Arnold Weinstein: The Magical Use Of Language

Arnold and I were talking about the modern world. He thought a moment and then said, “History is a thing of the past.” The comedic surface of that remark, coupled with its profound undertones, was typical of his extraordinary mind.

He died on September 27, 2005 and his obituary in the Times did not begin to express his brilliant, unique, and often surrealistic and magnificently eccentric personality. In the Sixties, I was the resident playwright at Yale Drama School when he was teaching playwriting there. His sometimes bizarre behavior often made one underestimate his genius. (He once asked for the wine list on the New York/New Haven Railroad.) After a performance of Larry Arrick’s production of The Three Sisters at Yale, he gave a lecture on the universality of Chekov and the play that was a work of art unto itself.

During that period, he conducted the seminars in playwriting, and I often worked privately with the student playwrights. From time to time, we would meet in his office to discuss plays presented in class that I had read previously. We often disagreed, and there was a delicious intensity at these meetings. He’d sit on one side of the desk and I on the other. The desk itself was always covered with pages in wild disarray. Somewhere beneath those pages, there was a telephone. One day, our eyes were locked as he struggled to make a point that was contrary to the one I had just expressed. As his monologue started to take shape, the phone rang. He stopped in mid-sentence and called out one word: “Hello!”

“No, Arnold,” I said. “First you pick up the phone. Then you say hello.” We laughed out loud, and he never did answer the phone.

The English actor, Kenneth Haigh, gave Arnold’s play, The Party, to David Merrick. Merrick read it and wanted to discuss it with Arnold at a meeting. After the meeting, Arnold and I met for lunch. We walked north on Sixth Avenue toward a Jewish deli/restaurant on Fifty-Sixth Street. The meeting with Merrick had obviously not been very successful, and he didn’t want to talk about it. He seemed lost in his own thoughts. He carried a copy of the play and The New York Times in one hand. As we passed a trashcan on a corner, Arnold threw the play into it and kept the newspaper, something I saw but had no idea was not his intention. Moments later, a tall and beautiful young model walked toward us on the sidewalk. She was carrying her leather portfolio and wearing a mini skirt that revealed her long and lovely legs displayed in rainbow colored stockings. Both of us admired her approach without thinking about it. It was late autumn, and there was a chill in the air. People were moving quickly. When she was about ten feet from us, Arnold raised his hand and studied the newspaper with shock and disbelief. He waved it in the young woman’s face and called out, “That’s The New York Times!” She dropped her portfolio, jumped straight up in the air, and ran out into the street. I retrieved her portfolio and brought it to her. I guided her back to the sidewalk.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “My friend has had rather a bad shock.” She spoke not a word and hurried on. I looked for Arnold and saw him running back to the trash can where he exchanged the play for the newspaper.

Arnold’s long hair was salt and pepper gray when I met him. Later, it became snow white. It was curly and always seemed to take on the contours of a white man’s afro, neat and spherical in its abundance. Paul Sills (a mutual friend and the creator of Second City) said that Arnold was always “dressed.” There was a ring of truth to this. Although Arnold usually appeared just slightly unkempt, his taste in clothes was European and impeccable. The linen shirts, the delicate Italian shoes, the Saville Row suits, all worn as everyday dress with seemingly casual indifference, as though he had been wearing them for days and they had started to wrinkle ever so slightly. The quality of the material would never let them appear sloppy. Arnold was about five feet, eleven inches tall, and he walked with a kind of gliding swagger. He showered and shaved every day, but dust seemed to gather wherever he settled himself. It was as though his energy was creating an electronic charge that left a film on every available surface. His education at Harvard and elsewhere, his knowledge of Latin and Greek, and his pursuit of ancient Chinese poets made him seem, at first, a professorial intellectual, an academician, which, in some vague sense, he was, but his artistic inclinations countered this perception with a visceral connection to the modern world. Among his close friends were Frank O’Hara, Larry Rivers, John Cage, and a host of actors and theatrical innovators who recognized and learned from his vast store of knowledge.

On a spring afternoon more than twenty years ago, I was in the neighborhood and decided to ring Arnold’s bell on W. 13th Street, an apartment he inhabited for a while before moving into the Chelsea Hotel. He admitted me, and I saw that he was looking at videotapes of the Crosby/Hope road movies. He said he had been hired to write a musical based on them. I was not a bad baritone at the time, and I did a passing fair imitation of Bing. As I let go with a few notes, Arnold’s eyes lit up, and he opened an expensive bottle of wine. He then set the parameters. We’d watch a scene, and then we’d act it out, he as Hope and me as Crosby. Then he’d write something down and we’d go on. I got progressively more intoxicated and was belting out the old songs. “Moonlight becomes you. It goes with your hair…” And there we were, off on the Road To Morocco. It went on for more than eight hours, and we both got stinking drunk. He was hilarious mugging the comedian, and I knew for a moment what it meant to be the most popular singer in America. When I left him, I fell asleep in my car and woke up at dawn with the most excruciating hangover. We never discussed the project again, and I don’t know if he ever finished it or if it was ever produced. Several months later, we were talking on the phone, and he said that he was at that moment developing a play about W.C.Fields. As everyone does when the name is mentioned, I did my Fields’ imitation. He told me that I had to come over right away. I declined saying that I didn’t think I could survive another encounter with his creative juices.

As the years passed, we saw less and less of each other. He became seriously ill with a liver ailment, and my writing met with less and less favor in the circles that count, but we continued to talk on the phone at least once a month. We described our writing projects to one another and made suggestions about the work. The last time I saw Arnold was on May 28, 2003. We were attending a memorial celebration of the life of Jack Gelber, a mutual friend, who had recently died. It was at the New School. He was haggard and obviously gravely ill but still “dressed.” His appearance broke my heart. On the street afterwards, he told me a funny story about being out to dinner with John Ashbery. (I don’t know if he remembered that it was included in his book about Larry Rivers.) “When asked about an appetizer,” Arnold said, “Ashbery said that he was antipasto and provolone.” I told him that with Jack’s death, he was the last of the three men who’d had the biggest influence on me. Jack Gelber, Julian Beck, and Arnold Weinstein had always been my mentors and advisors. Arnold replied that humility was a virtue that required introspection and that nobody thought about introspection any more.

To fully understand Arnold’s magical use of language, one must read his poems, plays, and librettos. The internet makes them available to everyone. I have not listed or quoted from them here because I wanted to try to present a brief personal memory of the man I knew and loved.

In 1971, I was managing a restaurant called Remington’s on Waverly Place near Broadway. One evening, a short, somewhat heavyset man in his forties came in and asked me for a job. He said he was an artist down on his luck and needed the work. He said his name was Mel Weinstein. I asked if he was any relation to Arnold and he replied that they were brothers but seldom saw one another. I told Mel that the only opening I had was for a dishwasher. He took it without a second thought. The dish washing machine at Remington’s was a huge aluminum contraption at the kitchen entrance that emitted enormous clouds of steam. Some days later, I walked into the kitchen, and Mel was engulfed in clouds and barely visible. His voice cried out above the hiss of escaping steam. “When I finish washing these dishes,” he said, “they’ll be so clean, you could eat off of them.”

Yes, I thought to myself. There is no doubt about it. That is definitely Arnold’s brother.