The music was loud, insistent, driving. It was a Saturday night, mid-June, steaming hot, the club, the Jazz Gallery on Manhattan’s lower east side, packed. I had the largest group, four tables pushed together in the center of the place, a dozen or so people, musicians, writers, artists, all drinking, laughing, arguing. I was balancing a half dozen drinks at a time. Mingus was there, downing a mountain of chicken and ribs, discussing heatedly with Dave Garroway, an icon of early morning television, the first host of NBC’s “Today” show and a passionate lover of jazz, the pros and cons of Thelonious Monk.
Monk’s music, improvisational, harshly dissonant, took some getting used to. Garroway, a drummer of sorts, was in the club two or three times a week and he was railing against Monk and Mingus would have none of it: he considered Monk a genius. We waiters used to battle not to wait on Garroway who was pathologically cheap: a two dollar tip on a hundred dollar check was big money for him. Years later he put a bullet in his head and I remember thinking that his suicide and extraordinary frugality were somehow related.
Edouard de Laurot with his inamorata Zoë (Tamerlis) Lund
I first became acquainted with Eduoard de Laurot through his writings in Film Culture Magazine. He had founded the magazine with Jonas Mekas in the early fifties. His articles were astonishing, often abstruse, impossible to fully-comprehend, but stunning in their brilliance, power, and insightfulness. Reading de Laurot for the first time, I thought, this is the most astounding writing on film I have ever encountered. This is genius. De Laurot would come to a seemingly ordinary work, a commonplace film with a straight-forward narrative, and cut and slice his way into the heart of the thing, the profound mystery of a work, laying bare the complex, true soul of the piece.
My third novel, Kabbalah, was inspired by events in my life and my relationship to Aba Leiter, a close childhood friend. An elderly candy-store-owner in our neighborhood, Mr. Cua, was senselessly murdered by a kid from the neighborhood, and Aba, who had become a rabbi, was the killer’s chaplain in prison. I was haunted by this murder and eventually decided to write about it.
I hadn’t seen Aba for some time. I found out he was living in Manitowoc, Wisconsin where he was rabbi to a local congregation. I visited with him and his family and he told me about Mr. Cua’s killer and when I said I would like to have some sort of theological underpinning for the novel, he told me about Kabbalah, a mystical system of Jewish thought that attempts to define the nature of the universe and man’s place in it. One of the powerful ideas in Kabbalah is the notion that if one can save a single human it is as though you are saving the universe. I felt I could use that in my novel as my rabbi sets out to save his childhood friend, the man who has killed the candy-store-owner.
I have been amazingly fortunate. Two writers from my prison classes have produced exceptional works. Ken Hartman, a convicted murderer serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole, worked on a memoir in my class at Tehachapi Prison. It was eventually published as Mother California: A Story of Redemption Behind Bars.It won the Eric Hoffer award for a memoir and received spectacular reviews. It’s a powerful work, profound, frightening, moving. And now another student of mine, John Nelson, has come up with an equally stunning work, also a prison memoir: Where Excuses Go To Die.
“Where Excuses Go To Die” is funny, touching, wise. Nelson gives you the desperate, grinding prison reality in fire-cracker language that has you shaking your head in admiration. This guy has an eye and an ear and an instinct for what really goes on behind the walls, what criminals are truly like, the relationships between staff and convict, how the whole circus cartwheels along. Want to know how a bright, middle-class kid ends up a convict, serving seven years for bank robbery? Want to know, feel, taste the innards of California prisons in hilarious, disturbing detail, how one survives or doesn’t in fantastical situations absurd, brutal, terrifying? I spent thirteen years teaching in maximum-security prisons. My one-man show, Murderers Are My Life, is a revelation of that world—I thought I had seen it all– but John Nelson pulled the curtains aside and showed me the core of incarceration, stuff that I never could have imagined.
Black Panther leader Geronimo Pratt had been transferred from San Quentin to Tehachapi Prison, Max Yard 4B, where I held my creative writing class. He was a high profile inmate serving a life sentence for the robbery murder of a woman on a Santa Monica tennis court. For years there had been protests and legal battles over his imprisonment. When he arrived at Tehachapi there were demonstrations on his behalf outside the prison.
He joined my class and immediately you felt that this was not a run of the mill inmate. He moved with a kind of military compactness; there was a surety in his bearing that was unusual on the prison yard.
George Segal and Karen Black in DSM’s “Born To Win”
We were in trouble. A film I had written, “Born to Win”, had a director, Ivan Passer, a star, George Segal, a studio, United Artists, money for the production in the bank, and a start date. There was one problem: we did not have the female lead.
Blythe Danner had been cast in the part: it would have been her first film. Ivan and I had seen her on Broadway in the play “Butterflies Are Free” and she was extraordinary and perfect for our film, where she would play a radiant, delicate, innocent who becomes involved with a street junky hustler. And as so often happens the gods of chaos visited us at the last moment. A key element of our financing, disappeared—literally disappeared. The legendary agent and mountebank, David Begelman, had come up with a money scheme called First Artists, which would invest in a passel of films produced with clients of Begelman’s CMA Agency. Paul Newman, Barbra Streisand, Sidney Portier, and George Segal were to be part of it. “Born to Win”, we were told, would be First Artists’ first film.
I was twenty-one years old, writing, but also trying to become an actor, in New York, studying with the legendary Stella Adler. Warren Beatty was just behind me, Bobby DeNiro, a couple of years back. I was poor and depressed and scuffling to get by.
It was fall. I had spent the summer in Mexico in a bizarre adventure, which I’ll have to write about more fully some other time. I was living in a town called Cuautla, sixty miles south of Mexico City, the capitol of the State of Morelos. During the Mexican civil war in the early part of the 20th Century Cuautla was the home base of the revolutionary, Emiliano Zapata. He had been born in Anenecuilco, a few miles outside of Cuautla. I had seen the film “Viva Zapata”, when I was in high school. Directed by Elia Kazan, written by John Steinbeck, and starring Marlon Brando, it was a great favorite of mine. It had been one of only two screenplays that Steinbeck had written completely by himself. (The other was an adaptation of his novella, “The Pearl.”) Living in Cuautla so near to Zapata’s birthplace, I had, of course, to see it. I hiked the few miles there and stood by the tumbledown stone hovel that had been his family’s house. There was a small plaque then designating it as the place where Zapata had been born and I was shocked at how unkempt and primitive the place was. I understand that today they have turned the house into a museum dedicated to Zapata, but in those days it was barely more than a heap of stones.