Skip to main content

When Aliens 'Attack' And Fight 'Cowboys.'

The sci-fi Western Cowboys & Aliens and the low-budget British film Attack the Block both open this weekend. Critic David Edelstein says both movies bring people together from different walks of life — but only one is really worth seeing.

04:52

Other segments from the episode on July 29, 2011

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, July 29, 2011: Interview with Melissa Febos; Obituary for Fran Landesman; Review of films "Cowboys & Aliens" and "Attack the Block."

Transcript

*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
..DATE:
20110729
..PGRM:
Fresh Air
..TIME:
12:00-13:00 PM
..NIEL:
N/A
..NTWK:
NPR
..SGMT:
A Dominatrix Reveals All In 'Whip Smart' Memoir

DAVE DAVIES, host:

This FRESH AIR. I am Dave Davies in for Terry Gross.

Our first guest once answered the following ad in the Village Voice: Attractive
young woman wanted for a nurse role-play and domination, no experience
necessary, good money no sex.

Melissa Febos spent four years as a professional dominatrix in Manhattan. Her
memoir about the experience called "Whip Smart" is now out in paperback in. It
may be the first dominatrix memoir that mentions growing up listening to NPR.
But Febos was probably not your typical dominatrix. During those four years,
she put herself through college and got accepted to Sarah Lawrence where she
went on to receive her Masters of Fine Arts in fiction and nonfiction writing.
She's now an assistant professor of English at Utica College.

Her memoir offers a fascinating glimpse into part of the sex industry and into
the world of sexual fantasy and role-playing. It should be pretty obvious by
now that this conversation is probably not appropriate for children.

Terry spoke to Melissa Febos last year. Febos began with a reading from her
memoir, a description of the so-called dungeon where she showed up for her job
interview.

Professor MELISSA FEBOS (Author, "Whip Smart: A Memoir"): It was like a movie
set, an atmosphere truly designed for fantasy, more lush than I had even
remotely imagined. It occupied the entire floor, comprised of a maze of dark
hallways. Along these halls were the polished doors of a highly styled, big-
budget dream. Think David Lynch. Excitement folded through me in waves. I had
to work there.

Behind three of those doors were the official dungeons: the Red Room, the Black
Room and the Blue Room. Accordingly colored, these rooms were huge. The Blue
Room was easily 700 square feet, and all with 10-foot ceilings.

The Red and Blue Rooms have full baths, Fiona explained, as she pushed open the
bathroom door in the Red Room. She circled the marbled floor, pointing out
amenities. These towel racks are heated, so they need to be unplugged after
sessions. All the sinks should have Scope, Dixie cups, and these little
packages of disposable toothbrushes and paste.

I traced her steps, lingering over the miniature tube of Crest in its sealed
package, like take-out dinnerware, and running my hand along the warm towels as
I followed her back out into the Red Room.

That over there is the bondage table, she said, indicating a waist-high bed
with leather upholstery and metal rings intermittently hung around its edges.
The top is a lid that opens.

For storage? I asked.

For slaves. It doubles as a coffin.

A coffin?

For clients into sensory deprivation. If you're lucky, you get to tie them up,
gag, blindfold, the works, and stick them in there for most of the session. She
shrugged. It can get worked into role-play scenes, too.

(Soundbite of laughter)

TERRY GROSS, host:

Okay, that’s Melissa Febos reading from her memoir, "Whip Smart." Now, people
will be really curious. You know, you graduated from college while you were a
dominatrix. You got accepted to Sarah Lawrence College's MFA program while you
were a dominatrix. So why were you choosing to do this work? Was it for money?
Did it fulfill your fantasies? Like, why did you...?

Ms. FEBOS: Oh, that's a huge question. I mean, ostensibly when I started, I
believed that I was in it for the money. And because I had always known I
wanted to be a writer, and as I was approaching graduation in college, I was
really faced with the reality that there isn't, you know, an illustrious
publishing future awaiting you upon graduation. And so I had sort of
investigated the different jobs ancillary to writing - working in publishing
and magazines, assisting an agent - and none of those, it turned out, really
had anything to do with writing.

And so in my mind, that was my impetus for becoming a dominatrix. But, you
know, I have also always been drawn to extremity and to fantasy, and so it
really appealed to me on that level, as well.

GROSS: In the reading that you did, you started to describe three of the rooms
in the dungeon where you worked. I want you to continue that description. You
gave a little bit of the description of the bondage room. There were a lot of
things hanging on the wall in the bondage room. Why don't you describe what
else was in there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. FEBOS: Well, pretty much all of the dungeons were outfitted with some sort
of, you know, coat-rack-related thing that had all sorts of floggers, riding
crops. A lot of equestrian equipment gets commandeered for S&M practices. There
was always some kind of trunk or container with a stock of rope. We had giant
coils of rope in our utility closet, like thousands of feet that we would just
cut off when you needed it.

