My Exaggerated Life, p.32Pat Conroy
Tim and I saw each other every Sunday at brunch down at the Washington Square Bar & Grill, where we got to know the people. It was a wonderful place in North Beach—eccentric—so we ate and drank down there. It was my dream of San Francisco. Tim had his table and would hold court every weekend. The waitress was a love and a half.
One time we were sitting there when another gay guy comes up to us, and he said there was a kid from Turbeville, South Carolina, who had been lost, and they were looking for him. He’d been kicked out of the family, and he was totally abandoned, without money. So I said, “Turbeville, South Carolina. I’m the only one in the fucking world who has been there, except for this kid.” And this kid’s name—if I remember right—was Eddie Truluck. So we went looking for Eddie through all the hospitals.
We finally found him living about a mile from my house. I walked up to him, and somebody said, “He’s out in the garden smoking,” and “Be careful, he’s totally blind.” Eddie was twenty years old. I walked up to him and said, “Eddie Truluck. Hi, I’m Pat Conroy.” I said, “This may be bad, but it could be worse. You could be home in Turbeville.” The guy laughs his ass off. He said, “How in the hell do you know Turbeville?” I told him. So we brought him stuff until he died an agonizing death.
When he died, his poor mother and her daughter came out and picked him up in a limo to take his body back to the plane. They were going to fly him to South Carolina. I took them over to the funeral home, and they insisted the guy not lock the casket before they went.
I said, “You may be sorry you did that.”
And this poor woman says, “My boy, wasn’t he a handsome boy? He was always so handsome.”
I said, “Ma’am, I’m sure he was, but you’re not going to believe what this disease did to him.”
She said, “Cancer’s a terrible thing.”
I said, “Now, ma’am. This wasn’t cancer. This was AIDS.”
“I just can’t tell my husband.”
I said, “You can tell him whatever you want, but it’s important for you to know. This is AIDS.”
It’s killing me to see the sight of this mother, unprepared for this, walking up to the casket, thinking she’s going to see her handsome kid. The mother’s knees buckled when she saw how that disease had ravaged her son.
Later, I met the sister at a party in Charleston. She came up to me. This is ten, fifteen years later, and she says, “You won’t remember me, I’m so-and-so.” Then she said, “I’m originally from Turbeville, South Carolina.”
I said, “Darling, I know exactly who you are.”
She said, “Please forgive my family. We didn’t know anything.”
I said, “I wish you all had learned faster.”
But she said that it changed their lives. Her mother had gone back, and she changed her life. She said it made them better people, and I said, “I certainly hope so.”
But I got too caught up in the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco while I was writing Beach Music, and I was starting to lose it. Everybody was dying. Every one of Tim’s friends died, and we ended up taking care of them. The aura of death was everywhere. I remember wondering why I was called to do this, working with these guys with AIDS, trying to find them, trying to call their parents. It was disturbing and horrifying, and everybody died. Finally I got it, why I’m into every battle there is: I’m a warrior’s son. When I was growing up, it was drilled into us that in the Marine Corps you were giving yourself up for something higher, keeping our nation safe. Well, I couldn’t do that, so I became a champion of the underdog. I sail in, the warrior. I was born to fight, and that’s all I do. I realized this is what went into Marion O’Neill’s thinking about the hero-rescuer thing which has helped fuck up my life in many, many ways. I made a trail of tears out of my own life because I kept charging into situations I not only found impossible but unlivable.
This was also the time when I got home, I had to put on a tux or suit to go to a dinner party of people richer and more famous than I’d ever hung around before. I saw Jerry Brown at about twenty dinner parties I went to that year, also Joe Alioto, the old mayor of San Francisco. People I liked, certainly, but not people I’d get close to on a lifelong basis. They seemed interesting, smart California people. But it was “Hi, how are you doing, great to see you, you too.” I was grinning and smiling and fat and drunk. Never heard from them again; never called them again. It was agony for me, but Lenore was in hog heaven. I think my depression in San Francisco was all based on my happiness with Lenore. There was terrible anxiety and great sadness, which led to much overdrinking and overeating. But I was trying not to get divorced again; I didn’t want to be a serial divorcé.
I did the first screenplay for The Prince of Tides with Barbra Streisand, who was producer, director, actress, everything. She was the whole thing. People ask me why I sold my books to the movies, and I say, one time I said I wasn’t going to do it, and then they raised the price. I said I still wasn’t going to do it, and they raised it again. Eventually they hit Conroy’s breaking point. That’s how Hollywood generally does everything they want. But I’ve been pleased with all the movies of my books because I’ve seen what Hollywood is capable of doing to books. I’ve been very lucky. I didn’t think The Lords of Discipline worked as a movie because it’s just the plebe system all the way through; there’s no woman. So that movie worked the least well of all. The other three I’ve liked a lot.
