Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Paul Charles Howell

Manipulating Hans Arp

 “Greta Garbo had a favorite old puppet she used to keep in her dressing room. I think she called it Kasperl.”
                           -- attributed to Anita Loos

I was clearing out the Old West Mission
but wanted to be frivolous and elsewhere
so I made up a tale about Stravinsky to keep me going
for Petrushka was ringing in my ears.

I leaned on the conversation between me and the old
county-fare Casper I had picked up at a flea market
in a miniature armchair in a marionette theater
hanging from a rusty four-penny nail.

He must have been there since the Spanish American War
so I flung him onto the bonfire with the Pole in her Dirndl
and the dark Argentine with her flashy castanets and sharp
brown teeth and worn-out pin-ups of Greta Garbo

I don't know what other silent movie stars
and a trunk-full of letters and tugged at Hans Arp’s
eulogy for it’s the only written record
of the great entertainer’s demise.

You remember Casper I hope my old uncle?
Back in silent film days? Part of the Roscoe
Arbuckle crowd? The abduction scandal? No?
He worked with Alice Howell and Jean Guignol

Francis Ford…. You don’t remember?
Well surely you saw him when you were a kid
Him and Buster Keaton    Anita Loos
He exchanged letters with Marx and Mann

Collaborated with Igor Stravinsky, the composer,
and Hans Arp, the Dadaist. Surely you knew
of his long love affair with Greta Garbo
the greatest movie star of all time?

Casper came to his sad end here last week
at this eerie Mission in Capistrano California.
He occupied this creaky place in his twilight
and expired in the fog with the long leaded windows ajar.

I was not with him at the actual moment
Only his two young manipulators were there
the beautiful slim blonde Pole and the strong
dark Argentine, his angels without wings, to see him

Through the valley of the shadow, to witness
his obstinate spirit ascend past the flickering
chandelier. Ooh…! That night we laid him out
in precious Chinese silk on a venerable four-poster.

I had been alarmed when the Argentine phoned to insist
that I come out here to spend his last days with him.
He believes he’s going to die
and wants someone by his side.

Did you know that he kept trunks full of fan mail
and old brown and white photographs?
Him and Greta, him with Joe and Buster
Keaton, him with Stravinsky in Barcelona, Spain.

And in case there’s any doubt about his current status
with the top politicians, George
Bush père and little George fils
were both at his cremation in Santa Monica.

Sorry you missed it. They had not forgotten him!
And there she was.    I had not dared
expect her, in a black backless dress
and floppy yellow hat. She was there

In the back pew with tears in her famous
unbreakable eyes, believe me. The press
did not give the funeral much coverage but
Oh, there were the compulsory obituaries.

One remembered his ’37
tour in Peer Gynt and his appearance in Uncle
Tom’s Cabin. Another called him the Howdy
Doody of Vaudeville if you can imagine it!

But that was not all. I checked every single
paper, even Vanity Fair.
I did get a nice bouquet from Casper
Weinberger whose parents named him after Casper.

The evening of my arrival he sat beside me
on the arm of my easy chair, one hand resting
on his walking stick, his chin leaning on his hand
between puffs on his panatela cigar.

He started to move his lips, and a voice began
to sound. Boy, what diction! It resonated in the walls
comforting and confident. He said, “Every man needs women.”
We were sipping French Champagne and puffing fresh cigars.

          “They’re what put zest and interest in life.
          Now these girls over here, this stunning Argentine
          and that lithe Pole they think I don’t know
          they’re after my money.”

Casper still looked uncannily like his 1927 portrait
by Max Beckman, painted while he was playing
Fafner at the Frankfurt Opera, Kasper
im Smoking it’s called, the cigar, the monocle, the young

Manipulating Venuses of that era bent
in attendance like handles of an art deco vase.
He had my attention and spoke to me at length.
“When you hang around this long, son, it gets sticky.