There were gas masks and cages and a big, hanging, Inquisition-style cage in
the red room. And there were mirrors along all of the walls, and they were
really vast, you know, and with all of the walls and the ceilings painted. And
it had a very specific effect. I think I describe it early in the book as sort
of being inside of a kind of womb.

And you know, we were right in the middle of midtown Manhattan, and yet being
in those rooms just felt like being at a total remove from the rest of the
world. Which, I guess, was the point, because we were there to sort of create
fantasy. You know? And you could really sort of invent the world when you're in
a place that feels that remote from everything else.

GROSS: Now, one of the rooms was the feminization room. What was that room for?

Ms. FEBOS: The cross-dressing room. Yeah, this was probably the least
intimidating of the rooms. It pretty much - it looks kind of like an old-
fashioned dressing room or a sitting room. There was a big leather couch and an
Oriental rug, and a vanity with a mirror, and a huge supply of cosmetics and
hairbrushes - and this giant wardrobe.

And when you opened the wardrobe, it was literally bursting with giant dresses,
giant high-heeled shoes, and stockings and undergarments, and French maid
costumes and all of these man-size, very typically girly, feminine clothing.

This was actually the room where - we had a lot of downtime in the dungeon,
because we only worked if clients made appointments and came in. And so I
actually spent a fair amount of time in the cross-dressing room doing my
homework. And we had these wrestling mats, 'cause that's also not an uncommon
fantasy, and I would sometimes drag the wrestling mats into the cross-dressing
room and do yoga in my downtime - or take a nap on that couch.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: When you were watching really large men get into their women's costumes
in the feminization room, I'm assuming that these are men - I mean, were these
men who were closeted drag queens, or are they closeted gay men, or are they
just men who have this little place in their mind that's just reserved for this
obsession with female clothing; and it's very compartmentalized, and it doesn't
kind of carry over in the rest of their life? Like, what was your take on the
men who would come in for that room?

Ms. FEBOS: I think, really, all of the above, you know. I mean, I think that
there's sort of human behaviors that can be, that manifest in a really uniform
way, but people arrive at them from all different locations in their psyche and
their experience. And so there was really, a pretty wide variety of motives, I
think.

I mean, some of these men, I think, couldn't really be classified as, I mean,
technically, they could be classified as cross-dresser. But a lot of them, I
think, had developed this sort of obsession or fetish for typically feminine
practices - really out of a desire for some kind of intimacy.

And some of them would just come in and want to play dress-up and want to have
someone brush their hair or just to experience a kind of tenderness, and this
seemed like an obvious way for them to access that. And there was really a kind
of sweetness, sometimes, in those sessions. Like, I really felt compassion for
some of those people.

And for some of them, it was really a purely sort of erotic experience. But a
lot of them, it was sort of this very compartmentalized part of their psyche
and their lives, and you would never have been able to pick who these people
were out of a lineup in their street clothes - never.

GROSS: So the standard of the dominatrix as a woman like, wearing - say, a
leather corset, fishnet stockings, like, spike thigh-high boots with a whip in
her hand. Was that you?

Ms. FEBOS: Many days, yes, that was me. But I had a pretty large wardrobe of
costumes. It calls for a lot of costumery, that job. But I think that, also,
what goes along with that sort of iconic image of the dominatrix is cruelty,
right, and sort of a disdain for men, maybe for everyone. And that sort of
characterization really didn't fit me - and didn't fit most of the women whom I
worked with, either.

GROSS: But that was your role, wasn't it, to be the dominant, force men to
submit and to say hateful things to them, to verbally abuse them.

Ms. FEBOS: You know, it was, but there were so many roles that I played, and
that was one of the surprises of that job, that it wasn't just about being the
mean bully.

That was a big part of it. I did play that role a lot. But really, I acted out
just about every typically feminine role that you can imagine. There was a lot
of nurturance involved, and a lot of, you know, a lot of people came there to
be abused in some ways.

But to be in the presence of someone who's powerful and to submit to the
control of another person in this context, it didn't always include nastiness
or cruelty or humiliation. A lot of times it did, but a lot of times they
wanted to just, to trust someone else, to sort of hand the reins over to
someone else. And in a lot of the scenes that I would play out, I would end up
being very nurturing and reassuring, and just in control.

GROSS: How strange was it to tie people up - people who wanted bondage as part
of what they were paying for? I mean, that just has to be a really -
particularly when you're first doing it - it has to be a really crazy, odd,
kind of creepy experience.

Ms. FEBOS: Yeah, I mean, a lot of the experiences were. And, you know, this is
one of those jobs, I think, like a lot of probably a lot of people in the
medical industry have this kind of experience, or maybe even people in sports,
too. But you work very, very closely with human bodies in a way that most
people don't.

