DATE June 24, 2005 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Jerry Stahl discusses Fatty Arbuckle, whose life is the
basis for his new novel, "I, Fatty"
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, TV critic for the New York Daily
News, sitting in for Terry Gross.
The story we're about to hear about a Hollywood scandal and a morality crusade
goes back to the silent film era. Fatty Arbuckle was one of silent films'
biggest stars, the fat funnyman of many Keystone Kop movies and other silent
films. He was beloved, and made a fortune. But his career was ruined in
1921, when he was accused of raping and murdering a model named Virginia
Rappe. She died of an internal infection and a ruptured bladder, illnesses
Arbuckle was accused of causing during the alleged rape. At his third trial,
he was acquitted, but his name remained Hollywood poison. Also, his trial
helped lead the way to an obsession with Hollywood scandal and to the first
crusades against immorality in the movie industry.
Our guest, Jerry Stahl, has written a novel based on Arbuckle's life, called
"I, Fatty." It's about to be released in paperback. Stahl also is the author
of the popular memoir, "Permanent Midnight," about the years when he led a
double life as a heroin addict and as writer of such TV shows as "Alf,"
"Moonlighting" and "thirtysomething."
Terry began her 2004 interview with Jerry Stahl by asking him to read from the
beginning of "I, Fatty." The novel is written as if it were Arbuckle's
(Soundbite of interview)
Mr. JERRY STAHL (Author, "I, Fatty"): (Reading) Even if I never touched
Virginia Rappe or any other female, people had their reasons for believing,
for wanting to believe I'd done something worth hating me for. I hated the
name Fatty, and I made a career out of being that name. Buster Keaton said
that to get people to love me, I became what I loathed the most. Buster was
the one pal who stood by me through it all.
So before we really get going here, I just have to say this. Something
strange happens when you lose everything. Something strange happened to me.
All those years of being lucky, being successful, first comic actor to direct
his own movies, first to make a million a year, I never felt comfortable. I
had to pay a bootlegger to feel even half good, and after that, a croaker for
narcotics. Once all my money and all my luck was used up, I could relax. I
wanted to die, but at least the feeling was familiar. Does this make sense?
Before the court lynched me, I was as big a success as Daddy was a failure,
and I needed the hooch more than he did, sometimes more. After the St.
Francis fiasco, I didn't need the drink. I mean, I did, but not the same way.
Thanks to Virginia, I had an excuse to feel the way I had always felt but
could never explain when things were aces. But there I go, rushing the gag.
TERRY GROSS: That's Jerry Stahl reading from his new book, "I, Fatty." It's a
novel based on the life of Fatty Arbuckle.
Jerry, reading this novel made me feel like I was reading a history of early
Hollywood, and there were actually a lot of parallels to what Hollywood is
like today. But I'm wondering what made you think about Fatty Arbuckle as a
Mr. STAHL: I kind of stumbled across him by accident. I was really
interested in the notion of American history and of America as a kind of
pharmocracy, you know, doing a history of America via narcotics.
GROSS: Oh, pharm with a P-H. OK.
Mr. STAHL: You're way ahead of me. Yeah, and see, back then, Bayer made
heroin and sold it over the counter as the housewife's friend, as it was
known, to keep the kiddies from coughing at night, whereas their newfangled
crazy product aspirin was considered a little dicey. And then I stumbled
across the fact that Fatty Arbuckle at one point in his life got so strung out
on heroin that he had to wear a fat suit in public, and the notion of this guy
leading the double junkie life of this fat suit and sweating in the horrific
Los Angeles heat, and then going home, taking it off and `fixing' was so
riveting, and so just somehow sad, it made me fall in love with the guy, so I
decided to just write about Hollywood and that particular time in America via
GROSS: You mean he was so wasted from the heroin that he lost so much weight
he had to put on a fat suit?
Mr. STAHL: That's right. Adolph Zucker had it made for him because he had to
go on tour to promote films. But he could barely walk. He had lost a ton of
weight because he had a carbuncle that an intern botched while trying to lance
it, and as was the habit--no pun intended--of the day, he gave him heroin, and
Fatty got strung out, and the studio said, `OK, you have to kick it,' and they
built a kick bin in his own home. And when it was all over, he was so thin,
he had to wear a fat suit.
GROSS: What is Fatty Arbuckle's place in movie history as an actor and as a
Mr. STAHL: His place is kind of twofold. One, he was the first guy to make
a million a year, but on terms of artistic achievement, he invented the pie
fight, and he was the first comic actor who got to direct his own movies. So,
in fact, he was the first actor who had that kind of creative control to do
what he wanted to do on screen.