“You outlive your friends and some of your enemies.
But you miss them, too. The crowd used to burst into applause
the instant I leapt on the stage. When I spoke, children
trembled. Whenever I got off a train, there was

“A throng. I couldn’t go two blocks in Manhattan without signing
a hundred autographs. The trouble with fame is
you have to pull the same head-bashing stunts
retell the same raunchy jokes

“Be the personality they expect,
or they think you’re cheating on them, as if
they owned you like a wife. So, like an old
husband in bed, you act surprised and pleased

“And all fired up. I was there at the 57th Street
pier when Garbo got off the Drottningholm
did you know that? Nineteen, she was. Coming to conquer
America. Just a child she was when she

“Discovered me and Oh I’ll never forget
that ship, the colored streamers gliding
through the air, the fog horn, the brass band on the pier
droning Roll out the Barrel, everyone kissing

“Everyone, popping corks, the scent and sprinkle
of champagne mingled with the scent and sprinkle of the Hudson
River, arrival, laughter, tears of joy! And
What an apprehensive presence Garbo’s was!

“The stevedores unrolled a carpet down
the gangplank. And when you looked at her, emerging
like a Venus in New York, you had the feeling
that you shouldn’t, as if you’d stretched the whole

“Crazy Torah, but you couldn’t turn your eyes
away. She was right down to earth
a bit too free and modern for us righteous
Americans. She tried to sweep us off our feet

“Before we were sure of our footwork.
Funny, intractable, fragile, farouche, do you know
that word? That’s what she was. Without inhibition.
Wherever Garbo was, you had the uneasy

“Feeling: that was where an earthquake
Was about to erupt, a ten. I never loved
a woman more than her, and to kiss her tanned shoulder
was like touching the Holy Grail.

“But it was her eyes that controlled you.
In the old films it’s hard to see
the power of those eyes, but, believe me,
it was there. Ah, Anna Christie, Anna Karenina.

“Her best film was Street of Sorrows
before she ever came to Hollywood.
Ah, Greta Garbo, how I miss you.
Didn’t you meet her with me in the thirties?”
But I had not, alas. Casper went on
“We used to gallop around Santa Monica
together. Greta had great horses.
It was all pretty wild those days not paved over

“Like today. She was pretty wild, too.
Think what she did to that poor John Gilbert
star of silent films. Her voice worked
and his voice didn’t. She stood him up at the altar.

“I was with him at the time, poor guy.
Devastating for them both but not for me.
Then she considered Laurence Olivier
but didn’t like his smell.

“Lucky thing for him; ’cause I’d have crushed his balls.
She was too good at acting. That’s why I never
married her. Too busy acting. One hundred
ten percent business. How could you be sure she was ever

“Herself? Off camera, she prepared herself.
Greta Garbo, let me tell you, was a childlike, charismatic spirit
capricious, whimsical, sagacious, ungraspable
all the female essentials. She could be

“Temperamental, though. She could be genuinely
Indifferent, totally selfish, go on a hunger strike
get what she wanted like Gandhi, demanding as Elektra.
She was often compared to Helen of Troy, you know.

“It makes me sad even now.
Last time we saw each other was after the Barcelona
fiasco before I moved to this Mission.
Now when I see those old Garbo films on TV -

“I like the old films, but that’s not her. It’s her ghost.
She looks like a delicate flower, doesn’t she?
But when you look close, you realize that she’s made
of the sort of stainless steel it took ten million

“Centuries to forge. Now, Garbo knew how to handle
the press! She told them to mind their own damned business
but they couldn’t stop. They expounded on the
legend, and the public loved her all the more.

“After the premier of Camille I said to her
la Bernhardt was never half so good as you
lilla flicka’. Scared the pants off her
when I said that, but she knew I was right.

“When you have that much power, it’d scare anyone.
Women are wonderful, provided you never forget
that they’re made of barbed wire. Power
is the greatest thrill. Speaking of power,”

Casper held up his walking stick to show me.
“This old cane of Stravinsky’s makes you feel
pretty invincible, doesn’t it? A kind of scepter.
I was walking along the highway yesterday

“Listening to the squealing birds and the breaking waves.
I saw some good looking surfers on the beach.
One of them came up to admire the cane.
She was built like the Venus de Milo.

“I told her this cane used to belong to Stravinsky
the greatest composer of our time. Right away
she asked me to let her hold it.
Oh, the way she fondled the thing!

