December 17, 1918 was a great day in history because on that day was born Frances Elizabeth Smith, later known and loved as “Sissie”.
If you combined Auntie Mame, Kay Thompson, Dorothy Parker, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Judy Garland, Katharine Hepburn, Flannery O’Connor, Mary Martin, Elaine May, Jo from “Little Women”, Saint Cecilia, Coco Chanel, Kitty Carlisle, Dorothy Kilgallen, and just the tiniest soupcon of Little Edie Beale and you might, just might, begin to get a hint of the wonders of my dearest FES.
She introduced me to reading and theatre and financed my pursuit of and passion for both. She took me to my first musical when I was six; “Carousel” at a high school and my first trip to New York when I was twelve. And she repeatedly took me to see Angela Lansbury in “Gypsy” which changed my life.
She changed my life in incalculable ways and I am grateful every single day to have had her as my champion. I am grateful every day for having had the gift of her unconditional love. I am grateful to have been truly seen and known and having been so, to have all that was seen and known of me so fully appreciated and embraced and celebrated. As I have aged, it has become clearer and clearer to me how very few “loves” of any kind in any category are full and wide and faithful and powerful enough to allow for the sort of connection Sissie and I had, how very few “loves” of any kind in any category give the magical gift of such total acceptance and grace.
Watch this YouTube clip of Angela Lansbury in “Mame” and “Gypsy” – very Sissie! And too, in “Sweeney Todd” which Sissie and I saw on Broadway and in which I later – much later – appeared as Sweeney Todd. So many wonderful memories. Thank you, Sissie. Thank you.
Thank you, Sissie. This day, for me, is the best holiday of all. Following this is an excerpt from my novel, “Libertytown” in which the main character, Parker, discovers that the name “Sissie” is not the same thing as the name “sissy.”
Love and light to all of you.
LIBERTYTOWN: A Novel (excerpt)
I ran away from my hometown to California at the behest of Annie, another of the many adrift friends I’d accumulated while part of Vincent’s theatricales, who, herself, was escaping from a disastrous marriage to a man who’d signed over all their funds to Scientology, after which he’d left her for a years younger woman. Annie, twenty-nine to my eighteen, was eager to trade coasts, and had accepted a transfer through the nuclear power plant designing firm for which she worked, hoping her luck would change. We headed across the country in her little green Datsun, meaning to see the landscape along the way, but spending rather more time drinking and smoking dope in Motel 6’s than we did sightseeing. We arrived in San Jose, where her new grown-up job was waiting and I arranged the furniture and unpacked the boxes full of stuff her company had paid to ship, a haul into which we had snuck a few cartons of my things as well, feeling like we’d pulled one over on her employers, and we settled into the one bedroom apartment they’d found her, creating a semblance of home.
We made an odd couple. I stayed on the couch, never really looking for a job, subsisting off the money Sissie sent me in her frequent letters from home, at least twice weekly missives filled with gossipy typed news of family and characters from Libertytown, as well as clippings from the Baltimore Sun that she thought I’d find interesting – always including Liz Smith’s gossip column, for which we both shared a slavish devotion, other theatre items, and too, clippings from the local paper about people I knew and the shows they were doing, which I think she meant to draw me back home, and slipped in amongst these without mention, tens or twenties, sometimes as much as fifty. I managed to do little with this cash but keep myself in cigarettes, and too, to overdose myself on Vitamin A in an effort to clear up my acne. I got off the couch long enough to get hired for my voice then fired for my lack of dance ability from a mediocre production of FINIAN’S RAINBOW in which Annie had gotten the ingénue lead role, Sharon. She fit right in to the company, started dating the man who played her father, he of the rainbow, and made friends at her new job, adapting to her new life while I floundered.
In a last ditch effort to make a go, I’d gone into San Francisco to audition for a show. I knew nothing about the city except that it was the Gay Capital of the world and so I expected to be welcomed, heralded even, as if some cosmic memo would have been sent announcing my arrival, the result of which would be that all the already relocated homos would find me a place, snuggle me in there, and show me the shape my life should be with the perfect occupation and lover thrown in for kicks.
The show was SHE LOVES ME, and knowledgeable as I’d considered myself to be in the unsophisticated arena of my tiny home town, I was woefully unschooled in the culture and patois of big city theatre, particularly one dominated by worshippers at the altar of Barbara Cook, who, at the time of my audition I had never heard, an ignorance for which I was held in that special sort of ignominious opprobrium ritualized by theatre queens.
“Well, what role are you auditioning for?” Asked one of the clones, all of whom were dressed in uniform of flannel shirt and too tight jeans, all of whom seemed equally eager to be rid of me, but not without first humiliating me for wasting their time.