GROSS: When Fatty Arbuckle started in movies, movies were not particularly
respectable, the way you describe it. In your book you write, and this is in
Fatty Arbuckle's voice, `Working in flickers'--as they were still being
called--`was out of the question. Everyone knew that the only people who'd
lower themselves to step in front of a camera were stage actors who couldn't
get work or couldn't stay sober enough to keep it if they got it.' And then
later on he says, `Movies--only people so poor they couldn't afford a
vaudeville ticket or go to the nickelodeon.' Why were movies so looked down
Mr. STAHL: Because they didn't really exist yet, and it's a really
interesting thing, because in Hollywood at the time, apartment houses would
literally have signs out front that said, `No dogs, no colored, no actors,'
because the kind of people who became actors were essentially the sort of, you
know, bartenders, wrestlers, dope fiends, all kind of peripheral riffraff who
couldn't make it in what was considered legitimate stage work. So it was
really embarrassing for Fatty. In fact, he was engaged--I'm going to call him
Roscoe, because he preferred to be called Roscoe--but he was engaged to be
married, and he didn't want his wife's parents, his future wife's parents, to
know that he was an actor. Better he was a hobo or a pickpocket or something
vaguely more respectable.
GROSS: When he did start making movies, what kind of roles did he get? He
was famous for being fat. How did that affect who he played on screen?
Mr. STAHL: He always tended to play the innocent. He was one of those guys
who somehow every other movie he was either in a diaper or in drag, and he had
that kind of gender-free baby-faced kind of look that made him very endearing
to people. You know how Rush Limbaugh used to say, `I'm the kind of man who
you could trust to baby-sit your daughter'? He had sort of that quality, the
Limbaugh-like, sexless quality, before Rush, of course, got busted for drugs.
GROSS: Let's talk a little bit about the scandal that made Fatty Arbuckle
even more famous than he already was, and I think a lot of people who don't
know his movies at all know him as somebody who was involved in a scandal,
even if they can't tell you what the scandal was. So he was involved in this
big Hollywood party. What was he alleged to have done that night?
Mr. STAHL: Actually, it was a Hollywood party, but it was a Hollywood party
in San Francisco, which is where a lot of the actors of the time would go
because remember, this was during Prohibition, and they thought that the
liquor was better up in San Francisco and easier to get a hold of, so he's in
room 1221 of the swanky St. Francis Hotel, and to just give you the Cliff
notes version, there was an actress named Virginia Rappe who stumbled into his
rooms during the party, and he already knew she had a reputation as being a
rather nasty drunk and had, in fact, given half the Keystone Kops gonorrhea
and the other half lice. But what happened is, she started taking her clothes
off, going into a fit, screaming, so not knowing what else to do, he put her
down in the adjacent room where he was staying and came back later to take a
bath. And she was screaming and in fever and just in a horrific state.
So not knowing what else to do, he decided that--he took Buster Keaton's
advice, who'd once told him that when a woman is going crazy, what she really
needs is something cold placed on her female area. So Fatty--you have to
picture--is standing there, in a towel, leaning over this woman, pressing a
cold champagne bottle to her private area, as I like to call it, and it looked
real bad. And a woman named Maude Delmont, who was a known blackmailer, came
in, caught him in the act, and the next thing you know, Hearst is making a
huge story out of it, the DA who wants to run for governor is using it as an
excuse to get rid of these moral pariahs from Hollywood polluting San
Francisco, and the right-wing Christian fundamentalists, who, of course,
basically hated Jews for corrupting America's youth by running Hollywood, were
using it as an excuse to shut down the entire industry. And he was innocent,
and he couldn't have sex. He was impotent pretty much his whole life.
GROSS: So was he accused of raping her or of raping her with the champagne
Mr. STAHL: Both. He was accused of raping her and penetrating her with a
foreign object, and then a lot of quotes were attributed to him by Hearst,
who--another interesting kind of sideline, basically, invented the tabloids
behind Fatty Arbuckle's scandal.
GROSS: And you mentioned he was impotent, and I have to say here that you
earlier in the book say that his girth left him with a `weakened nuptial
muscle,' which I thought was a very clever way of describing his impotency.
How did you come up with the `nuptial muscle'?
Mr. STAHL: I really love the lingo and argot of the time, and I just steeped
myself in all kind of odd medical manuals, and there were weird slang
dictionaries of the era, and in--all kind of different books and text. And
after a while, sort of by process of osmosis, you start thinking in these kind
of terms, when--that was just sort of an age when the wisecrack and the
scientific description, sort of like those, you know, bad health movies you
had to watch in, you know, hygiene class in high school. I think it had its
origin at that period. So that kind of language just began to permeate the
way I wrote.
