Friday, July 24, 2015

The Son (of Ethel Merman) Also Rises

F. Scott Fitzgerald once said that the rich “are different from you and me.” One look at Donald Trump and you know that’s true. It’s clear -- no matter how you feel about Trump’s presidential ambitions -- that everything he does is shaped by his awareness of his own wealth and power.

Some people, including Scott Fitzgerald, deeply admire the wealthy. Others distrust society’s “haves,” and identify with the have-nots. Few feel more strongly than those who’ve grown up surrounded by privilege, all too aware that our nation’s one-percenters don’t always use their gifts well. 

Take the case of my new friend Bob, who’s the son of Broadway and Hollywood legend Ethel Merman. His father, who died when he was twelve, was a successful businessman. His stepfather owned Continental Airlines, and pursued side ventures (like flying troops to Vietnam and flying bodybags home) that made him heaps of money in the late Sixties. Bob vividly remembers an argument in which his mother shrieked at his stepdad, “You use me to get to Nixon for your goddam contracts for your goddam war.”

Bob grew up in posh surroundings on Manhattan’s Central Park West. There was a friendly doorman, and an annual party for the building’s kids, who’d gather to watch the floats of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade at eye level. The family’s 21st story duplex boasted its own wraparound terrace, complete with lily ponds. Unfortunately, it also boasted what he calls a “Fascist” governess, who at bedtime made him recite the Lord’s Prayer in German.

None of Bob’s parental figures gave him much in the way of attention. Nor did they encourage him to develop a sense of empathy for those who had less: “You didn’t get involved with fans. At best you gave them an autograph. You didn’t get involved with the working class. At best you gave them a tip.”

During his mid-teen years, Bob was “spinning in my undeveloped, unparented juices.” When Merman went on the road as the star of Gypsy, he convinced her to let him live on his own, in a residence hotel on the Upper West Side. Needless to say, he didn’t bother with school attendance; he was too busy using his mom’s charge accounts to take cute young things in the Bye Bye Birdie cast to Sardi’s. Merman was angry, because she expected good behavior – but she never seemed much concerned about how he’d make his own way in life.

Fortunately, Bob slowly gravitated into theatre work, of the backstage variety. He got his first gig because of family connections, and deserved to be fired for a long list of screw-ups. But somehow he acquired kindly mentors, who’ve seen him through good times and bad. Today he spends long hours working for environmental causes and an award-winning charity called PlayWrite. He's  tremendously proud of the homeless boy from the streets of L.A. who’s become his adopted son.

Ethel Merman, of course, was famous for her powerful singing voice. Didn’t he and she ever sing together? Well, yes. . . for a while their bedtime ritual (before she left for the theatre) was to duet on a ditty called “Play Ball.” The unspoken deal was that if any words came out wrong, they’d have to start again from the beginning. So he’d mangle the rhymes in hopes of having his mother to himself just a bit longer. Shrugs Bob, “That was our sharing, pretty much.”

Today Bob still mistrusts the rich. He firmly believes that once we come to see wealth as surplus, fame as distraction,” the world will finally begin to heal itself.


  1. What a life! Didn't Ethel Merman and Ernest Borgnine spend some time together? I wonder if Bob has any stories about that?

  2. Merman and Borgnine were married for a very short time. Her chapter on him in her memoir is a page that's absolutely blank. Borgnine does give some details in his own book, making it sound as though HE is blameless and SHE is nuts. There may be some truth to that! (I'll ask Bob when next I see him. This matter is a bit too delicate to inquire about in an email!)

  3. Bob a very nice guy I meet in the late 70s not suprised he adopted a homeless boy a great guy

  4. Milord, I'm glad to be exchanging messages with nobility! Glad you and I agree on Bob's merits. Please do visit Movieland again!