The most recursive Carol Channing story you’ll probably ever read


The first time I ever visited New York City was sometime in the mid-90s. I’m not exactly sure of the year, but I went there to see my darling friend Gavin, who was living in Brooklyn and studying art at Pratt Institute. He is among the most fascinating people I’ve ever been lucky enough to have as as a friend, and his life story is a blog post in itself, even a multi-volumed biography, but it’s a book he would probably prefer to write himself. He certainly wouldn’t want me to write it, knowing me as long as he has and as well as he has, from the time I was sixteen through the decades onward, through numerous boyfriends and breakups and marriage and major changes in career plans. In sickness and in health, for sure. He also knew me as someone who hadn’t managed to complete a single poem, much less a multi-volume book, since the beginning of graduate school. He would never want to entrust this important task to me, the woman he sometimes calls Blabbermouth Spencer, so I will refrain from describing him in the great detail he deserves, as tempted as I am.

Anyway, Gavin is a man from Granite City, a former steelworker who, at least the first time I saw him, insisted on wearing his industrial factory glasses inside our mutual friends’ apartment. They were more like prescription goggles, really, the kind of eyewear that keeps the wearer from being blinded by flying bolts of molten steel at the steel factory where he was working, back in the faraway times when work like that was still something people did. At that moment, though, he was not working, just sitting on a couch in a South St. Louis apartment, but hey: You never know when molten steel is going to start hurtling toward your eyeballs. The first time we met, we talked about the band Kiss (Gavin was the first guy I knew back then who admitted to loving Kiss who was also older than 25). Almost immediately, Gavin went from being a weird Kiss-loving stranger in goggles to a man I loved and counted among my very closest friends. That is, until he up and left me for a much fancier life  as a big-city artist. In that city where famous people abound. He has come to know a few of them, in the almost 20 years that have elapsed since his move, including at various times the sculptor/visual artist Carl André, Pia Lindstrom, Isabella Rosselini, and one of the guys in Battles.

When he invited me to visit him, I did something I had hardly ever done before and categorically never do now. I went ahead and did it. I flew on a plane by myself, booked the flight and everything. This in spite of the fact that I was feeling tragic about a situation that now seems like a crappy comedy. Anyway, before I got to NYC I told myself that if I saw somebody famous during my trip (as residents of NYC always seem to be doing, at all times) I would have good luck for the year. And no, I don’t know where I came up with this idiodic  superstition. I don’t believe in God, or ghosts, or witches, so why I am compelled to invent superstitions?

It worked out perfectly, though, because I was barely in New York City an hour before I saw Carol Channing. Variously known as CAROL FUCKING CHANNING. If one person in New York City epitomizes that New-York-celebrity thing it has to be CFC. Never mind that I saw her for only a precious few seconds—from a stalled cab’s window, I think it must have been—it was her, and not just her, as a regular person, but her all dolled-up. You know: dolled up like CAROL FUCKING CHANNING. At least in my memory of her, she is wearing what looks almost precisely like one of her costumes in Hello, Dolly. She looks like she might break into song at any second, a bunch of strong-shouldered guys holding her aloft.

When I saw her emerge from the canopied entryway of a large and lavishly appointed building, possibly an expensive hotel or even a theater, CFC, all bedizened with glitter, sequins, and, I swear I can’t possibly be embellishing this memory, a fancy flouncy hat, mincing grandly  down the stairs like the fairy queen of goddamn New York City, I thought, of course. Of course Gavin needs  to be living in New York City right now. What a miracle to live someplace where you might run into CFC at any time, right when you need her the most, right when you know your luck will have to turn around. That’s the “New York, New York” Frank Sinatra promised us. Never mind that when I first saw Hello, Dolly, as a little kid, it was Barbra Streisand’s portrayal, in the 1969 movie. My mom loved Barbra Streisand, and so did I, but everybody, including little kids, knew CFC owned that role.

Although I’m transfixed by this photo, which I swiped from the website Dangerous Minds, it doesn’t fit the theme of this post. In this shot she looks sad, and she doesn’t look sad in my memory of her. There she is permanently glowing with vitality and hope. She looks shiny and new, even though she was, even at that point, very old indeed. It is magical, how very much she looks like the CFC who came to mind when I thought about CFC, all those years before I had actually  seen her in real life. Miraculously,  she is the very apotheosis of herself. She looks like a rare iris blossom suffused with pinky dawn light. She looks like an advertisement for optimism.

This photo conveys a CFC I have never considered, an anti-CFC  even. The fact that both CFCs exist, seemingly within the same woman’s body, seriously fucks with my assumptions about CFC. It also makes me wonder if we really were lucky, as lucky as it felt at the time, to lay eyes on her on my very first day. What if the real CFC was the anti-CFC?

I won’t think about this too much because CFC is, like all humans, allowed to have facets. Here she looks like a Fellini heroine. Maybe not Giulietta Masina, exactly, but someone who could pull off that kind of role. Her mouth droops down naturally, maybe more so now, when the photographer captures the image. The mouth of CFC is tired of smiling just so people will quit ordering it to cheer up. The mouth of CFC would rather be quoting Nietzsche and making depressing pronouncements about the suicidal idiocy of our species. Instead, the mouth of CFC is drooping  in a way that the photographer probably thought was sultry and for CFC was probably just sort of sad. Sad, maybe, or just tired  of being the hoop-skirted, tooth-baring, unfuckingstoppable CFC, and it’s only what, 1956? She’s going to have to do that joy-rictus for the next half-century, she just knows it.

