The inexhaustible Teachout on Monday had a few notes about silent movies, and how they don’t speak to him. One of those instances of art that’s lost its language, even though the genre remains. Me, I love the stuff, but I understand the impatience, and sometimes I find myself enjoying the films not as a drama or comedy but an unintentional documentary. What suburban street is that? Is that sapling now a towering oak? Who belongs to those ghostly faces that slide past in the streetcar, and what became of them? Is everything in this image of a city street now gone? Surely inside those windows were men and women going about their lives, chewing on a pencil, digesting a sandwich, worried about a lump or a lover, wishing the person on the phone would shut up so they could use the lav.
It’s like getting a satellite photo of ancient Rome–it would tell us so much, but it would leave out 99 percent of what we really want to know.
But that one percent still tantalizes and teaches, doesn’t it? If nothing else, it tells you what people found funny or sad or shocking….
I think about such things all the time when watching old movies, with or without sound. Even when they’re not especially artful–perhaps especially when they’re not–they are through-a-glass-darkly windows on the past. Every film shot on location, whether in whole or in part, is a home movie in which bits and pieces of history are embedded, and I find myself growing increasingly fascinated by these snippets of lost time. I can’t watch North by Northwest, for instance, without thinking about how Grand Central Station has (and hasn’t) changed, or how the Plaza Hotel will never be again as it was.
This is, I suspect, as much a function of my increasing age as anything else. Just the other day, for instance, Backstage Books sent me a copy of the newly revised and updated edition of James Gavin’s Intimate Nights: The Golden Age of New York Cabaret. (It’ll be out May 31.) The earlier edition was one of my favorite books, but I found this version even more interesting, in part because it’s the first time I’ve read a work of history in which someone I used to know well figures prominently. That sort of thing doesn’t start happening to you until you’ve achieved a certain degree of seniority, and I’m there.
The person I knew was, of course, Nancy LaMott, whose all-too-brief reign as the shooting star of cabaret in Manhattan began a few years after the publication in 1991 of Intimate Nights. Alas, I missed out on the scuffling that Nancy endured so bravely and Gavin describes so vividly. I didn’t meet her until the spring of 1994, by which time she was already singing at Tavern on the Green and the Oak Room of the Algonquin Hotel. I entered her life just in time for us to become close friends, though, and our friendship endured until her death in December of 1995, a few weeks after the release of her last studio album, Listen to My Heart.
I’ve written about Nancy more than once, both on this blog and in a 1996 essay collected in A Terry Teachout Reader. So far as I know, Intimate Nights is the only other book in which Nancy is mentioned, and it was a strange, almost disorienting sensation to read about her in someone else’s words:
Nancy LaMott seemed like such a delicate bird that one wondered when she might break. A waiflike, all-American blonde, she sang with the earnestness of a lovestruck teenager who was smiling through tears. People wanted to take her in their arms and protect her–especially when they learned that her struggle for recognition coincided with her fight against Crohn’s disease, an intestinal disorder with horribly debilitating side effects. It had struck her in her teens, and would take her life in 1995, when she was forty-three. By then she had recorded six CDs, sung at the White House, and appeared on Regis & Kathie Lee. All this, through her no-frills singing of standards. In LaMott’s [New York] Times obituary, Stephen Holden would remember her as “a singularly unaffected voice…in a field typified by showy histrionics.”
All true, though I never thought of her as “delicate,” perhaps because we shared so many meals. (She knew her way around a kitchen.) Nancy was much tougher than she looked. Still, Gavin has gotten her right in every other particular, which is hugely important, since his revised version of Intimate Nights, which ends in 2005, will undoubtedly replace the first edition as the standard history of cabaret in New York.
It is, as I say, exceedingly strange to read about an old friend in the kind of book that can properly be described as a “standard history,” if only because no book, however detailed, can tell the whole story of a human being. History, like biography, is an attempt to tell that which can only be remembered. I know a great deal more about Nancy than you’ll find in Intimate Nights, including certain things you won’t read in anything I’ve written about her. I might share them with a biographer someday, or I might not. I just watched a PBS documentary about John Ford and John Wayne, who once made a film together in which one of the characters famously declares that “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” I wouldn’t go that far–I am, after all, a serial biographer myself–but I don’t think the public has an absolute right to know everything about anyone, no matter who they were or how important they might have been.
Be that as it may, I’m glad that James Gavin did such a good job of sketching Nancy’s essential character, though it goes without saying that I don’t need to read about my old friend in order to bring her immediately to mind. Stephen Sondheim wrote a song about the persistence of memory called, appropriately enough, “Not a Day Goes By.” Nancy recorded it a couple of years before she died, and I listen to her performance from time to time, trying whenever I do to imagine all the years of friendship her death stole from me:
As the days go by,
I keep thinking, “When does it end?
Where’s the day I’ll have started forgetting?”
But I just go on
Thinking and sweating
And cursing and crying
And turning and reaching
And waking and dying
Not a day goes by,
Not a blessed day
But you’re still somewhere part of my life
And you won’t go away.
I’m old enough now to know how true that is.