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Artie Shaw Talking

Aram Saroyan's last article for the magazine was about growing up in Beverly Hills during the 1950s. His books include "Last Rites," a memoir of his father, writer William Saroyan, and, most recently, "Day and Night: Bolinas Poems."

In the early 1940s, Artie Shaw, at the height of his fame as a swing bandleader and clarinetist, introduced my father and mother. In the 1960s, long after he had put down the clarinet for good, he published a book, “I Love You, I Hate You, Drop Dead!” comprising three novellas, the middle one of which is a fictionalized account of my parents’ relationship. I read it, found it interesting, and Shaw himself even more interesting for his decision to give up his career in music. Shaw’s playing had evolved at the same time that the big-band era waned, so the reason he quit has always been an open question. Still, Camus wrote that the man who says “no” says “yes,” and there is an enduring mystery in such figures as Duchamp, to take another example, who stake out a position at the borderline between art and life, creation and reality.

Years later, I put Shaw’s name on the comp list for a book of mine published in 1985. In 1988, when I was living in Thousand Oaks, I noticed that Shaw’s address made him my neighbor. I had another book coming out and again added his name to the comp list. When Shaw received the book, he telephoned, and my wife Gailyn and I had dinner with him at an Italian restaurant in Camarillo, where he was well-known. As that evening illustrated, the first and perhaps last thing to be said about Artie Shaw is that he is a nonstop talker, a monologuist, and, at his best, an inspired one. (It occurred to me that his talking might have replaced his playing.)

Afterward, Artie took us back to his house and upstairs to his book-lined study, where he played us his 1941 recording of “Star Dust.” It was the first time I’d listened to his music, and his solo was breathtaking, like a beautiful bird swooping through heaven and hell. “Benny Goodman played clarinet,” he said that night, “I played music.” And then: “Benny never played his dark side.”

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Eventually, Gailyn and I and Artie and his girlfriend at the time, Midge Hayes, a librarian he had met in Santa Barbara, became quite close. Shaw had written an autobiography, “The Trouble With Cinderella,” but it stopped short of his years as a big-band era legend and also told nothing of his celebrated marriages to Lana Turner and Ava Gardner. So one day I invited Artie to lunch to ask him about recording conversations for a biography covering the later part of his life. We began making the recordings. After a while, though, our relationship cooled. I went on to other things and put the tapes and manuscript aside.

Having recently celebrated his 90th birthday, Shaw continues

to be a commanding, contentious, ever-engaged presence, although when I saw him last several weeks ago he was sporting a cane. He has his own Web site, https://www.artieshaw.com, on which is posted a third-person biographical statement, the actual source of which invites an inevitable suspicion. It includes, for instance, this unquiet summary: “Shaw is regarded by many as the finest and most innovative of all jazz clarinetists, a leader of some of the greatest musical aggregations ever assembled and one of the most adventurous and accomplished figures in American music.” Music critic Terry Teachout, writing recently in the New York Times, commented: “You’d have to laugh at such braggadocio, except for one thing--it’s all true.”

Over the years the tapes remained in my thoughts, and not long ago I pulled them out again. They are, it seems to me, a distillation of Shaw as I knew him, and also offer, I think, a uniquely telling view of both the Hollywood and the music worlds of his day. In the end, they suggest to me an Artie Shaw in the classic line of Jewish storytellers, a parabolist who sometimes brings to mind Nathanael West--as if “The Day of the Locust” were told by a rougher hewn, high-level insider. What follows are three excerpts of Shaw’s remembrances.

MARIJUANA

A guy named Chuck Peterson was my first trumpet player in the first band, the ’38 band. He was a viper, always high, always smoking. And my thesis with the band was: Do your job and I don’t care what you do off the stand. On that stand, you’re a horn. I don’t want to see your face; all I want is to hear what’s coming out. So you’re not going to get praise or credit; I expect you to do what you do. They knew that. They knew I respected the music and I respected them, and I didn’t want any B.S. But Chuck was smoking a lot of marijuana, and it finally got to where he was beginning to slow down.

