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'Circling My Mother,' A Memoir of Love and Pain

Fresh Air's book critic reviews Circling My Mother, the new memoir by novelist Mary Gordon; the book chronicles Anne Gordon's battles with polio, alcoholism, and eventually with senile dementia, and details the author's acceptance of both "the burdens and blessings of caring for her mother in old age."


Other segments from the episode on August 21, 2007

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, August 21, 2007: Interview with Marilyn and Alan Bergman; Review of Mary Gordon's memoir "Circling My Mother."


TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Songwriters Alan and Marilyn Bergman on their career
and relationship

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

The lyrics to the songs "Nice and Easy," "The Way We Were," "How Do You Keep
the Music Playing," "What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?" "The Windmills
of Your Mind," "Where Do You Start," and all the songs from the movie "Yentl"
were written by my guests, Alan and Marilyn Bergman. Their songs have won
Oscars, Golden Globes and Grammys, and have been popularized by Frank Sinatra,
Tony Bennett and Barbara Streisand, to name just a few.

The Bergmans are married and have collaborated on songs for over 50 years.
Alan Bergman sings some of the many songs they co-wrote on his new album,
"Lyrically." The Bergmans met through composer Lew Spence. At the time
Marilyn worked for Spence, writing lyrics in the morning; and Alan worked for
Spence, writing lyrics in the afternoon. The three of them collaborated on a
song that was written for Frank Sinatra and became the title track of an album
he released in 1960.

(Soundbite of "Nice and Easy")

Mr. FRANK SINATRA: (Singing) Let's take it nice and easy
It's going to be so easy
For us to fall in love
Hey, baby, what's your hurry?
Relax and don't you worry
We're gonna fall in love

We're on the road to romance
That's safe to say
But let's make all the stops
Along the way

The problem now, of course, is
To simply hold your horses
To rush would be a crime
'Cause nice and easy does it every time

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: How did you come up with the phrase "nice and easy," which became the
title of the song and Sinatra's album?

Mr. ALAN BERGMAN: Yeah, well, when you write for somebody like Frank Sinatra
who has a definite personality, you try to write--it's easy to write a
custom-made suit for him, you know. He's very theatrical. He has a definite
character, and we felt, because they wanted something that was easy swing,
"nice and easy," the phrase, "nice and easy does it every time" would be good
for him.

Ms. MARILYN BERGMAN: It also had a kind of subtext to be a little sexy,
which certainly also was part of Sinatra.

GROSS: This is one of those many songs about sex that isn't literally about
sex, but it's absolutely about sex. Right?

Ms. BERGMAN: Yes it is. Yes it is.

GROSS: So when Sinatra says on his version of the record toward the end,
"like the man said," which isn't...



GROSS: the lyric, did it bother you, or did you think, hey...

Ms. BERGMAN: Oh not at all. Not at all.

Mr. BERGMAN: In fact, he had--we were lucky enough to be there at Capitol
Records when he did record this, and he had several different endings...


Mr. BERGMAN: He would ad lib something each time they got to the tag line,
and this is the one that they decided to use.

GROSS: Did Sinatra ever ask you to write for him after having such success
with this song?

Mr. BERGMAN: Yes. Yes he did, several times. There was one time we
received a call from him that said, `I want you to write me a 10-minute
number,' and we said, `About what?' He said, `Well, you know, boy meets girl,
boy gets girl, boy loses girl, and so on.' And we said to him, `Well, that's
really been written.' He said, `You'll figure it out.' He used to call us "the
kids" and he said, `You kids, you'll figure it out' and he said, `Get the
frog,' which means get Michel Legrand to be the composer. And Michel's father
was very sick at the time and Michel couldn't do it, so we called him and
said, `Is John Williams OK?' It was Johnny Williams. He was not the, you
know, well-known conductor/composer then. And we said, `John, would you like
to do this?' and he said, `Yeah, let's do it.'

Ms. BERGMAN: So we wrote a 10-minute piece, which incidentally he wanted for
his nightclub act, so we wrote a piece that talked about the fact that the
protagonist of the piece--in this case, the singer--fell in love with the same
woman over and over and over I don't mean literally the same woman but, you
know, the same woman, and each love affair ended badly. And I think I
remember the phrase, `the same hello, the same goodbye.'

And when we finished it, we called him and told him that we had finished it
and he asked us if we would come down to Palm Springs where he had a home and
play it for him. So the three of us drove down to Palm Springs and we got to
his--I started to say "house," but sort of more like a compound actually--and
he opened the door himself when we finally made our way to the house. And
Alan sang the song for him.

