Friday, February 4, 2011

Fractured Memoir

Often I have been asked to write my memoir. My negative answer was always based on never having kept a diary, and not being anywhere near memorious enough. Example: What’s the good of having pleasurably lunched with the great writer Jorge Luis Borges, when all I can remember is how beautifully he spoke English, but not a single word spoken by anyone?

Now, however, a lesser possibility presents itself: retrieving some random fragments from an unrecorded past, starting with my first fifteen-and-a-half years spent, save one year at a public school in England, in what is now Serbia but was then Yugoslavia.

At age two, I moved with my parents to the capital, Belgrade, and along came my trusty nanny, Mia. My parents had the good idea of having me learn an important foreign language as it were from the cradle; this proved to be Mia’s native tongue, German. Much as I loved her, I remember only two things involving Mia.

One was her mysterious response to my insistent queries about how she, as  a female, comports herself on the toilet: “I never go to the toilet.” The other concerns a walk in the park (the gorgeous Kalimegdan at the confluence of two rivers) where we came upon a nest of insects. They may have been only ants, though I recall them as beetles. “What a multitude of beetles,” I exclaimed in German. And although the German Menge is less impressive than the English multitude, coming from a four-year-old it was thought to be cause enough to prophesy language playing a significant part in my future. 

Later, I was attending a German-Serbian elementary school, where we were taught in both languages. When the school participated in a program at the National Theater, my role was a mute one: To cross the large stage wearing long pants and an adult fedora, and, as I paced ostentatiously twirling a cane, impersonating “a fine gentleman.” Did this augur a theatrical future?

Now take the occasion of a school outing where I walked alongside Christoph von Heeren, the son of the German ambassador. I was about to eat the orange I took out of my satchel when I noticed the envious gaze of the young Teuton. I offered him some of the orange, but the greedy bastard devoured all of it. Not to seem offended or offending, I proceeded to chew on the rinds. “Isn’t it perfect ,” said the Nazi piglet, “that I like the orange while you prefer the peel.” Did this cruelty foretell what his country was to do to ours?

I recall also my being enamored of my Serbian-language teacher, Miss Orahek or Orehek. She was tall, brunette and beautiful, and I recall asking her whether she would wait for me to be old enough to ask for her hand in marriage. I can only guess at her answer, but the question surely portended something like a passionate future.  My real first love, though, was Ljiljana (Lilian) Nizhetich, younger sister of my school chum Branko. At thirteen, she was a delicate, porcelain-figurine beauty by whom I was never even granted a kiss. Years later, she was to tell me how envious her classmates were of her being Jovan (John) Simon’s love.

World War II induced our move to America, where my father had already established a beachhead. On a winter evening, my mother and I and another lady with her son, Tom, were to catch what somehow was the last train we could board out of Belgrade. The ladies and Tom were waiting at the railway station while I was saying my mournful good-bye to Branko and Ljiljana at their family home. Someone warned me about missing my train, whereupon I grabbed what I thought was my new hat (though it turned out to be someone else’s and way too big for me), and ran to the station, arriving fairly late, which earned me a slap from a family friend who was seeing us off. Luckily the train was even later than I, so we just managed to catch it.

Another comical memory. I had an older half brother from my mother’s first marriage. This George was a kleptomaniac, and on his rare visits we had to lock up our valuables. Anyway, on a certain night, George and I were in parallel single beds, and he devised a game: who could produce a greater number of farts, as we both held perfume bottles (where did we get them?) to our noses. I can’t remember who won, though in such a game the winner may be the real loser. George was in the Yugoslav navy and vanished during the war. I like to think that he was in our only submarine, the Fearless, on the day of its launch, witnessed by international dignitaries. The submersion was exemplary, but the Fearless proved totally unable to resurface.

As a very little boy I was sick with the flu. I was already enamored of a movie star, Jeanette MacDonald, and kept pestering my parents to get her to come to my bedside and speed my recovery. They assured me that they had wired her and she had wired back that she would come. She didn’t, but somehow I managed to get well anyhow.

Shortly before we emigrated to America, I was in the fifth year of the gimnazija (secondary school), and had already published in the leading literary journal a verse translation of “Trees” by Joyce Kilmer, whom I took to be a woman. On that basis, I was exceptionally elected to the high-school literary society open only to older students. I was very proud of it, and bitterly resented having to forfeit this privilege even for the sake of mythic America.

Apropos literary efforts, a classmate of mine by the name of Feifer persuaded me to submit something to Film Journal, the Serbian film magazine, because I could translate articles from American movie magazines, which we all scoured for their pictures. Filmski Zhurnal was interested, and published a story I had invented out of whole cloth (finding the actual stuff too tame) and dictated to Feifer. It concerned a romance between Dorothy Lamour and Greg Bautzer, a Hollywood lawyer to the stars, particularly the female ones, because, as I was later to learn, he was reputed to have a penis that could compete in magnitude with the champion one belonging to Victor Mature. In my story, with fine disregard for both geography and biography—not to mention creature comfort--I had the lovers making out on a coral reef off the coast of Hawaii.