A first trumpet player in a jazz band is like a concertmaster. He sets the tone, he plays the lead. And if he slows down, the whole band lags--first the trumpet section, then the trombones get infected, and pretty soon the virus has spread to the saxes, and everything slows down.

So Chuck Peterson is slowing down the band, and one night on the way to the Cornell prom, we’re in the bus and I’m in my seat and I call Chuck over. Chuck and I were friends--I knew all the guys in the band. We knew each other well. He’s 22 or 23 and I’m 28. [He’s a] very good lead trumpet player--I trained him. He wasn’t much before he joined my band. Nobody knew him. I trained Johnny Best, Les Robinson, Bernie Previn; these guys speak very highly of me on the liner notes of RCA’s “Complete” Artie Shaw record package.

I called Chuck over and he sat down with me.

“Chuck,” I said, “we’ve got to have a serious talk.”

“What’s up, man?” he said.

“Well,” I said, “you’re lagging. You’re doing something wrong.”

“No, man, what’re you talking about?” he said.

“Come on, Chuck. You’re smoking too much of that s---. You gotta cut down.”

“No, I’m not,” he said. “It makes me play better.”

“No, you think you’re playing better,” I said. “You’re not. I’m out here listening, and it’s slowing down. You’re lagging. It’s not working. I’ve gone to you many times and given you the beat to show you, bring it up, and you can’t do it. You’re not hearing right. Your head is befuddled.”

“Oh, come on, man,” he said.

“I’ll tell you what I’ll do,” I said. “I’ll make you a deal. How many joints do you smoke a night?”

“Well, I have a bomb before I start, and then at intermission I get another one--not a full bomb, but a little one.”

“OK,” I said. “I’ll do it tonight. Give me what you smoke.” Because I used to smoke when I was a kid--18, 17, 19--running around the country playing like he was playing in my band. So I said, “Lemme have it. I’ll smoke it right in front of you before we go on, and during intermission I’ll do it again. And if I play better, we’ll both turn on from now on--every night.”

“Hey, you’ve gotta deal,” he said. He liked that, that was fun: The boss is gonna get loaded and swing, right?

That night he gave me this bomb and I smoked it, and I got up on that stand and I was feeling no pain at all. When intermission came, I said, “Gimme the other one.” He gave it to me, I smoked it, and I was playing over my head. I was hearing s--- I’d never heard before in those same old arrangements.

I finished and turned to him. “You win,” I said.

“No, man,” he said. “I lose.”

He had been giving me incredulous looks during the evening and I thought he was thinking, “Man, this guy is blowing his head off.” I was hearing great things. But the technical ability to do it--it’s like driving drunk. You feel great, but you don’t know what you’re doing.

At least he was honest about it.

LANA TURNER

I was this little, insecure kid. Nothing I did could have been much, because I did it. I was the outlander who was suddenly let into the magic kingdom. It was an education. I had to learn what the world was. I was a naive little Lower East Side Jewish kid whose name became Artie Shaw. But I was Arthur Arshawsky living in there, and I didn’t know what I was doing.

I first met Lana on the set of “Dancing Co-Ed,” in which I played myself. I was standing on the bandstand and we were introduced--she was about to do a dance number and I was about to play. As a joke, I said, “You better be nice to me or I’ll screw up your tempos.”

And Lana looked up, dead serious, and said: “You better not!”

She didn’t get it. She was peeved. I thought, “This girl’s a little dumb.” We made the movie and I forgot about her. I didn’t see her again until a couple years later when [actor] Phil Silvers came over to my house one day and took me onto the set of the movie she was making.

There she was, coming down a staircase in this little green-silk dress that fit her like she’d been born in it. When the scene was over, she came out to us, and Phil “introduced” us. I wonder now if he didn’t have some mischief in mind, knowing I’d already met her. She looked absolutely incredible in that dress. And this time she was very sweet to me, laughing and kidding around. She didn’t seem to remember we hadn’t hit it off. And I asked her out.

So I’m with this glamorous creature; she was in my car; we’d had dinner. I looked at her. The world was in love with Lana Turner. And there she was, saying she’d like to have a home and kiddies, too. That was why the game of chicken began.

