My tenure as Roger Corman’s “Assistant” at New World Pictures was one of my better jobs. I also served as his receptionist which consumed the bulk of my time. Aside from answering the phone, everything else I did was interesting. I might be deployed to Max Factor’s to pick up gallons of fake blood for an afternoon shoot. Frequently Roger sent me home with a script for overnight coverage. I didn’t consider it working overtime because it was thrilling. Whether or not Roger agreed with my notes, I felt validated because he paid attention. He was an extraordinarily good listener.
It was Roger’s wife, Julie Corman, who liked my resume and hired me to work for Roger. Since New World was known for its violent exploitation films, I expected Roger to be a bombastic vulgar bully like other studio heads I heard rumors about. I couldn’t have been more wrong. He wielded his considerable power quietly, with dignity. Corman had class and brains (he graduated from Stanford, for starters.) While I was there New World made “Candy Stripe Nurses” and “Caged Heat” but they also released Ingmar Bergman’s Oscar-nominated “Cries and Whispers.”
I don’t claim I knew Roger well. In my opinion, he wasn’t an easy guy to know but he was worth the effort. It wouldn’t surprise me if people who worked for him in different capacities saw sides of him I didn’t. To me, he seemed like a classic introvert, an enigmatic sensitive artist as opposed to a tyrannical boss from hell. He built a reputation as a hard-nosed businessman but I remember unexpected generosity and kindness. When I quit – that’s another story for later – I wasn’t entitled to health insurance but I was sick and he extended my coverage. Not forever – he wasn’t stupid – just long enough to make a difference.
When I left, we promised to stay in touch and we did for a while. New World’s offices were on Sunset, not far from the Tower Records, so it was easy to drop in and say hi. Inevitably, contact tapered off, then ceased. Still, although my time at New World was brief, Roger’s quiet integrity and decency remain vivid after all these years. I’m hoping he’ll read this and know I said hello – and thank you.
In late February 1969, my clinical depression escalated. (See November 30, 1968) My part-time job at California Book couldn’t save me but it staunched the bleeding. It forced me to adhere to a schedule. I only worked 16 hours a week, but it was my first job and I took it seriously. It didn’t infringe on my social life since I no longer had one. I didn’t miss it.
The major symptom of my despair was a total lack of interest in anything. Anhedonia is the technical term. It means “an inability to experience pleasure from activities usually found enjoyable … including the motivation or desire to engage in activities.” It took enormous effort to shower. If I also washed my hair, I was too spent to go to school. Not so long ago I could do both – wash my hair and attend school – but not anymore.
I knew I wasn’t living up to the curse of my so-called potential. My parents were disappointed, although they never said so. It was nothing compared to how much I loathed myself.
The last thing I needed was more time in bed to think. That kind of self-centered contemplation was like swimming through quicksand – there was no way out, only down. The answer was activity, to get out of bed and out of the house. I knew what to do, but I lacked the energy – and the desire – to do it.
Writing about my year of depression is about as much fun as living it. I do it because so many people get stuck in something similar. In the thick of it, I felt alone and empty. It might’ve helped to know I wasn’t. If you’re depressed and read this, remember – you’re not alone or empty either. Things get better. Hang on.
From today’s vantage point, life looks simple in ‘64 but it didn’t feel that way then. I obsessed over what other people thought of me (which they didn’t, much). Subtle shifts in friendship sent me reeling. I stewed about my performance in school. I wanted to be number one in everything but I was afraid to be best at anything.
My need to be number one began in ‘53, when my parents shattered my fragile 2-year-old psyche by bringing my sister Janet home. I got their message loud and clear. If I’d been a better baby – cuter, smarter, more entertaining – they wouldn’t have needed another baby. I ran outside and bawled my eyes out.
They flat-out refused to return her. Over time, I discovered she – and later Joyce – had some good points. Little sisters were easy to trick. Gradually both of them became fun to talk to. In fact, it was easier to talk to them than anyone else in the world.
