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Sherman Yellen

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My Jubilee Year: Snapshots From the Album of My Marriage

Posted: 06/22/2012 3:29 pm

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The Way We Were

The Queen of England is not the only one celebrating a 60-year landmark this month. My wife and I celebrate ours this week. No royal barges or songs by Sir Elton will mark our wedding anniversary, but we have been together for 60 years (fact check: it is actually our 59th anniversary but 60 if you take into account a year of intense courtship), and life being what it is, tricky and unreliable, I choose to celebrate our Jubilee now rather than wait for another year with all of life's uncertainties.

When we married on a sweltering June day in 1953, the chance of our marriage lasting was remote -- even when divorce was something of a rarity in our world. Born in the early Depression years we came of age in post WWII America. I'd just turned 21, a recent college graduate with a determination to make my living as a writer, and Joan was 19, and an amazingly beautiful girl at a time when Elizabeth Taylor and Ingrid Bergman set the standard. We met at college, as many people did who married early. We were far too young to have settled feelings, and we had no jobs or money: a recipe for a marital disaster.

Neither of our parents had been divorced. Mine had soldiered through some difficult years, while hers had enjoyed a good marriage, so divorce was not in our DNA.

We were outspoken, opinionated, stubborn -- oh, so stubborn -- and not afraid of snapping a judgment or a having good fight. No smart bookmaker would have given odds on our marriage enduring for six years, let alone 60. Young people in love in those Eisenhower/Kennedy years didn't live together first as 80 percent of the couples do today; they got married amidst a family celebration and a lot of ugly wedding presents: silver-plated table top cigarette lighters, crystal ashtrays, and enough wooden salad bowls to launch a life devoted to nothing more than smoking and eating iceberg lettuce and pale pink hot-house tomatoes.

We were Depression era babies who married in "The Age of Anxiety" when fear of the bomb, the Russians, juvenile delinquents, and flying saucers lived side by side with Father Knows Best, comedian Milton Berle, the poems of W.H. Auden, and the dreaded, indefinable "existentialism." Although TV had made its steady incursions into movie-going, it was still a time of superb filmmaking. Storytelling was an art that then depended on good writing and performances, not special effects. Brilliant film stars acted in literate movies such as Sunset Boulevard, All About Eve and On The Waterfront and superbly crafted comedies such as Some Like it Hot filled the big theater screen with laughter and glory. And so we have lived from that Age of Anxiety to the Age of Kardashian where a glut of celebrities whose work nobody has ever heard of go in and out of rehab as the cameras roll and turn their sad, soft disorders into hard cash. Life may be far more expensive than it was in the '50s and '60s, but fame and fortune are so much cheaper.

Okay, enough from the grouchy old man -- on with the story.

Our first son was born 10 years into our marriage; our second son came a decade later. Only recently have we known the pure, undiluted joy of having granddaughters, a magnificent 7-year-old and the soon-to-be 4-year-old wonder twins. No regrets for the late start. Before our own children arrived, we had the usual badly underpaid and often crazy jobs, but the world was so much cheaper then; we were young and it was fun. I helped to edit the various quarterly publications of a wealthy, eccentric woman, and my wife worked at the early Today show where J. Fred Muggs, the show's famed, and not-so-tamed chimpanzee, had a major crush on her. A fanatical dog, cat, and all-purpose animal lover, she survived that experience.

We left our native New York City to live in the dowdy but charming post-war London -- where I had a small but sufficient grant to write a study of Shakespeare -- travel through a tourist-free England, and watch as London transformed itself from wonderfully odd to exciting new Mod. I wrote some plays that garnered a few TV assignments and I began to earn a fair living writing for everything TV, from The Man From U.N.C.L.E. to miniseries for the networks and (pardon the pride) a prize-winning one for public television, The Adams Chronicles. When I had my early adventures on Broadway having written the libretto for a well-received and long-running musical, The Rothschilds, and working in regional theaters, some successful, some not so, my wife was always there to bring sanity into the madness that accompanies every theater production.