GROSS: Well, so, here's Fatty Arbuckle being accused of rape, and at the same
time he's actually impotent, and you have him saying, in your book, `The
truth is, and I know this must sound loathsome, I preferred the penalty for
committing sin to the shame of admitting that I couldn't commit it. There, I
said it.' That's a kind of interesting predicament.
Mr. STAHL: It was a very bizarre dilemma the guy faced, because Hearst kept
writing about his, quote/unquote, "manly equipment," whereas his only defense
would have been for his wife to get up in court and say, `Well, you know, his
manly equipment is not particularly manly.' But Fatty was so mortified by
that, that he literally was opting to go to the chair rather than admit that
he couldn't do what he was, you know, in effect, accused of doing.
GROSS: And what was the information that was finally revealed that acquitted
him in the third trial? There were two hung juries, and then a third
jury--the foreman of the third jury said, `Acquittal is not enough for Roscoe
Arbuckle. We feel that a great injustice has been done.' So...
Mr. STAHL: They actually apologized to him. What was ultimately revealed was
that the woman he was accused of raping, who, of course, the Hearst papers had
portrayed as a virginal young victim and a chaste young lady--at one point
they even decided she was descended from European royalty--had, in fact, been
a prostitute since the age of 14 and had a series of abortions, and had had a
botched abortion the day before.
GROSS: So how did the information finally become admissible in court?
Mr. STAHL: What happened was that once he was accused, it didn't matter if
he was innocent or not, because it's sort of like if a clown commits a crime,
you realize you're never going to look at him the same. So once he was
accused, and it was clear Paramount couldn't use him anymore, Adolph Zucker
arranged for the DA to suppress all the information about his main accuser,
Maude Delmont, who was herself a woman with about 21 allegations of blackmail
against her. None of this came out in the first two trials. It finally came
out in the last trial, so it was less about the fact of a botched abortion,
because Fatty's lawyers were under the impression that had they put that out
in court, it would have looked like they were slandering the good name of the
dead woman, even though she never had a good name. So what came out instead
was the fact that Maude Delmont, his main accuser, who the defense was never
allowed to bring to court and the prosecution never brought into court, it
came out that she, in fact, was completely morally bankrupt herself, and the
case just went to pieces, and the deliberation of the jury took six minutes.
BIANCULLI: Jerry Stahl, speaking to Terry Gross last year.
More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's 2004 interview with Jerry Stahl, author
of the novel "I, Fatty." It's based on the life of the silent film star Fatty
Arbuckle whose career was ruined by a scandal.
(Soundbite of interview)
GROSS: So from your knowledge of Hollywood history, would you say that this
is the point in time when groups trying to uphold their vision of morality
started accusing Hollywood of being morally bankrupt and morally corrupt?
Mr. STAHL: Right, and it's a double-edged thing. It was that Hollywood was
morally bankrupt and corrupting America's youth but also with the subtler
level of anti-Semitism, because the fact was that Hollywood was run by Jews.
These people didn't like Jews, and the way to attack them and put them out of
business was to accuse Hollywood itself of somehow having a conspiracy to
corrupt good Christian children. What made Fatty's case so ironic is that
even as this was welling up, Fatty's movies were the ones, one of the few that
were considered, like, OK and family friendly by the morality squads. So the
level of betrayal when this happy-go-lucky, threat-free clown turned out to
have been a complete degenerate perv, made it even more troubling for these
GROSS: And did they know about his addiction to heroin?
Mr. STAHL: Of course not. No. No, that was...
GROSS: Because heroin was legal at the time and a doctor prescribed it, so I
was wondering what--yeah.
Mr. STAHL: It was legal, but it was also a big Hollywood secret. In fact,
the first matinee idol of the day, a guy named Wallace Reid, was the guy who
always played the upstanding, good guy, male lead, gorgeous, handsome, brave,
in fact, died of heroin withdrawal and was an addict the entire time. And
Paramount itself had been supplying him heroin to keep him going. Cecil B.
DeMille had to give him a lecture on how he had to keep from doing drugs, when
in fact, the studios would slip him morphine to keep the movies going.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jerry Stahl. He's the author
of "Permanent Midnight," and his new book is called, "I, Fatty," and it's a
novelized version of the story of Fatty Arbuckle, who was a silent film star,
nicknamed `Fatty' because he was obese. And he was the first Hollywood actor
to become a millionaire, and his career was ruined by a scandal.
