Read Come to the Edge: A Memoir Online

Authors: Christina Haag

Tags: #Social Science, #Popular Culture, #Motion Picture Actors and Actresses, #Entertainment & Performing Arts, #General, #United States, #Personal Memoirs, #Biography, #Television actors and actresses, #Biography & Autobiography, #Rich & Famous

Come to the Edge: A Memoir (6 page)

BOOK: Come to the Edge: A Memoir
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I took a zigzag route west, past redbrick town houses, past Abingdon Square and the drug dealers who held court in the muddy playground to the south. Following the siren scent of the river, I turned right on Bank, and a few doors down from Greenwich Street, I came to a nondescript building where people clad in black were smoking in the outside stairwell.

Most actors in New York City find themselves at HB Studio at one point or another. It was founded by Viennese director Herbert Berghof and his wife, actress and master teacher Uta Hagen. Her book
Respect for Acting
would become my bible for the next five years. Annotated with exclamation points and underlined words, it went everywhere with me.
In the moment, objective, inner monologue
. I was learning a new language, and it was revelatory.

Edward Morehouse taught the teenage class, based on Uta’s ten object exercises. A man of meager praise, he berated his students, often imitating them to make his point. He could be cruel, but he was always right, and I was hungry to learn. One Saturday after my third attempt at the fourth wall exercise, I waited at the front of the room for the usual onslaught of invectives. To my shock and that of the other students, there were none. As I walked back to my seat, his silence rang louder than any applause, and my face was hot with pride. I felt something stick that day, not just in my mind, but in my body. It was like a compass finding north for the first time; the needle would waver, but it knew where it was meant to land.

Soon he invited me to join his Adult Scene Study class. There, in a dark room off an airshaft, I found a world I loved as much as parties and prowling the streets with my friends. I may have had little in common with the others in the class—for one thing, I was much younger—but for the first time I found a kind of fraternity, the odd bond that exists among actors, those who are most themselves when they are someone else and most alive when they are telling stories in the words of others.

Perhaps it was the sober way Beryl Durham had said, “You won’t get what you need here,” but I knew not to speak of it at Brearley. I’d been in
Seventeen
magazine twice by that time—first in a two-page “makeover,” where I had a crush on the photographer but was horrified by the amounts of pink lip gloss and purple eye shadow, and then modeling Victorian lingerie for an article titled “Becoming a Woman.” This was a sort of infamy. Some girls smiled hard but behind the smile was,
Why her and not me?
An English teacher remarked with such sourness I thought it might cause permanent facial damage, “You might want to consider Professional Children’s School.” I kept it secret, along with the dance classes at Alvin Ailey and Luigi’s and the agents who sent me out on auditions.
You won’t get what you need here
.

The fall before he turned sixteen, John went to Phillips Andover, a newly coed boarding school in Massachusetts, and I saw less of him. When I did see him, it was with a mix of last year’s troops and some of his new Andover friends. We’d meet up at 1040 and listen to
Exile on Main Street
in his bedroom before heading out for the night. Invariably, with his fist as a mike, John would do his Jagger imitation. No longer a follower, he was loud, confident, all over the place. But I began to notice that when he talked to me, he got quiet.

My friend Margot and I were walking down Lexington Avenue after school one day, the street thick with bus fumes and grade school boys juggling pizza slices and their book bags. Margot linked her arm in mine, and we steered our way through the sea of blue blazers. She was trying to hold back a secret. “I have good gossip,” she finally confessed. “John’s in love. It’s serious.” She had it from a friend who’d heard it from a friend who knew someone who lived on his hall at Andover.

We stopped for a moment, the boys jostling around us, and sighed. Not because we pined for him—we had boyfriends and were consumed by those dramas—but because we were like so many East Side private school girls: We felt protective. Despite the bravado, we knew his softness, and we didn’t want anyone breaking his heart. He was one of ours.

Lucky girl, we said.
Very lucky
.

Mike Malkan’s was on Seventy-ninth Street near Second Avenue, a long tunnel of a bar with red banquettes and a stellar jukebox—the old-fashioned kind, with the 45s that drop down and a selection that went on forever. You could put coins in as soon as you got there and leave without ever hearing your song, the lineup was that long. And there was no dance floor. Dancing was verboten. It was a place to go not so much for excitement or to drink, although they served at thirteen, but because you could always count on finding someone you knew there. And on the weekends the boarding schools let out, it was jammed.

