Rehearsing “Arsenic and Old Lace” at Mamaroneck High in 1958…

In senior year (fall, 1958) at Mamaroneck High School in Mamaroneck, NY, we presented the 1939 play Arsenic and Old Lace by Joseph Kesselring.  I was lucky enough to be cast as Mortimer Brewster, the role played by Cary Grant in the 1944 movie directed by Frank Capra, after it had run on Broadway from 1941 to 1944.  (I recall learning at some point that the play, about Mortimer discovering that his two beloved maiden aunts are homicidal maniacs, was originally called Bodies in the Cellar.)  Anyway, I just want to tell you about what happened during our dress rehearsal…

Mamaroneck High

Mamaroneck High

We were rehearsing in the full set with costumes on, going through the entire play non-stop [or at least, that was the intention] while the lights were being adjusted and so on.  Our director was out in the audience — Miss Schmidt, I believe — and I was onstage with the two aunts when my fiancée, Elaine Harper, came through the front door.  The dialogue was supposed to go this way:

Elaine: Mortimer!

Mortimer: Elaine!

[They rush to each other and embrace.]

arsenic-and-old-lace-priscilla-lane-cary-grant-1944It sounds simple, eh?  Well, the lovely girl playing Elaine arrived at the door, right on time, stepped into the living room and saw me.

Elaine held out her arms toward me and cried:  “Elaine!”

I stared back at her.  After a few beats, I replied:  “Mortimer?”

We all laughed so hard that the dress rehearsal stopped in its tracks.  It took at least ten minutes to get back into it without cracking up again.

I have no idea how I might have reacted if this had been a genuine performance in front of a packed auditorium in the high school.  But such surprises are part of the joy of acting.  They give you a jolt of new energy.  They put you into a state of sudden, instant aliveness.  And such surprises are not at all “mistakes,” not while you’re on stage, because there’s no choice other than to react in some real, honest way — to deal with the surprise, to “go with” whatever happens, in the moment.  And hopefully to deal with it the way we might do so in life itself.

Maybe I would have said to her, “Well, now, as far as I can recall, you are Elaine, and I — I am Mortimer!”

Or any of a hundred variations of that reply … or of some response that might have been much more clever.

Why have I never forgotten that moment?  The jolt?  The uncontrollable laughter that followed?  I’m not sure that I know the answer, but it must have something to do with the way all those signals in my brain went on alert and scrambled around to make sense of things.  All I really know is that, out of so many other moments involving Arsenic and Old Lace that I’ve long forgotten, that one has stuck with me.

Published in: Uncategorized on December 18, 2012 at 18:19  Leave a Comment  
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World War II – Waiting for My Father to Come Home

The story as it appeared in PARADE in January 1985, with a photo of me with my parents in 1942 and another one, taken by the great photographer Eddie Adams, in 1984

When we observed Veterans Day earlier this week, it occurred to me to find one of my all-time favorite articles that I wrote for PARADE magazine.  This one was published on January 20, 1985, at the start of the 40th anniversary year of the end of that horrible war.  It represents a personal memory behind just one of the millions of local announcements that appeared during the war in local newspapers across the country:

FROM THE DAILY TIMES, MAMARONECK, NY: ENGLAND, July 14, 1944 – Staff Sgt. William c. Whittemore Jr. of the Alden House, Larchmont, has recently arrived in England to serve in the Signal Corps.  Son of Mr. and Mrs. William C. Whittemore of 3 Virginia Place, Larchmont, Staff Sgt. Whittemore entered the service in July of 1943 and trained in Camp Crowder, Mo; State Teachers College, Tex.; and at Camp Edison, Sea Girt, NJ.  Staff Sgt. Whittemore and his wife, the former Suzette Schwiers of New York City, have one son, two-and-a-half years old.

WOULD MY FATHER COME MARCHING HOME AGAIN?
After 40 Years, one small story from our biggest war

I don’t think I can recall one thing about my father before he left us to go to war. I was not yet two years old when he disappeared from our lives, vanishing across the Atlantic Ocean’s turmoil of dark water and gray sky on his way to various European battlefields. I can recall, perhaps, the feeling of his presence in my life, but I don’t know that for sure.

