SONG ESSAY

 

The editors of Bergdorf Goodman magazine kindly invited me to recount some of my adventures as a writer and

performer of satirical songs in this article, published in the magazine's Fall 2006 Collection edition:


BERGDORF GOODMAN

Magazine, Fall Collections, 2006


DON’T SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER

By CHRISTOPHER MASON


“I ABANDONED SONGWRITING IN 1995, AFTER SEVEN YEARS OF MUSICAL MISCHIEF. BUT LATELY I’VE BEEN GETTING CALLS ASKING ME WRITE AND PERFORM FUNNY MUSICAL ROASTS AND TOASTS AGAIN. BEING BACK AT THE PIANO HAS MADE ME NOSTALGIC FOR NEW YORK’S LAST GILDED AGE.”


Journalism can be an exhilarating profession, but the odds that prose will provoke howls of laughter, wild applause and standing ovations are notably slim. That thought struck me recently when I found myself back at the piano performing a satirical song I had written about Liz Smith, the good old gal of gossip, at a star-studded dinner in her honor to benefit the Writing Center at Marymount Manhattan College. When I first came to New York from London, that was my career. So it was a joy to rediscover – after ten years of writing only articles and books – that poking fun at rich and powerful people in saucy songs can be tremendous fun, especially if the piano is in tune.


Ten years ago I stumbled into journalism when New York magazine published my diary of the hilarious disasters that ensued when Merchant Ivory tried to shoot a movie in the Upper East Side co-op where I was living at the time. That happenstance launched my career at the New York Times, where I reported on the dispersal of the chattels of Jerry Zipkin, the irascible New York socialite who was adored and reviled in his heyday as Nancy Reagan’s walker. (His snake-skin furniture wound up at a suburban Holiday Inn in a Massachusetts and his monogrammed boxer shorts were hawked at the 26th Street flea market by a lady wearing psychedelic ski pants and yak boots.)


The privilege of chronicling such peculiar aspects of the human comedy in newsprint made me infatuated with journalism. I abandoned song-writing in 1995, after seven years of musical mischief, and became wrapped up in my new life of prose. By 2004, when Putnam published my book The Art of the Steal, an investigative account of the Sotheby’s-Christie’s price-fixing scandal, I had completely forgotten my erstwhile career as a musical satirist and the joys of insulting people at the piano.


But lately I’ve been getting calls out of the blue asking me to write and perform funny musical roasts and toasts. (The Municipal Art Society asked me to compose a musical tribute to Agnes Gund, the president emeritus of the Museum of Modern Art, when she received the Society’s coveted Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Medal for her efforts to improve the quality of life in New York City. With apologies to Irving Berlin, I called it “Aggie Get Your Gund.”)


Being back at the piano has made me nostalgic for my early years as a songster and I’m grateful to BG for inviting me to recall my experiences of that gilded age, which was ripe for satire.


My life as a wandering minstrel was full of adventures. In 1988 – a banner year for big hair, shoulder pads and naked greed – Ivana Trump called to ask me to perform aboard the Trump Princess, the 282-foot yacht that the Donald had recently purchased. At first I thought it was a prank call from Mario Buatta, the Prince of Chintz, who had recently hired me to perform at a New York Public Library gala (the first time I had unleashed my saucy songs on the public).


To my great relief Mrs. Trump was full of fun and quick to laugh at herself. She laughed out loud when I accused her of planning to turn the Plaza Hotel – which she was running at the time – into a giant walk-in closet in response to her husband’s boast that he was paying her a salary of a dollar a year plus all the dresses she could buy.


As the Trump yacht circled the Statue of Liberty I sang to a contingent of 60 fiercely chic lunching ladies about an eerily familiar phenomenon I had witnessed in New York: a new breed of savagely social trophy wives who were wielding their husbands millions like rapiers through the delicate fabric of civilized society.


I called them wolves in chic clothing, or Park Avenue Parvenues:


She’s hell on wheels,

She’s hard to please,

The tiara set is aghast;

She thinks no-one knows

That she’s less than a rose,

With a highly embarrassing past.

Park Avenue parvenus

Are shopping madly for next week’s cruise,

She’s working very hard at it, the world agrees,

She’s chairing a ball at the end of the fall for the latest disease.


Mrs. Trump led the applause and I found her to be refreshingly straightforward.


“You were great, Sweetie-pie,” she said. “Did you get your check?”


She snapped her fingers to summon an assistant.


“This is Mr. Mason. Make sure he gets his check.”


When news of her divorce from Mr. Trump hit the front page of every tabloid, I sang about her divorce

negotiations in a song that received countless encores:


I-vanna Plaza and

I-vanna yacht,

I-vanna half of what The Donald has got,

I-vanna Mar-a-Lago when the weather’s hot,

That’s why the lady’s still a Trump!


As an itinerant court jester paid to point out folly, I performed for some extremely powerful people in some very rarefied environs: I was invited to sing at an exclusive dinner given by The Prince of Wales in Charleston, SC, for global business leaders; at the official reopening of Blair House, the president’s guest house, in the presence of Secretary of State George Schultz; and at Philip Johnson’s 90th birthday party at the Museum of Modern Art, to namedrop only a few.


One morning James D. Robinson III, the chairman of American Express, called me from his limousine to ask if I could conjure up a surprise song for his wife’s birthday.


“When?” I asked.


“Twelve-thirty at 21 – today,” he replied.