Because we knew which buttons to push, emotions ran high. They could cut me to the bone, infuriate and inspire me, rouse my jealousy and my compassion. On balance, we shared more laughter than tears.
I trust them with my deepest secrets, my darkest self. When I fail and feel all is lost, my sisters raise me from the dead. They’ve got my back when I need them most. They love me when I don’t deserve it, believe in me when I give up. They’re the wind beneath my wings, my bridge over troubled waters. They light up my life. You get the gist.
Maybe all things considered, what my sisters give me is bigger than the narcissistic wound Janet inflicted. Maybe gains always come with pain. Maybe I should stop whining about what happened 63 years ago.
Matthew Patrick was the young director of a movie I wrote for the USA network called “Tainted Blood”. As the title suggests, it wasn’t nominated for any Emmys but it was an entertaining psychological thriller (which adopted girl is the psycho-killer?)
Cast against type, Raquel Welch did a good job as an investigative journalist. Given her fame and beauty, I expected a cold bitch and was pleasantly surprised she was warm and friendly – not to mention every bit as stunning in person as she was on-screen.
I never felt like I “belonged” at Hollywood parties so they were stressful. In this case, most of the guests knew each other from weeks on the same set. I never went to the set and didn’t know anyone but the host.
I’m not sure what Sam and Alex were doing at a cast party. To the best of my recollection, Matthew met them when we tweaked the final draft of the script at my house. I wouldn’t have brought them if he hadn’t invited them. His affinity for children impressed me. I thought Laurie Frank was great too (so did Sam) but our paths never crossed again.
Actually, everyone I encountered at the party was likable. I’m the one who erected barriers. No one laughed at my faux pas or dissed my ugly shoes; the only one paying any attention to my insecurities was me. When I stopped thinking about myself and turned my gaze on the other guests, I discovered open unpretentious smart and talented people. Too bad I didn’t figure this out till my thirties; high school would’ve been a lot easier.
The script I refer to here turned out to be my breakthrough spec script “At 17”, inspired by and loosely based on the brilliant Janis Ian song of the same title. I didn’t have the rights – I don’t know if anyone actually did – but ABC was developing it as a Movie of the Week (MOW).
My former boss at NBC, the late and much lamented Len Hill, was one of the ABC executives in charge of MOWs; my sister Janet was his assistant/secretary. He told me if I could write a brilliant script in the next ten days he’d consider it equally with the scripts the network paid for. Ten days isn’t enough to write a great script from scratch under any circumstances and it wasn’t the best of times for me. My son CD was 14 months old but well on his way to the terrible twos.
Nonetheless, I gave it my best shot. The tension was so high I threw up on some of those late nights (gross, I know) but – with Jani’s assistance – I finished it. I don’t think Len or anybody else expected me to do it.
The problem was – it wasn’t good enough. The network preferred the writer who cashed their big checks. The rejection was so devastating I gave up until my pride and desire for revenge resurrected me. “I’ll show you,” I thought. “I’ll do a great rewrite and prove you were wrong to dismiss me.”
Did I succeed? I think so. Although the film never got made, it was optioned three times and garnered interest from directors like Martha Coolidge and Amy Heckerling. Years after Molly Ringwald aged out of playing a teen-ager, she told me she would’ve loved to play one of the parts. To say the least, I would’ve loved for her to play it but my script didn’t reach her at the right time.
That’s the way things go. Big ups, big downs. Victories won, battles lost, it’s hard to quantify wins and losses when script quality is so subjective and the industry’s in constant flux. The bottom line is, were those ten sleepless days and nights worth it when I failed to get what I wanted? Would I do it again? Hell, yes. If I had my life to live over, I’d try harder, reach higher and risk bigger losses. The only way to fail for good is giving up.
