Pearl Harbor was only two months away when a famous torch singer died in a New York City hospital. The singer was Helen Morgan; she died of cirrhosis of the liver; she had just turned 41.
I was only two years old when she died and off hand, I can’t imagine why her life should have touched mine in any way. My parents were part of the striving middle class; they weren’t into torch singers. They were certainly touched by Pearl Harbor; everyone living was. But Helen Morgan? They may have heard of Showboat and Julie, Helen Morgan’s signature role, but they didn’t see the musical until long after Morgan’s death when I was eight or nine and our family went to the drive-in in Aurora, Colorado to see that year’s version of what was by then a classic.
Julie’s incredibly beautiful “Can’t Help Loving That Man of Mine” was sung by an uncredited surrogate for Ada Gardner.
During the fifties there were also movies based on Morgan’s life—the struggle with alcoholism, the wonderful voice, the several marriages, the very early death: how could Hollywood have left her untouched? I didn’t see the movies. To me she was never more than a dead singer I hadn’t heard sing.
In 1987 my friend Wes and his long-time partner, Clive Parker, died in a fire in their Greenwich Village apartment. So strange. I remember another friend, Chris, still decades younger than Wes who had been 79, telling me about a jet-set party he’d gone to once and how embarrassing it had been when Clive and Wes turned up unasked and unwanted – two old men pandering after some famous person or other. I didn’t find the story entirely surprising, although the Wes I knew was gentle and retiring, but he’d told me once about going to AA meetings with Clive, and how drink had been only one reason. There were a lot of celebrities at some of those meetings.
Chris had never said anything to Wes about it. I still wonder why he thought saying something to me was appropriate or kind. Poor Chris doesn’t know that that’s how I will always remember him.
After the deaths, a friend and I went to the apartment to find the slides Wes had bequeathed me in his will, and because all the detritus of his life was about to be given over to the landlord to sell cheap so he could rent out the apartment, I gathered up as much of it as I could in some Hefty bags. Wes had been a dancer and a traveler; his life, I knew, had been fascinating. I didn’t want to see it disappear in a landfill somewhere.
Inevitably, I included some of Clive’s life as well. They’d been together nearly half a century.
Zoom to present day. I’m almost as old as Wes was now. I’ve been traveling from coast to coast with parts of his life, and incidentally Clive’s, for some time. There are precious ephemera in the cardboard boxes that replaced the Hefty bags. Why not find a place for some of it, I thought. It’s got to be worth something, and there’s really nothing I can do with it: maps, theater programs, magazines…. I would never give up the diaries or the scrapbooks, but what about things like the dozen autographed photos that Clive collected as a concierge at New York’s Biltmore Hotel, mostly in the early forties? I’m retired. I need money. They might be worth a few dollars.
I’d looked at the glossy photo of Helen Morgan many times, without recognizing her or her signature. Glossy portraits have never gone down well with me. This time I finally saw it. And was touched by it. “P is for Parker,” she wrote. “P is for Pleasant People; Poignant. Helen Morgan.”
I even uncovered a photo of a party of people eating in what was probably the Biltmore. Helen Morgan and Clive were sitting at the end of the table. He was looking at her—I thought rather gently.
“Poignant,” How odd. Both of them alcoholics. Both of them desperate for importance. They met; they made a connection. Very soon after, she died. Years later, I found them together again. How many degrees of separation are we talking about?
The other night on the Metropolitan Opera broadcast of the winners of this year’s National Council Auditions, Deborah Voigt sang Julie’s song from Showboat – “Can’t Help Loving that Man.”
The details of our lives rain down on all of us like confetti.