JUNE 17, 2012
NOBODY LIKES A CENSOR — they stifle the singular, the personal, the human — and no one knows this better than John Kaye. When Kaye, who worked briefly in “program practices,” wrote “Smothered” for us, he said he didn’t want it published so much as “released into the world.” At the surface, it’s about a young writer unwillingly censoring the Smothers Brothers. Of course, there’s a lot more. In Kaye’s words, it’s a tale of “love, drugs, madness, betrayal, self-deception, and youthful ambition.” “Smothered” is both an intensely private story and an invaluable contribution to Los Angeles history. It’s an honor to release it here.
[For “Smothered: Part 1,” click here]
ART AND BLOOD
A few weeks later, after Harriet dropped out of the University of Wisconsin, she flew home and told her parents that she was moving to Los Angeles. Feeling justifiably betrayed (and half-stupefied with rage), her father pleaded with her to change her mind, but she refused, and in the end there was little he could do except fume. My parents, on the other hand, were happy that I had found a job and was in love, and they chose not to intercede. When her father suggested to them that I had somehow coerced Harriet into making her decision, my mother gruffly said he was out of line.
“This was their choice. They made it together,” she told him over the phone, trying not to overdo her anger, “and we have to respect it.”
Although they had never met Harriet in person, she had sent them pictures, and my father, especially, was impressed. “She’s very pretty,” he said, staring at a photo of her in a bikini, sunbathing on the shoreline of Lake Mendota. “What’s she doing with you?”
This was in the early fall of 1965. Harriet arrived just before Christmas and stayed with my parents to plan the wedding while I remained in my newly rented guesthouse in Silver Lake. We were married in March of 1966, and in October of that year she missed her first period. When she missed her second and third, she knew she was pregnant, an event that left her unsurprised since she’d stopped taking her birth control pills shortly after we moved into our new apartment below Sunset, on a sycamore-shaded street in West Hollywood. In 1967, in the first week of the new year, she went with my mother to an obstetrician — whose nurse, coincidentally, was actor Lloyd Nolan’s daughter and one of my high school classmates — and he confirmed what she already knew.
“She’s eleven weeks,” my mother told me. “That means she’ll be giving birth to your child some time in June.”
“How could this happen? She was on the pill.”
“So? Nothing’s foolproof,” my mother said. “I know this was unplanned, John. Harriet wouldn’t make this kind of decision unilaterally. But it doesn’t make any difference if she did. This is where we are. It’s something you’re going to have to accept.”
While I held the phone to my ear, I could feel my instinctive desire to lash out, to condemn Harriet’s act of willful stupidity. But I knew I would despise myself if I did, so I stopped in mid-sentence and took a breath, and in that moment of suspended stillness I remember thinking: I love Harriet very much. I want to be with her forever, to kiss her, to fuck her, to laugh and cry with her, but…not to be the father of her child! Not now!
What I see now as I write this is her face. She’s sleeping and her tears have dried, but an hour earlier, walking home after drinking heavily at Barney’s Beanery, her brain out of balance and her darkened mind bursting with anger, she had screamed through those same tears: “It was a mistake, John! If you don’t believe me, fuck you!”
In bed that night I remember her smelling of sweat and cigarettes and tequila. I also remember pushing her hair away from her face before I kissed her gently on the lips. I hoped selfishly that she would wake up and we could make love, our mutual arousal — our sexual collaboration — dismantling our guilt and shame. But her face remained vacant, passionless, and totally inaccessible.
Earlier that night over dinner at the Aware Inn, an organic restaurant on Sunset Boulevard two blocks from our apartment (side note: Jim Baker, the owner, was a judo master who would later become a bank robber and then Father Yod, the leader of an occult commune), I told her that I was due for a raise. In the nearly eighteen months I’d worked at Wolper, I had graduated from compiling research to working as a coordinating producer on a film that General Motors was sponsoring, a 90-minute rebuttal to Ralph Nader’s recent muckraking book about the designed-in dangers of the American automobile, Unsafe at Any Speed. It was not a job that I was particularly proud of, but for the first time I was given a supervisory responsibility, which meant I traveled around the country with a director and camera crew, making sure that everything we filmed was executed on schedule.
“But even if they bump me up fifty dollars a week,” I told Harriet, “it’s not really enough. A baby means getting a bigger apartment and tons of other expenses. I want a child, but this isn’t the right time.” Harriet said that her parents had agreed to help us out financially. “I don’t want their help.”
“Then what do you want to do?”
“I don’t know.”
“You’re scared,” Harriet said, and she was right. But my inability to support a child on my own wasn’t the only thing that was frightening me. My inner turmoil had another source. For the past several months — on my lunch hours, before I went to work, late at night when Harriet was asleep: it became a ritual and the promise of a different future — I had been secretly trying to write an original screenplay. Although it was true that I wasn’t ready to admit to myself that I wanted to become a writer, to cross that invisible frontier and have the unflinching courage to define myself in that way — in sentences, phrases, and paragraphs — I feared that with the turbulence of a child taking over the central space in my life, there would no longer be time to work, my imagination would petrify, and this secret dream of mine would be prematurely foreclosed.
