When John Kaye sent this report it made me realize that two of my great literary touchstones — Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Tristram Shandy — have much more in common than I had ever noticed. They are both colossal failures of mission, spectacular performances of the art of being sidetracked, of being shanghaied by errant attention, or, perhaps, perfect examples of the way art is, at its best, a perversion, a turning away from more straightforward intentions. This piece was commissioned elsewhere to be a brief reminiscence of a weekend in New Orleans. We prefer this Shandean, heavyweight version.
— Tom Lutz
A MISSION OF CONSIDERABLE IMPORTANCE
HUNTER AND INGA: 1978
THE THIRD (AND LAST) TIME I went to New Orleans was in September of 1978. I was living in Marin County, and I took the red-eye out of San Francisco, flying on a first-class ticket paid for by Universal Pictures, the studio that was financing the movie I was contracted to write. The story was to be loosely based on an article written by Hunter Thompson that had been recently published in Rolling Stone magazine. Titled “The Banshee Screams for Buffalo Meat,” the 30,000-word piece detailed many of the (supposedly) true-life adventures Hunter had experienced with Oscar Zeta Acosta, the radical Chicano lawyer who he’d earlier canonized inFear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
Hunter and I were in New Orleans to attend the hugely anticipated rematch between Muhammad Ali and Leon Spinks, the former Olympic champion who, after only seven fights, had defeated Ali in February. The plan was to meet up at the Fairmont, a once-elegant hotel that was located in the center of the business district and within walking distance of the historic French Quarter. Although Hunter was not in his room when I arrived, he’d instructed the hotel management to watch for me and make sure I was treated with great respect.
“I was told by Mister Thompson to mark you down as a VIP, that you were on a mission of considerable importance,” said Inga, the head of guest services, as we rode the elevator up to my floor. “Since he was dressed quite eccentrically, in shorts and a Hawaiian shirt, I assumed he was pulling my leg. The bellman who fetched his bags said he was a famous writer. Are you a writer also?” I told her I wrote movies. “Are you famous?”
“Do you have any cocaine?”
I stared at her. Her smile was odd, both reassuring and intensely hopeful. In the cartoon balloon I saw over her head were the words: I’m yours if you do. “Yes, I do.”
“That is good.”
Inga called the hotel manager from my room and told him, in a voice edged with professional disappointment, that she was leaving early because of a “personal matter.” After she hung up, she dialed room service and handed me the phone. She directed me to order two dozen oysters, a fifth of tequila, and two Caesar salads. Then, with a total absence of modesty, she quickly stripped off her clothes, walked into the bathroom, and a moment later I heard the water running in the shower.
I took a seat on the edge of the bed and glanced around the room. My bag, still packed, was sitting on the luggage rack next to the dresser. Inside my leather Dopp kit were four grams of Peruvian flake that would soon be chopped into long thick lines on the coffee table’s glass top. It was now 11 o’clock in the morning. I had been in New Orleans for less than an hour.
Later on I found out that Inga – she was in her mid-thirties, a native of Sweden, and extraordinarily attractive – had already experienced a carnal moment with Hunter shortly before my plane touched down.
“Does that bother you?”
“I don’t know,” I replied. Three hours had passed. We were now lying in bed, coming down from the coke. “Kind of.”
“That’s why I took a shower. To make myself all fresh.”
“As a rule, I never get involved with a guest,” Inga said. “And now, twice in one day. This is quite unusual.” Inga told me that after she’d graduated from the University of Stockholm in 1968, she’d been granted a two-year visa to study hotel management at Cornell. The summer before her visa expired, she married Felipe, a cook who worked in the kitchen at the Plaza Hotel. “I was employed as a secretary, working for the general manager. Felipe was from Brazil and a U.S. citizen, and he was very romantic. We used to have sex in unoccupied rooms during our breaks. When you’re young and in love, you take chances. What I’ve done today is rather stupid. I could easily be fired if anyone found out.”
“So your marriage didn’t work out.”
Inga laughed. “No we’re still together. Felipe’s a chef at Brennan’s in the Quarter.”
AT THE FIGHTS: PART ONE
I should mention here that I inherited my love of boxing from my father. When he lived in Manhattan, he palled around with a Broadway crowd that included writer Damon Runyon, and he and Runyon, along with gangster Owney Madden, attended the famous Jack Dempsey-Luis Firpo brawl at the Polo Grounds in 1923. Considered by many to be the most thrilling (and controversial) heavyweight prize fight in history, there were a total of 10 knockdowns before Dempsey finally prevailed, the end coming in the third round but not before Dempsey had been knocked out of the ring.