Did you go back and read the articles of the time? Because, like, there's a
few things you quote, and I'm not sure if they're real or not. There's a
passage in which he's comparing the articles about him with the reality of his
life. He says, `I had to do a lot of interviews, but they weren't really
interviews; they were performances. They had me saying a lot of things I
didn't know I'd said until I picked up a movie magazine, like "Let me handle
the Huns," boasts jokester Arbuckle. "I'll find the Kaiser and sit on his
head." Or they'd say, "Whatever success I've had, I credit to my mother's
love and my father's guidance." That's from an article called, Fatty Talks to
Young People(ph).' And of course, the real Fatty Arbuckle had a horrible
family life, and he hated his parents. Did you actually find the articles
that had these quotes?
Mr. STAHL: Yeah. There's a ton of articles like that, and the really
grotesque thing about it is, is Fatty's father, who used to beat him
mercilessly, routinely hated him on sight, blamed him for destroying his
mother's womanhood and ultimately killing her, Fatty had always to describe
him in articles as a, quote, "gentleman farmer." And it just was the beginning
of that kind of double life that went all the way--you know, continued to Rock
Hudson, where the real acting job on the part of the actors was trying to play
the part of the real-life person that the studios were trying to pretend they
GROSS: Let me say when you say that his father accused Fatty Arbuckle of
destroying his mother's womanhood, you mean during the childbirth process,
that Fatty was so large...
Mr. STAHL: He was this--right.
GROSS: ...that he kind of tore up his mother during the delivery. That was
Mr. STAHL: He was a 16-pound baby, and Mom was never the same, needless to
say, and his father just hated the kid and beat him mercilessly when he was
even around to beat him. And then, of course, in magazine interviews, Fatty
got to talk about what a wonderful guy his dad was.
GROSS: You know, in some ways, it seems to me that your novel is not only
about Fatty Arbuckle, it's a kind of contrast between Fatty Arbuckle's life as
somebody who grew up with a father who hated him, who ended up accidentally
becoming a heroin addict because it was prescribed to him by his doctor,
somebody who was unfairly accused of raping a woman to death, had his career
ruined, someone who was so fat, he couldn't even enjoy the conjugal pleasures
of marriage. And yet, he is a person who is, you know, ridiculed and
condemned by the morality groups of the time, and morality groups who were,
you know, all too happy to believe that he really was the murderer of a woman.
And I think in some ways, that this book is about the difference between your
view of the human condition and the view expressed by certain groups who see
themselves as upholders of morality.
Mr. STAHL: That's really nicely put. It's the classic case of people who
find themselves having the power to judge others accusing somebody, not just
unjustly but for the wrong thing, because they are, for whatever reason,
threatened. So here are people threatened by Fatty Arbuckle, a guy who can't
even have sex, and I don't think it's that different from people wanting to
ban gay marriage. It's as if somehow if gay people got married, all the
straight men around would start marrying other men, you know? And it's just
that crazy thing that happens when people become the arbiters of morality and
are in a position to more or less destroy other people's lives by their own
BIANCULLI: Jerry Stahl, speaking to Terry Gross in 2004. We'll hear more of
their conversation in the second half of the show.
I'm David Bianculli. And this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
(Soundbite of music)
BIANCULLI: Coming up, more with writer Jerry Stahl, whose book, "I, Fatty,"
is out next month in paperback. Also, the jazz stylings of Barbara Carroll.
She'll tell us about her long and successful career playing jazz piano and
singing. And film critic David Edelstein reviews a new independent feature
that he calls a cinematic hope chest.
(Soundbite of music)
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, filling in for Terry
Jerry Stahl, before writing the novel "I, Fatty" about the Fatty Arbuckle
scandal from that silent film star's point of view, wrote his own memoir
called "Permanent Midnight." It was about his days in TV, when he wrote
scripts for such shows as "thirtysomething," "Moonlighting" and "Alf" while
wrestling with his own addiction to heroin. Terry spoke with Jerry Stahl in
2004. At this point in their conversation, they were discussing what
Arbuckle's story had to say about the human condition.
(Soundbite of interview)
GROSS: Your view of the human condition seems to include things like people
have appetites that aren't necessarily good for them. People have appetites
that they can't necessarily fulfill. People are often born into conditions
that are bleak and will taint the rest of their lives, that life can be very
emotionally and spiritually difficult.
