Unwelcome Exits: Lamar, Matthau, Allen

Still suffering from election-scandal withdrawal, I hate to

add to the general feeling of pessimism in the air, but before the old man with

the scythe makes way for that new kid in diapers with his year to grow, I must

begin the new year with a tearful goodbye to the famous folks who left us in

the one that just ended.

The deaths of both Loretta Young and Hedy Lamarr in 2000

made a sorry beginning for a new millennium. Two symbols of glamour and beauty

to movie lovers everywhere, their departure signals the end of a cinematic era

that will never come again. I knew them both, but it was Loretta who became an

especially cherished personal friend. Long after her glorious film career

ended, after she had recaptured the attention of millions of fans who tuned in

weekly to watch her sweep through the door in yet another lavish gown by

Galanos or Jean Louis on The Loretta

Young Show , she remained a loyal and steady chum.

One rainy night in New York, I took her to a screening in a

smelly projection room where wet and jaded cynics who are never impressed by

anything craned their necks to get a better look at a genuine icon of the

silver screen, surrounding her at the end of the film in awe. We ended up at my

apartment, where I made lentil soup and she washed the dishes. At her home in

Palm Springs, she threw dinner parties in my honor and chauffeured me around in

her enormous 50’s Cadillac, often driving on the sidewalk while the traffic

cops waved and turned the other way. Who would dare give a ticket to Loretta

Young? Deeply religious but never pious, she sent me, the week before she died,

a Beanie Baby-a bear kneeling in prayer with a red heart attached to its ear.

She signed it, “I’m watching over you. Love, Loretta.” I think she still does.

It sits on top of my computer.

Another unwelcome exit: saucy Claire Trevor, who spent her

career playing tough, boozing broads-even winning an Oscar for the one in Key Largo -while in real life she was

rich, elegant and classy. I’ll never forget the time she redecorated her luxury

apartment at the Pierre and gave away her pets because they no longer matched

the décor.

The year 2000 also framed final close-ups for two of

England’s last remaining crown princes of stage and screen-Sir Alec Guinness

and Sir John Gielgud. Few knew what a scamp “Johnny” was, the distinguished

author, director and foremost interpreter of Shakespeare who privately loved

dirty jokes and juicy gossip and once, during the pre-Broadway tryouts for the

musical Irene , played Debbie

Reynolds’ entire role in a wig. (Nobody demanded a refund.) Closer to home, we

lost the great Jason Robards, the world’s foremost interpreter of Eugene

O’Neill. Others taking a final bow were Walter Matthau; Oscar winner Lila ( Zorba the Greek ) Kedrova; swashbuckling

nice guy and perennial party guest Douglas Fairbanks Jr.; movie Hercules and

poster boy for bulging biceps Steve Reeves; Italian Lothario Vittorio Gassman;

Richard Farnsworth, the senior citizen and genuine cowboy who became a movie

star by accident, won last year’s N.Y. Film Critics Circle award and an Oscar

nomination at the age of 80 for his down-home performance in The Straight Story , and then committed

suicide; Mary Poppins co-star David

Tomlinson; the evil Sopranos mob

matriarch Nancy Marchand; George Montgomery, the rugged Montana cowboy and

ex-husband of Dinah Shore who appeared in westerns and detective dramas with

equal ease; rough-edged, chain-smoking Marie Windsor, hailed as “Queen of the

B’s” for playing cheap floozies in so many low-budget film noirs; Richard

Mulligan, who played the embattled father on TV’s Empty Nest for seven years; Beah Richards, Oscar-nominated as

Sidney Poitier’s mother in Guess Who’s

Coming to Dinner ; Ann Doran, the durable character actress who played James

Dean’s neurotic mother in the historic Rebel

Without a Cause ; and David Dukes, a versatile and polished actor who

shocked everyone when he dropped dead on a movie location at 55.

I will also miss my friend Max Showalter, a beloved showbiz

veteran who began his movie career under the name Casey Adams, playing the

newlywed husband of gorgeous Jean Peters in the Marilyn Monroe classic Niagara . Ironically, Jean Peters herself

passed away a few months later, leaving behind many unsolved mysteries about

her hush-hush marriage to Howard Hughes. She will go down in the Hollywood

history books as a talented all-American girl who gave up movie stardom and

ruined her career just to please this eccentric oddball millionaire, becoming one

of Tinsel Town’s most famous reclusive legends. I will also miss Craig Stevens,

TV’s Peter Gunn, the handsome, durable husband of Alexis Smith; and Werner

Klemperer, the Jewish intellectual who specialized in playing Nazis, most

memorably on Hogan’s Heroes .

Broadway dimmed its lights for the legendary Gwen Verdon,

and no dancing star can ever replace those kilowatts. Even after she made

history in hits like Damn Yankees , Sweet Charity and Chicago , she kept the choreography of her husband and longtime

collaborator Bob Fosse alive for generations to copy. In retirement, nobody had

a smile that could light up the room like Gwen’s. Her unique precision and

classy, one-of-a-kind style will inspire Broadway gypsies for decades to come.

Other terpsichoreans to retire their toe shoes include Anna Sokolow; Harold

Nicholas, one-half of the acrobatic Nicholas Brothers team that pepped up so

many movie musicals in the 1940’s; New York City ballet star Anthony Blum; and

Peter Gennaro, the marvelous choreographer of Fiorello! , The Pajama Game

and Annie.