“You don’t mean it,” I said. “You’re just saying that, about how you don’t want the glamorous film career, you want a home and kiddies.”

And I didn’t want my career, unless I could make it worthwhile and have somebody to come home to, a family. Somebody to do it for and make it worthwhile.

“Well, why don’t we do it?” I was saying it for kicks, not thinking she was serious. “Why don’t we do it? What would you say if I said, ‘Let’s do it?’ ”

“I’d say, ‘Yes,’ ” she said.

“Oh, come on.”

“No, I mean it.”

“You don’t mean it. You’re kidding me.”

“No, I’m not. Try me.”

“All right, I’ll try you,” I said. “Let’s go.”

“You mean it?”

“Yeah.”

Now I’m looking, thinking to myself, “She’s going to say no, so what the hell, why not keep going?”

We went up to my house on Summit Ridge Drive. I called Paul, the air service guy, and I’m still looking at her.

“Look, I want a plane. Where can we go to get married? Tonight.”

He told me and I said, “OK.” Las Vegas. Yuma. Wherever the hell it was.

We went all the way out to the airport and I figured she was going to say, “Stop it.”

We got on the plane. We’re in the plane. This is Lana Turner--I don’t even know her. We’d just had our first date. She was a total stranger. We got married. It was a dream. A trance. I don’t even remember where it was--Las Vegas, Yuma, wherever.

Came back to my house.

We had sex then, which was strange because I didn’t know anything about her. All I knew was she was beautiful. I knew I wasn’t what she thought I was, whatever that was.

THE MORNING AFTER

The next morning we woke up when my manservant, Herbie--a tall, thin, homosexual black man who’d been with me for quite a while--knocked at the bedroom door.

I called him in. Lana was in bed beside me.

“Mr. Shaw,” he whispered, “there’s a lot of people out there on the street in front of the house.”

The house was on a promontory overlooking all of Beverly Hills, Hollywood, Los Angeles, on a clear day all the way to Catalina.

“What are you talking about?” I said to Herbie. “What kind of people?”

It hadn’t dawned on me that I was marrying a girl who was a Hollywood goddess, and that I was a flamboyant figure in my own way.

I peeked out through the blinds. It was scary. I’d say a couple of hundred people milling around out there, all over the street. Radio newspeople and newspaper reporters. Fans too, but not that many because it hadn’t got out yet.

“What the hell is going on?” I said.

“Well,” Herbie said, “some of these guys told me that there was something in the paper about you and Miss . . .” I’d come in late and he hadn’t seen us, but now he knew who it was . . . “that you and Miss Turner got married last night. Congratulations.”

It was like a bit in a movie.

I found out that the newspapers that day had these big banner headlines: LANA TURNER ELOPES WITH ARTIE SHAW!

“Well, what the hell are we going to do?” I said. “We can’t walk out.”

“No,” he said.

“Let’s call Edgar Selwyn,” I said.

Edgar was the producer of “Dancing Co-Ed,” one of the big machers at MGM. He and Goldwyn had switched the second syllables of their names. Goldwyn’s name was Goldfish, and they called their company Goldwyn. The joke was they had switched the wrong syllables. The other way it would have come out “Selfish.”

“Just stay where you are. I’ll fix it,” Edgar said when I got him on the phone. “I’m coming up in a limo. There’ll be a big blanket in it. The limo’s going to go into your garage. You can get into the garage from inside the house. You and Lana get into the back seat and I’ll cover you with the blankets, and we’ll drive away with me sitting in the back and the chauffeur driving.”

That was how we got out of there. We went down to his place in Beverly Hills, where he had a guest house, and we stayed there for three days. After that things subsided a little. We gave a few interviews with studio people there. We were coached about what to say. They told me not to say I’d just married her. It sounded a little outre. I was to say I had met her when we made “Dancing Co-Ed” and felt an affinity. Then we saw each other again and liked each other. We went to dinner, we talked.

THE STUDIO SYSTEM

Johnny Hyde was the head of the West Coast office of William Morris and Lana’s agent. He was about 5 feet tall. The gag was if you wanted to work at William Morris, you couldn’t be over 5 feet tall because you’d tower over the head man.