Mr. STAHL: That is true, but what it boils down to for me, essentially, is
that all our secrets are the same, no matter where we come from. Pain's pain,
and it hurts, and the difference is that people in a position to somehow not
experience what others go through feel entitled to judge how they react to
those experiences. And what made this such a beautiful story for me was the
fact that, you know, I fell in love with Fatty, not just because he was a
victim, but because he was sort of emblematic of the classic wrong place,
wrong time kind of guy who ends up, you know, being basically shunned by
people who no doubt saw him as Satan's spawn and conveniently created an enemy
that wasn't even there. And it just never changes, and the similarities to
today are so obvious as to, you know, not even bear mentioning.
GROSS: In the opening of your book, you are writing in your own voice.
Mr. STAHL: Mm-hmm, in the introduction.
GROSS: Yeah, in the introduction, and you describe basically overdosing and
falling unconscious on a street that happened to be the street that Fatty
Arbuckle used to live on. Did that actually happen?
Mr. STAHL: Yeah. This was a bizarre coincidence. Back in the early '80s,
right at the dawn, pre-dawn of the crack era, there was a lot of drug sales
going on on Adams, where Mr. Arbuckle used to live, and at one point, I was
sort of picked up by the police and told to, you know, as they used to say,
lie lips-down on the ground. And years later, I realized where that was was,
in fact, Fatty Arbuckle's front lawn. It's kismet.
GROSS: (Laughs) We talked several years ago, after your memoir, "Permanent
Midnight," was published, about what it was like for you to have been a heroin
addict, and then, you know, get off it, and also what it was like to be
writing for television when you were secretly a junkie and, you know, shooting
up in the bathroom. So it's been years since you were addicted. Is it still
Mr. STAHL: Let's just say I am certainly in touch with my own inner Fatty
since that experience, and it's tricky. One thing, what you believe is that,
`Oh, I need all that stuff to make me, you know, write really dark and edgy,
and if I get off all the drugs I'll become a, you know, Johnny Bland Guy.'
But one thing Hubert Selby, the late Hubert Selby, who kind of saved my life
and really helped me with my writing, explained to me, was, `You don't get it.
Once you give up the drugs and the alcohol and all that behavior, you don't
become more boring. You realize how dark you really are, and there's no
buffer, and that's when it really gets terrifying.' And that has proved to be
true, and at this point, you know, I'm that guy who goes and picks up my
daughter after school and drives her home and does homework. So you know,
it's like on the one hand you're Iggy Pop. On the other hand, you sort of
become Fred MacMurray, so at the end of the day, you're like Iggy MacMurray,
GROSS: (Laughs) So was it scary to meet your demons without the sedative of
heroin to intervene between the two of you?
Mr. STAHL: Sure. But what you realize is that we're all in love with our
pain. You know, we're so romanticized about the suffering this and the
suffering that, and you know, I get it. I mean, all my heroes were dope
fiends, you know, Keith Richards and Miles Davis and Charlie Parker and Lenny
Bruce, but you know, when I was getting clean, Keith wasn't there with a warm
towel, so you realize kind of the hollowness of that particular cliche. So I
have changed cliches, and now I'm that guy on the other side, and it is much
more surreal than drugs ever were, much more interesting and much less
GROSS: Well, Jerry Stahl, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. STAHL: My pleasure.
BIANCULLI: Jerry Stahl speaking to Terry Gross last year. His novel "I,
Fatty," about silent film star Fatty Arbuckle, whose career was ruined by
scandal in the 1920s, will be published in paperback July 5th.
Coming up, singer and pianist Barbara Carroll. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Barbara Carroll discusses her career as a jazz pianist
Unidentified Man: And now, ladies and gentlemen, Birdland proudly presents
(Soundbite of applause; piano music)
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
Pianist Barbara Carroll from her new album "Live at Birdland." She started
recording in the late 1940s when a woman jazz musician was still considered
quite a novelty. At the Kennedy Center's Women in Jazz Festival two years
ago, she received a Lifetime Achievement Award for her body of work, work
that's still continuing.
Barbara Carroll also sings. For 24 years, she played and sang at the Carlyle
Hotel in Manhattan, the hotel that also was home to Bobby Short. Carroll
celebrated her 80th birthday earlier this year. This Sunday and next, she
performs at another well-known and cozy New York night spot, the Oak Room, an
intimate space at the Algonquin Hotel. Terry spoke with Barbara Carroll in
(Soundbite of interview)
TERRY GROSS, host:
You started performing at a time when there were very few women jazz
musicians, or at least successful ones. How did you feel about always being
referred to as, like, the lady pianist? I imagine you were thought of as
almost like a novelty act because you were a woman.
Ms. CARROLL: Well, you put it very nicely. You're saying a lady pianist.
