Shana Alexander spent most of her life trying to figure out her enigmatic parents. Milton Ager was a famous songwriter whose creations included “Ain’t She Sweet” and “Happy Days Are Here Again.” Cecelia Ager was a film critic and Variety columnist. They were a glamorous Jazz Age couple that moved in charmed circles with George and Ira Gershwin, Dorothy Parker, and Jerome Kern. They remained together for fifty-seven years, and yet they lived separate lives.
This wise, witty, unflinchingly candid memoir is also a revealing account of Alexander’s own life, from her successful career as a writer and national-news commentator to her troubled marriages and emotionally wrenching love affairs. She shares insights about growing up with a cold, hypercritical mother, her relationship with her younger sister, the suicide of her adopted daughter, and her reconciliation with her parents after a twenty-year estrangement. “I had to do a lot of detective work to uncover the truth about my parents’ lives,” Alexander said. “I knew almost nothing about them as people. But by the end they really did become my best friends.”
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My Mother, My Father, My Sister & Me
By Shana Alexander
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1995 Shana Alexander
All rights reserved.
The first moment I remember is holding his hand and walking down the long, white-tiled hospital corridor. We are going to see my new sister. My eyes follow an inset band of blue tiles level with my father's shoulders. I am three years old today. It is his birthday too.
The first sound I recall is the scratch, scratch of his razor blade on music manuscript paper scraping out wrong notes. He writes late at night by candlelight on a fold-up Salvation Army organ that Cecelia bought him and put in our bedroom. We can't hear the music because he doesn't need to pump the pedals. He hears it in his head. The scratching goes on for hours, a pleasant sound in the near darkness.
What else? Three bad tastes: oysters, rhubarb, milk of magnesia. The awful German frauleins who cared for us. All the wonderful closets to explore. In the hall closet are stacks of records of Milton's songs, his piles of symphony and opera scores, his collapsible silk hat, our Christmas tree ornaments, and, on the bottom, our bootleg whiskey. Sime Silverman, the burly, rough-voiced editor of Variety, where Cecelia works, brings the whiskey, and never forgets to bring Laurel and me a quart of Louis Sherry ice cream, hand-packed, with little black specks in the vanilla.
Our own closet holds all our smocked English dresses and high-laced shoes, and the beloved Oz books that Grandmother Fanny sends twice a year from Hollywood. My child-size golf bag and clubs hang from a hook. Out of reach on the top shelf is a beautifully dressed French doll as tall as I am. Fanny sent her too, but Cecelia says she is "too good" to play with. We don't like dolls anyhow. We like our big blackboard, our child-size, simple American furniture: two chairs, work bench, the big revolving globe.
The linen closet outside our parents' bedroom holds their bed sheets stacked in scented piles tied with ribbon. Their towels are peach color or turquoise, monogrammed in lowercase letters, cra: Cecelia Rubenstein Ager.
How glamorous our mother is to me, and scary, especially in the mornings, when she wakes up in her black eye mask and reads the papers and sips her café au lait and smokes a Chesterfield while Milton is still sleeping in the other bed. In the evenings, I cannot wait for them to go out so I can investigate her big closet stacked floor to ceiling like a milliner's shop with boxes upon boxes of silk flowers from Paris in every color and variety. Alongside are piles of soft leather gloves in every shade and belts of every material and hue. At the very back in a special bag is her crimson silk velvet evening wrap trimmed with ermine tails, and a thin gown of white silk sprigged with tiny flowers, and a pair of winged sandals woven of gold and silver strips. Over everything floats the fresh, ferny scent of New Mown Hay, from J. Floris, in London.
New Mown Hay was the only perfume she ever wore. Years later, when I visited the shop and tried to buy her some, I was told they no longer made it. All the hay in Europe had been cut down during the war.