Johnny called one day and asked if I wanted to go to a preview of a movie Lana had made. I hated those things--all that “Who’s that? Are you somebody?” kind of craziness--and said I didn’t really want to go.

“Do you mind if I pick Lana up and I’ll take her?” he said. “She should see this. We’re going to get an audience reaction.” It was going to be playing out in Bellflower or someplace.

“Sure, take her out there,” I said. “I’ll stay home and take it easy.” I had a night off.

He came and picked her up and they went, and I picked up a book. The preview would end at 10:30 or 11, and by the time they got home it would be midnight.

About 11 o’clock, late for Hollywood, I was reading and my doorbell rang. Herbie went to the door and he came tiptoeing in to me.

“Mr. Shaw,” he said, “there’s a man out there who wants to talk to you.”

“Who?”

“I don’t know who he is, but he’s got a big limousine with a chauffeur. He said his name is Mayer.”

“Mayer? L.B.?”

“I don’t know.”

“Well, tell him to come in.” He came in through the living room, with Herbie escorting him. It was L.B. Mayer. A portly man in a blue suit with white hair, built like a little bull, dignified, with shiny glasses.

“Mr. Mayer,” I said. “What are you doing here?” I stood up.

“Well,” he said, “I thought I’d come up and see you about--just a piece of business.”

“I don’t understand--"

“Well, it has to do with our little girl.” They always called them little girls--our little girl. He used to call Judy Garland “my little hunchback” because she had long legs and a little torso.

“Well,” I said, “sit down. Would you like a drink or something?”

He accepted a glass of water and sat down.

“I wanted to ask you a sort of delicate question. I hope you don’t mind, it’s personal . . .”

“Go ahead.”

“Well,” he said, “are you and Lana planning on having children?”

“Gee, I don’t know. We’re not making any plans but we’re doing all the right things. They could come. I’m not taking any precautions. Why?”

“Well,” he said, “you know we have a considerable amount of money invested in her. And this girl is going to make us millions. She’s going to be one of the biggest stars we’ve ever had.” She hadn’t quite made it over the top yet. “It would be disastrous if she had a child.”

“Disastrous?” I didn’t know much about the film business at the time.

“Yes, it would be disastrous. She’s a love goddess. And love goddesses don’t have children.”

“Well, L.B.,” I said, “I don’t know whether I can promise you anything on that.”

I thought it was high-handed, and he must have thought so too or he wouldn’t have apologized about it being personal. He was not the most tactful man. He was the rajah, the head man, one of the guys who started the Academy Awards when Hollywood needed to clean up its image after the Fatty Arbuckle mess.

“Well, L.B.,” I said, “I see what you’re saying, and I understand it, but I have to think about this.”

What he was saying was, use a condom. They didn’t have pills in those days. I guess they had diaphragms. I didn’t pay a lot of attention to that.

I never told Lana, and only later found out that, at the instigation of Johnny Hyde and L.B., she had an abortion without my knowing it. That was about six months after we were married, which was maybe two months after the Mayer visit.

I began to think maybe Mayer knew that she was pregnant and it became an emergency matter at the studio. Maybe if I’d said, “OK, I see your point,” he might have told me, “We’re going to arrange an abortion.” But I didn’t make any promises and made it clear to him I didn’t think it was the studio’s business.

Lana never discussed it with me. Somebody must have told her, “Look, if you’re going to have the abortion, don’t tell him, because he won’t like it. We’ve already found out that he doesn’t want to take precautions.”

When I found out, the marriage was really over. It isn’t that I necessarily wanted the child. But when I learned she’d had an abortion without any consultation with me, I felt betrayed. I felt that the studio and the agent had somehow gotten into my life and that getting Lana to have an abortion without telling me was betrayal.

As far as I’m concerned, betrayal is the worst thing that can happen between a man and a woman. It’s the only thing I feel bad about with cheating. There’s nothing wrong with cheating except that it’s betrayal. You’re giving a woman a secret that your wife doesn’t have. She knows something about you that your wife doesn’t.

