A Natural Woman A Memoir
By King, Carole
Grand Central Publishing Copyright © 2012 King, Carole
All right reserved. ISBN: 9781455512614
The Name of the Father
In the first decade of the twentieth century a man and a woman from Poland, another man from Poland, and a woman from Russia undertook to cross a continent and an ocean with little more than a fierce determination to find a better life in America. They were my grandparents, and they found that better life in Brooklyn, New York. Had my grandparents not emigrated when they did, I might have been born Jewish in Eastern Europe during World War II, or I might not have been born at all. Instead, I was born in 1942 in New York City.
The story I heard was that when each of my grandparents landed on Ellis Island, an American immigration official wrote down his or her name. My paternal grandparents’ surname, Glayman (pronounced GLYE-man), was written down as Klein, which means “small” in German. Though not German, my grandfather, David, was of small stature and, at four foot eight, his young wife, Mollie, was even shorter. Their DNA and the similar stature of my maternal grandparents would foreclose a prepubescent dream of at least one of their future American granddaughters. Predestined to reach a maximum adult height of five feet two inches, I would never grow up to become a tall, slender fashion model.
My name at birth was Carol Joan Klein. It would take me five decades to appreciate my surname and the history that came with it. Along the way I would add an “e” to Carol and acquire several more surnames.
Note to self: wanting to change your surname is not a good reason to get married.
My father’s name was Sidney Klein. Everyone called him Sid. My mother’s name was Eugenia Cammer. Everyone called her Genie. They met in an elevator at Brooklyn College in 1936. Dad was studying chemistry; Mom’s majors were English and drama. They were married on October 6, 1937, after which my mother rechanneled her considerable ambition and intelligence into running a household on a weekly budget of fifteen dollars. My dad left college before graduating and worked briefly as a radio announcer, thereby setting the precedent of a Klein in front of a microphone. He didn’t stay in that job very long. With job security on his mind during the Great Depression, he went into civil service and found his calling as a New York City firefighter.
My dad liked helping people and solving problems. He did both every time he pulled someone out of a burning building. My father’s captain proudly described him to my mother as “always first on the nozzle,” a revelation that brought little comfort to a fireman’s wife. Though many of his colleagues died saving others, my dad lived for many years after his retirement. When I was very young, his shift at the firehouse kept him away from home for several days and nights at a time. I missed him, but the upside was that we were able to do things as a family on his days off. Sometimes we went to Coney Island, a short bus ride from our house, where Mommy and Daddy would sit on a bench nearby while I played in the cool, damp sand under the boardwalk. After a while I’d climb up onto the splintery wood and let Mommy brush the sand off me. Then I’d skip along the boardwalk between Mommy and Daddy, holding both their hands, until we arrived at the stand where Daddy always gave me a nickel to buy a huge sugary mound of cotton candy.
But the thing I remember most about Coney Island is Daddy, Mommy, and me crowded into one of those primitive audio recording booths to record my voice on a black acetate disc so they could preserve the moment for posterity. That was my first recording experience. I no longer have that disc, but I still remember my three-year-old baby voice saying, “My name is Carol Joan Klein, and I live at 2466 East 24th Street in Brooklyn, New York.”
I sang “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” And then I began to cry.
On December 7, 1941, a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese military effectively ended the debate about whether America should engage more actively in the war against Germany and Japan. I was born two months later in Manhattan on February 9, 1942.
Because firefighters were essential on the home front, my dad didn’t serve in the military, but he, too, put his life on the line every day. My mother managed our family’s money and took care of the semidetached two-family house in Brooklyn on which she and my father had put a down payment after I was born. My mother also took care of me, which I’m told was a full-time job. The rent they collected from the family upstairs was negligible. My father refused to go on relief and my mother refused to go into debt. To make the mortgage payments, my mother shopped with an eye for bargains for everything from food and clothing to laundry soap and tooth powder. She cooked, cleaned, and washed and hung my dad’s sooty clothes on a clothesline with wooden clothespins that lent themselves to being painted and decorated with bits of cloth to look like tiny men and women. In the spring and summer, my mother tended her Victory Garden in our backyard. That’s where one of my earliest musical memories took place.
It’s still wartime. I’m three years old, and I’m supposed to be helping my mother in the garden, but on this sunny spring day I’m easily distracted by my desire to gambol around the yard and climb up on things on which I shouldn’t be climbing. Our neighbors, Mrs. Butler and Mrs. Bursch, call out to my mother whenever they think I’m in danger, which is approximately every two minutes.
Mrs. Butler lives upstairs from Mrs. Bursch. They’re always together. “Butler and Bursch” is how we think of the single unit the two women seem to have become. Mr. Butler and Mr. Bursch exist but are rarely seen. In good weather, Butler and Bursch sit on a bench across the street next to the public playground. On this occasion they sit on painted metal chairs on the back porch outside Bursch’s kitchen while giving my mother a running commentary on my activities. Clods of freshly watered dirt squish between my bare toes as I cavort among the vegetables and help my mother pull weeds. I pirouette around the garden and sing along with my mother while the radio plays one of the popular songs of the day, “Bell Bottom Trousers (Coat of Navy Blue).” I’m too young to understand the meaning of the words, but I sing and dance to the catchy chorus with gusto while my mother alternates between singing and laughing.
When the song is over, Bursch exclaims to my mother, “Isn’t she cute! Mark my words, Genie. Someday she’ll be famous.”
Butler is less optimistic. “I don’t like those popular songs. I wish they’d play real music like Caruso sings.”
The first piece of furniture in my parents’ home was a piano. My mom had deeply disliked the piano lessons my grandmother forced her to take, but she appreciated them later when she found that she could earn fifty cents a lesson teaching piano to neighborhood children. And when she discovered my insatiable curiosity about music, she was able to pass her knowledge on to me. From the time I could stand on tiptoe to reach the piano keys, I was relentless in asking my mother to teach me the names of notes. The first note she taught me was D above middle C, which I played repeatedly in various rhythmic configurations.
D. D. D. D.
It was clear that she would have to teach me the rest of the notes just to get some relief.
Although my father’s family had been too poor to afford music lessons, one of my Klein aunts had taught herself to pick out chords on a piano at a friend’s home, and she could sing almost as beautifully as if she had been trained. Though my dad had “an ear for music,” his entire repertoire on piano comprised both parts (one at a time) of the duet of “Heart and Soul,” the melody of “Chopsticks,” and a tune in F-sharp that didn’t have a name but allowed him to utilize only the black keys as he rolled his fist up and down the piano to produce a melody. Whenever he played the little tune on the black keys, it never failed to delight me.
Neither my aunt nor my father could tell you the name of a note, but they could sing it back. After my mother taught me the names of all the notes, I could not only sing a note back, I could correctly identify it. Because my father didn’t understand the difference between perfect pitch and relative pitch, he boasted to anyone within earshot of his little girl and a piano that Carol had perfect pitch.
Perfect pitch is when a note matches up consistently with that note in your memory. Whether you’re asked to sing middle C, A, or E-flat, you will always sing it correctly. With relative pitch, you may not be able to sing or identify a note perfectly the first time, but once you know the first note, you can correctly sing and identify the rest of them. That’s what I do.
Either way, my ability to identify notes impressed my dad, who enjoyed showing me off to his friends. Sometimes, when he and his firehouse buddies had a common day off, they gathered at our house with their wives. The men sat in the living room and told jokes while the women served and refilled the men’s drinks in big green glasses with crackling ice cubes and replenished the little snack dishes that my mother brought out only when we had company. After a while, my father would casually migrate over to the piano and instruct me to stand on the opposite side of the room with my face to the wall so I couldn’t see the piano. Then he’d begin. He always started with middle C.
“What note is that, Carol?” he’d ask, smiling at his friends as if he knew a secret that they didn’t.
“Middle C,” I’d answer.
“What note is that?”
“How about that one?”
“And this one?”