About my birth I know only that it started gaily and ended badly for everyone. On the evening of October 4, 1925, Cecelia and Milton had gone with their friend Lou Clayton, Jimmy Durante's manager, to the Club Durante on West 58th Street to catch the new act. When Durante began smashing up his piano and hurling pieces of it at his own orchestra, Cecelia laughed so hard she started going into labor. Milton rushed her to the select Lying-in Hospital off Gramercy Park where Cecelia's favorite cousin, Hannah Stone, M.D., was on the obstetrics staff. For the next two days Hannah and Sylvia Yellen, the wife of Milton's lyricist partner Jack Yellen, took turns at Cecelia's bedside. Nearly forty hours passed before I was finally born. Sylvia was right there in the delivery room holding Cecelia's hand, just as Cecelia had done for her when the Yellens' first son was born two years before.
I finally made it with the assistance of a pair of wicked, long-handled surgical spoons, standard tools for a high forceps delivery, that left me with permanent scars under my left eyebrow and along the right side of my neck, and a lifetime sense of having a huge head. The ordeal left Cecelia half-dead, and perhaps not feeling entirely cordial toward her firstborn, or so it was much later suggested independently, by different psychoanalysts, to each of us.
My parents lived then at 157 West 57th Street. Cecelia was in thrall to a fashionable Park Avenue pediatrician who decreed that a bottle is the only sanitary way to feed a baby and that crying is nature's way of developing an infant's lungs. Hence a crying baby should never, repeat never, be picked up, hugged, or rocked, and so far as I know, she never did it.
After Laurel was born, I remember hearing my parents arguing over these matters. My information about their lives before her birth is next to nil. About all I know is that Cecelia's favorite brother, Laurence, two years younger, was killed in a car crash a few months before Laurel's birth, and she was named for him. Although our parents were professional writers, neither one kept a journal or diary or scrapbook. They didn't save desk calendars. They didn't keep letters or other memorabilia. No family photographs were on display. Cecelia seemed pathologically disinclined to talk about herself or her early life, at least to her children. Milton loved to reminisce, but not about the person I was most interested in hearing about, George Gershwin.
"I knew George Gershwin up close," Milton said to me when he was over eighty and we were discussing the book we intended to write together about Tin Pan Alley. "But I won't talk about him. Because unless you're a fellow musician, you won't understand what I'm saying." He had talked about him, of course, from time to time over the years, but always in a guarded and extremely protective way.
However, Cecelia and Milton had been good friends of George and Ira Gershwin and the rest of the family. And the Gershwins —early aware that they were harboring a genius in their midst—had kept meticulous records and saved everything. Old check stubs, theater tickets, calendars, doodles, and every scrap of paper ephemera has since been catalogued. Much of the little I know about the Agers' early years comes from tidbits pieced together from the extraordinarily well documented Gershwin saga.
My first sighting of Cecelia and Milton as a married couple is in June of 1926, when they appear in a well-known photograph of the Gershwins and a couple dozen of their pals at a beach hotel on the Jersey Shore. Their hosts were Albert and Mascha Strunsky, prosperous Greenwich Village landlords and restaurateurs. Soon the Strunskys' daughter Leonore, known as Lee, would marry Ira Gershwin or, as Cecelia always put it, would "finally get Ira to marry her."
The occasion for the Strunsky photograph was a house party celebrating the sixth wedding anniversary of Lee's older sister Emily and Lou Paley, an erudite English teacher and sometime lyricist. The showbiz guests were posed by George, who reclines odalisque-like in the foreground, the Young God recumbent. The couple not exactly snuggling on the top step, left, are Milton and Cecelia.