The life of a freelance writer is by its very nature one of insecurities, and it helps not only to believe in oneself but also to have a companion who believes in you. And if, for a little while, others share in that belief it is more than okay. It isn't two against the world; the world will always win in that battle, but two facing the world together over a lifetime, bolstering each other's spirits in difficult times and saying, "It's okay."

While I was working on a TV project away from New York a careless driver ran down and killed my mother, and it was my wife who broke the news to me, my wife who saw me through that terrible time. She was there to help me get through the death of my beloved sister from leukemia. Not to mention her being beside me during my various brushes with mortality from a series of near-fatal illnesses. But she was also there to celebrate the joyful birth of our grandchildren. Little did I know then that these girls would be the late-life gift that just keeps on giving. It's not only they are the future, but childhood's great blessing is that a child lives entirely in the present, something that we strive to do as we age, knowing that every day is a gift. My wife is the one who tells me to stop talking about the granddaughters obsessively to friends and strangers -- and that after 60 years of finding me interesting I have finally found a subject on which I am a complete and total bore.

Some snapshots are still sharp in my mind, such as those of friends who have changed our lives. The late Wally Harper was my composer/collaborator who taught me a new craft in my late middle life, lyric writing, and friends John Sparks and Joan Mazzonelli encouraged that new work through their Chicago presentations of our last show Josephine Tonight, a musical about the early life of Josephine Baker that has now had several successful productions. In every area of life we have been blessed with the greatest of friends -- many as close as family -- some now in their eighties, some ailing, some well, but all of them still working at the art or the job they love -- not just surviving but living every day to the fullest -- recapturing in old age the joy of discovery that we often lose after childhood.

And then there were the marvelous dogs in our lives: the incredible Gus, the only dog, a mini schnauzer, that could laugh at a joke, and did, followed by the incomparable Max, and now grand-dog Sam a gentle chocolate Lab -- and the wily, willful, and wondrous cats: Whiskers, Broadway, current feline resident Byron, the list goes on and on. Thanks to my wife's love of animals I cannot now think of a life without one, despite the pain of losing each in its turn.

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The magnificent Max in his prime
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The time of our lives -- sometime in the '60s

In the early '60s we bought an old farmhouse on an acre of land in Eastern Long Island on the wrong side of the Montauk Highway. Yes, there were right and wrong sides to everything in those days. Life was good for us but not so good then for most African Americans, single working women, and others who struggled against social and economic bigotry. And we knew it. The shame was that everyone knew it and it has taken so long to correct it. We have made some real progress in 60 years, but a progress that is under constant attack by those who see their privileges threatened by the advancement of "them" or "the other."

Looking out from our kitchen window we could see a wide expanse of potato fields, distant trees and a true blue sky -- all this for 20,000 hard-earned dollars with the mortgage held by a local bank that actually knew who we were. I think back on it as the happiest of times, our kids were young and healthy, our parents were alive, and everything seemed to be going well. That old house allowed my young sons -- one of them was born there -- and our various beloved dogs and cats to enjoy playing on the open land, enjoying the beach and that amazing sky. It was then a place of hard-working potato farmers with Polish names, hard-playing artists, hard-talking writers, small-town stores, gnarled old gardeners who could trim a hedge with a small pair of clippers, and genial librarians who always got the book you wanted for you. The old Hampton rich who had the big Ocean Road estates knew better than to drive anything fancier than a Ford station wagon or face being mocked for their pretentions. Okay, there was the tipsy Truman Capote who could be seen weaving unsteadily in his flashy red sports car down the country lanes from his beach house, but he was sui generis. Regrettably, we left it all forever to go to Los Angeles when my paying work moved there. And soon enough the hedge trimmers gave way to the hedge-funders, taking our joyful past with it --- forget that -- better to let some memories RIP.