With that, I turned away from the wall. My dad’s smile was so broad that it encompassed the lower half of his face. I enjoyed making my father happy and getting the notes right—two separate thoughts that an astute psychologist might correctly interpret as one—but I didn’t enjoy being shown off like a trained puppy. And yet those early “performances” were excellent training for my ear.
Even better were the many blissful hours I spent on my own matching up notes in my head with notes on the piano. I had begun making up songs when I was three. Perched precariously on Brooklyn and Manhattan telephone books atop the piano bench, I improvised words and melodies at the top of my lungs while my little fingers pounded out a rudimentary accompaniment on the piano. Using the most advanced form of recording then available in our household, my mother transcribed onto music paper a song I wrote called “Galloping.”
My first real music lesson took place when I was four. My mother invited me to climb up and sit next to her on the piano bench. (By then I needed only the Brooklyn phone book.) She introduced me to music theory and elementary piano technique using a child-sized book with a bright red cover called Teaching Little Fingers to Play, by John Thompson. Here is one of the first songs I learned:
1 2 3 1 2 3 2 1 2 3 1 1
Here we go—up a row—to a birth-day par—ty
The numbers indicated the fingering—thumb being 1, index finger 2, and middle finger 3. In this song, 1, 2, and 3 corresponded with middle C, D, and E. I learned the difference between quarter notes (“here we”) and a half note (“go”), where each note was written on or between the lines of the treble staff, and how each note made the journey from the page through my brain and fingers to the piano to produce its own unique tone. My mother never forced me to practice. She didn’t have to. I wanted so much to master the popular songs that poured out of the radio that I played everything she taught me many times over, undoubtedly driving her to distraction even more than had my repetition of D.
My mother enrolled me in kindergarten when I was four. By the end of the school year I had demonstrated such an exceptional facility with words and numbers that my teachers promoted me directly to second grade. Skipping grades, a common practice in the 1940s, might have been good for my intellectual curiosity, but it was not good for my social development. From second grade on, I was two years younger than most of the kids in my class.
One afternoon, while my father was at his workbench in the basement, my mother was in the kitchen with me. The radio on the shelf above the kitchen table was playing quietly in the background. Between sips of milk and bites of Fig Newtons I was using a yellow pencil to copy random words from a newspaper into a composition book with a black-and-white marbled cover. My mother had just gone to get something from her sewing room at the other end of the house when something about Dinah Shore’s voice on the radio singing “Shoo Fly Pie and Apple Pan Dowdy” made me set my pencil down. I climbed up on a chair, turned the radio up to full volume so I could hear it in the living room, and ran to the piano to see if I could play it. Hearing the radio suddenly blasting, my mom came running to see if I was all right. When she saw me sitting at the piano she walked into the kitchen, turned off the radio, came back and sat next to me on the bench, and taught me a few basic triads that were compatible with Sonny Burke’s orchestral accompaniment. As she played the chords, we sang the melody and lyrics together.
Hearing my mom and me at the piano brought my dad upstairs. At first he sang along from the doorway, then he came over and sat on the opposite end of the bench from my mother with me in the middle. It was fascinating to watch my dad play the melody to “Heart and Soul” while my mom provided the two-handed accompaniment. Then they switched seats and parts. Seated between them, I couldn’t resist making the duet a trio. Some of the chords to “Heart and Soul” were similar to the ones my mother had just taught me for “Shoo Fly Pie,” and though I didn’t have my parents’ agility, the notes I played were harmonious enough to put smiles on all our faces.
It was a happy time. My mom and dad and I were a family. My parents loved each other. They loved me; I loved them; and we all loved music. My early childhood not only gave me a sense of security, it was enriched by a remarkable device that transmitted the latest popular songs and other forms of entertainment through a speaker by means of vacuum tubes, an amplifier, and the intersection of creativity with people’s need for it.
Over the Airwaves
At age five I loved the radio not only because it was the center of a pleasurable activity that drew my family together, but because it was the source of a wealth of words, sounds, stories, and music. When I was ill enough to stay home from school, I curled up under the covers and listened to the daytime soaps, for which the musical scores were usually composed live on the spot.
“The Romance of Helen Trent!” the announcer would say dramatically, immediately followed by the swell of an organ. The sense of continuity that I began to acquire after a few days of following the adventures of Lorenzo Jones, Ma Perkins, and Our Gal Sunday was lost as soon as I was well enough to go back to school. I might have been more motivated to malinger, but I knew my mother would know I was faking it, and anyway, I liked school.
After school I did arithmetic and sang along with Tony Pastor and His Orchestra to “Dance with a Dolly (with a Hole in Her Stocking).” Even without the music, the rhythm of the hook was catchier than Roy Campanella’s baseball mitt.
The first radio I remember was a polished brown wooden box with knobs, push buttons, and evenly spaced horizontal ridges that I now know were typical of art deco design. The radio sat on a painted white shelf in the kitchen that my dad had installed above our Formica table with its chrome frame. The crinkly pattern on the Formica looked as if someone had crumpled a big sheet of red paper and then flattened it out.
When my father came home from his shift at night he often found my mother cutting up celery and carrots to add to the pot of chicken soup simmering on our Welbilt stove. After tossing in vegetables and tasting the broth with an oversized soup spoon, my mother added salt, peppercorns, and a bay laurel leaf while my father emptied the pockets of the pants he had been wearing at the firehouse, leaving his wallet, keys, assorted coins, notes on scraps of paper in his handwriting, and a sooty handkerchief all a-tumble on the tabletop. When my mom reminded him that the soup was almost ready and that she and I were waiting to set the table, he moved his things to a small table in the foyer and went to wash his hands.
As we ate, my dad got all worked up listening to the news delivered by Edward R. Murrow or Lowell Thomas. Then he laughed at Baby Snooks and Jack Benny and was soothed by the music of Glenn Miller and His Orchestra, Tommy Dorsey and His Orchestra, and Jimmy Dorsey and His Orchestra. (Kudos to those bandleaders for acknowledging their musicians.)
My dad and I shared a liking for the mysteries on WOR, a Mutual Broadcasting Company radio station. We were avid fans of The Shadow, The Lone Ranger, Inner Sanctum, The Green Hornet, Suspense, and Mr. Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons.
Sometimes we went to movies and ball games, but radio was our preferred form of entertainment before TV took over our household and everyone else’s. The large quantity and quality of radio programming in my formative years brought my parents and me into a world in which the aural cues we were given forced us to use our imagination to create our own visual reality. This would continue to be the case for many years until MTV took the imagination out of music by providing a definitive visual for each song.
But specific visuals were already being transmitted in 1948, when I was six. The networks were using Nielsen ratings to report who was watching what. I didn’t need ratings to tell me who was watching what on East 24th Street. In those days, if a neighborhood was lucky, one family on the block owned a television. Though we had no more money or prescience than anyone else on our block, somehow we turned out to be that family.
On weeknights, after rushing through an early supper at home, up to six families from our block would squeeze into our living room and try to fit around our brand-new blond-wood console with a seven-inch black-and-white TV screen. During commercials the other kids and I munched noisily on handfuls of potato chips grabbed from large white plastic bowls. We slurped Pepsi-Cola from straws in paper cups and listened to the adults’ comments about the show until the entertainment came back on. We were so absorbed that we never noticed how tinny the sound quality was.
After my little brother was born on December 4, 1948, other women emptied ashtrays and refilled bowls of potato chips while my mother changed Richard’s diaper and fed him in the relative quiet of her sewing room. I helped when she asked me to, but when I had to choose between volunteering and watching television, the choice was clear.
On Monday nights we watched I Love Lucy. If you didn’t see it you’d be left out of the conversation at school or work the next day. On Tuesday nights it was the Texaco Star Theater. Texaco would probably not have been pleased to know that we called the program “Milton Berle.” Not “The Milton Berle Show.” Just “Milton Berle.”
“What are you doing Tuesday night?”
“Whattaya think we’re doin’, stupid? Watchin’ Milton Berle!”
A nation united.
