Kiss me Like a Stranger
My Search for Love and Art
By Gene Wilder
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2005 Gene Wilder
All rights reserved.
1962 — New York
I walked into Marjorie Wallis's small office on West Seventy-ninth Street. I was very nervous.
"What do I call you?" I asked.
"What do you want to call me?"
"I heard Dr. Steiner call you Margie on the telephone ... is that all right?"
"Margie it is! Sit down."
She indicated the plain couch in front of me. There were no pictures on the walls. Margie sat in a comfortable-looking armchair, with an ottoman — which she wasn't using — resting in front of her. Her face wasn't warm, but it wasn't stern, either.
"What seems to be the trouble?" she asked.
I couldn't bring myself to look at her.
"I want to give all my money away."
"How much do you have?"
"... I owe three hundred dollars."
She looked at me silently for four or five seconds.
"I see. Well, let's get to work, and maybe by the time you have some money you'll be wise enough to know what to do with it. In the meantime tell me about ..."
And then she asked me a lot of questions. "Your mother was how old? ... How did you feel when the doctor said that? ... Have you ever tried to blah, blah, blah?" I took so many long pauses before I answered each question that I thought she might throw me out, but she just sat there, with her feet up on the ottoman now, and waited. When I did start talking again, she made little notes on a small pad that rested on her lap.
What I couldn't understand was this: why on earth was I thinking about a fifteen-year-old girl named Seema Clark during all my long pauses in between Margie's questions? Seema kept popping into my head while I was talking about my mother and doctors and heart attacks and my Russian father and masturbation.
I thought Seema was Eurasian when I met her the first time — she certainly didn't look Jewish — but when we both came out of the synagogue together I realized that she must be Jewish. She was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen. I was only fifteen, but I had seen a lot of movies and I thought she looked like a very thin, teenage Rita Hayworth. I was her date when Seema had her fifteenth birthday party. There were eight or ten other kids at her house that night, all laughing their heads off at some wisenheimer who was "hypnotizing" one of the girls. I thought he was pretty stupid, but I enjoyed watching the cocky little faker who thought he knew how to hypnotize people because he'd read his uncle's book on hypnosis.
Seema held my hand while we watched the "hypnotist" go through his fake talk. I knew she really liked me. She looked so pretty that night, with a pink barrette in her hair and wearing a brand-new yellow angora sweater. Her mother served all of us birthday cake and some delicious coffee. When all the other kids had gone home, Mrs. Clark showed me the coffee can, because I had said how good the coffee tasted — it was A&P's Eight O'clock Coffee — and then her mother said good night and left Seema and me alone.
We sat on the couch in an almost-dark living room and started kissing. I was shy, but I didn't want Seema to know how shy I really was, so I put on an act as if I were used to all this kissing in the dark with no one around. I thought that she was probably more experienced than I was and I decided that it was about time for me to feel a girl's breast. Well, I can't say, "I decided" — I was just going on what I'd heard from all the other boys my age, especially my cousin Buddy, who was nine months older than me.
It took me about eight minutes to get my hand near the start of Seema's breast — the hairs of her new angora sweater kept coming off in my fingers, which certainly didn't help any. After another three or four minutes, I finally put my hand on about one-third of her breast. As soon as I did, she jerked away. My mouth went dry. She looked at me with such disappointment in her eyes and said, "You're just like all the other boys, aren't you?" I flushed so hot I thought I'd burst. I couldn't understand why she didn't say anything during all the kissing and creeping up the fake angora. Why didn't she just say, "No," or, "I don't want you to do that," or anything but what she did say? I wanted to tell her that I wasn't at all like all the other boys, that I thought she would like what I was doing, that I thought she was waiting for me to do it. But I was too embarrassed to say any of those things. I just said, "I'm sorry, Seema," and then wished her happy birthday and got out of there as fast as I could.
Of course, this all happened in little pictures that popped into my head during the long pauses with Margie. The whole memory probably lasted only a few seconds. Margie's voice suddenly burst in:
"Where are you?"
"... What do you mean?"
"Lie down on the couch. You're not as innocent as you pretend and Dr. Steiner assures me that you're no dummy. I want you to start talking and tell me everything that crosses your mind — everything — however embarrassing or insignificant you think it is. I don't know whether or not I can help you and I don't know how many times you and I will be seeing each other in the future, but whether it's one more time or several years ... don't ever lie to me."
CAN A FEW WORDS CHANGE YOUR LIFE?