What I do remember – vividly – are images formed as a result of looking at photographs and from being told the same stories over and over. Some of them refer to events that happened well before my birth in November 1941, back during the days when my father was growing up to become the handsome, dashing young man who would sweep my mother off her feet and marry her within six months of their first romantic meeting.

Yes, my images of him in those days are illuminated by the sort of glitter and glow reserved for Hollywood stars, and those old photographs only reinforce my conviction that he was a more-than- average fellow. He appears in them as tall and slim, often wearing white slacks and shoes, smiling with confidence and gazing at the camera as if he knew, right then, that he was creating an indelible effect.

The most striking physical fact about him was his bright red hair – wavy, thick, passionate hair that seemed to be perpetually on fire. On a couple of the black and white photographs, his hair was touched up with red-orange paint, and his eyes were given a watercolor blue.  But these were Ineffectual attempts to capture the true flavor of his arresting appearance – or so I was told, at age three, when I would stare at the photos of my absent father and pretend that he was gazing back into my soul.

CLOSEUP OF PIC WWII ARTICLE

He had lived as a little boy on West 150th Street in New York City; later, he moved with his parents out to the suburbs, to the Village of Larchmont in Westchester County, twenty miles north of Manhattan. He met my mother in the summer of 1940, when he was twenty-three and she was twenty-two. She had come up from New York to Larchmont with her parents, who had rented a home for the summer to escape the heat of the city. The house was diagonally across the tree-lined street from where my father lived.

To my mother, the colorful, flowers and green trees of Larchmont were as beautiful and thrilling as the hills and valleys of the countryside. I can only try to imagine the warm summer evenings and sunny weekend days of the courtship that led my mother and father to marry before the year was over.  I think they knew, even on their wedding day in December of 1940, that events beyond their control might soon reach out and pull my father away.

They were married in the city, at the Biltmore Hotel.  They took an apartment in Larchmont (in the Alden House), a short walk from where my father had lived and where his parents remained. I was born eleven months later in New Rochelle Hospital. Just five weeks afterward, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.

ALDEN1

The Alden House in Larchmont, on the Post Road, where we lived during World War II

As I say, I have no recollection of my father from the time I was born until he left us. I am told that it took at least eighteen months before he was drafted into the Army.  My mother and I were to stay in the Larchmont apartment while he was overseas, but first he would have to go into training. When he got to Camp Edison in Sea Girt, New Jersey, my mother and I traveled down there by train and took a room in a boardinghouse near the beach and a few blocks from the camp.

The story I like best from that time is about how my father would sneak out of the barracks area at night and make his way to the boardinghouse to be with my mother (and me) for a few stolen hours before racing back, climbing over the fence and slipping into his tent again in time for sunrise and reveille, hen he’d get up and continue, on virtually no sleep, training for war.

I have one other image from that time on the Jersey shore, just before my father was to be shipped overseas. I see myself in a little red wagon. My mother is pulling me on the boardwalk beside the sand and the ocean. I hear the waves slashing and pounding with an angry, threatening force. I feel the wind hurling itself against my mother as she pulls me, afraid but determined.  Her long, dark hair is blowing wildly from the violence in the air, which continues to build as if it were blowing all the way from Europe. Her face is very pale, and she seems so very alone with her willpower and her faith and her fear.

Coming upon the sight of a large crowd on the beach, we can see from the boardwalk that the object of curiosity is the enormous corpse of a whale. The sight of its ugly gray body terrifies my mother, who quickly turns the wagon around and starts pulling me away from the scene. She pulls with sudden, inexplicable strength, as if to save us both from some mysterious danger.  If such a powerful mammal has lost its fight against unchecked brutality, where is safety for a young woman alone with a child in a world whose madness no one, much less she, can fathom?  I see her pulling me faster and faster and calling the name of her young husband, whose vanishing figure she chases in bewilderment along an endless pier beside an endless, churning sea.

Even though I may not remember these things, I feel them.  And I feel my helplessness in being too weak, too insignificant, to protect her.

