|February 2, 2008. A sunny and not-so-cold day was yesterday in New York. A quiet New York, it was too with light traffic on the avenues.
Today is the 87th birthday of the Grand Dame of Dish, Miz Liz Smith. The number is correct but the concept has wandered so far from reality for her that actually it’s funny -- she’s younger today than I was at 40, or even 30 and hipper than any 20-year-old I’ve ever met.
The little girl from Texas who stepped off the bus here in Manhattan in 1949 after graduating from the University of Texas journalism school, has seen it all, done it all, written about it all and lived (to tell about it all, etc.)
|Liz Smith, Peter Rogers, and the late Ann Richards in 2003 (this is one of Liz's favorite pics).
As I wrote on these pages last week when I lunched with her and Charlotte and Anne Ford at the Four Seasons, she’s the most fun date in town. Here’s the Grand Dame of Dish’s version of that lunch which ran yesterday in her column on www.wowowow.com.
I hear that tonight Liz is spending the evening with the entire wowowow gang at the Café Carlyle taking in the peerless performance of a Liz friend, Elaine Stritch, who is also celebrating her birthday on this day. Elaine’s just a kid, however; she’s 84.
The secret of eternal youth seems to be simple: work for a living and love it; you just get better as you go along.
Happy Birthday Liz and many thanks for all the wonderful things you’ve done for New York, your busloads and boatloads of friends, for Literacy in America and for NYSD and DPC and JH.
On a sadder note, the world and Helen Gurley Brown lost David Brown who died in the very early morning hours yesterday at the Browns’ apartment overlooking Central Park. He would have been 94 on his next birthday which is July 28th.
I met both Helen and David a number of years ago through their longtime friend Alice Mason. David, who was a big booster of writers, had been reading the New York Social Diary in its early days in Quest, and was a fan. I had already known that he had the reputation for being one of the few, maybe the only film and stage producer who actually read unsolicited scripts that were sent to him by writers. Not only did he read them, but he even responded to the writers who sent them, with his thoughts about the work. This from a man who led a hugely active business and social life as well had a deep involvement with his wife’s career and her work.
We became occasional lunch partners in those early days (for me) at Michael’s, and eventually when I became Editor-in-Chief of Avenue magazine under its owner/founder Judy Price, he liked pitching ideas to me (you can imagine how flattering that was for me) and wrote some pieces for me.
He loved Broadway and Hollywood lore as much as I do, and of course he was full of first hand stories about his adventures on the Great White Way and Lotusland. He was an expert on and in awe of the career of Walter Winchell, the ultimate Broadway columnist who in his hey-day had 30 million readers daily across America (almost 20% of the population at the time) and left his mark on the journalistic parlance of the 20th century.
It was David, working as a story editor for the old Cosmopolitan magazine (long before Helen took it over) who bought the short story “Sweet Smell of Success,” a roman a clef based on Walter Winchell, from a writer pal of his named Ernest Lehman. The story was renamed for the magazine, “Tell Me About It Tomorrow” because Cosmopolitan’s editor didn’t want the word “smell” in the magazine’s edit. (Ernest Lehman went on to become a successful screenwriter – Sabrina, The King and I, North By Northwest and later an even more successful film director in The Sound of Music, and producer for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.)
David was working in Hollywood as a story editor for 20th Century-Fox under Darryl Zanuck when he met Helen Gurley who was working as a private secretary for Don Belding, a partner in Foote, Cone, and Belding, the national advertising agency in his Beverly Hills office.
As David’s career as a producer was moving along, he encouraged Helen, by then a copy writer to try her hand at writing a book about (sex and) single women like herself. This was ground-breaking at the time. Sex and the Single Girl sold in the millions. The book was so popular that Helen was spending much of her time personally answering all the advice-seeking letters coming from her fans.
Seeing the response, David suggested she make it easier for herself and turn the whole thing into a magazine for that particular demographic – single working women. The two put together an elaborate proposal and shopped it around the magazine industry in New York. They had no takers. Finally, David heard that Hearst was going to retire its old Cosmopolitan title and suggested to the Hearst executives that the re-launch it as a new publication with Helen as editor. (David wrote the sight-lines on the cover of each issue.)
The timing was right. Cosmo, as it became known under Helen Gurley Brown became for many years the biggest (and, some said, the only) money earner in the entire company.
By that time David had already become the enormously successful producer that he was. His long producing partnership with Zanuck had ended – although I’m told they remained friends and were in communication daily – and he maintained an office here in New York.
Although I knew he was far past the age where a lot of men retire, David always had a lot of irons in the fire production-wise. In the past ten years he produced Sweet Smell of Success, the musical, on Broadway, as well as the musical version of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, the popular Chocolat, Angela’s Ashes.
