Oy! My Pa - Pa
I didn’t see my father all that much growing up, which resulted in him becoming a kind of mythic figure to me. I probably knew as much about him as some of his more rabid fans. I’d been told stories by other relatives of ours about how he would make plans to come pick up Todd and me and then not show up. This apparently occurred enough so that by the time I was three, when someone would tell me, “Your dad’s coming!” I would shrug as near to indifferently as possible and say, “Maybe.”
Several years later, after his marriage to Elizabeth Taylor had come to an end, he was living in an Asian-looking house in a development called Beverly Estates, located up on a hill overlooking, of all things, other Asian-looking houses in what is now part of Benedict Canyon. Now, my father was not what you might think of as an industrious type person. I mean, if you could get something done for you by someone else, my dad would have it done (obviously with the exception of having sex), so, to assist him in his very basic existence, he had this very capable, imposing black man named Willard, a man who he referred to as his “butler” as people still did in those days. Willard, who actually dressed like a butler, in a white jacket and black pants, pretty much took care of my dad for about twenty years. You might say he made my father—an extremely charming womanizing drug enthusiast—possible. He looked after him and cleaned up after him and even sometimes fed him (on the rare occasions that he ate, because by then he was shooting speed, courtesy of the original Dr. Feelgood, Dr. Max Jacobson).
I remember this one time, when my father was living with this beautiful Scandinavian Playboy model named Ula, my brother and I were going to spend the night. Amazing, right!? A sleepover at Dad’s! But somehow my mom found out that he was living in sin with Ula, who also happened to be a Playboy model. So, when the four of us got back from the movies, there was my mom’s Cadillac in the driveway, with her leaning against it, furiously smoking a cigarette. Then she waited while we gathered up our overnight bags and drove us home in uncomfortable silence, Todd and I staring gloomily into our laps.
On another occasion, when I was about thirteen, I remember taking a walk with him down the road near his home. So, you know, what do you say to someone who really didn’t know how to ask questions and coincidentally happened to be your father? I mean, our exchanges never really went much beyond an assortment of, “How are you?” or “What grade are you in now?” or “What’s your favorite subject?” This time though he turned to me quite casually and said, “I see you’re developing breasts.”
Naturally, I didn’t really know how to respond to this. I mean, maybe it would have been different if he’d been more of a . . . well, a more present
sort of parent, you know? Like where there are a sufficient assortment of other subjects that we could discuss that might, say, provide us with any
kind of context where that exchange could maybe occur, right? But all out there on its own . . . I have to say, well, it was awkward,
to say the least.
Here’s the thing. Very early on in my father’s life it became obvious that he possessed a beautiful singing voice. Untrained, undeveloped, it just emerged—strong, pure, remarkable. So, from a very early age he was singing professionally, performing initially at bar mitzvahs. And somehow there wasn’t a huge leap from being the most gifted bar mitzvah boy to headlining in the Catskills.
I could go back and check one of his two autobiographies, but from what I can recall, my father was winning talent contests and appearing on local radio shows beginning at the age of twelve or thirteen, so that by the time he was fifteen, he had officially been “discovered” by none other than Eddie Cantor.
The upshot of this early career download is, my father was treated like a celebrity from a very
early age. He had six siblings, but his mother doted on him. Clearly, he was her favorite, her Sonny Boy, dark haired and adorable. And it did not stop with his mom. No, from the first, all the girls loved him. And as such, whatever rules there were simply didn’t apply to him. He was young, he was talented, he was handsome, and he was Jewish. What more could you ask for? So by the time he was eighteen, my father was making more money than his
father, and by the time he was twenty-one, he was making more than his father ever had.
So what all this came tumbling down to was that my father could do no wrong, or if he did
do what might ordinarily be considered “wrong” for someone else, for him these were just some of the quirks that might be found in the very blessed and gifted.
In his universe, from the very earliest of formative years, his every gesture, every utterance, every otherwise inappropriate action was not only indulged but in many cases celebrated.
