CALL ME LENNY

In October of 1988 I created a new performance work for La MaMa’s first floor theatre. Ode To A Cube was a solo work about role play in the life of a performer who has become ambivalent regarding the demands of consistently showing up in front of an audience. He is overwhelmed by the workload, and fears losing sight of his core identity – and neglecting his private life. The work’s structure was a series of episodic vignettes, seen from the audience perspective (as if from a wings of a theatre), revealing the performer preparing offstage and performing onstage. The work also focused on the literal and metaphoric chasms in-between (doubt, fear, fatigue) that risk ruining both work and life. It contained songs and arias by Caccini, Bizet, Verdi, Saint-Saens, Ponchielli, and Schumann. A positive review by Mel Gussow on October 27th in the NY Times prompted Leonard Bernstein to contact La MaMa and reserved 2 seats. The show was held for 10 minutes or so, and in the pre-show half-light a pair of spectral silhouettes finally walked in and were seated.

I don’t remember if I knew he was there, though I doubt the people around me could keep their anticipation verbally restrained. During my bows I heard that unmistakable voice call “Brava!”. The Maestro and his friend came backstage to the small dressing room that hid behind the performance space. Clearly having come from some prior swank event, both were dressed in full white tie and tails, with LB in a black cape and silver-tipped black classic cowboy boots. His friend was a cordial gent, maybe around 45. Face to face with this legendary composer and conductor, I chose to call him Maestro, but he insisted on Lenny. He seemed genuinely taken with my performance, and especially drawn to the painted eyeball glasses that I wore while singing Verdi’s Stride La Vampa (in a gold lame jumpsuit) and Bizet Habanera (to a stuffed chicken). I handed him the glasses (which he proceeded to put on) “Now they are yours.” He was thrilled, and began to remove a gold and diamond pin from the lapel of his tuxedo, saying “Then I’d like to give you this pin that had been given to me by the Vienna Philharmonic.” I was aware of the significance of his ultimately triumphant ordeal in getting that orchestra to embrace both himself and the Jewish composer Gustav Mahler, and assuming that the pin represented something momentous, I came up with something like “Oh I can’t accept that…” “Well, I have to give you something…” he reluctantly gave me his grey Swatch (a then fashionable plastic wristwatch, which over time I’ve lost).

After inviting me and my then manager Liz Dunn to accompany them somewhere – we suggested our usual hang, Pangea on 2nd avenue and 12th street. Riding in the back of his limo I attempted to navigate “Driver, can you please turn here onto 2nd”, with Lenny interrupting “Don’t call him driver, his name is Joseph!” Yes, we were in this personal space within his huge public life. As we arrived and the others got out, he turned and kissed me, full on French kiss. His eyes were penetrating, pleading, playful, endless.

When we walked into Pangea the entire place seemed to know he was there, like some higher vibration, whether emanating from him, or projected onto his celebrity. We sat at the front bar waiting for a table in the back room. With each cigarette lit, he made a small mark in a matchbook, keeping tally. We talked about his Young People’s Concerts, about Beethoven, and my background. I mentioned that we’d once met in 1979 at a party at the Morton Street brownstone of Tom Prichard and Billy Jarecki of Mädderlake – I was in drag with Tanya Ransom. After 5 years of focusing on my work as a visual artist, I’d recently gone back to performing. This was the year that I made my debut at Tanya’s first New Wave Night at The Anvil. In drag I was now Dagmar Onassis – the fictional daughter of the great Greek American soprano Maria Callas, and the Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis. “Lenny, tell me about Maria!”. “No, you are La Callas”. “No, please tell me – what was she like?” “She was pure electricity, on fire.”

