@

Once upon a time in New York

I bought my Penguin paperback of Moby-Dick on February 23, 1988. I’m certain of the date because it’s scrawled on the first page, just above a thumbnail biography of Herman Melville. I used to have a habit of noting a book’s purchase date on its first page, and sometimes I would add the store where I bought it, though I only added the city in this case: “NYC.” I remember the circumstances vividly. I bought Moby-Dick at St. Mark’s Bookshop on St. Mark’s Place while headed to see, for the third time, a Brazilian-themed production of A Midsummer’s Night Dream at the Public Theater. Then, at a stationery store, I bought a blank greeting card with a Monet landscape on the front. The card was for Elizabeth McGovern, who was playing Helena in A Midsummer’s Night Dream, and I inscribed the card at a coffee shop cater-cornered from the Public Theater on Lafayette Street. “I’m an actor and writer in town from L.A.,” I wrote, “and I’m planning to see the play tonight and I’d like to say hello afterward,” describing myself briefly—“I’m tall and wearing a black leather jacket”—so that Elizabeth McGovern—or “Liz,” as she was known to friends—could recognize me after the performance. I listed a few mutual acquaintances without mentioning Orrin, as I’ll call him, who was also in the cast of Midsummer and had advised me against trying to contact Elizabeth McGovern, and I certainly didn’t mention that I had seen the play twice already. She might take me, rightly, for a stalker.

frankenstein behind the scenes

Last Halloween, I’d asked a few Nervous Breakdown contributors to share their favorite terrifying movie scenes, and D. R. Haney was among them with his contribution from Rouben Mamoulian’s 1931 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I, on the other hand, had picked the tunnel scene from Willy Wonka, which I explain so you understand why I like collaborating with Duke. My brain grows three sizes bigger by association. He’s like a cinematic moral compass for which true north is James Dean. And this year for Halloween, Duke and I decided to discuss the classic tale that produced another old-school Hollywood icon.

Room 32

By D. R. Haney

Nonfiction

adhered

The idea, I thought, was a simple one: rent for a night the West Hollywood motel room where Jim Morrison lived on and off for three years, hold a séance with a few friends, and afterward throw a party. It seemed a fitting homage to Morrison, a party-hardy mystic who believed himself possessed by the spirit of a Pueblo Indian he had seen as a boy while traveling through New Mexico and happening upon the aftermath of a deadly accident. Indians scattered on dawn’s highway bleeding, he famously wrote of the incident in “Newborn Awakening,” his poem set to music by his band, the Doors, seven years after he died. Ghosts crowd the young child’s fragile eggshell mind.

I never thought I looked like James Dean, as people used to say I did, especially after I moved to New York to study acting. We shared the same coloring, but I was tall and lanky, while he was short and muscular. My face was round, and his was rectangular. Moreover, I strove as an actor to be as natural as possible, and Dean’s acting struck me as excessive, which is now what I most enjoy about it. His excess wasn’t of the soap-opera sort; it was quirkily personal, as when he rolls a cold bottle of milk over his brow to calm himself in Rebel Without a Cause. His character in Rebel is lacking the love—that is, milk—of his shrewish mother, and the symbolic way it’s expressed is one of many Kabuki-like gestures in Dean’s performances, particularly in scenes involving parents. His biography speaks to the reason. His mother died when he was nine, and afterward his father sent him to live on a relative’s farm in far-away Indiana.

taylor

At some point, when I was a teenager, Elizabeth Taylor of Hollywood married John Warner of Virginia, my home state. Warner had served as Secretary of the Navy in the Nixon Administration, and, around the time he became the sixth (or seventh) Mr. Elizabeth Taylor, he was seeking a seat in the U.S. Senate. Victory seemed a foregone conclusion. Warner’s new wife was one of the world’s most celebrated women, though she predictably had her detractors. Once, in a panic after oversleeping, I called for a taxi to drive me to school, and the aged cabbie became apoplectic when Elizabeth Taylor Warner was mentioned on the radio.

“That goddamn whore!” he ranted. “She stole Eddie Fisher from sweet little Debbie Reynolds! That goddamn whore ought to burn in hell!”

bannedcov er

It all began with a fuck. What doesn’t? I fucked the wrong person; I fucked up the right one; somebody played me a song. It changed my whole life, that song. That’s why I later went to so much trouble to find the guy who wrote and sang it. His name was Jim Cassady, or at least that’s what he called himself. His real name was Eddie Brown, but he’d changed it in tribute to Jim Morrison and Neal Cassady. I’d never heard of either one before I discovered punk rock. I grew up in a small city in North Carolina where I’d never known a single soul who listened to the Doors or read Jack Kerouac. I was a jock—a varsity pitcher and All-District linebacker who dressed like a preppie and hung out at frat parties. Even in high school I was hanging out at frat parties. My girlfriend was a cheerleader. My parents were diehard Republicans. Life was good. I hated my life. Nothing ever happened in North Carolina in those days, the early eighties. I used to pray for something to happen, and I’d stopped believing in God at fourteen.