The great Charles Busch began previews of his play The Confessions of Lily Dare on January 11th at The Cherry Lane Theatre. The official opening of this Primary Stages production is January 29th. Click here for tickets. To celebrate, we are running this special DAILY today of Busch’s remembrance of his two dear friends, Joan Rivers and Marian Seldes, as well as an exclusive one-act fantasia Busch has written about the legendary ladies.
JOAN AND MARIAN, or MARIAN AND JOAN
by Charles Busch
Two extraordinary ladies left us back in 2014. One was the First Lady of Comedy, Joan Rivers. The second was the High Priestess of the Theatre, Marian Seldes. Although both toiled for decades in the universe of show business, their planets couldn’t be more different. Joan reveled in fame and the accoutrements of stardom. She was a pioneer in stand-up comedy, created the obsession with red carpet fashion and was a master of celebrity insult. However, she never fulfilled her lifelong dream to be respected as a serious actress in the theatre. Marian never became a star, but her single-minded devotion to the art of acting made her a singular figure of great dignity in a contemporary theatre that has become closer to Joan’s media crazed show biz. Still, I know that Marian wouldn’t have minded a bit more shallow fame.
Once rather wistfully, Joan expressed to me that she would love to be friends with Marian Seldes. She admired Marian as an actress in plays by Edward Albee and Terrence McNally and was very intrigued by Marian’s somewhat austere dedication to art. Being friends with both of them, I thought I might be able to broker a dinner a` trois. I mentioned the possibility to Marian and surprisingly didn’t get even a raised eye brow and she had fabulous eyebrows; almost Joan Crawford-like in their dark density. I honestly don’t recall any verbal response. For all of Joan’s notoriety, she really wasn’t on Marian’s radar. Or perhaps Marian was turned off by Joan’s latter career as an insult comic. It’s too bad. They had surprisingly a great deal in common. They were nearly the same age. They lived barely three blocks from each other just off Central Park. They were both born in New York City and raised in well to do families. Joan’s father was a doctor and Marian’s a noted theatre critic. Both had bad early marriages that ended in divorce and successful second marriages that ended in widowhood and both had a single child, a beloved daughter and a grandson, of whom they were very proud.
And they both got a real kick out of me. Perhaps this demonstrates something they truly had in common – endless enthusiasm for new experiences and a complete lack of snobbism and an appreciation of theatrical skill and dedication no matter how offbeat and okay, here is where I have to shed all modesty like a burlesque queen; that’s ME! My world of drag, downtown theatre, camp, however you wish to categorize, celebrate or dismiss it, was as foreign to them as their worlds were to each other. And they thought it was just swell.
One day around ten years ago quite out of the blue, the phone rang and it was Joan Rivers. I had met her briefly over the years when she’d come to my shows or when we’d appear at benefits together such as Joan Rivers’ Funny Gay Friends and a memorable staged reading of the classic women’s prison movie Caged at Town Hall. I wondered how the hell she got my phone number. But stars have a way of getting what they want. In that fantastic raspy voice, she said “I’m working on a performance art piece. Wanna write it with me?” I said “no, I’ve got my own stuff to work on.” However, while we were on the phone I threw out to her a number of ideas. What can I say? I have a very fertile imagination and I don’t mind sharing the fruits of it. Four years went by and the phone rang again and when I picked it up, the first thing I heard was “So I took your advice.” Again she asked me to work with her and again, I said no, but I told her that if she sent me the script, I’d give her some more ideas gratis. She was working on a play about her experiences on the red carpet but she wanted to go into reveries where she would honestly reminiscence about her life. She sent me the script and I called her back and told her it was very funny but I didn’t think she achieved her goal of being totally honest and vulnerable. I still didn’t want to write it for her but I thought it would be pretty fantastic getting to know her. I suggested that I come over to her apartment every day for a week and interview her and then she could have the tapes transcribed and I’d shape the interviews into monologues. She could take what she wanted or not at all. So every day that following week I showed up at her fabulous apartment off Fifth Avenue and I would pretend to be a therapist and I’d ask her every possible intimate question. Talk about a bonding experience. I’d never been in a situation like that before. Who has? Tears, rage, laughter, sentiment, bitterness, gratitude; she was so fascinating. One day she answered the door and her face was covered with horrible large scabs. “What happened?” “Oh, I had a little facial peel. I can only work two hours today because I’m doing a show tonight in Connecticut.” “But your face?” “Oh, I cover it with makeup.”
