FADE IN: The wall clock above the Formica counter shows 2 a.m. at the Red Hook Diner, Dutchess County, New York. Early September 1951. My Bard College roommate Roger and I have been up late working on term papers that are due the following day, so we decide to take a short drive to the local all night diner for a blue plate special (food history: that was two thin overcooked slices of roast beef drowning in brown gravy dumped on a pile of lumpy mashed potatoes, served with a slice of white bread), followed by a piece of gelatinous apple pie and some coffee that had been brewing day and night into a thick Stygian blackness.
As we enter the diner Roger whispers to me to take a look at the two young girls seated together on a red imitation leather banquette having a late night snack, girls we don't know but it is obvious that they are incoming freshmen from their cashmere sweaters and pleated skirts, and we must remedy that situation -- get to know them before anyone else does. Both are extremely pretty. One is beyond pretty -- remarkably beautiful -- a younger version of Ingrid Bergman or Garbo, the great bone structure and the large deep set eyes that are so arresting that the face demands a close-up. I go in for the closeup. We approach. I make a snotty comment to the truly beautiful girl although my eye wanders a bit to her friend who looks more accessible. The great beauty smiles warily. Her name is Joan, the Joan who will become my wife two years later in 1953, and together we will celebrate our 60th wedding anniversary this week.
Montage of college courtship, '50s style. We see a small campus set on a rise with ivy covered old stone dorms in a row. A few WWII vets in army fatigues mingle with the postwar generation in blue jeans. Seminars on the grass with brilliant underpaid teachers -- talk of Dostoyevsky and James and D.H. Lawrence. Candide, Billie Holiday, Josh White and Mozart played on the hi-fi's floating on to the college grounds -- Frankie Lane on the local bar's jukebox -- and she is sharing all of this and so much more with me. This is my PG-13 version of a '50s college romance. I am wearing my Adlai Stevenson button and ranting about the evils of McCarthyism to anyone who will listen. She, bless her, will listen.
Dissolve to a long shot of our wedding where her relatives look stunned that the family beauty who could have married "anyone" has taken the dangerous step of marrying "no-one" -- a would be writer. And to top it off it is the hottest day of the year and the air conditioning has broken down at the reception.
Dissolve to Arlington, Vermont at the start of our honeymoon. The generous and genial Norman Rockwell, father of my lifelong friend Tom offers us his small getaway cottage in the Vermont woods to begin our married life. We are literally babes in the woods. We laugh when faced by a curious deer with his nose pressed against a plate glass window staring at us. We are both city bred, most comfortable browsing in the used bookstores along grimy Fourth Avenue, the old Carnegie libraries and the off-Broadway theaters, but made uneasy when surrounded by an abundance of chirping nature, or worse, its traffic free silences. We will overcome this in later years when we buy an inexpensive farmhouse and Joan reveals a passion for gardening, and I am smitten by the great blue sky over the nearby potato fields, but for now human nature is the only nature we care about.
Cut back to London as our wedding trip continues. It is the Coronation Year and London is still dowdy after the war but delightful for us as we wander the crooked streets of the battered old city. This is definitely not your swinging London. Men still wear frayed suits, bowler hats, and old Burberry raincoats from prewar days, while women still look like Celia Johnson in "Brief Encounter. "
Quick cut to Deauville, France, an old hotel where we are staying on our European tour. A famously rotund director offers Joan a film contract when he sees her reading in a lounge chair in the hotel lobby. He says he knows a movie star when he sees one, and that's what she is. She refuses cordially, tells him she is flattered but has no interest in -- or talent for -- acting in films. He walks away stunned wondering what has happened to the American girl's dream of fame and fan magazines? We go on to Madrid in the last days of Franco, and then to Rome and Florence. In Florence we literally become babes in the woods, lost in the Fiesole, as noted in my HuffPost piece "Finding Myself in an Italian Tablecloth."
Dissolve to London a few years later where I have a grant to do Shakespeare research at the British Museum; the Beatles and the youth culture of Carnaby Street have arrived. It is the so called swinging London, but we secretly preferred the old London. Disasters large and small attend us. An electric heater sets fire to our Kensington flat, and our local grocer has dissolved into a trendy boutique, but we still love this city as no other. Tracking shot as we travel through the West Country in a little rented Humber in a relatively traffic free England. I am always taking pictures of Joan on our journeys with my little 35 mm camera. She is the human scale against which I measure the monuments. Little did I then realize that she is the human scale in which I would someday measure my life. There is Joan against the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey. There is Joan at Stonehenge in those innocent, incautious years before every ancient monument was fenced off from graffiti and vandalism; Joan kneeling to pet a large English sheepdog at the Royal Crescent in Bath; Joan before the Coliseum in Rome as noisy Vespas whiz by, all captured on those little color transparencies now sitting in an old slide projector's carousel high up in a closet; the fading pictures of our past that I promise to make into a DVD for my grand-kids and fear I never will. London, as home base seems a perfect fit until the early afternoon darkness and the asthma inducing fog brings us back to America.
