Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Talk Show: Dick Cavett Speaks Again

October 17, 2007, 10:28 pm

Hey, Listen! This One’ll Kill Ya!

I have a disturbing problem with losing things. My vulnerability to loss-distress could properly be labeled not only inordinate, but neurotic.

I don’t mean the major losses like losing a friend or a family member or a limb.

With me it’s almost as bad losing small stuff. I once re-drove 140 miles of that awful dismal part of Wyoming to retrieve a glove. I drove almost that far in Nebraska to recover a T-shirt from a motel. It wasn’t even an “I Saw Graceland” or “Orgy Volunteer” T-shirt, just a plain Fruit of the Loom. But it was mine and I loved it. It was part of the stuff that is me. And part of me had been amputated.
Clearly fodder for a few sessions with one’s head-candler. (Thank you, S.J. Perelman.)

It was in this spirit that, one beautiful spring day a good many years ago, I found myself returning to Gosman’s great seafood restaurant in Montauk Harbor. I had eaten there the previous night and my fervent hope was that a waiter had found my battered but beloved Tilley hat, and that it and I would be reunited.

This was, by the by, my second Tilley hat. The first had suffered an unusual fate. It was admired by Miss Katharine Hepburn (you know, the famous actress), who asked, in front of her house on East 49th Street, “Where’d you get that hat?” “It’s a Tilley hat,” I said. She snatched it off my head and kept it.

The second hat — successfully recovered from Gosman’s — reminds me of an experience that I would have gladly missed for the world. It has, after many years, not yet lost the power to make me wince. It happened during the Ford administration.

Doubtless there is a precise and economical phrase in German meaning “the unfortunate telling of a story that one realizes too late is ill-suited to the occasion.” (My considerably rusted college German suggests, “Die zu späte und ungeeignete Realisierung von der Ungehörigkeit von eine Geschichta erzählt,” but I may be wrong.)

The restaurant’s waiters were busy setting up the sea of empty tables for the lunch crowd. Roberta Gosman, of the Gosman’s Gosmans, asked whether I had noticed their star diner. She pointed to a couple at a nearby table right on the water; a spot where cheeky gulls have snatched succulent clams and oysters from the forks of startled diners.

The pair: an older man and a nice-looking younger dark-haired woman. He was hatless and somewhat eccentrically — considering the clear and golden weather — enveloped in a black raincoat. He resembled an old sea bird of the kind one finds wounded on a beach, peering out at the horizon and awaiting life’s terminus.

I shall not protract the suspense. It was the deposed Richard M. Nixon. With him was Julie, the more Cordelia-like daughter who had stood by her luckless dad to the bitter end.

And beyond.

Finding my hat had elevated my mood to a giddy level, encroaching just a bit, perhaps, on hypomania.

I guess it was out of some dumb desire to amuse the waiters that I grabbed up two menus. Approaching the famous seated pair from behind, I piped, “Our specials today include the Yorba Linda soufflé, the Whittier College clam chowder . . .” I invented a few more fictional Nixon-related specials; you get the idea. At least I self-censored any Checkers or Watergate references.

With me now standing at his elbow, the former president looked up at me and, with the familiar Nixon gravity of tone, uttered, “Oh, yes. I thought that was you.” I wondered how, since I had been behind them, but then sometimes it’s my voice.
A word about Nixon in the flesh.

Upon finding themselves vis a vis the gentleman for the first time, most people have reported the same thing: you couldn’t take your eyes off his nose. There’s a famous photo of Nixon and Bob Hope comparing ski noses, but that’s profile — the thing that struck you most was its appalling width. As wide as your first two fingers held together. What would normally be seen as the caricaturist’s exaggeration was, in the case of the Nixon proboscis, factual reporting.

Any modicum of humor in my waiter charade had by now evaporated. And there I awkwardly stood, with nothing to say.

Something like, “Nice to see you, won’t disturb” followed by “goodbye” would have done fine. However, exhibiting some sort of self-destructive tendency, dwarfed of course by my listener’s own, I unwisely pushed on.

