Back to the Watergate
by Roberto Friedman
Out There has a fun hobby of reading books, fiction or non, that directly relate to the places we visit. In Washington, DC, last month, we devoured the new paperback edition of Thomas Mallon's 2012 novel Watergate (Vintage). It was a kick to read scenes set around town – at the Watergate, the White House, Dupont Circle, the Capitol – as we pranced around the very same locales. Towering over the city and the novel, that great phallic obelisk the Washington Monument is currently clad in an armor of black scaffolding that looks like boutique bondage gear.
Although Mallon's last novel Fellow Travelers concerned closeted homosexuals in McCarthy-era DC, the new one doesn't have many gay characters, save syndicated newspaper columnist Joseph Alsop. He's related to longtime Washington doyenne Alice Roosevelt Longworth, daughter of Theodore Roosevelt, widow of House Speaker Nicholas Longworth, and a major figure in the novel. Described as "a creature of motiveless mischief," Alice is one of the most memorable characters you'll ever meet in fiction.
"Thurgood Marshall greeted Alice, taking her hand and admiring her Spiro Agnew watch, which had the vice president dressed up like Mickey Mouse and telling the time with little gloved hands. 'I told Dick [Nixon],' she explained, tapping Agnew's image, '"promise me you'll always have this one travel on the same plane as you, in case there's an accident."'"
Watergate is not All the President's Men – Woodward, Bernstein and Deep Throat are all busy cavorting offstage. Instead it follows the fall-out from the rapidly snowballing scandal and shows how it affects the criminals caught up in its velocity: Nixon and his ambivalent Pat, Ehrlichman, Haldeman, Colson, Hunt, Liddy, Mitchell, McCord, et al. It shows how central Nixon's secretary Rose Mary Woods, she of the famous 18 1/2-minute gap, was to the cover-up. And it had us exclaiming all over again, when confronted with the sheer scope of unbelievable corruption in the highest office in the land, "Holy [expletive deleted]!"
Screening last week to a sold-out audience at the Castro Theatre as part of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, director Marc Shaffer's American Jerusalem: Jews and the Building of San Francisco showed just how central to the evolution of this great city the Jews have been. They've thrived here from the burg's very beginnings, drawn to its tolerance, diversity, and lack of a rigid social hierarchy. Amusingly, the film pans over a stained-glass window in one of SF's first synagogues, showing Moses descending with the 10 Commandments not from Mt. Sinai, but from Half Dome in Yosemite Valley. We always knew we'd end up in the Promised Land!
The doc was preceded by Shanghai Strangers, a short from beloved actor/director Joan Chen that uncovers memories of Jewish life in the SF sister city during wartime. On the Castro stage for a brief Q&A, Chen pointed out that war-torn Shanghai, her hometown, was one of the only ports worldwide that was open to Holocaust refugees during WWII. She made the short, sponsored by Elle magazine, when she realized that her fellow Chinese knew little to nothing about the history of Jews in their city.
Prediction: Jane Austen fans will be in heaven watching the American romantic comedy Austenland at a special preview on Sat., Aug. 17, 11 a.m. at the Vogue. Based on a 2007 novel of the same title, the film is about an Austen devotee who crosses the Atlantic to be drenched in her favorite author's milieu. The adorable Keri Russell plays this adventurer, who is willing to drop a bundle of money on the chance that she might meet her own Mr. Knightley in Austenland – even though she knows the place is a slightly haughtier Disneyland, and the guys floating around in period costumes are actors. For free tickets, e-mail email@example.com and put Austen in the subject line. Note the number of tickets you'd like (two is the limit) in your e-mail.
Finally, we offer a tidbit from Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations, reviewed in this issue. "I'll never forget seeing Bette Davis at the Hilton in Madrid. I went up to her and said, 'Miss Davis, I'm Ava Gardner, and I'm a great fan of yours.' And do you know, she behaved exactly as I wanted her to behave. 'Of course you are, my dear,' she said. 'Of course you are.' And she swept on. Now that's a star."
Another great crack: When her ex-husband Frank Sinatra married Mia Farrow, Gardner quipped, "I always knew Frank would end up in bed with a boy!"