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Tales of Times Square: Sessums on the City Pride Month reflections by celebrated author and journalist Kevin Sessums
On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, we asked Kevin Sessums — former Executive Editor of Andy Warhol’s Interview, Contributing Editor at Tina Brown and Graydon Carter's Vanity Fair, theater critic at Towelroad.com, author of the New York Times best-selling memoirs Mississippi Sissy and I Left It On the Mountain, and current editor-in-chief of sessumsmagazine.com , an online magazine of culture, conversation and current events — to reflect on his intersections with Times Square, LGBT history, and the theater over the years, drawing on his life and work. We will share these installments, prepared throughout the month, during the week leading up to World Pride on June 30.
THE O’HARAs OF TIMES SQUARE
by Kevin Sessums
When I was in sixth grade, I wrote a book report on Valley of the Dolls, which I remembered in my first memoir Mississippi Sissy. Valley of the Dolls was, in some wa, my first foray into Times Square, its character Neely O’Hara my tough little tour guide who became a Broadway star in the book in spite of her herself just as Times Square in so many ways has become, in spite of itself, the gleaming star of New York City. The novel had been out for a couple of years by the time I, as a kind of initial act of gay defiance, read it when I was 12 years old. I had seen its author Jackie Susann on all the talk shows back then. I loved her throaty, Pucci-wearing glamor and yet, always aware of my own audience, knew that I was going to have to do a hatchet job on the book if I wanted an A on the report from my sixth grade teacher, Mrs. Fikes, who had given me permission to do the report since she recognized in me the defiant little gay kid I was becoming in 1968 Mississippi. But don’t get me wrong. I loved reading every word of the lurid tale of show biz located at its neon Neely O’Hara-inhabited fulcrum of Times Square.
Neely was an imagined diva from the lurid mind of Susann. But the real-life Broadway star Kelli O’Hara could not be further apart from that other O’Hara in her demeanor and lovely allure. I interviewed O’Hara back in 2008 for Parade magazine when she was playing Nellie Forbush in South Pacific. This summer she can be seen as Lilli Vanessi/Katharine in the Roundabout Theatre production of Kiss Me, Kate. She has never been in better voice. Neely O’Hara is the love child of Ethel Merman and Judy Garland, but Kelli O’Hara seems to be the result of magical melding of Mary Martin and Barbara Cook. I wish I could find a link to that Parade article but not everything is on the internet. My fondest memory of our conversation in her dressing room before a performance that night of South Pacific was Kell’s reminiscing about Oklahoma where she grew up and how she worked on her tan as a teenager on her family’s farm by picking cotton in her bikini. There might be a purity to her high notes that matches her allure as a ladylike presence on the Broadway stage but there are some low notes as well to her sex appeal. I can’t see her in a show without at some point thinking of her tan lines. Like Times Square, she’s family-friendly but there are tucked away corners to her talent that can catch you off-guard and remind you that there is still quite a grown-up allure to it all.
The poet and art critic Frank O’Hara wrote often about the grown-up allure of New York from his perspective as a gay man here in the 1950s and early 1960s. “I can't even enjoy a blade of grass unless I know there's a subway handy, or a record store or some other sign that people do not totally regret life,” he wrote. “It’s more important to confirm the least sincere. The clouds get enough attention as it is...” One of my favorite references to Times Square is in this poem.
A STEP AWAY FROM THEM
by Frank O’Hara
It’s my lunch hour, so I go
for a walk among the hum-colored
cabs. First, down the sidewalk
where laborers feed their dirty
glistening torsos sandwiches
and Coca-Cola, with yellow helmets
on. They protect them from falling
bricks, I guess. Then onto the
avenue where skirts are flipping
above heels and blow up over
grates. The sun is hot, but the
cabs stir up the air. I look
at bargains in wristwatches. There
are cats playing in sawdust.
to Times Square, where the sign
blows smoke over my head, and higher
the waterfall pours lightly. A
Negro stands in a doorway with a
toothpick, languorously agitating.
A blonde chorus girl clicks: he
smiles and rubs his chin. Everything
suddenly honks: it is 12:40 of
Neon in daylight is a
great pleasure, as Edwin Denby would
write, as are light bulbs in daylight.
I stop for a cheeseburger at JULIET’S
CORNER. Giulietta Masina, wife of
Federico Fellini, è bell’ attrice.
And chocolate malted. A lady in
foxes on such a day puts her poodle
in a cab.
There are several Puerto
Ricans on the avenue today, which
makes it beautiful and warm. First
Bunny died, then John Latouche,
then Jackson Pollock. But is the
earth as full as life was full, of them?
And one has eaten and one walks,
past the magazines with nudes
and the posters for BULLFIGHT and
the Manhattan Storage Warehouse,
which they’ll soon tear down. I
used to think they had the Armory
A glass of papaya juice
and back to work. My heart is in my
pocket, it is Poems by Pierre Reverdy.