I don’t remember whether the idea for me to move from a watcher to a performer was mine or my mother’s. I do remember that in 1950 my mother took me to audition for The Horn and Hardart Children’s Hour as part of a duo with a friend from school. Loretta Stone was ten and I was eight when we decided to perform together. Our act consisted of Loretta singing the high harmony to “If I Knew You Were Comin’ I’d’ve Baked a Cake” while I sang the melody and accompanied us both on a ukulele. I didn’t mind performing when I had someone onstage with me to share the attention, and I was eager to see if we could get on the show. I thought the audition went well, but the typical protocol for people conducting an audition was to reveal absolutely nothing until they were ready to tell you either, “You’re hired,” or “Don’t call us, we’ll call you.”
With no reaction on which to hang hope or disappointment, I put it out of my mind until the afternoon I came home from school and found my mother looking exceptionally pleased. She could barely contain her delight as she blurted out that she had received a call from The Children’s Hour saying that Loretta and I had been chosen to perform on the show.
“Mama, really? They want us??”
“Yes!” she said, holding out her arms for a hug. As I went to her I could see the tears of joy in her eyes. It was as if I had just given my mother the moon. I was happier for her than I was for myself until I told Loretta the news and heard her screaming over the phone. By the time she and her mother came over to hear the details in person, I, too, was in possession of the moon.
Our upcoming television appearance prompted me to adopt a professional name. “Carol Klein” didn’t sound like a name that people would be excited to read out loud to each other as they perused Hit Parader. Though my name was alliterative, it didn’t have the zing of, say, Patti Page. I decided upon Carol Kane, a name I used only once, for that show. (I hadn’t yet heard of the comedic actress born with that name.)
The Children’s Hour performance was broadcast live in front of an audience. I experienced some nervousness, but having Loretta with me to share the experience gave me enough confidence to get through the performance with joy. The audience’s applause told us that we had connected, and I’m pretty sure we left the studio on a big puffy white cloud. We did another professional show called The Amateur Hour, hosted by Ted Mack, but it takes a lot of time and energy for the parents of a would-be child star to pursue that child’s career. After that Loretta and I performed occasionally at school, but that was it.
In the early 1950s I had no idea of the impact television would have on society. I was simply enchanted. I watched devotedly as some of my favorite radio shows successfully crossed over to television. The characters of The Jack Benny Program looked exactly as I had imagined them. Another successful favorite was You Bet Your Life, starring Groucho Marx, with sidekicks George Fenneman and a toy duck modeled after Groucho with glasses and a mustache. Whenever a contestant said the secret word—as one of the contestants inevitably did—the duck would drop down from the rafters on a string with a cigar and a hundred dollars in its bill. Hearing them describe the duck drop on the radio when I was eight, I found the concept hilarious. Seeing the duck drop down on television when I was nine made me laugh so hard my stomach hurt.
In 1952, when junior high school comprised grades seven through nine, I entered seventh grade. I was ten. Most of my classmates were eleven or twelve. At ten, a disparity of two years can be a chasm. Not only was I smaller than other seventh graders, the physical changes of puberty weren’t even in my thoughts, let alone my body. Every day at school I piped up with all the correct answers in class, which made me appear confident. But it wasn’t cool for a girl to be smart, and I was intimidated by the apparent popularity of the older kids. I would have felt even more socially inferior had it not been for the entertainment and inspiration I drew from TV and radio. As those media outlets were growing up, so was I. Rather than supplanting radio, TV supplemented it. While TV lent itself more to variety shows, sports, and situation comedies, popular music was thriving on the radio. The top songs on the hit parade sailed out over the airwaves like sonic ships over a fair-weather sea, bringing cultural commonality to delighted listeners across America. Among the popular songs that year were Jo Stafford’s “You Belong to Me,” the Mills Brothers’ “The Glow Worm,” and Kay Starr’s “Wheel of Fortune.”
These and other songs on the hit parade were a lot more interesting to me than events of world importance that were unfolding at the periphery of my carefree innocence. Among them was an increasing awareness by white Americans of the separate and unequal status of Americans of color.
Them and Us
At twelve I wasn’t aware that the decade in which I was about to become a teenager was the Eisenhower fifties, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit fifties, the postwar celebration-of-material-things fifties in which “swell” meant excellent and “gay” meant merry. I had no idea of the limited control people had of their destiny if they were anything other than a wealthy male white Anglo-Saxon Protestant. And the way women were depicted on television gave me the idea that society expected little more from a young girl than being attractive and helping men accomplish great things. If she got good grades in school and helped her mom around the house, so much the better.
From my father’s comments as he listened to the news I inferred that politically there were two sides: “them” and “us.” “We” were proud, patriotic Americans, but if you questioned anything the government did, you were “them.” “We” stood for capitalism, freedom, and democracy. “They” stood for communism. The prevailing message was that America’s enemy was the Soviet Union, whose goal it was to take over the world, country by country, until everyone in the entire world was a communist. I learned about the domino theory: if one country fell to communism, the rest would follow. As a Jewish child I had heard over and over how Hitler had annihilated six million Jews and nearly taken over the world in the forties until patriotic Americans and our allies in Europe defeated him. By the early fifties, communism had become the new enemy of patriotic Americans.
At twelve, I had trouble identifying the enemy. Hadn’t the United States fought against Hitler on the same side as Soviet Russia? And what about the other “they”—Communist China? Which country was the worse bad guy? And why, if the Soviet Union and China were both communist, were they not getting along with each other? As my generation entered adolescence it was natural for us to see the adults in our lives as “them,” but there was more going on than just a generational separation.
At first we didn’t see any indication of revolution brewing under the blanket of conformity that lay across America, but seeds of racial integration were already taking root in film, theater, dance, and the visual arts. A momentous change occurred in major-league sports with the addition of a man of color—Jackie Robinson—to the lineup of the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. But the field with the most fertile soil for radical transformation and the greatest ability to capture the attention of young people was popular music.
Before the fifties, music written and performed by black Americans was listened to mostly by black Americans. The popularity of such recordings was tracked on rhythm and blues charts. Such music was largely absent from the popular music charts that typically reflected the taste of white mainstream listeners. A sampling of pop charts over the first half of the decade shows the first signs of black music crossing over. This crossover was a tangible measure of the increasing influence of R&B music on white teenagers—a trend that would continue into the twenty-first century with rural white teenagers rapping urban rhetoric over boombox beats.
In 1950, Teresa Brewer’s “Music! Music! Music!” topped the charts. As were most artists on the pop charts that year, Miss Brewer was white.
In 1951, “Rocket 88,” a paean to an Oldsmobile, reflected the enthusiasm of young people for cars. Written and performed by black Americans, the Jackie Brenston version shot to the top of the R&B charts, but it was the recording of “Rocket 88” by Bill Haley and the Saddlemen that connected with white audiences.
In 1952, Ruth Brown’s “5-10-15 Hours” hit #1 on the R&B charts, but Miss Brown didn’t break onto the pop charts until the following year with “(Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean.”
In 1953, a young white man recorded his first demo in Memphis. With his good looks, shockingly sexy presentation, and parents’ fears that their children would be incited by his pelvic movements to participate in wild orgies, Elvis Presley was uniquely positioned to make black music and dance popular with white teenagers.
In 1954, a group of black male singers known as the Penguins waddled up the R&B charts with “Earth Angel.” (Let the record show that when I was thirteen “Earth Angel” accompanied my first kisses.) Though the Crew Cuts, a white group, released a cover the following year, it was the Penguins’ version that inspired teenagers to form couples, dance, and make out. When both versions appeared in 1955 on the pop charts, the white group peaked at #3, five places above the black group.
In 1955, Bill Haley and the Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock” held the #1 position on the pop charts for eight weeks. Initially I didn’t know or care what color the group was, nor did any of the kids I knew. We just loved listening and dancing to that song.
Before “Rocket 88” was accredited by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991 as “the first Rock and Roll song ever recorded,” I had attributed that status to “Rock Around the Clock,” a misperception undoubtedly enhanced by the inclusion of that song in a popular movie. To my knowledge, The Blackboard Jungle was one of the first films to cross-market a theme song. I believe “Rock Around the Clock” flew up the charts because teenagers like me saw the movie and ran out the next day to buy the single.