“Stravinsky said his father bought the cane
in Saint Petersburg. It has a history.
One day his father was out walking when a dog
attacked him; he used this cane to kill the canine

“And threaten its owner. You can see the dog’s teeth
marks on it here. Look. And I’m sure
there’s still blood on it. Look at that stain.
Isn’t that blood? Stravinsky said

“He got off the train one time in Mulhouse in France
to stock up on wine and cheese and baguettes and cigarettes
for the rest of his trip to Lausanne, and before he got back
on the train an ugly young man with a knife

“Tried to mug him in a cloud of steam and demanded
his money. Stravinsky, in beret and monocle
and white silk scarf, tapped the mugger
on his chest with the silver handle of this cane

“And said: ‘Aslayóp!’ It worked like a magic wand.
The thug melted in the steam, and Stravinsky got back
on the train. And now it’s attracted the Venus de Milo.
Stravinsky was an unsurpassed actor and a first rate politician.”

Casper’s enthusiasm mounted, “He was a great genius
a giant. Like Einstein, like his friend Picasso, his friend
Cocteau. He had an ego bigger than Mount Rushmore.
But the world was depressed by clouds of war.

“Stravinsky wanted to produce Petrushka in Barcelona
and he wanted me to play the marionette. How ironic
I had never played a puppet before.
I boasted to Greta about the invitation.

“‘You’re no ballet dancer’, she said
not to offend me, in fact, but protect me
from a business that could only mean
disaster. How prophetic she was.

“But I was insulted. I said, ‘I, Casper
who have played Charlemagne at Roncevalle
who seduced Margarete in the garden as Faust
fascinated the continent as the hunchbacked, hook-nosed Pulcinella?

“I, Casper, who mastered Shakespeare’s Trinculo
and Stephano, who danced the Catalonian flamenco
on my hands, who worked with Trovollo the ventriloquist
 who toured Japan as Benten Kozoh with his gang

“Of thieves and performed seppuku countless times
before packed black-haired pagodas, Greta,
you think I cannot dance the puppet Petrushka!’
I capped off my speech with a dig

“‘The stage is not the picayune cinema, Miss Garbo!’
But after jealousy, pride is man’s greatest mistake.
I don’t know if Greta really liked Stravinsky
She was more for rumba than ballet

“But she knew what she knew, and that is what
distinguishes an extraordinary presence like hers
So I became determined to do Petrushka
marionette or no. I wrote back to Stravinsky.

“Yes, he was delighted. Stravinsky had
a definite idea at first. Then he astonished you
with a new clarification. He was always positive
as his music, while so many serious artists

“Were wallowing in discouragement. And he was just
as difficult, and just as driving as his music
So cerebral. He wanted to do things no one
had ever done, and he did them. We corresponded

“About the production. He described Nijinsky’s interpretation
and told me what was wrong with it and how
I must improve it. Greta used to read
his letters, too. I’ve kept them all.

“You’ll have to publish them when I’m gone.
He wrote about the wig and the make-up and the costumes
and how the lighting had to be from the lower
stage left to make it ghostly and the small

“Puppet stage on the larger stage to make it
real and the Moor and wet nurses and Gypsies and the masqueraders
and the coachmen and grooms and the peasant, and movement
movement, movement, and, most of all, the bear.

“I, Casper the marionette, the hero, was to be
irresistible, seductive, symbolic. To get the gestures
right, I studied smoke in changing wind
trees growing in the rain forest, icebergs bobbing

“In the ocean. I would even have
to die like a meteor. Oh, how vividly I remember
And the music, Stravinsky said, the music must
for once, be played the way he wrote it, not

“Like his friends Monteux or Ansermet or Koussevitzky, or, God help us
André Messager, all those imposers
of inferior egos! The music…! I could hardly understand
the music at first. I had to open my ears, but once

“I did Holy Moses! Stravinsky wanted Leopold Stokowski to conduct.”
There was a sudden heavy silence complete
and black as if both oxygen and daylight had been sucked
out of the room and I feared the worst.

When he mentioned Stokowski’s name Uncle Casper’s
unchanging face became a harsh mask
of vengeance, as if his memory had foundered on a spewing
volcano, as if he had stubbed his toe on a rattlesnake.

After a moment, he recovered and went on.
“Oh, how ready I was to help Stokowski.
He had just given his last concert in Philadelphia
He had been there for a quarter of a century

“And should have stayed there. He was about my age
but prided himself in his shock of white hair
that universal symptom of musical prowess
and his goddamned physical flexibility.

