Scene from my life: A story of domestic cruelty

Today we learned about the death of Prince Philip. Postpone your mourning to read this from the Times’ obit by Marylin Berger:

Painful, too, for Philip was the revelation that Prince Charles, his oldest son, had let it be known that as a child he had been deeply wounded by a father who belittled him time and again, often in front of friends and family.

A 1994 biography, “The Prince of Wales,” by Jonathan Dimbleby with the cooperation of Prince Charles, noted that while Philip indulged “the often brash and obstreperous behavior” of his daughter, Princess Anne, he was openly contemptuous of his son, whom he thought of as “a bit of a wimp.”

Awful way to treat a child. But once in my life I observed worse.

One winter in the 1960’s I got a job working for Peter Stark, the 20-something son of powerful film producer Ray, who, among many other films, produced Funny Girl and Funny Lady, both about his mother-in-law, Fannie Price.

The job turned out to be memorable, albeit that it was the shortest in my working life.

Ray had set Peter up as an independent producer. Peter’s office was in his sterile Upper East Side apartment, more like a well-appointed luxury hotel suite than a residence. That is, my office was there, in a small room that probably was previously a maid’s room. Peter’s actual working space seemed to be the living room sofa; there was no desk in the living room. Maybe there was one in the bedroom but I wasn’t given a tour of the place and never saw the bedroom. I never set foot in the living room, either; the front door led down a straight hallway past the living room and right into a small den which would be my office.

On a snowy January Monday, I began my job. My first assignment was to read a Kurt Vonnegut novel, a property on which Peter held an option. I don’t like Vonnegut. But I’m a fast reader. I read the novel. At Peter’s request, I started a “report” on the Vonnegut, concentrating on its potential as a movie.

Although I did not see Peter again that day, in the afternoon he made a phone call, probably from his bedroom. One of the two buttons on my phone was lit and remained lit for several hours.

That was Monday.

On Tuesday, I typed up my Vonnegut report. The typewriter, a Smith-Corona, jammed a couple of times. It wasn’t as fast as my fingers. Not a big problem, but in the odd void that was that place and my job, it stuck in my brain, became a mighty flaw. Worse, it degraded Peter’s daddy-financed venture – and, accordingly mine, as junior story editor – into a playground of pretension. We were all pretending we were going to make movies.

The day proceeded; I went along with it. In the afternoon, the phone rang. I jumped right on it. “Peter Stark Productions?” A male voice, composed into a fake, sucky viscosity that I knew was meant to be seductive said, “Hel-loo. Is this Peter Stark’s new assistant?”

“Yes, it is,” I said. “I hear,” the voice went on, “that Peter Stark’s new assistant has great legs.”

Of course I’d known it was Ray from the first ooze out of his mouth. Ray was infamous for ooze and what we now call rampant sexual harassment. “The right leg’s okay,” I said, “but the left one isn’t so terrific.” He didn’t laugh. I don’t recall what part of my anatomy he next critiqued in that voice, that greasy low sound. I chirped, “Is this an obscene phone call?”

“This is Peter’s father,” Ray said, his voice now sharp. “Please put him on the phone.”
I did. The phone light, that same red button, stayed lit for the rest of the afternoon.

There went Tuesday.

The following morning, Wednesday, I re-established myself in the office. Peter came in, said good morning and then said tensely, “When you go to the bathroom, please don’t move the glass.” A glass on a shelf had blocked the mirror and yes, I had moved it. Okay, I said. I wouldn’t do it again.

That day two critical things happened, both instigated by me.

I brought up with Peter the subject of the typewriter. I said, couldn’t we get an IBM, a much better typewriter, and Peter asked me what was wrong with the typewriter and I told him. He responded that his previous assistant had never complained about the typewriter. I said, well, I guess I’m just used to better equipment, and Peter said something unmemorable. That was it.

Ray called, but without the come-on. I put Peter on the phone.

After a while, a longish while, I did something I’d never before and have never done since: I eavesdropped. Why were this father and son on the phone every day for hours? I pressed down on that lit phone line button, and very carefully picked up the receiver, and very, very slowly released the button that brought the voices into my ear.

Ray was talking, Ray was saying to his only son, “You fucking little piece of shit, you dumb little prick.” “You moronic little shit,” he was saying, “…never could be relied on to tie your own fucking shoelaces…”

Very carefully I pressed down on the button and disengaged myself from the call.
I left that evening before Peter got off that phone call.

On the long trip home, I felt trapped and slightly desperate. I knew I couldn’t go on with this job. None of the elements I loved about working could breathe in this atmosphere. I had to find a way out.

That night I had fantasies, rehearsed several possible speeches to Peter about why I was going to leave the job. I slept, had a dream about Peter dying, Peter being dead and I’d be free. I promise you, I had that dream.

Next morning, Thursday, I slogged over to the building through the now mucky snow, went up the elevator, put my key into the lock. The door was already open. I entered the apartment. The place was full of the dual harbingers of disaster – blue-uniformed policemen and brown-uniformed janitors.

I said, “What’s going on?”

One of the janitors turned to me and murmured, conscientiously funereal, “Your boss…” and he placed his hands together, as if in prayer. “He–“ and now the gesture, not prayer, no, what was the man doing? He was diving, that’s it. Miming a silent-movie-type dive.

“Your boss,” he was saying and diving with his hands, “…early this morning.”

In my head a Polaroid pic was developing of Peter, standing naked on the rim of his hyper-clean bathtub and whoops, just diving right in, his hands together in supplication, like the janitor’s. A dive with a difficulty factor of 2.8. Actually, he had gone up to the roof and jumped from there.

I realized that the janitor needed me to say something. “God,” I said.

In the late afternoon, Ray, the grieving father called. His secretary put me on the phone with him. He sounded cool, as if he had in fact collected himself about three hundred years ago.

“My son told me,” he said, “that you had an argument with him about a typewriter, is that so?”

It wasn’t exactly an argument, I replied. He went over every single word I had spoken, every word his son had spoken about that typewriter.

That’s what Peter had been doing, chatting with his father every day for hours. He’d been reporting every moment of his last days, all the minutiae. I bet he told Ray that I’d moved that glass on the bathroom shelf. And now Ray was going to use those words to find some reason why his son had killed himself. Some other reason.

He never raised his voice to me, never accused me directly. He was, he implied, simply trying to understand.

My boss kills himself after I’ve worked for him for three days, it’s possibly not my fault. Nevertheless, that night I did get to feeling somewhat shaky. It wasn’t sentiment certainly, wasn’t exactly guilt. But I had a sense that I had been complicit, simply because I’d been there. So on Friday I paid a visit to my psychiatrist Dr. Vass, a tiny Hungarian woman, and reported in, a little tearful.

“I should have known he was so depressed…that glass, he spent his whole day opening the mail and there wasn’t any mail except for flyers and ads. Everything was so clean…”

Then: “I never should have had that fight with him about that lousy typewriter!”

“Oh, for Gotssake, darlink,” she snorted, “people don’t jump out of vindows for luv anymore, much less typewriters!”

An editor who read this, among several other sample chapters of my book, If Nobody’s There, I’ll Speak to Anyone, offered a critique which got my full attention. He said the problem was I seemed not to be part of the story, fully involved. I was reporting from an “I Am A Camera” point of view.

He was right.

I guess I could re-write this chapter and make up some episode with me throwing myself onto my couch and screaming in pain.

But I can’t do that. I don’t write melodrama, I don’t write fiction.


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