Living as a married couple through the era of the Beatles, the civil rights protests and the early Vietnam War was so different from what one sees on Mad Men. I give the show good marks for the skinny neckties, the unapologetic drinking and the cigarette smoking, but they so often get the feelings wrong. Sure, we all met and worked with a few scoundrels but most friends were people whom you could trust without a second thought. Feelings then were not fashions. All was not blind ambition; decency, forever in short supply, existed and was honored. And love -- always an endangered condition -- was not generally regarded as a carousel ride where one was forever reaching desperately for that elusive brass ring. For many of my close friends it was preserved and renewed by facing down bad times together rather than running away from them.

Today, some long marriages may seem the result of cowardice or inertia, the refusal to make a new start, and then another new start followed by yet another start as one age's out of romantic love into terminal loneliness. Sociologists and anthropologists tell us that man was never meant to be monogamous, and that the short life spans of the past were the only reason for one wife and one husband for one life. Somehow I think monogamy will outlast sociology. True, long marriages face a particular challenge with the new longevity. Clearly, the human species was never meant to survive our various maladies and live to a great age with the same person beside us. Modern medicine has made that a possibility and a challenge. But I figure if we can survive our own youth together we can get through our older years, as every part of life has its own special challenges.

My wife was the daughter of a World War II soldier, a doctor who served in the Far East. Having missed him during her childhood, she grew up hating war. Later in our marriage when W. brought us into Iraq she would walk away from the TV in disgust as he boasted of his delusional victories. In our 60 years together there were plenty of occasions when she walked away from that TV, but she never walked away in disgust from any person who came to her in trouble. Not only had I married a woman of great charm and intelligence, but someone who every day practiced loyalty, discretion, privacy, generosity, and kindness, while she has had to deal with me, a husband who never had a feeling or an experience that I was unwilling to air in conversation or in my writing. That is the writer's dilemma: our lives are our material, and Lord knows what she will say when I publish my memoir, Spotless, next year; one that takes a perilously close look at my own life, and the lives of friends and family, some famous, some infamous, some great human beings.

Years ago a successful film producer offered my young and beautiful wife a movie contract; another producer offered her a leading role in a TV drama. To their amazement she refused their offers, claiming she had no natural talent as an actress and had no interest in becoming one. She spent her career years working in design, loving beauty and art, and raising our sons. I had the privilege of watching a young girl grow into a strong woman of courage, who was always ready to offer comfort to a troubled friend in a dark time. She would put privacy aside to join in protest against abusive power be it a futile, brutal war in Vietnam, or to protect a helpless young immigrant girl from an unjust deportation.

Growing old with someone you deeply love is often both the best and the worst of life's experiences. Among the best are the shared joys -- a lot of easy laughter with and without the kids -- the kids who for all the pains of parenting, can and do grow into friends and good people if you can accept the hard fact that your children are not you. And then there is the inevitable blending of selves without losing the self; something that can only happen to a couple over time, something that goes far beyond sexual union. Worst is the parade of serious illnesses, the failed work, and most of all the daunting early deaths of those we loved like that of my sister; death through accident or illness for parents and friends: the loss of those splendid men and women who sweetened our lives by their presence in it.

A long marriage is my subject here, but it's hard to avoid politics since every marriage is shaped by the politics of its time; the politics shared or disputed. My wife and I are basically progressives with a libertarian streak, and some very conservative values -- quite a mash up of views. We both regard the Roberts court as a threat to the America in which we grew up, an adjunct of the extremist wing of the Republican Party determined to undo the progress of the past 60 years. Today, we share a dread of candidate Romney equal to the fear people had in the '50s of space creatures invading planet Earth. That guy is truly scary. For us, his calculated smile and stilted words suggest a facsimile of a human being, someone who has studied how to speak and look human but who struggles not to reveal his true "alien" origins since he knows so little of real American life. Lacking both empathy and imagination he is like a creature concocted in a space laboratory light-years away; a resident of the distant, dying planet Ziranda here to colonize the earth as such creatures do in a B-minus movie. Having parked his flying saucer in one of his five-car garages to conceal his inter-galactic origin, he is now aided by the vast fortunes of an angry Vegas billionaire and a preening, puffed up, real estate mogul whose mission is to destroy President Obama and make the world safe for the pod people. Putting sci-fi aside, the idea that Romney can be our next president is truly alarming for those of us who lived through the New Deal, the Fair Deal, and even W's Raw Deal. Romney's "Sharp Deal" could and would destroy any government controls, weak as they are, on the very financiers -- those self proclaimed "job creators" who decimated the middle class through their recklessness and greed, and got bailed out because they were too big to fail, leaving most of their countrymen too small to succeed.