“I guess the last time I saw you was when you were nice enough to invite my wife and me to that wonderful evening of Shakespeare at the White House with the great actor Nicol Williamson,” I rattled on. He appeared to recall the event, if not my attendance thereat. Need I insert here that this event had been well before my later . . . um . . .troubled relations with the Nixon White House as reported previously in this space.

Despite increasing evidence that my alleged social and conversational skills were apparently on the fritz, I pressed on.

My canoe was edging ever closer to the falls.

I said to the president, “Mr. Nixon, in the reception line that night you asked me, ‘Who’s hosting your show for you tonight?’, and I told you Joe Namath.”

I did not add that upon hearing this that night, my tuxedoed president had knitted his brow in the manner of an untalented actor trying awkwardly to combine small talk with deep concern and asked, “How are his knees?”

Memory has buried how long I may have stood there like a stopped clock. I can think of any number of funny or serious answers to the unlikely question now, but not then. I think I may have managed something like, “Yes, well, better we hope . . . I guess . . . eh?” as I quickly moved along. (Since I composed the previous sentence and this one, I’ve learned that poor knee-afflicted Broadway Joe was on the official Nixon enemies list.) I gratefully slid along to Mrs. Nixon. Seeing her, what popped into my head was Mort Sahl’s hilarious onstage description of the infamous Checkers speech: “And Pat sitting in the corner behind him — knitting a flag.”

“I thought you might enjoy this particular evening,” she said cordially. I have always liked Pat Nixon and felt hellishly sorry for her. If “in sickness and in health” ever meant anything, that woman fulfilled the vow well beyond the call of duty. God knows if she had written a full-disclosure memoir of her life with him it would have gotten — and deserved — the biggest advance in the annals of publishing.

Shelved, I should think, under Abnormal Psychology. There was always that almost Mona Lisa face she put on when having to stand or sit behind him in public view, raising the right corner of her mouth ever so slightly to a degree that suggested a prelude to a smile and also, to me anyway, a hint of pain.

To me she earned sainthood as much as Mother Theresa did, the difference being that Mother T. wanted the life she got. It would be hard to say that of Mrs. Nixon.

But let us return to our awkward little trio on the dock in Montauk.

Standing there feeling as I often have on the air when a guest is less than voluble, I tried talking myself in hopes that the guest, in a competitive sense, would tire of my taking up his airtime and chime in. But the technique that worked on the air fizzled at Gosman’s.

Then I half thought of something, with emphasis on the word half. I glimpsed a possibility. “Oh, I just remembered that a funny thing happened that night. You may recall that just as we all sat watching the last minutes of Williamson’s show, a smell like paper burning wafted into the room.”

Nixon and his daughter clearly didn’t recall, and even I was still not quite sure I remembered exactly what the funny thing was and how the story ended.

I told how it smelled sort of like a small fire in a wastepaper basket and that there were a few looks of alarm but then it went away and the show ended. I went on — since no one else was talking — to say that coming up the aisle I found myself beside the great British critic and wit, Kenneth Tynan, who was doing a profile of Williamson for The New Yorker.

At that very moment I remembered how this story ended. And I would have preferred dying to going on, but hadn’t the choice.

“I asked Tynan what he made of the smell of smoke,” I said with half a voice.

“And what did he say?” the former president probed, sounding a bit like a cross-examiner. I gulped and said in a thin voice, “He said, ‘They’ve let Agnew into the library.’”

***********

There is a specially constructed booth or chamber in a lab at Harvard that is designed to be the most silent place on earth, so acoustically muffled that the occupant is often spooked by the sound of his own blood circulating.

That day, at that moment, I knew how that occupant might have felt. The quiet was crushing. Not only was there neither laughter nor smiles from my two-person audience, but the gulls seemed to have fallen silent.

In defiance of the rule that women are generally adept at saying just the right thing at an awkward moment, Julie said, “I hope your nightclub act was funnier than that.”

While I wondered how she knew I’d had a nightclub act, her infamous parent said, with a breathtakingly straight face, “Oh, I see. Book-burning.”

The three of us must have said some form of adieu.

And like a concussed fighter with no memory of being carried from the ring, I got home somehow.

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