Eventually Harriet agreed to have an abortion. She said she’d thought it over and decided, reluctantly, that it would be selfish to have a baby if it meant I would feel both financially and creatively constrained. I remember wondering at the time if she saw through my writerly pretenses, but if she did, she did it silently, and she always cheered me on with convincing reassurance.
“Nobody believes in you more than me. You know that,” she said, and her eyes took on a glint of appreciation. “And if I thought I was holding you back, I couldn’t live with myself.”
From a sound editor at Wolper I got the name of a doctor in Yuma, Arizona who performed illegal abortions in his home. A woman answered at the number I dialed. She said she was the doctor’s assistant — she spoke with a Spanish accent — and when I told her why I was calling, she asked me how long Harriet had been pregnant. I said a little over three months.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “The doctor will not operate once the fetus is older than eleven weeks. Too dangerous.” Then she told me that at week twelve you can see a baby’s fingers open and close. “And his toes curl too.” She said she was sorry she could not be more helpful, but she told me that there was a clinic in Nogales that would do the procedure if I was sure that’s what I wanted. Then she said something that surprised me. She asked me if I loved my wife.
“Yes,” I told her. “I do.”
“Then I think you should have this child.”
Six months later, on a bright sunny morning in June, our son was born. We named him Jesse.
Everything begins before we see it beginning. I’m not sure where I read those lines, but they stuck with me, and when I think about the events that follow they seem surrounded by an aura of inevitability. Of course, looking back, I’m grateful for the way things turned out, but at the time there seemed to be a controlling force that I was up against that was shaping my life. I know that sounds unfashionably melodramatic — obviously I wasn’t standing impassively or helplessly by — but that’s the way I felt.
JUST HOW COOL
After my work day ended at Wolper, especially if we had not spoken in a while, I sometimes drove over to visit my father. He owned several women’s wear stores around town, and one of them, World Wide Fashions, was located next door to CBS Television City, the network’s West Coast headquarters.
Across the street from CBS was the Farmer’s Daughter Motel, a reasonably priced and convenient stopping-off place for the tourists who lined up daily to get tickets for Art Linkletter’s House Party or popular game shows like The Price is Right. There was also a bar attached to the motel that became a nightly hangout for network employees, predominately grips and cameramen and staff musicians on their dinner break, and one night after schmoozing with my dad I decided to walk across the street for a drink.
I found a place at the bar next to an animated guy with brown curly hair and three empty shot glasses by his elbow. His pale blue eyes and his finely handsome face evoked the actor Joseph Cotton, only a younger and more working class version. His name was Neil Anderson and, as I was to later learn, he was a creative executive at CBS. This meant that he worked in program development, overseeing several prime-time pilots, acting as a liaison between the network and the companies — Desilu, Four Star, Universal, etc — that actually produced the shows. When I sat down he was talking to one of the musicians, a horn player from the Red Skelton orchestra, who seemed genuinely impressed by his deep knowledge of jazz. He was even more impressed when Neil said he used to score weed from Art Pepper, the alto-saxophonist who had just done a stretch in San Quentin for selling heroin.
Neil said, “We used to hang out when he lived in Venice. I was there once when he and Chet Baker got high with Bob Mitchum.”
“Mitchum used to drink at Sherry’s,” the bartender said. “I’d see him there and at the Melody Room.”
I mentioned to the bartender that I’d seen Chet Baker play at the Blackhawk in San Francisco, and Neil glanced at me, slightly intrigued. “What year was that?”
“Sixty-one, sixty two. I’m not sure,” I said. “At the time I was going to Berkeley.” Neil asked me what I was doing now. “I work for David Wolper Productions.”
“They do good stuff,” Neil said, his tone cool and matter-of-fact. “You make any money?”
“Not much,” I said.
That night, with Neil driving his souped-up ’66 Pontiac Bonneville, we hit four more bars, finally ending up at The Roost, a sleazy hangout for a rootless fraternity of gamblers, prostitutes and thieves in Atwater Village. That’s where we met up with Al Collins*, a friend of Neil’s who sold used cars in Glendale. He also sold drugs and was a licensed pilot who once flew Neil and me to Catalina for the day. I mention this excursion only because to land a small plane on Catalina Island is one of life’s more harrowing experiences — check out the videos on YouTube if you don’t believe me — even if your pilot isn’t high on synthetic mescaline, which Al was.
At the end of this evening Neil knew quite a bit about me, but he didn’t reveal much about himself. He did mention that he had a wife but no kids and that he lived in a house that he owned on Wonderland Avenue in Laurel Canyon. He also said that before he came to CBS he worked in Florida for Ivan Tors, the Hungarian writer-producer who created the television series Flipper and Gentle Ben. But when I asked him where he grew up, or anything about his family, he quickly changed the subject.
He gave a convincing impression of someone who was in total control of his affairs, but he never seemed overly serious, and no matter how extravagantly he partied I never once saw him drunk or speak to anyone with contempt or disrespect. His occasional flashes of anger came only when he sensed that he was being slighted or mocked or, even worse, patronized. (I can’t say why, but I often thought that he was concealing a secret, that something bad had happened to him when he was a young boy, an issue that was unaccounted for and had to be obscured.)