I don’t say this to excuse him, but in a way he was somehow guileless. I don’t know how else to describe it. I mean, he just . . . he always seemed to be able to assume the best about others—especially women, of course—and he was always ALWAYS
up for a good time.
After the developing breasts talk, I think there was a seven-year gap where, instead of merely having no relationship, we had no relationship at all.
Then, suddenly somehow it was 1977, the year everything changed. I was living in New York on the Upper West Side. Star Wars
had opened recently, and I happened to be in it, and my life . . . I mean, what can you say after that? No, I’m really asking you? What can you say? Well, whatever it is, there’s every chance it would be said in a very weird robotic voice. Coincidentally, this happened at almost the exact same time when my term as a teenager was up. But because I had been in Star Wars,
for the first time I could afford my very own apartment. I paid the rent with checks that had my name on them, money I’d earned by playing Princess Leia Organa in a movie that was so popular—so unbelievably popular—that it took whatever my life had been up to that point and transformed it into this very different thing. I mean, sure I’d spent my whole life around fame. Who hasn’t, right? But that
fame was generated by my parents. This
shine was mine.
Well, sort of mine anyway. And by that, I mean that Princess Leia was famous. And I just happened to look amazingly like her—I mean aside from her hair. But this was not dissimilar to the associative fame I’d lucked into with my scandal-generating folks. I now had this new and super-attenuated, dialed-up sci-fi fame and if that wasn’t enough, this fame came with Leia Organa’s salary. And it was with that salary that I rented my very own semi-private apartment between 90th and 91st on Central Park West—300 CPW. Yes, that’s right, the El Dorado. Apartment 12J1 with its actual terrace quietly overlooking . . . other buildings. No, it wasn’t big or fancy, but whatever it was, it was mine. Mine not only to live in, but to decorate and even invite people to. My life had begun, and gosh darn it all to Pete, it was gonna have all the earmarks of adventure and all the Groucho Ear Marx of fun. So there it was—spread out all around me. So, what else could I do but hunker down and live it? Naturally, one of my first stops on this new life’s journey of mine was yes, that’s right—dropping acid.
Acid had become my new best friend, my drug of choice, my companion in chief. It agreed with me—whoever I happened to be at that not so sharp point. Something about it was more of the same for me—but in a way that sameness was oh so very far from redundant. My experience of almost everything and everyone I encountered had always been intense, but I found it difficult to believe that everyone else’s was, too. But I found that when I took acid with whatever friend I was lucky enough to take it with, I knew with an almost sufficient amount of certainty that we felt something close to exactly the same way.
So, it was a hot summer night in Manhattan, one of those nights just made for hallucinating that my friend (and Jerry Garcia’s friend) Mike and I dropped some liquid Owsley LSD and we lay out on a blanket on my terrace, gazing rapturously up at the night sky listening to Keith Jarrett, the Grateful Dead and Bob Dylan playing on the turntable, with the volume turned up high, realizing our way to morning.
That summer, with an ever-increasing appetite for closures—random and otherwise—my open mind stretching ever wider, wider, reveling out there, shimmering in the distance . . . Who was that? It appeared to be—why, yes, it was a man—that was it! A silver-haired, half pajama-clad, plum-eating and Kent-smoking . . . WAS it!?!! YES! It was!
It was my stepfather. That flatulent albeit well-groomed shoe tycoon.
Harry Karl, the man who had disappeared from our lives—1for very, very good reason—more than five years earlier, and to whom I’d never actually said goodbye. Wow . . . yes . . . it was all too crystal clear. Now would be the perfect
time to correct this oversight.
So, with the acid as my guide, I picked up the phone and dialed the inexplicably remembered ten numbers that would deliver me back to Harry. (God, remember dialing?) After enough rings to convince me I’d woken him, he picked up the phone and growled in his five-packs-a-day voice, “Yeah, hello?” prompting me to cheerily say something along the lines of, “Listen, I just wanted to call you because, you know, we did actually live together for twelve years or so and, even though you and ...