African Americans from my generation would likely cite a different song as a significant point of change, but for me it was unquestionably Bill Haley and the Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock.” That may not have been the first rock and roll song, but that 45 rpm single in 1955 divided my world into Before Rock and Roll and After Rock and Roll.
Before Rock and Roll, whenever I was upset about something, I had found comfort in going to the piano and playing whatever came out. I had needed more comfort than usual in the years between 1951 and 1955, when two events transformed my family and permanently realigned the planets in my emotional universe.
The Planets Realign
The first event occurred in 1951 when I was almost nine, when my two-year-old brother was diagnosed as profoundly deaf and what was then called “severely retarded.” My mother was working as a secretary in a New York City school. Knowing that she couldn’t afford to hire someone to care for Richard at home nor quit work to do it herself, she made the agonizing decision to place him in a facility suitable for his needs.
The day my brother left, my mother didn’t want me to experience the sights and sounds of his new environment, so she left me in the care of my grandmother and drove him to his new home by herself. Though my mother visited him frequently, I didn’t see my brother for almost a year, when both our parents drove me out to see him on his birthday. My mother’s plan was to take Richard to get some hot dogs and then go to a playground where he could ride on a little merry-go-round and go down the slide with me. Despite my mother’s concerns, I didn’t find any of the sights and sounds intimidating. It looked to me like a big school with a lot of buildings.
Richard had abilities as well as disabilities. He was very good at communicating his enjoyment of certain things, with cars and hot dogs high on the list. As soon as he saw us he giggled with happiness. Though he couldn’t comprehend the concepts that characterized our relationships—mommy, daddy, sister, family—he knew we belonged to him. But we weren’t the main attraction. From the moment he saw our car, Richard could not contain his enthusiasm. He ran to the car and jumped up and down until my father opened the door, then Richard climbed into the back seat. Once in, he kept jumping up and down until I entered from the other side, sat down next to him, and showed him by example that he needed to sit still. This was before seat belts were in common use.
As we drove toward the playground, my pleasure at seeing my brother was diminished when I caught sight of our dad’s grim expression in the rearview mirror. And when my mom turned around to look at Richard, tears welled up in her eyes. Suddenly I started thinking about all the experiences my brother would miss. He wouldn’t learn to pump his feet to make his swing go up and down next to mine in the playground across the street. He wouldn’t sit at Ebbets Field with our father and me and learn the difference between a ball and a strike. Nor would he yell at an umpire who made a wrong call against our beloved Brooklyn Dodgers. He’d never run in and out of the waves with me at Brighton Beach while our mother watched from our blanket. And he would never hear a note of music.
I didn’t realize how much I had missed my little brother. When he was still at home, each night as I drifted off to sleep I’d been comforted by the sound of his breathing through the thin wall between our rooms. I never felt resentful or competitive. As the older sibling, I had felt no lack of attention from my parents either before or after Richard was born. I didn’t like living as an only child. I wanted my brother to be normal.
If Richard’s going away was difficult for me, it had been far more distressing to my mother. A prevailing societal ignorance about his disability had led some of my mother’s friends and close family members to express their wrongheaded opinion directly to her that having such a child was her fault and she should be ashamed of him. Seeing my mother struggle with such hurtful remarks, I wanted to help. But I didn’t know how. To her everlasting credit, my mom was resolute in looking for joy in her son’s existence, and she found it in his smallest accomplishments.
My father, too, was distressed, but his way of managing pain was to build a wall around it. That was probably why he didn’t accompany my mother in bringing Richard to his new home, and after Richard left my father rarely spoke of him. From things I’d heard him say to my mother, I understood that he carried the additional burden of a father’s failure to produce a healthy son, so I tried to be both son and daughter to him. As the only girl on the block I was already accustomed to playing ball with boys. Now I went to baseball games with my dad, asked him to show me how to use tools, and worked with him on household projects.
One positive outcome of my attempts to be both daughter and son was that my parents never told me, nor did I ever feel, that I couldn’t do something because I was a girl. All possibilities were open to me. My way of dealing with Richard’s condition was to strive for excellence in everything I undertook. As the child with all the advantages, I felt that I owed it to Richard and my parents to make up for what he couldn’t do.
Later in Richard’s life, when my mother was still able to travel, whenever she and I would visit him at the residence to which he had been transferred, he never failed to recognize us. I enjoyed renewing my bond with my brother, and he responded in all the ways of which he was capable. Still later, when I visited him alone or with one of my then adult children, I felt that same strong connection with Richard when he grabbed my hand and pulled me over to look at some little thing he found fascinating such as a doorknob or a box of Legos.
Richard had the “mischievous” gene. He wasn’t so disabled that he didn’t understand when he was told not to do something. The stimulus of being told “No!” through unambiguous verbal and nonverbal signals typically caused a response in which he did exactly the proscribed action while looking sidewise at the person who had just told him not to do it. I was proud of my brother’s instinct to challenge authority and found his displays of spunk reassuring. Richard may have been deaf and intellectually disabled, but he was a Klein.
The second disruption of my universe occurred in 1953 when I was eleven. When my parents separated for the first time, I shouldn’t have been surprised. I had borne witness to scenes in which they alternately yelled at each other and suddenly went silent in mid-conversation. Each time, the sight of them turning away from each other, thin-lipped, bottling up the hurt while trying to keep it from reaching their hearts, was more than I could bear. I didn’t know which was worse, the shouting or the silence. As their only child who could potentially have had any influence on the situation, I took responsibility for fixing their problems. I said and did everything I could think of to bring them back together. I tried so hard, but the damage was irreparable. After separating, they divorced. I never got over that. Our home had once been happy. Now it was broken.
It wasn’t until much later that I realized my brother’s disability had probably been an underlying cause of our parents fighting. It’s not difficult to see how my mother would have taken my father’s withdrawal as a lack of support, with blame and accusations undoubtedly escalating from there. And yet as fervently as I wished that my mother and father would get back together, they must have had similar feelings some of the time. Over the next seven years they tried several times to reunite, and they even remarried each other, but every reconciliation was followed by another separation and, ultimately, their final divorce.
Some psychologists believe everyone has an underlying thought that drives them—a sentence repeated in a person’s subconscious like a mantra. It might be, “Notice me!” or “Don’t hurt me!” or “Nothing good ever happens, and if it does, it won’t happen to me.” When my mother and father started fighting, my mantra became “I just want everyone to be happy.” I had put so much time and hope in being able to keep my parents together, but I couldn’t do it. I was just a child.
The breakup of my family flung me on a quest for “home” that would take me through four marriages, two subsequent relationships, and a variety of places to live. The home I was looking for had a mommy, a daddy, and one or more children, all of whom loved each other very much. It would take me decades to figure out that “home” needed to exist inside me before I could find or create it externally.
But I didn’t know that in the early fifties. Sometimes my emotions about things I couldn’t talk about were so overwhelming that I went to the piano and played until I was exhausted. Other times I acted out by misbehaving in school. And sometimes I literally acted out by playing insolent girls in a succession of school and neighborhood plays, some of which were written and directed by my theatrically gifted mother. At one point I thought, Maybe if I become an actress it will make my mother feel better, and I can be someone other than myself. I didn’t realize that I was adopting a dream of acclaim that had been handed down to me by two previous generations.
My maternal grandmother, Sarah Besmosgin, was born in the final decade of the nineteenth century in a small village in Russia called Orsha (now part of Belarus). Her father, my great-grandfather Yitzrok, was a scholar, a prestigious occupation in the Jewish community that didn’t bring in a single ruble of income. Sarah’s mother, my great-grandmother Riva Leah (pronounced RIV-er LAY-uh), had to work as a baker to support her family. The job of delivering those baked goods to wealthy families fell to Riva Leah’s eldest daughter. When twelve-year-old Sarah looked through a grand parlor window and saw a girl her own age playing a piano, that image became a symbol of the wealth and accomplishment to which she could never aspire. She resolved instead to become an aishes chail (rhymes with “gracious mile,” has a guttural “ch”). Loosely translated, an aishes chail is “a woman of worth, a virtuous woman.” To my grandmother it meant becoming the mother of a renowned classical pianist.