We were married six months. It lasted about a year and a half in all, from marriage through interlocutory to final decree.

THE MUSICAL GENE

Over the years people have asked me, “What’s your musical genealogy?” How was I supposed to answer that? I spent 10 years trying to teach my mother how to play “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.” She was like a seal with those musical pipes at the aquarium--no relation to music. My father could at least pick out a melody single-fingered. I thought maybe it was from his side.

When I was fiftysomething, my mother died. She had a Jewish funeral on Amsterdam Avenue in New York. All my mother’s family was there.

“Hey, Artie!” “Gee, Artie! Artie!” They even asked for autographs.

“For Christ’s sake, my mother’s dead!” I said. “Leave me alone, you schmucks.”

We went into the funeral parlor and sat down. There was a plain pine casket up there on this little rostrum. Orthodox Jewish funerals don’t have flowers. I was looking at a box with this woman inside with whom I’d had a love-hate relationship ever since I could remember. There she was, up there in this box.

I sat there and in spite of myself I was moved. Her life was over, finished. It was like a big hole in my life for a minute. I was sitting there with my then-wife, Evelyn Keyes, and this young rabbi got up--not an Orthodox rabbi, but a young man who spoke perfect English--and he addressed us.

“Here we have a coffin,” he said, “with all that remains of Sarah. We’re here to pay reverence and respect to her for her life. Let us talk for a moment about these people like Sarah who came to this country . . .” He did an Irving Howe-style commentary out of “World of Our Fathers”: “They came here by the thousands, expecting sidewalks of gold, and found toil and travail and exploitation. They lived in the teeming Lower East Side and worked in sweatshops and struggled to make a living. They married and brought forth children, some of whom achieved fame and fortune . . . “

He was going good, I thought.

Then an old guy got up from the congregation. A typical Lower East Side Jew, he wore navy blue pants and a brown double-breasted jacket, open, with cigarette ashes on his vest, and a big broad-brimmed hat. He went over to the rabbi and plucked at his pants.

The rabbi did a W.C. Fields take: Get away, kid, you’re bothering me. He was trying to get on with his speech. Then another guy got up and tried to dissuade the first guy.

The first man was Moishe, my Uncle Morris, my mother’s older brother, and he didn’t speak much English. He was speaking in his guttural Yiddish to the rabbi, and the rabbi didn’t seem to understand. The other guy was trying to pull Moishe away. The rabbi leaned over.

Finally the rabbi turned back to us.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, “this man is the older brother of the deceased, Sarah, and he’s just been telling me he wants to sing a lament for the dead, the Kaddish. So with your permission, I’ll step down and let him do that.”

Moishe got up on the rostrum--this little old man in that typical uniform of the Lower East Side Jew--and he stood there and started to sing. My jaw dropped.

He had no more voice, there was no instrument, it was all gone. But he had musicality. The Kaddish is a beautiful Yiddish lament. And he sang with such pathos and musical intonation--a real relationship of note to note, which is what music is about--that within his own pitch, he was singing perfectly.

A shiver went through me, and I whispered to Evelyn, “That’s where it came from: my mother’s side.” This dead, tone-deaf lady had been the one with the musical gene in her all along.

He finished singing. The other man took him away and sat him down again. It was a very touching moment, his singing a lament for his dead sister.

It was one of the epiphanies of my life.

Two weeks went by and I got a call from my lawyer. He was the executor of my mother’s estate, which was still in probate, and he asked if I could come up and help him sort through some bills.

I showed up at his office, and he had a pack of bills in front of him on his desk: gas bills for the apartment, rent due. She had paid for a plot to be buried in. Old-country people believe in doing these things.

“I don’t understand this one,” he said. “It’s a bill from somebody named Morris for $150. It’s for singing at your mother’s funeral.”

“What?” I said.

“Did someone sing at your mother’s funeral? Did you hire somebody?”

You’d think a brother would sing for free. He had wrung my heart out and then wanted to be paid. He saw a chance to make a buck. I never talked to that SOB again. That’s me and my family.

It was like a nightingale sending you a bill.


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