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WHEN I WAS A FRESHMAN at Harvard in 1952, I had horrible roommates and got slightly depressed. As a consequence, I moved into an awful run-down hotel in Boston to avoid them. When I went for walks at night, I would pass the Old Howard, Boston’s oldest and most famous burlesque house. I kept returning night after night, because of a stripper called Princess Totem Pole. I called her the Antonin Artaud of striptease, after the mad French artist who envisioned the “theater of cruelty.”
The Princess had built herself a raked stage, on which were great green abstract leaves she had painted. Upstage there was a large totem pole, with red lights that blinked on and off like eyes. She gyrated and bumped to the music of Yma Sumac, a Jewish American girl from Long Island who passed herself off as a Peruvian princess. Two large blackbirds would strip Princess Totem Pole. They would peck at her clothes, and the clothes would fall to the ground. Eventually, I became the Princess’s assistant. One of my jobs was to feed the blackbirds.
After telling people this story for years, I decided that it was so unbelievable, so outrageous, that it could not possibly have happened. I must have made it up. So I stopped telling it.
* * *
MY YOUNGEST BROTHER, Peter, says there are three stages in a life: Youth, Middle Age, and You’re-looking-great! I’ve reached the age of You’re-looking-great, and it’s all a mystery. Gloria Steinem cites a Native American saying that old age is, like childhood, a time of wonder, because both are near to the unknown.
And what a wonder my life has been. Or at least it has been a wonder to me. So many stories. I can hardly believe it all happened. As the narrator of my favorite childhood radio show would say each week, “incredible but true.” How true? Who can say for sure? Stories are slippery creatures, a bit like dreams, composed of what actually happened, filtered over time through the prism of selective memory.
* * *
GIVEN THE AMOUNT OF TIME I generally rehearse the plays I direct—sometimes four years, sometimes as many as fourteen—my next play, Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, could be ready for an audience in time for my 100th birthday (as of this writing I am eighty-five years old). Yesterday as we were walking through a graveyard, my wife, Cindy, made me promise to live another twenty years. If I don’t, she said, she’ll kill me. And does it really matter if I complete the play? Isn’t the joy of work in the doing? Isn’t it the process itself that matters?
* * *
MANY YEARS AFTER I allegedly worked for Princess Totem Pole, I ran into a college classmate as I was leaving a restaurant. He greeted me warmly, as if we were old friends. Then he said: “God, remember how I used to come visit you at the Old Howard when you worked with that stripper? What was her name—Princess something-or-other—with those great big blackbirds?”
So it was true all along.
Copyright © 2020 by André Gregory and Todd London