While I was shooting "City Island" I learned that a dear friend of mine had passed away. Luther Davis died on July 29 of this year, age 91, of natural causes. For those who follow musical theater, Luther was something of a legend, having written the libretto's (scripts) to two hugely successful and influential musicals--1953's "Kismet" and 1990's "Grand Hotel" (he was nominated for the Tony for both and won for the former). The librettist's art is an under-appreciated one--they are often called "book writers" which was a term Luther would have firmly rejected--and Luther, along with Joseph Stein ("Fiddler On The Roof"), Dale Wasserman ("Man Of La Mancha") Larry Gelbart ("A Funny Thing Happened On The Way to the Forum") and Hugh Wheeler ("A Little Night Music") was one of the giants of his theatrical generation. He was also a screenwriter of note, having written "The Hucksters" with Clark Gable, "A Lion In The Streets" with James Cagney and the darkly fascinating "Lady In A Cage" starring Olivia De Havilland--a truly independent film both in its spirit and making which Luther produced as well as wrote.
I met Luther through my family about fifteen years ago and I can only describe my first impression of our meeting as being akin to having walked out of my own life and into a 1940's movie of what life, among the Manhattan intelligentisia, was like. Engaging with Luther was to step into a vanished world of grace, charm, finesse and--make no mistake--a barbed intelligence that didn't suffer fools. I realized that Luther--born in 1918 in Brooklyn--grew up in the world that I always wished to be part of, the upper-crust New York of the thirties and forties, and was deeply a part of that society--no matter how long-vanished that world was. He told me tales of the nightclubs he frequented, the theatrical figures he hobnobbed with and the women he openly and unabashedly admired and loved. He lived with his beautiful partner Jennifer Bassey in a penthouse on East 86th St (though they eventually married, he once gave me a lovely lecture on what a "stuffy" word marriage was and how much cooler it was to be boyfriend and girlfriend--this from a man then in his eighties). He jogged around the Central Park reservoir daily, kept strict writing hours, was fastidious about personal health and appearence, was openly delighted and unembarrassed by everything sensual and whenever we went to lunch he ordered a Kir Royal to start. Bon mots fell from his lips without effort and to this day my wife and I quote "Lutherisms": once we all went to see a Broadway show, beginning with a dinner at Joe Allen's. We all started with a Martini and when the waiter came by to ask if we'd like another, Luther replied, "No thank you. The first act is already in peril." Clifton Webb couldn't have delivered that line better. We repeat it religiously to this day.
Another time, I had the amusing misfortune of attending a not terrific revival of "Inherit The Wind" with Luther and Jennifer. The play's creakiness was only worsened by poor, aging George C. Scott's attempt to liven up what would prove to be his last Broadway performances. By intermission it was apparent that we were all suffering through an evening that never should have been. But, to be polite, I said to Luther: "Isn't it amazing to see this back on Broadway?" Luther paused. Then, subtly and with a glint in his eye: "And for it's farewell appearence, Raymond."
The history of Luther's show, "Grand Hotel", taught me a great deal about what it takes to succeed in show business--unending perserverence and self belief--as well as a willful ignorance of the calendar and how absurdly long things can take. Originally Luther got the idea of transforming the novel (and movie) of "Grand Hotel" into a musical in the 1950's--he and his "Kismet" collaborators Wright and Forrest put the show together and premiered it at the LA Civic Light Opera in 1959. And apparently it didn't really work. Paul Muni was the star and I got the impression from Luther that a number of decisions were made to placate the star that were not, ultimately, beneficial to the development of the show. It never went to Broadway and, for most people, the experience would have been chalked up to just another show-biz misfire. But Luther held onto the notion that they were onto something for...thirty years! Think of it. As he told me, it was upon seeing "Les Miz" in the late 1980's that "I finally figured out how we should have done our show". I don't recall quite what the connection was, but the late 80's blockbuster dramatic muscials infused Luther with a sense of mission to revive the long dormant project. To many this would appear a hopeless hill to climb. But for Luther it was what he did and what he was meant to do. Before long he and his longtime collaborators had revised their work, gotten Tommy Tune on board and were "suddenly" the biggest hit show of the early 90's. In a strange twist that I will never be able to explain, my son--when he was three years old--became captivated by the score of "Grand Hotel" and can still sing it. And it's not exactly kid material...I chalk it up to DNA. He felt my friend's sensibility through the music and knew that he wanted to be part of it...
I knew Luther as a man only positive in his view on life and work, as a lover of all things that brought delight and as an unabashed sensualist. What I didn't know until I read his New York Times obituary was that his life was formed by a very peculiar tragedy, one that he never discussed with us: when he was four years old his father, a successful and respected businessman, shot three people to death--he was under the impression, apparently that they were burglers when they were, in fact, a policeman and a couple of insurance adjusters. He was duly sent to the penitentiary and the emininantly respectable home that Luther was born into was transformed into a home from which the father had been forcibly removed from and incarcerated. Now I begin to understand why his film "Lady In A Cage" was so important a piece of his life's work--the story revolves around senseless violence perpetrated on innocents and how even the innocents are capable of violent and lawless responses when put in a dangerous situation.
Thus, this most elegant and astute of life-loving men also had his own dark view of how thin the blade we live on is; that he lived his long and productive life in such a compellingly un-neurotic fashion is, in retrospect, quite the accomplishment--as graceful and accepting of life as can be. Even more lovely than this, though, is the last bon mot he left me with: when I visited him in the hospital in June, he was asked if he wanted to get out of bed. He answered that he did. Then he was offered a heavy woolen robe to keep him warm. "No thank you", he said. "I wish to remain seasonal about this." Which meant that the summer sky was setting out of the window over the East River and Luther would remain in his light pajama's, suitably attired for the world and the season and the city that he'd been part of for so many years.