Adventures in the Literary Underbelly, A Memoir
The Creation of Adam
I met Peter Pan. This was a couple of years earlier when we were living on Old Long Ridge Road in Stamford, Connecticut. It was shortly after the show Peter Pan was broadcast on national television. I didn't just enjoy Peter Pan, I wasn't just dazzled by it, I was overwhelmed by it. Except that overwhelmed suggests being crushed under a weight and what I felt when Peter Pan went airborne in the Darling kids' bedroom and sang I'm Flying and then the kids flew, too, was weightlessness. I was flying myself. Overcome is a better word than overwhelmed to describe my state of mind, heart, and body during and after watching Peter Pan overcome in the sense of being engorged with faith, hope, and charity along with sadism, villainy, and dread.
Tights were big in Peter Pan. Peter Pan and Captain Hook both wore tights. I had an old pair of green long underwear which I used for my own tights. If I sported my green plaid flannel short sleeve shirt with my tights I was Peter Pan, if I wore one of my dad's dress shirts and stuck handkerchiefs in the cuffs and a dish towel in the neck and wore Dad's lobsterman's rain hat I was Captain Hook. Except I didn't have anything for a hook so I wedged my hand in a red plastic picnic tumbler and poked it out of my shirt cuff like a stump. I couldn't be Captain Hook without a hook so I had my family and friends call me Captain Stump. I wasn't going to compromise on being called Peter Pan, though. My blonde hair was already cut just like Peter's, my tights were green like Peter's, and the fact that Peter and I had the same first name seemed more than coincidental, it seemed providential.
Though I already liked writing I was churning out a daily family newspaper and writing dramatic sketches for me and my best friend Tommy Logan my obsession with Peter Pan had nothing to do with appreciating its book and lyrics as dramatic literature. I didn't even perceive book and lyrics yet: a show's characters were real if exotic people who were speaking and singing as naturally and spontaneously as I or my parents or my sisters or my classmates or Miss Cobb would, albeit these characters were on television which was a kind of Never Never Land in itself.
Tommy Logan lived just down the road from us. He was the son of the well known director Joshua Logan who'd directed Annie Get Your Gun, Fanny, Picnic, South Pacific, and Mister Roberts on Broadway. Logan had co-written the stage adaptation of the book Mister Roberts with its author Thomas Heggen. The book had sold a million copies and made Heggen a literary lion at age twenty-eight. Logan's movie version of the book starring James Cagney, Jack Lemmon, and Henry Fonda had made Heggen even more famous. But Heggen was overwhelmed by his celebrity and found himself unable to write a second book. He had the Blank Page Syndrome, I guess, and all the more painfully because he'd written a bestseller his first time out. "I don't know how I wrote Mister Roberts," Heggen once admitted. "It was spirit writing." He became depressed, couldn't sleep, and ended up drowning in his bathtub at age thirty after overdosing on sleeping pills. My friend Tommy Logan's full name was Thomas Heggen Logan, in honor of Thomas Heggen. At that time, though, I didn't know any of this about Heggen. I learned his tragic story later, when I thought I was about to be lionized myself.
To become able to fly with Peter Pan to Never Never Land, the Darling children were instructed by Peter to think lovely thoughts. "Fishing! Hoopskirts! Picnics! Summer!" piped Wendy, John, and Liza Darling, while Michael the youngest could only shout., "Candy!"
"Lovelier thoughts, Michael," nudged Peter.
"Christmas?" Michael hazarded and in an instant everyone was wheels up.
In my own young life Christmas was the loveliest of all possible thoughts. The reality of Christmas was spectacular, too, but the thoughts of it in advance the gift request lists, the holiday TV specials, the caroling, the Advent Calendar, the daily rehearsing of Christmas morning with my two sisters during the week preceding December 25th, and my insistence on Christmas Eve that my parents hurry up and get themselves to bed so Santa wouldn't have to wait any longer at our chimney top (I'd heard the reindeers' hooves as they alighted on our roof) were the aspects of the season that were truer than truth and thus even more memorable: the fictions of Christmas before the fact of it.
My meeting with Peter Pan occurred a week before the Christmas of 1956. Tommy Logan and I were making a snowman in back of the Logans' house. When it got dark we agreed to finish the snowman in the morning and I said goodbye to Tommy for the night. Then just as I started walking home a voice called me back. It was Tommy's father on his front porch asking me if I wanted to stay and meet Mary Martin who'd just arrived on a visit from New York.