Back in Larchmont, we lived in the apartment together. It was during this time that my true memories did, in fact, begin to form. In the earliest one, we are on the high rooftop of our building, which itself is on a hill. I am standing on the tar paper, gazing through an opening in the wall.

“Be careful,” she says.

“Don’t worry, Mom.” I reply. Those are the three words I remember speaking most often, taking it upon myself to calm her down, to give her peace. I was acting brave. And, in the same breath, I was also absorbing her fears, her loneliness and her pain, making them my own and trying to reassure myself.

I could feel her waiting.  Always waiting.

One day we entered our building as usual, my mother picked up the mail and we went up in the elevator. When we were in the apartment, she told me to go and wait for her in the bedroom.  I was on my parents’ bed when she walked in, her eyes red and tears spilling down her face.  A letter was clutched in her hand, at her side. In the letter was a small, brownish close-up photograph of a man’s face – like a passport photo.  My mother knelt down, holding it in front of her, and I listened to her sobbing for a long time.

“He’s a prisoner.” she finally whispered. “They won’t let him tell the truth, but he’s trying to send me a message with this picture. He’s a prisoner of war, and he’s never coming home!”

She knelt and tried to pray, and the double bed beneath me became a floating raft set loose from its moorings, carrying me away. I lay face-down on the sheet with my arms spread wide, my fingers clutching but unable to hold on, as she continued to weep, and I felt the inexorable pull of the tide and the roll of the waves, beyond my control.

After that, I could feel my mother’s tension whenever she checked the mail or if someone called. At last, another letter from overseas.  He seemed okay, but the war continued. What would happen to him, and to us, was unknown.     Over the days, weeks and months, we waited.  We shared an unspoken agreement that our most fundamental activity was passing time, dangling, holding on, as if the beginning of our lives had been postponed.

In my grandparents’ house on Virginia Place in the winter of 1945, there is a large gathering of adults. I am playing off to one side, on the rug near the piano, with a jigsaw puzzle whose pieces show the jagged features of men in battle. The house is stuffy and warm from the radiator, the tobacco smoke, the body heat. From my vantage point on the floor, there is an ebb and flow of milling pants, dresses, legs and shoes accompanied by a loud, continuous babble.

I am concentrating on the puzzle when I feel a blast of invigorating air sweep through the forest of legs.  I hear a clamor of cheering. The congregation moves toward the open front door. There are shrieks of laughter and delight.  I remain on the rug, staring at the chaos.  The throng backs up into the living room and, after more commotion, the congestion breaks apart to reveal, in the glow of an amber light, a handsome man wearing an overcoat and a cap with a visor.  He is standing there with a confident smile, greeting people with hugs.  He takes off his overcoat. He is dressed in a uniform of the U.S. Army.  He removes his cap. In the warm, brown- yellow circle of light, his hair is fiery red.

As he puts his arm around my mother’s waist and gives her a kiss, I look away and shut my eyes; in this self-imposed darkness, it seems that my breath has been taken away. I hear his voice distinctly. He is calling my name.  “Where is he?’ I hear him say, and the conversation ceases abruptly, as if all the sound in the world has been shut off.  In the hush, my eyes are still closed; yet I can feel him staring at me from across the room. I wait – in fear, in resentment, in hope, in a darkness stretching away to the ends of a silent universe.

When I open my eyes, he is taking the last strides in my direction.  He bends down in a squat and gazes directly at me. The red hair is a ring of fire around his face, and I stare into his blazing blue eyes, which are familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. I feel his harsh breath and the scraping of his beard stubble on my cheek as he kisses me with strange, scary roughness.

So here is my first real memory of him, with his strong hands gripping either side of my chest under my arms, slowly lifting me off the ground as the scattered pieces of the war puzzle recede far below on the rug; and I soar, weightless, higher and higher, into the amber sky, gliding without effort above his head, looking down at all the faces and at the face of my mother, who is smiling up at me with glistening eyes, with the expression of a little girl being transformed suddenly into my father’s wife, and some terrible burden of the spirit, some unbearably oppressive weight, softly slides away.