ETHEL WATERS-Part 2
Continuing with the ‘alcohol’ story: I had just turned 21 as the season began that third summer at Sea Cliff; the summer of the Box Office and the summer of Miss Ethel Waters. I did not drink. It didn’t interest me and the one time I actually drank at a party about a year and three-quarters before, after I felt ‘drunk’, I then felt sick to my stomach, cried a great deal, and my body hurt all over…so, I didn’t get why anybody would want to drink, if indeed, alcohol made any of them feel even a little like it made me feel; i.e- Horrible, beyond words; but I decided that perhaps what it did to me, (after the sort-of-feel-good-part got really really old), maybe….just maybe, didn’t happen to all those other people, and it was just me, and my particular body; I decided, that I was truly allergic to alcohol and that was it for me and drinking.
During the week that Ethel Waters was at Sea Cliff, she got invited to a very posh party in Glen Cove, the next town over from Sea Cliff; the ‘rich’ town, people called it. Miss Waters did not drive anymore, and if memory serves she had had a very serious accident many many years before which she told about in her autobiography, “His Eye Is On The Sparrow”, which I had read and was very very moved by it when I read it…this accident was so bad that she was hurt very seriously and I believe, again if memory serves, was turned away by not just one hospital, but two hospitals because she was black.….this was during the Jim Crow days; the days of Extremely Overt Racism…(I honestly don’t know how anyone lived through those times, which of course are not over by any means, at all!) I remember when I read that part in her book, it was deeply chilling to me; I mean, just reading her account of this terrible terrible inhumanity towards her and all the other people in the car with her—absolutely horrendous! So, because she did not drive, the Producers needed to find someone to drive her to this gathering on that afternoon; it was between the matinee and evening performance; I was chosen. I was actually quite honored to be not only driving her, but having the opportunity to just be alone with her in the car; her presence was a very powerful one—this woman who had such a fantastic history as an entertainer/actress/singer, and as a person.
I was pretty quiet driving with her over to Glen Cove; (Oddly enough, when we passed by the Glen Cove movie theatre, guess what was playing there?? Yes, “Member Of The Wedding”. My hand to God, that is exactly what the Marquee said.) As we drove along, I was rather tongue tied and embarrassed because I was feeling like‘a fan’, and so I was quiet cause I didn’t want to appear silly and stupid. She was quiet too which was okay by me. I think a few words were exchanged when we both saw that movie marquee, but otherwise, it was pretty quiet.
We arrived at the private house where this cocktail party was being held in her honor; In fact, it was an Estate. We went into the house as I recall, and we were shown immediately to the garden area where the actual party was already in progress. The Hosts, Mr. & Mrs. Long Islamd, came over to her and were very gracious and showed her to a seat where she was immediately surrounded by some of the guests; I went over to an area that was slightly out of the mainstream of the party, wanting to become ‘woodwork’; this was after I had told her where I would be and to give me the sign when she was ready to leave, to which she said, ‘Oh don’t worry honey, I will’. And from where I was standing and then eventually sitting, I just watched everything and everyone, very quietly. A waiter, who happened to be black, came over with a tray of drinks already poured into glasses, and offered me a Martini or a Tom Collins. That was it. Those were the choices.
Well, I wasn’t even officially invited to this gathering so I did not feel comfortable asking for anything else like a soda or even water. I thought very quickly about what I should do: I was very very thirsty---I had ‘Dry Mouth’ from nerves, you know. And on top of that, I was terribly hungry, but I wasn’t offered anything to eat, and frankly this was my ‘dinner hour’ and I didn’t know what I was going to do about that; I knew enough to understand that a Martini was pretty lethal. Heavy Duty Alcohol, especially on an empty stomach. That was not an option. I thought that a Tom Collins was not as lethal, so….there we were. I thanked the gentleman and took a Tom Collins. It was pretty amazing because I had almost no sense that there was any alcohol in this drink. I didn’t chug-a-lug it, but I did gulp quite a bit down, pretty quickly, attempting to quench at least a bit if my thirst. Whatever was in that glass began to hit me enough that I relaxed just a bit. I looked around at the party as the alcohol seeped into my bloodstream, (I guess!). I couldn’t help but notice that there were other waiters and some waitresses, too, and they were all black people, as well. I looked at the guests very carefully; Miss Waters was the only guest at the party who was black. I watched her interacting with the other guests; she would smile and nod and say a few words to each person that came over, but as I watched her I thought: How does it make her feel to be the only black guest surrounded by mostly ‘White Bread’ sort of people, and seeing that the only other people of color at the gathering were the hired help? As the Tom Collins seeped further into me as I sipped my second drink, having downed the first one and having eaten the cherry, thinking at least that was a tiny bit of food—this disparity between Guest Of Honor and White People Guests grew larger and larger in my mind and my eyes. And I thought silently, I bet she is sitting there thinking to herself as she smiles at these people and is gracious with them, ‘I wouldn’t be here as a guest if I weren’t Ethel Waters!’….Oh, how I wanted to ask her this! Pretty soon, she gave me the ‘high sign’, and made her excuses which were very legitimate because this was her dinner hour, too, and also her time to rest a bit before the evening show.
