Recently, I mentioned the name Joan Rivers in a conversation with a younger acquaintance.
Come on, man!
Joan Rivers was the Queen of Comedy for decades (my decades, at least.) Her act was abrasive, rude, brilliant and funny. With a controversial persona, she was acerbic and self-deprecating. The current hit TV show, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, is loosely fashioned on Joan’s’ life. She was a self-confessed, good-natured plastic surgery addict.
“I’ve had so much plastic surgery. When I di,e they will donate my body to Tupperware,” she said.
Joan had her own QVC show and was a frequent substitute host for Johnny Carson on The Late Night Show.
(My acquaintance didn’t know who Johnny Carson was, either.)
Our conversation bumped across a few more generational potholes, and by the time I had filled in enough of them to renew the forward thrust of our confab, my point had evaporated altogether.
Walkers were the point of the conversation. I didn’t mean people who stride down Broadway or mosey through the park. Nor was I referring to the lightweight aluminum contraptions utilized by the physically impaired for greater mobility.
A third definition of “walker” is a man who escorts well-known (or well-heeled) women to galas, premieres or balls. Not a gigolo, necessarily. A walker is a man with a flexible wardrobe and careful grooming habits, a man who can be relied on to blend into any group, to never leave his date unaccounted for, who lights her cigarettes, is pleasantly conversant, who dances with her, compliments her, gossips with her and makes sure she is returned home safely at the end of the evening.
My acquaintance didn’t think the “walker” of the third definition was still “a thing.”
Back in the day, almost every famous doyenne, socialite or actress from New York City to Beverly Hills had reliable walkers; Jackie O, Betsy Bloomingdale, Lenore Annenberg, Nancy Reagan, Bunny Mellon, Audrey Hepburn, Barbara Eden. Like their job, these men often remained nameless and blended as beautifully into the background of notable evenings as the floral arrangements.
Walkers were, most often, gay men.
In 1995, I got a job at the offices of Chicago’s Oscar award-winning producer Marty Richards, who shared with me that in the 1940s and ‘50s he had been a walker for the wives of New York and New Jersey mafia bosses. These men wanted a free weekend now and then to enjoy sleep-overs with their mistresses and they relied on Marty—and paid him handsomely– to whisk the wives away on three-day trips to Havana or Miami, or to wherever the Don was not going to be with his lady of the moment.
Marty, I imagine, was an ideal walker. He had endless stories, a great wardrobe, was a wonderful dancer and had an elastic relationship with the truth. He certainly wasn’t above gossip or an afternoon spent shopping. He was also gay. In short, he was a neglected wife’s ideal date, safe, charming, reliable and compassionate.
In 2009, and still employed by Marty, I received a call from one of his friends, flame-haired film star Arlene Dahl (Google her, dammit!) with whom I was happily acquainted. Joan Rivers, a good friend of Arlene’s, was between escorts and required one for an upcoming evening. Could I make myself available?
Joan and I had known one another for years before the arrival of this invitation.
When I was a waiter at a small Upper East Side boite in the late 1980s, Joan would come in on Sunday nights. She often came in by herself and invariably had a large clutch under her arm out of which a small dog peeked anxiously. She always sat in a corner table, shielded from other diners. She always ordered liver. She always ate a bite or two, slipped the dog a morsel and had the rest packed to go. She was a terrific tipper and a lovely woman. We had run into one another at events when I moved on from waiting tables, and she always fondly remembered me as “the liver guy.”
By 1995, Marty, of course, was no longer a walker, but a famous Broadway and film producer, and he had his own past with Joan Rivers.
The New York press was working overtime to manufacture a romance between Ms. Rivers and Mr. Richards. Or, rather, the PR people for the two celebrities were busy finding cute, if untrue, ways to keep both of their clients in the weekly rags. Marty was producing a show for Joan, Sally Mars, so they had even further reason to be seen together.
The two “love” birds had even planned a Christmas vacation to Morocco together. Now, Joan knew the score. She was well aware that the widowed Marty was gay, which was fine with her. But she didn’t want to be made a fool of, either. If they were plotting to shape the public’s opinion about their relationship, there had to be a certain decorum adhered to.
Her people told Marty’s people that on the vacation, he would need to essentially revert back to being a walker; she would expect his complete and undivided attention, he would only dance with her, no boys were to be brought along for his after-hours entertainment, and the two would be much photographed together looking like the ideal golden years couple-in-love.
Marty was furious. His Havana days were a thing of his distant past, and he had no intention of exhuming them for Joan Rivers, especially now that he was independently wealthy. His deceased wife, Mary Lea Johnson, had left him quite well-off after her passing. He canceled the trip and the Rivers/Richards relationship faded quickly into the sunset.
Fast-forwarding to the fall of 2009. Joan was without an escort, and it wasn’t entirely out of the blue that Arlene called me to be part of her foursome for dinner at a glamorous NY night spot.
Walking, I guess, wasn’t for me. I was not much given to small talk, nor did I know enough about New York’s haute monde to enter into their fairly innocent gossip. I hadn’t thought to wear a sports coat and had to squeeze into one provided by our dining establishment. I knew the gig was up, when I was gently pulled away from Joan as the army of press closed in on us leaving the restaurant.
It was for the best; I simply didn’t know the rules of walking. Would we need to kiss in public? Would we travel together? Would I need to buy jodhpurs? One of my personal crosses to bear is the way I panic over the unknown, and perhaps that particular cross showed up as flop sweat on our night out.
In any event, our first date was our last, though we remained friendly until her untimely death.
On reflection, I suppose the real point of this story is that I am sad I won’t be able to dine out on my Joan Rivers story for much longer. And I think it is a good one. I have great details of the dinner; how different her “real” voice was from her “stage” voice; soft and whispery like Marilyn Monroe in conversation and not the steel wool of her comedy act; how much better her various plastic surgeries looked close up than when photographed; how she placed her hand on my wrist whenever making a point.
But if you don’t know who Joan Rivers is, or Arlene Dahl, or Marty Richards or even Nancy Reagan, how do I get my best stories off the ground? Conversations, like the one I had with my young acquaintance, are hard-going and will become harder still as time goes by.
My parents are both in their nineties. They are not complainers. Other than a few aches and pains, their real difficulty with living so long is there is no one to reminisce with; your ideal audience is either dead or struggling to remember who you are.
Someday, no one will care that I was at an Academy Awards dinner in 2003 at the Hollywood home of Renee Taylor and Joe Bologna. They won’t care that I was friends with Chita Rivera. They won’t care that I lit cigarettes for Catherine Zeta-Jones or had reason to write a thank you note to Renee Zellweger. My career is littered with these sorts of brushes with celebrity, meaningful to me only because I never imagined I would ever have reason to cross paths with any of these illustrious folks.
Still, this is my life and my stories are some of what I have to offer.
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