“Isn’t there a young guy?”
“Arpad Laszlo, for whom, my dear, you are completely, utterly, and entirely wrong. He’s a teenage boy.”
“With long blonde hair and a very … uhm…-” at which point flannelled disapprover number one looked at flannelled disapprovers two through five as if the search for the appropriate word to communicate my wrongness might just be beyond him. Alas, it was not. “-modern carriage.”
In other words, in the capital of the gay world, I was not only not receiving a parade, I was being told by these royal pre-eminences that I was too light.
“Yes,” too tight jeans two chimed in, “your hair, your bearing, your posture -”
And now, number three joined the chorus, which was not, I suspected, the first time he’d been in that group, a suspicion confirmed by his inability to insult me with an original adjectival code phrase for “too faggy.“
“Your persona is just a little too modern for the role.”
I’d spent enough of my life being disapproved of and snickered at by those who were not my people. Where I’d come from, the kingdom of home where I’d been a prince, one’s own kind – the other societal misfits, didn’t attack this way. It was one thing to be called a big fag, pudding, pussy, cocksucker, etc. by the redneck peons and common folk, but it was almost more than I could take to have one’s own class, the rulers of the aristocracy to which I thought I belonged call me a big, flaming sissy.
I was six years old. I’d led a remarkably sheltered life. We lived on a back road in the country, and other than my family, I knew no one. These were before the days of play groups and day care. My mother didn’t yet work, and my only playmate was Rebecca, with whom I was extraordinarily close. We lived in our own world, with our own language, the two of us having been raised as a couple, separate from the four other sisters and brother, being seven years younger than the next older sibling, and we were content there.
My other friend was Sissie, with whom I spent Sundays and holidays, and in this constricted little world I was the most loved, adored, and cherished of people. I could do no wrong.
When Rebecca and I would spend Sundays with Sissie at Libertytown, we would spend much of the day disappeared into private worlds we’d construct of the debris and rubble of pieces of our ancestors lives which had been left behind in the unused rooms of the manse. From the furniture, fragments and remains which echoed with histories forgotten by generations of Parkers, in rooms no longer used for anything but storage, we would create elaborate universes of make-believe to rule. We were living across the hall from one another in luxury New York apartments, glamorously doing whatever it was that we – at ages four and five – imagined that to be.
We were stars, of course. Most of the time. Less often we were teachers. But whether stars or teachers, we invented Grand Loves with whom we spent the few spare moments we were not busy with each other. Of course, we had no idea what constituted a Grand Love having seen no examples, but we knew from television and movies that having one was a requirement.
They were always men.
It was another something about which the family didn’t talk. They pretended not to notice Rebecca and I both attaching towels to our heads, pretending them to be long, luxurious blonde hair which we would toss with what I would now call a Veronica Lake insouciance, but which I have no idea at the time what I imagined it to be or what compelled me to portray it with such ease. When, ever so rarely, Rebecca would say, “Don’t you want to be a boy?” within our scenarios, I can remember the twisting, knotting within my stomach and the discomfort the notion caused me.
“No. I don’t like boys. They’re stupid.”
“But, you are a boy.”
“I know, but I’m not that kind of boy. I’m this kind.”
I didn’t have words for it. I didn’t have the vaguest notion that I was a category, that there were others like me, but then, in that world, in those rooms, in my tiny little reality, it made no difference. I knew that sometimes when my brother or sister would say something teasing to me about “you walk like a girl” or “don’t you want to play with trucks” my mother would, if she heard it, snap, “Leave him alone.” and the tickle of “not right” I felt about myself would be gone and I could return home to the galaxy Rebecca and I had made.
No matter what the tall, worried grown-ups around us thought I ought to be, Rebecca and I were content and happy in the secret world we inhabited. And as long as we kept one another amused and demanded nothing of the grown-ups around us, they left us to create our own realities, all with the tacit agreement that this was another something about which we did not speak in the real world, this was another something that only the Parker-cabal could understand, this was another something that made the real world a dangerous place in which to share what one knew and was, a place from which we needed to hide, this was another something that made us safe only when we were surrounded by and secreted in one another.
