A literary encounter
Special to the Daily
Writers are, on the whole, an anti-social lot. The fact that my late-and-best friend Ed used to take tea, back in the 1950s, every week with William Faulkner neither proves nor disproves my theory. Faulkner was known for being something of a Southern gentleman and, as such, an anomaly among the pantheon of literary giants of his generation.
And while I’ve never been a celebrity-writer chaser, I actually did get to meet one of my favorite writers before his death ” and I can honestly say that he probably enjoyed the experience almost as much as I did.
Back in the early 1980s, I was asked to be a celebrity guest auctioneer during the annual public broadcasting fundraiser in Atlanta. My “celebrity” status was merely due to a long-running nightclub gig I had at the time. It was my television debut ” that is, if you don’t count a brief and inauspicious appearance on a children’s show when I was 5.
When I got to the studio, the first person I saw was the author and humorist Lewis Grizzard, standing around waiting for his turn, which came right after mine. He was the big star of the event, the big fish that the producers had snagged. And he had the same expression on his face that I had; a sort of good-natured grimace that said, loud and clear, “What the hell am I doing here?”
Not that he was any stranger to television; he was not known as “The Book Tour Author from Hell” for nothing. Whenever one of his 25 best-selling books came out and he made his obligatory appearance on the Johnny Carson show, the next morning everyone in the country knew about the politically incorrect things he had said the night before. He was the master of saying and doing the humorously improbable; not intentionally, but out of a sincerity that had no tolerance for either shock value or political correctness.
He had little tolerance for self-pity, either. He had been born with a congenital heart defect, which he mentioned sparingly and with great grace and humor in his books and columns.
When I saw him in that television studio, I wanted to go over and shake his hand and tell him what he meant to me as an aspiring opera singer/cabaret performer/writer/humorist, but I didn’t have time. As soon as the producers saw me, they shoved a stack of note cards in my hand, miked me up, and threw me in front of my auction board, on the air, live.
And I did just fine until I got to the hospital doll.
In case you’ve never seen one, a hospital doll is used for demonstrating bodily functions to doctors and nurses in training. One of the more fashionable hospitals in Atlanta, possibly as a joke, decided to donate one of these dolls to the auction ” together with complete instructions as to its fulsome capabilities.
The problem was, the show’s producers didn’t have time to proofread the copy that the hospital sent over with the doll. Perhaps the folks at the hospital thought that it would be edited ” but I have a feeling that they knew, rather waggishly, that it wouldn’t.
That’s where I learned that there is no delicate substitution for the word “defecate.” Nor are there any subtle words to describe other gaseous, evacuative functions of the body.
I was not yet skilled in front of a camera, nor in the gentle art of the ad lib, but I did my damnedest. While the entire staff of producers and pledge takers was down on the floor howling, I made a show, on camera, of all the things that doll did, utilizing the most creative euphemisms I’ve ever come up with in my entire life. The president of the station had rushed down from the control booth as soon as the word “defecate” came out of my mouth for the first and only time; after that, I winged it with a pretty imaginative assortment of southernisms.
That doll was one of the biggest money-makers of the day and sold for hundreds of dollars. I walked away from my auction board hot, exhausted and sweaty, to be met by the president of the station who kept kissing me and telling me that he had never seen such a great ad lib performance on television. Thinking back, it probably was one of my best performances doing anything, anywhere.
And that’s when I met Mr. Grizzard. After the crowd around me went off to rejoin the broadcast, he came quietly over and said, “I’m Lewis Grizzard.”
“I know,” I said, still too out of breath and shell-shocked to quite realize that one of my literary idols was speaking to me.
He then threw his arms around me, gave me a huge kiss on the cheek (we’re great kissers in the South), and said, with the utmost sincerity, “You were absolutely wonderful out there. You did a great job.”
I thanked him, and at that moment he was called away to put on his microphone and take his place on the air. I stayed for a few minutes to watch, then slipped out of the studio. I knew that anything else that followed would only be anticlimactic. I had made one of the funniest writers in the country laugh ” a feat that I knew, in my lifetime, couldn’t be equaled.
I never got to meet him again. Shortly afterward I went off to Europe and places far afield, and a little more than a decade after our brief meeting, that heart defect of his swiftly took him out of here. He was the same age that I’ll be next month ” 47.
Some years later, I found myself writing for the very paper where Lewis Grizzard became famous as a columnist ” the Atlanta Journal. It was during that period in my life that I had lunch one day with his step-brother, no mean talent himself, the radio personality Ludlow Porch. In between snippets of radio talk, Ludlow leaned over the table and asked me gently, “What is your heart’s desire?”
It’s the sort of question an older writer or radio guy will ask you, either out of curiosity or to throw you off-guard. In Ludlow’s case, it was said out of complete kindness. It was a beautiful phrase that has somehow stayed with me, and that I’ve never known the answer to ” except to say that I’ve found it. I’ve been one of the lucky ones.
And in remembering a man who had a profound influence on me as a writer, and being able to say that I got to share one of the most wildly funny moments of my life with one of the country’s best humorists ” well, all I can say is, my memories haven’t been so bad, either.
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