Panic! I usually spent days researching, writing and rehearsing songs but I had no intention of saying no to the chairman of American Express. After two hours of agonized preparation and perspiration I strode into a roomful of plutocrats’ wives and belted out my song at the piano. Their laughter was a balm for my frayed nerves.


I was happy to receive new and old money. In 1989 Brooke Astor hired me to rustle up a song for a party she was giving to celebrate the launch of Rosamond Bernier’s entertaining and immodestly titled memoir, Matisse, Picasso, Miro – As I Knew Them. I came up with a ditty to the tune of “La Vie en Rose.”


Miro, Miro on the wall

Who’s fairest of them all?

Of course it’s Rosamond . . .

When Matisse was living down in Nice

She arrived with her valise

That clever Rosamond

With all those naked odalisques

She was taking risques . . .


A loud burst of applause had me feeling jubilant until Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis entered the room. Heads turned to watch her arrival and I was despondent that I had missed my chance to perform for the former First Lady.


Mrs. Astor jolted me out of my doldrums. “Could I ask you a very big favor?” she asked. “Would you mind singing the song again for Mrs. Onassis?”


She didn’t have to twist my arm. Mrs. Astor presented me to Mrs. Onassis, who burst into giggles when Mrs. A turned to greet other guests.


“Did you hear how Brooke introduced us?” she asked in a breathy, confidential whisper. “She said, ‘I’d like you to meet a very talented young man – Jackie Mason!’ ”


“Christopher, are you really a borscht-belt comedian?” Mrs. Onassis continued, teasingly.


(Jackie Mason and I shared the same agent at William Morris, but our acts were notably different.)


When I fell behind with the rent – a frequent occurrence – I was obliged to accept some daunting challenges. On one occasion I was conscripted to serenade a Plaza-Hotel ballroom full of shoe reps who had gathered to salute the outgoing president of the Fashion Footwear Association of New York – a gentleman named Richard. I cobbled together some verses that defiled Cole Porter’s “I Get a Kick Out of You” with “Dick gets a kick out of shoes,” followed by a soft-shoe-shuffle chorus that still haunts my reveries: “There’s Few People Like Shoe People. . .”


To my friends’ astonishment I was selected as the star entertainment for a Washington convention held by the International Council of Shopping Centers, who asked me to craft a rollicking ditty about proposed changes in the tax law for American malls – not an obvious topic for comedy. (Miraculously they laughed.)


Some challenges were clearly beyond my creative powers: I was asked to whip up a song of praise for the honoree of a white-tie hospital ball in Atlanta, a philanthropic and gracious lady named Gay Love. (Not easy to do with a straight face, I figured, so I took a pass.)  


As CNN and Court TV grew increasingly popular in the early 90s I turned to TV for inspiration. During a live broadcast of the Florida rape trial of William Kennedy Smith I composed “The Kennedy Torpedo Libido,” a jaunty Irish ditty that makes hay of that family’s propensity for romance. It brought the house down when I performed it at Tatou. a fashionable nightclub, four days after the verdict:


Growing up as one of the Kennedys,

Although you get the amenities,

You’re bound to get charged for obscenities,

Tura-la-lura-lai . . .

Teddy is the Kennedy with lots to teach:

“Let’s spend Easter in Palm Beach,”

Willy Smith found himself a real peach,

Tura-la-lura-lai.

Now who’s to blame, and who’s at fault?

And what is sin? And what’s assault?

It’s Kennedy style! It’s flattery!

So don’t go calling it battery . . .


By an excruciating coincidence, Willy Smith - the alleged perp himself - wandered into the room with a posse of blond girls just as I was warbling about his Kennedy libido. He looked ready to punch me in the nose when Carmen D’Allessio, the nightclub impresario, tried to introduce us at the bar. The incident was immortalized in the Star, the weekly tabloid - a clipping I treasure to this day.


The travails of alleged sex criminals made for gripping material, but commissioned songs paid the bills. In 1989 the Democratic Governors Association invited me to Washington to perform a song about Pamela Harriman, the legendary political hostess and astute blonde who would later become Ambassador to France. (I was introduced that evening by a relatively unknown politician, the governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton.)  


I had been warned to avoid any mention of Mrs. Harriman’s postwar “Paris years” – a euphemism for the exertions that gave her the unofficial nickname “La Grande Horizontale:” (During the 1940s she fox-trotted with some very rich and powerful men, including Gianni Agnelli, Aly Kahn, Averell Harriman and Jock Whitney.)


Pamela’s wilder adventures were crying out as material for a fully blown satirical song. But it was only recently, when the requests for new songs started coming in, that I reread Christopher Ogden’s mesmerizing book about Pamela Harriman, The Life of the Party, which inspired me to write a different song about that great siren of the Seine, Pamela Digby Churchill Hayward Harriman:


Dripping in diamonds and swaddled with furs,

She had dozens of husbands, but just three were hers!

Hey ho, again and again,

Pammy was catnip for powerful men,

What was her secret? What gave her that glow?

Millions of women would sure love to know.

Now she’s in heaven we’ll just have to guess

What made sweet Pammy a roaring success;

Was it her beauty, or was it her lips?

Or clever contortions she did with her hips?

Hey ho, ingenious Pam

Lived to give pleasure, did not give a damn,

So if you believe in the power of romance,

You too could wind up ambassadress to France!


I don’t regret my conversion to journalism, but I’m grateful that my musical muse has returned. Human folly is somehow more entertaining, and bearable, with the accompaniment of sly rhyme and a delicious melody.