Sunday, March 28, 2010

Taking the Madame to Lunch

When I was little, Vincent Price came to lecture at the little Presbyterian college in my little Presbyterian hometown in Pennsylvania. Back in those far off days, Mr. Price lectured regularly about on a variety of topics, but I was particularly anxious to see him because his announced topic was something like "Villains & Villainy." His lecture might just as easily have been about the art he'd been collecting and curating -- and selling through Sears -- for many years. I had nothing against pre-Colombian pottery or abstract impressionism at the age of ten or eleven. Would have gone to hear him talk about that, too, if I had to. I would have gone to see Vincent Price give a lecture on the history of plumbing, for that matter, just to see him, just to hear that voice. I was a fan. He was, after all, Vincent Price, star of "The Abominable Dr. Phibes," and "Dr. Phibes Rises Again," of all those Roger Corman adaptations -- if that's the word -- from Edgar Allan Poe, and of "Theatre of Blood," (please note the exciting spelling,) my introduction to Shakespeare! I adored him. I begged to be taken to see his new movies, almost none of which ever played at our one movie house in town, The Guthrie Theatre, (please note the exciting spelling,) where G-Rated Disney reigned. This was tragic, as The Guthrie was, in those days, a run-down wreck of a place, with torn curtains, water running mysteriously under the stage -- you could hear it if you sat down front -- and few working lights; perfect venue for "The Masque of the Red Death"! (The movie house has since been restored and is now operated by a wonderful movie fan.) Mostly, I watched Mr. Price's old movies on Chiller Theater, Pittsburgh, Channel 11, hosted by the legendary "Chilly Billy" Cardille. Staying up late on Saturday night, to watch horror films, sometimes hiding behind the sofa when they got to be too scary, was one of the more exquisite pleasures of my childhood. (For some reason, the Mexican wrestler movies occasionally featured were really the spookiest, as the masked hero might be fighting a specially vicious werewolf, but the hero was pretty scary in his own right; walking around in a suit and tie, but sporting always a skin-tight death's head. Didn't seem to bother anyone in the movie, but that scared the shit out of me.) My favorite movies at that age were monster movies. I loved the old Universal monsters, loved the Hammer movies, and loved anything starring that great American actor, Mr. Vincent Price. When he came to town, I had to see him. And he was going to talk about... monsters!

I made my best friend, Jimmy, go with me. He wasn't much interested in monsters. I would not have been allowed to attend a lecture at the college in those days on my own. Nothing against college lectures, or college, you understand, of which neither of my parents had any experience, but I really could not be out so late without the reassuring presence of another ten-year-old. It was a more innocent time, and somehow, two ten-year-olds out and about in town on a Fall night was thought a more normal thing, and presumably safer than one out and about on his own. How we persuaded Jimmy's rather strict Christian parents to allow him to go along, I don't recall. We must have made much about the event being a Lecture, at the College. Maybe we mentioned Shakespeare. Anyway, we were allowed to go, unaccompanied. Our tickets for the lecture put us up in some remote balcony, where we were obviously the only children present. It was terribly exciting just to be in a real theater -- pardon me, a real theatre.

And Vincent Price was marvelous, even at that distance. He spoke eloquently and at length about the whole history of monsters and villains, from Paradise Lost, to his own movies, of our attraction to the complexities of evil characters, of his affection for the monsters he'd played on screen -- though he was at pains, I remember, to point out that he'd played as many heroes as villains. (Poor man.) The most exciting part of the evening was when Mr. Price recited poetry from memory: whole speeches from Richard the Third and Macbeth, -- was it? -- and poems of Edgar Allan Poe, etc. It was thrilling beyond description to be in that auditorium, hearing that voice, that full, fruity, gloriously modulated voice, reciting. I was over the moon.

After the lecture, there was a reception for invited guests. This required a special ticket we did not have, Jimmy and me. I insisted we try to crash it. Jimmy was a shockingly honest little boy. He resisted doing anything so obviously, dangerously wrong. I can't remember how, or even if I persuaded him to go with me. I only know that somehow, by pretending to be looking for a lost parent, I made it into the reception-line for Vincent Price. There were many curious looks from the adults as I shuffled along to shake hands with the lecturer. I brazenly ignored the many disapproving looks from deans and professors of English and the like. When I was actually able to see Vincent Price, graciously greeting the guests as he was introduced to each, I was determined to meet him. At some point, I caught his eye. I was, after all, the only person in that line quite so short. Vincent Price smiled when he saw me! While he chatted briefly with the ladies and gentlemen in front of me, he would periodically wink at me. That made me brave. When I finally was before him, someone asked to whom I belonged and the adults before and after disavowed any responsibility. The evening's host glowered threateningly and I was nearly undone. Then the impossibly tall, magnificent Vincent Price, bent nearly double at the waist, reached down down down and took my hand.

"I see we're both batching it tonight," he said, and smiled broadly.

He talked to that ten-year-old-boy for a full minute or two; asking if I'd been to his lecture and if I'd enjoyed it. He seemed pleased when I stuttered that I'd liked the poetry best. He asked if I had a favorite movie and said that mine was also his -- "Theatre of Blood" -- and for the same reason, the verse. Eventually someone jogged his elbow or in some other way suggested that I was holding up the line and he said what a pleasure it had been to meet me. Then, I think, I ran.

