DAILY: May 24, 2019

“Sardines” by Mike Goldberg, 1955. The Smithsonian American Art Museum. It could be a portrait of Donald Trump.

(1) Sometimes the awful critical mass of Donald Trump – The Tacky Know-Nothing Fascist Vulgarian –  reaches a new ugly low and one feels a new sense of urgency, as well as a deep and troubling embarrassment for the country that such a lowlife con man is our president and, moreover, some of our fellow countrymen continue to support him and wallow around in the muck he makes of everything he touches.  Yesterday the addled bloated blatherer told us that he was a “extremely stable genius.”  He unleashed a dangerous attack on the First Amendment in his continued war on the free press.  Read the New York Times editorial about that here.  He is preparing us for his pardons of soldiers convicted of war crimes in another prong of his not only normalizing cruelty and violence but also giving it the imprimatur of his office and, as he does with racism, an official agency.  More deaths of children have been reported in our detention camps where they have been separated from their parents and kept and treated as prisoners, which is an indictment of our very decency as is Trump’s ascent to the office of the presidency at this moment in history.  He has now officially begun to use the Justice Department as a weapon against his perceived enemies among those who have investigated him.  Read about that here.   He retweeted a nasty, false Nancy Pelosi video that has been a staple of the fever swamp internet sites of the radical right. He continues to warn of war with Iran.  His regime announced plans Wednesday to let homeless shelters and other recipients of federal housing money discriminate against transgender people by turning them away or placing them alongside others of their birth sex — refusing to let them share facilities with people of the same gender identity.  He continues to lie and gaslight re: everything from the Mueller Report to his own stability and genius. And he, this monstrous orb of orange mendacity and meanness, belittles others as a kind of manifestation of how his being in the Oval Office belittles the country. He is both deeply unserious while at the same time seriously dangerous.

I am reminded of  these lines from Frank O’Hara’s poem Why I Am Not a Painter in which he writes of his friend, Abstract Expressionist artist  Michael Goldberg, who was beginning to work on his painting “Sardines” when O’Hara dropped by his studio in the 1950s.

One day I am thinking of

a color: orange. I write a line

about orange.  Pretty soon it is

a whole page of words, not lines.

Then another page. There should be

so much more, not of orange, of words, of

how terrible orange is

and life. …


(2)  One of the best cover stories I ever did for Vanity Fair was on Emma Thompson.  (You can read an excerpt of it in the Meta-Memoir feature now up here at sessumsMagazine.com).  In fact, I was rummaging through a drawer the other day and found this tape of her two messages she left me on my answering machine – remember those? – after the cover story came out.  This sort of captures the woman I really wanted to honor with the story.  I am still happy that she was so happy with it.

Emma Thompson at 60 photographed by Elizabeth Weinberg. All her life, she knew who she was. Now the roles she had embraced — mother, wife, performer — have her asking, “Am I any of those things? And if I’m not, who am I?” Photo by James Gourley



Emma’s message.


Here is a story by Cara Buckley on Emma in the New York Times.

If anyone did not expect to have a midlife crisis, it was Emma Thompson. Being quite sure about things has been a central organizing principle of her life. It has informed most every character she has played.

The kindly aristocrat in “Howards End.” The lovelorn housekeeper in “The Remains of the Day.” The bonneted sister of “Sense and Sensibility.” The batty Hogwarts professor, the warty Nanny McPhee, the fusspot creator of Mary Poppins, and the caustic television host in her new film, “Late Night,” due June 7. Even when they are tearfully coming apart, the characters share with Thompson an ironclad sense of self and of how things ought to be.

Time did not soften this Thompsonian resolve, or so it seemed. This year, after learning that John Lasseter, who lost his top job at Pixar and Disney for unwanted touching, was named head of the studio producing a film she was working on, Thompson publicly quit and flamed the studio, and Lasseter, in a scathing open letter. A few months before that, she showed up in white sneakers to her knighthood ceremony, which was led by Prince William. When the English press affected shock, Thompson shot back that the shoes were designed by Stella McCartney, thank you very much, and actually quite posh.

It came as a great surprise to Thompson, then, to suddenly find herself on uncertain ground occasioned by her 60th birthday in April. It was not that she balked at her age. Suggestions of “60 is the new 40!” make her eyes roll. “The denial of aging is unhealthy,” she sniffed in a recent chat. “It’s always been bollocks.” But she was flooded by discomfiting questions of her own about roles she had enthusiastically embraced throughout her life: as daughter, wife, mother, performer. She was still all of those things, but now she’s on the verge of being an empty nester.

“There’s lots of these roles that are in fact imposed on you by society, for years and years and years, then you suddenly go — am I any of those things? And if I’m not, who am I?” Thompson said.