I’ve been summoned for jury duty many times but never selected to serve. During voir dire, when I reveal I’m married to a lawyer, one side or the other – the prosecutor if it’s criminal, which is weird because I’m slightly pro-prosecution – kicks me. Usually, I’m relieved but sometimes I think it might be interesting to serve on a jury and observe group dynamics.
That said, the way we report for jury duty today is far preferable. I’d much rather phone a recorded message in the morning and – more often than not – find out I’m free yet get credit for a day of availability.
The closest I came to a high-profile case was while visiting a lawyer friend in Orange County. Richard Ramirez (the Night Stalker) was on trial there so I braved the metal detectors and popped in to check him out.
At the height of his killing spree, we lived on one of the freeway off-ramp streets the Stalker favored. According to newspaper reports, he disabled and killed the husband first. If J was drinking and something went bump in the night, he made me investigate because “he always kills the husband first, remember?” I must’ve been drinking too because this made perfect sense.
It’s probably no coincidence J and I quit drinking the week before Richard’s capture. When things get that scary, it’s time to get straight.
Finding myself in close proximity to the Night Stalker’s courtroom, I vividly recalled how I crept through our house alone and unarmed at 3 AM, expecting Richard to leap out of a closet any minute. I needed to look in his eyes. If he’d pulled into our driveway, his face would’ve been the last thing I saw.
He looked every bit as terrifying as he did in my imagination. I didn’t stick around.
I wasn’t as lucky as my Iowa cousins or my children – they grew up in close proximity to at least one set of grandparents. Since my sisters and I lived within five miles of our parents, all of our children spent a lot of time with Grandma and Grandpa. I saw my grandparents once a year at most when we went to Iowa or they came to California.
Consequently, while I have vivid impressions of my grandparents, I can’t say I really knew them – certainly not as well as my cousins did. My grandmother was particularly elusive – quiet, sensitive, soft-spoken and introverted although in fairness most people would appear quiet in the shadow of my extroverted grandfather R.S. He was so gregarious and entertaining it was only natural that she let him do most of the talking.
I see elements of both my father’s parents in my father. Like RS, he was comfortable talking to others and easy for them to talk to – because, like my grandmother, he listened more than he talked. His gentle nature and sensitivity resembled his mother more than his father but he was very much his own man – as he had to be, to leave his family roots in Iowa to move to California.
What I like about this diary entry is the way Grandma spoke up for herself in a clear but non-confrontational way. She didn’t disagree or contradict RS often, but on the rare occasions she did, what she said was worth hearing. I wish I’d written more of it down.
Yolanda moved in with us in 1984. She loved Chris, Sam and Alex with everything she had – especially Sam, although she never admitted favoritism. The tip-off? She always referred to Sam as “the princess.” Alex was Ahni and Chris was Goose because that’s how the princess pronounced their names. Yolanda balked at calling us John and Kathleen; we were forever Mr. John and Mrs. Kathleen.
She confided her cancer to the princess, who stepped up. She drove Yolanda to all of her doctor’s appointments, sat by Yolanda through every chemo, visited every day when Yolanda was hospitalized. The rest of us pitched in but the princess earned Yolanda’s second nickname for her – my angel.
On Friday February 10, Yolanda’s doctor estimated she’d live thirty days. She had thirty hours. When she drew her last breath at 1:30 AM, we all understood it was for the best. Her pain was excruciating, cancer terminal, death inevitable. No surprises. We knew where this road led.
Except we didn’t, not really. We’re in shock. All day I shushed our dogs so they wouldn’t awaken Yolanda – as if anything could. Three fat cats looked increasingly concerned – where’s our Fancy Feast? ‘Where’s the human who opens cans?
The light is on in Yolanda’s room. For a second, I think she’s there. I haven’t been in her room alone in years. Everywhere, pictures of our children – framed on her bureau, taped to the wall, stacked in photo albums. She carried their photos in her wallet. She loved it when strangers thought they were hers. Was I jealous, did I worry she’d spirit them off to El Salvador? No. If anything, it endeared her to me. If I couldn’t be there, who better than someone who loved them like they were her own?