On one of those nights, I slithered through the crowd to the back room. I was alone. The year before, I would never have thought of walking in without a friend in tow, both of us flipping our hair a block or two before so it was fluffy by the time we entered the bar, but by eleventh grade, I was more confident. I’d stopped wearing beige corduroys and clogs all the time and had on boots, a cut velvet skirt I’d found at a thrift shop near HB, and an old cashmere V-neck of my mother’s that I pulled low. As if Donna Summer played continually in my head, I moved through the bar at half speed, swaying as I went. I imagined myself provocative.

The Collegiate boys had gathered around a table in a corner booth by the divider, mai tais and rum and Cokes all around. I crushed in next to my boyfriend. “Hey, babe.” His words made me feel grown-up. He kissed me and I melted. John and his friend Wilson sat across the table. They were down from Andover on a break. Both had gotten cuter since I’d last seen them. John was taller, not as gawky. He had turned sixteen.

Some song came on, and I had to dance. “Uncool,” my boyfriend scolded. “Be cool. Chill” came the chorus from his friends. They never wanted to dance, not even when there was a dance floor, not even at parties where everyone else was dancing. They were more into getting stoned and watching
Saturday Night Live
and
The Twilight Zone
, and it had begun to bore me. John leapt up. “I’ll dance with you,” he said, grinning. He grabbed my hand, and together we cut a rug in the skinny aisle of the bar. We made it almost to the end of whatever Motown song it was before one of the waiters stopped us. “No dancin’, guys. Mike says.”

We slid back down to our drinks, laughing like bad children. “Hey.” My boyfriend jabbed me underneath the table with his elbow. I took a beat, peered down my shoulder at him, and, summoning all my ESP/witch powers, transmitted,
Pay attention, babe
. With a whip of hair, I turned back to Wilson and John, whose heads were now bopping to the Stones. “Don’t hang around ’cause two’s a crowd!” they sang.

He’s fun
, I thought.
He doesn’t need to be cool—he just is
. He had a way of looking up at you—his eyes barely out from under his bangs, his chin tucked in—and for a second I caught him watching. I didn’t drink the White Russian in front of me; I picked up the sticky swizzle stick and twirled it over my lips.
And another thing
, I told myself as my boyfriend’s arm staked itself around my neck,
he’s a great dancer
.


Mrs. Onassis had glittering Christmas parties then. They were always the first of the season—an easy mix of her friends and family, with Caroline’s classmates from Harvard and John’s from boarding school and the city. I delighted in seeing my cohorts on their best behavior, scrubbed and suited—the Boys especially. They were glamorous affairs, coats taken at the door and hors d’oeuvres passed, but without the pretension or stuffiness that accompanied many grown-up parties. Mrs. Onassis welcomed all of John’s and Caroline’s friends as if they were her own. While the adults tended to stay in the living room, with the sofas and the long terraced windows that looked out over the park, we stood crowded near the bar in the brightly lit gallery. Kennedy cousins and Caroline’s smart friends milled about, and a buzz raced through the rooms.

Many years later, at one of these parties, I would sit in the corner of the living room with Mike Nichols sharing a plate of chocolate-covered strawberries. We had just been introduced by John’s mother, but as the party swirled around us, he confessed that he had fallen madly in love, hadn’t thought it possible, couldn’t believe his luck. The light was dim, and I listened, transfixed by his giddy praise of an anonymous dulcinea. I was twenty-six, but he seemed years younger, a troubadour in thick glasses. And the next spring, he married Diane Sawyer.

These were happy parties and, as we grew older, markers of how we had changed.

In 1978, Mrs. Onassis threw a huge bash for John’s and Caroline’s eighteenth and twenty-first birthdays. I had graduated in the spring and was a freshman at Brown University. The party fell on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, just days after the fifteenth anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination. There were cocktails at 1040, and after that 150 guests were invited to Le Club, a private discotheque half a block west of Sutton Place. Photographers and press were camped out in the cold on East Fifty-fifth Street. My mother had lent me her floor-length opera cape, and I felt very grand and grown-up. The black wool stiffened, a creature unto itself, and I ignored the chill that seeped through the arm slits and up the wide skirt to the flimsy silk dress I wore.

