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

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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.

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11 thoughts on “The most recursive Carol Channing story you’ll probably ever read

  1. Good story. New York City… I loved my visits there in the mid 80’s staying with a friend in Central Park West apartment. Wr went to the garden (?) district and bought lots of plants for her window filled place, ate lunch at the Russian Tea Room (I could only afford blintzes and the requisite Russian tea) took mau walks in Central Park, ant ate at a restaurant I still remember for its charm, The Cloisters. My only celeb sighting during those visits was pretty awesome, Martha Graham, who was escorted by a beautiful young man only a few steps in front of me, at a Vincent Van Gogh exhibit. She was very physically present and potent, and very beautiful, even though she was quite old. Her hat was magnificent.

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  2. Her unique stardom still resonates culturally, since she offered that she was half-Black, making her success story all the more unique and fascinating.

    As an aside, I should probably add that, should I have encountered Richard Thomas in an elevator, there would have been an Incident, possibly resulting in some sort of formal complaint. But that – as that say – is another story.

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    • I know I am not alone in wanting to hear the other story. He seemed nice enough in the elevator. Kind of sheepish, like he thought one of us might say, “Good night, John Boy.” God knows I was certainly thinking it.

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  3. I was working as a waiter in the dining room of The Drake Hotel in Chicago around 1982 when one evening CFC came in with an entourage. I recall she was in full sparkly drag and in full CFC character which didn’t come across at all as an act. She was geniunely polite, delightful actually but slightly freakish. The whole ageing over- painted gang of ten silently screamed “show biz”. I told her the chefs evening specials (Dover Sole I remember) she listened intently and when I asked her what she would like, she looked up and very excitedly replied “I’d like a fork and a nice hot plate”. It turned out she keeps a strict diet, macrobiotic or something like that, and brings her own food wherever she goes. I brought her fork and nice hot plate to her and her assistant pulled out a tupperware container. As he poured this pile of crap on her plate she thanked me over and over as if I had brought her a giant birthday surprise! The rest of the wax crowd ate very well and the very generous tip reflected as if she had actually ordered the Sole.
    If I may, my personal CFC is actually is actually one CFB. Carroll Fucking Baker, who I met while working a 747 between LAX and JFK in 1992. She was seated in coach and I just could not allow that. Carroll Baker, main cabin row 48? No way, too “has been”, too depressing; so I had her upgraded to First Class. As it should be. Few of my celeb encounters have made my knees buckle from just a distinctive laugh. And if you’ll endulge me one more, ( I’m beginning to feel like one of those people who talk too long when they call in to NPR) Patti LaBelle is a great airline passenger. She brought her own food for herself and the ENTIRE flight crew. And it was delicious.

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    • I love both these stories! Mark, you should do a blog about your days loosely based on your experiences as a flight attendant. That would be excellent. I love celebrity-sightings stories. And talk as long as you like. I think your comment is more entertaining than the original blog post. I also love CFB (Baby Doll is right up there with my all-time favorite movies), so I salute you for putting her in First Class, her rightful place. (Actually, her rightful place would be on a swank private jet surrounded by attentive beautiful young men, but now I’m just dreaming about a just world again.) It’s so sweet about Patti LaBelle, too. Now whenever I think of her, I will imagine her as Lady Bountiful of the Home-made Brownies.

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  4. Pingback: Radio Interview | Speaking about politics and world culture on SiriusXM’s “Pia Lindström Presents” | in the theater of One World

  5. Carol Chaning and Angela Lansbury as the hero connection: Carol Channing has the same first name as the hero of Sandy Hook, Carol Wexler, while Angela Lansbury has the same similar last name as the teacher and a hero: Michael T. Landsberry (sic). Prophetic!

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