It's very intimate. And when people are paying to be put in this position and
make themselves really vulnerable, they do give you a kind of power, and that
was sort of a clumsy position for me to be in at first, and it made me really
nervous. And it wasn't always a power that I wanted, you know. But I was also -
I was also fascinated and kind of mesmerized by it. But yeah, tying up another
person is a bizarre experience.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. FEBOS: Most people don't have that experience, I don't think.

GROSS: What are some of the costumes that you wore?

Ms. FEBOS: Well, the one that you talked about before, sort of the typical,
iconic dominatrix outfit with the corset and garters and fishnets and
stilettos. But I also had a handful of nurse uniforms, some of them sort of
sexy nurse Halloween-costume style, but some of them really authentic.

We used to get a lot of our clothes - sort of - at actual medical supply
stores. And people are actually surprised. I did another interview recently
where the interviewer asked me where my favorite boutiques for shopping for
equipment were and actually, Home Depot was one of my favorite outlets.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: What would you get there?

Ms. FEBOS: A rope and clamps and rubber gloves, and it's amazing how many
everyday materials get commandeered for uses that most people don't even know
exist. But I also had certain uniforms: sort of a police officer-esque
uniforms, schoolgirl uniform. I definitely had sort of a little suit, a
secretary outfit, schoolteacher outfit. Pretty much any sort of typically
female-dominated occupation or role, whatever outfit is associated with that,
somebody in the dungeon would have. Probably a lot of us would.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Melissa Febos, and she's written
a new memoir, called "Whip Smart," that's about her four years as a
professional dominatrix.

Melissa, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Melissa Febos. She's the author
of a new memoir about her four years as a professional dominatrix. It's called
"Whip Smart."

And for anyone just tuning in, I just want to say if you have children, we're
having a very adult conversation. It's the kind of conversation you probably
would not want young children to hear.

Could you describe - I'm not sure if there's something that you could describe
as a typical session, but describe what a session was like, you know, just a
concise overview of what a session was?

Ms. FEBOS: Sure. I mean, you know, actually what comes immediately to mind,
funnily enough, is I recently, you know, I teach writing now, and I've done
that for a while, and I recently lectured about plot in storytelling.

And a lot of sessions actually sort of follow a very traditional plot
structure, where there will be an inciting incident, where we'll sort of be
acting out the scene, and the client will be playing a role. Sometimes it's of
a little boy, sometimes it's an employee, sometimes it's a boss. We're in some
kind of scene.

And there'll be an inciting incident. They'll do something, and then I'll sort
of play the powerful role. And they've eaten some junk food, and I caught them,
or I caught them looking at pornographic magazines - or something like that.
And then the conflict sort of rises, and then there's some sort of climax to
the scene where it breaks or pivots, and they really give in. And sometimes
there'll be they'll cry at this point, or they'll get punished at this point. I
end up forgiving them or comforting them or there's some kind of resolution.

GROSS: And did these scenes come with sexual release for the man in the scene?

Ms. FEBOS: Sometimes. That wasn't required. I mean, and sometimes it was
specifically denied. But sometimes, yeah. They would take care of that
themselves.

GROSS: What kinds of men became clients where you worked? I'm sure there was a
variety, but what can you generalize about the men who paid to see a
professional dominatrix?

Ms. FEBOS: I mean, it really was a pretty eclectic bunch, our patrons at the
dungeon. But if I have to generalize, I would say that there were a lot of -
sort of Wall Street types. I mean, it's not a cheap hobby to have.

GROSS: How not cheap is it? What's a session?

Ms. FEBOS: Well, a session at the dungeon, our clients would pay $200 for an
hour session, and the dom would get $75 of that - and usually there's a tip
involved.

When I went sort of freelance, on my own, then there was more of a sliding
scale, and I would pretty much charge what I thought that the client could
afford.

GROSS: Melissa, I think all of our listeners will be wondering like, what - is
this legal? You know what I mean? Like...

Ms. FEBOS: Yeah.

GROSS: ...is this an illegal operation, or is it legit?

Ms. FEBOS: You know, I mean, it is legal but I mean, things get a little murky,
I think. I mean, my line when I was working was always, if anyone comes and
busts us, it'll probably be the IRS because a lot of money goes in and out of
dungeons, and I don't remember filling out any tax forms. But there is no
actual sex that happens in the dungeon and so, you know, it could be classified
almost as a kind of therapy.

We really just acted out scenes, and most of us kept our clothes on. And so
it's not illegal. But you know, there were certain things that would happen in
sessions that probably would flirt with that line. I'm not a lawyer, so I don't
know exactly. But there were definitely certain - we were definitely encouraged
to keep things on the conservative side the first time we saw a client.

GROSS: Until you could trust them so that they wouldn't bust, you know, turn
you into the police or something?

Ms. FEBOS: Mm-hmm. Although, you know, plenty of our clients were actual
police.

GROSS: Is that right?

Ms. FEBOS: Mm-hmm. But they were off duty when they came to see us.

