Friday, August 8, 2008

Whose Father Wasn't?

These are my two favorite passages from all of literature, both in books I first read thirty or more years ago. I can almost repeat them from memory; I should have them embroidered on samplers and framed for display on my wall.

The first comes from Merle Miller and Evan Rhodes's Only You, Dick Daring! or, How to Write One Television Script and Make $50,000,000, a True-life Adventure (New York: W. Sloane Associates, 1964). An ostensibly non-fictional account of the production of a TV pilot film that never aired, it's full of wonderfully nasty humor, and it's interesting to look for dropped hairpins in the light of Miller's later coming-out. The context is that Miller's been griping about the bad behavior of the show's star, a former child star who'd had a traumatic childhood. Rhodes suddenly interrupts him with this parable:
There’s a scene in the movie Moulin Rouge in which Toulouse-Lautrec and Zsa Zsa Gabor are driving in a carriage on the banks of the Seine. Suddenly they come upon a drunken harridan lying, face down, in the gutter, an empty gin bottle clutched in one grimy claw. Lautrec stops the carriage, climbs down, and goes to where the hag is lying.

He at once recognizes that the poor wreck is La Goulue, who only a few short years before had been the toast of all of Paris. Lautrec is shocked; he stoops beside the woman, which in his case takes very little effort.

Zsa Zsa is in a hurry to get to P. J. Clarke’s or wherever they're going. She leans out of the cab and shouts, “How about shaking a leg, Tulley?”

Lautrec turns to her in dismay, “But, Zsa Zsa, have you no heart? This outcast is La Goulue, once the toast of all Paris. We cannot blame her for what she has become. Her mother was a whore. Her two brothers suffered from unmentionable diseases. Her uncle was a rapist, her aunt an ax murderess, and her father was a drunk.”

“Whose father wasn’t?” shouts Zsa Zsa. “Let’s get a move on.”
The second excerpt comes from Andrew Holleran's novel Dancer from the Dance (New York: William Morrow, 1978), and the context is rather similar. Malone is a golden boy, the darling of the disco scene in gay Manhattan sometime in the 60s or 70s; I think Holleran pictured him as a sort of gay F. Scott Fitzgerald. (Holleran's writing here was often compared to Fitzgerald's; I think he's more Evelyn Waugh myself.) Sutherland is a major drag queen and gym queen, drug dealer and celebrity whore, Malone's gay Mother and mentor. Malone, who has just broken up with his first great love, whines to Sutherland:
"Do you sometimes not loathe being -- gay?"

"My dear, you play the hand you're dealt," said Sutherland as he examined his face in the mirror. "Which reminds me, I'm due for bridge at Helen Auchincloss'."

"What do you mean?" said Malone anxiously.

"I mean," said Sutherland, who turned frosty at the slightest sign of complaint, self-pity, or sentimentality on this or any subject (for beneath his frivolity, he was hard as English pewter), "that if Helen Keller can get through life, we certainly can."
Sutherland, as you can see, gets all the good lines. Unfortunately, the tenor of most of Holleran's writing since has been Malone instead of Sutherland.