The night was cold and sure to get colder, and at the playwright Sherman Yellen’s Upper East Side apartment, talk of snow, predicted the next morning in abundance, was so earnest as to make one nearly see it already. In fact, ensconced in the warm dim light of the 11th-story living room with a glass of prosecco in hand and a fire in the grate, it was positively easy to wish for the storm, especially if you possessed a nostalgic bent of mind.
In that snug, book-filled room, playing host to Sheldon Harnick’s launch party for Yellen’s memoir “Spotless: Memories of a New York Childhood,” one would have been hard-pressed to find an alternate state of mind. Rose-tinted glasses seemed so universal in the room, in fact, that one guest, led by Yellen to examine a display of photographs of him throughout his life, was almost surprised not to hear any mewlings of the oft-disparaged “Cats” ballad “Memory.”
As it was, only one cat appeared, a handsome, brown, imperious prowler, the sort of simultaneously grand and cozy beast with whom one would like to face the prospect of The Storm.
The only creature in the room who more directly drew affection than the feline was Yellen. Clad in a black ribbed sweater and baggy black trousers – heaven help the fool who referred to those pants by any other name – the man of the moment commanded attention, as well as an unexpected degree of lust.
“I saw ‘Oh, Calcutta!’” one woman said, after being introduced to him . “My lurid past!” he exclaimed. “What about the lurid present?” she retorted.
Likewise, when the famed Broadway lyricist Sheldon Harnick stood up to officially introduce Yellen – Harnick, who was technically throwing the party, spent most of it in joyful quietude on a central couch – he said of the writer “he’s wonderful, he’s intelligent, he’s funny.” A woman in the audience hollered, to boot, “He’s cute!”
Cute Yellen may be, but when it came to looks, he was insistent on his wife’s superiority. While he first led his captive guest to the photos of himself, he was quick to point towards a photo of his wife in her youth, and when he stood to read, he chose a passage from their honeymoon.
“My wife who was also Jewish had that Swedish, Garbo-like beauty that was so admired in America and elsewhere at that time, and beauty, great beauty often trumps bigotry.” The wife in question, seated on the same couch as Harnick, listened to Yellen with her eyes fixed on the wall, running a single finger endlessly around the rim of her retro, flat-bottomed wineglass.
When he arrived at a certain dramatic passage in which the two of them, guests at a dinner, were stunned by a virulently anti-Semitic utterance by the hostess, she raised her chin and opened her lips slightly in a gentle gasp of memory. One almost saw her merge, for a moment, with her younger self on the wall, the younger taking a breath of shock, the elder one of an odd, regretful longing.
The reading ended. A guest, examining the book’s cover, emblazoned with an image of young Sherman, remarked “you could have passed, in those days, as that little Hitler youth.” A woman in a camel-colored sweater suit, looking at the same image, remarked not on the image’s vaguely military seriousness, but the quality of the boy it depicted.
“Were you a deep child?” she asked.
“I was more than a deep child,” Yellen responded. “I was waiting to grow up.”
More prosecco was quaffed, a platter of sushi slowly disappeared, and the cat came around again, then got swept up in someone’s arms, as cats are wont to do. The crowd filtered out, and next to a bottleneck by the door, Harnick and Yellen hugged and took photographs with their wives. Scarves were swept around necks, and the elevator, in its ancient elegance, eased its way skyward to fetch the last of the guests. Just before it arrived, Harnick stepped out of the door.
“Next year in Jerusalem,” either he or Yellen said. It was impossible to tell which it was. Then the last guests returned to the lobby, where, confronted by the prospect of a distinctly unromantic wind, they filtered out reluctantly.
“Stay warm,” someone called.