Alan, what was that experience? You tell it.

Mr. BERGMAN: Well, he was sitting on an ottoman in front of me, and I sang
for 10 minutes. You know, that's a long time.

Ms. BERGMAN: You were not sitting on an ottoman...

Mr. BERGMAN: No I wasn't.

Ms. BERGMAN: Paramount Theater in Brooklyn.


Ms. BERGMAN: You weren't as a kid.

Mr. BERGMAN: That's right. When I was finished he was crying. And he said
to Marilyn, `How do you know so much about me?' as if his life was such a...

Ms. BERGMAN: Such a closed book.

Mr. BERGMAN: ...such a closed book, you know? But it must have hit some
nerve. And he said, `I have to learn this. This is terrific. I love it.'
But he never learned it and...

Ms. BERGMAN: Every time we would see him...


Ms. BERGMAN: ...he would say, `I'm going to do that.'

Mr. BERGMAN: `Kids, I'm going to do that. Don't, you know'...

Ms. BERGMAN: But he never did. But it was a very nice experience, I must

Mr. BERGMAN: Yeah.

GROSS: Well, Alan Bergman, you've released this new album, "Lyrically"...

Mr. BERGMAN: Yeah.

GROSS: ...of songs that you wrote with your wife, Marilyn.

Mr. BERGMAN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Why did you want to make an album of you singing your songs? Is this
the first--I think it's the first time you've done this.

Mr. BERGMAN: Yes, this is the first time. Well, it's not exactly that I
wanted--you know, we did a concert that is a series in New York in the 92nd
Street Y called Lyrics and Lyricists.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. BERGMAN: And we did that--there was a 25th anniversary, and they asked
us to do it again for them, and we did. And a man came up to me after the
concert from Germany and he said, `I have a record company in Germany and I
think you are a great singer. I want to make an album with you.' And I said,
`Ah, I'm not so sure.' And he kept after me for two or three years, and
finally I said, `OK. I'll do it.'

And he flew Marilyn and I to Berlin and he organized a big orchestra and a
young arranger who did a wonderful job, Jorg Keller, his name is. And I sang
live with this orchestra, which was a wonderful experience and I had a
wonderful time. I love to sing so...

Ms. BERGMAN: Alan has always sung, actually. When we write, we sing as we
write. Because lyrics, unlike poetry, are meant to be sung. So he's always
sung and most of the time it's Alan, who would demonstrate the song for the
artist or the producer, director, whoever was on the receiving end of the

GROSS: Can you diagnose problems in the lyric by singing it?

Mr. BERGMAN: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. You know, sometimes the choice of a
word--you try that word and it may be the perfect word, but it doesn't sing on
those notes.

GROSS: Can you give me an example of a lyric you changed because singing it
you knew it didn't work?


Ms. BERGMAN: I can't give you a lyric of ours; it's an interesting question.
But Oscar Hammerstein, probably one of the greatest lyric writers, always felt
that a song that he and Richard Rodgers wrote for "Oklahoma," a wonderful song
called "What's the Use in Wondering," never found its way into the repertoire
of singers as much as some of the other songs in that should did because the
last like is "And all the rest is talk." And ending a song on the word "talk,"
which you can hear cuts off on that hard K sound, didn't allow a singer to
really to do what...

Mr. BERGMAN: Sing it beautifully at the end, you know. (Sings) "And all the
rest is talk." I mean, it's so difficult and that's why it's not part of the

GROSS: My guests are lyricists Alan and Marilyn Bergman. Alan Bergman has a
new CD called "Lyrically," in which he sings some of their songs. More after
a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guests are lyricists Marilyn and Alan Bergman. Some of their songs
include "Nice and Easy," "The Way We Were," and "What Are You Doing the Rest
of Your Life?"

Well, let's listen to Alan Bergman sing from his new album "Lyrically." This
is "What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?" which was written for the 1969
film, "The Happy Ending." The composer was Michel Legrand. Why don't you tell
us the story behind the song before we hear it?

Ms. BERGMAN: Richard Brooks, who was a wonderful writer and director,
directed and wrote this film called "The Happy Ending," which I think was a
little ahead of its time and occasionally will appear on very, very late night
television, but nearly didn't find an audience.