GROSS: You know, I was thinking for some of the clients, it was probably not
unlike going to a doctor or a therapist, in a way, because you've got this
secret life, this secret part of you that you can't share with anybody. So you
go to a paid professional and reveal it to them, whether that secret thing - I
mean, in a doctor's office, that secret thing might be a, you know, a growth
or, you know, something happening in a private part of your body.

Ms. FEBOS: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: That secret thing might be a genuine secret that you'd share with a
therapist, but you wouldn't tell the people you're close to.

Ms. FEBOS: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Did you feel that kind of comparison, that people were coming with a
secret part of their life that they could only share with a paid professional?

Ms. FEBOS: Absolutely. I definitely do. I was actually surprised, after I
started working, at how sort of perfunctory a lot of people were about it. It
was like their weekly checkup or their weekly session with their therapist, and
it was just a built-in part of these men's lives. And to a lot of them, it was
just as essential as a checkup with a doctor, or a session with a therapist.
And for some of them, I think that it was as helpful as those - for some, not
so much.

For some, I think I was, you know - I mean, we sort of assume, and it's been my
experience, that when I go to see doctors and therapists that there's - I can
rely on sort of a forward progression, that I'm growing or healing or learning
more. And that was true for a lot of my relationships with my clients, but not
for all of them. For many of them, it was a pretty repetitive experience. It
would be like going to the doctor and getting the same information every time
you saw them.

GROSS: What would the equivalent of growing or getting healed be?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. FEBOS: I mean, I think that some of them - I would get a client who was new
to it, and had - maybe had a private obsession that they were ashamed of for a
long time. And then they would come in and I saw - I mean, after a certain,
after a year in the job, just nothing will surprise you. You've heard it all
before. And so they would come in, and I would not be shocked at their fantasy,
and we would act something out. And they would leave just glowing, you know?

I mean, I think a lot of people are very lonely. Secrecy is a lonely
experience. I know that for myself, you know? And so a lot of these people
would've been carrying around this sort of obsession or interest or fantasy for
a long time, feeling as if they were the only one who'd ever had it, you know,
and feeling privately, really alienated from other people. And then they would
come in, and I wouldn't gasp or be shocked or disgusted or reject them. And it
would be like okay, that's fine. I would just treat them like a normal person
because in that context, they were - I mean, in any context, you know, they
were.

No one, I think, is really as weird as they think they are. And so for a lot of
them, it was really liberating. And for me, it was really parallel experience
for me because, you know, for a lot of this experience, I was an active drug
addict, and I think that there are a lot of parallels. There's a lot of
secrecy. There's a lot of shame. There's a lot of feeling sort of terminally
unique. And then when you find other people who have had this experience
before, it's really relieving to realize that you're not the only one.

DAVIES: Melissa Febos' memoir "Whip Smart" is now out in paperback.

She'll be back in the second half of the show.

I'm Dave Davies and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. We're listening
to Terry's interview recorded last year with Melissa Febos. She's an assistant
professor of English at Utica College with an interesting job history. She
spent four years as a professional dominatrix in Manhattan. Her memoir about
her experiences offers a glimpse into part of the sex industry and into the
world of sexual fantasy and role-playing. This is a conversation that's
probably not appropriate for children. Febos' book "Whip Smart" is not out in
paperback.

GROSS: You were a heroin addict, and that was probably very connected to why
you were doing the work and how you were doing it. I mean, I imagine the work
helped pay for your drugs.

Ms. FEBOS: It did. But you know, I mean, I think that a lot of people tend to
assume that there was a directly sort of causal relationship between my being a
heroin addict and my being a dominatrix. And that's not exactly how it sort of
worked out. I don't think - I didn't become a dominatrix out of desperation. It
wasn't to feed my drug addiction. I really think that sort of both of those
practices came from a similar place, you know, both sort of a simultaneous
desire to find a way to make the world feel more manageable and to feel more in
control of my own experience.

And drugs are a way of feeling in control of your experience, to be able to
have control over the way your environment affects you. And playing out these
fantasies, and playing this role where I was pursued and where I was in
control, also felt really safe in a certain way.

And at the same time, almost paradoxically, I think that I also sort of sought
out these extreme experiences because to try to manage your own human
experience and to be in control of the world, essentially to sort of try to
play God, is exhausting and impossible and a futile task. And I think that in
seeking sort of these extreme experiences, I was sort of searching for the
wall. You know, searching to find - to be sort of disproven in my own power so
that I could let go of that futile task.

GROSS: Don't you think, in a way, that the heroin deadens you enough to do the
work of dominatrix? That it might've been more difficult had all your senses
really been alert and not dulled or changed by heroin?