Vincent Price was the most charming human being I ever met.

When I was a child, the most revered woman in the world, among American reactionaries, was still Madame Chaing Kai-Shek. It was still not uncommon, in those days, to see her photograph in the news magazines, or to read some impossibly over-written article by the lady herself, on the threat of global communism, reproduced in a ladies' magazine or in the Reader's Digest. There were people, good church people, who still listed "the loss of China," as one of the tragedies in American history back then, usually in the same conversation in which the "loss" of the Panama Canal was hysterically condemned, and the resignation of Richard Nixon was mourned. One could even still see the Madame on television occasionally; still beautiful, still terribly, bravely, still venomously denouncing the "betrayal" of the Nationalist Chinese.

By the time the lady finally came to die, at more than one hundred years of age, she was a very distant memory. I'm sure I was not alone in being taken aback, at the time of her death, to learn that she had lived so long. All the elderly ladies of my childhood who had treasured her autographed pictures or kept clippings of her speeches, who, like her, had referred to her husband reverently only as "The Generalissimo," had long since gone to Jesus, the collected mementos of all such lost Republican causes: Taft buttons, Goldwater books, Nixon autographs, consigned by their heirs to thrift shops and dusty attics.

I read Sterling Seagrave's wonderful potboiling biography of the Madame's family, The Soong Dynasty, twenty years ago. The book was a breathtaking saga of money, corruption, fame, loyalty and disloyalties, and the destinies, in particular, of three remarkable sisters, the most famous of whom, Soong May-ling, became what Hannah Pakula, in her new biography, calls The Last Empress. Having read Seagrave's book, I never thought I'd ever want to read another word about the Madame, but I was wrong. Pakula's biography sucked me right in.

It is a big book. I thought, taking it with me to lunch one day, that I would just read the end of it: the Madame in seclusion, in her mansions and then in her luxurious apartment in New York, painting delicate pictures, writing the occasional verbose letter to the editor, fading. The biographer, while not unsympathetic to this elderly woman left without contemporaries, or power, nevertheless never forgets, any more than the Madame ever did, that for a time, this was one of the most famous and influential women of the Twentieth Century, certainly one of the great female self-inventions in history, and an incredibly complex, utterly charming and dangerously ruthless politician. Pakula 's portrait of the Madame in retirement was fascinating, so much so that against my better judgement, I found myself going back, and back, to read more, until I finally succumbed to the spell and read the whole damned thing.

I was reminded throughout of the insight I first heard from Vincent Price, though I've come to understand since that it is a commonplace, that no villain ever sees himself, or herself, as anything but fully justified in his or her villainy. I remember the relish with which Mr. Price spoke those lines from Richard III:

"And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days. "

Now the Madame, as Pakula's biography shows in example after example, proved herself, indeed, a lover, but no less a villain for that. She was beautiful, loyal, well spoken, quite cunning. But as perhaps my favorite story from the book illustrates better than most, the Madame was also ruthless, unfeeling, and brutally cavalier about the human cost of her vanity. Pakula tells the the full story of the Madame's triumphant tour of the US, during the worst of the Second World War, when she personally raised both millions of dollars for the Chinese war effort and her personal profile as the world's most prominent female political speaker. Reluctantly, having finally become the American celebrity she'd dreamed of being, the Madame had to go home, to a China devastated by war. It was a dangerous journey. She sent her luggage on ahead. When the American servicemen who were charged with loading into the plane the Madame's considerable loot of jewelry, furs, perfume, soap, etc., realized that the plane's crew would be risking their lives in what was then the most dangerous mission in the war, to carry this pirate's treasure across the mountains, the servicemen, very deliberately, kicked her shit to pieces before loading it into the plane. Loved that story.

Pakula's book is full of many less amusing stories as well. In a long life, the Madame was personally responsible for a great deal of human misery. If her husband -- far less intelligent, far more hidebound, and every bit as corrupt, -- was but one of the villains in a government crowded with scoundrels, he was certainly for some time, the villain in charge, and the Madame was his more than willing partner. Her own family proved a study in selfishness, greed and sustained grudges, and the undisputed Empress was every bit as selfish, greedy and unforgiving as the worst of them. That she was smarter than most, and could be personally kinder and even liberal in her patronage, that she was a genuine patriot in some sense, and that she did try, as Pakula's biography takes great pains to show, to help her people, does not ultimately excuse her appalling egotism, her husband's astonishing incompetence, or the system of ruthless militarism that destroyed Nationalist China. This biography shows, yet again, that fighting against a greater evil, in this case the disastrous Mao, can not excuse the criminality of all that came before. Moreover, in reading the life of the Madame, I was reminded of just how wrong one individual can go in making such disasters possible.

The fascination of villains is, as Vincent Price said so long ago, not just in their villainy, but in their conviction that they have a unique right, even a responsibility, to do as they do. Pakula's good biography of Madame Chiang Kai-shek, like the sight of Lady Macbeth goading her husband to murder, reminds us that no villain ever succeeded alone. Some of the worst had good and loyal wives.

Oh, for the monsters of my youth! Oh, for the innocent fun of werewolves, vampires and Mexican wrestlers. It is the real villains that keep me up at night now.

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