Our journey to America—to escape the foreseen conquest of Yugoslavia by the hated Germans—was a fraught one. We were stuck for long, frustrating times in both Genoa and Lisbon. On the plane from the former to the latter, with an overnight stop in Madrid, I developed a crush on a Swedish opera singer, Margit von Ende. She, in turn, was starting an affair with another fellow traveler, the famous Italian soccer referee, Barlasina. I paid dearly for my mental unfaithfulness to Ljiljana. On the beach at Estoril I spotted a girl who struck me as a dead ringer for my high-school sweetheart, whom, in that unknown girl, I lost a second time.

The only boat from Lisbon we could eventually get onto went to Havana. On board, I was smitten with an older woman, the Austrian Kitty, all of 18 or 19. In Havana, all passengers were confined for a sleepless night to a sort of concentration camp. This amused Tom and me, but had the frightened Kitty in tears. It made parting easier: I could not love a coward.

When we finally got to New York, I couldn’t quite believe that I was in that fabled land whose capital was clearly Hollywood, where all the movie stars lived. Only when I switched on the radio and heard another love, Loretta Young, so to speak in person, did I fully comprehend that this was indeed America.

That reminds me of another Belgrade activity. I was buying several of those foreign movie magazines and cutting out pictures mostly of my favorite actresses, regardless of whether they were stars or starlets, and pasting them into a scrapbook. This tome was so dear to me that I carried it with me to America in preference to some beautiful books I had received as prizes from my year in the British school. They included the Pleiade edition of Montaigne’s essays and a leather-bound copy of Kipling’s Kim. To be sure, I hoped our relocation would prove temporary—that life would soon be as before and I reunited with my books.

Well, there was no such proximous return, and there is even no Yugoslavia anymore, though Serbia still exists, like that scrapbook, now added to my papers at the Performing Arts Library in Lincoln Center. But there was one glorious long-ago evening when the late playwright-scenarist Peter Stone, Tommy Tune, Donna McKechnie, my wife Pat, and I were leafing and laughing through its pages. I think the greatest number of pictures showed blond Brenda Joyce and brunette Marsha Hunt, never major stars in Hollywood, but paramount in my affection. Only Peter vaguely remembered them, but in that scrapbook they live forever.

Quite a few of the pictures were also of Dorothy Lamour in her sarong. Also a few of male stars, but not a one of Greg Bautzer.


  1. Memories? Here's a remembered pun, though for the life of me I can't remember the context.

    "Nice sarong."
    "It's a sari not a sarong."
    "Well, I'm so sorry for being so wrong!"

  2. I just love the way you write ; I certainly can picture you as a little boy, or as a teenager ; there is life in your style, thank you!

  3. Do you remember many of the poems you wrote & published? I have one excellent poem of yours. It's called "Day for Hunting."

  4. Hey Johnny Boy, why did you become such a grammatical fussbudget, bullying snob, nasty commentator on uglyass women, critical policeman, and all that stuff? And why do you despise those cow worshiping and curry-smelling Hindus? Was your daddy a badass? Did he kick your ass? Or did you have teachers and other adults who put you down real bad when you were a kibbler? They say an abused kid later abuses other people. Were you emotionally belittled as a child? Did that make you one helluva a vicious dude in cultural?

    And what about your sex life? Did you get some nice action? Do professors and movie critics have groupies too? I'll bet you got some smart ho's.

    And is it true that you got into a fisticuff with Andrew Sarris? Is it true he punched you and you went tumbling over the bar like in those John Ford movies?

  5. Mr. Simon, please don't mind 'Bosley Crowther'. He's a fucking retard troll who needs to find a new hobby. The idiot just cannot control himself. He's been nothing but a pain in the arse in a whole bunch of movie forums.

    Mr. Simon, your blogging is the one of the coolest things ever, and it would be a shame if an imbecile like 'Bosley' would discourage you from sharing your insights, memories, and considerations. So please keep up the good work... while I find that Bosley twerp to kick his ass.

  6. It's nice to see Mr. Simon blogging. I remember being a big fan of his writing, which I could only glean fitfully from the college library where, as a way to avoid paying for issues of National Review, I photocopied his movie reviews from archived bound volumes. Some days I would photocopy ten or fifteen of then, take them home, and enjoy them with my lunch. Later I did the same with his theater reviews from New York Magazine.

    Over the years I have built up probably a thousand questions I'd like to ask him about this, that and the other thing. Perhaps on this blog I'll see some answers to some of them.

  7. Dear Mr. Simon,

    This is wonderful!