Before we separated on that first evening, Neil mentioned that there was an opening in the programming department at CBS. They were looking for someone like himself, a young, hip guy who was tuned into the emerging counter-culture; someone who could find smart young writers and develop shows that would appeal to a more youthful demographic, series that would eventually replace such long-running standbys as The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, and Petticoat Junction.
“Nobody upstairs has any idea what’s happening on the street. Same goes for New York,” Neil said. “All this hippie stuff has them freaked out. But they know there’s money to be made there if they can tap into the zeitgeist. Look at the Smothers Brothers. They dress like square college boys. That makes them unthreatening to the older crowd, but their humor is hip and current. More importantly, their ratings are excellent.”
At this time, in the winter of 1967, the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour had only been on for a few weeks and, as far as I knew, nothing controversial had yet been aired. I told Neil that I’d never watched the show but had once seen them live in San Francisco. I said I didn’t find them particularly funny.
“Neither do I, but they’re starting to book major rock acts like the Doors. That alone makes them worthwhile.” I told Neil that I had seen the Doors at the London Fog before anybody heard of them. “No kidding,” he said. “That just shows me how cool you are.”
“I didn’t mean it like that.”
Neil smiled, but in his smile was a warning signal: Don’t be too full of yourself, John. Then, as his smile expanded and lost its edge of sarcasm, he asked me if I wanted to interview for the job opening. If I did, he could set it up, but I’d have to decide fast because the network wanted to have someone in place before the beginning of pilot season, which started to ramp up in a few weeks.
“That’s when everyone comes in and pitches show ideas,” he said. “Mostly it’s the same old shit: Cop and robbers, medical dramas, westerns, and stupid family sit-coms. Very occasionally something really interesting slips through, like The Defenders or The Naked City.” He said whoever got the job would be working with him — under him, actually — and the goal would be to develop groundbreaking programs. “I want to blow people’s minds.”
I said, “I like making documentaries.”
“I get it,” he said. “With your background I can see how it all fits. But think about the coolness factor. What could be cooler than deciding what 30 million people watch on their televisions every night of the week?”
“I’ll think about,” I said. Before I got out of his car, Neil asked me how much money I made at Wolper. When I told him, he said, “You can triple that.”
Although I had called and told her I would be late, Harriet was not pleased when I arrived home semi-drunk, and she was puzzled and a little put off when I told her about the job opening at CBS. What affronted her was not the opportunity to work for a television network, but the glib way I spoke about all the perks: the tripled salary, the office with a secretary, the meetings in New York, blah, blah, blah. To her I must have sounded like Sammy Glick, the quintessential Hollywood hustler in Bud Schulberg’s classic novel, What Makes Sammy Run?
Meaning to protect me, she said, “You better think this over. Just because we’re going to have a child doesn’t mean you should take a job only for the money. And I find it hard to believe that some guy you met in a bar has that kind of influence.”
“I didn’t say he had any influence. He said he could set up a meeting,” I said. “That’s all. The whole thing’s a fucking long shot.” Because I experienced her legitimate doubts as a sort of silent censure, I felt myself becoming irritated and scrambling for some kind of self-justification. “But if I do get the job I’ll be meeting with producers and directors. Think about all the contacts I’ll make. When I finish my script I can — “
“You don’t have to convince me of anything,” Harriet said, cutting me off. We were in bed with our hips touching, but her face was hidden by the darkness in the room. “No matter what you decide, you know I’ll support you one-hundred percent, but just make sure you’re doing the right thing.”
Now, when I consider the events that followed, my recollections come in flashes. There were two meetings at CBS, the first with Paul King, a West Coast executive in the programming department. Prior to moving over to the executive side, King had been a well-respected writer on several network series, including Rawhide and Bonanza. He’d also been a producer and sometimes even acted in small roles, when his lower-class good looks suited the part.
He told Neil that our meeting went well. “He liked your honesty,” Neil said. “Apparently you didn’t pretend to know more than you did. That was a big plus. He put you on the top of the list, but he can’t offer you the job.”
“You have to meet his East Coast counterpart. He’s flying in next week and Paul will set up a meeting.”
His name was Alan Wagner, and he was a fast-talking Brooklynite, a Navy vet who had graduated from Columbia and was now working his way up the corporate ladder. With his thinning hair, big nose, and piercing blue eyes, he reminded me of my dad; I liked him right away. We spoke for 15 or 20 minutes, and then he called Neil into his office.
“This is our man,” he told Neil, as he pointed at me, and then he laughed explosively when he saw my face turn red. “I guess I took you by surprise.”
“Yeah,” I said. “You did.”
He said, “You’ve got the job, but there’s one small problem. It doesn’t start for three months. Meanwhile you can do a quick shift in Program Practices.”
Wagner looked at Neil, who waited for a moment, before he said, “Let’s get some lunch and I’ll fill you in.”
We went across the street to Farmer’s Daughter motel. They served food in the bar, and we ordered burgers that we washed down with three strong Bloody Marys. With a slight grimace Neil explained that working in Program Practices meant that I would be assigned a few shows — no more than four — and I would be responsible for the moral, ethical, and legal implications of whatever aired on the network. He made it seem like I’d be doing something admirably mature.