I thought this was a joke. Mary Martin had played Peter Pan in the TV production. No, she hadn't played Peter Pan, she was Peter Pan. (In my view of show business, an actor and the character she played were exactly the same person.) And now Mary Martin/Peter Pan was right here in this house? And I could meet her/him? Sure. And I could fly and I could go to Never Never Land, right? Sure. Good joke.
"Come on in," said Joshua Logan. "I told her about you, she wants to meet you. You can have a hot chocolate first and clean up."
The feeling I had standing in the hallway of the Logans' house awaiting my summons into their living room to meet Mary Martin was like the feeling I had years later waiting backstage to make my first entrance in the first play I ever acted in professionally, The Voice of the Turtle, a romantic comedy in which my romantic interest was played by another first-time professional actor, Meryl Streep.
The Logans' red-carpeted hallway was paneled in mahogany and lined with framed autographed photos of Broadway and Hollywood stars, each one spotlit. Movie theatre-type velvet rope ran the length of the passageway, hooked onto brass posts.
I waited there ten minutes, or it could have been ten hours or ten days or ten months. Time transformed in that plush sacristy: it extended and then curled back around itself. It ballooned then burst open and shriveled and ceased to exist. That living room I was about to enter was Never Never Land because Peter Pan was in it, and Never Never Land was the place where, as the song said, dreams were born and time was never planned.
Joshua Logan's wife Nedda appeared in the archway. "Okay, in you go," she said. The living room, when I entered it, sheened with a bleaching, rapturous light. Not white: whiter than white as in that dimension beyond our own dimension which Miss Cobb's truer-than-true truth had conjured.
The room was one hundred yards long and Mary Martin sat at the far end of it on a sofa made tiny by its vast distance from me. She wore a bright red satin dress and a lustrous pearl necklace and wide gold bracelet. Her hair was blonde with a touch of yellow, Peter Pan-short. She smiled at me. I believe she winked. "Go on," said Nedda Logan, and I stepped forth into purple-and-yellow carpeting with pile that was up to my shins in some places, and in other places knee-deep. My progress was tedious; I wished for a grass whip to hack down the jungly undergrowth. The floor was squishy like a bog or a swamp and my shoes stuck in it. Snakes slithered around my ankles. I heard the tick-tocking of the clock inside the crocodile that bit off the hand of Captain Hook. Fortunately, Mary Martin didn't mind how long I took to get to her. When I arrived at the sofa her hand was already outstretched. I took it. It was warm and strong. I didn't shake it, I just took it and held it. So warm and strong. I'm flying, I thought.
The realization that someone was sitting beside Mary Martin brought me back to earth. "This is my husband," Mary Martin said. He introduced himself as Richard Halliday. He was pale-skinned and dark-haired and wore black-framed glasses. He didn't look like Mary Martin's type. I supposed I should shake his hand also so I did, quickly, then took Mary Martin's hand again which was even warmer than a moment ago. "I'm so pleased to meet you," she said and I said "Me, too" and she kept smiling at me, even more radiantly, and my God she had beautiful teeth. She liked me very much, obviously. She might already love me. Poor Richard Halliday, he must be so jealous at this moment. He seemed like a nice enough fellow but I wanted him out of here and I wanted Mary Martin to divorce him and I knew she would. Oh, how perfect my life would still be, Richard Halliday was obviously thinking, if only we hadn't come to Joshua Logan's house today. I felt for him. His wife had just lost her heart to a seven year-old boy. But it wasn't the seven year-old boy's fault. I couldn't help it if I was the cleverest fellow 'twas ever my fortune to know, as Peter Pan had sung about himself on television.
When I discover the cleverness of a remarkable me
how can I hide it when deep down inside
it just tickles me so?
So excuse me Richard Halliday, but I've gotta crow.
On Monday mornings in school we always drew pictures of what we did over our weekends and on the Monday after I met Mary Martin I drew a picture of me standing before a person in a red satin dress and green tights with our hands outstretched toward each other and our index fingers touching like the fingers of God and Man in The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo. And then I wrote a story about my picture. I didn't really have to use my imagination because all of it had really happened. My story wasn't true, it was truer than true and it just flowed out of me like spirit writing.