She may have been easing into her role as the incarnation of optimism at that point, or maybe the photographer just told her to just be real, or however Carl Van Vechten would have expressed this request in the middle of the previous century. He has her wearing a scarf over her head like some sad peasant, like some incognito grocery-shopping housewife with a wet-set. She seems only mildly despondent, mostly sardonic. Who knows what she’s really thinking?  Maybe she’s wishing she is dead, right at that moment. Maybe she’s thinking about her dinner. But she’s not thinking about all the hordes of singing and dancing admirers welcoming her back to the Greatest City in the World.  The Place Where She Belongs. She’s not thinking about Louis Armstrong. She’s certainly not thinking  how she’s still glowin’, still crowin’, and still goin’ strong.

Recently on NPR I heard Sandra Bernhard, also known as Sandra Fucking Bernhard, tell her own tale of a formative Channing sighting. This encounter inspired SFB to pursue show business. She wound up getting to meet CFC, even (or so Bernhard seemed to claim in the NPR interview) one day earning her endorsement as her logical successor in a particular kind of song-and-dance variety act, the kind of drag performance that is usually enacted by men but is sometimes mastered by women.

I am sad to tell you that my own CFC encounter did not change the trajectory of my career (you know where to put the scare quotes). But it did change my luck for the better. After my CFC sighting I stopped crying  so much, although I did a lot of bitching, of course, for years to come. I still bitch a lot. But I have to admit that things definitely started looking up for me in my post-CFC life. I don’t even mind that I’m not a fantastic Mick Jagger mimic or an internationally known comedian who made Scorsese’s The King of Comedy at least 75% better than it would have been otherwise.

Maybe I need to go back to New York City and hope to run into SFB. How lucky would that be? Alas, I have been there several times since my CFC sighting, and the only celebrities I saw were the actor Richard Thomas, who will always be John Boy to me (in an elevator in a nice apartment building near the Russian Tea Room, staring  modestly at his sensible footwear), and the late news anchor Peter Jennings, who was wearing a fisherman’s sweater and holding the door open for people at a Damien Hirst exhibit in Chelsea as if to say, “I am a friendly and regular guy who is cool enough to scope out Damien Hirst openings. In a warehouse in Chelsea.” He had no doubt predicted that exactly no one at a Damien Hirst show would give the slightest shit about having Peter Jennings in their midst (Peter Greenaway, maybe), and Peter Jennings was right. He looked delighted to be holding doors open for people who didn’t ask for his autograph or even say, “I know this must seem like a weird question, but are you Peter Jennings? Like on the news?”. He just smiled affably in his oatmeal-colored sweater and casual slacks, surrounded by some highly ironic art and a bunch of people with piercings and chipped black nail polish who couldn’t care less about him, and pretended to be a very casually dressed doorman for a minute or two.

CFC would have caused a fucking riot.

And speaking of female composers…


My friend and fellow music addict Dean Minderman alerted me to this interesting story. Yet another reason to be proud of the St. Louis Symphony and our inestimable Maestro, David Robertson! I look forward to hearing Berg’s work premiered (no, not that Berg–I like him, too, of course).


Update: Here is a link to Ms. Berg’s web page if you want to read and hear more:

My Two Favorite Living Music Writers

This essay, a discussion of female composers and their scandalous lack of representation in the concert repertory, is beautifully written and incredibly smart. Inevitably, whenever I read anything by Alex Ross, my favorite living music critic, I am dazzled and overwhelmed by his crazy talent. When I have a writing deadline looming, I can’t even read anything under his byline because he makes me feel like I, along with almost every other music writer working today, should just STFU.

I could pick any passage at random to support my case for his brilliance, but this sentence I loved particularly: “In the end, these works evoke a universal desire: to seek beauty in shards of a damaged world, or failing that, to take shelter in silence.”

Here is a wonderful essay about piano lessons by my other favorite living music writer, the glamorous and hilarious concert pianist Jeremy Denk. Unfortunately, I don’t think you can read the whole thing if you don’t subscribe to The New Yorker. (You probably should subscribe, by the way.) In addition to being a great pianist, Denk is among the smartest, funniest, and most entertaining music writers alive. His talent is unfair and obscene. I highly recommend all his recordings. His CD of Bach partitas is astonishingly great, and I’m also very fond of the Charles Ives one and his collaboration with the violinist Joshua Bell, French Impressions. He has a brand-new CD for sale featuring works by Beethoven and Ligeti, but I haven’t bought that one yet. I’m sure I will love it, too.

Some updates

Today I added several links to the Links to Published Writing page, gussied up various pages with some new uploaded photos, and created a new catch-all page for unpublished writing. It’s called Odd Unpublished Things and contains, of all things, odd unpublished things: from a spate of fever-fueled DVD reviews to the last poem I ever finished, when I was an undergraduate in college.

This blogging bidness is a laborious task for a compulsive person with terrible completist tendencies tempered with paralyzing self-doubt, but I guess I can’t make a decent blog in one day, even if I do keep teenage vampire hours.

I will strive to be more interesting in the future. Thank you for reading, all three of you.

I’m not an early riser. I just haven’t fallen asleep yet.

For at least 10 years, well-meaning people have been telling me that I need a blog. For professional reasons. Seeing as how I call myself a freelance writer. Sometimes these well-meaning people even put me on the spot and ask me where they can read my so-called writing. I  just wave airily and say, “Oh, you could always google René Spencer Saller, and see what comes up.”

In truth, I mostly hate blogs, and it seemed very likely that I would hate my own, if I had one. But early this morning, plagued by insomnia, I thought, well, why not? It’s free, after all, and it’s easier if everything is organized in one place.

So far all I’ve done is upload a bunch of links. They’re all on the Links to Published Writing page above, haphazardly organized. Click at your peril.

I am also a freelance editor, but that’s far too boring to write about. I’m fairly good at it, and I’ve been doing it professionally for more than 20 years now.