“You mean I’d be a censor?” I said, cutting through the bullshit.
Neil nodded. He looked embarrassed. “Just for three months, until they can open up a slot on the creative side.”
“Why can’t they open it up now?”
“I don’t know. Probably some network politics,” Neil said. “But you heard Wagner. You’re in. The job is yours.”
I told Neil that under no conditions would I become a censor. “I’ll stay at Wolper. In 90 days, if the job’s still open, they can call me.”
Neil said that Wagner needed an answer by the following day, before he caught the redeye back to New York. “If I tell him that you need time to think it over, they’ll hire someone else.”
“Sorry. I’m not going to be a censor.”
Neil spent the next hour trying to persuade me to change my mind. He said I was being shortsighted and stubborn, and then he deftly sketched out what my days would entail if I accepted the job. I would read scripts, write a few reports, chat with producers (or story editors) if there was something that was objectionable, and they would change or delete whatever I wanted. If I got any pushback, I could always call the program executive who was assigned to that particular show. He made everything sound effortless, like I would be on a 90 day paid vacation.
“See those guys?” Neil said, indicating the two men who were sitting across from us. They were both in their late 40’s, with humped shoulders and big smiling faces. “That’s Charlie Pettijohn and Sam Taylor. They both work in Program Practices. Squares, but nice guys. You’d be reporting to Charlie.” I repeated that I wasn’t going to be a censor, but Neil ignored me as he ordered another round from the bartender. “Charlie reports to the guy who runs the department. Tom Downer.”
“Downer? That’s an apt name for a censor.”
Neil laughed and started to stand. “Come on, I’ll introduce you to Charlie and Sam.”
“No thanks,” I said, and I dropped a twenty on the bar, covering my portion of the bill. “I’ve got to get back to work.”
“Give them notice, John.”
“I don’t think so.”
“Sleep on it. I’ll call you tomorrow.”
When I got home that evening, Harriet told me that Neil had called and they had spoken for almost an hour. She said the conversation was enjoyable, and nothing he’d said had sounded suspicious. “He was incredibly complimentary. And he predicts great things for you, even if you decide not to take the job. But that’s your decision,” she said.
“So you think I should take it?”
“Don’t put words in my mouth. Just do what feels right. Okay? No matter what happens, things will be fine.”
Harriet lifted her glass and took a sip of wine. The bottle on the coffee table was nearly empty. Otis Redding was playing on the stereo, and I smile now at the irony of listening to “Pain in My Heart” while deciding whether to accept a job that would actually lead to such a pain.
Anyway, I took the job. Why? Mainly because of Neil. I liked and trusted him, and I never blamed him for what eventually happened. He was the ultimate witness; I wish I could present his side of things, but he died sometime around the end of the seventies — and by that time I was living in northern California, where I relocated with my son after I sold my first screenplay. I heard it was a heart attack, but I’m not sure.
When Neil and I later worked together producing The Lohman and Barkley Show, a late-night, sketch comedy show that aired on KNBC, the NBC affiliate in Los Angeles, I remember once getting a call from Wally Amos who, before he became “Famous Amos,” the chocolate chip cookie mogul, was a talent agent at William Morris.
He said, “I always love it when my secretary tells me Neil’s on the line.”
“Because he never gives me bad news.”
That was Neil: open-hearted and pathologically optimistic, always taking everything on good faith and convinced that everyone’s motives and intentions, no matter what the evidence to the contrary, were benevolent. There were people, however, who thought he was a cunning bullshit artist — I remember an executive at KNBC who called him “the golden shovel” — but I never felt that way, and I should know because, along with being business partners, we were close friends.
Search online for his name and you will find only his one credit on the Internet Movie Database: associate producer on the television pilot, Gentle Ben. Nothing else about his life can be discovered on the web. Shockingly, it was like he was never here, and that saddens me, but I hope to I can make tangible here a little bit of who he was, especially his sometimes reckless but always scintillating spirit and the pleasure he took in the simple joys of life.
The day I gave my notice to Wolper, Mel Stuart, who produced both The Making of the President and The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, called me into his office. Mel was a bad-tempered man who made snap judgments and remarkably bellicose pronouncements. At the time he was also my boss.
“You’re a smart kid,” he told me with a black stare, trying to restrain his anger. “And you’ve got a bright future in this business. But you don’t belong over there with those assholes at CBS. Mark my words, Kaye, you’re making the biggest fucking mistake of your life.”
That was it. He never asked me to change my mind, nor did he say that I could have my old job back if I did. It was basically, “You’ve been forewarned. You’re a fool. Now get lost.”
The friends I had made at Wolper, and there were several, probably felt the same way, but they were kind enough to wish me good luck. Bill Edgar, the man who originally hired me, once again took me out to lunch at the Cock and Bull, but everything about that meal is hazy except for one moment that, in retrospect, I remember with a peculiar excitement. Sitting next to us at the bar was Robert Conrad, the actor who starred as James T. West in the sci fi/western series, The Wild Wild West, one of the shows I would end up covering as a censor. He was drinking heavily, and at one point the bartender whispered, “I think that’s enough, Bob.”
