The other day I watched a TV documentary about wolves. The narrator called one of the packs The Jets, which of course made me think of West Side Story, in which the members of a street gang sing:
When you’re a Jet,
You’re a Jet all the way . . .
This made me remember being on Long Island and sitting through my niece’s Sunday-school play, a parody of the TV sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter. In this version, a Hebrew-school class stood in for the sitcom’s high-school class of Sweathogs. The concept might have had promise, but the title was Welcome Back, Kosher (Mr. Kosher was the variant of Mr. Kotter) and the children sang:
When you’re a Jew,
You’re a Jew all the way
From the day of your bris
To your bar mitzvah day . . .
The actual Welcome Back, Kotter song was written by John Sebastian, whom I remembered meeting one day at Maria’s, the coffee shop in our town where several artists, intellectuals, and other citizens would gather every morning.
Another time at Maria’s, I was reading a collection of excerpts from writers’ diaries. As I sat at Maria’s, I read Gail Godwin’s account of stopping at Maria’s to buy her lunch. It was definitely the same Maria’s, since Gail Godwin lives in our town and I regularly see her at the health club where we both exercise.
And that reminded me: the same collection included some pages from Norman Mailer’s diary, in which he mentioned that his first mother-in-law called him a pisherke. This means “little pisser” and is the Yiddish equivalent of “too big for his britches.” My mother also used that word, with the same meaning, which is not just a coincidence, since my mother and Mailer’s first mother-in-law were friends and had grown up in the same town outside Boston.
The in-laws lived next door to the family of the beautiful young woman who played my mother in the first play I ever acted in. This was a community-theater production of Blind Alley, a thriller in which I played a wise-guy little boy. A pisherke, in fact, although the family in the play would never have used—or even known—that word.
Now I remembered that when the former in-laws came to pay their respects after the death of my father, I asked them about Mailer. The former mother-in-law said, “He was a jerk”—the pisherke remark was probably not as affectionate as Mailer assumed when he recorded it in his diary. The former father-in-law said he thought Mailer was a genius.
Then they told me something that a graduate-school friend said—with some excitement—was an item that could contribute to American literary history. They said their daughter was the real author of The Naked and the Dead, the best-seller that established Mailer’s reputation.
Naturally I asked what they meant. Their daughter made a lot of editorial suggestions. She may, from what I remember them telling me, have done his typing for him, as wives often did in those days. Although her contribution may not mean she actually wrote the book, she may have played a big part in the book’s literary and commercial success. And his next books can be said to show out-of-control egotism, possibly due to the loss of his former wife’s guidance.
About those wolves: I think you can do an interesting documentary about wolves without giving them or their pack clever anthropomorphic names. A wolf pack is inherently fascinating and doesn’t behave much like a singing, dancing, New York street gang, which was in some respects a later version of the Dead End Kids. And they’re really far from a Hebrew-school class as portrayed by youngsters on Long Island.
As for literary history, please spell my name correctly in your footnote.