It was fun working with Barbra. I enjoyed it. She’s as professional as anybody I’ve ever met, a perfectionist in all ways. She’s burned bridges in Hollywood, both regrets it and doesn’t give a shit. She’s a better artist than they are, and that was where her problems all came in. Thank God that is not my life; that would drive me crazy. And what I learned instantly is that she’s lonely. She has thousands of people walking by to see her house in Malibu, tourists coming and going. If we left her place, by the time she finished hiding herself, it was like she was wearing a burqa, all wrapped up, with sunglasses. But with her profile, that’s it. You can still see it’s her. Tourists follow her, their mouths wide open, whispering “Is that her?” That kind of fame: I do not know how one endures that in life.
I was nervous when I went to meet her, and Dad said, “Hey son, I hear she eats writers alive.”
I said, “Hey, thanks, Dad. I appreciate you once again helping me with my career.” When I get to her place, I tell her, “Let me tell you what my dad said.”
She hears that and says, “How long has your father known me?”
I said, “Good answer. I like that.” We got along great from there. I told her, “When the psychiatrist is talking, you do it. When the Southern coach is talking, let me do it, because I don’t know of any Southern coaches who go oy vey.”
“What is oy vey?”
I said, “Fuck.”
But she’s a pro. She was always a pro. She auditioned a world-famous violinist for the scene where the guys play “Dixie.” So he started, da-da-da-nah-nah, and she finally says no, no, no, you’re not playing it right. And he says, “Barbra, how do you play Dixie wrong?”
She says, “We want it satirical and mocking. You’re not mocking it,” so he tries again, and she says no, that’s terrible, that’s awful. I’m not going to hire you.
“You’re not going to hire me because I cannot play Dixie?”
She hired somebody else, somebody who wasn’t famous but got it.
Anyway, I think it’s good for a writer to do a screenplay, because you learn a lot. And oh, my God, you’re paid like you’ve never been paid. Here’s what you learn. You learn economy, you learn restraint, you learn how to do a scene without saying a thing, you learn how to get people in and out of rooms, you learn how to say a thing most efficiently. It’s a good vehicle to learn how to control novels. Screenwriting is an art form I have come to admire as much as any other art form in the world. But these screenwriters are driven crazy about not being “real” writers. They have to scream and fight and roar to get what the
Barbra and I wrote one screenplay, two screenplays, three screenplays; we’re doing the rewrites. Then the other producer called me in and fired me. When I asked why, he said, “We don’t think you understand the story.” I said, “Yeah, you may be right.” But I’d completed my contract, they paid me a lot of money, I went home, wishing I understood the story better, but I just didn’t. It didn’t bother me because by then I’d labored for two years on the screenplay about Bill Kovach, and it never got made because Bill wasn’t fired by the Atlanta newspaper. He quit. In Hollywood, heroes don’t quit. I had learned from that experience that screenplay writing is a stupid way to spend a life. It pays well, but unless the movie’s made, it’s worthless. But I always like it when I can learn something about America from these experiences.
I don’t think I should have been nominated for an Academy Award, because I don’t think there was much of my work in the final screenplay. They hired about seven or eight screenwriters after Barbra and me and hired lawyers to figure out the credits. The girl who was nominated with me told me, “I think I am responsible for 39.2 percent of the screenplay.” I looked at her, said “Excuse me?” Barbra had tried for the screen credit, too. I had tried not to get one. But I certainly rode the comet tail of Barbra Streisand’s fame with this. It took me to a level I had not been to before. The Great Santini didn’t sell anything, and eventually, The Prince of Tides, with the movie, sold over five million copies, so that was my big success.
But once again, the unexpected was waiting around the corner in ambush. When The Prince of Tides was coming out as a movie, this is when Emily began her incredible string of suicide attempts. Of course, Lenore takes it personally and thinks that Emily is only trying to commit suicide to ruin her great week in San Francisco when the movie’s coming out. This was going to be the height of Lenore’s social life. Some big shots invited us to a dinner party at their house the night before the premiere. It was the Gettys, so they had more money than God, and Lenore was in a beauty parlor for weeks. The movie came out at the end of December 1991. At this time exactly, when the party of parties was being given for me by the Gettys in their mansion on Pacific Avenue, that is the day Emily makes her first suicide attempt. Emily was up on the roof of her high school wanting to hurl herself down. I visited her that afternoon in the hospital.
I called Lenore and said, “You’ve got to come down here. Somebody’s got to be with her.”
“I’m not coming. We have the party.”
I said, “Lenore, one of us has to be here.”
And she said, “I’m not coming. I’m going to the party.”
I said, “Okay, I’ll stay.”
She said, “Well, you can’t. You can’t not go to the party because it’s for you.”
“We got a kid who tried to commit suicide. What kind of family chooses a party over that?”
Finally, begrudgingly, Lenore went to the mental hospital. She was absolutely pissed off. So I go to this party at the Gettys’ house, and I was perfectly fucking miserable because Emily is in the hospital having just tried to kill herself. This woman comes up to me and says with her husband right beside her, “Pat, I hope you don’t take this the wrong way, but I just told my husband I plan to leave him at this party and marry you.” Here’s what I remember from this moment. I sat there considering it so seriously, thinking “This woman looks nice.” She actually did end up divorcing her husband and later married the president of USA Today. They have a place on Hilton Head. But my God, I remember the temptation of that night, because all of a sudden it was clear to me: I was married to a vain and shallow woman, a woman whose daughter was threatening suicide, trying to commit suicide, and all she was worried about was missing the party.
