Unidentified Companion

I had a sudden impulse to go back to live in New York in the West Village, the neighborhood of my young manhood, when I turned sixty and my book New York in the Fifties was published.  A friend who doubted the wisdom of my move said “You were seduced by your own book.” Maybe so, but I’ve been seduced by worse (books, women, movie script deals.)

NY in the 50s

I had the great good fortune to become a client of the literary agent Lynn Nesbit, who publisher Sam Lawrence called “the best in America.” Nesbit represented people like Michael Crichton, Anne Rice, Jimmy Carter, and Madonna, but always tended to a small band of stragglers and strugglers, a classification to which I had sunk after my fifteen seconds of fame. The Vanity Fair writer Lili Anolik described me in Hollywood’s Eve in 1971 as “a big-time journalist” whose first novel Going All The Way was “a commercial and critical smash the year before, in 1970. He was riding high.”

But now it’s 1992 and my last bestseller was 1973 and I’m living in The Village again and lucky to become a client of Lynn Nesbit. She has just got me a good book contract and calls to ask “Are you doing anything Thursday night?” I had only got settled in my new pad and hadn’t even reconnected with old friends yet. I was free. 

Lynn said she had a woman friend who had just had a bad breakup with a man and needed to get out of the house and meet people. She told her friend she just needed to go out – it didn’t have to be anything romantic, just see some men and get out of the house, have a good time. Lynn would take me and this woman and one of her other men writers to dinner at Elio’s, the in-spot on the upper East Side where she had a table. The woman friend who needed to get out of the house was Mia Farrow, who had just had the famously bad breakup with Woody Allen –oh, yeah, I’d heard about that, since it was covered in every newspaper in the known world and every media outlet in recent weeks. If you didn’t know about that breakup you were deaf, dumb and blind and being water-boarded at Guantanamo.

I knew the other writer Lynn brought, who I’ll call Nick, and we sat around Lynn’s table in a private nook at Elio’s. Mia looked just like Mia, and was pleasant, intelligent, low-key, witty and charming. It was chilly that night and after dinner the four of us went outside and said our goodnights, preparing to go our ways – me and the other writer downtown, Lynn and Mia uptown. I thanked Lynn and told Mia it was a pleasure meeting her, which it was, and to my astonishment, she leaned over and whispered in my ear “Why don’t you give me a call?” 

“What am I supposed to do?” I asked Nick as we shared a cab back to the Village.

He shrugged,

“Call her, I guess,” he said.

Instead, I called Lynn the next morning. 

“What am I supposed to do?” I asked.

“Take her to dinner. Here is her number, call between 4 and 6 in the afternoon, the kids won’t be there.”

I knew better than to ask Lynn where I should take Mia Farrow to dinner. No doubt Madonna or Jimmy Carter was on her other line. I had my orders and I was to follow them to the best of my ability.  All I could think to do was to take Mia to dinner at one of the same places I would take any other first date to dinner.  It would be someplace in the Village. That’s where I lived – and had lived before – and I knew the terrain. Mia gave me her address and I met the many kids en masse (one of them had to be a little boy name Ronan, who is now (2020) the best-selling journalist/author of Catch and Kill, the first bestselling book blast of the Me-Too movement ( Ronan Farrow’s agent is – you guessed it Lynn Nesbit.)

There was a very nice small, unobtrusive, inexpensive French restaurant near where I lived on West Street, and that’s where I took Mia. I knew the chef-owner from previous visits, and he was obliging as usual, and made no big deal about Mia. No one else did either, although there was a young couple one empty table away from us on our right, who kept glancing over and smiling at us (or her.) No one bothered us, no one asked Mia for an autograph. Everyone pretended she was just another person, who was having dinner with some sixty-year old guy who was wearing his one sport jacket (maybe some distant cousin or Uncle Bunk from Indiana.)      

My entire mental energy was focused on NOT saying the word “Woody.” Mia said the word. I will leave it up to the reader to imagine the tone in which those two syllables were uttered. Nuff said. Otherwise our conversation was much like the one when we had dinner with Lynn and Nick books, movie, politics.

I took her home, said goodnight, and returned to my studio to flop on my bed and recover from th exhaustion of not saying the word “Woody” all night. The next morning I was awakened by a jangling phone (we are still in the Year of Our Lord 1992) and a friend said “Have you seen Page Six of The New York Post?) I had not, and wondered why I should. My friend said Page Six was the Post gossip column, and before I could inquire further he hung up. Off to the nearest newsstand on Seventh Avenue, I picked up the Post and read the following item:

“Mia Farrow was seen last night at the XX French restaurant in The Village, with an unidentified companion.”          
I had the title for whenever I wrote my life story: Unidentified Companion


The Adventures of Uncle Dan will continue with Episode III:  I introduce Mia Farrow, a former wife of Frank Sinatra, to the author of the prize-winning Esquire magazine article: “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold.”       

