Thank goodness for parents with deep archives! My mother emailed me this scan recently of a piece that I wrote for my sophomore college English class that my teacher liked so much, it ended up in the student newspaper. In 1979, we were lined up at gas stations to get our rations based on whether we had odd- or even-numbered license plates. I wrote this when I was 18 years old.
The first time I saw our nation’s capitol was on July 4th 1976, the Bi-centennial. It was hot and crowded, and I had to stand in line for half an hour just to use the porta-potty. Half a million people crammed into the National Mall that day. Up on a temporary stage, Vice-President Nelson Rockefeller rang the Liberty Bell (flown in from Philadelphia for the occasion) with descendents of the original founders. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir sang while red, white, and blue smoke poured from the platform. I recall watching the heavy smoke drift across the reflecting pool until a sudden change in the wind brought it back over the crowd, and half-expected to hear the choir sing “God bless America…cough, cough…land that I love…cough…”
The day concluded with the biggest fireworks show that I had yet seen, followed by laser lights shooting out of the top of the Washington monument. (To the youngsters reading this, lasers were considered very cool in the 1970’s…)
I have visited D.C. many times since then, but that first visit left such an impression that I decided to take my own kids back to celebrate Independence Day this year, exactly 30 years later.
If you read my Valentine’s Day column (My Celebrity Girlfriend), you already know that Lee Grant was my first real movie actress crush twenty-five years ago. Since then, I have watched her ascend as a respected director and producer (and, of course, as the mother of Dinah Manoff!)
Tonight (3/12/2001, 7:00 PM EST) Lifetime TV will be presenting Lee Grant: A Rich Past and Future as part of their Intimate Portrait series. Let me say front and center that I have not seen this show yet, so I cannot review it, but Lee Grant has led a fascinating life that is worthy of study.
Born Lyova Haskell Rosenthal in New York, she made her stage debut at age 4 in 1932 at the New York Metropolitan Opera. As a teenager, she won The Critics’ Circle Award for her role in Detective Story, and won an Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actress in 1951 for the same role in the William Wyler film version of the Broadway play.
Around that time, Lee met and married author Arnold Manoff. Manoff began his writing career as an interviewer of American Life Histories for the WPA Federal Writer’s Project during the New Deal. By the 1940’s, he was a successful novelist, playwright, and screenwriter. In the 1950’s, the progressive couple socialized with other Jewish, left-leaning New York intellectuals, a circle of people who would be placed on McCarthy’s Un-American blacklist for their alleged ties to Communist groups. In 1957, they were both called before McCarthy’s House of Un-American Activities Committee to testify. Lee was asked to turn in her husband for being a member of the Communist Party. She refused, pleading the Fifth Amendment, and was blacklisted. She spent the next ten years teaching acting, writing under pseudonyms, and raising their daughter Dinah and Manoff’s two children from a previous marriage (one of those children is Tom Manoff, now a composer and classical music critic for NPR).
In 1964, Lee’s name was taken off the blacklist and she resumed her career, winning several awards, including the Obie, the Emmy, and the Oscar. In the late 70’s, Lee participated in The American Film Institute‘s program for first-time women directors and moved from feature films to establishing her own independent documentary production company, specializing in social issues such as gun control, breast cancer, and abuse. In 1987, Lee won another Academy Award for her documentary about homelessness Down and Out in America, a critical examination of the results of “Reaganomics” upon America’s working class. (The musical score for that film was written by Tom Manoff).
In the past few years, she has directed over twenty-five of Lifetime’s Intimate Portrait biographies of women. Yes, she is directing her own biography, which I admit is a little weird, but should prove interesting.
Currently, Lee has a part in The Amati Girls which airs on the Fox Family Channel this week (3/14/2001, 8:00 PM EST). The film stars many of my favorite actors, including Mercedes Ruehl, Cloris Leachman, Sean Young, Paul Sorvino, Sam McMurray, Robert Picardo, and … Dinah Manoff. She has also been cast in Mulholland Drive, a new film by David Lynch currently in post-production.
HEARTS AND FLOWERS
The other night, as I was helping my beautiful eldest daughter with her classroom Valentines, I wondered wistfully how many hearts she soon would break. How many little boys will fix their gaze at her feet, afraid to look her in the eye lest their feelings betray them? And how many pretty little girls grow up to be graceful and lovely women, never knowing the chaos they have left in their wake?
