Porch Talk

a Southern Momma speaks

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Autumn Leaves

This is one of my favorite songs, especially when Nat King Cole sang it.

To me, it holds the nuances of autumn, a transition from summer’s heat and greenery to displays of colored leaves. St. Francisville, being north of us, seems to have more colorful leaves, but there are enough in Baton Rouge and surrounding areas to provide a show. I read once that the most colorful leaves occur when there is a long spell of cooling weather, because instead of leaving the leaves all at once, the chlorophyll leaves slowly.

I like to change my interior décor according to the seasons, and the living/dining area in my home is now filled with decorations from leaves and fall vegetables on the mantel to autumn arrangements on the dining table and a serving table behind it. A runner I purchased many years ago has pumpkins and other symbols of autumn. I use brass candlesticks and a candelabra with candles in a rust shade. There’s a bowl shaped like a leaf on the coffee table with fake acorns, a candy holder shaped like a turkey with candy corn in it, a bunch of colorful leaves in a large pottery basket, and a wreath on the front door.

Since I don’t expect company until Thanksgiving Day, people may wonder why I go to all this trouble – it’s because I was brought up to live in as gracious and pleasing way as possible, despite the amount of money available.

I once lived in what the girls and I still call the “rotten apartment.” It was in a quite nice complex, which still exists, in a very nice neighborhood. The apartment across the hall, rented by two decorators, was a picture of creative taste.

Mine, however, had an avocado sculptured rug that looked as though it had never met a vacuum cleaner. Three walls were a shocking pink and the fourth bright orange. Still, since I might end up living there forever, I determined to “rise above it,” as my Aunt Roberta would advise, and to behave as though I lived in a tasteful place.

Three of my daughters still lived in Baton Rouge and I wanted them to know that true friends don’t stop seeing you when you have fallen on hard times. I began a series of small gatherings on fall Sunday afternoons. I would call people and invite them to come at five.

“It’s not supper,” I would say. “Let’s just say you won’t be hungry when you go home.”

I would make a hearty soup, have slices of ham and roast for sandwiches, some favorite dips, and liquor with the appropriate mixers. Most of the women had been in the apartment but none of the men had. As each walked through the door, his face had the same expression as did all the others. I knew he was thinking about the parties at my former home with sometimes as many as 200 guests, two bartenders, waiters passing hors d’oeuvres—the whole works.

I could also see them resolving that if I could entertain them here, they would make this one of the best parties I’d ever had. They told wonderful stories. They waited on the ladies. They spent quality time with my daughters. They brightened our spirits and warmed our hearts.

Not long after one of these gatherings at Calandro’s, I ran into a woman who was one of those who gloated over my troubles. I am not exaggerating this. I got many calls that made this plain.

“We’ve heard you have Sunday afternoon parties,” she said.

“Just good friends for little gatherings.”

Oh, but the–.”

She recited the names of well-known people in Baton Rouge in a tone that was a cross between puzzlement and a desire to be included.

“As I said, just a gathering of friends.”

Instead of depressing me, I was sad for her. My friends were there, not because of their wealth, prominence, or the good they did, but because we had bonds made from similar interests, similar viewpoints, similar ideas about honor and humility.

I cannot see how one could form true friendships in any other way.





Jed Harris, Broadway’s Golden Boy

I have met many interesting people in my life, including Jed Harris, Broadway’s Golden Boy.

He began his career in the mid 1920’s, directing stars like Charles Laughton, Ruth Gordon, and other Broadway stars. None of the people he worked with liked him. They found him self-centered and rude, but they also knew that when he directed a play, the result was first class.

I met him in 1978.  I was working on a Master’s in Psycholinguistics, Communication Theory and Theatre at LSU at the time, and had become friends with a young woman named Margret.  Her thesis was on Jed Harris.  She had done all the research, but she had never met him, and she thought it essential she did.  She wrote to Harris’ agent, but received a letter saying Mr. Harris didn’t want to see her.  She persisted, and one day the agent called and said Mr. Harris would give her a one hour interview, period.

Margret flew to New York in the dead of winter. By that time, Harris was an old man, and had long stopped directing plays. He liked Margret, and when she suggested he spend the winter in Baton Rouge, he agreed. He rented a town house in the same complex as Margret, and settled in.

One day Margret invited my husband and me to have dinner with her and Harris. Over dinner, I told a story about life in the French underground during World War II, describing the experiences of a good friend of my mother’s.

Harris said it would make a great play, and we should write it together. I agreed, not knowing that Harris would soon become a fixture in my life, as well as my daughters.

His town house wasn’t far from our home, and a pattern began. Several afternoons a week, I would pick Harris up and we would go to my house, where we had coffee. Mine had only sugar, Harris’ had Courvoisier.  Very little was done on the play, but I heard many stories of life on Broadway.

One afternoon we had talked longer than I thought. It was time to pick up the girls at St. Joseph’s Academy, and I told Harris he would have to come, because I didn’t have time to take him home. He sat up front with me, and the five girls sat in the back seats of the station wagon.

Harris began charming them immediately, and when I said I’d take him home first, one of them asked if he couldn’t come home with us and share an after school snack. He did, and from then on, on the afternoons he was at our house he went with me to pick up the girls and then stayed to have a snack and a visit.

When my youngest daughter was in an acting class in New York, every new student told why he/she wanted to act. She mentioned that Jed Harris had carpooled with her mother, not expecting the teacher’s reaction. “Jed Harris?  How did that happen?” Clearly, he couldn’t believe that a girl from Baton Rouge, LA had not only met Harris, but considered him one of the family.

Jed loved to cook, mostly Northern Italian dishes, but one day he insisted on making gumbo. He added an ingredient no self-respecting Louisiana  cook would:  rhubarb. We ate the gumbo, but we left the rhubarb in our bowls.

I had mentioned Jed Harris to a few friends, and my husband I decided to have three couples for dinner. A new audience spurred Jed to tell stories, dropping big names like powered sugar on a cake. No one got a word in, though the other guests were well-informed, cultured and civilized people. Several days after the dinner, I received a letter from Adelaide Brent, an artist of note and a sophisticated woman. She and her husband Allen were among the guests at the dinner. The message follows:  “Thank you for An Evening with Jed Harris, produced by Melvin and Beth Michel, starring Jed Harris. Supporting cast, and here she wrote a list of the other guests. Not only a fine artist, but a witty one.

Jed and I never finished the play, but after he returned to New York, my good friend Henry Avery, who was the Artistic Director of the Baton Rouge Little Theatre before he moved to Albuquerque, and I co-wrote it. We titled the play MIXED DOUBLES, and Henry directed it at the Baton Rouge Little Theatre. It was a huge success, and is still one of my favorites.

After Jed died, there was program on one of the major TV networks featuring his life. My husband and I and the girls watched it, and for the first time realized what a celebrity Jed was.  But to all of us, he was just a very nice man who had brightened and informed our lives, whom we had the good fortune to know.