Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Men We'd Love to Toke With: Oscar Levant

Looking up Tokin' Woman Elizabeth Taylor on her recent 88th birthday, I came across this passage from her biographer Ellis Amburn: "Elizabeth sometimes ditched [second husband Michael] Wilding to slip off to Oscar Levant's Beverly Hills house with Monty [Montgomery Clift, a known marijuana smoker], where the pianist serenaded them with Gershwin tunes as they whiled away afternoons and early evenings.” It sounded like a stoner's dream date to me.

I'd seen Levant in "An American in Paris" (pictured), where he plays Gene Kelly's insouciant sidekick, uttering the unforgettable line, "It's not a pretty face, I grant you. But underneath its flabby exterior is an enormous lack of character."

So I picked up Levant's book, The Unimportance of Being Oscar (1968), which made me wonder if he was indeed the reincarnation of his fellow wit and look-alike Oscar Wilde (who enjoyed hashish). It's packed with pithy observations about, and outrageous encounters with, an unending parade of famous folk, from FDR and JFK, to George Bernard Shaw, T.S. Eliot, Noel Coward, Somerset Maugham, Dorothy Parker, Gertrude Stein, Iris Tree, Barbra Streisand and many, many more.

Levant is seen as the first celebrity to come clean about his mental health/drug problems in caustically clever interviews with Jack Paar.  Asked what he did for exercise, Levant replied, “I stumble, and then fall into a coma.” He had no desire to visit Disneyland, he said, because "I have enough hallucinations of my own." Paar joked, “For every pearl that comes out of his mouth, a pill goes in,” and called him, “one of America’s true geniuses.”

The youngest of four boys born to a Jewish family in Pittsburgh (at 1420 Fifth Ave.), Levant moved to New York after his father died when he was 16. He felt neglected in his youth and never got over feelings of inadequacy despite a brilliant career as a pianist and composer, as well as a popular radio and TV show host and personality. He was in psychotherapy for many years, got addicted to doctor-prescribed Dilaudid, and endured shock therapy, leading to amnesia and his second book, Memoirs of an Amnesiac.

“Long before I had drugs, my real boosters were books,” is how he introduces a literary-leaning section in Unimportance, where he writes, "If I had the choice between the most beautiful girl in the world and three grams of Tuonol [sic], I would take the latter.” Tuinal was the brand name of a drug combining the barbiturates secobarbital and amobarbital, formerly manufactured by Eli Lilly but discontinued due to its abuse. Levant recounts meeting the head of Lilly while playing a concert in Indianapolis, who advised him to take “Eli Lilly’s vitamin pills and Seconal.”

Levant admired Paul Bowles, a fellow composer and author of The Sheltering Sky and The Delicate Prey.* "Paul has made his home in Tangiers for many years and was formerly a hashish addict," he wrote. Around 1960 Levant "demanded" of Gore Vidal, “Who is in worse shape, Bowles or myself?” Vidal replied, “You are, Oscar.” Bowles did indeed use hashish, but it seems prejudicial to call him addicted. Apparently his drug of choice left him healthier than did Levant's. 

It's too bad the US medical profession failed Oscar. Although he was the inspiration for the 1964 movie "The World of Henry Orient," I doubt he ever tried that Levantine/Oriental pleasure hashish. A heavy cigarette smoker, he died of a heart attack at 65 and reportedly wanted his epitaph to read, “I told them I was ill.”

It's been announced that Sean Hayes ("Will and Grace," "Promises, Promises") will portray Levant in the bioplay Good Night, Oscar, scheduled to begin performances at Chicago's Goodman Theatre in January 2021.

* of the two books, Alice Toklas wrote to Bowles in 1951, "You told me what I wanted to hear —that The Delicate Prey was written before The Sheltering Sky. (What a perfect sense for titles you have.) All reservations are withdrawn. I am rereading it as if your second book wasn't yet read and I am astonished at what you have done (it should have been said on the jacket that it was your first book instead of their foolish Gothic violence—which isn't violent to us today). And you are so right in calling them detective stories. The modern detective story which is the lineal descendant of the Elizabethan novels. The so-called detective and mystery stories of the last thirty years are hopelessly more eerie."

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