It was easy for us to hold on to the secret treasure of the world we made: we were right and perfect and knew everything. All the tall grown-ups around us had secrets of their own, that much Rebecca and I could tell, but those secrets were the kind that caused whispering and crying and sorrow and disappearing; those were the kinds of secrets that had something to do with the disappearance of that thing everyone else called “Daddy” or, sometimes, “Joe.” Daddy Joe was the absence around which all the sorrowful secrets of the tall people revolved, and Rebecca did not remember him at all, and I was without details, having instead some dreams and shadows and echoes of there having been something, a huge something both wonderful and terrible, all at once, an unfathomably enormous something taken away one night while I was asleep, and the next day, the crying began, a crying which continued for many, many decades until almost none of them were left … and too, that night’s disappearance had stopped a particular kind of music from playing; a music for which I would search and reach for many years until I found a substitute, found it inside my own heart and let it out, a sound I’d make to stop my own crying – at least for a while – but that is many, many stories in between and away from this now, this six year old Parker, and part of the dark secrets about which there cannot yet be discussion. Then, there was just Rebecca, and the combination of secrets kept and told, and as long as we guarded and lived in those, we could be happy.
Then, I went to school.
Those first weeks of first grade, I was the only Catholic who rode along with the forty public school kids, and was segregated to the seat directly behind the driver at the front of the bus which dropped me off on the corner in Libertytown at which was located the bank where Sissie worked, from which Sissie would emerge, take my hand and walk me the two remaining blocks down the side street to Saint Peter’s Grade School.
I did not make friends easily. My first foray into the world outside was not filled with the embrace I had always felt in my isolated existence. It did not help that thanks to Sundays with Sissie and the newspapers and Babar and Roald Dahl books she’d shared with me, I could already read thus setting me even further apart from the other children who made me feel as if I had come from another country, and not one that any of them would like to visit.
I spoke in strange and long sentences of a vocabulary and syntax foreign to the other children, composed of the patterns I’d learned from movie musicals and the books Sissie and I had read together, a borrowed erudition with tellingly sibilant accents and a delivery bordering on British. Somehow, in the process of inventing myself, I’d happened upon an unfortunate combination of Truman Capote and Katharine Hepburn.
It did not take my peers long to mark me in ways and words I did not know existed. The horror of it began on what was to be the last morning I was ever walked to school by Sissie, who I still believed magical, who reflected the beauty I wanted to believe was inside me, my hand in hers, her by my side, the place I had, until them, always felt safest.
From across the street a group of older kids walking alone called out, “Sissy!” and at first I wondered how they knew her. I was not that surprised. She worked in the bank and was the center of my very small world, it just made sense that everyone would know her, love her, crave her attention as did I. But, the screaming continued, and laughing, and soon enough I could tell from the way Sissie stood a little straighter, eyes determinedly ahead looking at neither the child terrorists nor me, ignoring the sound as if it were not there, the smile on her face which I recognized as that look she wore when someone’s behavior or a piece of news did not fit in with her idea of what the world should be, that look she affected when I would ask a question for which the answer was something she thought I ought not consider, often followed by the phrase, “Honey, don’t let’s worry about that sort of thing,“ combined with the sneering tone of the continuing taunt comprised of what had once been a magical word for me, “SISSY! SISSY! SISSSSSSY!!!!” that my safe world no longer existed.
It would be another few years before the verbal attacks became physical and the throwing against lockers and head in toilets and destruction of whatever of my soul or property they could get their hands on would begin. That day though, was the day I learned, that being a “sissy” was not the good thing that being “Sissie” had always meant to me.
And now, here it was again. Another place I was meant to be safe, an audition for musical theatre, and I was being taunted by the older kids.
But, just then, the mustachioed , receding hair lined number four member of the royal flannelled and jeans enclave, this one located at the piano, interceded on my behalf.
“Well, what will you be singing?”
“Mean To Me.” Had I not been so flummoxed and intimidated by the tangible disdain to which I’d been subjected, I’d have delivered the title with irony. As it was, I began to shake. There seemed no point in singing, but I hadn’t the spine to simply walk away. It had always been my m.o. to deplete every ounce of dignity and self-respect I might have, never willing to surrender when only partially eviscerated.
“As in AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’? Nell Carter?”
“Yes. Thank you.” I handed him my music and, God bless him, he smiled and patted my hand.
I had not, in my estimation, been given many gifts by God. My skin was bad. My teeth were crooked and after a misadventure with my older brother, my mother had determined that braces were a waste of time. My dick wasn’t huge. My face wasn’t particularly pretty. My body was neither muscled nor well proportioned, just long and there. I was smart enough, but not in a way that had ever been more help than hindrance, operating as it did as a sort of internal intellectual torture team judging me twice as harshly as I’d ever consider judging anyone else. I didn’t have much.
But I had a voice.
Perhaps it was the hours I’d spent listening to Mahalia with my father. Perhaps it was the years of terror and loneliness in which I’d lived. Perhaps it was God’s way of playing another trick on me, but somehow, inside that thin, paler than a vampire too modern carriaged eighteen year old boy, there lived a fat, black woman. And she could wail.