Actually what people would say, when they were giving you the ultimate
compliment, was `Gee, you play good for a girl' or, worse still `You play just
like a man.' You know, so when I was growing up those were the accolades that
GROSS: Now you sing, as well as play piano, but on your records you usually
just sing a few tracks on each recording. Were you ever afraid, particularly
when you were getting started, that if you sang too much you would be thought
of as a singer and not so much as a pianist, and it would take away from your
reputation as an instrumentalist? You'd be, you know, regarded as, like,
another girl singer?
Ms. CARROLL: Well, actually, I must confess, Terry, it wasn't that. I was
afraid to sing, not because they'd think that I was a singer, because they'd
think I wasn't a singer.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. CARROLL: And I always knew a lot of lyrics. I knew the lyrics to
everything that I played. I had a sister who was really crazy about all the
good songs, and she knew the lyrics to everything. She had a voice that was,
well, not terribly attractive sometimes, but that didn't keep her from
singing. So she used to sing everything. I learned all the words to
everything, but I was always afraid to sing because I didn't think I had the
voice. I didn't think I had the range. You know, I was totally insecure
And today I don't think of myself as a singer, either. I think of myself as a
pianist who sings. And I have come to the conclusion that the important thing
when you're singing is to tell the story. And I console myself with that, you
see; I'm telling the story. And I love to sing, but essentially my first love
is playing the piano.
GROSS: Do you remember the first time you actually sang in public?
Ms. CARROLL: I sang a little bit on my RCA recordings, which were some of
the first records I made in the 1950s. And then when I began playing at the
Carlyle I was just playing the piano, and then people would always say, `Oh,
sing it.' You know, they'd hear a certain song that they loved, and they'd
`Sing it, sing it,' you know, and so I would sing it. And little by little I
gained some confidence in singing, and it's a great joy to sing.
GROSS: Well, you mentioned that you sang a few tracks on some of your very
early records. Why don't we hear one of those? And this is from your 1956
recording "It's a Wonderful World." And we'll hear "At Long Last Love," in
which you're featured at the piano and on vocals.
(Soundbite of "At Long Last Love")
Ms. CARROLL: (Singing) Is it an earthquake, or is it a shock? Is this the
good turtle soup, or merely the mock? Is it a cocktail, this feeling of joy,
or is what I feel the real McCoy? Is this for all time, or merely a lark?
Is it Grenada I see, or only Asbury Park? Is this a fancy night worth
dreaming of, or is it at long last love?
GROSS: That's Barbara Carroll, piano and vocals, recorded in 1956 from her
album "It's a Wonderful World."
You know, it's interesting. You said you were never trained as a singer, and,
you know, you were very shy about your singing; you didn't think you were very
good. You were trained as a pianist. You studied piano from the time you
were a girl. You went to the New England Conservatory of Music. Did you, in
that sense, think of your singing and your piano playing as mismatched because
you were so untrained as a singer?
Ms. CARROLL: No. You see, I began playing the piano when I was about four or
five years old. I had two older sisters who had been given piano lessons and
violin lessons and all kinds of lessons, but they didn't want to practice and
they weren't really interested in playing. And I was about 10 years younger
than my middle sister. I was the youngest in the family. And by the time I
came along my parents were rather disenchanted with the idea of going for all
that money for the piano lessons again because, you know, they had had bad
experiences with my two sisters. So I was playing when I was five and six,
and I really wanted to study, and I finally prevailed upon them to let me
study classical music, which I began studying when I was eight years old. I
studied classical music until I was about 15 in Worcester. And then, as I
say, I went to the Conservatory for a little bit.
I didn't feel--your question was did I feel mismatched because I had had
formal training in playing the piano and I had not in singing. No. In jazz,
actually, I don't know that you have to have formal training in singing. I'm
sure it might help, but I'm sure that many of the great jazz singers did not
have that formal training.
GROSS: I think most did not.
Ms. CARROLL: I would say that, yes. Absolutely. And as far as formal
training in playing the piano, I certainly think it's helpful in giving you
the ability, the technique, the technical ability, to play the piano and play
whatever you want because if you have the technique you can go ahead and play
jazz or play, you know, whatever comes to mind.
GROSS: How were you first exposed to jazz?
