Life Beyond the Pines
A new series by the author of "Two
Years Beneath the Pines"
At International House on Riverside Drive, I had a top floor
room with an oblique view of the Hudson, directly overlooking Grant's
Quite early one morning in October '57, I climbed onto the
roof to observe a tiny man-made object streaking across the sky: Sputnik,
the first satellite. The Space Age had dawned.
Down below on Planet Earth, the Cold War continued unabated.
Three years later, the Soviets shot down a U-2 spy plane high over Russia.
This act would wreck President Eisenhower's Open Skies plan, which had
been launched at a superpower summit in Geneva.
Across the hall from me lived an aspiring black actor named
Roscoe Lee Browne, who would one day star in major Hollywood films with
the likes of Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, and John Wayne.
Roscoe, at the time, was managing the career of his friend
Leontyne Price, who had just graduated from the Julliard School of Music
and was destined for international stardom as an opera singer.
He and I first got talking in the chow line of the International
House cafeteria. Roscoe recommended the spinach; it would 'put lead in
After a recital Leontyne gave at International House, I
got to know her too and was invited to a party at her place in the Village.
I also met her husband, William Warfield, the original Porgy in 'Porgy
Like so many people I was to encounter in New York, Roscoe
was gay, a term not openly used yet as many people still tried to keep
their homosexuality secret.
While convalescing at Harry's from my bout of hepatitis,
I began exploring Manhattan. One day, while sitting by the fountain in
Washington Square, I got talking to another aspiring thespian. Though
actually 'Negro', as people then still said, Ronald, with smooth black
hair and light skin, could have been taken for Latin American.
A passionate fan of Big Band music and band leader Stan
Kenton, he also was fond of classical music. There ensued a heated argument
about the different approaches to Beethoven (his favorite composer and
mine too), and of conductors like Arturo Toscanini and Wilhelm Furtwängler.
Furtwängler's tempi were too slow, Ron claimed. Toscanini made the
Ninth sound like Big Band music, I countered.
Born and brought up on Chicago's South Side, Ron had enlisted
in the Army, still segregated and, lying about his race, been assigned
to an all-white unit, that was stationed, like myself a few years later,
Having tried without success to get into the Actor's Studio
of Lee Strasberg, with whom his great idol and 'method actor' Marlon Brando
had studied, Ron eventually was accepted by Herbert Berghof, another great
name among drama teachers at the time.
"Wish me luck," he said, on his way to an audition,
as we parted.
That finished, we called on Harry's old friend Leonard Bernstein
and his wife Felicitas at their summer home on Martha's Vineyard. Showing
us his studio over the garage, completely bare except for grand piano
and cushions strewn about the floor, the composer of Westside Story explained
he did his composing lying on the floor.
"So does Herbert von Karajan," I blurted out,
in reference to one of my conducting idols. Lenny gave me a long and hard
look. "Fuck Karajan, Ludwig." he said.
On our return, I had a surprise call from Ron, to whom I
must have given Harry's number.
He asked me if I wanted to go to Coney Island with him.
Borrowing Harry's car, a Chevy convertible, I went to pick Ron up at his
room on the Westside. He came to the door stark naked.
Coming back from the beach, I introduced my new friend to
Harry who treated him with great courtesy, but may have guessed what would
Not long after, I blithely announced I was moving to the
I'd rented a room on 71st Street, I explained, just off
Central Park West (a block from the Dakota Apartment Towers where John
Lennon was to live and die). Ron was to share it with me.
"I'll see you through this," Harry said, words
I've never forgotten. Naturally, I felt bad about leaving him so abruptly.
All the more so, in retrospect, as Harry was tragically killed when run
over by a truck, aged only 58 in 1972.
Life with Ron however wasn't to be a bowl of cherries either.
My new friend was a classical Oedipal case. Ron's father,
half white, had killed himself when Ron was only eight. Henceforth the
light-skinned little boy, named after matinee idol Ronald Colman, shared
the deserted marital bed with his black Mom, an ardent Colman fan.
Remaining on friendly terms with Harry, I used to walk across
the Park to meet him at the Collection. There was such tight security
at the Frick; I would be escorted up to his office by an armed guard,
most of whom were Irish.
On Sundays there were concerts in the Rotunda given by famous
musicians such as Wanda Landowska, grande dame of the harpsichord. Landowska
used to wear elbow-length gloves that she laboriously removed before starting
After such glimpses of cultured high life on the East Side,
I would, without regrets, return to Ron and low life on the Westside,
less cultured but more exciting.
There was only one drawback. Having dropped out of Columbia
Graduate School, with my living expenses no longer paid by my sponsor
old Nellie, I had to start thinking about getting a job.