What is emerging from this ominous election campaign is the possibility of a government that ignores such cruel realities as impoverished children by destroying Medicaid and food stamps; a government that would deny to the cities the lifesaving services of adequate police and fire protection, services that also provide needed jobs and stimulate the economy; a government that wants to starve public education, a sure way to create an ignorant, submissive society of drones. I worry less about the debt we are leaving to some hypothetical future generations than the debt we owe to the present generation, one that is underemployed or has just entered the work force -- the debt of a job at a living wage, and the chance to someday have a family and a future.

The American playing field was never level, even in the hallowed time of FDR. The accident of birth, and the inequality of education and talent, has always been with us, and always will be. But the leveraged buyout of the country by Romney and his powerful friends is something quite new; something that should strike terror in every citizen who cares about their own families -- for family is the prism through which we see the future. To find anything like the Romney phenomena we have to reach back to the distant past more than one hundred years ago when Teddy Roosevelt railed against those Robber Barons who turned a blind eye to suffering and whose only real loyalty was to their ever growing fortunes.

I hate to think of our future world being a dark variant on It's A Wonderful Life -- one that has Jimmy Stewart committing suicide and Mr. Potter, the heartless banker smiling as we fade out with an iris shot of the triumph of cruelty and greed. Fortunately, experience has taught me that most predictions are wrong, including mine, and I hope against hope that I am wrong in this one.

A long life should teach you that there is no one right way to live -- a lesson I am still learning -- and that too much certainty is the enemy of truth, although there are eternal decencies like compassion and generosity that are immutable. We are all of us flawed, imperfect people, not prototypes of the good life, and anyone who professes that his or her way is the only way is a damned fool, including, perhaps especially, me. Although I believe in facing down one's demons I don't advocate anyone remaining in an abusive relationship; if trapped in one run for the nearest exit marked divorce. Our lives are not a model for others but a matter of luck, talent, and personal choice. I know that for many there is a true satisfaction in living alone, or in long term or casual relationships, pursuing an art or a career to the exclusion of all else, and this life, chosen or imposed by fate, is for them the best of lives. I know we all die alone, but I was never one to live alone so my 60 years of a loving companion, my friend in laughter and in tears has been the great experience of my life.

As a long-time married man, I find that those who consider same-sex marriage a threat to their own marriage are downright weird. No good marriage was ever threatened by the love that other adults feel for each other. Married or single, straight or gay, we all fight the loneliness that may be as great a killer as cancer: loneliness is when you die and still live on, and a good marriage is one of the palliatives for such emotional and spiritual isolation. Oh yes, we have the Internet to keep us busy. I do enjoy my Apple but it will never replace a live companion, wife, friend, or child, and no I pad can bring tenderness and healing into our lives. Gadgets are just that -- ingenious conveniences, toys, diversions, helpers in work and play, but nothing can compete with any human connection, the touch of a hand, the sound of laughter from a loved one, and those memories that break through like music from a distant room.

I don't need this anniversary to tell me how splendid it has been to have my wife beside me through all our skirmishes with life and death, our darkest moods and brightest joys. I believe that you should grasp at any excuse for a celebration, and toot your horn loudly, be it for a child's fourth birthday or another wedding anniversary. Through time and its inevitable loses we know the absolute preciousness of life, and love. So I will celebrate my great good fortune in loving the right woman at the wrong time and making it through these 60 years together. It will be a pleasure to raise a glass in tribute to all that she is and all that we became together, even without the fanfare, the barges and Sir Elton John, if only -- if only -- we can have each other for just a little -- no, make that a lot, lot longer.

 
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