Anyway, he came to us one day and said, `I want you to write me a song that is
to appear twice in the film, early in the film. I want it to function as a,
perhaps a proposal of marriage between these two young lovers. But I want to
hear the song again at the end of the film, at which time the wife--they were
since married--16 years later the wife has become alcoholic and has left her
husband and is in a bar and goes to a jukebox and selects a song and then sits
down with a line-up of martinis in front of her.' And he shot this beautiful
montage of Jean Simmons, who played the wife, during which time she drifts
into kind of a reverie while listening to the same song. And he said, `I
don't want you to change a note or a word, but I want the song to mean
something very different when you hear it the second time.'

So that was a very interesting, challenging assignment, and Michel Legrand
wrote perhaps six or eight tunes as his wont for this part. And they were all
beautiful, but none really struck the three of us as being right. And we said
to him--because while he was writing music, we were sitting trying to solve
the dramatic question of what the song should be about--we said to him, what
happens if the first line of the song is `What are you doing for the rest of
your life?' And he said, `Oh, I like that.' And he put his hands on the keys,
and as long as it takes to play that song, that's what he played from
beginning to end and he said, `You mean something like that?' And we said,
`No, we mean exactly like that.' And Alan said to him, `Play it again.' And he
said, `Oh, I don't remember quite what I played.' Luckily we had the tape
machine going so we had the music. And then we zipped through it.

GROSS: So the first line of the song inspired the melody?

Ms. BERGMAN: Exactly.


Ms. BERGMAN: Exactly.

Mr. BERGMAN: That happens sometimes. With Michel, we can't write lyrics
first. We prefer not to write lyrics first; we prefer to have the melody. We
feel that when we have the melody, that there are words on the tips of those
notes and we have to find them.

GROSS: Well, let's hear Alan Bergman singing "What Are You Doing the Rest of
Your Life?" from his new album "Lyrically," featuring songs with lyrics that
he and Marilyn Bergman co-wrote.

(Soundbite of "What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?")

Mr. BERGMAN: (Singing) What are you doing the rest of your life,
North and south and east and west of your life?
I have only one request of your life
That you spend it all with me

All the seasons and the times of your days
All the nickels and the dimes of your days
Let the reasons and the rhymes of your days
All begin, end with me

I want to see your face in every kind of light
In fields of dark and forests of the night
And when you stand before the candles on a cake
Oh, let me be the one to hear the silent wish you make

Those tomorrows waiting deep in your eyes...

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That's Alan Bergman from his new album "Lyrically," which features him
singing songs that he co-wrote with Marilyn Bergman. They're married and
long-time lyricist collaborators.

Now, that song was recently used on a commercial for diamonds. So, did you
have to give your permission for that?

Mr. BERGMAN: Yes. This is odd. You know, when you write for hire, as we
did, "What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?" we were hired by the studio
to write it, they own the copyright and...


Mr. BERGMAN: ...they can ask you--they don't have to ask for permission.
Most of the time, when they're not changing a word of the lyric, they really
don't bother. When there's a change in the lyric, then they do. Then they
notify you, and they ask you if it's...

Ms. BERGMAN: This was using the Dusty Springfield record of the song, so
nothings was changed, and it was a record that had been, you know, it is out,
and so I guess they felt there was no need to ask us.

GROSS: So when you say that the studio owns the copyright, you still get
composer credits, right?

Mr. BERGMAN: Oh, yes.

GROSS: Composer royalties?

Mr. BERGMAN: We get credit and we get royalties.

Ms. BERGMAN: Credits and royalties. But they, in fact--"they," meaning the
publishing company arm of the studio...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Ms. BERGMAN: ...owns the rights to the song.

GROSS: Now, you've written a lot of songs, or a fair number of songs, for
movies. Some of your best-known songs are songs you wrote for movies. You
haven't written that much for theater. How did you gravitate to writing songs
for movies?

Ms. BERGMAN: I think maybe movies made a deeper impression growing up. And
we always knew that we wanted to write in a dramatic context. We were more
interested in that than we were in just writing songs in limbo. Writing in a
narrative or dramatic context when we were honing craft. You can't write for
a picture unless somebody hires you, you know? So it's like an actor not
being able to act unless he gets a job, or she gets a job. So we were do
exercises. We would find either short stories or scenes from plays or
articles in the newspaper, and pretend that they were assignments. And we
wrote many, many, many songs that never saw the light of day, but were
exercises that we gave ourselves. So I like to think that when the first job
came, we were ready.

GROSS: You were both writing lyrics for the composer Lew Spence, who wrote...



GROSS: ...the melody for "Nice and Easy," which was...