After emigrating to America, Sarah met Israel Benjamin Cammer—my Grandpa Bennie. They had two daughters, Eugenia and Gladys. Like many women of her generation, my grandmother understood that she was powerless out in the world, but inside the home she ruled with an iron will. Brushing aside the aspirations of her older daughter—my future mother—to write plays and participate in dramatic productions in school, my grandmother made my mother spend hours practicing the piano. Though my Grandma Sarah never attained her goal of becoming an aishes chail as she understood it, the benefits of her compulsory musical training would accrue to my mother later, when she would use it to write and direct musical theater productions. Benefits would also accrue, through my mother, to me. My mother reunited with her creative muse in college when she majored in English and drama and worked in summer stock as Eugenia Merrill. After I was born she had to quit summer stock, but she stayed active in theater by writing, directing, and acting in local productions.
My mother began taking me to Broadway plays and musicals when I was five. She absorbed everything and incorporated what she saw into her own productions. Combining nepotism, talent, and proximity, she cast my father as Nathan Detroit in what people who saw the show referred to for years afterward as “Genie’s wonderful production of Guys and Dolls.” I, too, absorbed everything. I kept the memory of those shows alive by listening to my mother’s collection of original cast recordings. Along with Guys and Dolls her collection included South Pacific, Oklahoma!, The King and I, Carousel, Peter Pan, My Fair Lady, and, later, West Side Story. When I was thirteen my dad bought me a portable phonograph—a gray-flocked metal turntable in a blue metal case with a handle that made it easy for me to carry it to the girls-only sleepovers we called “pajama parties.” Not long after I acquired the phonograph, my mother’s albums grew legs, walked into my room, and jumped onto the turntable.
At first I was a little confused when my mom cast me in one of her original plays as a bratty girl called Nina. As my mother, she was constantly exhorting me to behave better. As my director, she encouraged me to behave as badly as I liked. Seeing my confusion, she said, “You may behave badly only when you’re playing Nina.” I had so much fun with that role that I began to think more seriously about becoming an actress. That notion continued to percolate until an opportunity arose for me to do something about it.
In the mid-fifties the High School of Performing Arts was located on West 46th Street. In the eighties it would be merged with the High School of Music and Art, relocated to Lincoln Center, and given the unwieldy name “The Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music and Art and Performing Arts.” LaGuardia Arts would continue its forebears’ tradition as an alternative public high school, offering a rare opportunity for children whose families could not otherwise afford its highly specialized training in theater and visual arts.
In the fifties, some high schools in New York City were beginning to change from four years to three, that is, grades ten through twelve. Elementary schools went from kindergarten through sixth grade instead of K–8, which left grades seven through nine for junior high school. Middle schools would come later.
In September 1952, when I was ten, I entered seventh grade at Shell Bank Junior High School. Performing Arts was then a four-year high school to which students could be admitted from eighth grade and begin the fall semester in ninth, but P.A. also accepted students from ninth grade to become tenth-grade sophomores. I was eleven and a little more than halfway through eighth grade at Shell Bank when my guidance teacher announced that a limited number of New York City public school students would be selected to study drama the following year at the High School of Performing Arts. With my mother’s support and encouragement, I applied for admission. I found two suitable monologues and practiced until I could deliver them with confidence. I came home from the audition thinking I had performed well, but apparently the drama department judges disagreed.
At first I was crushed to learn that I would spend ninth grade at Shell Bank, but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
The Big Beat
The music Alan Freed played on his nightly WINS radio program in 1954 was alarming parents from one end of Greater New York to the other. Some parents were unable to articulate precisely why they were fearful. Others heard their concerns expressed in hate-filled rants about the consequences of the crossover into “mainstream” (read: white) America of the songs, recordings, and dance moves of blacks. Such dire warnings played upon the already existing fears that malevolent forces outside their control would replace the values that the parents of kids my age had instilled in their offspring.
My introduction to Alan Freed’s music came through a fellow student at Shell Bank. When I met Joel Zwick in homeroom I was delighted to discover that he was only a month older than I. Our shared affinity for music and theater was evident as we cavorted around the stage of the school auditorium in colorful costumes in extravagant productions of light operas by Gilbert and Sullivan. I had so much fun performing in The Mikado as one of several Japanese schoolgirls dressed in kimonos and wigs. It made me happy to be part of the enchantment my classmates and I brought to our audience, which consisted principally of parents, friends, and teachers. I loved transporting the audience (and myself) to another time and another country. I delighted in pirouetting and moving my handheld fan in synchronized choreography with the other girls while we sang this song:
Three little maids who all unwary
Come from a ladies’ seminary
Freed from its genius tutelary
Three little maids from school
Three little maaaaids—from school!
In 1955, Alan Freed announced his Easter Jubilee, a musical revue at the Brooklyn Paramount Theater that would run for a week. When Joel invited me to go with him I accepted with enthusiasm. When the day came, we got on the train at Sheepshead Bay and found it packed with teenagers. I thought, These kids can’t all be going to the Alan Freed show. But they were. Exiting the subway at Atlantic Avenue, we caught sight of and then became part of the teeming crowd forming outside the Brooklyn Paramount. The sense of anticipation rising in a hormonal crescendo was almost palpable.
Other than a friend of my dad’s from the firehouse, I had rarely seen people of color in my neighborhood unless they were there to deliver furniture, clean houses, or perform other menial tasks. In April 1955, not only was Alan Freed’s stage integrated, the audience was polychromatic. As Joel and I advanced slowly through the ticket line, the entry line, and up the aisle to our seats, it struck me that there were more black teenagers than I had ever seen. Before I had a chance to reflect further, the band started playing. Backed by Count Basie’s Orchestra (minus Count Basie), act after act came out to perform either their latest hit or the song that would soon become their latest hit.
The performance of a new song by one of Alan’s acts, reinforced by repeated plays on his radio show, was usually followed by a marked increase in sales. One could infer that the power and influence of a disc jockey with a sizable audience might be a factor in his ownership, credits, or royalties in connection with the products he promoted. This may not have been the case with Alan Freed when he was listed as a cowriter on the Moonglows’ “Sincerely,” or when he owned or co-owned an act’s record label. But in my teens I knew nothing of such practices, and had I been told that Alan was financially entangled with his artists, I wouldn’t have cared. I only knew that thanks to Alan Freed I was becoming aware of a new kind of music that spoke to and for me. He had assembled a parade of talented performers such as the Penguins, the Moonglows, the Clovers, Danny Overbea, Red Prysock, LaVern Baker, Mickey “Guitar” Baker (no relation to LaVern), and B.B. King.
Alan called his music “the Big Beat.” It was exactly the right name. The Big Beat was bigger, louder, and more sexually stirring than any music I’d heard before. It surely was not “Three little maaaaids—from school!”
During the show, as black and white teenagers danced in separate groups, each seemed to accept one another’s presence in the same audience without animosity. It’s possible that I’m remembering this racial harmony in 1955 through lenses turned rose-colored after more than fifty years, but I believe Alan Freed’s shows heralded the movement of my generation toward racial integration not only of popular music, but of American society.
After the show I felt exhilarated and exhausted. Joining the stream of people leaving the theater, Joel and I found ourselves in the middle of a group milling around the stage door hoping to catch a glimpse of one of the performers. Suddenly the door opened and we were swept along with a group being ushered in. Through a space between two taller kids I saw LaVern Baker sashaying up the stairs past B.B. King and the Moonglows. I assumed Miss Baker was making her way to her dressing room, but years of experience since then have educated me to the probability that she had applied her makeup in front of a mirror shared with other performers, and that she had probably changed into her costume in the bathroom. Moving farther in, we saw Mickey Baker talking to a couple of the Penguins.