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Dorothy Day: The One-Woman Revolution

I was introduced to a quietly imposing woman without makeup who wore her grey hair in a braid around her head, like a peasant or one of those strong Midwestern farm women painted by Grant Wood, or portrayed by Willa Cather in O Pioneers. She was Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker newspaper and guiding spirit of the movement of the same name. Dorothy greeted me politely, reservedly and rather sternly. and let me see a copy of the first issue of The Catholic Worker newspaper, which sold for a penny, and was published on May Day of 1933, in the depths of the Great Depression. When I read the first editorial, one that she wrote, I had to sit down and copy it into my notebook. It said the paper would not be restricted to the people of of any one religion or political belief, any one color of skin or cut of clothes, but that it was   

“For those who are sitting on benches in he warm spring sunlight.
“For those who are huddling in shelters trying to escape the rain.
“For those who are walking the streets in the all but futile search for work
“For those who think there is no hope for the future, no recognition of their plight.”

I felt a tinge from the power of the words and of the woman who wrote them. When I looked up, she was gone.

The Catholic Worker had a “Hospitality House” in the Bowery – unlike the “Mission Houses” in the Bower – the section of Manhattan where the winos and derelicts gathered – you didn’t have to declare yourself “saved by Jesus” to get fed. You didn’t have to sing a hymn. All you had to do was be hungry.

I wrote about Dorothy Day and The Catholic Worker in my second article published in The Nation magazine (“Miracle in the Bowery”) and I got to be friends with some of the young volunteers who had come from all across the country to live and work there – Michael Harrington, who went on to write The Other America that inspired the LBJ poverty program, and Ned O’Gorman, the poet who wrote reviews for Commonweal magazine. I also met Mary Ann McCoy, Eileen Fantino and Helen Russell, who had started a day care center for children in East Harlem, where I went to live and write my first book Island in the City: The World of Spanish Harlem.

After my article about The Catholic Worker came out in The Nation, Dorothy wouldn’t speak to me. I was shocked, because I had praised her and her work. Finally, I learned that she was upset that I had cited a fact from her Bohemian past that I had learned from Malcolm Cowley’s book Exile’s Return, about the writers who had lived in Paris in the ‘Twenties and came home to America in the next decade. Cowley had written that in the Village in the ‘Twenties, “Dorothy Day was the only one who could drink Eugene O’Neill under the table.” I though that was a great achievement; she felt it glamorized the destructive fantasy of my era of the ‘Fifties that drinking yourself to an early death was a literary achievement.  I hope that anecdote does not derail the movement for her canonization which began in the ‘Seventies and continues to this day.

Pope Francis became the first pontiff to comment on Dorothy Day in September of 2015 when he spoke to the U.S. Congress and Supreme Court. He spoke of the challenges of environmental collapse, poverty and migration, and singled out four Americans who gave us “a way of seeing and interpreting reality” that he said is desperately needed in our time: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., Thomas Merton, and Dorothy Day.

The information on the Pope’s talk to Congress is from the excellent new biography Dorothy Day: Dissenting Voice of the American Century by John Loughery and Blythe Randolph (Simon and Schuster).

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Me and Little Richard

I was sorry to see Little Richard pass from the scene today. I once was ushered out of a Little Richard event in a Washington hotel. It was the 1970 National Book Association convention, when authors, starved all year for attention, could show up and be invited to good parties with food and drink supplied by publishers. I had teamed up with Digby Diehl, Book Editor of The Los Angeles Times, and we had met some nice women at one of the many cocktail parties and invited them to dinner and a show at a ballroom in the host hotel. We had all had quite a bit of booze, dressed up with harmless seeming fruit juice, and we decided to dance.

Dancing was not on the menu. It wasn’t a full blown concert, but Little Richard and his group were there to be heard an respectfully appreciated. We intended no disrespect when we got up and started dancing, but two large hotel attendants (bouncers) took me and Digby by the elbows and ushered us out of there, our “dates” following.

I dont remember if we had to pay the bill or if the hotel felt it was worth it just to get us out of the place. I have no memory of such “details.” All I remember is the four of us waking up the next morning on the roof of a house in Georgetown. I don’t know how we got down, but somehow we evidently made it.

Little Richard, I meant no disrespect. I am not a good dancer (I flunked Mrs. Gates’ class). Your music inspired me to get up and try to approximate rhythmic movements. I will always be grateful.

– The Adventures of Uncle Dan

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Dan Wakefield

Dan Wakefield