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1/16/10

My Bessie Book Tour - Part 2


NOTE: If you have not read part I of this reminiscence, and wish to do so before reading this conclusion, here is a link to Part I.

My bed at the St. Francis in San Francisco was huge, but I don't think it was designed to accommodate five or six people. That, however, is what it was doing when my PR escort brought me back for what he described as "an underground group interview."

 One of his colleagues was there, to oversee things, I suppose, but I still saw this as an invasion of my privacy. On the other hand, it was great to be out in the real world after spending so many months staring at the keyboard of my IBM Selectric and hoping that the right words would come to me. How many cups of coffee went cold on my desk? How many cigarettes did I leave in the ashtray to burn out? How many times did I greet the rising sun? I would have tackled the task at a more leisurely pace, but there was another Bessie Smith book in the works, and my publisher had come to see this as a race. He gave me six months in which to research and write the book: Mission impossible. It actually took me closer to a couple of years, and I still didn't feel that I had gotten it right. But here it was, the end result of countless late hours spent in solitude, drinking that coffee and filling ashtrays with half-smoked cigarettes. Two editors had done their best to refurbish English that I had imported from Scandinavia, but they sometimes compounded my mistakes and injected a few of their own, such as routinely deleting the "P" in James P. Johnson, because "we don't use middle initials." While finishing the book brought me great relief, I could not shake the nagging feeling that I had not done as good a job as my subject deserved. This tour, though hectic, was a good way to unwind—I was ready for anything, even a bedful of nonconformist strangers.

The underground press contrasted rather nicely with the more business-like mainstreamers. They asked quirky questions and viewed Bessie from a very different angle. Not only were they interested in what she did, they also wanted to know why she did it, the motivating social aspects of her life. This was a group that would have understood the german shepherd incident, but even, here I wasn't telling.

Thirty years later, I became deeply embarrassed after reading my book from cover to cover and finding flaws that had originally eluded me. So—again leaving the dog out of it—I gave Bessie a makeover, added much that should have been there in the first place, and found a new publisher. This time around, there was no book tour, just a couple of "signings" and interviews, but at least I felt much better about the reborn edition.

My next stop was Los Angeles, where a very different escort met me at the airport. We shall call her Tina, a beautiful, trim-bodied Valley girl with sun bleached hair and carefree ways. No black sedan this time, Tina had the appropriate wheels, a Volkswagen beetle decorated with flowers and a peace sign. Making a stop to pick up a watercress sandwich—what else?—she took me straight to the hotel, the Hyatt House on Sunset Strip, a place that had been owned by Gene Austin but now regularly housed the biggest rock stars, whose antics earned the hotel its nickname, "Riot House." This was where I had my first encounter with a waterbed, but I was its sole occupant—that San Francisco crowd would surely have punctured it.

Barely giving me time to freshen up, Tina went to work, driving me from one interview to another.  At one radio station, she liked the potted plants in the lobby, so she helped herself to a couple of them. Embarrassed, I pretended not have seen that. That night, after an exhausting day, she left me in the hotel's cocktail lounge for a print interview with a very effeminate reporter whom she described as the "West Coast Rex Reed." She told me not to worry about him, he was harmless, and asked me to meet her in the coffee shop at 6 AM.

We were having our coffee when she told me that she knew this hotel better than her bungalow, but she had never seen the rooms—until last night, that is. She went on to tell me that, after leaving me in the lounge, she met this "groovy guy" in the lobby and spent the night in his room. "But you are wearing different clothes," said. "Oh, I always keep a change of clothes in my car—you never know when you might need them."

As we got up to leave, Tina spotted a tip left on the adjoining table and swiftly moved it over to ours. I, again, pretended not to have seen that. Tina knew her job, but there was no chapter on social graces in her manual. Although I enjoyed the free spirit that she represented, I was always afraid that Tina might get caught performing her indiscretions. For all I know, that might have been a good thing, something that sells extra copies—isn't that what all this was about? I was sorry to leave Tina, but the show must go on and I looked forward to Seattle, where I would also have an opportunity to see my mother.

Nudists hated Sally Rand's fans (1936 photo)


 One thing that inevitably happens on  a book tour is that you run into others who are making the same rounds to sell something—themselves, perhaps. On several occasions, I ran into Barbara Woodhouse, a no-nonsense English lady for whom tweed suits seem to have been invented. The author of many books, she was a publisher's dream when it came to promotion.  A very take-charge sort, she was, and British to the core. Mrs. Woodhouse had written a dog training book to make her point: there are no bad dogs, just bad owners. A brilliant twist which she proved on the spot, so to speak. To do that, she required the studio presence of unruly local dogs and their owners. Our paths crossed on three occasions and each time I saw her perform small miracles on stunned (and grateful) pet owners.

From Seattle, I flew to Minneapolis for a day of back to back interviews. It was still mostly about Bessie's death, but I was in the home stretch and further encouraged by news of favorable reviews in my wake. Though her obligatory dogs were pesky scene stealers, I welcomed the break in routine that the English lady represented. In Chicago, my next stop, I appeared on a TV book show with Mickey Spillane and the legendary fan dancer, Sally Rand. I mentioned earlier that I traveled with instructions to mention my book as often as possible and, basically, steal the spotlight from fellow guests. Frankly, I had not done that, because I was raised better, but in Chicago I had help.
























At 69, Sally Rand (who was given her name by Cecil B. DeMille) had retired her bubbles and ostrich feathers, but she still had fans of the whistling kind. Her career had been a fascinating one and I would have loved to interview her. So would our host on this show, but Ms. Rand was a PR person's nightmare, for every time the focus shifted to her, she let our host know that she was more interested in hearing how somebody from Iceland decided to write a book about Bessie Smith. That fascinated her.

I finally got back to New York, by way of Detroit, but was soon off to Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia. In Philly, I called WFIL from my hotel room and was told to take a cab to the station and ask for Mrs. Martelle (not the actual name), the talent coordinator. I did as told. "She'll be right with you," the receptionist said, "please have a seat." I had barely seated myself when an exuberant voice turned everybody's head.

"Chris!, hey, how are you?"

I looked up and saw this elegantly dressed brunette approaching me with outstretched arms. She looked familiar. Could it be? Yes—it was a totally transformed Tina! I couldn't believe it. "What happened?," I asked her.

"Remember that guy I met in the lobby?" I nodded. "Well, I married him. He's from Philly and he got me this job."

As she led me to the green room, I muttered something stupid about her sure acting fast. Tina assured me that she would just as quickly undo her metamorphosis if her "groovy guy" didn't act right.

One could write books about book tours.

This is a two-part post. If you missed it, here is a link to Part I 

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