At that moment I knew I wanted to mean something to these people. I didn’t want to be one of them. I just wanted them to know who I was and consider me worthy of respect. That ambition existed concurrently and in no way conflicted with my ambition to be an actress.
After that my fiscal priority became saving up to attend as many of Alan’s revues as I could afford. I couldn’t attend every show, but I always knew who was playing because Alan promoted his shows nightly on his radio program by touting the lineup and playing the music of those artists.
Over the next few years Alan presented many great acts, including Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Jackie Wilson, Fats Domino, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, the Cleftones, the Harptones, Joe Turner, Jo Ann Campbell, Mabel King, Shirley and Lee, and George Hamilton IV. He also introduced Screamin’ Jay Hawkins (a forerunner of Alice Cooper, Black Sabbath, and Marilyn Manson). Jay’s assertion of maniacally possessive love culminated in an agonizing shriek followed by a series of demonic groans and screams until he ended his turn onstage by collapsing into a coffin.
Alan had a particularly delightful treat in store for us at his 1957 Labor Day revue at the Brooklyn Paramount. I was in the audience when Little Richard burst onto the stage. He began to sing and play the piano with an eruption of energy that continued unabated for decades. Though I knew nothing about the gospel music that had informed him, Little Richard’s powerful presence that night was suffuuuuused with the Spirit. It was a remarkable experience for this Jewish teenager to hear him sing nonsense syllables with the full capability of an astonishing vocal range that complemented the blazing rhythm coming out of his fingers. Had I considered myself a good writer of lyrics, I would have had to stop right there. I mean, what lyric could possibly say it better than this?
A-wop wop-a loo-mop a-wop bam boom
Tutti frutti, aw rootie, tutti frutti, aw rootie
Tutti frutti, aw rootie, tutti frutti, aw rootie
Tutti frutti, aw rootie
A-wop wop-a loo-mop a-wop bam boom
Little Richard’s music and presentation would influence artists and songwriters from James Brown and Elvis Presley to Smokey Robinson and Michael Jackson—all exceptional songwriters and performers who themselves would influence future generations.
Rhythm and Blues
My mother had exposed me to music while I was still in her womb. After I arrived she played Carmen and other operas while my father was on duty at the firehouse. Her record collection included show tunes, pop songs, and works by such composers as Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Strauss, and Schubert. I loved “Papa” Haydn’s Surprise Symphony, and my repeated, delighted exposure to Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf taught me the sounds and personality characteristics of various orchestral instruments. But the music that set me on fire when I was thirteen resembled classical music about as much as a pride of lions resembles a sailboat.
As my generation entered adolescence in a decade largely run by uninspiring men, the music Alan Freed brought to us seemed heaven-sent. To many of our parents—thankfully not mine—that music came from the cauldrons of hell. The predictors of doom said, “If Alan Freed is allowed to stay on the air, his ‘race music’ will lead to miscegenation, free love, drugs, and anarchy!” They may have been on to something. There was no doubt that the records Alan played aroused a sexual awareness previously unacknowledged among my age group. His revues were a welcome wagon of freedoms of style, expression, dress, message, and sex. References to sex didn’t need to be explicit. Sexuality was implicit in both music and lyrics. To begin with, “rock and roll” was a euphemism in black slang for sexual intercourse. Parse the lyric “Roll me all night long” from “Let the Good Times Roll” and you won’t find a single objectionable word, but the meaning was unmistakable. And then there was that pulsing bass that drove the Big Beat.
Before adolescence I had been naïve about sex. Suddenly I was feeling the pounding bass notes and the throbbing drumbeats viscerally in ways and places I’d never felt before. My discovery of rock and roll coincided with my increasing awareness of the lower half of my body. No wonder I couldn’t wait to stay up late and listen to Alan’s presentation of the original rhythm and blues recordings. Some of those songs were introduced to Middle America by white artists. The Moonglows’ version of “Sincerely” topped the R&B charts before the song became a pop hit by the McGuire Sisters. After Pat Boone’s recording of “Ain’t That a Shame” made it to #2 on the Billboard Hot 100, Alan’s repeated spins sent Fats Domino’s version to #16.
In the parlance of the period, records were called platters. The platters Alan played fed every cell of my body, mind, heart, and soul. The songs were simply written and simply recorded. The lyrics and the beat moved me. Though melody was present, it wasn’t as important as the beat. The fact that a lot of the songs sounded as if they could have been written by a kid—as indeed many were—inspired me to think, If they can do it, maybe I can.
It wouldn’t be easy. The music that had informed the songwriters on the records Alan played was a lot more gritty and diverse than the simple pop ditties, show tunes, and classical music to which I had been listening for most of my life. But I was determined to learn, and the timing in popular music and political history was favorable.
In the fifties, folk songs by the Weavers, Mitch Miller, and the Kingston Trio appeared on the pop charts, but folk would not become mainstream until the sixties when possession of a guitar, a pair of vocal cords, endless verses railing against the system, and a guitar case in which to receive spare change would be all a young man from as far from the pop scene as, say, Hibbing, Minnesota, would need to qualify as a folksinger.
Following its relatively strong influence on popular music in the thirties and forties, jazz became marginalized in the early fifties. Jazz musicians were mostly black men whose music was appreciated by a relatively small audience compared to pop. Some were lucky enough to dip into the more lucrative world of studio pop and earn extra “bread” during the day as sidemen, but they couldn’t wait to jam with other musicians in a club until the wee hours. Jazz was a very different world from pop. Among other things, it was separate and unequal. With few exceptions, jazz players struggled economically, and marijuana, cocaine, and heroin were part of the culture. Sentences spoken in after-hours clubs were often as strung out as the speaker.
“Coooool, man. Reeeeeal cool.”
As with jazz, the world of rhythm and blues was inhabited mostly by blacks at the low end of the national economic scale. In the late 1940s, names such as “race music” and “race records” were used in Billboard magazine to categorize the music emanating from black communities. Jerry Wexler, a journalist with Billboard, came up with “rhythm and blues” to replace the “race” tags. Wexler later explained that although the word “race” was commonly used by blacks to describe themselves as a “race man” or a “race woman,” the appellation didn’t feel right to him. He viewed the term “rhythm and blues” as more appropriate for enlightened times.
“Blues” referred to the traditional twelve-bar form with a I-IV-V chord progression. “Rhythm” derived from the strong 4/4 or 6/8 beat that drove most of the songs. With lyrics mostly about the lack of love, sex, cars, liquor, or money, it wasn’t surprising that R&B’s messages of adversity and alienation resonated with white teenagers.
Higher up on the economic scale, white artists dominated the popular music charts. There were some black pop artists, notably Nat King Cole, Johnny Mathis, and Harry Belafonte, but songs like Perry Como’s “No Other Love” and Patti Page’s “(How Much Is That) Doggie in the Window?” (“arf, arf”) were typical of what I heard on pop radio. Though other genres existed, pop had the widest and whitest audience. But popular music was only one facet of the social context that informed my generation.
A strong undercurrent that would lead to the civil rights movement was already gathering momentum in the mid-fifties. At twelve and thirteen, I wasn’t paying close attention because I was white and my preadolescent concerns had little to do with racial injustice. But glimpses of the news on television kept me aware of such things as the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, which struck down the policy of “separate but equal” and required schools to integrate racially. And when newscasters reported the refusal in 1955 of a black woman named Rosa Parks to give up her seat on a bus in Alabama so a white man could sit in it, after which they reported the white authorities’ reaction, I couldn’t help but sympathize with the blacks’ boycott of Montgomery buses.
Film was another field in which an early call to racial integration was being sounded. Sidney Poitier’s performance as a student accused of threatening his teacher’s wife in The Blackboard Jungle awakened moviegoers to the fact that a black actor could do more than sing, dance, roll his eyes, and serve white people. Notwithstanding, or possibly because of, the presence of Mr. Poitier, the film’s appeal to white teenagers was tremendous. The Blackboard Jungle was such a convincing portrayal of juvenile delinquency that it frightened complacent adults who thought such things couldn’t happen in their neighborhood.