I got up and I was feeling no pain. I knew I would have to drive v-e-r-y-, v-e-r-y carefully. We got into my car; we left the Estate; we passed the Glen Cove Theatre once again, going the other way back towards the theatre. I threw caution to the wind. The alcohol had taken away pretty much all my inhibitions about talking to her and I just jumped in with both feet, telling her I had read her book and how much I liked it and how powerful I thought it was, etc. She nodded and thanked me. I went on; ‘Some of the story’s you tell in the book are pretty horrible about the way you were treated.’ ‘That’s right, Honey’, she said. I went on; ‘I bet you didn’t even tell half the awful things that happened to you. I bet you left out a lot of really really bad things’. She nodded again---I could see her with my peripheral vision; I was not going to take my eyes off the road for even a second. “That’s right, Honey”, a slightly different inflection on this one; more knowing; more-agreement, really. Then I thought, ahhh just screw it, and threw caution to the wind even further, and said; ‘You know I sat there at the party and watched you and I thought to myself, I know what Miss Waters is thinking. I felt that you were thinking as you looked around that group of people, I wouldn’t be here as a guest if I weren’t Ethel Waters’. There was a moment’s pause…(I really thought, Oh My God, I’ve gone to far; those damn drinks, oh shit!…). still seeing her with my peripheral vision I could tell she had turned her head slightly and was now sort of looking at me and she said, “Oh yes, Honey, that’s right!”. I must admit it made me feel really good that I had seen this whole drama and called it correctly in my mind, and then, was validated by her slightly more emphatic answer, and because of Mr. Collins, I got to share a very truthful moment with her and I felt there was an unseen tiny bond between us because of this. Months later, after seeing her show on Broadway and having gone backstage to say hello and tell her how wonderful it was to see her on Broadway, she smiled at me and hugged me and said to someone who was there with her, ‘It’s my driver, from Sea Cliff’. I was thrilled!
That afternoon of the Tom Collins, was the first of a number of afternoons with a Mr.Tom Collins. I don’t mean I became a raging alcoholic, but, I could see that I could have, because the reason I drank them was not because I liked the taste of liquor, but because I took away my nerves. Working in that Box Office for the rest of that summer got harder and harder. Dealing with the public got harder and harder---their anger when we would have to cancel their reservations if they weren’t picked up by 8pm, got harder and harder for me to deal with cause it made me feel so very bad. I began having a Tom Collins at my dinner break on Saturday nights, the worst night for ‘dealing with the public’…then it became Friday & Saturday, and then….well, you get the picture. By the end of the summer, this Tom Collins thing now had spilled over to Thursdays and sometimes even Wednesdays! Thank God that summer finally ended, cause when that summer ended, so did my drinking! Bye Bye Tom Collins; Hello abstinence, well….at least for a good 2 years or so. I only went through one other period where I drank to sooth the savage beast and that was during the ‘singing in nightclubs’ period, and I do believe if I had continued to work these horrific ‘toilets’, I would have ended up in AA, but that’s another story for another day….But, Thank God, I did not become a ‘Box Office’ statistic. And the other great thing about it—though a very stupid way to have this happen—was that I certainly had a very memorable week while Ethel Waters was at The Sea Cliff Summer Theatre, and a particularly special afternoon where truths were touched upon.
I promise I’ll get to Helen Twelvetrees and Eva Gabor and a lot of other stuff, too…just not right now….