Bob Mackie once told me “I love Joan. She shows up at fittings with blood still in her hair.”
Her assistant transcribed the tapes and I edited them into monologues. She ended up using some of the material in what turned out to be a play that she tried out in LA, London and Edinburgh. When the play was produced, Joan insisted that I get paid. My manager got in touch with her lawyer and immediately it got ugly. I told my manager to skip it. I said, “I don’t want credit, I don’t want money. I’m just glad I’ve established a friendship with Joan.” Shortly afterwards, she invited my partner, Eric Myers, and my sister Margaret and me to her apartment for Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving chez Joan was a lavish affair, a long, long beautifully appointed table seating sometimes up to forty people like something out of MGM’s “Marie Antoinette.” I was always so honored that each year she had me seated next to her. So that first Thanksgiving we were in the middle of dinner and I felt her touching my leg. What the hell is she….? I looked down and she was slipping me an envelope. She whispered “Shhhh.” I reached down and surreptitiously opened it up and inside was five thousand bucks in cash. Naturally, I kept it. I mean, I didn’t want to insult the lady.
A montage of memories; Eric and I taking Joan on a grey Sunday afternoon to a nearly empty Film Forum to see a rare Andrews Sisters movie.
Joan and her friend Henry sneaking into the second act of my play Die Mommie Die at the New World Stages after seeing another show in the complex.
Spending the weekend at her country house in Connecticut. Comedy Central was putting together her celebrity roast and they were having trouble lining up comedians to roast her. Eric and I were sitting in her living room and heard her talking to the producer on the phone and saying about one suggested comic, “At this point, I don’t care if he’s got three jokes and two of them have “cunt” in it.”
The first time she showed up at my annual Christmas Day open house in Greenwich Village. She arrived very late and most everyone had left except for the writer Paul Rudnick, the female impersonator John “Lypsinka” Epperson and the British character actor Edward Hibbert. I didn’t think she was going to come and all of us were pretty bowled over when she arrived. She was by herself and very much in her elegant, demure, rich lady persona; more Babe Paley than Joan Rivers. In fact, she seemed so shy and reserved that I found myself trying to feed her opportunities to tell funny anecdotes. “Joan, tell ‘em the story how you met Bette Davis at Roddy McDowell’s dinner party.” Fairly quickly she warmed up to her wildly appreciative audience of four and it was a few hours none of us will forget.
Last Christmas, she showed up with her glamorous friend, the Countess Sonds. She didn’t want to hang her fabulous fox fur coat and the Countess’s mink on the coat rack so she stuffed the coats in the hamper where I keep my towels.
I often accompanied her to the theatre. She saw everything. Well, let’s say she went to the theater. She did a lot of sleeping in the theatre. With her crazy transcontinental schedule, when else was she going to sleep? We went to see Janet McTeer in Mary Stuart along with her great friend Kenny Solms and within five minutes both of them were fast asleep with their heads resting on my shoulders. Joan woke up about one minute before the first act ended and the first thing she said was “Ohhh, I can’t believe they put her in a gown with such awful sleeves.” She and Kenny slept through most of Act Two and when it was over, Kenny said “Joanie, you and Ruthie Buzzi ought to do the First National.”
Whenever we went to the theatre, whether she liked the show or not, she insisted that we go backstage afterwards. Sometimes the greatest performance of the night was Joan faking it and telling each member of the cast how much she loved their performances, asking them questions about their careers and their thoughts about the play. And giving every one of those actors a wonderful story to talk about forever.
The last time I went to the theatre with her was last fall to see Orlando Bloom in Romeo and Juliet. It was a very young audience and during intermission, you would have thought it was a Joan Rivers personal appearance. There was a long, long line all the way up the aisle of young girls in their twenties wanting to have their photo taken with Joan Rivers. She was so generous to all of them. And later, when we left the theatre, the enormous crowd waiting to see Orlando Bloom began chanting “Joan! Joan!” We needed a police escort to walk us down the street to Joe Allen. I said to Joan, “You are more famous than you’ve ever been in your life.” She held onto my hand and said “Isn’t it fantastic? And I’m so grateful.”
