Fond Reminiscences of Jerome Robbins by William James Earle
William James Earle, or "Bill", was friends with Jerome Robbins for nearly 30 years. A frequent dinner guest and house guest, Earle saw Robbins at his most relaxed and contemplative. This guest blog post chronicles their first meeting, and is a reminder of how one can get to know a person just being surrounded by items they care about, or by accompanying them on quiet excursions.
I never called Jerome Robbins anything other than “Jerry” so that’s the name I’ll use in these remarks and reminiscences. I met Jerry in the summer of 1970 in Saratoga, the day that Jerry was presenting part of The Goldberg Variations at the Performing Arts Center there. My friend Aidan Mooney had met Jerry before this, but not much before. He was introduced to Jerry by Richard Seidel. The Seidel story is itself interesting though it tends to disappear from "sanitized" history. Richard, a leggy blond ex-Ice Capades performer, came to New York intending to sleep with all the creators of West Side Story and mostly succeeded. He certainly succeeded with Jerry. But getting back to Saratoga. We met Jerry at Victoria Pool prior to the performance. Aidan and I loved Goldberg as we continued to love it forever more. But we didn’t go backstage afterwards. We knew nothing about theatrical convention and were in any case quite shy. But Jerry’s question to Richard was revealing. "Didn’t they like it?" he asked. As I got to know Jerry, I saw there was insecurity in unexpected places and incurable vulnerability. I think this made Jerry less happy (though he had intensely happy moments), but a greater artist. For him, despite enormous accomplishment, there were never laurels to rest on.
I should perhaps say a word about vulnerability. Vulnerability is built into the human condition, but variable across cases. Jerry’s sexuality—too complex to support any of the usual labels—certainly gave him trouble. He didn’t want the world at large to know whom he slept with because, to a degree hard to convey to the young, the disdain for, disparagement of, and even disgust with, men who had sex with men was very real in the bad old days and had real world consequences. But what Jerry was afraid of, quite reasonably, does not support the charge, sometimes lodged by liberationists of the present moment, that he was ashamed of being gay.
There is a similar story about Jerry’s Jewishness. Of course he never tried to deny or disguise his Jewishness. But it made him nervous. After all, the world he experienced contained Nazi Germany, the Holocaust, and lots of less extreme, but very ugly, American anti-Semitism. One critic I won’t bother to name said that Jerry hated being Jewish, a strange thing to say of a man whose works include Dybbuk and Fiddler on the Roof. I went to many a Seder at Jerry’s. He always invited lots of people, Jews and non-Jews alike; and we had wonderful meals appropriate to that holy day and said the appropriate prayers. Jerry wasn’t particularly observant—he ate pork and shellfish—but he wanted to mark his Jewishness and celebrate a tradition that he felt, certainly by the time I knew him, was comfortably his own.
The House on Eighty-First Street
Jerry had what is usually referred to as a townhouse at 117 East 81st Street. I hadn’t exactly grown up in the slums and my own apartment on Saint Marks Place took on, as the years passed, something of the air of a modernist museum, but I was nevertheless overwhelmed by Jerry’s place: five floors of beautiful objects of the greatest variety. And wonderful books, dozens, for example, of the Skira volumes. I’ll say more about the books shortly, but I want first to talk about the good times I had at Jerry’s.
Jerry loved to entertain and dinner parties were a constant feature of his New York life. My estimate would be that Aidan and I were invited, on average, once a week. We were sometimes the only diners, but the regulars we met at Jerry’s included Bobby Fizdale, Arthur Gold, Buzz Miller, and Slim Keith. Slim Keith was Nancy Lady Keith who had been married to Howard Hawks, Leland Hayward, and Kenneth Lord Keith. Everybody has stories, but some people have more stories. A pious idea is that everyone has something interesting to say, but biographical accidents endow some with a richer and more amusing repertory of anecdotes. So I had a lot of fun just listening. Other people should be mentioned. The photographer Jesse Gerstein was always around because he lived there and was Jerry’s boyfriend. Others who were occasional, but consistent, included Bob Wilson, Chris Conrad, and the Irish writer Edna O’Brien. For some reason that I was never able to figure out, Edna O’Brien always ended up in a shouting match with Irene Mayer Selznick, another of Jerry’s very distinguished guests. Alcohol had something to do with this and Jerry hated it. One of the things that happens in Robbins ballets—many of them anyway—is a ritual enactment of politeness. In The Four Seasons, for example, the seasons succeed each other with great courtesy. This is what Jerry wanted in real life. And he was very intolerant of drinking to excess. He was himself very moderate: before dinner a Campari and soda that he didn’t finish and with dinner a glass of wine that he didn’t finish. It wasn’t always so. He told me he was once driving home from a Hamptons party and wondered why the road was green before he realized that he was driving through a field. That changed him.
Back to the books. First of all, I often spent four or five weeks at a stretch at Jerry’s when he traveled to Europe, often with Aidan, often to Italy. I was there as companion to his dogs and I had to learn to deal with an antiquated burglar alarm and someone else’s servants. But the main thing is that I had time to explore Jerry’s library. It’s worth noting that there were clusters of books relating to his work—many books on Jewish mysticism because of Dybbuk, for example. Jerry believed in studying. As an affluent adult he could buy the books he needed; as a kid he was a great frequenter of libraries, and it is easy to understand why he regarded the NYPL as an indispensable institution and gave to it generously.
The Circle Line
I sailed around Manhattan three or four times with Jerry on the Circle Line. Somewhere in his diaries he said that the great thing about me was that you could be with me without having to talk to me. So I was the ideal companion for a long boat ride. What he liked about the boat ride was that it enabled him to see the familiar from a new angle. Jerry didn’t just study books; he studied everything. The movement of every seagull, every wave, and even the people on deck might suggest movements that would, transmogrified in his imagination, find their way into a future dance. It’s mostly fruitless to try to explain genius but there is bad and boring choreography that knows nothing except other choreography and Jerry’s work which, though certainly schooled in the tradition of classical ballet, reflected his massive observation of the lived environment. Some of this included dancing. Once as we rode out to the beach by the northern route, he pointed out a high school in Spanish Harlem where he used to go to watch the kids dance. I doubt very much anything was literally copied into either New York Export Opus Jazz or West Side Story, but it doubtless made a difference.
For a long time, Jerry rented a house in Sneden’s Landing, a tiny enclave that hugs the Hudson River on its western bank. Part of the house was old and part very old. The upper floor, dating from two different periods, had to be reached by separate stairs. Before Jerry, the house was occupied by his friends, the duo-pianists Fizdale and Gold and before them by Aaron Copland. I associate the house with the smell of chamomile tea which we seemed to spend a lot of time drinking. It’s also the place where we had Thanksgiving and where Grover Dale and Tony Perkins turned up. Tony, despite being a movie star, was a nice person. The house, like 81st Street, was a treasure trove, but it had the disadvantages that all the houses along the Hudson have: very hot summers, lots of mosquitoes, and no possibility of swimming in the river.
The house Jerry loved above all was the house on Dune Road in Bridgehampton. In the city Jerry always had a cook and not much time to cook himself. At the beach he did lots of cooking which he greatly enjoyed and did extremely well. Let me evoke one weekend when I happened to be the only guest. Jerry had every possible recording of the songs of Charles Ives and played them from morning to night. And he commented on what he thought would work and why in the ballet that came to be called Ives Songs. At some point Jerry said, apologetically, "Bill, I must be driving you crazy." I, on the contrary, realized my good fortune in observing a great artist at work. Jerry was a very polite genius.