For the past several years I was invited to join Helen and David for Thanksgiving dinner at the Four Seasons restaurant. We always had the same table – in the pool room, by the pool – reserved for 4 pm. Helen, who never lost her skills as an executive assistant, would set the date up in the springtime and be sure to send reminders shortly before the big day. The lunch was always fun and everyone looked forward to the conversation which ran from Broadway, to Hollywood, to the White House with David supplying many of the anecdotes as well as the trenchant questions to the guests (there were always four of us – Alice Mason was also a guest for many years).
Despite his activity in the film business, his long career gave him an outlook of movie making that was somewhat jaundiced, although characteristically kind in its eloquence. Answering an interviewer about the differences between today and his earlier years in the business, he responded:
"Instead of having a single point of view in the making of a movie, which could have been Darryl Zanuck or David O. Selznick or even Jack Warner in the golden years, we now have a dilution. We have the marketing department deciding what pictures to make, reading scripts, going to dailies, seeing rough cuts. In the big-studio days, we never permitted anyone in the sales department to see anything but the finished movie."
In the past two years, now in his nineties, David encountered the brutal vagaries of aging. When we met him at the Four Seasons for the Thanksgiving dinner, he was now in a wheelchair, confined. He still liked to have his cocktail or two (Helen is a tee-totaler although she might take a sip as well as ask David if he really “needed another” when he ordered a second.)
This past year, I could tell that it was particularly galling for him to be in such a
state although he never said a word about it. Instead the conversation moved along in areas now familiar and fascinating to all of us – books, films, plays, social anecdotes and some politics (David was unabashedly liberal and never lost his admiration for Bill Clinton and those who came after. He also never said an unkind or insulting word about the opposition.)
There was one difference in our last Thanksgiving at the Four Seasons. David was quieter and the burden of being infirm and needing a caregiver weighed on him in silence. When they were leaving the restaurant that late dark autumn afternoon, I had the feeling that we might not be meeting on this holiday again, if for no other reason than it had become a task for the man greater than he wished to bear. When I heard yesterday afternoon from a friend that David had died in the middle of the night, I felt great sorrow for our loss, and especially for Helen’s great loss, but also relief that he had departed as he would have wished, with his dignity intact, and wishing him Godspeed.
What was always striking to me about both Helen and David Brown was their kindness, courtesy and soft-spoken manner toward each other and toward everyone they came in contact with. No great fame or fortune – which graced them both – ever marred that quality for even a moment. They had been together for more than fifty years and yet their mutual respect and obvious affection never weakened or faltered also. They were a team, through and through, and he was the gentleman and the man.
Cal Fussman, writing for Esquire published an interview with David in the June 2001 issue called “David Brown: What I’ve Learned” (he was 85 at the time). Here are some of his gems:
"Say 'please' or 'thank you,' -- two words that Andy Rooney believes have nearly dropped out of the language."
"Always acknowledge a gift, be it something in a blue Tiffany box or a single yellow rose from the corner vendor."
"Never be rude, regardless of provocation. This will infuriate the provoker, who gets off on bleats of wounded feelings."
"Never tell truth that hurts unless it only hurts you."
"Treat everyone equally. A gentleman makes no distinction among classes."
Click here for the entire interview.
David Brown’s oeuvre:
Framed (2002) (TV) (executive producer)
Along Came a Spider (2001) (producer)
... aka Im Netz der Spinne (Germany)
... aka Le masque de l'araignée (Canada: French title)
Chocolat (2000) (producer)
Angela’s Ashes (1999) (producer)
Deep Impact (1998) (producer)
Kiss the Girls (1997) (producer)
The Saint (1997) (producer)
A Season In Purgatory (1996) (TV) (executive producer)
Canadian Bacon (1995) (producer)
Watch It (1993) (executive producer)
Rich In Love i(1993) (co-producer)
The Cemetery Club (1993) (producer)
... aka Looking for a Live One
A Few Good Men (1992) (producer)
The Player (1992) (producer)
Women & Men 2: In Love There Are No Rules (1991) (TV) (producer)
... aka The Art of Seduction (UK: DVD box title)
... aka Women & Men 2
Driving Miss Daisy (1989) (executive producer)
Cocoon: The Return (1988) (producer)
“CBS Summer Playhouse” (executive producer) (1 episode, 1987)
- Barrington (1987) TV episode (executive producer)
Target (1985) (producer)
Cocoon (1985) (producer)
The Verdict (1982) (producer)
Neighbors (1981) (producer)
... aka Neighbours (Australia)
The Island (1980) (producer)
Jaws 2 (1978) (producer)
MacArthur (1977) (executive producer) (uncredited)
... aka MacArthur, the Rebel General (UK)
Jaws (1975) (producer)
The Eiger Sanction (1975) (executive producer)
The Girl From Petrovka (1974) (producer)
The Black Windmill (1974) (executive producer)
The Sugarland Express (1974) (producer)
Willie Dynamite (1974) (producer)
Ssssss (1973) (executive producer)
He was a prince.