Ms. CARROLL: Well, when I was in Worcester I used to hear the radio. I
listened to the radio a lot, and there were live--you know, in those days
there were remote broadcasts--that's what they called them--which meant they
were live performances from jazz rooms, from hotels, from places where there
were bands and there were instrumentalists playing wonderful jazz music. And
that's what I heard when I was in Worcester. And I heard Nat King Cole and
his trio, and that was as if a light went on for me because Nat Cole was my
very first favorite pianist. He was a marvelous pianist. A lot of people
remember him as a great singer, which, of course, he was, but for me he was
the excitement about playing jazz piano. And then, after that, I heard Art
Tatum and, oh, later on Thelonius Monk and Bud Powell and Oscar Peterson,
etc., etc. But it was Nat Cole first.
GROSS: In 1957, I know you were playing in a trio with your husband, the bass
player Joe Shulman. This was your first husband, your late husband. And was
it helpful having a husband who was also a jazz musician--and here's what I'm
thinking--because a lot of men in general and jazz musicians in particular, in
this instance, might have thought of you as, like, an available woman, you
know, like a chick who plays, but we know what she really wants? It could
have really kind of interfered with your ability to just play and not be
misinterpreted, if you know what I mean? So, like, if your husband's there,
then, like, OK, you're no longer, quote, "available," so you're just, like, a
piano player. You're just there for professional reasons. No one could
misinterpret that. Was that helpful?
Ms. CARROLL: I don't know if it was helpful or not helpful. I only know that
we had a really wonderful marriage. He was an extraordinary musician, and we
had a marriage that was unusual because we worked together and we were
together all the time, so it was really quite wonderful. Unfortunately Joe
died when he was 33 years old. We had only been married for three years, and
he had a heart attack...
GROSS: That's so young.
Ms. CARROLL: ...suddenly. We were on Fire Island. We had taken the summer
off because we were working so much and we just wanted a little down time, and
just out of the blue this happened.
GROSS: Was it hard to get back to work after he died, I mean, to resume your
Ms. CARROLL: Yes. Yes. After he died it was very difficult because I wanted
to work. I wanted to go back to work. But, you see, I was working with the
trio and I needed a bass player, and so I had to audition bass players. And
it was extremely difficult because nobody played as well as he and, of course,
nobody could fill his shoes in any way, so it took a long time. But it didn't
take a long time to get back to work. I went back to work rather quickly. It
took a very long time to get over that.
GROSS: Right. A question about clothing for you. On your latest recording,
"One Morning in May," you're wearing a black turtleneck sweater and you're
seated at the piano. On your recordings from the 1950s, at least the couple
that I have with me, you're wearing more like, you know, a cocktail dress or
an evening gown, something with straps that--you know, with bare shoulders,
you know. So what was expected of you in terms of your image in the 1950s,
when you were one of the few women pianists recording?
Ms. CARROLL: Exactly what you said: bare shoulders, cocktail dress, you
know, a little cleavage if you were fortunate enough to have it.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. CARROLL: And that's the way it was. You know, I look at old photographs
of myself, professional photographs that were taken during that time...
Ms. CARROLL: ...in the 1950s, and they're all very sultry and glamorous.
There were photographers at that time like Maurice Seymour and James Kriegsman
and Bruno of Hollywood, and they took these marvelous pictures with lighting
and shadows and, you know, just made you look terrific. And it was all
glamour, and it was wonderful. Things have changed, though. You know, I
don't dress that way now. I don't wear things that are bare shoulders or
anything cut out. I'm more casual, and keeping, I think, with the spirit of
GROSS: And speaking of the glamour photos, on your album "We Just Couldn't
Say Goodbye," which is from the 1950s, you're at the piano wearing, you know,
a cocktail dress with straps with the cleavage and the bare shoulders, and
there's three men in suits with their elbows on the piano, listening intently
and staring at you admiringly.
Ms. CARROLL: Well, I'm glad you said staring at me admiringly. Actually what
happened was that they needed a cover photograph, and somebody at RCA Victor
got the great idea of, you know, `Let's get a couple of guys standing around
the piano looking at Barbara while she's playing.' So they called in some of
the fellas who were in the corridor there and they said, `Would you fellas
please come in and look at Barbara admiringly?' And that's what happened.
GROSS: That's really funny. How did you feel about the cover, about the
Ms. CARROLL: I wasn't crazy about it because I always remembered the
circumstances under which it happened, you know. But that was the idea.
Whether that feeling came through, or whether that translated on the cover,
I'm not sure. They were supposed to be overwhelmed with what I was playing.
I'm not sure that that's the expression that they had.
GROSS: Well, Barbara Carroll, I want to thank you so much for talking with
Ms. CARROLL: Thank you, Terry.