I used to be Jerry Silberman. When I was eight years old, my mother had her first heart attack. After my father brought her home from the hospital, her fat heart specialist came to see how she was doing. He visited with her for about ten minutes, and then, on his way out of the house, he grabbed my right arm, leaned his sweaty face against my cheek, and whispered in my ear,
"Don't ever argue with your mother — you might kill her."
I didn't know what to make of that, except that I could kill my mother if I got angry with her. The other thing he said was:
"Try to make her laugh."
So I tried. It was the first time I ever consciously tried to make someone laugh. I did Jewish accents and German accents and Danny Kaye songs that I learned from his first album, and I did make my mother laugh. Every once in awhile, if I was a little too successful, she'd run to the bathroom, squealing, "Oh, Jerry, now look what you've made me do!"
* * *
Some people — when they step into the ring — lead with their left; some lead with their right. I always led with my sister.
It was a Saturday night. I was eleven. My sister, Corinne, was sixteen and she was giving an acting recital at the Wisconsin College of Music, where her teacher, Herman Gottlieb, had his studio. It was a small auditorium stuffed with about two hundred people. While everyone sat and waited for the show to start, there was so much loud talking that I wondered how Corinne would stand it. When the lights started to fade, everyone talked louder for a few seconds. Then they all whispered. Then ... darkness!
A spotlight hit the center of the stage, and there was Corinne, wearing a full-length aqua gown. For the next twenty minutes she performed "The Necklace," a short story by Guy de Maupassant that she had memorized. All eyes were on Corinne. The audience was listening to every word. You could hear a pin drop. Everyone applauded her at the end. I remember thinking that this must be as close to actually being God as you could get.
I went up to Mr. Gottlieb and asked if I could study acting with him.
"How old are you?" he asked. "Eleven."
"Wait till you're thirteen. If you still want to study acting, I'll take you on."
When my mother was in pain, the fat heart specialist came to our house. I say "fat" only because Dr. Rosenthal died of a heart attack a few years later, and even though I was very young, I instinctively associated his death with how many Cokes he drank whenever he came to our house. One day he came because my mother felt a terrible pressure in her chest. Dr. Rosenthal told me to go around the corner, where they were putting up a new house, steal a heavy brick, and then wrap the brick in a washcloth and place it on top of my mother's chest, over her heart. It sounded crazy. I waited until all the workers had left the new house, at the end of the day, and then I picked up a good-sized brick, tucked it under my sweater, and walked home as fast as I could. I wrapped the brick in a washcloth and placed it on top of my mother's chest.
"Oh, honey, that feels so good."
In the months that followed I would substitute my head for the brick. I'd push my head down with both hands as hard as I could, and she liked that even more than the brick.
One Sunday afternoon my dad dropped me off at the Uptown movie theater, so I could see a Sunday matinée. I didn't tell him that I'd taken his flashlight out of the utility closet and hidden it in my jacket.
After I paid the cashier and bought my popcorn and Milk Duds, I went into the theater, which was almost full. The picture had already started, but in those days most people were used to coming in after a movie started — they would stay until they saw a familiar scene in the next showing and then leave. This Sunday the movie was Double Indemnity, with Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray. It was in black and white.
I watched for about twenty minutes, but when it started getting mushy (kissing), I took the flashlight out of my jacket and began shining it onto the screen. When people looked around to see which punk was doing this, I shut the flashlight off, fast. When the audience settled down again, I switched the flashlight back on. I started making circles on the screen — my beam of light competing with the beam from the projector. I got such a feeling of joy from doing this, until the manager came down the aisle with a horrible look on his face and told me to come with him. I followed him into his office.
"What's your name?"
"Jerry Silberman. Please don't tell my father."
"Give me the flashlight."
He took my father's flashlight and kicked me out of the theater.
It was drizzling outside. I felt ashamed, standing under the overhang in front of the theater, wondering whether or not to tell my dad about his flashlight and about the manager kicking me out. I decided it would be safer if I waited till my dad noticed the missing flashlight himself ... and that might not happen for months. He was born in Russia but came to Milwaukee with his family when he was eleven. He wasn't dumb, but he was very innocent, and I knew what I could get by with if I wanted to evade a situation.
After I waited in the rain for an hour and ten minutes, my father drove up. I jumped into the car.
"So — how was the movie?" he asked.
"It was great, Daddy. It was really good."
I started taking acting lessons with Herman Gottlieb the day after my thirteenth birthday.
* * *
I was eleven when I learned about sex — from my cousin Buddy, naturally. We were both in a co-ed summer camp. I couldn't believe what he was saying.
"Oh, Buddy, what're you talking about?"
"It's the truth! You put your poopy into her thing — honest to God."