I started and the flannel queens’ smirking was interrupted by their shock. They were, however, quick to recover, transforming what had been their certainty I would not be able to sing into a haughty dismissal of the freakish disjunction between the singer and the song.
It was left to the as yet unheard from replicant number five to speak. “Well, that’s very … uhh … interesting …though probably not the best song for your type … and, well, I have to be honest … you’re just not what we’re looking for.”
I stood there, uncertain what to do. Paralyzed by embarrassment, terrified. At home, whenever I’d auditioned, I had always known ahead of time that I would be starring in something. Auditioning had been a formality, an opportunity for me to excel. Even at the auditions for the FINIAN’S in which Annie was starring, this same song had been greeted with wild applause from the auditioning committee. If I didn’t have my voice, if that didn’t work, who was I? My devastation and confusion was evident enough to engender sympathy in number three, who said, “Don’t worry, look at Miss Barbara Cook! When she starred in SHE LOVES ME she was a delicate little ingénue and now she’s big as a house and a bigger star than ever – she’s in town next week!”
And to my continuing humiliation and abashment, with no excuse except that my heart was breaking and my brain on pause, I replied, “Who is Barbara Cook?” From the looks on their faces I knew – if it had not been certain before, it now was – that I would never have a parade in this town.
On the way back to San Jose, after that audition, I bought the LIVE AT CARNEGIE HALL LP by Miss Barbara Cook and took to memorizing it note for note, inflection by inflection, breath by breath, lyric soprano trill by trill, until I could and would – with very little prompting – imitate her entire oeuvre, but most especially the trio of iconic SHE LOVES ME selections, DEAR FRIEND, WILL HE LIKE ME, and my particular specialty, ICE CREAM during the end of which I would explode into the final three exceedingly stratospheric notes, flitting with breath-taking ease to the F sharp and then defying gravity by flying even further to the high B which I would hold until it seemed I might faint from the effort at which point – without taking a breath – I would portamento smoothly down to the electric final E, all with a most assured and ear-splitting tenacity, a buoyant, dare I say gay élan the likes of which has gotten boys like me dunked in toilets and thrown against lockers since musical theatre began.
It was during one such display of I-IIIIICE-CREAM brio that I began to shake uncontrollably, as did Annie across the room. It was not the result of my vivacious and bravura performance, but rather, my first earthquake. It was barely a quake, more a tremor, but the walls and floor were moving, and nothing I did could stop them as I ran from wall to wall, pressing against them, looking for something solid.
“Stand in a doorframe! Come stand in the doorframe!” Annie shouted, from her perch at the front door, looking out over the second floor balcony walkway to the parking lot below. “Come look! Parker, look at this! All the cars are dancing!“ She was fascinated by the vibrating vehicles, and entranced by the power of it, while I was horrified. I wanted things to hold still. I needed it to stop, and I could feel my guts twisting, my heart beating ever faster as the reality of my complete lack of control and escape penetrated my consciousness.
Even so, as was ever the case, it was my role to be amusing and comforting, and so I joined her on the balcony, screaming, “When I prayed for the earth to move, God, this wasn’t what the fuck I meant.”
And almost as soon as we were done laughing at my witty bon mot, the upheaval had heaved its last. We re-entered the apartment to assess the damage and discovered the only casualty seemed to have been the framed photo of the two of us as Margo Channing and her gay, best friend Duane in APPLAUSE, the musical version of ALL ABOUT EVE, Vincent’s production of which had been the beginning of our best-friendship, which had migrated off the bookshelf and shattered, glass and frame, into shards, on the ground. I cleaned up the pieces, discarded the broken glass and frame, and saved the photo, tucking it away into the sleeve of Barbara’s LIVE AT CARNEGIE HALL, the album of which I later discovered to my horror had been scratched by the stereo needle skipping across it during the quake, forever after causing Miss Cook to repeat ad infinitum the high B I’d tried to claim as my own. “He came to offer me,” she’d begin with promise, “vani-illl-la-ah I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I…,” and so on, never getting to the “-iiiiiiice cream.”
It should have struck me funny then. But it didn’t.
For years I would tell people it had been that quake, that fear of loss of control that had sent me back to Maryland. But it was not just – or even, especially that, but rather, the seed of doubt about my ability to gain purchase in those more urban spheres of shows and homos which had been firmly planted by my FINIAN and SHE LOVES ME experiences. I needed someplace safe, some place where I knew the walls would stand and the ground, though not always welcoming, was solid. So, home I went, taking my ICE CREAM with me, the tessitura of which resulted in neither the dogs of San Jose nor Annie regretting my decision in February of 1980 to jet back East.