“The eternal question, which I never thought I’d ask, is who am I?” she continued. “I was always so sure. As it turns out, I have no idea.”

Thompson had scheduled our interview between her first ever trip to Las Vegas, which she found “eye-watering,” and an appearance at the Extinction Rebellion environmental protest in London, where she was filmed speechifying into a mic in a pink boat surrounded by police.

She had gone to Vegas to promote two new movies at a convention of theater owners: “Late Night,” which Mindy Kaling wrote for her, and “Last Christmas,” which Thompson wrote with the English artist Bryony Kimmings, and which is loosely based, somehow, on the song of the same name by the ’80s group Wham!

Above, Thompson and Mindy Kaling.

In Vegas, Thompson had an 11-hour break between presentations, during which time she gambled, napped, ate and drank. By the end of the day, she felt like she had been there for 50 years, wondered if that was what everybody in Vegas felt, and was seized by the need to escape lest she suffocate and die.

The Extinction Rebellion protesters, by contrast, exhilarated her, so much so she made a short film in their support. Thompson is a lifelong environmentalist and tries to stay optimistic, having read that optimists live longer, yet, like so many earthlings these days, has trouble warding off eco-despair. “Cara,” she said, “we are in a race, as you know, against consciousness and catastrophe.”

We were sitting in a suite at a swanky Beverly Hills hotel that was all genteel charcoals and dove grays. Against it, Thompson was a kinetic pop. Her platinum plume of hair was in a state of floppy disarray suggestive of multiple rakings by harried fingers, and she had on her famous Stella McCartney sneakers along with an ensemble the color of lime sorbet, which I murmured appreciation for; it was a palate cleanser, just like her! “It’s pistachio, darling,” she corrected.

Americans tend to view Thompson the way they do many of her fellow dames — Dench, Mirren, Smith — as a beloved no-nonsense Mary Poppins type highly adept at setting people straight. But back home in England, Thompson’s outspokenness and environmentalism have at times put her in the cross hairs of the country’s outrage-industrial complex. The press pilloried her for describing England, in the run-up to the Brexit vote, as a “cake-filled, misery-laden gray old island,” and gloated when an irate farmer came close to drenching her with manure during an anti-fracking protest in 2016.

Thompson professes to not care a bit. “The Murdochian press are a law unto themselves,” she said. She is far more concerned not just with the fate of the planet but also the minor matter of figuring out who exactly she is. “I have some questions that I hope to answer in the next 10 years,” she said.

In her 50s and now 60s, the parts coming her way are far more interesting, Thompson said. Photo by Elizabeth Weinberg for The New York Times.


Thompson grew up in an acting family. Her father, Eric Thompson, created and performed the English version of “The Magic Roundabout” children’s show, and her mother is the Scottish actress Phyllida Law. Thompson went to Cambridge, joined the Cambridge Footlights comedy sketch revue, befriended Stephen Fry, dated Hugh Laurie and, in the late ’80s, fell in love with and married Kenneth Branagh, whom she met while working on a World War II-era television drama.

A few years later, the director James Ivory cast her in her breakthrough role in the British class drama “Howards End” as the well-heeled, earnest Margaret Schlegel, who gets involved with Anthony Hopkins’s upper-crust widower. She won an Oscar for her performance, and landed two more Oscar nominations (lead and supporting actress) the following year, for “The Remains of the Day” and “In the Name of the Father.” Branagh, meanwhile, had taken a shine to Thompson’s “Howards End” co-star, Helena Bonham Carter, whom he’d worked with on his 1994 film, “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.” Branagh and Carter ended up in a relationship and he and Thompson divorced in 1995, a year that would prove a major inflection point in Thompson’s life.

The producer Lindsay Doran had caught a television broadcast of Thompson’s comedy sketches, and asked her to adapt Jane Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility.” Directed by Ang Lee and starring Thompson, Kate Winslet and Hugh Grant, the 1995 film was a global hit. Thompson went on to win an Oscar for best adapted screenplay, making her the only person to win Academy Awards for both acting and writing. The film also starred Greg Wise as the dashing, dastardly John Willoughby. She and Wise, seven years her junior, ended up hitting it off splendidly. They married in 2003 and have a daughter, Gaia, who is 19, and an adopted son, Tindyebwa Agaba, a former refugee and child soldier. Wise’s recent gigs include appearing as Lord Mountbatten on “The Crown” and a winning turn on “The Great Celebrity Bake Off.” Thompson said that after she was knighted, Wise asked her if he could be known as Lady Greg. No, alas, per Order of the British Empire rules.

Thompson had shot to international stardom in her 30s, but she said that by the time she hit her 40s, she was being offered the dullest of roles — she guesses because she could still be thought of, “in a pinch,” as sexual. But once she got into her 50s and past all that, the parts that came her way were far more interesting.

They included the finicky “Mary Poppins” author P.L. Travers in “Saving Mr. Banks” (“Such a wonderful role. I even managed to live with the perm”); the harridan chain-smoker of a mother in Barney Thomson,” about a Scottish serial killer; and, in Noah Baumbach’s “The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected),” the drunken wife of Dustin Hoffman’s narcissistic washed-up artist.

Thompson adored working with Hoffman, and said it was only afterward that she learned of accusations of impropriety made against him — Hoffman responded to one allegation with an apology, and when others surfaced, denied wrongdoing — and that she would have to talk to him before considering working with him again.On the Lasseter matter, she was far more clear. Though he apologized for his behavior, Thompson admonished the studio, Skydance Animation, for potentially forcing employees into deciding between uncomfortably working with Lasseter or not working at all. After her letter went public, Thompson said, thanks came in from others who walked away from Skydance jobs for the same reason. “They’re the ones who are brave,” she said. “I can go onto another project and get paid. For other people, it’s not so easy.”


I asked her about how men like Lasseter who have been #Me Too-ed might come back.

“I don’t want to be thinking about men’s problems at the moment, thanks so much,” Thompson said. She said she had given the issue some thought and acknowledged it was thorny, but added, speaking of the men, “I’m sure they’ll grow up and sort it out. Because it’s their problem, not mine.” She would far rather talk about women. “If you get born into this body, it’s a different journey,” she said. “Whether you like it or not.”

Thompson’s big beef with most roles written for women is that they have gone from one extreme to the other, from the hopelessly domestic support-or-pine-for-a-man characters she felt swamped with early in her career, to, these days, women being straight-out badasses.

“Women now invent the weapons and shoot the weapons and are tough and not allowed to cry,” Thompson said. “We skipped from being in the kitchen to being in the tank, and there’s nothing in between. So we still have failed to explore and bring to the screen what being a woman is.”

An exception, she said, was “Late Night,” which Thompson described as one of the best scripts she’d read.

In it, Thompson plays a sharp-tongued late-night host, Katherine Newbury, who reluctantly hires a token woman (Kaling) for her all-male writing staff in an effort to keep her show relevant and on the air. Kaling wrote the part for Thompson (Vanity Fair called it her “best role in years”) because she needed someone who could get away with saying almost anything. “I knew Katherine would be cruel at times but always needed to be funny,” Kaling said.

Thompson and Kaling crafted Newbury as a composite of hard-driving people they knew. Like Thompson, Newbury is tough and complex. Unlike her, she is an anti-feminist who does nothing to pull other women up, at least until she feels she has to. “She’s very single-minded, shall we say, which is generally thought of as a male trait,” Thompson said. “And men are allowed to be single-minded, aren’t they?”

Circling back to Thompson’s earlier years, I asked James Ivory what it was about Thompson that prompted him to cast her in “Howards End.” He replied that he was struck by her groundedness and brights. She was simply, he said, so very sane.

“A lot of actors and actresses are very fearful and timid and cover that up with all kinds of strange behavior you could call crazy, forever thinking they’re not good, that they’re failing,” Ivory told me. “There was none of that with her.” She also smoothed out some on-set tensions he had with Hopkins, becoming the go-between both men trusted. By the time filming ended, Ivory said, he felt he had a great friend in Thompson. He was also a bit forlorn: “There was really a sense of loss that this delightful person wasn’t going to be around every day.”

Thompson has this effect on people. That includes me — even though I spent just 90 minutes with her — and Nisha Ganatra, who directed “Late Night.”

During production, Ganatra said she studied Thompson closely, trying to figure out how the actress seemed to live her life with such brilliance and grace. She concluded it had a lot to do with Thompson being present and humble. Ganatra watched as Thompson passed out Italian chocolates late one night to the crew, and reached up to absent-mindedly stroke the leaves of a tree she walked under one rainy day.

Ganatra said she found herself wanting Thompson to be her confidant and her life coach. “I wanted to be her,” Ganatra said.

Indeed, Thompson may profess to not know who she is anymore, but to the rest of the world, it is, as always, crystal clear.

“I asked her, ‘What’s it like to have all the answers?’” Ganatra said. “She just laughed and said, ‘I don’t.’ But she does.”


(3) SMALL-TOWN HUDSON.  When you were wondering where you left that Haagen Dazs with a bit of vanilla left in it and discover that Teddy found it before you did.


(4) Next week’s THE NEW YORKER cover, “The Shining” by Barry Blitt


(5) R.I.P. Baby Jane Dexter

Here is her obit in the Washington Post by Matt Schudel

Baby Jane Dexter, a cabaret singer who overwhelmed audiences with her robust vocal style and eclectic repertoire and who brought a tortured sense of poignancy to torch songs, died May 21 at a retirement facility for entertainers in Englewood, N.J. She was 72.

She had diabetes, heart ailments and an infection, said a sister, Dallas-Lee Brower.

Ms. Dexter first gained acclaim in the 1970s, when she appeared in New York nightclubs as a bluesy singer with a powerful voice and presence.

She dropped out of show business for a decade before returning to the stage in the 1990s, using elements from her personal life — her size, her experience of sexual assault and depression — to heighten the emotional intensity of her performances, which were often so intimate that they seemed to be exercises in group therapy.

“Baby Jane Dexter wields an eerie power and glory rarely found on a cabaret stage,” critic John Hoglund wrote in Back Stage East in 2006. “She has the uncanny ability to unearth new meaning in evergreens and to personalize torchy ballads with a sense of hope. There are few people in cabaret capable of expressing such depth of feeling.”

Ms. Dexter once appeared in the Broadway production of “Hair” and, early in her career, sang in rock and blues bands as a would-be Janis Joplin. After turning to cabaret, she drew on material from across the musical universe, not just Broadway show tunes. She seamlessly blended songs associated with Bessie Smith, Frank Sinatra, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Abbey Lincoln, the Beatles, Stephen Sondheim, Tom Waits, Rufus Wainwright and the Four Tops.

“What I’m about is not a particular category,” Ms. Dexter told the Los Angeles Times in 1993. “To me, the music is what comes first. I don’t look for any particular kinds of tunes, I look for songs that say something to me, and then I try to find the way that I can do them — musically and lyrically.”

She developed a new show each year, but audiences came to recognize her signature songs as slowed-down, introspective readings of Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young” and R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts”:

When you’re sure you’ve had enough

Of this life

Well hang on

Don’t let yourself go

’Cause everybody cries

And everybody hurts sometimes

“She had a real commitment to storytelling,” her longtime pianist, Ross Patterson, said Wednesday in an interview. “She chose songs that spoke to her lyrically. There was something she needed to say in those lyrics.”

After restarting her career in 1991, Ms. Dexter headlined at cabaret and jazz clubs in New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Washington. She released several albums and was, Billboard magazine noted, “a perfect example of raw talent on the verge of becoming a star.”

Beyond the world of cabaret, the stardom never came. Increasingly beset by health problems, financial worries and emotional turmoil, Ms. Dexter nonetheless managed to channel those anxieties into her raw, painfully honest performances.

“She was angry, emotionally fragile, yet onstage she was this force of nature,” James Gavin, author of “Intimate Nights: The Golden Age of New York Cabaret,” said in an interview. “She had been through such tremendous personal struggle. Singing is what saved her.”

Jane Nesbitt Dexter — who always gave her age as “timeless” — was born Aug. 4, 1946, in Baltimore. She grew up mostly in Garden City, N.Y., where her father was a dermatologist and her mother a physical education teacher and actress.

Ms. Dexter had a flair for music and acting “out of the womb,” her sister said. Because her mother, also named Jane Dexter, was part of the actors’ union, she had to get a different stage name, ultimately settling on Baby Jane Dexter.

During her teens, she was sexually assaulted and also sustained what her family later recognized as an undiagnosed brain injury from a motorcycle accident. While trying to get established in cabaret in the 1970s, she drove a taxicab and held other jobs. Through the 1980s, she had a long, abusive relationship with a heroin addict and gained an immense amount of weight.

“I got lost. I got derailed, depressed,” she told the Los Angeles Times. “I had that thing where you lie there and you know that all you have to do is stand up and put one foot in front of the other to get moving again. But I couldn’t stop staring at the ceiling long enough to stand up.”

At the urging of friends, she broke free of the relationship and returned to performing. During her cabaret shows, her banter with her audiences often turned confessional. She also led music therapy and counseling programs for at-risk teens around the country.

Survivors include two sisters, Dallas-Lee Brower of Barrow, Alaska, and Kim-Tucker Archer of Round Hill, Va.; and a brother, Scott Dexter of Garden City.

To Ms. Dexter, the years of depression and bad relationships were not entirely futile.

“Every amount of wasted time,” she told the New York Daily News in 1996, “every poor choice, every mistake, every single thing that happened to me went into making me understand who I am and what I am. That’s why I came back to singing again. It was really about moving forward.”

Here is Baby Jane singing “Everybody Hurts.”   Hang on.

  • Kevin Sessums is the author of two New York Times bestselling memoirs, Mississippi Sissy and I Left It on the Mountain.

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