For a moment Conrad just stared at the bartender, his eyes glazed, trying to ascertain the full meaning and significance of what he’d just heard. Then he slowly turned to me and Bill and said, “That fellow wants to cut me off. What do you think of that?” I remained silent. I had never seen the show and, in the dimness of the bar, I wouldn’t have recognized him if I had. To me he was just another guy drinking away the day. Then he said, “My scenes are done for the week. If I want to get plastered, that’s my business. Right?”
I glanced at Bill, who said, “You’re right, Bob. But maybe you should slow down.”
“Slow down?” Conrad thought about this suggestion for several seconds, his face showing no offense. Then he slowly nodded his head. “Yeah, that’s probably a good idea.” At that moment a distinguished-looking older man entered the Cock and Bull wearing a smart blue suit. With his gaze fixed straight ahead, he walked down to the end of the bar and ordered a drink.
“That guy used to represent me,” Conrad said, pointing with his chin. “When I couldn’t get arrested, he cut me loose. I was small potatoes, then. Now look at me,” he said, as he slowly got to his feet and stumbled drunkenly toward the door. “Fuck this joint. I’m going someplace where I’m welcomed.”
When Conrad disappeared out the door and into the waning afternoon, the bartender glanced at Bill, and then calmly, in an even tone, he said, “The next one’s on me, fellas.”
Shortly before I left Wolper, I overheard a conversation between David Wolper and Ted Strauss, the company’s executive story editor. They were talking about The Bridge at Remagen, a book that Wolper had just optioned, a heroic, real-life adventure that took place during World War II. David Wolper wanted this to be his first feature film, and they were searching for someone to write the screenplay.
Wolper said, “There are two qualifications he must have. He must be a vet, and he has to work for scale.”
Strauss said he had the perfect candidate. “Richard Yates.”
“Never heard of him,” Wolper said.
“He’s a novelist and he’s brilliant. Plus he could use the money. I know him from the old days in New York.”
“Fly him out for a meeting.”
At that time, not many people had heard of Richard Yates or read his work, which had consisted of a collection of short stories, Eleven Kinds of Loneliness, and a novel, Revolutionary Road, which had been published in 1961 to great critical acclaim but meager sales. I had read both of his books and was dazzled by the subdued energy of his prose. Not only were his sentences spare and impeccably shaped, his intuitive powers were startling and filled with extraordinary insight, forcing the reader to empathize with characters who were heroic in their ordinariness. As far as I was concerned, there was no better living writer in America.
When I told Harriet that he might be flying out to meet with David Wolper, she said, “You should introduce yourself.”
“I wouldn’t know what to say.”
“Maybe you could ask him to sign one of your books.”
I never spoke to Richard Yates, nor did he sign any of my books. But I did catch sight of him briefly, walking unrecognized down an upstairs hallway, accompanied by Ted Strauss. He was red-eyed and unshaven, and he was wearing an old raincoat over a grey suit. Although he was tall and quite handsome, he also looked more than a little unsavory, like the seedy and secretive-looking men I would sometimes see drinking alone at downtown bars. As he walked past me, he glanced away from my staring face and seemed to duck his head, as if he was trying to hide himself. In one of his later short stories — I think it was Saying Goodbye To Sally — Yates wrote about his time in Hollywood. As I recall, he made it seem like one long, uninterrupted bender, and it’s quite possible that on the morning I saw him he was already drunk.
“It was eighty degrees out and he was wearing a raincoat,” I told Harriet, when I called her from my office. “That doesn’t seem right.”
“Maybe it was raining in New York when he got on the plane.”
“Or maybe he was sick or something.”
“He didn’t look good.”
“You should’ve introduced yourself.”
But forty-five years later, as I write this, I still treasure that momentary (and unlikely) linkage I had with Richard Yates — he was a genius, of course, and I was then just a pretender — on that sunny spring morning, as I moved headlong into a new chapter in my life. I wanted to be a writer, but now I was going to be a censor, and my imperfect world seemed suddenly small.
I started working at CBS in the spring of 1967, not long after we moved from our apartment into a small, Spanish-style house that we rented near Westwood Village. There were big trees on the front lawn and a swing set in the backyard left by the previous tenants, along with some old record albums in the garage, which we threw out, except for The Shadow of Your Smile by Johnny Mathis. The week after we moved in I remember sharing a joint with Harriet and slow dancing in the dark to “Chances Are,” both of us grinning and happy. Later, in bed, clinging to my back with her pregnant stomach pressed up against my spine, she whispered in my ear:
“You want to know a secret, John?”
“Promise not to tell anyone.”
“Uh huh. I promise.”
“I can see the wind.”
“And you know what else?”
“I can hear the grass dreaming.”
In the long moment of silence that followed I tried to keep my breath regular, but my head was spinning, and I felt a thin current of fear streak through my chest. I can see the wind. I can hear the grass dreaming. What did she mean? Was she serious or putting me on? But before I could ask her, her eyelids were closed and she was already asleep.
That was the first time I knew there was something wrong inside her head.