“And he was planning to come to Hollywood anyway
to do film music, so au courant
Today he’d probably want to be an astronaut!
I spoke to my friends to see how I might meet him

“So prepared was I to dance Petrushka
so ready for everything to be perfect to make
our Petrushka THE Petrushka of five hundred years.
To be remembered as THE interpreter of Petrushka

“Better than Nijinski. No
the CREATOR of Petrushka, better than Stravinsky!
Oh, gold flutes, brass trumpets, wood bassoons.
The snare drum! Oh, that barrel organ!

“Stravinsky came to visit us, Greta and me
He personally checked on every detail
We sat in wicker chairs beside her
Pool in the southern California sun

“While Greta Garbo sunbathed and swam
and prepared herself and distracted us
 we went over the Petrushka score
together in silence. It was pleasant agony to listen

“To music with your eyes and see Stravinsky
tamper with his own music in silence.
Then we went inside, the three of us.
Stravinsky played each section on Greta’s piano

“Or made me play it, while he banged out the rhythm
with that silver-handled cane
Bang, bang, bang, leaving unconscionable
Welts in Greta’s Steinway. How my head

“Was spinning with new sounds.
It only took two days, but I was transformed.
The great Greta Garbo herself had never blocked
Her scenes with such alacrity.

“When Stravinsky was ready to leave
I had memorized every gesture, every note
even the tiniest nuance. That’s when he presented
This silver-handled cane to me

“And told me its history. My young friend Anita Loos
I don’t think you know Anita, I must
introduce you. She wrote Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
and most of the great screenplays -

“Anita gave me Stokowski’s west coast number.
I called him, and we decided to meet to discuss
the Barcelona production.”
Casper dozed off.

It was past midnight, and the young Pole
and Argentine, I realized, after all the talk about ballet
were dancers. They came to entice Casper to bed
the dark Argentine from the south and the blonde Polish girl from the north.

Good night, Uncle Casper, I said. I finished
my Cognac and before I went to bed
examined the cane. Fabergé had a hand
in this, I thought. At breakfast the next morning

I asked him, How did Petrushka finally go?
I was out of breath. My impatience was showing.
“He lives as a mocking spirit,” Casper said to me
“but he dies outwitted in the end, that tragic

“Marionette Petrushka. Jealousy will do it every time.
There’s no hell like jealousy. Just listen to the music
Stravinsky conducted it himself in the end
No need for Stokowski, no need for him at all.”

Casper was savoring caviar and sturgeon for breakfast,
but I could not wait. How did the Barcelona audience
like it? I persisted. It must have been
pretty strong music to their ears in the thirties.

“Oh, the circumstances couldn’t have been worse,” he said
shoveling in gobs of caviar. “Barcelona
was a mess. The country was a mess. Traveling there and back
was awful. The civil war, you know. The theater was cold. But.

“But the orchestra was hot. The commedia dell’arte
set was perfect. The colors! No one understands
colors better than the Spanish
especially the reds of wine and blood

“Or the blacks of lace underwear and funeral shrouds
The supporting cast was the best I ever worked with
I showed them my soul, and it was raw
We gave five performances, and after each one

“They carried Stravinsky and me on their shoulders around
the Town Square, clapping, clapping, and clapping
some more. But my heart was heavy. I was suffering, let me tell you.
The reason, of course, was that bastard Stokowski.

“He had meanwhile come to visit Greta and me
in Santa Monica. He brought Greta a gift
one he’d made himself. You know how that sort of thing
can trick a fickle woman, when an adorer brings her

“A gift he has made with his own bare hands
something else she can take to her bed. Besides
he looked like the annunciating angel. Well
Greta, poor, faithless waif, succumbed to those dumb charms

“To that exceeding, nimble brain, to that feigned
devotion, and there was no one else whom she
wanted to see or hear for a while. Stokowski
catered to her every weakness.

“There was no way to make her see sense
no holding her back. She even
became cheerful! She went out with him in public!!
She thought about marriage!!!

“My Greta Garbo! She had forgotten
she belonged to the universe like the North Star
She belonged in the dreams of all men
not alone on some Roman mosaic with Stoky

“Sweeping up his carrot crumbs. The girl was infatuated
And me, I was fuming. The haunting idea, the gnawing
image of Greta and Stoky on the front page of every
edition. Jealousy. Worse pain than muscle spasms, believe me.

“In my work, I’ve succumbed to both. While I was sequestered
and dancing my heart out in Spain, Garbo and Stoky
were practicing yoga at the Villa Cimbrone in Italy
and I was the guilty, foolish instrument of this nightmare.

