1999 James Jones Literary Society Symposium

Betty Comden

Editor's Note: The following text is lyricist and screenwriter Betty Comden's edited remarks from the June 1999 James Jones Literary Society Symposium at the Southampton Campus of Long Island University. This is the third in a series of the distinguished speakers' edited comments to be published:

My husband and I were great friends with Jim and Gloria Jones, starting from their wedding day when they arrived at the Oloffson Hotel (in Port-au-Prince, Haiti), and the owner of the hotel said, 'Guess who got married here today? James Jones.' And then we met this couple, and it was four-way love at first sight and we remained friends.

I just wanted to digress a tiny bit to say something about Kaylie Jones, who is a professor at school here who is a novelist in her own right, and a very successful one. The thing is that-this has nothing to do with James Jones' teaching his daughter, but I met Kaylie when she was 2-years-old. Her mother Gloria, had gone in a car, they were living in Jamaica at the time, and Gloria was driving the car and the little 2-year-old cherub Kaylie was sitting next to her. The car was surrounded by a bunch of Rastafari and natives who wore long dreadlocks and were pretty scary, and they started rocking the car and hurling implications at it and her. And calling her everything under the sun. Among the things they kept saying was, "Fuck you, white lady," and they pushed the car, and Gloria somehow had the courage to step on the gas and pull away.

The next day she came to the airport to meet Steve and me, and Kaylie was with her. As I came toward the car and Gloria introduced us, this golden-haired cherub looked up and said, "Fuck you, white lady." That word and other words like it became a kind of contension between Jim and me.

I always admired his writing. I thought he was a brilliant writer, but we used to argue about how many four-letter words could you use in a sentence. And I always used to say that I thought a reasonable amount was enough to make a point, but that Jim used too many. Well, this became an argument over the years. He thought I was rather prissy, sort of school-teacherish. There is a character in Go to the Widowmaker, who is a school teacher and kind of prissy, and there may be something of me in that, I don't know. We never settled that argument, but he used to tease me. I did think he had a beautiful writing style and it would have been clearer and stronger with a little less use of those words.

In any case though, Jim used to always show me his work. He would show me paragraphs, sometimes chapters of things that he had just written and always seemed to value my opinion, which of course, made me very happy. It was a great friendship and lasted and lasted.

We met at the Oloffson and then we remained friends. And when we came to New York, we got them an apartment, and then Jim admired my husband's clothes. Jim had about two workshirts, a pair of jeans, maybe a jean jacket, and Steve had this splendid wardrobe. The first thing he wanted Steve to do was to get him a wardrobe. So in New York, he took him to a man named Woody Sills, who outfitted him. And then Jim was quite a dandy after that. He loved clothes. He had this marvelous taste. He was a very fancy, wonderful dresser.

So, we remained friends and we visited each other wherever. They moved to Paris, which broke our hearts, but we stayed in touch. We visited them there and then they had a house in Jamaica for a year. The time we went to visit them-and we visited them several times there-that's when Jim was writing Go to the Widowmaker. He was in Jamaica. He was skin-diving, and when Steve and I arrived, he insisted that Steve take some lessons in skin-diving. I think two lessons in a pool were considered enough experience to go down into the depths. Gloria and I were out on the boat with two guys and we watched them put on their gear and go backwards up over the side of the boat, possibly never to be seen again. It was terrifying, terrifying.

I remember Jim came up once a little bit later when they were both down there and he wanted the underwater camera. So, he went down with the camera, and then later when they scrambled up and Steve said, "You disappeared for a while," and Jim said, "Well, I went up to get the camera. There was a shark near you, and I wanted to take a picture."

But I remember in spite of the arguments about Jim and the writing-there was one thing: In Go to the Widowmaker there's a beautiful chapter about skin-diving, about what it's like to go down to the bottom of the ocean and to be that close to something so primordial and beautiful and inexplicable and this kind of the euphoric feeling. I was reading this long paragraph-it was a page or two of describing the man going down to the bottom of the ocean-and I was thinking this is really poetic, really beautiful writing and is extraordinary, and I must tell Jim how much I love it and admire it. Then the thing continues, and I was just adrift at the beauty of it, and he said, "And then he got to the bottom of the ocean and sat on the ocean floor and masturbated." So, you know, that's fine. OK, but it's not the picture I wanted to see of the man at the bottom of the ocean floor.