Ms. FEBOS: I do think so. I mean - and the experience of being a dominatrix
really changed, really fundamentally, when I - because I got clean while I was
a dominatrix and, you know, I assumed, actually, when I got clean that I would
be rendered almost instantly incapable of doing it anymore because I would be
really awake. And in many ways, it's true. You know, I was much more conscious
during my sessions. I was much more aware of things, and it did become
difficult in some ways. But it was also, to my own surprise, revealed to me
that I could still do it, that there was something that kept me there. And it
hadn't been the drugs, you know, that there was something else in me that
brought me there that was distinct from the drugs, because I kept doing it for
over a year after I got clean.

GROSS: In writing about your experiences as a professional dominatrix, you
write: Most sessions were based on paradigms that were often a kind of
inversion of misogyny - the subjugation of women re-enacted by men on
themselves. Our clients wanted to be dressed in women's clothing and raped,
molested, infantilized, humiliated and physically abused.

Can you talk about that a little more - this idea of it being like an inversion
of misogyny?

Ms. FEBOS: Mm-hmm. You know, I didn't dig very deep into my observations of
that when I first started. You know, it seemed pretty clear to me, I am acting
out a powerful role. I can be a feminist and also dress up in these sexy
clothes and enjoy being desired. And that seemed to agree for me. But the
longer that I worked in the job, the more I sort of recognized this sort of
inversion of sexual paradigms. And it was disturbing, and I didn't quite know
what to make of it - and I still don't quite know what to make of it. But I
don't think that it's as simple as I thought in the beginning, where it was
sort of like, you know, good, these are men who want to get a taste of their
own medicine, you know?

But also, I was being paid to still conform to these fantasies and in some ways
it started to dawn on me that even if it was being performed on the men
themselves, it was still sort of reinforcing these kinds of behaviors, you
know, and it was still an obsession with misogyny and with sort of the abuse of
female characters. They just happen to be men dressed up as women. And also, I
mean, I don't have an answer for this or a diagnosis for it, but it occurred to
me then, and it occurs to me now, that it might also be an expression of men's
discomfort with those paradigms in our culture, you know, and trying to make
sense of it themselves, you know?

GROSS: But even when you're the dominatrix, you're the one in power and you're
humiliating the man, it's in some way still the man who's in control. He's
paying for you.

Ms. FEBOS: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: If you perform well, he'll give you a big tip and if you don't, he
won't. I mean, he kind of wrote the play, and you're an actress in it.

Ms. FEBOS: Exactly. Exactly. And that became progressively less and less
comfortable for me, the longer that I was in the job. Yeah. And I mean, in the
beginning it did feel pretty powerful, you know, to act out those roles. And in
the end - and not even in the end - after a little while, you know, it wasn't
my fantasy in most cases, you know? And in a lot of ways it felt more
humiliating to me than it did to them. I mean, I think it was satisfying for
them. And for me, to enact a sexual fantasy that wasn't my own fantasy was
uncomfortable in a lot of ways - and especially after I got clean - became
acutely uncomfortable in many ways.

And as much as I had sort of my own arguments and ideology and rationalizations
about it - like my emotional experience, which I slowly sort of awoke more and
more to throughout my time doing it - my authentic emotional experience was
that it ended up being kind of humiliating for me in a lot of sessions - not
all, but in many of them.

GROSS: Now, I am looking at your resume.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And it has how you got your MFA at Sarah Lawrence College; it has how
you were the recipient of the Outstanding Faculty Member of the Year Award in
2008, 2009.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: What it doesn't have is that you were a dominatrix for four years.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. FEBOS: No.

GROSS: Did you intentionally leave that off the resume?

Ms. FEBOS: Yeah. I haven't, you know, I haven't typically thought of it as sort
of a boon when job - you know, I'm looking for a full-time faculty position
right now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. FEBOS: And, you know, it's really, this is actually something that I've
been dealing with a lot very recently. You know, my book just came out on
Tuesday and - I mean, typically having been a sex worker or a dominatrix or
participating - you know, being a former heroin junkie, they're not things that
you talk about with your colleagues at work, especially in academia. But I've
sort of merged my checkered past and my most extreme personal experiences, the
kinds of things that most people don't tell anyone about, with my career and
with my profession and with my artistic craft. And so it's a really interesting
adventure and also a challenge.

You know, I don't - I'm not always sure how to navigate it. You know, I was
recently at a faculty meeting, congratulated by my boss at Purchase for - I was
on the cover of the New York Post, you know, and it was like, thank you. But I
also - it was an awkward moment, you know, because you're not used to accepting
congratulations for having had these kinds of experiences.

But ultimately, I'm really glad for it, and I'm really glad to able to sort of
present these experiences in conjunction with my creative processing with
literature, and with my teaching, because I do see them, they're not things to
be ashamed of. You know, maybe in our culture at large they are, but they've
really profoundly enriched me and deepened me as a human being and as an
intellectual and as a teacher - and absolutely as a writer.

GROSS: Melissa Febos, thank you so much.