"Well, how could that ever make babies?"
"Because you've got to put your germs into her germs. That's how you do it."
"... Well, what if you're embarrassed? I'm not going to take it out in front of a girl."
"Are you telling me you wouldn't like to show it to her if she showed you her whatcha-call-it?"
"... Well ..."
Then Cousin Buddy told this crazy idea to Alan Pinkus, another one of our friends. Alan was more shocked than I was.
"Well, how do you think you get babies, Alan? Do you think the stork brings them?"
Buddy tried his best to make Alan feel like a baby. Alan was embarrassed.
"No, of course not. ... I just thought it came from ... putting your saliva in with her saliva."
"You mean spitting at each other?" Buddy laughed so hard that I started laughing too. That was when I figured that Buddy must be right. He was an expert about these kinds of things.
We never talked about sex in my family when I was growing up. The only time I came close to asking about it was when I was in second grade and I was walking home from school with two other boys. We saw a naked lady through her living room window, lying on a sofa, scratching her tush while she read a book. When she saw three little boys staring at her, she jumped up and closed the curtains. We ran away, and I heard one of the boys use the word "fuck." When I got home, I didn't tell my mother about the naked lady, but I did ask her what "fuck" meant.
"You want to know what "fuck" means?" she asked, as she pulled me into the bathroom and turned on the faucet. She ran a bar of Ivory Soap under the water and stuck it in my mouth. "There! Now you know what fuck means."
I started crying, and then, as was her habit until she died, she started crying and begging me to forgive her. Begging and begging, until I finally went into her arms and she hugged me and kissed my tears and kept repeating, "I'm sorry, honey. I was wrong. Can you ever forgive me?"
My mother had a distant cousin who lived in Los Angeles and whose thirteen-year-old son was going to a place called Black/Foxe Military Institute, run by retired colonel Black and retired colonel Foxe. My mother's cousin said she thought it was a wonderful place, and it was in Hollywood, California. What she didn't mention was that her son was going to Black/Foxe as a day student, so he went home each afternoon after school.
Since my mother was ill and felt that she and my father couldn't give me the kind of training that I needed, now that I was thirteen — she thought I still didn't know how babies were made, and I didn't have the guts to tell her that I did — she got it into her head that Black/Foxe Military Institute might be the perfect answer. I think she was influenced by a movie called Diplomatic Courier, starring Tyrone Power. She thought that if I went to Black/Foxe, I would not only learn how to dance, play bridge and play the piano, but also how to be at ease with girls and learn everything there is to know about sex. So off I went to Hollywood. What else my mother didn't know was that almost every boy who lived at Black/Foxe came from a broken home — mostly they were sons of parents who wanted to get rid of their kids.
On my first night at Black/Foxe, I was assigned to a room on the second floor of the dormitory. When I walked in I was greeted by a short, tough-looking boy with acne all over his face.
"Hi, I'm Jonesy," he said. "We're going to be roommates for a long time so I'm taking this bed and you take that one."
When I got into my brand-new pajamas that first night, Jonesy started smiling at me and said, "Lemme corn-hole ya." I didn't have a clue what he was talking about. Then he told me to just lie down on my bed, facedown. He got on top of me and put his penis between my thighs and started pumping away until he had an orgasm. His "jizz" went onto my new pajamas, not into me. After he saw how upset I was, he never tried to do that again. He just jerked off in the closet.
This was 1946. When word got out that I was Jewish, some of the bigger boys started coming into my room and pounding me on the chest and on my arms. They didn't hit me in the face, and I was glad of that, but I couldn't understand why they wanted to beat me up. They never said why. One tall jerk named Macintosh barged into my room one day and started dancing around me — like an Indian in the movies, circling a covered wagon — and he kept singing, "We want the country! We want the country!" It scared me, but he didn't hit me, so I was okay. I remembered seeing some movie about initiation tests when you got into a fraternity, so I figured it was some kind of tradition to beat up the newest cadets. Then I found out that I was the only Jewish boy at Black/Foxe, so I finally understood the reason. But it still didn't make any sense.
I went to the sergeant's room at the end of the hall. He was a real sergeant who took the job at Black/Foxe when he retired from the army. I told him about all the beatings and asked him what I should do.
"You want them to stop beating you up?"
"The next time one of them comes into your room, pick up a chair and smash it over his head."
"... But ... I can't do that. What if I killed him?"
"You asked me what to do. I told you."
I never went to him for help again. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Kiss me Like a Stranger by Gene Wilder. Copyright © 2005 Gene Wilder. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.