On this day of hearts and flowers, when the kids are all in bed and the kitchen has been cleaned and the dog lies sleeping on the sofa, I am thankful that the little boy that was me finally found the words to woo his own heart’s desire. Those anxious moments of younger days, when love meant words unspoken and aching hearts, have mercifully been replaced with the warm comfort of home and hearth.
Those of you men who are lucky enough to have an adoring woman in your life, give her a kiss today and tell her that you love her, and that you know how lucky you are.
If she is the generous sort, tell her of the little girl in the second grade to whom you gave a ring that you found in a Crackerjack ® box — or the young lady in college whose name you never knew, but you always sat near her so you could smell her hair — or the bewitching actress that you always wanted to meet…
MY CELEBRITY GIRLFRIEND
When I was fourteen, I discovered women. I had liked girls for almost as long as I can remember, but with the onset of the teenage years, I and my peers suddenly noticed the enhanced charms of adult women: their figures, their mannerisms, their airy sophistication that teenagers, try as they might, just cannot duplicate.
However, whereas my friends trumpeted the merits of the various Charlie’s Angels, or debated the relative cuteness of Linda Ronstadt over Olivia Newton-John, I was drawn to the great movie actresses of the past such as Ingrid Bergman, Barbara Stanwyck, and Myrna Loy.
Although I now think that my choices show great refinement on my part, at the time it was a difficult position; at least my friends could fantasize about actually meeting and even wooing the objects of their affection, whereas the women I admired were but time lost images on a silver screen.
Then in 1975, I became enamored with a living, breathing actress — the wonderful Lee Grant. She charmed me in Shampoo, then captured my heart with her short-lived TV show Fay. In that series, she played a recently divorced mother of a teenage daughter who has to learn all over again about dating. Her character was smart, funny, and enchanting … and yes, she was old enough to be my mom, but I didn’t care, she completely captivated me. Unfortunately, the series was cancelled after only a handful of episodes, but she did win an Emmy that year.
It would be some while before I would become so enamored with a TV actress again, but a few years later, in 1978, although I was very busy with school and work, I made sure never to miss an episode of the TV satire Soap. As fondly remembered as that show is now for it’s deft writing and for the many careers that it launched, I watched for one reason only: a young actress named Dinah Manoff.
Dinah is a knock out. With her auburn hair, her pouty lips, that upturned nose, and those limpid brown eyes … I was completely taken. I reveled in her every scene, and I came to know her voice, her gestures, even her moods with that one-way intimacy that television creates. And the best part of it was this: she really was my age, and in my secret fantasies, I really could meet her and sweep her off of her feet.
In 1979, I went off to college at UCLA and Film School. I was going to be a screenwriter. Dinah, meanwhile, had embarked on an admirable acting career, including the big screen version of Grease, Robert Redford’s Ordinary People, and a Tony for her performance in Neil Simon’s I Oughta Be in Pictures. I went to all her films, of course, and though I was but a poor student, I paid front-row prices to see her on stage when the Broadway play came to Los Angeles.
And somewhere during this time, I discovered this interesting tidbit: Dinah Manoff is the daughter of Lee Grant.
Lee Grant’s career had also flourished. She had gone from being an actress to becoming a producer and a director. In 1980, I attended the premier of a beautiful little film that she directed entitled Tell Me a Riddle. In the lobby of the theater that night, I ran into, of all people, Dom DeLuise, and we chatted amiably about the film. That part of the story may not seem relevant, but it helps to illustrate one point: when you live in L.A., and especially when you are involved with the film business, you run into celebrities all the time. Celebrities aren’t even celebrities any more, they’re just co-workers. I have friends who have become celebrities, and have met celebrities who have become friends.
So the idea of meeting my secret movie star girlfriend wasn’t so crazy anymore.
By 1984, I was out of school and actually working in the film industry. I still had ties to UCLA, though, and liked to attend the many programs that featured film makers talking about their own films. I found out that Lee Grant would be appearing with a new film that she had directed and which starred her daughter, Dinah Manoff. It was rumored that Dinah was going to show up for the event. A friend of mine who was working the show also informed me that, after the program, there would be a small invitation-only gathering for people involved with the film.
Up to that point, I had never mentioned my infatuation to another living soul. But I spilled my guts to my friend, so he could fully understand how important it was for me to get into that reception. After all those years, I knew that this was going to be my one real chance to meet Dinah Manoff.
The film was very good, and Dinah, of course, was radiant. My friend, who had never really noticed Dinah before, was also struck by her charm, and he got me into the reception.
Unfortunately, Dinah was not there. She had not been there during the screening, was not there for the Q&A session afterward, and was not there when the reception started.