Ms. FEBOS: Thank you so much, Terry. It's been a huge pleasure.

DAVIES: Melissa Febos is now an assistant professor of English at Utica
College. Her memoir "Whip Smart" is now out in paperback.
..COST:
$00.00
..INDX:
138761734
*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
..DATE:
20110729
..PGRM:
Fresh Air
..TIME:
12:00-13:00 PM
..NIEL:
N/A
..NTWK:
NPR
..SGMT:
Remembering Jazz Lyricist And Poet Fran Landesman

DAVE DAVIES, host:

Lyricist Fran Landesman, who wrote the words for the jazz classic "Spring Can
Really Hang You Up the Most," died Saturday at the age of 83. She wrote for
decades and performed until the week of her death. But she was never as well-
known as some of her songs, which also include "Ballad of the Sad Young Men"
and "Small Day Tomorrow."

Landesman was part of a circle of beat writers and jazz musicians when she
started writing songs in the early '50s. She married Jay Landesman in 1950 and
they opened the famed Crystal Palace nightclub in St. Louis, where Woody Allen,
Lenny Bruce and Barbra Streisand made early appearances. They later moved to
London.

For a period, the couple became known as much for their open marriage and
bohemian lifestyle as for their professional accomplishments. Jay Landesman
died earlier this year.

Terry Gross interviewed Fran Landesman in 1988. Before we hear that
conversation, here's one of the definitive recordings of "Spring Can Really
Hang You Up the Most," song by Betty Carter. The music is by Tommy Wolf.

(Soundbite of song, "Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most")

Ms. BETTY CARTER (Singer): (Singing) Spring this year has got me feeling like a
horse that never left the post. I lie in my room staring up at the ceiling.
Spring can really hang you up the most.

Ms. FRAN LANDESMAN (Lyricist): I wrote that song because I was enamored of T.S.
Eliot's poem which begins: April is the cruelest month, mixing memory with
desire, breeding lilacs out of the dead land. And I was thinking to myself, if
a hipster were going to say that...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LANDESMAN: ...he would say spring can really hang you up the most, man. And
I told that to this piano player, Tommy Wolf, and he said that would make a
good song. Why don't you try to write it? And I said I've never written a song.
He said oh, go ahead and try. So I brought this lyric into him and he put that
beautiful, beautiful music to it.

TERRY GROSS: So this was the very first song you wrote.

Ms. LANDESMAN: Yeah.

GROSS: You collaborated on it with Tom Wolf, who you wrote a lot of songs with.
How did you first start to collaborate with him?

Ms. LANDESMAN: Well, we had this bar and he was the piano player and I used to
sit on the piano bench with him and - you know, go over old songs and things.
And then when I came up with that idea for a song, "Spring Can Really Hang You
Up the Most," and he said he'd put a tune to it, well, after that we just did
more and more. I'd do two or three a week.

GROSS: We had this bar. You owned the bar?

Ms. LANDESMAN: Yes. Yes.

GROSS: I see. So you didn't sing with him?

Ms. LANDESMAN: Well, I didn't sing in those days. Tommy put me off the idea of
singing because he was so bitchy about...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LANDESMAN: ...girl singers. He was always complaining about how they
couldn't keep time and they were singing out of tune.

GROSS: Oh, god.

Ms. LANDESMAN: And I didn't want people talking that about me, so therefore I
didn't want to sing. But the musicians say to me, now they say: But we like the
way you sing because we know you're a writer. We just don't like singers who
can't sing.

GROSS: Many of the lyrics that you've written - especially the ones from the
1950s - have real hipster lyrics. I'm thinking especially of some of the songs
in "The Nervous Set," which was a musical that you co-wrote with Tom Wolf, and
your husband, Jay Landesman, wrote the book for it.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Singer: (Singing) Let's just have fun. Let's dig the happenings.
This world is weird and full of crazy things. Shakespeare was a hack, so we
read Kerouac. Baby, let's just have fun.

GROSS: All the hipster lyrics that you wrote, I always wanted to know if you
spoke hip at the time, if you used any of the lingo that you used in the
lyrics.

Ms. LANDESMAN: It's funny. Actually, Tommy Wolf introduced me to that language
and I was just fascinated about - I mean he was the first person I ever heard
refer to a man as a cool stud.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LANDESMAN: And I thought, what a perfect description of this particular
guy. But alas, I found out that actually cool just meant nice and he called all
guys studs. And I decided that since so few men were studs and of the few who
were studs few of them were cool, it was a pity that he didn't realize he had
so aptly described this person.

GROSS: Do you feel a connection to lyricists like Ira Gershwin, Larry Hart,
Noel Coward, Cole Porter?

Ms. LANDESMAN: Gosh, I hope so. You know, when we did "The Nervous Set" on
Broadway," there was a line in the song: No matter how they rave now, Larry
Hart is in his grave now, and whoever takes Manhattan is a square.

