These days I read the obituary page braced for news of yet another person it’s too late to call. More than remind me, death notices reprimand me never to put off ‘til tomorrow someone who might not have a tomorrow. Whatever under the sun you should say to anyone, say now.
The recent death of an old acquaintance and the sudden, distressing news of a medical threat to a dear friend prompt me to recall…
My first job in New York was as the resident lyricist for a music publishing company. My two bosses professed knowing nothing about Broadway but “really liked” a score I had written, music and lyrics, for an original musical. They gave me the green light to do what needed doing to present it to agents and producers; they would foot the bills. The first thing I needed to do was find someone who knew what I didn’t. That’s how I met John Wallowitch.
John, a superb pianist on his way to becoming a noted songwriter, knew to hire, first off, a vibrant actress/singer with sultry good looks to present the songs with him. My two mavens took charge. They arranged the material, painstakingly rehearsed it and, to my wide-eyed admiration, created a polished performance that illuminated conference rooms at William Morris, MGM, the Shubert Building and more.
It wasn’t long before I elected to free-lance, which meant taking leave of my “underwriters” and consequently, my stellar “cast.” Over the years, John and I occasionally would run into each other for five minutes at a time. In later years, we would find ourselves seated at the same table for mutual friends’ cabaret shows, but with scant opportunity to chat at length. One of those friends informed me that John was ill, and on another day, how ill he was, and cautioned me that if I wanted to see him, I’d better not wait too long. This being New York, I might have put off what I had been putting off far too long for only the weakest of reasons—we’re always so busy. But if we live and learn, then I have, and I didn’t wait.
I invited John to lunch at "Alice's Tea Cup," which I knew he loved. To the one nearest him, but on that day, the weather was blisteringly hot and his voice was thin, and when I offered to bring “Alice’s” to him, he thanked me by saying, “Oh, would you?”
We sat in his living room and in his garden, nibbled scones in his kitchen, and talked and talked. We exchanged confidences about ourselves and our careers that we’d never broached; disclosed our personal disappointments and divulged what we perceived as each other’s triumphs. We talked songs, but John never went to his piano. We were interrupted only when it became time for him to take his medications. He never acknowledged how ill he was and never complained.
Deep into the afternoon, he reminisced about how excited he and his friend, the lady singer, had been about the auditions they did for me. “Excited?” I questioned. “Why were you excited?” He explained, “You were taking us in to meet and perform for all these important theater people we had never met and didn’t know how to.” All these many years, I had believed I’d put myself in the hands of two pros who knew the ropes and were showing them to me, and suddenly I was discovering they had been the green ones who considered themselves so lucky. “Yes,” John said, “We were so grateful to you!”
With the long, late-light summer day drawing darker, and John visibly tiring, I prepared to leave. He said he’d loved the day and thanked me. I said it wasn’t necessary, I’d loved the day as well. He asked if he could give me anything. “Not a thing, John,” I said, “nothing I could possibly think of.” He said, “Wait, I’ve got just the thing.” He went into a cabinet and withdrew a songbook, Songs From Manhattan/John Wallowitch. “That I’ll take,” I said, “and with the greatest pleasure, John.” He inscribed it: “After all these years—an afternoon of glory.”
Weeks later, I learned of John’s death from his New York Times obituary.
I saw our sultry actress/singer over the years as well, much more occasionally, usually backstage, always limited to warm greetings, a hug and kisses. I saw the announcement of her death on-line several weeks ago. She was Dixie Carter.