And this was the party of the year, so of course, Lenore sees this the next day in the paper and goes crazy. We have the premiere that night. They had one premiere in San Francisco, one in L.A., one in New York, and they had one in Beaufort. I get this phone call from the Beaufort Gazette, and the reporter is all huffy and puffy.
“Mr. Conroy, could you explain to me why you are going to an opening of The Prince of Tides in San Francisco and ignoring your hometown of Beaufort, South Carolina, the town that gave you The Prince of Tides?”
I said, “Yes, I’ll be happy to.”
And she said, “Well, I’d love to hear it.”
I said, “By the way, I want to congratulate you, young lady. You are the first person from the Beaufort Gazette who has ever interviewed me in my life.”
She said, “I find that hard to believe.”
I said, “A smart reporter like you? You can find out pretty fast. I was controversial there, and they do not interview controversial people.”
She said, “But can you tell me why you’re not coming to Beaufort’s opening?”
I said, “I can give you the inside scoop on that, and I guarantee you’ll have a scoop: I was not invited.”
She says, “I hardly believe that can be true.”
I said, “A smart reporter like you can find out with one phone call.”
So I get another call, “Mr. Conroy, we are horrified. We are absolutely horrified. We don’t know how this happened.”
I said, “Don’t worry about it. Y’all have a ball. I have to be here in San Francisco.”
So that night we went to the opening in San Francisco. I was so uncomfortable: they made me wear a cape, and the audience serenaded me. I was the Prince of San Francisco for that night, some horseshit. If I could have, I would’ve fed myself to a white shark off the coast, but I had to put up with it. I had to do it, and I did it, but it was one of the worst nights of my life. I can’t remember seeing the movie. I sat there with Barbra Streisand sitting right behind me. When the audience laughed, I laughed. When the audience grew silent, I grew silent. I don’t remember a thing about the movie today.
When we got back home that night, the babysitter’s at the door. She had called the ambulance because Emily tried to kill herself by taking a whole bottle of pills. I go to the hospital; they’ve pumped her stomach.
I say, “Emily, you don’t seem to be enjoying life very much.”
She said, “Very fucking funny, Pat. You think you’re a fucking comedian, don’t you?” Then she laughs her ass off.
At that time I guess there should have been great celebration over the movie, but Emily was looking like a real tragedy in the making. Going from parties and premieres to isolation wards in the hospital where Emily had a suicide watch on colored those times a great deal. Then there was a mirroring going on between my life and Emily’s. When Emily started her suicide attempts, this translated to me, and I started feeling suicidal. The marriage was coming apart. Lenore was quite happy among her society friends in San Francisco; I was miserable among them. I wanted to get back to Fripp and continue my work on Beach Music, and there were clashes about that. But I knew that if I left her she’d never let me see Susannah. A lot of great emotional components were flashing in the night around me. And I couldn’t go to that many parties. I mean, I just could not do it.
Then I got hit by a car and hurt my back. I was in bed for two months. I was in real pain, hurting terribly each day, and they did not know what was wrong. Lenore would wake up, “How do you feel today?”
I’d say, “Not too good,” and I’m fairly stoical, not a whiner.
And she’d go, “Oh fuck.”
One of the kids would bring breakfast up, the Filipino maid would bring lunch up, and sometimes the kids would bring supper. I could not get out of bed except to go to the bathroom, and that was agonizing. I noticed that Lenore didn’t come to check on me once during the day during the two months I was on my back. I’d see her when she got up in the morning, she’d say is it better, I’d say no, she’d go “Oh, fuck,” and then she would go downstairs, and I wouldn’t see her for the rest of the day. It was like a billboard saying I do not love you except for what I can get from you; I
By then I’d met Sylvia, and it was at this time that Sylvia and I on the phone began what became our affair. She called me every day, because she knew I was sick, that I was in bed and I was hurting. And she was a great talker. I loved talking to her because I wasn’t talking to anybody else and nobody was coming to see me. I just needed companionship then.
Sylvia had entered my life in a bang. I didn’t know her, never heard of her, but I got to be friends with Peter Coyote, an actor, whose kids went to the same school our kids did. He would hang around movie people, and Lenore really, really liked hanging around the actors and all these directors. She thought that was wonderful. I didn’t know who these people were. Once this guy came up to me, so I said, “Hi, I’m Pat Conroy, who are you?”
He says, “Oh, c’mon man.”
I said, “What do you mean?”
He says, “You don’t know who I am?”
I said, “Well, I’m afraid not. I’m sorry.”
“You don’t know who I am, man?”
I said no.
He says, “I’m Huey Newton.”
I had no idea who that was. That happened twice. The other guy was supposedly an intellectual. I thought he was an idiot. He filmed these monologues of himself. So he comes up to me at another one of these things. Hi, how are you doing? I have no idea who he is, but he knows who I am. He’s shocked, offended. I say, “It must be a great surprise for you; you get to introduce yourself brand new. If you’re going to start a new personality, go to me.”
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