly man in his 40’s, greeted me, and Kokomo Jr. came somersaulting into the room, shook hands, doffed a sports jacket, and stuck a pipe in his mouth. “This is an 11-room apartment,” Corrado explained, “and Kokomo has everything he could need in life, including a drum set and a banana-dispensing machine. He’s multi-talented and can do one trick no other chimp can.” With coaxing, Kokomo made the A-OK sign with thumb and forefinger. “Isn’t that amazing?” says Corrado. “He’s easy to work with now, but as chimps age they get nasty, so we always have to be training a successor.
Would you like to meet his younger brother? Only thing…” he whispered into my ear, “Kokomo gets very jealous of his brother, so make sure you divide your attention between them equally.”
Corrado fetched the heir apparent, who was wearing an orange jersey and diapers, and I petted him on the head and held hands with him briefly, then petted Kokomo on the head and held hands with him briefly.
“I’m also a magician and a hypnotist,” Corrado said. “I once gave a party for some hypnotist friends, and after a lot of drinking, we took turns trying to hypnotize Kokomo. I can’t remember if we had any luck. He still enjoys meeting new people. Sometimes I go to a bar and maybe pick up some dame and bring her back to the apartment. We’re on the couch having a beer, and I’ll say, ‘Do you like animals?’ and she’ll say ‘Yes,’ and I’ll say, ‘Have I got a surprise for you.’”
Over the years I spotted scores of famous people, but only once did I ask for an autograph. An elderly, broad-shouldered man sitting on a bench in the park looked familiar, but I couldn’t place him until he stretched and cracked his knuckles. I have a younger friend who loves boxing, and he still has the autograph (framed): “To Nathan, good luck pal—Jack Dempsey.”
I see my time is nearly up, but permit me just two more anecdotes. I was on Fifth Avenue at rush hour one day competing with about 15 people to hail a cab, everybody maneuvering to get ahead of everybody else. Suddenly a cab cut across traffic, ignored a flurry of frantically waving hands, and pulled to a screeching stop in front of me. Delighted but puzzled, I hopped in. The cabbie’s face fell: ”Oh, I thought you were Danny Kaye.” Short of becoming famous yourself, the only surefire way to get a cab in New York, clearly, was to wear a celebrity mask.
And lastly, I promise…my friend Jim managed to see Katherine Hepburn in a play just a week after moving to Manhattan. Enchanted by the performance, he sent a congratulatory note and a small purse as a gift. A week later, the phone rang: “Hello, this is Katherine Hepburn calling. I was charmed by your lovely note and gift and wonder if you’d be free next Monday at 4:30 to come by for tea.”
Jim allowed as how he might be able to fit her in, and so the next Monday afternoon, he and three other fans who’d sent her similar tokens of appreciation had tea and biscuits with Hepburn in her four-story house on East 49th Street. “She was gracious and charming,” Jim said. “I sure hadn’t realized Broadway stars could be so friendly.” In the years that followed, it should be said, he sent many purses to many leading ladies, without success, but he could always boast that he paved the way for others.
I myself tried his technique once. When Piper Laurie was in a play on Broadway some 20 years ago, I sent her a small purse and card, explaining the role that she had played in inspiring my move to New York. I thought it might, at least, lead to a cup of coffee at a diner but—alas—no dice.
She probably couldn’t read my writing.
Robert Strozier’s fiction and non-fiction have appeared in numerous publications including Atlantic, Esquire, The New Times Magazine, and The NYT Book Review. He’s had plays produced in NYC, and a musical he wrote (book and lyrics) has had five concert readings (theressomethingineedtotellyou.com). He also helped launch five national magazines, then served as Editor-in-Chief of two and a senior editor at the others.