No, The Other Brother

To be or not to be a survivor.

To be or not to be a survivor.

Edwin Booth had these eyes: dark, large and full of sorrow.They tore people’s hearts out. It was said that no one had ever seen the young actor laugh. That well-earned sorrow matured into frequent drinking binges and sometimes shoddy performances as an actor, but unlike his insane and brilliant father who begot him illegitimately there was a softness to his voice and a winning sensitivity in his acting that drew people in despite Edwin’s faltering.

His father Junius was famous and famously promiscuous having many children and setting up between his illegitimate sons a devastating competitiveness and ambition. Since Junius was nuts, but the one paying the bills, Edwin at age twelve was given the monumental task of caretaker for his father on the road. So long schooling and stability (if there ever was any) and hello late nights chasing down his father at saloons only to be humiliated when his drunk father pretended not to know him.

Maybe that was better than the nights Edwin was forced to play the banjo at his father’s bedside to help him fall asleep. Did he look down at the man he loved and was ashamed of as the old man’s nose hairs fluttered through his snoring? What must a 12-year-old think?

Edwin_booth-staudenbaurTwelve became 13 and 14 and 19. People said Edwin looked pale, neglected and exhausted but still he ran lines with his increasingly insane father who finally died after drinking river water. Imagine having spent years hiding your father under a bed as you try to explain to angry creditors and theater owners why your father is missing. Imagine sitting up late at night in shoddy hotels still a child, your eyes so soulfully taking in every last evidence that you were a nobody.

But people had noticed Edwin knew the lines his father didn’t. They wanted to take him in–those eyes demanded it. And so his acting career began. Once he played along side his infamous brother John. Once just before his brother assassinated the president Edwin saved Lincoln’s son from falling under a train. This was small comfort as Lincoln’s body was taken to be buried, but Edwin was used to small comfort. Fame didn’t erase sorrow.

Edwina healing her father Edwin.

Edwina healing her father Edwin.

People in the 19th century were acquainted with sorrow. They even worried that too much happiness would cause them to fall away from God who in his great love for these little sorrowful people called upon his own son to die for them. Edwin was no Christ figure but he was called upon to sacrifice a whole lot. He married and had one child. I like to think that when he finally gave up drinking and focused on cementing his career as the best 19th century actor that he also had plenty of tender moments with his child. I hope on those occasions the sorrow left his eyes.

Inspired by Rebel Souls

John Singer Sargent's Edwin Booth

John Singer Sargent’s Edwin Booth

Books I’ve Known And Loved

Live fast, die young or traverse the earth slowly.

Live fast, die young or traverse the earth slowly.

Even as college students and dirty, rotten stay-outs, we poked fun at every artsy person’s need for the right hip place to be on the weekend (or any other night). We drove my father’s two-toned Oldsmobile ironically and on five dollars worth of mostly gas fumes to Hoboken. For a brief, sparkling time we were small city celebrities as publishers of a literary/art/whatever-we-wanted magazine.

Our watering-hole reviews were most appreciated by the many young engineers studying at Steven’s Tech and the artsy crowd living in the still rundown lofts on the edge of town rubbing against Jersey City. Bar owners (who also bought advertising in our magazine) were not always equally impressed.

The true hipster crowd hung at Maxwell’s. We thought them too pretentious, well-dressed and rich for our tastes (except on New Years when we went in search of cute bartenders). Like any true rebels we preferred slumming it at the other end of town where a pitcher of beer was about $7 if memory serves and pretzels were on the house.

Here we sat for hours being served by a bleach-blonde, 25-year-old lady (as 19 and 20-year-olds we considered her past her sell-by date). Only a few years later she’d have to quit with a lung ailment from too much second-hand smoke each night at the bar. By then we’d been banned from most bars and bored of the ones we still were allowed to frequent.

No one died in our circle of “rebels”–though with that big car and pitchers of drinks we were damned lucky not to have killed anyone (a vague memory of racing another crazed drunk on the road home and avoiding the police  pops into my head now and I shudder).

Our magazine wasn’t all that good in the grand scheme of things and because we were lazy our advertisers dwindled when we didn’t bother to keep them happy. As a friends group and editorial staff our egos clashed and our interests pulled us in different directions, none of us quite reaching celebrity status again–and probably that’s for the best.

And so it was for Walt Whitman and his friends group at Pfaff’s Saloon under Broadway in NYC before the Civil War.  “America’s First Bohemians”  were not very different from the legions of young people who still style themselves as unique rebels, somehow above the ordinary Joes. Maybe artists are slightly off kilter in some way, but how funny that from generation to next generation the artsy crowd keeps in line with their own stereotypes.

The seedy bars, the wasted moments, the brief brushes with greatness (or delusions of grandeur) and the inevitable maturity or quick tragic death. Walt Whitman lingered on waiting for his Leaves of Grass to catch fire in a slow, slow burn. He nursed soldiers, kept ordinary jobs and quiet romances at Pfaff’s and beyond. Not so his artsy acquaintances (for they never really were close friends).