BIANCULLI: Barbara Carroll speaking with Terry Gross in 2003. Her latest CD
is called "Live at Birdland." She's performing this Sunday and next Sunday at
the Oak Room in New York's Algonquin Hotel. If you go there, beware of the
Coming up, film critic David Edelstein reviews "Me and You and Everyone We
Know," but don't be alarmed. It's the title of a movie. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: Film "Me and You and Everyone We Know"
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
The new film "Me and You and Everyone We Know" won major prizes at this year's
Sundance and Cannes Film Festivals. It's the first feature by Miranda July,
who also stars as a woman on the edge of a nervous breakthrough. Film critic
David Edelstein has a review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN reporting:
Miranda July is a solo performance artist, and I can picture her acting out
the script of her debut feature "Me and You and Everyone We Know" in her
bedroom. The movie actually opens in the bedroom of the character she plays,
Christine, who, by day, drives a cab for elderly people, but is also, yes, a
budding performance artist. There's a picture on the wall of lovers staring
at a sunset, and Christine supplies their dialogue as they pledge live each
day courageously and with grace.
A short time later, she's smitten with a shoe salesman named Richard played by
John Hawkes. He's newly single, still shell-shocked, with custody of two
precocious young boys, and he doesn't know what to make of this weird chick's
Back in her bedroom, Christine writes `me' and `you' on pink slippers and
enacts a drama with her feet. One slipper moves close and the other away and
vice versa. Does that sound like fatal attraction? Maybe, but this
attraction is revitalizing, not fatal, and so is the movie. It's romantic,
dreamlike, funny, often squirm-inducing, and sometimes shocking.
Christine and Richard are not the only people on screen. "Me and You and
Everyone We Know" is a multigenerational ensemble comedy with characters from
six to 75 enacting their own romantic and sexual psychodramas. July's skill
with the cast is surprising, because solo performance artists can have a hard
time getting out of their own heads and into other people's. But July makes
every character here a kind of solo performer, acting out in the desperate
hope of connecting.
Early on, while his wife is moving out and his boys are staring at their
computer, the distraught Richard stages his own performance piece. He sets
his hand on fire and watches it burn. Later, he and Christine face each other
shyly in the shoe department, holding her freshly glued compact case, waiting
for it to dry, and she brings up his bandaged hand.
(Soundbite of "You and Me and Everyone We Know")
Ms. MIRANDA JULY: (As Christine) How'd you do that?
Mr. JOHN HAWKES: (As Richard) Oh, well, do you want the long version or the
Ms. JULY: (As Christine) The long one.
Mr. HAWKES: (As Richard) I was trying to save my life, and it didn't work.
Ms. JULY: (As Christine) What's the short one?
Mr. HAWKES: (As Richard) I burned it.
Ms. JULY: (As Christine) When do you get to take that off?
Mr. HAWKES: (As Richard) I don't know. I think, when it stops hurting.
EDELSTEIN: I love the way Christine says `the long one' without hesitating a
millisecond, and that shimmering, plinking music by Mike Andrews adds just the
right touch of enchantment. July has large blue-gray eyes, pale skin and a
delivery that's slightly etherized. That ether is defensive. Christine looks
at Richard longingly, but furtively, and quickly pulls back into her shell.
"Me and You and Everyone We Know" suggests that it's the human condition to be
a solo performer, especially now in an increasingly private culture. The
movie is a haunting meditation on the mediated life. Face-to-face encounters
are alien and terrifying. People reach out through online chat rooms and
performance art, or else they retreat into fantasy.
Richard's adorable six-year-old boy meets someone in an Internet chat room and
engages in a presexual fantasy based on--Well, what else do six-year-olds
think about?--poop. Two giggly teen-age girls poised to become sexually
active enact their own fantasy with a grown-up who posts smutty messages for
them in his window. The fact that they're all goofball dreamer role-players
makes this creepy funny instead of just creepy.
There's also a fascinating 10-year-old girl named Sylvie who could be Miranda
July at an early age. Her mission is to collect things for a hope chest that
she'll someday turn over to the one she loves. I think of "Me and You and
Everyone We Know" as a cinematic hope chest. July even finds a place to
comment on the world of performance art, to go meta.
The director of the local art institute, Nancy, played by Tracy Wright, is
buttoned up and dismissive and can barely look Christine in the eye when she
arrives to submit a tape for a digital culture exhibit. Christine only gets
through to Nancy on video. The director is alone in her office at night,
staring at a monitor, and Christine calls out to her across the existential
chasm. Christine's videotape is charming, embarrassing, a bit annoying, but,
once Nancy opens herself up to it, totally winning, just like "Me and You and
Everyone We Know."
BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for Slate.
(Soundbite of music)
BIANCULLI: For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.
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.