Ms. BERMAN: Yes.

GROSS: of your first hits. And, Marilyn, the way you described it,
one of you was his morning lyricist and the other was his afternoon lyricist.

Ms. BERGMAN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: How did he end up having two different lyricists?

Ms. BERGMAN: Because I liked to sleep late.

Mr. BERGMAN: And it was early in our careers and you know, we were trying to
find out who were are and what we were saying. And he was writing and...

Ms. BERGMAN: And he was talented.

Mr. BERGMAN: Yeah.

Ms. BERGMAN: I'll tell you, too...

GROSS: Do you know each other or did he introduce you? Did you know each
other yet when you were both writing lyrics separately?





GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Ms. BERGMAN: No. I was introduced to him by Bob Russell, a wonderful lyric
writer who was a mentor of mine who, when I started to write, introduced me to
this composer. And Alan, I must have met him around the music business...


Ms. BERGMAN: LA. But there were not teams of writers so much then.
You know, we were all just writing songs, and we worked with him for a quite a
while, and that was the most successful of the songs that we wrote together.

Mr. BERGMAN: (Unintelligible).

GROSS: OK. So you were both independently writing lyrics for Lew Spence.
You met...

Ms. BERGMAN: With Lew Spence.

Mr. BERGMAN: With--yeah.

Ms. BERGMAN: With Lew Spence.

GROSS: With Lew Spence? Oh, OK. You met through him and then you decided
that you should be writing lyrics with each other?

Mr. BERGMAN: Yeah.

GROSS: So...

Mr. BERGMAN: And we wrote a song that day...

GROSS: Yeah?

Mr. BERGMAN: ...the first day we were introduced to each other, we wrote a
song. It was a terrible song, but we loved the process. We enjoy the
process. And from that day on we've been writing together.

GROSS: Can you share a few bars of the awful song?

Ms. BERGMAN: Oh my God. I was...(unintelligible).

Mr. BERGMAN: I only know the title.

GROSS: Which was...

Mr. BERGMAN: "I Never Knew What Hit Me."

Ms. BERGMAN: Ouch.

Mr. BERGMAN: Something like that. Ouch is right.

GROSS: Marilyn and Alan Bergman will be back in the second half of the show.
Alan Bergman's new album is called "Lyrically."

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR. Here's the Bergman song "Summer
Wishes, Winter Dreams," sung by Abbey Lincoln.

(Soundbite of "Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams")

Ms. ABBEY LINCOLN: (Singing) Summer wishes, winter dreams
Drifting down forgotten streams
Songs and faces, smiles and whispers
Come from far away
To visit me....

(End of soundbite)


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with lyricist Alan and
Marilyn Bergman. Their songs include "Nice and Easy," "The Way We Were," "What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?," "You Must Believe in Spring" and
"How Do You Keep the Music Playing?" The Bergmans have been married nearly 50
years and have been collaborating slightly longer. Alan Bergman sings some of
their songs on his new album, "Lyrically."

Alan Bergman, one of the songs you sing on your new album "Lyrically," is a
song that you say was an engagement gift to Marilyn Bergman...

Mr. BERGMAN: Yes. Yes.

GROSS: ...and the song is "That Face," which was first recorded by Fred

Mr. BERGMAN: Yeah.

GROSS: So before we hear you sing it, what's the story behind this song?

Mr. BERGMAN: Well, Lew Spence, who wrote the music, he was going out with a
girl, and Marilyn and I were going out together and I wanted to ask her to
marry me and have some kind of engagement, but I didn't have any money. So we
wrote this song and we figured--we got an appointment with Fred Astaire. Fred
Astaire was Marilyn's favorite singer. She loved the way he sang.

Mrs. BERGMAN: Still do.

GROSS: Me too.

Mr. BERGMAN: Oh, yes. Well, you know, just to digress for a second, you
know, the literature of popular music in this country would be much poorer
without a Fred Astaire, because all those great writers--Berlin, the
Gershwins, Cole Porter, and so they all wrote for him. And Johny Mercer. So
we wrangled an appointment with Fred Astaire and sang him the song. He said,
`Before I listen,' he said--he owned the record company, he said, `I only
record what I sing in movies, but I'll listen.' He was very sweet. And so we
played and sang him the song, and he said, `I'm going to record this next
week.' And he did. And I handed Marilyn this record and I said...

Ms. BERGMAN: And I married him.

Mr. BERGMAN: And she married me. Yeah.