My friends and I danced the Lindy (in boy-girl couples) to “Rock Around the Clock” in newly finished basements lined with knotty pine in the homes of kids whose parents could afford such improvements. (Knowing what teenagers typically did in basements, initially I thought the spelling was “naughty pine.”) Lindy stood for Lindy Hop, a joyous, bouncy dance that turned excessive adolescent energy into exhilaration. When we weren’t doing the Lindy, we were holding each other (in boy-girl couples) and slow-dancing to “Earth Angel” by the Penguins or “Pledging My Love” by the late, great Johnny Ace, who of course wasn’t late when he made the record.
I was fourteen when Elvis Presley burst into national prominence from rockabilly in 1956. I didn’t realize then that Elvis was himself a form of racial integration. He was a white boy singing country music with an R&B influence and performing it with the visceral abandon of the blacks he’d observed around Memphis after his family moved there from Tupelo, Mississippi. With all the censors and sponsors controlling television in the fifties, I was glad it took the producers of The Ed Sullivan Show three appearances to decide to show Elvis only from the waist up. No one with eyes and ears, and certainly not this teenage girl, was unaware of Elvis’s effect on popular culture. I liked his music, and he was undeniably teen-idol gorgeous, but I must confess that Elvis’s music didn’t influence me as strongly as the pop hits that preceded his breakthrough, or the R&B hits that followed.
I observed all these events from a place of self-centered adolescence. I didn’t listen to the news or read a newspaper unless a teacher made me do it. I liked English and math but had no interest in social studies. Later in life, when I realized that we live social studies every day, I would find history, geography, politics, and current events fascinating. But in the mid-fifties, I was a Brooklyn teenager who liked to read, sing, play the piano, go to movies, whisper in class, dance the Lindy, and cuddle with boys.
Oh, and one more thing. I hadn’t given up on acting.
They say if you want a career in theater, you gotta really want it. I must have really wanted it because when the opportunity presented itself to audition for Performing Arts a second time, I took it, and that time I was accepted.
I had been pulled so strongly to music in the intervening year that I was tempted to ask the judges to give my place to someone else so I could go to high school in Brooklyn with my friends. But several things kept me from doing that: first, I was confident that I could continue to be inspired by rock and roll and rhythm and blues while studying acting, with no loss of proficiency in either endeavor. Second, after failing the first time and then achieving admission, I was reluctant to turn my back on such an extraordinary opportunity. But perhaps the most compelling reason was that I knew that my studying drama at Performing Arts would make my mother happy.
I was thirteen in the summer of 1955 and already primed to enjoy the long vacation days. Knowing that I would start tenth grade with new classmates, I relished every bit of time I could spend with my friends from Shell Bank. Every morning we congregated at the Avenue X playground across the street from my house. In order to get in or out of the playground I had to pass the omnipresent Butler and Bursch on their park bench. I had to be extra careful that they didn’t see me doing anything questionable or they would immediately report it to my mother. Really, my only such activity was smoking cigarettes, a habit I acquired to fit in and happily gave up fourteen years later. To earn money for cigarettes, movies, and other indulgences, my friends and I either did odd jobs for our parents, worked part-time in offices or stores, or babysat. When we weren’t working, sometimes we took a bus to Brighton Beach, rubbed each other with suntan lotion, and displayed our budding bodies in the noonday sun. This was before we learned about the perils of exposure to the sun without an SPF number.
Hormones and pheromones mingled in the heat as we walked up and down such thoroughfares as the Coney Island Boardwalk, Sheepshead Bay Road, or Kings Highway. We did what teenagers typically do: the boys swaggered while the girls whispered and giggled. We also visualized ourselves wearing the fall clothes already on display in the store windows, but with barely enough money to share a banana split between us and still have bus fare home, we couldn’t afford to buy any of the cute outfits. Instead I settled for a box of handkerchiefs with the initial “C” embroidered on each handkerchief alternately in pink, blue, or yellow.
The summer of ’55 was a succession of salad days—a sweet, simple, peaceful time of golden youth and green innocence. There was nothing but the vine-ripe fruit of each delicious day and honeysuckle night. I thought, If every child on earth could experience just one such summer, it would be a much better world.
But as every school-age child learns, summers end.
To Manhattan and Back
I spent part of my first day at Performing Arts trying to avoid being jostled by overly excited students running up and down the stairs. It wasn’t easy to figure out where all the rooms were, and when fifth period ended I wondered how I would get from one end of the school to the other in time for sixth period. I was enrolled in drama and dance classes taught by Uta Hagen and Martha Graham. Among the names I heard during the first roll call were Al Pacino and Rafael Campos. Other names reflected the careers in film and theater of some of my classmates’ parents: Susan Strasberg, whose father was the acting teacher Lee Strasberg; Leticia Ferrer, daughter of Miss Hagen and the actor José Ferrer; and Frances Schwartz, daughter of the Yiddish theater actor Maurice Schwartz.
I began the semester thinking I could indulge my passion for popular music simultaneously with studying drama and taking the academic classes required of all New York State high school students, but the concentration demanded by the stimulating, sophisticated world of serious theater left little room for other pursuits. My fellow students were there because they wanted to act in movies (where the money was) and star in a Broadway show (where the prestige was). Their enthusiasm was infectious and I was highly motivated to do the rigorous work we were told was necessary to become a brilliant, celebrated, and (God willing!) financially successful actor.
My classmates and I learned to channel teenage angst into techniques that would inform a role or enhance an audition. At first I found the process fascinating, but as the semester progressed I became increasingly discouraged by the extraordinary effort it took to keep up with my fellow students. I excelled in academic studies, but as my teachers in the professional arena issued daily reminders of the hours of dedication required for success in each of their classes, my resolve began to waver.
The hours I spent commuting to and from Manhattan left me with no time to see my old friends, and the emotional exhaustion of the drama classes left me with no energy to see my new friends in a relaxed, teenage-kid-like setting, assuming any of them had such time to spend. We imitated adults in dress and manner. At fourteen I wore ensembles to school that included three-inch heels, a matching purse, and dangling earrings. I still wanted to be an actress and star in a Broadway show, but I felt that I was missing out on the everyday experiences an actress would need to portray normal people. They were also experiences a normal kid would have. I didn’t know what “normal” was, but it didn’t seem to exist for me at Performing Arts.
I didn’t want to disappoint my parents by quitting, so I pulled myself together, resolved to make my experience at P.A. a good one, and applied myself with a renewed commitment to the three disciplines required to graduate in my chosen field. I found that the drama classes taught me to listen and tune in beyond people’s words to the subtext of their underlying emotions and desires. In dance I learned to stretch and move my body. Not surprisingly, I enjoyed music the most. I expanded my knowledge of theory so quickly that my music teacher, Mr. Sachs, asked me to arrange “Beau Soir,” a Debussy piece, for chorus, which meant writing vocal parts for soprano, alto, tenor, and bass (SATB). This had the consequence, doubtless unintended by Mr. Sachs, of preparing me to arrange vocals for popular songs.
When Mr. Sachs suggested I transfer from drama to music, I considered it. But the seeds of my discontent had grown into an unwieldy plant. I was tired of trying to flourish in a garden in which I no longer felt I belonged. In the second semester of my sophomore year I rejoined my former classmates at James Madison High School, where I remained until I graduated in June 1958. I’ve never regretted going to Performing Arts, and I’ve never regretted leaving. At the time I believed I was losing forever the chance to star in a movie or a Broadway show, but I was okay with that.
Aspiring to Be Popular
My primary objective at Madison was to be attractive, well liked, and respected by the other kids, but the more I sought popularity, the more it eluded me. Heredity had made me small in stature and a year late in commencing puberty, and I was still two years younger than most of my classmates. The math was inescapable. In those socially crucial high school years, I was almost three years behind my peers in physical development.