Where will the theater be without its two most controversial

producers? Alexander H. Cohen was responsible for more than 100 plays and

musicals, years of Tony Awards telecasts and three Night of 100 Stars events, all produced with the kind of passion

and love that no longer seems to exist on the Great White Way. David Merrick,

his flamboyant rival, was the last of the curmudgeons: He once sent me a

Christmas card depicting a dead Santa hanging from a noose. When he died, it was

the end of flair. They were joined by the beloved Robert (Bobby) Fryer, who

produced plays and movies with professional dexterity and personal charm.

Ironically, some of their staunchest critics left with them: Jack Kroll of Newsweek , Thomas Quinn Curtiss of the

Paris Herald Tribune and longtime New York Times cultural observer Vincent

Canby, a role model for those who read him, those who emulated him and those of

us he inspired to do better.

The world of writers will seem less literate without the

elegant prose of novelists William Maxwell and Giorgio ( The Garden of the Finzi-Continis ) Bassani; the finesse and balance

of playwrights N. Richard Nash, Samuel Taylor and Thomas Babe; and the powerful

screenplays by Ring Lardner Jr., the Oscar-winning scriptwriter and last of the

blacklisted “Hollywood 10,” and Curt Siodmak, creator of such Hollywood monster

classics as The Wolf Man , I Walked with a Zombie and House of Frankenstein . He taught

generations of terrified moviegoers everything they know about full moons,

silver bullets and wolfbane. Combining horror and humor, Edward Gorey built a

cult following with his macabre drawings and limericks. The Sunday comics won’t

have the same punch without Charles Schulz and his immortal Peanuts , or Gil Kane and his action

superheroes, Captain Marvel and Spider Man. It was “so long, dearie,” for

Barbara Cartland, the 98-year-old British author of more than 100 pulp romance

novels that kept the hearts of milkmaids churning and the Kleenex industry

booming on both sides of the Atlantic. And how will we know where (and what) to

eat without soft-spoken Craig Claiborne, America’s least snobbish yet most

influential food critic? No matter how far he traveled to the gastronomic

pleasure domes of haute cuisine, his passion was always rooted in the down-home

cooking of his native Mississippi.

Music will sound sour after the last eight bars by the true

“Mambo King,” Tito Puente, the sultan of Latin jazz; jazz trumpeter Jonah

Jones; the flute salads of Jerome Richardson; Rio’s primo guitarist Baden

Powell, who pioneered America’s love affair with Brazilian bossa nova; singer

and former Cy Coleman secretary Claire Hogan; bebop piano player Gene Harris;

saxophone wizard Stanley Turrentine; pioneer bassist Milt Hinton; and Tex

Beneke, the legendary singing saxophonist of the big-band era who recorded

Godzilla-size hits for the Glenn Miller Orchestra. In a diminishing world of

first-rate singers, it was sad when the great jazz vocalist Teri Thornton lost

her valiant battle with cancer; and I wonder how many baby boomers surrendered

their innocence in the back seats of Thunderbirds listening to the smoky,

seductive crooning of Julie London. Her first recording, Cry Me a River , sold three million copies, and her 20-odd

exclusive-as-ermine albums, now on CD, are still collector’s items.

More notables who bid us farewell: Steve Allen,

humorist-author-songwriter, star of The

Benny Goodman Story and first host of NBC’s Tonight Show; piano-playing satirist Victor Borge, who took his

last comic pratfall from a Steinway at 91; fashion designers Bonnie Cashin and

Thea Porter; songwriter Carl (“Pennsylvania 6-5000”) Sigman; Doug Henning,

bouncy illusionist and star of the surprise Broadway hit The Magic Show ; TV critic Jack O’Brian; popular Broadway stage

manager Ruth Mitchell; Gordon and Sheila’s sweet, talented daughter, Meredith

MacRae; Roger Vadim, the French film director who molded wives and mistresses

Brigitte Bardot, Jane Fonda, Catherine Deneuve and Annette Stroyberg into

international sex symbols; celebrated Broadway set designers Miles ( Oklahoma! ) White and William ( Mame , Fiorello! , Damn Yankees )

Eckart; and glamorous Jean Howard, the Ziegfeld Girl who became the crowning

party hostess of Beverly Hills and unofficial photographer of the stars in the

golden era of movies, and who published two books-one about her travels with

Cole Porter and the other called Jean

Howard’s Hollywood -that still adorn the best coffee tables in society. She

knew where a lot of bodies were buried. So did Margie Hart, the last living

burlesque queen and the only stripper to be immortalized in a Cole Porter song.

Who could forget Mayor John Lindsay or Cardinal John

O’Connor? Or Dawn Langley Simmons, the exotic transsexual writer who was born

the illegitimate son of Vita Sackville-West’s chauffeur; was adopted in his

20’s by the movies’ addlepated Miss Marple, Margaret Rutherford; underwent a

sex change in 1968 and then married her black butler, scandalizing the folks in

Charleston, S. C. S/he was a case even Agatha Christie couldn’t solve, but what

fun to have around!

Boris Karloff said on his death bed, “I’ll be back.” So will

they all. Unwelcome Exits: Lamar, Matthau, Allen