Montage of the next 10 years as I build a career as a television and theater writer in New York, with much of my TV work filmed at various studios in Europe. Joan adores animals and since children do not arrive on schedule we settle on an amazing schnauzer Gus who cocks his head to one side and wags his way into our life for over a decade. For those who care check out "Gus and Us" on the HuffPost. Joan works at the Today Show, and finally leaves because the overly amorous J. Fred Mugs, the mascot chimp on the show refuses to leave her alone, perhaps the greatest example of primate harassment since King Kong became enamored of Fay Wray. She quits her job to become a remarkably gifted interior designer working with my late sister. After ten years of marriage our first son Nick is born. The marital equation changes - kids bring a lot of heaven and a little hell into a marriage -- but they only strengthen the strong ones. I face the problem that most self-employed, self-absorbed people face -- finding a balance between work and family - with the scales often tilting towards work. My career as a writer is helped along by some Emmy Awards and a Tony nomination but like all work in the arts each project is a new beginning, past success builds no barrier against present failure. I write the libretto of a successful Broadway musical, The Rothschilds, and a well-received sketch for a scandalous revue, Oh! Calcutta! I work with such musical geniuses as Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick and Richard Rodgers, all great men to know and learn from -- they will become friends of mine and of Joan -- but we remain close to our old friends and family who were the main support of our early lives. When our second son Christopher comes along we are a complete family. I am bereft when my older sister Simone dies too young of leukemia. One of the great supports of my life is gone, taking with her half of our shared childhood memories. But Joan is there to help fill the void.
Cut to Los Angeles where we resettle when "the business" abandons the East Coast for Hollywood and I build a screenwriting career. Joan hates LA, hates driving, hates Palm trees, loves the Jacarandas, hates the whole kissing, kicking, back-rubbing, back-stabbing, world that was and is Hollywood, but bears it well until the Northridge earthquake destroys our house just as encroaching age erodes my career. We stay on to rebuild our house and sell it, and after working on a small film in Berlin we return to our native New York City where I dedicate my work days to writing for the theater, musicals and straight plays. I am particularly proud of a straight play called December Fools, and Josephine Tonight a musical about the early life of Josephine Baker, one that I write with the late composer Wally Harper. It enjoys some success in regional theaters, and I spend much of my time revising some of my older work, eager to get it right, as well as working on my memoir, Spotless. I realize as I age that my professional aspirations must shrink to a manageable size -- that less is truly more -- that the aim is to go deeper into myself not wider -- to enjoy the fact that as a writer I do not have to wait for work to come to me, I can make my own out of the scraps of experience, pain, and joy that remain in my life. And as long as she is there with me I can keep those devil blues at bay.
As the camera follows our lives it reveals I am prone to the occasional depression, a trait inherited from my father; and that my wife is a stoic who like her mother stares down any wild troubles until they are tamed. I tend to erupt when angry, she simmers, but we make our peace with our different styles of exasperation. I am a writer and therefore indiscreet, someone who doesn't give a damn who knows what, secrets bore me; she devoutly follows her personal religion of privacy. My wife may well be the last "lady" I know, not in a sense of someone who puts on airs and looks down on others. It is not even her great sense of style that makes her so -- it is her deep sense of honor that never waivers, her passion for justice that defines her.
Casting this movie: As the film progresses we are played by at least five different actors - because we have at least five or more different marriages within our one marriage to each other. There is Joan my new best friend and champion, Joan the mother of my sons, Joan the shy girl who marches against a misbegotten Vietnam war, Joan the champion of a lost and frightened immigrant girl with a child; this Joan fights the system to keep this girl in the country, and wins that legal battle. We see a Joan whose everlasting physical beauty is now far surpassed by her immense moral courage. We know that a good life is possible if one does not assume that there is a perfect life just beyond the one you had. What we see onscreen is a shared love of laughter, a shared love of our sons, and an easy forgiveness of our faults, although the forgiveness of our virtues can be harder. We are surviving our own lives. Shots of my resolute wife fighting to find a doctor to cure my midlife TB, a strain that seems resistant to all treatment. She succeeds and I am well again. Shots of my pacing hospital "family" rooms during her several surgeries that came late in her amazingly healthy life, me, crazy with worry when two hour surgeries become four hour ones, but supported by our sons. The tragedies pile up. My mother is killed by a runaway car in a street accident, my beloved sister dies, but there is the wonder of grandchildren who make everything fresh and vivid again as we see a new world through their eyes. Being with a grandchild is like those days following cataract surgery when suddenly a graying, aging world becomes new and vibrant with color again.
Questions: Why the devil is my father's face staring back at me in the bathroom mirror as I grow older? Why do younger people on the bus get up to give us their seats? Don't they realize that I am still that boy of twenty and she remains the girl of seventeen who met just a little while ago at the Red Hook diner? Yes, both the skin and the emotions can bruise more easily with age but you recognize that you are now stronger than ever in a new way. And part of that strength -- if fortunate -- is having your great companion beside you. How old fashioned is it to say that I love her more today than I did sixty years ago? Why is it that today most people find it easier to express their hates than their loves?
Flashback to the 17-year-old girl and the 20-year-old boy. The boy married a beautiful girl not realizing that was the least of her qualities, and that she had a genius for living and loving. No long marriage prevents the existential loneliness that everyone feels from time to time -- nor should it -- but it sure softens the sharp edges and eases the inevitable pain. What a joy to have her beside me, she who makes every day feel like a new beginning, not an ending. No fade out. No, no. Please. Not yet. Keep the camera rolling a little longer.