I was assigned four shows to oversee for CBS: Mannix, The Wild Wild West, Mission Impossible, and Gomer Pyle. The job was hardly time consuming. Reading the scripts was a snap, and in some cases — Mission Impossible — quite enjoyable. But inside I always felt like a morally righteous jerk when I had to ask a producer to tone down a sexual reference (which we both knew was patently innocuous) or warn him that a character’s costume should not be “too racy or libidinal.” Only occasionally would I preview a show — The Wild Wild West caused me the most headaches — and notice a piece of dialogue, usually some particularly coarse double-entendre, that was supposed to be cut and was somehow left in. In those cases I would call Charlie Pettijohn from the screening room and, after a long pained sigh, he would agree to handle it personally.
Like everyone in the department, Charlie knew that my time there was only temporary, and he tried his best to make my job hassle free. If I wanted to work on my screenplay while I was in the office — Charlie like everyone else who passed by my door could hear the lively, repetitive sound of my typewriter — he didn’t seem to care. And if he did, he never said anything. Only once during those first 90 days did he raise concerns about my behavior. This conversation took place after lunch in the men’s room, and I recall that he was swaying on his feet, clearly intoxicated. He said that someone — he wouldn’t say who, but I’m pretty sure it was his secretary — saw me smoking a joint in my car in the employee parking lot.
“You want to smoke that stuff,” he said, “do it off campus.”
“No problem,” I said, and I thanked him for the heads-up.
I wondered how surprised he would have been if he knew that both Neil and I bought our drugs from one of the network pages, a kid named Billy Cummings* who had recently graduated from UCLA with a degree in broadcast journalism. Billy, who had the Nordic good looks of an Alpine skier, went on to have a fine career working first as a news reporter for several local stations before eventually landing a prime-time anchor slot at a major-market station in the northeast. The first time Neil scored coke from Billy, he referred to the drug as “the white lady,” and that became our code for getting high.
I would answer the phone in my office, and Neil would say, “The white lady will be downstairs in ten minutes,” and I would quickly finish up whatever I was doing and meet him in the lobby. From there we would get ripped in his car as we cruised the Sunset Strip, waving at the stoned hippie chicks lined up outside The Trip in their velvet dresses, spare-changing the tourists and planning their psychedelic strategies while they waited to see the Byrds or the Buffalo Springfield. Their faces were pale and radiant, and for everyone who passed by they had a smile or a flower or, sometimes, a hand-assembled object like a beaded necklace or a belt made of bells. Yes, in the summer of 1967 — the “Summer of Love” — everything was groovy, even the smog, which hung over the city like a yellow mist.
Two years later, in the summer of 1969, the summer of Manson, everything had changed. Charlie’s face was on the cover of Life and everywhere you looked you saw his hypnotically crazed eyes. The power of the flower was gone. By then I was done with CBS, Tommy Smothers, and the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, but that’s jumping ahead.
On a Friday, just before my three months were up, I got a call from Neil. He said he was out of the office and told me to meet him for lunch at Nickodell’s, a popular steak-and-martini joint located on Melrose, just a block east of Paramount Studios. When I walked in he was waiting for me at the bar, flanked by a loud drunken man and a pretty but plump script supervisor who worked on the western series Gunsmoke. I remember that her name was either Pam or Peggy, and when Neil introduced us she looked up quickly, measuring me with a kind of predatory intensity.
“Nice to meet you,” she said, leaning forward to shake my hand, and, as my mind reconstructs this moment, I could almost smell the cigarette smoke in her hair and on her breath. “I wish I could have another drink with you fellas, but some of us have work to do.”
After she left the bar, Neil told me that Pam (or Peggy) was married but liked to mess around. “I think she liked you. I can set something up if you want.” I told him that I wasn’t interested. “If you change your mind, let me know.”
“I’ll do that,” I said.
The hostess told us that are table was ready, and once we were seated and ordered drinks, Neil put aside his menu and, after faking a smile, got straight to the point. He said, in a voice that was both apologetic and precise, that my move into program development would take few more months. There was some kind of internal conflict in New York that was causing the delay — “probably the usual bureaucratic bullshit” — but he couldn’t be more specific, because he didn’t know the details. According to Paul King, who had spoken to Neil that morning, the position was still mine, and Neil said that he believed him.
“Paul’s a good guy. He wouldn’t lie to me,” Neil said. “He knows that I recruited you, and if something goes wrong I would end up being responsible.”
Silence descended over the table as I just sat there in a posture of disbelief, trying to contemplate what I’d just heard. When I attempted to weigh my options I realized I didn’t have any — unless I wanted to quit my job, which would hardly make sense, since I would then be left without a salary to support my wife and infant son. Neil sat across from me in a silence of compassion and solidarity. He knew I’d gotten fucked, and I could tell by his miserable expression that he felt almost — almost — as badly as I did. When he finally broke the silence, he wondered out loud if his own job might be in jeopardy; that by putting me on hold the decision-makers at the network might be sending him a signal that his days, too, were numbered.
“Nobody’s said anything. But lately I’ve been feeling kind of ignored,” he said. “To be honest, from the moment I took the gig I never really fit in. That’s why I wanted them to hire you. I knew immediately at the bar that we were on the same wavelength.”
“So what do I do?” I asked him, as I tried to manage my emotions, which were wound inside my chest like a tight spring.
“Nothing. Wait it out.”
“Wait? For how long?”
“I told you, a couple of months. I can’t give you a date.”