I think a lot of people had the impression that Jim was pugilistic and war-like and tough. And he was. And he was tough-talking and heavy-drinking, and he did fight a lot. But that wasn't all he was. He had a very poetic nature and a deeply sympathetic and empathetic one. I remember one night, Steve and I, and Adolph Green, my partner, and his wife, we took the Joneses to Brooklyn to see Judy Garland, who was trying to make one of her numerous comebacks. She had done that and then she had slipped again and so she was in a big night club way out in Brooklyn and we went there and we were friends of hers. We sat down and she came out and started to sing and stopped. And she couldn't go on. She just broke down and left the stage, and it was just frightening and sad. So we went back with Jim and Gloria, and Jim was so upset about Judy and what had happened to her, he ran out to the car and he got a copy of The Pistol. He had a copy of his manuscript in the car and he wanted to do something for her. He brought that back in and he signed it and gave it to Judy, and she was thrilled to have it and it kind of helped her evening, helped to get through and helped her feel more like a person again. Jim was so sympathetic, he couldn't bear to see her suffering.

Then I remember being with Gloria in Texas at the Harry Ransom Library in Austin where they had put up a whole-they have all of Jim's papers and they had an exhibition of his things with a big table set up, and Gloria's novel, that Budd mentioned, was there-a copy of her novel-and pictures, of course, from From Here to Eternity and all of Jim's books and this copy of The Pistol. Because when Judy Garland died, her papers were put up for auction. I guess some woman bought it, bought a lot of stuff, and had, among Judy's things, Jim's copy of The Pistol. So when the time came, she gave it to the University of Texas and it was such a full-circle moment, standing there and seeing Gloria pick up this copy and remembering all the times we had spent together. [That copy of The Pistol is in the University of Illinois Library.]

You know he was all the tough things that everybody says, but the hero of From Here to Eternity is not pugilistic; in fact, he was a fighter who wouldn't fight because he killed someone in the ring, and he was a poet. He was a musician. He was an artist. He was not the typical soldier or the brutal character. I think Jim hated brutality and hated all those terrible things about the Army. At the same time, I think he loved the idea of this society of men and the kind of friendships that could come out of that situation, but the brutality end of it he hated. And Pruitt, of course, was an artist and I think with his sensitivity, very much like Jim.

When I went to see Jim in the hospital-he was dying-he said to me, "Get me some poetry." I said, "Sure." I had a rented house out here, so I ran home, picked up a book-it was an anthology of American poetry-and I ran back to the hospital with it and he looked up and said, "No, I want Yeats, I want Yeats." He said, "This isn't poetry." He didn't like the whole book I brought him. He was indeed an enormous admirer of Yeats. And he used to read it aloud in the evenings sometimes; we'd hear him read. And he was deeply moved by the poetry.

There were so many things that seemed contradictory, are contradictory about him. Apparently Jim was a very small and rather weak, sickly child with bad eyes-and nothing to do with a macho kind of personality-and he was deeply affected I think by it. Then his father committed suicide when he was a youngster; he shot himself. And all those things shaped him in ways, you just looked at the outside. You just looked at the kind of public persona, you didn't see any of these things, but as all his friends who have talked to you already, knew, he had this very, very sensitive poetic inside.

I'm just very happy I knew him. He was also a lyricist. He wrote the lyrics to Re-enlistment Blues. That was a big hit. A big hit song. He was not that crazy about the theater. He and Bill Styron-I think Bill got to like the theater a lot because he wrote plays. But before that when they came to New York and Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolfe? had just opened, it was the hottest ticket in town. I mean, you couldn't get near it. So they said could I get them tickets for it, and I did. It wasn't easy. I got them four seats and I said, "Well, after the show, come over to the house and we'll have supper here."

About 9 o'clock, I had curlers in my hair and cream or whatever, and I went to the door and there they were. They had left after the first act. I was stunned. So they didn't like it, and I had a feeling in discussions I had with them-I thought that they felt that playwriting was not writing. I mean, it wasn't writing as they knew it. I don't think they respected it quite the same way, but then as I say, Bill did write some plays, and they were good. So he changed.

And I think if Jim could hear me standing up here burbling on, he'd look at me and say, "Fuck you, white lady."