Monday, August 3, 2009
The subtitle of this blog asserts it will be about Broadway, Hollywood, politics or the Middle East. The following tribute covers all four topics.
Sidney Zion died yesterday of bladder cancer. Sad, but no wonder. The false lips of the world pecked away at his gut all his life and the tragically unnecessary death of his eighteen-year-old daughter essentially did him in twenty-five years ago. Anyone who knew Sidney in those days watched helplessly as he drank even harder than before, and that was going some. Never one to wallow in pity for himself or anyone, Sidney started listing and slurring in heartbreaking anger.
I could say that’s not the way I want to remember Sidney, but it wouldn’t be true—it is the way I want to remember him. The combatant, the campaigner, the debunker, the buddy.
We shared two favorite topics: Israel and songs, and by songs Sidney would poke a finger (or a glass) in the air here to tell you, “I mean the great songs, the ones they don’t write anymore.” He’d mean the songs from the great American songbook.
There wasn’t anything we could teach each other about Israel, or Zionism (how perfectly named he was, I told him), but he loved discussing lyrics with me. He could taste the fine ones. Ira Gershwin and Cole Porter would roll around on his tongue. I would quote Hammerstein and Harburg, and he would nod vigorously and beam.
Never far from quoting a good lyric, he told me he found himself alone with president Anwar Sadat on the steps of his Egyptian villa, in 1979, I believe. He asked Sadat what song he would sing when he made peace with Israel. Sadat, a bit baffled, asked what he meant. “How about Irving Berlin?" Sidney suggested. "Irving Berlin! I love Irving Berlin!" Sadat said, and, in tune now, he enthused, “Blue Skies!" Sidney pronounced it a fine song, but said he had a better “Berlin” in mind.” His choice drew an embrace from Sadat. "Let's Face the Music and Dance," Sidney recounted to me with his inimitable gusto.
It’s not surprising that he was a buddy of Frank Sinatra’s. I think the world’s greatest “saloon singer” in Sidney’s eyes saw a lot of himself in Sidney’s “boisterous candor,” author Cynthia Ozick’s perfect words for him.
Sidney told me about dining in a Manhattan restaurant with Sinatra when a woman approached their table and asked for the crooner’s autograph. As nicely and gently as he could, according to Sidney, Sinatra said he’d be happy to—as soon as he finished eating. The woman, instantly outraged, fumed, “My husband said you’d be like that!” and stormed away. Sinatra looked at Sidney and said, “You can’t win.”
Looking back at Sidney, I won. My Sid Zion shelf includes one of my favorite book titles, Trust Your Mother But Cut the Cards, and one of my favorite inscriptions to me, “If I could only spell boulavourdier, I could write the next on [sic] about Ray. Best, Sid. April 12, 1988.”
Another of his books includes one my favorite dedications, “…to Johnnie Walker, without whom none of this would have happened.”