Did either parent ever mention this picture to me? Not once. I came across it quite by accident nearly a half century later, in a new book lying on the coffee table of their Wilshire Boulevard apartment. The writers were Edward Jablonski and Lawrence D. Stewart, Gershwin's biographers. Jablonski lives in New York, and Stewart, an attractive, easygoing man about my age, in California. I'd met Stewart once or twice visiting my parents. Twenty years after that, desperate to increase my meager store of data on Cecelia and Milton, I'd taken a chance and called him up. It was like stumbling across the Lost Dutchman's Gold Mine. He kept a journal, I discovered, a lifelong habit he picked up while writing his doctoral dissertation on one of the many eighteenth-century litterateurs who buzzed around Dr. Johnson. Over the years Stewart had become as fascinated as I by the Agers and their unique relationship, and each time he'd seen them, singly or together, he'd noted the occasion in his journal. Furthermore, Stewart is a lifelong musicologist, historian, archivist, and connoisseur of contemporary arts. I can count on the fingers of one hand the people who were a friend of both Cecelia and Milton, and appreciated them equally, and Lawrence Stewart is one. He had also been a close friend of Ira and Lee, at the hub of their extensive Hollywood social circle, and had worked fourteen years on the Gershwin archives. He had helped Ira write his little 1959 masterpiece, Lyrics on Several Occasions, produced a few record albums of contemporary music, and contributed erudite liner notes for many more. His readiness to share with me his Ager notes and recollections made me feel like Winnie the Pooh falling into the honey pot.
It was from Stewart, not my father or mother, that I learned that Milton had spent years trying to teach George Gershwin orchestration. My father gave Stewart the text they'd used, as a memento. It was an 1889 German classic, The Material Used in Musical Composition: A System of Harmony Designed Originally for Use in the English Harmony Classes of the Conservatory of Music at Stuttgart, by Percy Goetschius. Milton's copy was the twentieth edition, published in 1914, which would have been about the time he and Gershwin met as young fellows trying to break into the music business. Fifteen-year-old George had just quit high school to become "the world's youngest piano pounder" at J. W. Remick's, music publishers, and twenty-year-old Milton was doing the same thing a few blocks away at Waterson, Berlin, and Snyder, Inc.
Unfortunately, Stewart's Goetschius has no handwritten marginal notations, but it does bear the same MILTON AGERstamp in violet ink that I remember seeing as a child on all my father's opera and symphonic scores in our hall closet, and on the miniature scores that Milton read in bed while waiting for his latest brand of sleeping pill to kick in. Milton was both a perpetual student and a tireless, gifted, sometimes compulsive teacher of certain complex subjects which interested him. His technical knowledge of harmony and orchestration, of the behavior of spheres in motion, golf balls and billiard balls in particular, and of the permutations and combinations of playing cards was phenomenal. Of other people's tolerance for being instructed in these matters, he was thought at times insensitive.
Early in 1928, Cecelia again found herself pregnant, and Milton, appalled by her ordeal the first time, insisted on a change of doctors and hospitals. The baby was not due until September, and in the spring Milton planned to accompany George and Ira and Lee to Paris and call on Maurice Ravel. They had met the French maestro on his American concert tour early that year, when he astounded the music world with his newest composition, Bolero, a tour de force tornado of orchestration which Leonard Bernstein later termed the bible of the craft.
Gershwin was already celebrated as a composer of concert works as well as of pop and show tunes. The thrilling Rhapsody in Blue, orchestrated by Ferde Grofé, had had its premiere four years earlier. But he was fundamentally a pianist, a brilliant pianist in a hurry, and it was relatively late in his career—not until after the Rhapsody—that he found time to master a craft which Milton, among many, had been urging him to study more deeply for a decade. Private instruction from Ravel would be ideal.
Nor did I know that Milton had spent the same decade methodically attempting to teach George Gershwin to play better golf. I did not become aware of this burst of frustrated pedagogy until 1979, when my father's obituary was published in The New York Times and the paper forwarded to me a condolence letter from a retired bank president who had started out in life as Milton and George's caddie. He had helped put himself through law school on the extra-lavish tips he'd received from Milton during the several seasons the Gershwin golf lessons endured. George was a good natural athlete, and almost twice Milton's size, but he had never studied golf the way Milton had. Teacher and pupil would arrive at Milton's golf club at twilight, said the ex-caddie, and each night as the moon rose he had to lug two golf bags around nine holes while Milton patiently explained and demonstrated the finer points of the overlapping grip and the backswing.
For reasons unknown to me, not one of these plans bore fruit. At the last minute, Milton abruptly decided to skip the trip to France and remain with his wife. Gershwin took up tennis, about which Milton knew nothing. And when the Gershwins arrived in Paris, Ravel firmly rejected his would-be pupil. "Why be a second-rate Ravel," he said, "when you can be a first-rate Gershwin?"
