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The Last Picture Show

Another summer has slipped away, he said in melancholic stupor.  Thank God for the hardy perennials, led off by our baseball Muckdogs, who finished below .500, but who really cares about the score as long as one hears the crack of bat and sees the flash of glove? The game as gathering place is the thing.

For the second year, our daughter Gretel conducted a series of video interviews for thebatavian.com with the ballplayers, a likeably cocksure lot. Her toughest question—“What’s your favorite book?”—provoked one relief pitcher to respond, with boastful incredulity, “Yeah—like I read.”

For those who do read, we finally installed a memorial bench this summer for Batavia’s native son, the novelist John Gardner (Grendel, October Light). It’s purple and yellow and sits outside the Pokadot, our unselfconsciously funky southside diner. Next time you’re scudding along the New York State Thruway, Governor Dewey’s soulless reprise of the Erie Canal, stop off at our fair town, grab a beef on weck at the Pokadot, and sit yourself down on the Gardner bench, which marks the literary-culinary epicenter of New York. (Elaine’s and the White Horse Tavern are for poseurs.)

Hereabouts ’twas also a season of funerals, including two for nonagenarian great-uncles of mine: Uncle Johnny, an Italian who made the best dago-red wine that ever soused a toper, and Uncle Joe, the suave shortstop on the best town-ball team the tiny hamlet of Lime Rock ever fielded. How many times those dear men made me laugh…

I also lost a friend who dwelt in that most sleepless precinct of the demiworld, the outskirts of fame. I wrote several months ago about Bill Clune, the highest-paid male model of the Mad Men age (“Meet the Marlboro Man,” March 2011). Bill’s twin brother, Peter, an actor, died at age 85 this past July.

Peter was a raconteur, a wit (especially in the sense that a wit is someone who laughs at my jokes), the most prodigious consumer of gin this side of Nick and Nora, and a bon vivant who could take and keep a scunner—to use one of his novelist father’s favorite words—as fiercely as any man I have known. Peter once angrily returned a Christmas card to us because my sloppy penmanship had obscured his middle initial (H) on the envelope. In the annals of Peter H. stories, this was virtually anodyne.

Yet Peter, unlike that relief pitcher, read. His father, Henry, had met or corresponded with a range of literary eminences, and Peter would refer with a respect bordering on awe to Mr. Maugham, Mr. O’Hara, Mr. (Samuel Hopkins) Adams, and their works. He paid genuine deference to talent, and so it nagged at him that in looking back upon his own career on stage and screen his accomplishments seemed few and paltry.

They weren’t, mind you, but theater performances are ephemeral. He insisted that he had been good in off-Broadway productions of “Born Yesterday” and “A View From the Bridge,” but how were we to know? The flickering images of Peter that endure consist of scattered B movies that range from dreadful to unlocatable (“Blue Sextet,” “Juke Box Racket,” “Dirtymouth”).

October 2011 IssueThe first VHS release in which he had a sizable role was “Stigma” (1972), a lesser work of the soft-core/hard-gore auteur David (“I Drink Your Blood”) Durston. Peter, playing opposite the black guy from “Miami Vice,” is a New England sheriff who cheerlessly spreads VD across his debauched domain. It’s an infra dig role in a claptrap movie, and I didn’t have the heart even to kid him about it.

But Peter had one brush with cinematic quality: “Blast of Silence”(1961), a low-budget, bleak film noir much prized by connoisseurs of the genre, which recently was released as a Criterion Collection DVD and featured on Netflix. Peter, playing as always against his Hill School upbringing, portrays a low-life mob boss targeted for a hit. The assassin studies Peter’s photo as the hardboiled narrator growls, “You know the type… a mustache to hide the fact that he has lips like a woman. The kind of face you hate.”  (In fact he had a big, beefy, drinker’s face, neither feminine nor hateful, but a scenarist will have his license.)

I sometimes mused about organizing a Peter H. film festival for his friends, or at least that fraction thereof with which he was on speaking terms at any given time. Between “Blast of Silence,” the Italian gangster film “Anastasia Mio Fratello,” and various TV episodes, we’d have had three rollicking, gin-soaked evenings. Peter would’ve enjoyed the hell out of that.

It’s the things we never do that we regret.

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