GROSS: Let's hear you sing it from the new Alan Bergman CD, "Lyrically."

(Soundbite of "That Face")

Mr. BERGMAN (Singing) That face, that face, that wonderful face
It's shy, it glows all over the place
And how I love to watch it change expressions
Each look becomes a prize of my possession

I love that face, that face
It just isn't fair
You must forgive
The way that I stare
But never will these eyes behold
A sight that could replace
That face, that face, that face

I see that face, that face...

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That's Alan Bergman from his new album "Lyrically," in which he sings
lyrics that were co-written with his wife, Marilyn Bergman, with the exception
of the song we just heard. That's the only one for which he wrote the lyric

Mr. BERGMAN: Right.

GROSS: When you were growing up in New York, both of you--you both grew up in
New York, right?

Ms. BERGMAN: Mm-hmm.


GROSS: You know, I don't know if this was happening when you were in high
school, but there were a lot of high schools in New York that had something
called "Sing," in which you had to write lyrics for songs for sketches that
were presented at the end of the year. And each class, you know, the
freshmen, the sophomores, seniors and so on, had their own kind of show that
they'd put on. And then of course there were summer camps, in which people
wrote new lyrics to old songs for...

Mr. BERGMAN: Yeah, yeah.

GROSS: ...color war and stuff like that. Did you ever go through any of that
before starting to write lyrics professionally?

Ms. BERGMAN: I remember the second example. I remember the songs for color
war...(unintelligible) a matter of fact. I don't know--I think maybe I
did. But we both had been studying music since we were little, so I never
thought of writing lyrics--I never thought of being a songwriter until much
later, but that's another story. But Alan, did you ever write for these
sketches that...(unintelligible)...

Mr. BERGMAN: Well, I wrote, I started writing when I was about 11 and 12.
What I wanted to do--all I wanted to do was be a songwriter. First piece of
sheet music I ever bought was a song called "Lost," and one of the writers--it
was Johnny Mercer, who later, about 10 to 12 years later, became my mentor,
and spent a lot of time with me encouraging me and criticizing me and so
forth. But I remember the first song I wrote--you know, in the subways in
those days. They had somebody called Miss Subways. They had a poster and the
subway, once a week or once a month--I don't remember--and I wrote a song
called "I want to be Miss Subways," you know, "have my picture in all the
cars, like the movie stars." That's what I remember about that.

But I wrote a couple of shows in high school. And a lot of it--I think some
of it was parodies of songs that were, and some original songs. And I wrote
shows in college. Yeah. In those days, I was writing both. I haven't
written music in a long time, but...

GROSS: So, Alan Bergman, Johnny Mercer was your mentor.


GROSS: How were you lucky enough to get to know him?

Mr. BERGMAN: Yes. Well, I met him when I was in graduate school at UCLA,
and he heard some things I had written and he took a liking to me. And he
spent, you know, over a period of two or three years--yeah--he would call me
and say, `I know all you're doing is working'--this is before I met Marilyn.
And we would go down with his family to Newport, where he had a place--where
he had a house, and we would spend the weekend. He would sit at the piano and
listen to me play and sing. He liked the way I sang, and he was just
terrific. I mean, I wouldn't be talking to you without him. He was just
marvelous to me. Yeah.

GROSS: So what was some of the best advice that Johnny Mercer ever gave you
about songwriting?

Mr. BERGMAN: Ah. Well, you know, he just outlined the craft about singing,
you know, you're writing for an instrument and you have to respect that. And
a lot about imagery. More, it would be more, `You can do better than that.'
It wouldn't be specific, really.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. BERGMAN: Which was great, because that helped--the more specific, I
think, teachers get, the less you feel free to express yourself. And some of
the early songs of mine you can hear Johnny Mercer in them. Trying to emulate
him till I found, and we found, our own voice.

Ms. BERGMAN: Also, I think what we each learned from mentors that we had was
that songs, probably like anything else that one writes, are not written,
they're rewritten.

Mr. BERGMAN: Yeah.

Ms. BERGMAN: And you can't really get too passionate about any one word or
one phrase, and you just have to be free enough and ruthless enough with your
work to really keep writing until somebody wrests it away from you, I think.

GROSS: My guests are lyricists Alan and Marilyn Bergman. Alan Bergman has a
new CD called "Lyrically," in which he sings some of their songs. We'll talk
more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guests are lyricists Marilyn and Alan Bergman. Some of their songs
include "Nice and Easy," "The Way We Were" and "What Are You Doing the Rest of
Your Life?"