I went in anyway. At the very least, I was certainly interested in meeting Lee Grant if given an opportunity. But also, in my heart, I was certain that Dinah would still show up at the last minute.
It was a grand entrance, a real movie star moment. She swept in right past me, all grace and magic, hailed by everyone who saw her. Her laugh filled the room, all eyes were upon her, and she was the instant hit of the party. I had seen her onstage, had seen her larger than life on the big screen, but now to be standing in the same room with her, I could see she was even more enchanting than I had ever realized. My heart was in my mouth.
…and my feet were glued to the floor.
Remember all that stuff I said about celebrities being just people, and how this was my one big chance to meet the girl of my celluloid dreams? Well all that went right out the window. Suddenly, I was a gawky, awkward, fourteen-year-old teenage boy again, who was too nervous to ask his favorite girl to the dance.
Dinah was fifteen feet away from me, lovely and delightful and the center of attention. My friend tried to egg me on, to just get in there and introduce myself and tell her how wonderful her performance was and be smart and charming and irresistible and maybe I could call her sometime to discuss a screenplay I was writing for which she would be just perfect and I was seriously afraid that I was going to throw up.
All my confidence and sense of self-worth had scampered out the door at the first sight of her, and I was confused and scared and a little depressed. Feeling like a complete fool for even thinking that I would ever be anything to her, I turned to go.
Even now, years later, what happened next replays in my mind with a clarity that might otherwise only come from seeing a favorite movie over and over again.
I paused at the door to speak to a friend or two, wishing them a good night, when I felt a delicate hand on my shoulder. I turned and found myself face to face with… Lee Grant.
“Are you leaving already?”, she asked, as though she were the hostess of a party and I was a revered invited guest … as though we had ever met before in my life!
She asked me my name, and we began to talk. We talked about the movie I had seen that night, I mentioned some of her other films that I had admired; she asked about me, about my writing, about my ambitions. It was a very pleasant, very engaging conversation with a thoughtful and fascinating woman. She made me feel completely at ease, and after we chatted for a few minutes, she took my arm in hers and said “Come on, there’s someone I want you to meet.”
And just like that, Lee Grant marched me right up to her exquisite daughter, Dinah Manoff.
This is how I remember it: the crowd that was around her parted like the Red Sea, and it seemed to me that everyone stopped talking as our eyes met. Somehow, “Lee” had made all the anxiety flow out of me, and my confidence and sense of purpose had returned. I felt strong and tall and handsome and my smile was genuine and reassuring.
With a straightforward “this is my daughter Dinah Manoff”, Lee introduced me and called me a screenwriter.
“How do you do”, said she. “Pleased to meet you” said I, and we shook hands.
There was just a moment of silence, and I could not believe my providence as Dinah looked at me and smiled that killer smile with those pouty lips and those limpid brown eyes. In that instant our destinies were locked together.
Then Lee Grant slapped her daughter on the arm and exclaimed “See … this is the kind of boy I want you to meet!”
Suddenly, Dinah’s eyes were no longer gazing at mine, they were glaring at her mom. “MOTHER!” she cried out in exasperation, then to me she said “I’m sorry!” and the two turned and hurried away to continue their argument elsewhere.
The crowd followed, and I was left standing alone, with my confidence and my destiny and my heart all in a smoldering pile on the floor.
I was certain of only one thing: if a mother had selectively gone through every word in the English language and strung them randomly together, there is no single sentence she may have uttered that could guarantee more that her daughter would not want anything to do with a young man than this — “See…this is the kind of boy I want you to meet!”
A few years later, I moved to New York and met the woman I would soon marry. My old friends have pointed out to me that my wife bears a passing resemblance to Dinah Manoff. We live far from California now with our three children, my Hollywood days well behind me. I never saw the real Dinah again, though I hear she has since married and has a family of her own.
As a writer, I work hard to craft just the right words (and plenty of them!) when I want to tell a tale; but as a modern man, I find it just as difficult now to express out loud what is in my heart as it was when I was a slouching teenager. Women are surprisingly understanding of these sorts of things; I think they realize that we’ve always been awkward, and perhaps that helps them to understand that there was probably another young man gazing at them once, stumbling for words.
After the candy and the cards and the roses, if she is very understanding, perhaps she wouldn’t mind if you called that girl from the second grade and wished her a happy Valentine’s Day, too. We all need to hear those words sometimes.
Dinah, in case you’re listening, it’s me … the kind of boy your mother wanted you to meet. I hope you’re well.