“He should’ve been counted out,” my father told me, “but the ref gave him a break.” As a boxing aficionado, my father appreciated Muhammad Ali’s skill, and he was entertained by his brashness, but he was convinced that he would’ve been no match for Dempsey in his prime. Or Joe Louis. And no matter how many times I corrected him, he still referred to Ali as Cassius Clay.
I’d say, “But that’s not his name.”
And he’d say, “It is to me.”
I’d say, “He changed it.”
And he’d say, “Stop bothering me, Johnny.”
It also annoyed me when he referred to black people as “colored.”
I’d say, “Dad, call them black.”
And my mom would say, “Leave your dad alone.”
I’d say, “Watch the news. Nobody calls them colored. They’d get fired.”
And my dad, a Republican, would say (in 1974, around the time of Watergate), “Walter Cronkite hates Nixon.”
I’d say, “What does that have to do with black people?”
And my mom would say, “How come your brother never comes by and visits?”
And then my father would say, “Cassius Clay should’ve joined the Army. I served. You served. So did your brother.”
“In the reserves. Not in Vietnam.”
“But if you were called up, you would have fought for your country.”
Would I? Probably. I know my brother would have. Still, I was a glad it was a choice I didn’t have to make. Also, as long I’m talking about my brother, especially in a piece that partially pertains to boxing, I should mention that Mike was a legendary street fighter on the Westside of Los Angeles during the latter part of the 1950s. Not only was he skilled with his fists, he was wholly fearless. In Marine boot camp, he knocked out the battalion’s reigning light-heavyweight champion, and when I followed him into the Corps a year later, I was stuck being the younger brother of a legend. Unfortunately, when I was offered the chance to fight and refused, my drill instructors were infuriated, and to punish me — not that 12 weeks of boot camp wasn’t punishment enough — they instigated a couple of scraps with other recruits in my platoon. Satisfied that I would display the requisite amount of courage to defend myself, they even stopped calling me by the nickname they’d hung on me: Jew-College-Pussy! After that I was “maggot” like everyone else, except for the black recruits, who were sometimes referred to as “Rainclouds.”
The second time I visited New Orleans was in July of 1977. Because my son was attending a summer camp in the Trinity Alps, and I had just closed a deal with Paramount Pictures to write a screenplay based on the life of New York DJ Alan Freed, I had some money burning a hole in my pocket and more time on my hands than usual. In those days my regular hangout was the No Name Bar in Sausalito, a gathering place for musicians, writers, and assorted local eccentrics like Zen philosopher Alan Watts and actor Sterling Hayden, both of whom had lived on nearby houseboats.
I was there on a Friday night, semi-drunk, sitting at the bar, when a woman walked through the door and looked in my direction. When I looked back at her, she cocked her head and smiled, and I smiled back. She appeared to be around 30, slim, with vivid blue eyes that gave her an air of assertiveness, of determination. She was also nearly bald, her hair shaved to a black stubble.
Her name was Tanya and, as I discovered an hour later, after she went to the pay phone and booked our midnight flight to New Orleans, she worked as a stewardess for TWA. She was based in New York but owned a small home in Muir Beach, a quiet town tucked into a cove just a few miles north of Mill Valley. She told me, once I’d introduced myself, that she’d dropped into the No Name for a drink on her way back from SFO. The beginning of the conversation went something like this:
ME: Where were you?
TANYA: Rome, Beirut, and London.
ME: That’s a lot of traveling.
TANYA: It’s part of my job.
ME: You must have an exciting job.
TANYA: It can be. What about you?
ME: I write movies.
TANYA: So what are you doing here? You should be in Hollywood.
I gave her a brief summary of my current circumstances, and when I mentioned that I lived with my son, she asked about my wife. I said that she was mentally ill, a diagnosed schizophrenic with paranoid delusions, and that she rarely saw Jesse, spending much of her time either in hospitals or, when she drank too much, in jail. Tanya asked me if I still loved her, and I remember becoming inarticulate for several seconds, unprepared for the question and the intensity of the feelings that it provoked. I told her that I loved Harriet but not in the same way I once did, when we were both young and before she got sick. She wasn’t the same person, I told her. Now that we were divorced, the most important thing was to make sure that Jesse felt safe.
