Wednesday, January 20, 2010

September Song

Listen? Surely you recognize this.

It's Art Tatum, darling. Shame on you, after all these years. He was that blind, colored fellow we saw play at the Keegan's bash on our first trip to New York. I don't believe we've ever been to a bigger party, nor do I recall ever seeing you that tipsy again.

Do you remember what the occasion was? Not, of course, that Phil and Doris ever really needed an occasion, but that night was a celebration of something special or we wouldn't have made the trip. Is it possible they could have been celebrating their tenth anniversary?, I don't think so. It was much earlier than that.

I'm trying to think --what year would it have been? Phil and Doris were married in 1951 or early in '52, the year after Phil and I graduated from the University of Chicago, and they moved to New York a year later. This is exactly the sort of thing you always had such a memory for, and I know that somewhere in that old cedar chest at home you still have some mementos stashed away from that trip. Perhaps I'll go through it when I get home and bring a few things back for you tomorrow. You might like to have a handful of your keepsakes to look at.

Do you remember that trip, sweetheart? For Phil and Doris's big party? We left Jimmy and Susan with your parents and took the train into the city. We had a room at the Algonquin, and thought we could catch a cab outside Grand Central. But as soon as we got off the train we heard the news that Eisenhower had had a heart attack in Colorado, and everyone was in such a tizzy that it was impossible to tell what was going on.

I tried to find a phone to call Phil, but the lines were endless. I don't know...could we have carried our bags to the Algonquin from the train station? It was autumn, I do remember that, a lovely, surreal autumn day in New York. We were both so startled by the commotion of the city.

I'm still trying to place the year....wouldn't you at least try a bite of this dinner, dear? I'm afraid it's getting cold, and feel certain that's not going to make it any more palatable. You really must eat. I live in fear that one of these days I'm going to arrive and discover that you've been scattered by the I'm thinking it might have been Phil's 30th birthday that was the occasion for the party. That would be about right, but, lord, what year would that have been? You would certainly know this.

I seem to remember the Dodgers were still in Brooklyn and were playing the Yankees in the World Series. I think Phil had tickets to one of the games but we'd already made arrangements to see "Cat On a Hot Tin Roof" at a theater near Times Square. It was just then all the rage, and you were dying to see it. I'll bet you still have the Playbill in your cedar chest. The next night it was raining to beat the band and we ducked into a movie theater near the hotel and watched "Davy Crockett." You felt guilty about seeing it without the kids, but we did buy Jimmy a coonskin cap. Remember how those hats seemed to be everywhere in New York that fall?

We also trekked to the Museum of Modern Art, which was another of your big dreams. You'd just started really painting again, and we were both then astonished and appalled by the paintings of de Kooning, Motherwell, and Pollock. I remember you saying to me, "If this is painting, then there must be a different name for what I'm trying to do." You came around on that, though, didn't you?

Perhaps we should get some new art on these walls. I can't imagine that you'd make much of these sentimental agrarian scenes. God knows, they should be wretchedly familiar. Jimmy, by the way, will be coming for a visit in two weeks. Shall I mark your calendar?

I remember the night of Phil and Doris's party you looked so ravishing --we'd just that afternoon bought you a new dress-- and we both felt like landlocked ducks. Herman Wouk was there, and Louise Bogan, and a couple colleagues of Phil's who were in the record business. And there was Art Tatum, sitting alone at the piano all night and playing one song after another.

You were utterly fascinated by him. Phil said he drank enough to get a big band blotto. A year or two later, I believe, he was dead. You teared up when you read the obituary in the Times, bless your heart.

As soon as we got home from New York we bought every one of his records we could get our hands on, and for so many years that music provided such a beautiful backdrop to our lives.

Listen: "My One and Only Love," almost exactly as he played it that night at Phil's party. I remember you requested "September Song," It was September, and you thought you were being clever, but Tatum just shook his head, smiled, and launched right into it. It was impossibly lovely, and as we stood there next to the piano it seemed as if we were the only people in the entire room who were paying the slightest attention.

And here he is now. I brought the little phonograph and a few of the old records.

Art Tatum, darling. Surely you remember Art Tatum?


  1. This almost made me cry. My grandmother loved Art Tatum. But my grandfather would never dance with her - too embarrased.

    - Sarah

  2. Somewhere in the tangle of prose and speculation -- I wouldn't call it literature, most of it -- surrounding Ben Hogan, who was by all accounts one tough and enigmatic sonofabitch, is a bittersweet passage about the onset of dementia. Faces, names, memories of momentous times and places -- they all began to drift off "like birds from a wire."

  3. There goes that beautiful fabric unfurling again...