Laurel's birth on September 29, 1928, turned out to be no trouble at all. But for some reason Milton thereafter adamantly refused to accompany Cecelia to Paris, or any other place she wanted to visit, for thirty-five years. Our hardworking parents took vacations, but only separately. Several times a year Milton went to Miami Beach or Palm Springs for a few weeks of golf and bridge with his best friend, the bandleader Ben Bernie. Ben was a joyous, amusing, handsome Hungarian with velvety eyes, smooth tan skin, white teeth, and an ever-present cigar. The advent of network radio in the twenties had made him one of the most popular dance-band leaders in the nation, and Ben spent the rest of his life touring the country's ritzier watering holes with his orchestra and a retinue of after-hours pals and admirers of both sexes. Ben called Milton "the Little Professor," because of his compulsion to instruct, and Milton called Ben "the Mice," short for maestro. They were so fond of each other that their friends called them Damon and Pythias.
Cecelia vacationed in the Bahamas in winter and toured Europe in summer with her best friend, Gerry Morris, a gorgeous, green-eyed blonde. Gerry had the flamboyant manner of a Broadway star, but was in fact the recent wife of Bill "Junior" Morris, son of the founder of the William Morris theatrical agency. She formerly had been married to a doctor and had an endearing son about my age called Nicky. Though Milton himself wouldn't budge, he was somewhat critical of Cecelia's jaunts around the Continent with Gerry. He considered her "fast company," and often compressed his lips in silent disapproval. By the mid-thirties he had got to compressing his lips so often that Ben stopped calling him the Little Professor and started calling him "Tiss." Tiss stood for tissue paper, which was how thin Milton's lips got when he thought about Cecelia rollicking through the capitals of Europe with the stunning Geraldine.
Laurel was a small, pretty baby with a profound sense of injustice, seemingly inborn. She could not have been more than three the day she cried out, in response to one of Cecelia's latest dietary edicts, "I never get enough English filet of sole!" Doubtless her feelings were spurred by the accident of being the second child and by the peculiarities of our parents' child-raising theories. A second child rarely gets enough of anything, and in Laurel's case the indignities were compounded by continually being told by Milton how equal we were. "We treat you and Shana as adults. We love you equally!" He said it every day. I can see him telling it to Laurel when she was barely old enough to stand. "We treat you as adults. We love you equally. You and Shana are equally wonderful. Equally beautiful. Equally smart." He wears a sharply tailored suit and is bent way over so he can get his gray-blue eyes down near the level of Laurel's own. She stares gravely back at him, swaying a little in her high-laced, plain brown Indian Walk shoes.
Equal! To me the word clanged like an anvil. Each time I heard it, I knew it was a lie. I knew I was considered a wunderkind, and the favorite, and I was acutely aware of my father's hypocrisy and the helpless unfairness of Laurel's position. Cecelia, unlike double-talking Milton, made no effort to hide her preference, and Laurel saw the situation clearly at a very early age. But I was made so uncomfortable by their obvious favoritism that it took me half a lifetime to admit the truth of its existence.
From 1928 to 1934, when Laurel was five and I was eight, we lived with our parents and a series of nannies in a magical tenth-floor corner apartment at 171 West 57th Street directly across from Carnegie Hall. James Reynolds, a gifted Irish stage designer infatuated with Napoleon, loved my parents and had contributed the apartment's elaborate decor as a sort of house gift. Jimmy had painted the walls and ceiling of the apartment's very long and windowless entry corridor to suggest that one was walking through a great tent. He'd done freehand murals of swagged canvas, ropes, and flags, hung about with painted pikes and sabers, with a flaming torch at each light fixture. All were fakes, of course, but to a child the illusion was overpowering. As one approached the living room, the tent gave way to outdoors, and an entire cavalry charge came pounding down one wall.
Excerpted from Happy Days by Shana Alexander. Copyright © 1995 Shana Alexander. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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