One of the reporters corralled me before I joined the bottleneck at the door. He wore a cotton button-down under his tweed jacket, but he didn’t look cold, and his thin hair was matted. He told me he was an old friend of Jackie’s. There’d been an awful mistake, and his name wasn’t on the guest list and would I please give her his card. He shuffled slightly as he took one out of a leather case and handed it to me.

“She’ll sort it out—we go way back.” Something caught his attention, and for a moment he looked past me. “Friend of Caroline or John?” he said, turning back. I noted the patrician drawl.

“John.” He scribbled my name on a small flip-pad.

“What’s it like inside? How many people?”

“I’m just on my way in,” I said, edging back.

“You’ll give her the card, then?” he shouted when I reached the door. “We’re old friends!”

Past the velvet ropes, I was enveloped by a cocoon of colored light, thumping bass, and the crush of revelers. Unlike in the vast spaces of Xenon or Studio 54, with drag queens on roller skates and columns of strobe and neon lights, the ambience here was exclusive men’s club. Tapestries were hung on dark-paneled walls with moose heads and baronial swords, and in the center there was a small dance floor.

I pushed through the crowd, looking for my friends. I was ecstatic to be home for Thanksgiving break in the city I loved. The Collegiate boys and the rest of the New York band I had wandered with for three years were there among the family members and celebrities to toast Caroline and John. Some I hadn’t seen since graduation. It would be a warm reunion that night, and although we didn’t know it then, a swan song of sorts. The party was one of the last times we would all be together. Interests and alliances ending, we had begun to scatter, settling in at universities across the country. Some friendships, by chance or effort, would remain; others would fall away. After the first weeks of college and the lonely freedom of being a blank slate, this night was an embrace. Later, on the dance floor, I looked around at the faces of my friends. A skein of shared history bound us, and we were there to celebrate John.

Before I could reach my friends, I found myself face-to-face with his mother. I’d never spoken to her alone before and was surprised that she was standing by herself. Out of nervousness or because I was faithful to a fault, I began to tell her about the man outside—after all, it was
possible
that he was her friend. She glanced at the card but didn’t take it. Instead, her voice, suspended in a captivating intake of breath, finally landed with, “Oh … that’s all right. Are you having fun?” Her kindness was such that she brushed aside my naïveté and the obvious fact that she had no idea who the man was, or if she did, his name wasn’t on the list for a reason. Someone else would not have been as generous, and I was put at ease. She quizzed me about college—she wanted to know all about Brown. Did I think John would like it, she asked, her eyes wide. I knew he’d been held back at Andover—“postgraduate year” was the polite term. We talked about the party. “It’s all going
so
well, don’t you think?” She stood close to me and it felt like a confidence.

Together, we turned to watch John in the middle of the dance floor, a long white scarf flung about his neck. We agreed that he was having fun, and I saw her face light up.
Remember this
, I thought.
Remember this moment, that one day you might be forty-eight and filled, as she is, with this much joy and wonder
.

I had seen him earlier that fall at a party in Cambridge. What are you doing here? we both said, although I knew he was visiting his girlfriend, Jenny, at Harvard. Weeks later, he showed up at my dorm at Brown. “I’m here to see you,” he said coyly. I looked at him for a second, then decided it was a tease. When I told him I already had plans that night, he admitted “Well … I’m here for my interview, too.”

Jenny was with him at Le Club. Funny and smart, with a mane of blond hair and bedroom eyes, she sported an offhanded sexiness that anyone would have envied if she weren’t so approachable. I liked her.
They look happy
, I thought wistfully. Things had ended that spring with the Frisbee whirler. He was miles away in Santa Cruz, and I knew I would never fall in love again. To make up for it, I danced all night.

Later, there was cake and sparklers, a speech by John’s uncle and applause. By midnight, the older crowd began to clear out. We held on till four. The Boys, like lords of the manor, drank stingers out of goblets and smoked cigars with their legs propped up on the banquettes. Some of them even danced.

BOOK: Come to the Edge: A Memoir
4.47Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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