We were seated at a 4 top in the non-smoking back room. When he lit up a cigarette some people around us were aghast (which surprised me, come on!), and I thought we’ll now see how far his power will assist him. It did. My impression of him was that he was so finely attuned to the present that he might be easily bored, that he craved attention, stimulation, beauty, and contact. I think I can tell by looking into someone’s eyes whether it’s needing attention for attention’s sake – which is ego, or seeking attention toward engagement – that’s the work. He seemed oblivious to what was around him, and devoted to us. After dinner and back in the limo he invited me to go home with him that night, but I demurred. I was in the middle of a 2-week run, and this was all a bit overwhelming. Did he like me, my work, or both?

He returned to see me perform the following week. All I remember is that Karen Finley, Lucinda Childs, and C. Carr were in the audience, and in the middle of the performance he had a coughing fit. We invited him to our closing party at Beatricia Sagar’s loft on Broadway and Houston, and he showed up with a few young friends, announcing “All of them brilliant!”. He then kissed my hand. Luckily Bea had a bottle of Scotch, and Hebe Joy had brought her camera. He was wearing the eyeball glasses I’d given him.

After Ode To A Cube closed, he invited me and Liz to attend his Carnegie Hall concert on November 8th, with him conducting the Vienna Philharmonic. From our house seats we were eye level with the podium, and his legendary conducting vigor was on full display as he hurled through Mahler’s 6th Symphony, at times literally jumping into the air. I wondered if he was wearing that pin… After the concert we went backstage and got on the long line outside his dressing room. He was seated way down the hallway with a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other, flanked by the likes of the soprano Christa Ludwig and others acolytes I didn’t recognize or can’t recall. When we finally faced him, he reached up with his cigarette hand, grabbed the back of my neck, and pulled my face down onto his, planting a long kiss on my mouth. He then released me and went into a coughing fit. I stood there, afraid to budge, while his cohorts regarded me, blankly, like the coughing was my fault, maybe I’d slipped him a feather, or perhaps some public barrier of decorum had been crossed. I thought “Oh great, here’s the twink that did the Maestro in.”

But there was more to it than that. Earlier that week, he’d called me from a phone in his limo on the way to the airport. He wanted me to fly down to Miami to join him. I can’t remember exactly how or why I’d declined his invitation – whether it was my schedule, or maybe I just wasn’t attracted to him, anticipating the inevitable erotic intimacy. I couldn’t see how I fit in.

What I did see was two gay men (or curious creative souls) meeting over a confluence of man-made (by me) constructs: uptown vs downtown, technical apex vs untrained vocal interloper onto classical terrain, generosity vs fear, age vs youth, glory and power vs shy queer Jersey boy. No, it wasn’t that – I knew that he got me. If I had traveled with him, beyond the erotic, it was that I wasn’t in the mood to be tolerated as an appendage by the people around him who wouldn’t know me as an artist, and might see me as the latest destroyer of his sanctified public reputation. I didn’t want a new lover, I wanted validation for my work. I was straddling genres, and messing with traditions, and here I was with an open portal to a god.

The music I was singing in Ode To A Cube was the popular music of its time. Not yet trained but realizing I had a vocal facility, the world of classical music (which I first encountered as a dancer) felt like a vast treasure chest to dive into, and utilize in my performances. I was aware that the classical music world was super conservative, all about purity, tradition, excellence, and reverence. The fact that Lenny came to my show twice was a shot of endorsement flying over any less understanding murmurings. His shot of validation led me to more confidence in my instincts, abilities, and choices. I cherish the fact that he ventured far from his stomping ground to discover something new that he could relate to and applaud.

While he was in Miami there was a photo of him in the NY Times playing with a dolphin in a pool. If I had traveled with him, I might have been in that pool, upstaged by the dolphin and ignored by the selective press. Less than 2 years later I was flying over the Midwest returning home after performing my newest work Love Of A Poet. In my window seat I read in a newspaper that Lenny had died. It was October 14th, 1990. I thought that it would have been nice to have shared with him Love Of A Poet – my take on Robert Schumann’s 1840 song cycle Dichterliebe. The music critic in Minneapolis had trashed it, but I think Lenny would have loved it. He loved Schumann.

© John Kelly 2024