When our drinks arrived, Neil finished his in one gulp, and then he sat back in his chair. The way he looked at me, assessing my face with a little smile on his lips, I sensed that there was something else he wanted to tell me, something that would make my life feel less untethered, and I was right. He said that he was working on a couple of side projects — “shit that’s way too hip for the network” — and he wanted my help in the “development process.”
“We’ll be equal partners,” he said, and if he could sell one of them, it would be the ticket out for both of us. He asked me if I was interested, and when I didn’t answer right away he repeated the question, this time a little louder. “Yes or no? Are you interested?”
“Sure,” I said, and I remember looking straight at him, so he knew I was serious. “Of course I’m interested.”
The idea that he was most excited about — the working title was On The Dark Side — was a variety show to be hosted by a black singer, and he said he already had someone in mind, someone who was soulful but who would also have mainstream appeal.
“Who? Jimi Hendrix?”
Neil smiled. “You’re joking, right? Think middle of the road.”
“I love Belafonte,” Neil said, “but he’s politically radioactive.”
“Is he a star?”
“Almost. But he will be, with a show like this.”
Keep in mind that in those days — 1967 — it was still fairly uncommon to see blacks and whites interacting on prime-time television, so to have a weekly program hosted by an African-American would be definitely breaking new ground.
Soulful, mainstream, a potential star? I was drawing a blank. The only black entertainer that I could think of who fit into those categories had died a few years earlier, shot to death in a motel not far from downtown.
“Can’t be Sam Cooke,” I said. “He’s dead.”
Neil was grinning. “That was a helluva guess. What if I told you that our guy is managed by J.W. Alexander, the same guy who managed Sam. You ready? Lou Rawls.”
“What do you think?”
I’d actually seen Lou Rawls perform live back in 1959 at Pandora’s Box, this coffee house on Sunset and Crescent Heights that later became, when the police threatened to close it down in the summer of 1965, the flash point for the Sunset Strip riots. In 1959 it was just a funky jazz club that future stars like Les McCann played on the way up. I can’t honestly say that I was blown away by Lou’s act. If I remember him at all it was only because I saw him later that same evening. He was having a late night snack at Ben Franks, a 24-hour diner that catered to the nocturnally sociable, a group that usually included a miscellany of mostly stoned musicians who were winding down in desultory fashion after club gigs or all-night recording sessions. Lou was sitting in a booth with a group that included drummer Shelly Manne and jazz legend Sonny Rollins, who I had just seen play at the Lighthouse in Redondo Beach.
Neil said, “Lou toured with Sam Cooke when they were in The Pilgrim Travelers, this gospel group that J.W. managed. J.W. knows everyone in the record business.” When I asked Neil how they met, he gave me another one of his smiles, but this time it seemed transparently deceptive. “We have some friends in common.”
“Nobody you’d know.”
Neil made it clear that both J.W. and Lou were excited about the idea. “They’re locked in,” he said, but now he needed the concept fleshed out and presented to an agent, someone who could package and sell it. “We’ll do the brainstorming together, but you’ll be in charge of writing up the final document.”
Looking back, I can now see how important the next three months were in maintaining my mental equilibrium. After learning that I would not be promoted out of Program Practices, I felt especially vulnerable and vengeful, and by concentrating on On The Dark Side, diligently writing and rewriting the sales presentation, along with putting the finishing touches on my original screenplay, I was able to put aside, at least for the short run, any resentment I felt toward those nameless executives at CBS who were impeding my career. More accurately, I felt creatively inspired, and the work — as it always would in the years and decades that followed — kept me in tact.
But not for long. The world is not like that. There are always new surprises.
One afternoon at CBS I received a call from my neighbor across the street, and his voice was painfully urgent. His name was Robert and he worked at Lockheed as an aviation engineer. We’d never spoken until that day, but according to his wife, a meekly superior woman with ruddy cheeks and childish bangs, Harriet had occasionally engaged their six-year-old son in conversation while she wheeled Jesse past their house.
Robert said, “I was sitting in my den this morning, going over some documents before I left for work. I was alone in the house because my wife was driving our son to school. Suddenly, I heard the front door open and close and the sound of footsteps racing through the downstairs. I jumped up and ran out into the foyer, just in time to see your wife dash upstairs, where she tore down the hallway, entering both the master bedroom and my son’s room, doing who knows what, before she once again raced downstairs, through the kitchen, the dining room, and finally back into the foyer, where I was still standing, terrified. She stopped and stared at me for a moment, and then, without saying a word, she walked back outside. I debated whether to call the police, but my wife suggested I first speak to you. As you can imagine, this was a very troubling incident.”
“I can imagine,” I said, and I apologized for Harriet’s intrusion. “I promise it won’t happen again.”
That evening I told Harriet about the phone call and asked her to explain what happened. She told me that Mark, Robert’s son, collected stamps, and she wanted to look at his album. It was just this unexplainable urge she got — an impulse “that kind of flew into my head” — while she was pushing the stroller past his house. She said she was animated by her curiosity and nothing else.
I said, “You just can’t run through someone’s house looking for shit. That’s trespassing. They could’ve had you arrested.”
