Warren Wechsler

 

My first memory of Jack is having been introduced to him at Cornell after having heard of his sparkling intelligence, insatiable curiosity and exceptional erudition, traits not unheard of at our university. I was also told that he was “a very good person” who, in an ingenious approach to the misery of male freshman and sophomores, had liberated himself from school for a term or so by managing to get caught while attempting to steal a book from the co-op. Now, in our junior year, he was back and booming academically.

I vividly recall our first meeting in the Ivy Room, a campus cafeteria. I was so engaged by what he had to say about American popular songs and the exuberance with which he said it that I accompanied him to his apartment in the ground floor of a small private home a few blocks from the school gate so that we could continue what turned out to be one of the more influential conversations I’ve ever had with anyone. Jack, despite his obvious shortage of cash–no one was sending him money to swan his way through his undergraduate years–was a paragon of hospitality and, in his own way, considerable largesse. He cooked us a dinner of spaghetti and we knocked back a bottle of Chianti as we celebrated some of the songs we loved, songs by the Gershwins, Berlin, Porter, Arlen, Kern, Rodgers & Hart. To us, this music was the nation’s soundtrack in the 20th century as well as a part of our introduction to a range and style of feeling and language that seemed both adult and somehow triumphal.

One of the many points Jack dwelled on that evening about the art of song writing was the effect Cole Porter achieved by juxtaposing peerless inner rhymes (“like the moon growing dim/ on the rim/of the hill/in the still /chill of the night”) full of cerebration against pounding Latin rhythms, a pulse of passions that sophistication couldn’t restrain. He also noted Porter’s calculated carelessness born, no doubt, of relentless effort, that made his lyrics appear to be, if not effortlessly achieved, than to be taken as sheer play (fly-ing too high/with some guy in the sky/ is my idea of—nothing to do) as the thrill is dismissed by the worldly singer’s ennui at having had it all again and again.. We talked late into that night. Jack also held forth on Brecht and Weill and their posture of romantic verfremdungseffekt, a distancing from the dramatic action accomplished by having songs or other theatrical devices like signs comment on what was going on in the play. He played me some songs from Mahagonny and I learned “Moon of Alabama” in no time flat. Having seen more than one too many of the show biz biographies that Hollywood was grinding out during our youth, the evening ended with the inevitable agreement to try writing some songs together and “see what happens.” We were head over heels in love with our work. Is such love ever unjustified?

Jack’s lyrics to Tom Jones were a joy to set. He had written poetry in every form–sonnets, villanelles, etc.–and used sprung rhymes and other devices with a master’s authority. In the course of the show, Jack also performed a dance number that introduced the second act. He was taught to tap by experts. His father had been a vaudevillian before leaving the circuit to work at the Western Union office in Port Chester, New York where Jack was raised. One of our classmates said that Jack’s not having come from the “livingroom atmosphere” where the most of us were incubated with its emphasis on propriety, duty and achievement, gave him a kind of freedom to contemplate his possibilities as an artist that the rest of us could only stretch for at that point in our lives.

In the middle of senior year, I put Jack’s future in jeopardy. I was driving him and the former Adelle Abramowitz (“Through thick and thin traumatic fits/I love you Miss Abramowitz,” the man wrote) to their wedding in New York, which was to take place during Christmas break. I’d pleaded with my father for a sports car. Instead, he bought me a Chevrolet Impala, one of the few occasions when it turned out to be a good thing to have lost an argument with Dad. On our way south, we encountered a sheet of freezing rain. At an inopportune moment, I slammed on the breaks to avoid hurtling into the truck in front of us. That turned out to be a terrible idea. The car went into a 360-degree spin and we wound up on other side of the road. Jack and Adelle were sitting together like lovebirds in the back of my car. After we had stopped spinning, courtesy of a guard rail that crushed the front of the automobile, I realized that I had survived and looked behind me to see if Jack and Adelle were all right. Jack was leaning against Adelle, his eyeglasses down around his chin from the impact of our crash. Both were just staring vacantly ahead. “I’ve killed them,” I thought. “That’s it for me.” Ah, the self-centeredness of youth. In fact, they were fine. We would make our way to New York by bus, my car would spend the rest of the winter and part of the spring in a repair shop in Roscoe, New York (“No, the part isn’t in yet”), a situation that slowed my social life somewhat, and Tom Jones would be completed and triumphantly produced. That big car saved us. Had I been in an Austin Healy by myself or with just one other person...

               —Warren Wechsler