And Richard Rogers came to see the show and he said to me, he said, you know,
people have been calling me up all week. They're so furious about that. He
said, but I knew you kids didn't mean to knock Larry. And I said, are you
kidding? He was my hero. I wasn't knocking him. I was just saying that this,
perhaps that song has been overdone now.

GROSS: Songwriting has, like many other fields, always been a very male world,
especially until recently. The Beat circle that you hung out with, the writers,
musicians, painters, they were mostly men too.

Ms. LANDESMAN: And they weren't interested in women for doing anything but
emptying the ashtrays. As a matter of fact, the other night, Allan Ginsberg
came up to me after the gig and said that he really liked a poem of mine. And
it’s the first time, you know, I just felt that he was never even aware that I
did anything, so I was really thrilled.

GROSS: One of the things I really like about your songs is your sense of
wordplay and your sense of humor. Tell me - yeah.

Ms. LANDESMAN: Some of my songs are funny. As a matter of fact, somebody told
me recently that I'm known as the Queen of Sad. And I don't think it's fair
because I like to think that all of my songs are about sad and funny.

GROSS: One of the songs that probably comes to mind when people call you the
Queen of Sad is "Ballad of the Sad Young Men."

Ms. LANDESMAN: Yes. Exactly.

(Soundbite of song, "Ballad of the Sad Young Men")

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) All the sad young men seek a certain smile.
Someone they can hold for a little while. Tired little girl does the best she
can, trying to be gay for her sad young man.

GROSS: Tell me the story behind writing that song.

Ms. LANDESMAN: A friend of ours, we were in St. Louis and we had a bunch of
pals. We used to hang out in P.J. Clarke's and we were talking long-distance to
them and I heard that one of them had gotten engaged to a 16-year-old girl. And
I thought, that poor girl, she doesn't stand a chance, because those guys
really hang out in those bars. And they're, you know, that's - I think I wrote
the verse about tired little girl does the best she can trying to be gay for a
sad young man. I think that was the beginning of the song and then the rest of
it grew up around it.

But the weird thing is that people think now that it's a song about gay people.

GROSS: That's right, about gay men.

Ms. LANDESMAN: Because when I – but when I wrote that song, it simply meant
lively, trying to be, trying to cheer him up, not trying to be bisexual.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. You have a new song you can read for us?

Ms. LANDESMAN: Ah, this is the last one. This is a sad funny song. It's called
"Goodbye to All That."

Goodbye days of jazz and joking. Goodbye booze and food that's fried. Goodbye
glamour. So long smoking. Hello thoughts of suicide. Farewell days of fun and
flirting. Goodbye sex. So glad we came. Now there's always something hurting.
Hello specs and walking frame. So long lovely finger-lickers. Goodbye life that
late we led. Hello cramps and dodgy kickers. Soon we'll be the grateful dead.
Goodbye Lenny. Goodbye Ronny. Goodbye pretty girls and boys. Goodbye, Shirley.
Goodbye Johnny. Hello geriatric joys.

GROSS: Now, you read that at a gathering of old friends to celebrate the work
of John Clellan Holmes, who's had some...

Ms. LANDESMAN: That's right.

GROSS: ...work republished. Now, at this party I think was Allan Ginsberg,
David Amram, Larry Rivers...

Ms. LANDESMAN: All of them.

GROSS: ...Herbert Huncke. What kind of reaction did you get to this poem?

Ms. LANDESMAN: They all liked it so much. I was, you know, I was so nervous
because I kept thinking what is this going to be, a cabaret or a funeral? And
also the fact that my stuff sort of rhymes the way it does and all those boys
are free verses - I wasn't, they really did like it.

DAVIES: Lyricist Fran Landesman speaking with Terry Gross in 1988. Landesman
died Saturday at the age of 83.

Here's Ella Fitzgerald singing Fran Landesman's best-known song.

(Soundbite of song, "Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most")

Ms. ELLA FITZGERALD (Jazz singer): (Singing) Love came my way. I thought it
would last. We had our day, now it's all in the past. Spring came along, a
season of song, full of sweet promise but something went wrong.

Doctors once prescribed a tonic. Sulfur and molasses was the dose. Didn't help
a bit. My condition must be chronic. Spring can really hang you up the most.
All alone, the party is over. Old man winter was a gracious host. But when you
keep praying for snow to hide the clover, spring can really hang you up the
most.
..COST:
$00.00
..INDX:
138792128
*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
..DATE:
20110729
..PGRM:
Fresh Air
..TIME:
12:00-13:00 PM
..NIEL:
N/A
..NTWK:
NPR
..SGMT:
When Aliens 'Attack' And Fight 'Cowboys'

DAVE DAVIES, host:

The title and poster for the new film "Cowboys & Aliens" have been getting
people excited for nearly a year, and it's finally here - directed by Jon
Favreau of "Iron Man," and starring Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford.