I ran into her once at the producer Hal Prince’s legendary Christmas party. There were four generations of musical theatre performers standing around the piano singing while the composer Jason Robert Brown played. Joan was clearly the most famous person in the room but she whispered in my ear, “Can you believe we’re here?”
I remember when I was doing those first interviews with her at her apartment and she was telling me countless examples of her being screwed by producers, and betrayed and fired and ruined and having to crawl back time and again. It all seemed so ugly and I asked her “After all you’ve been through I would think you would just hate show business.” She looked at me dumbfounded as if were out of my mind. “Hate show business?”
In person she was so consistently witty and sharp and yet most of my memories are of funny things I said to her. And yes, I have the actors’ narcissist gene, but I think it’s also because Joan was such a great audience. She wanted you to be funny. Last Thanksgiving, as was the custom, everyone around the endless table had to stand up and tell what they were thankful for. It took over an hour and finally it was my turn and I did a spontaneous comic monologue about Joan instilling in me her mantra “Say yes to everything.” I said “So I’ve taken her advice, I’ve said yes to everything… and I bitterly regret it. I will never take another piece of advice from this awful woman.” I was going over big, stealing the show and I loved seeing Joan’s eyes glowing with pleasure.
The first time I met Marian Seldes was when I saw her act in Albee’s play “The Tall Women.” I can be rather shy and rabbity but for some strange reason, I decided to go backstage after the play and tell Miss Seldes how much I appreciated her performance. I was with my friend Ruth and we both were rather astonished by the welcome I received from Marian. I gather she had seen me on stage, because she hugged and kissed me like a great colleague. Ruth later said “Honey, she licked you like a golden retriever.” I adored every minute of it. We become friends somewhat later when we were both frequent dinner guests at the home of our mutual friend, Dr. Barry Kohn, the allergist who inspired my play “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife.” There were usually eight of us sitting at the table and at a certain point I would find myself taking over the conversation by basically interviewing Marian about her fascinating life in the theatre stemming back to the 1940’s. The other guests appreciated hearing Marian talk about her apprenticeship in Katherine Cornell’s company and working with such almost mythical figures such as Ruth Chatterton and Tallulah Bankhead.
A few random snapshots. Marian and I visiting the extraordinary Sarah Bernhardt exhibit at the Jewish Museum. If Marian under ordinary circumstances was in a perpetual state of rapture, imagine the two us gazing upon the divine Sarahs’ Joan of Arc costume. We were gasping and clutching our hearts and clinging to each other as if the floor was going to open up underneath us.. We were tooo much. The other people in the museum weren’t staring at us because they recognized us; they thought we were nuts.
Marian and I waiting in vain for a crowd to show up at a reading we were doing at The Cutting Room. Slumped over the bar, Marian murmured in a sepulchral voice “I feel like Susan Alexander Kane.”
My friend and frequent muse, Julie Halston, and I were doing our act at Birdland. We were doing a sketch where I, as cabaret diva Miriam Passman, was running for reelection as President of the Manhattan Independent Restaurants, Cabarets and Clubs, otherwise known as MICRAC (pronounced “my crack”). Julie was my opponent Dana Del Bianco and we asked Marian to play the moderator, former President Florence Edelman. The material I wrote for Marian was so blue and she didn’t balk at all. It was hysterical hearing the elegant Marian saying “Under my leadership, the winds of change have blown through MICRAC.”
She had the most amazing recall of not only a lifetime in the theatre, but a lifetime going to the theatre. I loved asking her about Laurette Taylors’ legendary performance in The Glass Menagerie (she saw it six times) or Ruth Gordon in The Matchmaker. “She was like a little demon.” She came to a Sunday matinee of my play The Third Story and it was a very dull elderly subscriber audience. Afterwards, when I found Marian, she looked at me with an air of remorse suitable for Clytemnestra and murmured “Darling, I think we failed you.”
