There are doubtless many American families who would not find it surprising to be trotted out for a cameo in a Joan Didion best-seller but we are not among them. When the phone rang one evening in 2005 I was certainly not prepared for the news from a friend that nearly a chapter in “The Year of Magical Thinking” was devoted to my father and that Mom and the four of us were also mentioned by name.
“Why on Earth?” I asked, trying desperately to imagine some connection between Dad and Joan Didion or John Gregory Dunne. Could they have been guests at those amazing “fancy dress” parties Dad put on regularly when we were kids? Would they have known each other from his Arts Council years? Had Joan perhaps been the girl who lived in the basement apartment on 61st street back in the day? And why the rest of us; why me?
“ Something to do with a song your Dad wrote,” my friend replied “and his obituary.” This clarified nothing. At the bookstore early the next morning I found Ms Didion prominently displayed on an end-cap and, somewhat furtively, I power-skimmed my way through the slim volume once or twice before coming upon this:
“For forty years this song had figured in a private joke between us and I could not remember its name, let alone the rest of its lyrics. Finding the lyrics became a matter of some urgency.”
The song in question was a wee confection called “As I Remember You” that my father had written as a nineteen year old sophomore at Princeton for the Triangle Club. At the time he was torn between a career in architecture and the possibility of becoming an international bon-vivant and composer of popular show tunes. It was during a casual encounter with Leonard Bernstein – whom he went on to teach to play “Shine, Little Glow Worm” upside down from under the piano - that he opted for the former, perhaps imagining that the income derived from architecture might allow him to pursue composing until Broadway called. This tune had apparently gone on to become a favorite of the Nassoons - the Princeton glee club - and was still in vogue when John Gregory Dunne came to Princeton a decade or so later. It seems that Mr Dunne was in the habit of mocking the Nassoons by way of vamping for Ms Didion the lock-jawed, swizzle-stick performance of the group singing “ As I Remember You”.
Why Joan Didion found it urgent to recall the lyrics is unclear, but upon searching the Web she came upon mention of the tune in Dad's obituary from the “Princeton Alumni Weekly” and saw fit to include the entire obit in her book. Of course, we children are listed there, as is my mother, although the date given for her death is off by twenty years, 1977 instead of 1997. Perhaps it is this typo, declaring Mom dead before her time, that prompts Joan Didion to ask, “But how about the death of Mary-Esther?” A good question for which I at least have no better answer than Joan might have for the death of Mr Dunne.
As an architect of brief and minor prominence in the field of Performing Arts Centers, Dad was accustomed to the slings and arrows of the Critics, I'm sure. Harder to stomach, had he lived to read it, might have been the quote above.
“And how long ago was it when the life of any party last played 'Shine, Little Glow Worm' upside down from under the piano?” Didion asks. I can't speak for Mr Bernstein, but in Dad's case, probably sometime in the 1990's.
“ What would I give to be able to discuss this with John?” she laments.
She leaves the question of which John, my father or Mr Dunne, unanswered.