When I said that, I remember Tanya looking at me with great interest and even greater affection. And, after a short silence, the conversation continued:
TANYA: So, what now?
ME: What do you mean?
TANYA: Tonight. Where do we go from here?
ME: I don’t know.
TANYA: “I don’t know?” You’re a writer and that’s the best you can do?
ME: I’ll come up with something. First, let’s have a drink.
TANYA: No. You’re already sloshed. And don’t suggest going back to your house. I have to know you longer than an hour to mess around. Other than that, I’m game for anything.
A five second pause, then:
ME: Let’s fly to New Orleans.
Tanya asked me if I was serious, and when I said I was, she seemed to study my face with a new curiosity, though there was a trace of challenge in the wry little smile that slowly took over her mouth. Then, very casually, she slipped off her stool and walked back through the bar to the pay phone by the rest rooms. Was my proposal that we fly to New Orleans made half-jokingly and as an inebriated effort to avoid embarrassment and sound alive to the possibility of adventure? Absolutely. And even before I said it, I knew – well, assumed – that because Tanya had just driven back from the airport (after flying halfway around the globe), the idea of more air travel, no matter how much I exerted myself to persuade her, would be disqualified.
I was wrong.
Moments later Tanya returned to her seat at the bar and informed me, with a fixed stare, that we were booked on a midnight flight to New Orleans. She told me to go back to my place and pack and she would pick me up in an hour. I must have been grinning, because I remember her telling me “to wipe that silly smile off your face and get moving.” I gave her my address and in precisely one hour – by then I had already scored three grams of cocaine – she knocked on my door. I told her the blow was to sober up, but she knew I was lying, and when I offered her a line she declined.
At that moment, standing inside my living room, watching me diligently chop down the coke with her mouth set in a thin line, was Tanya having second thoughts and looking for a way to back out of our hastily arranged trip? She told me later that in the bar she thought we had something unspoken that united us, a secret alliance, and she was distressed by confronting someone whose whole personality now seemed quite different.
“Yes, it was a severe shock to see you so consumed by drugs and alcohol. But no,” she said, “I never thought of backing out. If you didn’t shape up, the flight was free, and I would still get to spend a weekend in New Orleans.”
On the way to the airport, Tanya seemed to be driving very fast, with a kind of impatient assurance, occasionally glancing over at me as I tried to make small talk. The problem was I was stoned and didn’t make much sense, and when I lit a cigarette Tanya noticed that my hands were shaking. She asked me if I was all right, and when I told her I wanted to get high, she looked at me intently, regretfully. But when she spoke there was no malice in her voice, only resignation.
“You’re three times seven, John. You can do what you want.”
We didn’t speak again until we arrived at the San Francisco airport. And that’s when Tanya asked me if I was planning to bring my drugs on to the plane. When I said I was, she looked at me with an expression of incredulous annoyance. She told me that if I got arrested, not to expect her to bail me out.
“You’re on your own,” she said.
I made it through the check-in procedure without being searched, and by the time we reached the gate it was time to board. Although we were flying on Delta and not TWA, Tanya knew the pilot and two flight attendants from previous layovers, and she spoke to them briefly before she found our row. Still standing in the aisle – I had already taken the seat by the window – she told me there were going to be empty seats on the flight and wondered if she should sit in a row by herself. I remember feeling a soft shock of surprise, and when I asked her why, she contemplated my face with a kind of weary dismay, before she said:
“Because you make me nervous.”
She told me later that she was amazed by my reckless behavior and profoundly concerned. She said, “You had this idiotic smile on your face that drunk people get. I was afraid that you might freak out or something.”
“I can understand that. I was pretty out there.”
“No,” Tanya said. “You were a mess, John. But I decided to give you another chance.” She told me to get up, that she wanted to sit by the window, and she warned me in a stern voice not to bother her. Then, as the plane began to taxi down the runway, she curled up in her seat, facing away from me with her nearly-bald head resting on a pillow, and before we were even in the air she was asleep.
With an addict’s single-mindedness, I snorted cocaine throughout the flight, making multiple trips to the bathroom while Tanya and the rest of the passengers (except a mother holding a squalling baby) slept. Once as I was returning to my seat, I caught the eye of a stewardess who stared at me accusingly, as if she knew I was holding and found my drug-induced merriment unseemly. For several minutes I sat rigidly in my seat, at the edge of panic, entertaining the not-so-paranoid possibility that she would inform the pilot, who would then radio ahead and – as Tanya predicted – arrange for my arrest as soon as we landed.
