Wednesday, April 30, 2008
Since I was a tyke too tiny to say her name, Mildred was "Moomump" to me, and the appellation stuck for the whole family thenceforward. At every stage in my life, she was the perfect aunt. When my age was in single digits, I could cajole her into giving me the presents my parents refused. I called her a few times at that age when I felt picked on by my parents, and she'd come over, subtly mending fences. In my teen years, it was Moomump who first let me drive; in her big Chrysler 300 we'd blast our way to the Oregon coast, me a fourteen-year-old, being prodded to get it over eighty. "Don't drive like an old lady," she'd say, offering me a cigarette. In my young adulthood and later, I realized how brilliant she was, and what a great source of good advice and amazing stories. Of her famous friends: artists and actors and musicians and politicians.
She and my dad -- he the older by a couple of years -- grew up at the poor end of lower middle class. During the depression, their father, so they told me, would hide in the closet when the doorbell rang, lest it was a bill collector. One of them would answer and say they were alone. But they were both superior students and musicians; her piano gifts were greater than my dad's on the violin. As a young woman she was offered an opportunity to study in New York under one of the great pianists of the time, but turned it down for the need to care for her diabetic mother. (Until I looked him up just now, I thought the potential mentor was Emil Gilels, but clearly it couldn't have been. Rather, I think it was he that she considered the best ever; someone else must have offered the position.) Unable to afford it, neither she nor my dad went to college. Both eventually enrolled in a night law school; she was one of Oregon's first female attorneys, and also went to a business school. (My dad ended up on the Oregon Supreme Court and was Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals. So they did okay, legally speaking, thin resumés notwithstanding.)
I'm not sure of the order of events, and there's no one left to tell me. There was her law practice, and there was her time working for Ariel Rubstein, a concert pianist and impresario, who brought classical musicians to Portland. Which one led to which, I can't say; but at some point Moomump did legal work for Arthur Rubinstein, having been told by him how he -- along with many other musicians -- was being screwed by RCA, the only record label that handled such classicists. Sketchy are the details, but sales numbers as related to royalties were tightly held by RCA. Never enough, they claimed, to pay their artists very much. When the phone rang from some girl lawyer in Portland Oregon (chain smoking made her voice anything but girlish), the bigwigs in NYC telephonically patted her on the head and told her to buzz off. When they got a pre-arranged call within minutes, from the largest accounting firm in the country announcing intention to audit the books per fine print in the contract, it wasn't long before they relented, leading to recompense for Rubinstein. And, not long after, for many other artists who heard about Moomump and came to her. My brother the attorney says the contracts she forged remain templates for artist/recording agreements today. RCA, presumably to get her off their backs, offered her a job in their New York legal office, but she demurred.
Moomump and Arthur Rubinstein became friends. She was dining at his home one night when he announced, at around age sixty, that he was to be a father again. "When," she asked, surprised. "Nine months from tonight," he smiled. (Genius musicians don't leer, I assume.) And nine months later, she got a telegram (I've seen it) saying only, "And his name is John." There were friendships with other great pianists, too. In one of my favorite pictures of her (which I can't seem to find at the moment), she is arm in arm with the sweet Vladimir Horowitz. Nor did her acquaintances end with musicians. Paul Newman, Michael Jordan, Hal Holbrook, Robert Joffrey, Yul Brynner. She knew them more than in passing, and had stories. But her friendship with Van Cliburn surpassed them all.
They were polarities: he, much younger, slender and upright, proper and handsome; she, stocky, untidy, and rough. She was quick with a bawdy laugh, he with a gentle smile. Sometimes when he performed on the West Coast, he'd send a plane for her, and she'd fly down, to San Diego or wherever. For his mother's ninetieth birthday, he brought her to his Fort Worth home for a two or three day party. On one occasion, when Van was playing in Portland, I -- a high-schooler -- picked him up at his hotel, stuffed my pockets, at his request, with oranges from his room, and drove him to the concert hall where I unloaded the produce, and him. Leaving an impression that lasts, strong, to this day, Moomump arranged for Van and his mother to have dinner at my in-laws' home in Bellingham, Washington one evening, just them, where he dutifully listened to their pen-youngest play the piano, and rummaged some more food in their pantry after they'd already fed him a couple of steaks.
This unlikely pair talked frequently on the phone; he wanted her critique of every new album, every concert she attended. And she knew her music. When a little girl, she once told me, she'd lie in bed reading piano concerto sheet music before she went to sleep, and could play it fully, from memory, when she awoke. I heard her play only a couple of times -- she hardly ever did, except for herself, when I knew her. (She put on a concert or two, for charity, in her political life, but I wasn't around to hear them.)