Marilyn, when you decided that you really wanted to become a lyricist, did you
think, well, this is going to be really hard to do because there are so--first
of all, it's hard to be a a lyricist under the best of circumstances, but
second of all, there were so few women who were lyricists at the time that you
started writing. Did you think this was going to be impossible?

Ms. BERGMAN: As a woman, you mean?

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Ms. BERGMAN: Well, I didn't think it was going to be impossible. I knew
that I would be, you know, the odd woman out. I would go to ASCAP membership
meetings, and it would be me and a lot of the widows of songwriters who were
there representing their husbands' estates, you know. So in New York, there
was Betty Comden and Dorothy Fields and, you know, there were a couple of
women writers...

GROSS: Carolyn Lee.


Ms. BERGMAN: Carolyn Lee, for sure. But she was about the same time. By
the time I met Carolyn, I was already a professional writer, as she was
certain. She was wonderful.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

Mr. BERGMAN: Oh, absolutely. Terrific writer.


Mr. BERGMAN: Mm. Yeah.

GROSS: Marilyn, did you have a mentor in the way that Alan had a mentor in
Johnny Mercer?

Ms. BERGMAN: Yes, I did. When I was in high school, in New York, I went to
the High School of Music and Art. I was a music major, and I was lucky enough
to become friendly with a girl named Marilyn Jackson, very good singer who
unfortunately is no longer with us, but she introduced me to her aunt and
uncle, and her uncle was a very successful songwriter-lyric writer named Bob
Russell. He wrote a lot of the Duke Ellington songs: "Don't Get Around Much
Anymore, "Do Nothing Till You Hear from Me." He wrote lryics to "Brazil" and
"Ballerina" and a lot of songs. Very, very gifted, and I used to play the
piano for him in the afternoon after school. This was the olden days, before
tape recorders and stuff like that, so a lyric writer who didn't play the
piano used to have somebody sit and play tunes for them.

And I became very interested in what he was doing, though I never dreamed that
someday that's what I would do. This was just an afternoon exercise for me.
And then, oh well, if you want the story, I'll give it to you quickly. I fell
down a flight of steps...


Ms. BERGMAN: ...I broke my shoulder...


Ms. BERGMAN: ...dislocated the other, so I could no longer live in New York.
I had to come out to California where my parents had moved while I was in high
school, college, I don't remember. And the only person I knew here was Bob
Russell, who, with his family, had moved here in the years since my high
school days. I was in college at that time . And I came out here and, you
know, practically a body cast and looked him up and we're visiting, and I
said, `What am I going to do out here for all these months? I don't know
anybody. I can't do anything.' And he said, `Well, why don't you write
songs?' And I said, `I can't play the piano. I can't even turn the pages in a
book.' He said, `So write lyrics. You can dictate them into the now-invented
cassette player, or reel to reel,' whatever it was. So I said, `Oh.' And I
wrote a lyric, and he introduced me to a young composer named Lew Spence. Now
we've come a little circle here, right? And that's how I became Lew Spence's
morning lyric writer.

Mr. BERGMAN: No. Afternoon.

Ms. BERGMAN: Afternoon lyric writer, forgive me.


Ms. BERGMAN: And Bob functioned very much the same way that Johnny did with
Alan. Bob used to critique what I'd written, and he was a task master, I'm
delighted to say. And so I was--I don't think--there's no question that--I
was studying political psychology at NYU. Why would I write songs if I hadn't
fallen down a flight of steps?

GROSS: Well, I love stories about catastrophe that have happy endings, so...

Mr. BERGMAN: That's right. That's right.

GROSS: I'm glad to hear how it worked out.

Ms. BERGMAN: Now, you know, we've been talking about songs you've written,
and songs you've written for movies. Now one of your famous songs that hasn't
been recorded either by Tony Bennett or Frank Sinatra or Barbara Streisand is
the theme from "Maude."

Mr. BERGMAN: That's right.


GROSS: I just have to ask you about that. You know, the lyrics are "Lady
Godiva was a freedom rider, she didn't care if the whole world looked, Joan of
Arc with the Lord to guide her, she was a sister who really cooked."

Mr. BERGMAN: Oh, God.

GROSS: Do you look back at that and think, `Oh, was that dated?'

Ms. BERGMAN: No, I don't know. It fit the author's...

Mr. BERGMAN: Character. Yeah.