Two or three times Tanya woke up and glanced at my bleary face with a truculent expression, before she turned away. In those brief moments I could feel the raw force of her disappointment and disgust, and I shudder now as I remember saying to myself, against all logic:Don’t worry, John, you can pull it together. Once you get to New Orleans, everything will be fine.
I don’t remember much else until we landed and I followed Tanya off the plane, bracing myself for her indignation and scorn. But she just moved hurriedly ahead without speaking, and I felt a curious hopefulness as I tried to keep up with her, my eyes fixed on the back of her stubbled head. I wanted to say something to her, something funny or ironic to break the ice, but I was smart enough to know – after she cast a quick look over her shoulder, and I saw her face filled with a mounting contempt – that the best course of action was to remain silent. When we reached the Avis counter, and I broke out my credit card, she said:
“You can rent the car, but I’m going to drive.”
“I know the city, Tanya. You don’t.”
She told me to “shut up,” and the rental clerk, instead of looking at my grinning face with some kind of male sympathy or brotherly regard, just shook his head. To him I looked like what I was: a disheveled, sweating, stoned creature who was unworthy of his sympathy, let alone his camaraderie. The question he seemed to be asking himself as he handed Tanya the keys and looked me up down was: How did a gorgeous chick like you end up with this loser?
From the stewardess on the flight, Tanya was given the name of a boutique hotel in the French Quarter that was supposed to be fashionably hip but reasonably priced, and she was somehow able to get us there without my help. I don’t recall the name, but I know it was on Royal Street, just a few blocks from the apartment on St. Philip that I rented in 1963. We checked in and rode the elevator up to our room in silence. I opened the door, we stepped inside, put our carry-on bags on the floor, and I remained standing, both confused and apprehensive, as Tanya went into the bathroom and shut the door.
We had not spoken more than a few sentences since we boarded the airplane in San Francisco, and when Tanya stepped out of the bathroom, I expected to be subjected to a tongue-lashing. But the dangerous moment that I anticipated didn’t arrive. Instead, all the volatileness had vanished and, in a deliberately calm tone, she told me she was going for a walk and would return in a few hours. She said that if I was determined to screw things up, that was up to me, but on practical grounds it would then make no sense for her to stick around.
She said, “So here’s the deal. First give me the rest of cocaine. Next I want you to take a bath and get cleaned up. You smell awful. Then I want you to order breakfast from room service. When you’re done, I want you to try and take a nap. If you can’t nap, read or watch television, but do not order up any alcohol. And don’t leave the room. If you’re sufficiently recovered by the time I return, we’ll have a conversation about what to do next.”
Facing me, she held out her hand, and I dropped the vial of cocaine into her outstretched palm. She then said that she sometimes trusted people too much, and that maybe she was wrong and there was no future here, that our spontaneous attraction, without any preliminary doubts, was as inevitable as our ultimate unraveling. She didn’t know. But right now she felt lonely and dazed and needed to be alone.
Then she picked up her purse and walked out the door.
Three hours later, when Tanya returned to the room, I was asleep, and the leftovers from the room service breakfast — steak and eggs, a toasted bagel, a pot of coffee, and several glasses of tomato juice — were on a rolling cart by the door. From far off she heard a church bell, and she remembered opening the window and watching a funeral procession moving slowly up the street outside the hotel, led by a Dixieland jazz band, the strains of music sounding both dirgelike and celebratory. After the parade passed, she said she felt a twinge of hopeful excitement, and as she looked around the room, deciding what to do next, in her head she heard a voice say, distinctly: Don’t leave.
When I woke up, Tanya was lying next to me in bed. When I took her hand, she squeezed my fingers and asked me how I felt. I said I almost felt back to normal. She said that “almost” wasn’t good enough, not if I wanted to fuck her.
She said, “Let me know when you’re a hundred percent.”
“I will,” I said.
And I did.
AT THE FIGHTS: PART TWO
In the spring of 1971, I was co-producing and writing a 90-minute, live, late-night television show on KNBC, the local NBC affiliate in Los Angeles. A precursor to Saturday Night Live, this satirical program was hosted by Al Lohman and Roger Barkley, two extremely popular and sweet-natured (when sober) morning disc jockeys. The writers and sketch performers we hired had never worked on television, and among the long list of people who got their start on the show were Barry Levinson, Craig T. Nelson, and John Amos. Amos, who later appeared in Rootsand as a regular cast member on the Norman Lear sitcom Good Times, was an ex-pro football player and a huge boxing fan, and he idolized Muhammad Ali.