Artists, dancers, actors, when they came to Portland, often partied (and sometimes performed spontaneously) at Moomump's house. I was there for some. As full as her social life was, she never married nor, as far as I knew, had any sort of romantic attachments. But was she known and loved! From her position on the Planning Commission, she was appointed by the Mayor of Portland to fill a vacancy on the City Council, to which she was re-elected by huge margins, three times. Both Police and Fire Commissioner, she was adored by those people in blue, and they campaigned hard for her. She'd show up at one fire station or another, usually at dinner time, encourage the captain to volunteer to walk her dog, and talk to the troops about what was going on. My four-year-old son and I partook with her of such an occasion, after which we went along on a fire-boat run on the Willamette River, the kid holding onto the water cannons as they sprayed. If the timing was right, Moomump would show up at fire scenes, having hitched a ride on an engine.
When the Portland Trailblazers played the Chicago Bulls in the NBA finals, we two were there, too, in her season seats -- she'd found another for herself; at half time, people came out of the stands to talk to Moomump as she walked at the edge of the court, her public ignoring Magic Johnson and other stellars who were broadcasting nearby. She introduced me, that time, to Michael Jordan's dad. Hardly an athlete, she loved sports, went to the Blazer games, and to the Timbers' soccer games, sometimes kicking out the ceremonial first ball. Maurice Lucas was a good friend; Clyde the Glide an acquaintance plus.
But it was of her time on the City Council, running a financially tight ship, that she was most proud. That, and her dogs. In her forties, or maybe fifties, she decided for the first time ever that she wanted a dog. There followed in succession several German Shepherds, first Hildy, then Ranger, then Blitz. She doted on them, had an oil painting made of Hildy, the best of them all. Often they came to work with her, sleeping under her desk unless someone came in and got a little heated; at which point it was nose to nose, two paws on the desk, with a clear inference to be drawn that more respectful dialog would be prudent. Among her most-told stories, punctuated as usual with her gleeful cackle, was when Blitz walked down the hall and shat upon the mayor's carpet. (A subsequent mayor, with whom her relationship was a bit prickly.)
No matter how many opponents, she won her elections with seventy or eighty percent of the vote. College kids, downtown business people, liberals and conservatives, all loved her, for her intelligence and straight talk (when the term actually meant "straight talk"), for her lack of artifice, her clunky clothes (she hated gussying up, as in that picture with Van) and her dogs. You showed up at a council meeting hypo-facted at your peril. Shoot off your mouth without engaging your head, she'd help you out on a limb and saw you off, whoever you were. And tell me about it later, ending the story with a sawing motion of her arm, and with that "heh-heh-heh-heh-heh-heh," staccato, like a tommy-gun, and just as lethal. Fiscally conservative, socially left of center, she answered only to herself when it came to staking a position.
When my wife, Judy, ran for our local school board, Moomump gave her plenty of advice, and pulled no punches when criticizing her first drafts of campaign literature. And as she had me, she loved our son. Every time I called her, or visited, she asked about him; would have given him anything he wanted if she could.
Toward the end of her life, she suffered congestive heart failure (ah! it IS a medical post!!) and sank, frustrated, into herself. Her home was dark when we visited, oppressively smoke-stenched. The parties that had filled the place with sound and color were nowhere to be sensed, the room downstairs where they'd been held now fungoid and cluttered. To the end, she smoked, driving her amazingly devoted cardiologist crazy (I met him when he drove her to Seattle, shortly before she died, to attend a Cliburn concert, at the intermission of which we went backstage -- she barely made it down the hall -- and talked with Van, whose assistant took a picture of Moomump, Van, Judy, and me, and promised to send a copy. Never did.)
We went there more frequently as she became more homebound. Closed-down concentric as her world had become, she filled back up when we were there. On the rare occasions she'd agree to go out, people still came up to her, anywhere. And, sitting on her sagging sofa, she still rolled out the stories, with relish. Backstage at the Joffrey Ballet, schmoozing with Kitty Carlisle, at the racetrack with Paul Newman. And Van: always a story, with love, about Van. A little dirt on a politician or two, commentary on family (her appearing at family gatherings, no matter the import, was a rarity. She didn't much like the dynamics, but loved visits on her terms; which included, thankfully, me and my chunk of the family.)
They found her sitting at her kitchen table, ashtray filled with stubbed Tareyton 100s, a couple of days before we'd planned another of our regular trips down there to see her. Van Cliburn sent an armload of red roses; a mayor and a governor attended her memorial, and cops and firefighters, in their dress uniforms; engines with ladders raised were parked, sparkling in the sun, outside the temple. She'd have loved that above all, even if the venue might not have been to her liking. The picture (my favorite by far!) at the top of this post was on the front page of The Oregonian when she died. A nice article from another paper is here, in case you think I might have exaggerated anything. My brother and sister and I spoke at the ceremony, and my dad. Good stories by the former gov'. In my part, I revealed her name to those that never knew it. Moomump.