“Let the fascists reign, I thought.
Come disembowel the earth.
There could be no bleaker agony than mine.
After Petrushka I went straight to Italy

“To see what they were up to. Then the three
of us drove to Sweden, through Switzerland and Germany
The trip was well covered in the press, yet no one knows
I was with them. I even did some of the driving.

“When you have been so devoted to a woman as I was
to Garbo, as we were to each other, this extreme happiness
she and Stoky seemed to be enjoying just
leaves you numb. At her secluded farm

“In Sweden where we were staying, in three separate
bedrooms at my insistence, in the foyer
by the staircase, I met up with Stokowski.
‘Finally’, I said and raised this walking stick to threaten him.

“I wasn’t sure what to do, kill him, I think,
but he grabbed the stick from me and deftly
struck me with it instead, knocking me lifeless
as the dummy I was, the scene I had just come from mastering

“With Stravinsky in Spain. If you look very carefully, you can see
the blood. Not some real Russian dog’s, in fact
but my own. And Greta, what pain hers was.
How expertly she could suffer, look at any ten of her films.

“Of course, after that, we had to part for a time
And Stokowski, he had to leave. For years I could not
speak to Greta. Then after that vicious censorship
of Two-faced Woman, she spoke to no one, no one at all.”

A thick fog was rising. We finished drinking
our breakfast Dom Perignon and went out into the
walled-in garden to check on the orchids.
Casper said, lifting one gently with his cane

“I’ve been coddling these for that sorrowful day.
Look how lush they are and capriciously female.”
Those were his very last words. Arranging the appropriate
funeral for such an eminent figure is a challenge.

The pale lithe Pole chose the Frank Lloyd Wright
chapel in Santa Monica, and the Argentine drew up
a list of celebrities. Melvyn Douglas and Helen. Emil Jannings
Erich von Stroheim, George Cukor, Clarence Brown, Groucho Marx

And Buster Keaton. Other old friends who are not so famous.
Perhaps I should mention Jean Guignol and King Constantine.
We did not know how to reach Greta Garbo but made
sure that the announcement appeared in LA and New York.

Casper is dead. Funeral services, etc., at 11:00 on Thursday.
We cut all the orchids from the garden and filled the chapel.
It made the most powerful impression. We had a catered
bar for the press, only pitch pine for the fire on Forest Lawn.

It burns so hot and fast. The chapel is small
and felt tightly crowded. Buster Keaton delivered the eulogy
of course, since it had been written for Casper in the first place.
He recited it as well as he could remember it.

Alas our good Casper is dead

Who will carry the burning banner now hidden in the pigtail of clouds to play the practical joke?
Who will now turn the coffee mill in the barrel at the Mission?
Who will now trick the empty-headed dears out of their petrified paper box?
Who will now confound the ships on the high seas by addressing them as dada drizzle and the winds by calling them keepers of the bees ozone spindle?
Alas alas alas our good Casper is dead
Holy ding dong Casper is dead
The cattlefish in the bellbarns clatter with heartrending grief when his Christian name is uttered: Casper Casper Casper
Why have you left us? Into what shape has your beautiful great soul migrated? Have you become a meteor or a watery chain attached to a hot whirlwind or an udder of black light or a transparent brick or the groaning drum of jagged being?
Now the part in our hair, the soles of our feet, are parched, and the fairies lie half-charred on the pyre
Now the black bowling alley thunders behind the sun, and there’s no one to wind up the compasses and the wheels and the handbarrows any more
Who will now eat with the phosphorescent rat at the lonely bare-footed table?
Who will now chase away the sirocco devil when he wants to beguile the horses?
Who will now explain to us the monograms in the stars?
His bust will adorn the mantelpiece of all truly noble women, but that’s no comfort that’s snuff to a skull.

Of course, old stone face himself couldn’t recite the old Arp
without tears. It’s extraordinary how much we’re going
to miss our old Casper. During one long pause in Buster’s
recitation I turned around in my seat and looked back

And saw the characteristic floppy hat
the lady in the last row. It brought
a tear to my eye. She had actually come and was weeping.
At the cremation in the dazzling Pacific sun, it is I

Who lowered his remains on the pyre. King Constantine
was kind enough to light the match.
I almost laid on Stravinsky’s walking stick
to guide his spirit through the spheres

But he really wanted me to keep it
You see, there’s still some magic in it.


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