Most of the rebel souls died of too much life. One died at war after the best of his drinking days were over, one suffered the calamity of youthful stardom and brilliance–always chasing but never catching a new success and always sinking deeper into his opium addiction. One thought she could write well, but when the first terrible reviews came in she retreated into acting only to be bitten by a theater owner’s terrier. She died a few weeks later raving mad from rabies.

Are rebels rebels if they keep the same rules and hours as the trailblazers before them? Is wearing black as cool as when Johnny Cash first did it? Walt Whitman hung at Pfaff’s but he hung back, too. He retreated to his mother’s apartment. He wore strange boots,  roguishly tilting his hat and keeping his shirt open at the neck, but in his day the stars at Pfaff’s burned quick and bright, most dying in their early thirties like ancient echoes of Jim Morrison and Amy Winehouse.

No one ever knows sitting round the sticky tables in a dark bar when their star will rise and fall. No one knows if maturity or death is better for artists and their work until everyone is dead and gone–and even then when cool people search for cool places tastes change in art.

The names of the famous 19th century actors, poets and comics are mostly forgotten. Walt Whitman’s one masterpiece hangs on. No one knows why.

Codependency Rocks

Too Near the Warpath

Too Near the Warpath

Okay, it doesn’t really rock, but it’s good for fiction. It’s not even considered a real condition by some mental health professionals. It used to be called “passive dependent personality.” But I thought that was the ideal of womanhood? Men, this is why we too are confused by constantly changing definitions of mental health! Sitting in a diner a few years back I overheard (because I was eavesdropping) a man telling his friend that what he really wanted was a good old-fashioned codependent relationship. My son and I laughed about it knowing how he felt. Throwing ourselves under buses for others and then resenting it were long family traditions we were proud of–until I went to an Alanon meeting and listened to the people who had been attending for years and recycling all of the abuse and heartache they’d experienced. It was kind of sickening.

My parents both came from alcoholic homes but managed to escape full-blown martyrdom but it’s a slippery slope when the addicts and alcoholics march back into the circle and you watch in your passive way as your kids fall for the charm of the druggie. And there is a charm. My father could sniff a heroin addict a mile away. I’d still be insisting he was cute and misunderstood.

Thank God Katherine McCullough came along as a character before I read Codependency No More which basically assigns every caring emotion, every angry emotion and every weird emotion to codependency status. Yes, Katherine is maddeningly passive as a young wife and mother, but give her a break, will you? Her parents are pleasant and abusive and controlling. Her husband is secretive, aloof and loving. Any girl would be confused.

He could be Katherine's father.

He could be Katherine’s father.

And she could quite easily be Katherine's mother.

And she could quite easily be Katherine’s mother.

Someone asked me why Katherine is so blind to her husband’s addiction. When writing Katherine my ideal man was an addict who finally sees the light and reforms–not a man who never was an addict. We codependents or passive dreamer types are an odd lot of screw-ups, but I’d rather write novels than sit in a church basement crying into my coffee. Sure, I cringe at some of Katherine’s familiar antics, but it’s with the knowledge of 4 more books for her to grow through. She was on the right track going  for the military guy though. I did that the second time around and discovered a sane, self-sufficient man can be oddly less boring than I thought.  We’ll just have to see if Katherine gets that lucky with John.

This week is their week–a week about screwed up love. If doing it right was easy we’d have short novels and no war. In honor of imperfect relationships I’m having a $.99 Kindle eBook sale on The House on Tenafly Road this upcoming weekend Feb 15-16 (the day after Valentine’s Day makes you begin to wish you had a morphine-addicted spouse–or maybe  realize, damn, you have it good).

So gather up your pennies (c’mon it won’t break the bank) and buy the book. Tell your friends, too–you know, the ones who like really falling in love with screwed up characters who redeem themselves. Or the ones who like page-turners with military heroes. Or the ones who like big books with maps. Love, death, maps and redemption–who could ask for anything more?

book cover createspace

Is there anything of which one can say, “Look! This is something new”? It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time.

Fashionable Drug Use

Fashionable Drug Use

All things are wearisome,
    more than one can say.
The eye never has enough of seeing,
    nor the ear its fill of hearing.
 What has been will be again,
    what has been done will be done again;
    there is nothing new under the sun.

drug fiend

I denied myself nothing my eyes desired;
    I refused my heart no pleasure.
My heart took delight in all my labor,
    and this was the reward for all my toil.
 Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done
    and what I had toiled to achieve,
everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind;
    nothing was gained under the sun.

Morphinomaniac by Eugene Grasset (1897)

Morphinomaniac by Eugene Grasset (1897)

Do not say, “Why were the old days better than these?”
    For it is not wise to ask such questions.

drug care

Interesting article on drug use in history.

Not so glamorous.

Not so glamorous.

As fish are caught in a cruel net,
    or birds are taken in a snare,
so people are trapped by evil times
    that fall unexpectedly upon them.

Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body.

 Now all has been heard;
    here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments,
    for this is the duty of all mankind.
For God will bring every deed into judgment,
    including every hidden thing,
    whether it is good or evil.

Words: Ecclesiastes

Newspaper clippings from The Democratic Banner, Ohio, January 30, 1914