Marian never failed anyone. She was everything you wanted her to be; grand, theatrical, child-like, wise, self -deprecating, passionate. She exemplified the purest and almost sublime devotion to the theatre. She was what we dream of being but can never attain. Perhaps because my mother died when I was seven, I’ve always developed enormous crushes on intelligent, maternal older women and if they wear ostrich feathers and false eyelashes, I’m their slave for life. And well, Joan Rivers certainly fit the bill. I’ll extend that further, if they drape themselves in purple velvet shawls like Marian Seldes, they also fit the bill.
Marian had a three year terrible decline into ultimate silence and existing in a kind of living death; a terrible end for a woman of such energy and intelligence. The fates were kinder to Joan, who gave a full out stand-up performance the night before a freak medical procedure suddenly silenced her. During the week that Joan was in a coma, I could think of nothing else. I was up in Hudson, New York staying with my friend and accompanist Tom Judson. We were doing our cabaret act that Saturday night and during the day Tom made us a wonderful lunch. I could barely eat and just burst into tears at the table. But we got to the club and I pulled it together. I could hear Joan saying “You go onstage. You do your best. You make them laugh. This is what we do.” And I did it and I felt so much better. And when the news finally came that she died, I didn’t cry. I just felt such pride that I got to know her, that I spent so much time with her. I was friends with Joan Rivers. And I was friends with Marian Seldes. Two endlessly fascinating women. I wish they could have been friends with each other. But oh, I have so many stories to tell.
JOAN MEETS MARIAN
Marian, I go to the theatre every week. I never miss. I see everything. Broadway, Off-Broadway, Off-Off-Broadway. They know me in every basement in the East Village. “Oh, that stupid old bitch showed up. Christ, does that mean we have to go on?” Of course, I’ve seen everything you’ve ever done. You are so brilliant. A great, great actress.
You’re very kind. My darling. Look at you. Look at that precious face.
Enjoy it now. It may be very different next week.
I’m terribly embarrassed. I rarely watch television. My daughter worships you.
Does she have Asperger’s? That explains a lot. But you! You! Your timing is impeccable. I never thought of Beckett as being a laugh riot, but I’ve seen you get huge laughs. Belly laughs.
The greatest playwrights are all funny. Aeschylus, Shakespeare, Chekhov.
Ibsen? I dunno. “Oh, Hedda, stop it! You’re killin’ me!”
Hedda is frighteningly witty. Mordantly funny. Tennessee’s plays when done correctly are filled with great humor. Albee is wildly amusing.
And conversely, the greatest stand ups have an intense darkness under their humor. Lenny Bruce, Pryor, Lily, Chris Rock, Louis C.K..
What about you?
Oh. I’m dark. So dark. I’m darker than Kim Kardashian’s asshole before the anal bleaching.
(Long Beckettian silence)
Charles Busch. Don’t you adore him?
A darling. A great artist.
(Author’s note: This is my fantasy. Okay? So cool it.)
He knows so much about theatre and film history.
And it’s all up there on the stage with him. All those women. The great actresses of the past. He channels them.
And once again, beneath the camp, there is a great depth. He has an abiding love and respect of women. Of the theatre. He’s never cruel.
Well, except to his dresser. No, he’s a sweetheart. I’ve never heard a bad word against him.
How could anyone? He’s an angel. I love him with all my heart.
He’s the gay son I wish I had. Daughters are wonderful but…
I have a lovely daughter.
But a gay son. For an actress? An older actress? A necessity. Absolutely de rigueur. Late at night, you want to be able to call your gay son on the phone and discuss what’s on TCM.
Ah, the night. There is a loneliness endemic to all actors.
At a certain point, the applause ends, and you’re alone in your bedroom. We all have that in common.
But then, darling, there is always the matinee to look forward to.
At a certain point, Marian, there are no more matinees.
You are dark. You’re a bit of a… What would my grandson call you? A downer.
I’m a realist. In this business one day you’re up and next day you’re fucking down. The next day you’re up and the next day you’re fucking down.
Alas, that is true. We are our art. We can’t simply put it away in a drawer like a paint brush or a typewriter.
Some people were born to entertain and others to watch. As they say in that other laugh riot Death of a Salesman, “Attention must be paid.”
When all the doors are closed to you, build your own door. Joan Rivers and Charles Busch followed that advice that Charles Ludlum once gave to Charles.
Here is Busch singing his moving rendition of Those Were the Days which they certainly were when Joan and Marian graced them.