There's another alien invasion movie opening today called "Attack the Block,"
which is a low budget film from Britain.

Film critic David Edelstein reviews them both.

DAVID EDELSTEIN: The sci-fi Western "Cowboys & Aliens" has something for
everyone, and not enough for anyone. I couldn't help thinking of the missed
opportunities to play with two such disparate American genres. That said, Jon
Favreau is a crafty director; he adds suspense to a bland story by withholding
all the pertinent details, keeping us in a happy state of anticipation.

It starts with a start. Rugged blue-eyed Daniel Craig wakes up in the desert
with a wound in his side, a metallic bracelet on his wrist, and no memory,
though he does have super fighting skills. He's haunted, but by what? He walks
through the swinging door of a saloon in a failed gold-mining town and drinks
to ease the pain. But being a Western hero, he's soon punching out rich bully
Paul Dano, who's beating up mousy saloonkeeper Sam Rockwell. Then Dano's daddy,
a baleful Harrison Ford, shows up with his men and it looks like there'll be
shooting until - what the heck? The camera makes like Spielberg's, tracking in
on characters gazing at a glow on the horizon that turns out to be little ships
that whiz in and snatch up screaming earthlings.

No spoilers, folks. But nothing brings folks together like aliens. The outlaw,
the greedy capitalist boss, and even the Native American chief are now on the
same side.

Too bad those aliens are a massive disappointment, their ships clearly
computer-generated and too fast to generate much awe, the CGI E.T.'s - apart
from one Nazi-like surgeon - anonymous. The cowboys get the screen time,
sometimes too much. Rumor has it Ford insists on having his parts beefed up, so
even with a supporting role, he has draggy scenes in which he gruffly bonds
with the sheriff's grandson and acts racist toward his Native American top man,
Adam Beach. Gorgeous cat-eyed Olivia Wilde stands around as a woman who - what
on Earth is she doing? In "Cowboys & Aliens," not knowing is more fun than
finding out.

The low-budget British film "Attack the Block" has what's missing from "Cowboys
& Aliens." It's wall-to-wall sci-fi pop culture bric-a-brac, yet feels
homegrown. The gang of hooligans, mostly black, live in a South London project
and mug a white nurse, played by Jodi Whittaker. So it's neighbor against
neighbor until the creatures plummet to Earth. One kid describes them as
looking like a monkey crossed with a fish, and they have iridescent fangs that
rip people to shreds.

Dig these great accents as the teens decide how to take on the invaders.

(Soundbite of movie, "Attack the Block")

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (as character) What is that (unintelligible)?

Unidentified #2 (Actor): (as character) That's an alien (unintelligible).
Believe it.

Unidentified Man #3 (Actor): (as character) It landed in the wrong place
(unintelligible) the wrong place.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of music)

EDELSTEIN: As leader of the gang, John Boyega has the poise of Denzel
Washington and a gift for playing three things at once: pride, courage and
fear. He can't be shown up - which is why he chases down the first little alien
that lands, kills it, and carries it on a stick like a trophy. It's only later
he understands his macho instinct for revenge has indirectly caused much of the
carnage.

But not all. These are nasty creatures and there's tons of splatter. But
ultimately this is the story of kids on their own, with no authority figures
who believe their story. One kid even wonders if the creatures weren't sent to
kill black boys because, quote, "we ain't killing each other fast enough." To
defend the block, they grab ninja swords, guns, and fireworks, and teaming up
now with Jodi Whittaker's nurse, prove they're made of nobler stuff.

"Attack the Block" was written and directed by Joe Cornish and the executive
producer was Edgar Wright, who made "Shaun of the Dead." Cornish, like Wright,
uses genre parody and homage not to deflate his material but rethink and
revitalize it. Unlike the colossally budgeted "Cowboys & Aliens," you don't
come out of this one thinking, I wonder how much that cost.

DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: You can join us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair.
And you can download podcasts of our show at freshair.npr.org.
..COST:
$00.00
..INDX:
138744404

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.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?

Advertisement

Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR

52:30

Did the Trump camp help far-right militia groups plan the Jan. 6 attack?

New York Times journalist Alan Feuer says some members of Trump's inner circle have close ties to the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers, whose leaders have been charged with seditious conspiracy.

52:30

Real life or satire? Novelist Mat Johnson says it can be hard to tell the difference

Novelist Mat Johnson believes that America has its own unique "flavor" of apocalypse. "It's hard not seeing the possible end of things in a variety of different ways," he says. Johnson's new satirical novel, Invisible Things, serves up one of those apocalyptic flavors.

42:38

A novelist's time in the MMA cage informed his book on memory loss and identity

"Really, the heart of the story is about misplaced loyalty and what we can do with memory and how fluid and malleable memory can be when we ... use it to fit the narrative that we've created in our mind," says novelist John Vercher.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue