December 13, 2018

Joel Grey: More than just a master of ‘Cabaret’

In “Master of Ceremonies” (Flatiron Books), Joel Grey has written an unexpectedly exquisite memoir about the life he has led as a closeted gay man growing up during a time when being gay was fraught with excessive difficulties and danger.  He has spent decades forging an identity based on pretense and only last year finally conceded to the press that he was gay.  Grey always found solace on the stage where pretending allowed him to escape into a world of his own making, but he often felt shame-ridden and inauthentic offstage when he was forced to contend with powerful feelings and urges he didn’t fully understand.  He was always able to perform sexually with women, but found intimacy with them something of an afterthought or an obligation instead of a genuine longing.  He sought counseling for many years as a young man when therapists primarily focused their attention on ‘fixing’ gay men instead of encouraging them to embrace their sexuality, which did not really solve Grey’s dilemma.  Grey also was driven to conceal his identity by his intense desire to have a wife and children, something that simply was not done at that time with another man.  When he met his future wife of 24 years, actress Jo Wilder, he felt a kinship with her that was so special he thought it might just work out.  They raised two children together; his daughter who is the actress Jennifer Grey and her brother.  But their marriage imploded when he finally confessed to his wife about his homosexual inclinations when his children were already almost grown.  She simply walked out and their relationship ended.  By this time, the world had changed enough for Grey, ever the eternal optimist, to imagine he might find genuine love out in the open with another man.  There were brief attempts but they all soon fizzled and he is now well into his eighties and lives alone in New York City. 

Grey has struggled with many hurdles but there is a survival instinct within him that prevents him from falling into despair.  His story makes you feel for him, but also allows you to take pleasure in the joy and happiness and creative fulfillment he has often found.  Even now as an old man, he has found new excitement taking pictures, often with an old fashioned cell phone camera which has produced some startling images.   He likes the way the cell phone picture never quite captures what he thinks he has snapped as if it has a mind of its own.  His pictures have been shown in several galleries and reveal surprising images of small intimacies between lovers that often go unnoticed or empty landscapes that speak to a perennial aloneness.  Grey’s pictures transform the ordinary into the extraordinary.

Some readers will remember how he accomplished this on Broadway while playing the Emcee in Cabaret.  The role on paper looked dismal; just a few short musical numbers that were to be inserted between dramatic scenes, but Grey managed to convert his role into something spectacular.  He explains to us how he was able to pull this off.  He knew his character needed to be both seductive and beguiling but also menacing; a man who represented the grotesque perversions taking place inside the German psyche as Hitler rose to power.  But he struggled at first while trying to figure out how to achieve that balance.  Then he remembered the comedy clubs his father would take him to as a boy in Cleveland and his initial reaction to the stand-up comics who both scared and intrigued him.  Grey writes: “The nightclub comedian mopped his sweaty forehead with a breast-pocket hanky one too many times-the linen as yellowed as his teeth in his desperate smile.  Everything about the man-the sweat glistening through the pancake makeup, his thinning, dyed-red hair; the tasteless jokes that feel just short of dropping his pants-was proof for the audience of how hard he was working for them.”    It was this childhood memory that allowed Grey to create the Emcee who intrigued and horrified the world with his groping hands and leering face and scary over the top mannerisms.  When director Hal Prince saw his creation, he smiled and told him he nailed it.  Grey had found a way to mimic the disturbing insanity that had overtaken the German people.  The role would change his life. 

Grey grew up in a Jewish family in Cleveland that was filled with familial tensions running through it.  His grandparents on both sides emigrated from Russia and struggled in America to find their way.  His mother was one of five daughters, attractive and petite, but narcissistic and controlling and prone to darkness and nastiness that would scare Grey when he was a young child.  But his father’s gentleness was therapeutic for him.  His name was Mickey Katz and he was a saxophone player who played in Cleveland’s biggest nightclubs.  Grey would sometimes accompany his father in the evenings transfixed by his father’s natural charisma.  Grey describes his father ‘s magic by explaining to us how his father   always “made it his business to listen to and collect stories during the week.  He’d regale the other musicians with them while they were changing into his tuxes in the dressing room or were tuning up in the pit.  My father’s repertoire—which came from comedy acts, the music store where he bought his reeds, or even our family—fit perfectly into the scene.  Everyone crowded around him, laughing at his jokes and praising his musicianship.  My father’s stories were hilarious but never vulgar or mean; that just wasn’t his style…”

He would come to rely on his father for emotional sustenance as his relationship with his mother withered.  He remembers that when he was a young child she would brashly summon him to say hello to her friends expecting him to entertain them with his young charm.  He also remembers how she ignored his brother who would remain on the couch as Joel took center stage.  He can still recall how much he wanted and needed his mother’s love and how afraid he was to disappoint her.  He understands now that “as a young child we don’t have the emotional strength to choose between our parents, we need them both, we need them to need each other, we need all of it…”  But back then he was vulnerable to the family storms encircling him.  This would all lead to an explosive catharsis years later when he told his parents about a homosexual relationship he was having with the cantor at their synagogue which caused his mother to lash out at him with a ferocity that still stings.  His father was present to glue him back together and tried to convince him that she didn’t mean what she said; but from then on their relationship was pretty much ruptured.

Grey found the greatest solace of his young life with the Cleveland Play House where he had roles in many productions beginning at age nine.  Theatre was his sanctuary; the place where no one could hurt him.  As he put it, it was a world without “fat jokes, crude sex jokes, fag jokes, take-my-wife jokes….”  He eventually managed to get the attention of Eddie Cantor who put him on television.  He found representation with the William Morris Agency, which was representing clients like Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney, and Laurence Olivier.  The William Morris Agency envisioned him as a song and dance man and booked him into the Copacabana where he was a big hit, but Grey really felt grounded on the Broadway stage.  He would go on to win a Tony, Golden Globe and an Oscar and act in more than a dozen Broadway shows, as well as perform in over twenty films.  Grey embraced each of his characters by envisioning them as fully fleshed out flawed people who are forced to overcome their traumas by relying on their own inner resources.  Much as Grey has his entire life.

Grey’s memoir has an unusually authentic feel to it; the sound of a man unburdening himself after decades of silence and a life lived professing half-truths to those closest to him.  We feel his ease as old age finally releases him from the burdens he has lived with.  He doesn’t present himself as a saint or a sinner, but simply a man who did the best he could with the options available to him during his lifetime.  His choices reflected his desire to survive and thrive, and protect himself from the wrath that would have befallen him if he had come out as a young man which was a term and concept that didn’t even exist back then.  He is still moved by the power of the life force and feels comforted by the changes he has witnessed in recent years.  He writes movingly “I am heartened by the irrepressible nature of desire, and that the fear of aloneness is greatly diminished by the inner quest that is now my companion.  I know first-hand the power of transformation, that things can, and things do change.  A doting mother turns into an antagonist; a wife becomes a stranger; children grow into adults; a husband of a woman finds he loves men; and the horror of a crass vaudevillian becomes the beautiful part of a lifetime.”  He comes to the end of his life by fully opening his heart and we get to witness his reckoning.

Elaine Margolin contributes book reviews to the Jewish Journal and other publications.