Ms. BERGMAN: Character. Norman Lear asked us to write a piece for her,
Norman Lear who worked at Tandem Productions then, asked us to write a theme
song for this show.

Mr. BERGMAN: One composer, Dave Grusin.

Ms. BERGMAN: Yeah. So this is what we wrote because she was this ardent
feminist creature. So that was fun.

Mr. BERGMAN: And that's fine, you know, because you have 45 seconds to write
something that will capture the audience and tell them a little bit about what
they're going to see.

Ms. BERGMAN: And don't touch that dial.


GROSS: Right.

Mr. BERGMAN: So that's how we approach it, you know. Like "Good Times,"
same thing.

GROSS: What's the lyric you wish you had written? Like the lyric that to you
is all songs should be measured again?

Ms. BERGMAN: Oh God.

Mr. BERGMAN: Oh boy. We have a lot of those.

Ms. BERGMAN: (Unintelligible) one.

Mr. BERGMAN: Yeah. "I've Grown Accustomed to Your Face."

Ms. BERGMAN: Ah, that's another one.

GROSS: Mm. Mm-hmm.

Ms. BERGMAN: "All the Things You Are" is another one.

Mr. BERGMAN: Yeah. "They Can't Take that Away from Me."


GROSS: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

Mr. BERGMAN: "Too Late Now."

GROSS: Oh yeah.

Mr. BERGMAN: I mean, there's...

Ms. BERGMAN: "Send in the Clowns."

Mr. BERGMAN: Yeah.

Ms. BERGMAN: Almost anything that Steve Sondheim writes.

Mr. BERGMAN: Anything that Sondheim writes. Yes. He's...

Ms. BERGMAN: He's the measure right now.

GROSS: Well, a pleasure to talk with you both. Let's close with another
song. I thought we'd close with "Where Do You Start?" which was not written
for a movie.


Ms. BERGMAN: It's a good way to close. It closes a relationship.

Mr. BERGMAN: Yeah. And "Where Do You Start?" We have, you know, in our
process, we have a lot of wonderful composer friends. Dave Grusin is one, you
know, besides Michel, and Johnny Mandel, who's a wonderful composer.
Sometimes, Dave or Johnny will come over to the house and say, `What do you
think of this melody?' And they play it, and we usually love it. We say,
`Leave it here,' you know, and we take it off the shelf and listen to them
play and hopefully get an idea. There are two songs like that on the album.
One is "Where Do You Start?" and the other is "Love Like Ours," which,
just--they're wonderful melodies which we feel we have to write.

Ms. BERGMAN: And they'll be in a drawer, on a cassette, or a shelf, from
time to time when we're not working on something in particular we'll take it
out and play it and see if the muse is in the room. And "Where Do You Start?"
is a melody of Johnny Mandel's that we really liked and it took us a long time
before we found an idea for it that we liked and people have told us that they
were married to "What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?" broke up to "Where
Do You Start?" and were divorced to "The Way We Were," so...

GROSS: That's really funny. So how does it make you feel knowing that you're
the soundtrack, in some way, to the ups and downs of so many romantic

Ms. BERGMAN: It's very humbling.


Ms. BERGMAN: It's very humbling.

GROSS: It's kind of amazing, you know, that you've stayed together as a
couple and as partners for so long. It's sometimes--for so many people it's
so hard to work with a spouse and to work as closely as you have to as
lyricists and to have kept a marriage up for so years is pretty incredible.

Mr. BERGMAN: We've been writing together for 51 years.

GROSS: Well, congratulations for not having had to sing "The Way We Were" in
your own lives.

Mr. BERGMAN: Hardly.

Ms. BERGMAN: I can't imagine it any other way.

GROSS: Thank you both so much.

Ms. BERGMAN: A pleasure.

Mr. BERGMAN: Thank you, Terry.

Ms. BERGMAN: A good pleasure, Terry.

GROSS: Lyricists Marilyn and Alan Bergman. Alan Bergman sings some of their
songs on his new album "Lyrically." Here he is singing "Where Do You Start?"

(Soundbite of "Where Do You Start?")

Mr. BERGMAN: (Singing) Where do you start?
How do you separate the present from the past?
How do you deal with all the things you thought would last?
That didn't last
Little bits of memory scattered here and there
I look around and don't know where to start

Which books are yours?
Which tapes and dreams belong to you?
And which are mine?
Our lives are tangled like the branches of a vine
That intertwined
So many habits that we'll have to break
And yesterdays we have to take apart

One day...