On a sheet of paper tacked above her bed she drew a cross and scrawled, “Please god please god no cancer. Please god no cancer.” A purple spiral notebook was scribbled with recipes. She saved expired coupons for things she didn’t buy. A few of her clothes trailed price tags, waiting to be worn. Whoever clears my room when I’m dead will find comparable artifacts.
The photos we leave behind show what we did. Fragments of incomplete projects remind us of all left undone, bits and pieces of Yolanda. I should have known her better, more deeply, sooner. I don’t know her sister’s name or phone number in El Salvador and I don’t speak Spanish even if I did.
So what did I know about Yolanda? She made the LA Times her own personal illustrated blog. She drew devil’s horns on basketball players she hated, basically everyone but LeBron and the Clippers. She trapped a rattler outside our door by slamming a concrete slab down on its head. (I would’ve been dead from heart attack.) She didn’t drink, smoke or party. Her modesty did not permit her to wear shorts, swimwear or sleeveless blouses – ever.
She loved our forays to Costco – “the big store” – but recently I was too busy to take her until she was too weak to go. There are so many things I meant to say – should have said – but didn’t. I hope she knew – I think she knew – how much her kindness meant, how her patience and loyalty changed our lives, how many others – my sisters, parents and friends – grew to love her like we did and always will. How much we’ll miss her smile, her red coat, her curly hair, her commentary on current events (you thought she’d stop at sports?) in the LA Times, all part and parcel of the boundless heart and infinite capacity for love we knew as Yolanda Hernandez.
We’ll meet again, Yolanda.
(I’m not trying to make a political point about immigration. However, since Yolanda was an illegal immigrant when I hired her, here are the facts. She always worked, either caring for the elderly or children. She neither asked for nor received welfare. She became a US citizen in the early 90s. For the next twenty years plus, she paid taxes like everyone else. In other words, she writes checks to our government without cashing checks from them. Our country gave her something more valuable than food stamps – a chance at a better life. The way I see it, she was lucky to get into our great nation – but not as lucky as we were to get her into our family.)
The invitation for this party (reproduced above) explains it all. I wore the dress I actually wore to real proms in the sixties when I thought it was the most beautiful gown I’d ever seen. The style failed to age as well as I hoped – the dresses worn by most of the other female guests fared better (but I still got to be Prom Queen, an opportunity denied me in real life)
In this case, the photos are worth a thousand words so here are some of my favorites.
This decision was a turning point in my life – so it surprised me that until I re-read my diary entry, I remembered it wrong. The big beats – the struggle and the decision – remain essentially the same but over the years, I romanticized the fight. In my mind, it became a testament to J’s belief in me as a writer. While in essence this remains true, his willingness to bet on me didn’t come easily or with his whole-hearted support.
And in retrospect I can’t say he was wrong to have reservations. Neither of us knew that a month later, around the time the health insurance my job provided terminated, I’d discover I was pregnant and we’d pay 100% of all the ensuing medical bills. Most of the free time I envisioned after quitting my job would get eaten up with taking care of our infant son.
While I did develop a successful career as a writer, it would be three years before I earned a penny writing – seven or eight years before I’d earn enough writing to support myself, let alone our growing family. If I’d kept my job, those breaks on our tuition and medical insurance would’ve come in handy, particularly since I didn’t accomplish anything much during that interval anyway.
Betty Friedan was right – work expands to fill the time available. Later in life, when I worked forty plus office hours a week co-producing a television show, I got more writing done on other projects at home than I ever had before. When my time is limited, I use it more wisely.
So, quitting my job to provide me with unlimited free time wasn’t our best decision although it was good for our relationship. It meant the world that J believed in me but I probably should’ve believed in his judgment and stayed employed.