I cried the day I overheard a boy refer to me as “cute.” In those days it did not mean hot or attractive. “Cute” described a girl a boy thought of as a friend, not someone to date. As much as I didn’t want to be the girl boys called for advice about how they could get the girl they really wanted, that was the purpose of virtually every call from a boy. With few friends and no siblings at home, I spent a lot of time alone. But my solitude had an unexpected benefit; it made me a good observer. When a girl is gossiping and discussing shades of nail polish with her friends, she’s less available to pay attention to the world. Being alone gave me a chance to process what my senses took in without having to factor in other people’s opinions.
There was no danger of my falling in with a bad crowd. There wasn’t much of a bad crowd at my school. Sometimes the girls with more developed breasts and womanly shapes came to school with their hair curled in bobby pins under silk scarves. In addition to creating curls, this practice had a secondary purpose. It implied that the girl had a date after school with an older guy and didn’t care if the boys at school saw her in a scarf. They dressed like Natalie Wood in Rebel Without a Cause and smoked in the schoolyard. It’s possible that they were dating juvenile delinquents, but at least the girls showed up for classes.
Most of my classmates and I came from working-class families in which one or both parents kept a close watch on our activities. We were expected to achieve academic excellence, and I met those expectations. Unfortunately, that was a recipe for failure for a girl hoping to be asked out on a date. No matter how much I tried to downplay my intellectual curiosity, boys never took me seriously, which meant that the most popular girls didn’t take me seriously either. Or so I thought at the time.
Three decades later, a group of middle-aged men and women came backstage after one of my concerts to visit the middle-aged woman I had become. After they identified themselves as classmates from Madison, I was incredulous when they told me that they had thought me one of the prettiest, most popular, and most envied girls in the class. My first impulse was to say, “I wish you had told me that then,” but what I really wished was that I could have told myself these things at the time: You’re pretty. You’re smart. You’re funny. You’re just right the way you are. Be confident. Be yourself. Like yourself. Don’t worry, you’ll date, and then you’ll have different problems.
I didn’t know those things when I was at Madison. All I could do was keep trying to find my place in the social realm. As it happened, I wasn’t the only teenager attracted to the liberal arts in search of peer acceptance and self-expression. A remarkable number of kids from my generation who attended high schools in Brooklyn went on to achieve success in music, film, TV, literature, journalism, theater, and the visual arts. Not only were we supported in such endeavors by our schools and families, but we were only a subway ride away from the array of opportunities awaiting us in New York City. It’s no wonder we were drawn to the city in search of artistic and material success.
Alongside the culture of material success existed a subculture of alienated, antimaterialistic nonconformists, the literary core of which included Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, and Allen Ginsberg on the East Coast, with Kenneth Rexroth, Gregory Corso, Michael McClure, and Philip Lamantia on the West Coast. There was some coast overlap: the first reading by Allen Ginsberg of his avant-garde poem Howl took place in 1955 in San Francisco, and Kerouac drank too much on both coasts. Other characters in the Beat generation included Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, who would become a bridge between Beats and hippies.
I had no idea why it was called the Beat generation. Later I heard that Jack Kerouac coined the phrase in the late forties. Some said he used “beat” in the street sense of cheated or down and out. Others said “beat” was short for beatitude, but with its meaning of exalted happiness and serenity, beatitude seems unlikely—unless Kerouac was being ironic, which is entirely possible. Either way, the subculture became known as the Beat generation, and its members were “beatniks.”
In 1957, when I was fifteen, the dominant style in the visual arts was abstract expressionism, exemplified by Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, and Helen Frankenthaler. While visual artists created and displayed their work in Greenwich Village, jazz musicians such as Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Tito Puente, Thelonious Monk, and Charles Mingus could be heard at clubs such as the Village Vanguard or the Village Gate.
That year I sneaked off to Greenwich Village with some of the more daring kids I knew. Unlike suburban kids, we didn’t need a car. We could get anywhere by bus or subway. Walking on Bleecker Street I half expected to see a strung-out junkie on every corner. Because everyone’s parents had seen Reefer Madness, I kept looking over my shoulder for my father, who I was certain would catch me and ground me for a year. After boldly trying to get into the jazz clubs, only to be turned away, we wound up in a coffee house with no age restriction. There we listened to poetry readings in a room full of people who looked like beatniks. Hanging out in the Village made me feel “cool.”
One night, notwithstanding my being fifteen and looking twelve, the woman at the door admitted my friends and me to the Vanguard. It was a propitious moment that expanded into a couple of hours of grace during which I witnessed two sets of jazz by players I didn’t know. The music was hot, cool, and mind-blowing. After the Vanguard, my friends and I went to someone’s apartment where they were smoking pot. Other than what I inhaled secondhand, I didn’t partake. I, too, had seen Reefer Madness. I was convinced that smoking pot would lead me to harder drugs and I would become a heroin addict. Luckily, nothing stronger than pot was offered that night, and even if it had been, I’ve never been tempted to try heroin in any form. At one point I wanted to leave the apartment, but my friends wanted to stay, so I people-watched and listened to music on the record player. By default, soon I became the one who selected the records. I found the music a lot more interesting than watching other people stoned on pot.
My parents’ respect for the arts and the creativity they nurtured in me gave me a strong foundation from which to appreciate the music and art uniquely available in Greenwich Village, but their support most assuredly would not have included allowing me to go to the Village without adult supervision. After the night of the reefers I decided to stop risking a yearlong grounding. Instead I stayed in Brooklyn and prayed that a boy—any boy—would ask me out on a date.
The Function of a Cosine
I had always been fearless about raising my hand to answer a teacher’s question. Sometimes I gave a wrong answer, but my confidence in that sphere remained unshaken. But as a fifteen-year-old high school junior among seventeen-year-olds, when it came to winning the respect of my contemporaries my daily mantra went from “I just want everyone to be happy” to “What’s wrong with me?”
Accepting a suggestion from my mother, I volunteered to contribute musically to the annual James Madison High School Sing. I found tremendous satisfaction in writing and arranging songs for the Sing, and I even performed some of the songs myself. But I really enjoyed teaching other students to sing what I had written. After the show, the applause lifted me to the point where I began to wonder what I could do next. Encouraged by teachers and classmates, I decided to start a singing group.
The Alan Freed shows had made me aware of the burgeoning number of street-corner groups, so called because they sometimes sang on street corners, subways, buses, or, depending on the size of the singers, anywhere they liked. They sang a cappella usually in four-part harmony. Similar groups were forming in high schools all over Brooklyn. One such group was the Tokens from Madison’s rival Lincoln High School. After I heard Neil Sedaka and the Tokens perform “While I Dream” and “I Love My Baby,” cowritten by Neil and Howard Greenfield, I began to compose in earnest. Most of my songs had decent melodies, but my lyrics weren’t very good. It didn’t matter. The street-corner benchmark left plenty of room for mediocre lyrics.
Arranging classical pieces at Performing Arts had given me enough confidence to arrange some pieces for Mr. Jacobs’s chorus class. My arrangements were so well received that I decided to arrange some of my pop compositions for street-corner harmonies. Though the genres were considerably different, four-part harmony was four-part harmony. All I needed were a soprano, tenor, and bass. I would be the alto.
I recruited Iris Lipnick, Lenny Pullman, and Joel Zwick from Mr. Jacobs’s class. Lipnick, Pullman, Zwick, and Klein didn’t have quite the ring we were looking for, so we pulled a word from our trigonometry books and became the Cosines. It was a dreadful name, but it was ours. We worked on vocal arrangements, choreographed steps at my house after school, and then performed for free at dances and other school events. For some reason I’ve blocked out all memory of the names, melodies, and lyrics of most of our repertoire except one: “Leave, Schkeeve.” My God! Of all the songs we sang, I can’t believe that’s the one I remember. We wrote that song as a group. I had no idea what a schkeeve was, but it rhymed with “leave,” and that was all that mattered. Only a teenager with no social life would have put so much effort into arranging a song whose main lyric was “Leave, schkeeve / Bum doo-bee doo-wop.” Continues...
Excerpted from A Natural Woman by King, Carole Copyright © 2012 by King, Carole. Excerpted by permission.
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