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews Mary Gordon's new memoir about her
mother. This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Maureen Corrigan on Mary Gordon's memoir "Circling My

Writer Mary Gordon is celebrated for her spellbinding and tortured
explorations of working-class Catholic culture and spirituality in novels such
as "Final Payments," "Spending" and "Pearl." With the publication of 1996 book
"Shadow Man," Gordon also distinguished herself as a memoirist. "Shadow Man"
was about her elusive father. Now Gordon bookends that accomplishment with
her new memoir "Circling My Mother." Book critic Maureen Corrigan has a


Mary Gordon's parents were what my own Irish Catholic family would've termed
"real holy," a dismissive shorthand for "holier than thou." Gordon's father,
who died when she was seven, was born Jewish and converted to Catholicism. He
was so piously gung-ho, she recalls, that he once bloodied his knees at a
shrine where the faithful ascended hundreds of steps of a stone staircase,
kneeling. He was also, as Gordon revealed in her acclaimed 1996 memoir "The
Shadow Man," a sometime-pornographer who had been married before, unbeknownst
to Gordon's mother. Gordon's mother, who had been crippled as a child by
polio, grew up to become a secretary who took her vacations at religious
retreats. The couple was introduced by a priest while they were both visiting
the same convent.

Real holy. It's a world that doesn't exist anymore, this world of pre-Vatican
II Catholicism with its baroque accessories of confessionals and white
handkerchiefs affixed with bobby pins to women's bouffant hairdos, all
changed, changed utterly. But one of Gordon's great gifts as a writer is
that, like Mary McCarthy and Alice McDermott, her fellow female Catholic
emigres to the literary life, she's able to render the old world whole,
capturing its inner logic and viewed-from-a-distance looniness.

In her newest book, a memoir called "Circling My Mother," Gordon surveys the
life of her mother, Anna Gagliano Gordon, who died a few years ago at the age
of 94. A weakness of this memoir is that it's shrink-wrapped in a tiresome
introductory essay and coda that express Gordon's anxieties about betraying
her mother's privacy and also her own writerly despair about ever capturing
the truth of her mother in words.

It must also be said that the subject here, Gordon's mother, lacks the
dramatic duplicity of character that made "The Shadow Man" such a talked-about
memoir. Anna's story is mundanely interesting, what with her surprising
middle-aged leaps into marriage, motherhood and widowhood in quick succession.
But what really rivets a reader's attention are the peripheral stories of the
priest, friends, workmates, parents and sisters--especially the
sisters--surrounding Gordon's mother.

Anna was one of five Gagliano girls born to a towering Irish mother and a
short Sicilian father. Of the five sisters, three were fantastically cruel in
the outsized way that only the righteous can be cruel. One sister, nicknamed
"Tiny," ran a camp that Gordon went to the summer after her father died.
Gordon recalls herself as pretending to be alive but really dead, in the land
of the dead with my father. Tiny doesn't like that her niece isn't cheerful,
isn't with it, isn't grateful for this gift of a summer in the mountains away
from the smelly city sidewalks and heat. So Tiny gets a postcard of the
idiotically grinning Alfred E. Neuman from Mad magazine and tapes it beside
the bunk of the bereaved girl. The caption of the postcard reads, `Keep
smiling.' Gothic moments like these, of a particular working-class Catholic
vintage, abound in Gordon's book. On Anna's wedding day, for instance, her
father refuses to attend his daughter's wedding to an ex-Jew and slips a note
into her hand. It reads, `You will work till the day you die,' a note
expressing contempt for the bread-winning potential of Anna's intended.

A priest, whom the married couple became close to, upbraids Anna for her grief
after her husband's death, ordering her to `say nothing of your sorrow. Your
sorrow is nothing next to mine. You have a child of his loins. I have lost

Gordon admits that homoerotic passion may indeed be present in this brutal
note, but--and here's the wisdom and rigor of her backward view--she also goes
on to say that the priest treasured her father because he was `a saintly
failure.' Success was, for Protestants, a sign of mediocre nature, of
compromise. This is one thing, Gordon says, that has changed about the
Catholic Church. No one of any stripe romanticizes failure anymore.

"Circling My Mother" is a rich memoir, smart about the Catholic world it
chronicles as well as the aberrations and ordinariness of the faithful who
once crowded into its pews. No doubt only Gordon would be distressed to hear
me say that the circles surrounding her mother are more fascinating to a
reader than the woman at the center.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She
reviewed "Circling My Mother" by Mary Gordon.


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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