“I know,” she said vaguely. We were in the kitchen and she turned away from me to pour herself a glass of wine. She was on the verge of getting drunk; she was always on the verge of getting drunk. “Next time I’ll knock.”
I warned her not to go over there again. “If you do, they’ll call the cops.”
Harriet stared at me for a moment then looked away. Something was happening to her — there was a blankness in her expression, a perplexity that I had never seen before — but I had no idea what it was. She was clearly changing, but I didn’t know into who. In bed that night I heard her crying. When I asked her why, she told me that she wanted a stamp collection when she was a little girl but was discouraged by her parents.
“They said it was the kind of hobby that was more suitable for boys. What a stupid thing to say. We would never say anything like that to Jesse,” she said. “Would we?”
“Of course not.”
“He shouldn’t mind what other people think,” she said, as I brushed the tears away from her cheeks, and for a moment everything in the bedroom was quiet and still. “He should just be himself. That’s all.”
Right now, as I read this over, I can vividly recall the devouring fear I experienced that night. That Harriet would be compelled to leave Jesse alone in his stroller while she ransacked a neighbor’s house was not only frightening, but impossible to understand. Lying awake, staring at the ceiling, I knew I had to recognize the haunting possibility that she might be mentally ill, but to embrace that thought made me feel more isolated than I already felt.
Two weeks later, while she was out picking up a pizza, Harriet was arrested for driving drunk. An additional charge of resisting arrest was added when she threw the pizza at the cop and tried to drive off. I had no idea where she was until the following morning, when she was sober enough to make a phone call.
“I really fucked up bad,” she said. “Will you come get me?”
I called Charlie Pettijohn and told him that I wouldn’t be in until later that afternoon. Then I called Neil, who said that he would arrange for a lawyer to meet me at the jail. “What’s her bail?”
“Do you have it?”
“I’m gonna get it from my parents.”
“The lawyer’s gonna cost you another five hundred,” he told me, “but it will save you a lot of hassle. What about Jesse?”
“He’s fine. My mom’s coming over to get him. He’ll stay with my folks for a few days, until things calm down.”
But things didn’t calm down. They got worse. A few weeks later Harriet swallowed two dozen sleeping pills and was rushed to the emergency room at the UCLA Medical Center. After her stomach was pumped, she was put on a 72-hour psych hold and transferred to the neuropsychiatric ward. There she was diagnosed as “possibly” a paranoid-schizophrenic, and the psychiatrist who treated her said, based on their discussions, that she might also be an alcoholic.
“After only three days,” he said, “it’s hard to come to a conclusive diagnosis.”
“She said she could see the wind,” I said, and he looked at me, his face grim, sensing my desperation. “What does that mean?”
“I don’t know. She could be hallucinating. Or maybe she’s just in some private wonderland. It’s hard to say.”
“What should I do?”
“Be supportive. Try to encourage her to attend A.A. meetings.”
“Is that it? What if something else happens?” I said, and I swiftly recounted the strange sequence of events that occurred over the last month: incidents where, alone with our son, Harriet had acted totally out of control or drank herself into a stupor. “Maybe she should stay here longer.”
“I suggested that,” he said, “but she refused. She wants to go home.” He said that he’d also spoken by telephone to Harriet’s parents in Harrisburg, and her father, after conferring with my dad, had agreed to split the cost for any on-going therapy. The psychiatrist handed me a sheet of paper with a list of names. “Any of these guys are first rate. The name I circled” — Marvin Berman* — “would be my top choice.”
Looking back through time, as I try to recapture this conversation in the lobby of the UCLA Medical Center, the final moments are frozen in my memory: While I’m shaking hands with the pot-bellied psychiatrist, the elevator opens and Harriet, with a sudden convulsive movement, steps into the sun-struck lobby, accompanied by a white-coated orderly, a skeletal black man who looks almost as tense and skittish as she does. As they move closer I can see that her clothes are wrinkled, her hair is matted, and there is a clammy pallor to her skin. To anyone seeing her it would be obvious that, lurking behind her dark-browed eyes is a troubled mind.
When she is standing next to me, Harriet introduces me to the orderly, whose name — Aaron — is the same as my late uncle. He hands me a bag filled with her belongings and wishes Harriet good luck in a deep reassuring voice, before heading back upstairs.
“Aaron said I should read the Bible. He said it would calm me down,” Harriet told her psychiatrist, and then she started to giggle. “When I said I didn’t believe in religion, I could tell he was upset. Actually, I do believe in religion, just not his.” Her shrink smiled and then tried to formalize his face into a professional expression of compassion. He said that he’d given me names of doctors to call if she decided to go into therapy, which he recommended. Harriet said that “just being off the nut ward makes me feel a lot better,” and then she turned her face to me for first time that morning. “Where’s Jesse?”
“With my folks,” I said anxiously.
“Let’s go get him and bring him home. And stop looking at me like that,” she said, moving forward until her blotched face was inches from mine. Then she opened her mouth and kissed me softly on the lips. “I’m going to be fine.”
(End of Part 2. Although the names of a few people (*) in this essay have been changed to protect their privacy, most have remained intact; conversations have been reconstructed and certain moments condensed. Stay tuned next Sunday for the final part of “Smothered.”)