Johnny and I became close friends, and when the first Ali-Frazier fight rolled around – this was only Ali’s second fight since he was unjustly stripped of his title and denied a license for refusing to be drafted into the military – we made plans to go together. Because the Fox Wilshire theater was located in the heart of Beverly Hills, the seats around us were filled with a glittering dazzle of industry movers and shakers, laughing and talking at the tops of their voices. Along with big-time producers and studio executives – none of whom I knew, but whose names I recognized from the trades – I spotted actors Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson seated in our row. Sitting next to them were two beautiful young women in see-through blouses and skin-tight bell-bottom jeans, their eyes a little frantic as they tried to project an air of remote amusement.
The fight, while exciting and hard-fought, did not quite live up to its inescapable hype. The crowd in the theater was clearly for Ali, but as the rounds passed with Frazier methodically and dogmatically gaining command, their confident anticipation of an Ali victory began to dissipate. If he lost, it would be his first, and the thought, once impossible to imagine – his mastery in the ring was so complete – now became a real possibility. Johnny, his vocal support of Ali beginning to wither, became unnervingly dispirited, and at one point, around the 12th round, he even suggested that we leave. “No way,” I told him. “All it takes is one punch.”
“He ain’t gonna win, pal. It’s over.”
Johnny was right, but there was a moment, in either that round or the next, when Ali seemed to rally, the speed and potency of his punches unexpectedly reappearing. In the theater there was a sea of noise, and I remember that after one brutal exchange Johnny suddenly jumped to his feet, his voice rising above the crowd, as he screamed, “ICE THE MOTHERFUCKER! ICE THE MOTHERFUCKER!”
Comedians Milton Berle and Buddy Hackett were seated in front of us. When they turned and looked up at Johnny’s face — a face that was black and menacing — their expressions went from sympathy to incomprehension to almost pure terror. The change was swift and almost imperceptible. Unlike Bill Cosby and Sidney Poitier, both fervent supporters of Ali who were also in attendance, basking in the infatuated glances of their fans, they mistakenly saw in John Amos a man who represented danger and assault: a genuine nihilism. At least that’s the way it seemed to me.
In the 14th round, when Ali was knocked down for the first time in his career, the silence in the theater was clear and startling. Ali survived that round and the 15th, but we left before the decision was announced. On the ride back to his house Johnny was utterly miserable, his mood plummeting into an abysmal despair. I tried to cheer him up by talking about our upcoming show and a sketch I was working on, but he remained silent, inconsolable, and I worried that the bond between us had become strained. Then, suddenly, he looked over at me and burst out laughing.
“Did you see Uncle Miltie’s face?” he said, almost doubled over. “Man, when I went off, his eyes got all big and he looked at me like I was Nat Turner or something. Fuck Ali! He fought his ass off. He’ll be back.”
A few weeks after the first Ali-Frazier fight, I was fired from the Lohman and Barkley Show, but Johnny and I kept in touch, and when I relocated to Mill Valley he occasionally came up to visit with his wife and kids. In our reminiscences, we would always return to that night at the Fox Wilshire theater, and how he’d freaked out Uncle Miltie. But I never told him about the conversation I’d had with my father when I called him the following day. He and my brother were also at the theater, seated a few rows behind us.
After we chatted about the fight for a few minutes, he said, “Is that colored fella a friend of yours?”
“You mean the black guy I was sitting with.”
“You know who I’m talking about.”
“John Amos. He’s on the show. Don’t you watch?”
“It’s on too late.”
“Johnny’s a talented actor.”
“That’s what your brother said.”
“Maybe I’ll bring him by the house.”
“Not when your mother’s home,” my father said. “He might scare her.”
Later that year, when Johnny became a semi-regular on the Mary Tyler Moore Show – he played the weatherman, Gordy Howard – my father, uncharacteristically, said he wanted to meet him. When I repeated what he’d told me after the fight, he just shrugged it off, saying he was just kidding around.
“Bring him by,” he said. “It would give your mother a thrill.”
I told him I’d think about it, but, in the end, I resisted the offer.