Growing up in the 1960s in Hawaii, TV may have largely presented an idealized, sanitized, largely white view of the world, but it also introduced a ton of richly variegated, mostly New York talent to me, stuck on an island — however beautiful — in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
It was the golden age of the now extinct variety show, and I was particularly fascinated by that small cadre of feisty, balls-out dames who would swagger onto “The Ed Sullivan Show” or “Hollywood Palace” and do their special thing — Phyllis Diller, Joan Rivers, Totie Fields, Moms Mabley — and Marilyn Michaels, whose gamine face and figure personified fun as she impersonated all of them, plus a hundred other popular divas of the day.
The singer/comedian has turned writer with her debut book, “How Not to Cook, for the Rest of Your Life,” and when she invited me to lunch with her at Sardi’s to discuss it, believe you me, this boy jumped! She was already seated when I arrived, and all I had to do was turn on my recorder and bam!: “I’m having what I always have here — the spinach canneloni. I try not to have it too much — with three tomatoes — and then I pray. This is where I sat with Burt Reynolds. He was great friends with Vincent Sardi.
“Burt took me to a party at Vincent Sardi’s townhouse. It was so nice, but I was involved with somebody else at the time. What, I was gonna turn down a date with him at that time in his life? Burt asked me, ‘How deep into him are you?’
“I told him only a few months and he said, ‘That’s too bad because you’re now in the thick of it, it’s not just beginning.’ So, we’re at this party and he disappears. I was looking all over for him and found him in the attic, surrounded by teenaged girls. And then I realized that that was not what I wanted to handle.”
When I mentioned gay rumors that have always swirled around Reynolds, she said, “This I don’t know.”
Despite the title of Michaels’ book, “It’s really not about cooking. It’s about relationships, about women cooking for men and men for women, most of whom have in my life, if they wanted to get lucky [laughs], and cooking together.
“I was always busy working, but it’s always expected of you to cook in a male-female relationship. Like, after sex, somebody always says, ‘Oh, I’m going to the kitchen. Can I fix something for you?’ Invariably, it’s the woman who does that. In a male-male relationship who fixes something? I think that after two women have sex, they both run into the kitchen, bumping into each other. We women are so trained to serve — ‘No, I’ll do it!’”
It was a pure joy it was to be in Sardi’s, our voices raised in laughter, the waiters sharing our enjoyment, getting interested/ amused looks from the other patrons, most of them acquaintances of Michaels — defining haimische — who, bare, pretty feet up on her seat, turned the joint into her living room.
“A guy I really wanted I made fucking spaghetti for, Goddamit, al dente, baby! But, inside, I was not happy, thinking, ‘So why doesn’t he go and make it for me?’
“This one guy happened to be a newspaper man — hello! — I have a weakness for journalists! We went shopping for food, got the eggs, and he said, ‘Let’s get asparagus!’ But this man folded the asparagus into the omelette and brought it to me on a tray, in bed. Wasn’t that something?
“I don’t think he was aware of the implication, because this was just a fling to be honest. He was a womanizer and I knew it. But we remained friends all through the years, flirting back and forth, because once is not enough! There’s nothing like making love — the beauty and the sensuality. And I’m not knocking that sense of closeness — Marlene [Dietrich] said, ‘I really don’t care about sex, I just want somebody to hold me and she got a lot of people to hold her. You have to love yourself — that’s what my book is about. Now you’re making me cry.”
Dating-wise, Michaels has usually avoided comedians, although there was one, younger and very attractive, whom she considered a genius. “I met him at a restaurant after talking on the phone for God knows how long. We spoke the same language because he was very artistic and, you know, I’m a painter, as well. I just fell into his arms and took him back to my apartment. I don’t usually do it on first dates, it takes me six — okay, maybe four — and a ring. I usually get a ring — I’m a child of the 1950s — what do you want from me? They like it — they want to win you. They don’t want what’s easy.
“So, here’s the mistake he made: I’m lying back this way [strikes a sensual pose] and he said, ‘You don’t have any wrinkles.’ Now I know that was a compliment, but it’s not the kind of thing I wanted to hear then. Schmucko.
I said, “Yeah, but I could pop off any minute!”
In her illustriously lengthy career, Michaels has literally met and/ or worked with just about everybody.
“The only ones I didn’t meet were Ava Gardner and Sinatra, of all people, and Olivier. I worked with Debbie [Reynolds] a lot and Eddie Fisher at different times, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh. It’s a great provenance to have.
“Well, Debbie was lonely and said, ‘I don’t want to be like my best friend, Lana [Turner]. She’s so lonely.’ Men were intimidated by her, so Debbie was fixing Lana up, but lots of men said no. She was so breathtaking she made Sharon Stone look like a doorknob, but they were scared, not as macho as you want them to be, men are very fragile. I come from the land of hunt me down, pursue me, drive me to your cave or mansion in the sky. Like in that movie ‘Monster’s Ball,’ where Halle Berry says, ‘Just make me feel good!’ and they’re like, ‘Duh!”
Phyllis Diller, she was so wonderful. She was a wonderful person
Recalling her days on the Sullivan show, when she was one of a handful of pioneering funny women, Michaels said, “We had a thing, us comediennes — we had to be pretty and present our most attractive, glamorous selves. If you were fat, there was room for just two people in the business: Totie Fields and Mama Cass. You had to be pretty and turned out well — Peggy Lee, Dinah Shore — every single one of them was gorgeous. I don’t know what happened — maybe there’ll be a return to elegance.
“You asked about Joan Rivers. Howard Stern made me go into his studio and play a trick on his producer, pretending to be her: ‘It’s Joan. Can we talk because you’re so terrific and Melissa’s going to have a show I think you should do.’ We went on for 10 minutes like this until I said something absolutely ridiculous. And he was like, ‘Who is this?’
“I did Joan’s show and I write with admiration about her, her tenacity. But she was not nice to me and the thing is I’m not really a stand-up. I do characters and am a singer. She was threatened, and I know you have a total understanding of the insecurity among funny people. It is so insane. I’m on her show and I said something and she didn’t know what to do to shut me the fuck up. She said, ‘Oh, yeah, really, sure, yeah.’ Oh gracious hostess — not! However, we can talk about Phyllis Diller who was so wonderful. She was a wonderful person who wasn’t threatened by me: ‘Whatever you want, honey, you’re going to go up and make ‘em laugh!’ But Rivers, no. Yet I admire and miss her.
“But when you get a chance, read my book. You can just dip into it anywhere — it’s all little tiny subdivisions. Read it on the toilet, because your humor is great and you will scream!”
HOW NOT TO COOK, FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE | By Marilyn Michaels & Mark Wilk | $18.95 | 204 pages