In Memoriam

A few days after Yale’s funeral, a group of us gathered at his tiny, pitch-dark apartment in Venice, California, half a dozen blocks from the beach. Yale had no living relatives. We were his only heirs and it was left to us to clear out his rooms, to clear up after his life, and to divide his possessions between us. There were not many- books mostly. But in Yale’s bedroom, in a chest we had trouble opening- the room was so small that the bed was jammed against the chest- we found a drawer full of shirts. Yves St. Laurent shirts. Armani shirts. Brand-new, expensive shirts, still in their cellophane wrappers. Shirts in beautiful, peacock colours that had never been worn. There must have been 15 or 20 of them. It felt like finding a stash of pornography in a monk’s cell.

We talked about those shirts for weeks afterwards. We all knew Yale was broke. For several years before his death, some members of our group had clubbed together to pay his rent. So what was he thinking of when he bought those shirts? And why did he never wear any of them?

By “we”, I mean Yale’s circle of recovering alcoholics. Yale had been sober for many years when he died, while most of us were relative newcomers. Together, we made up a drunks’meeting which was at first a public meeting, then was taken private and held at one or other of our houses every week. Yale was the meeting’s founder and its lifetime secretary. We were “Yale’s boys” although he didn’t choose us (much as he liked to pretend he did). In some mysterious way, we selected ourselves. I think it’s fair to say our group had a special chemistry over and above a normal meeting: the best way I can explain it is to say that most of us could have been friends even if we hadn’t been alcoholics. At the same time, we were all aware that our various interlocking relationships and degrees of friendship with one another ran through Yale at the centre, like the spokes of a wheel. We were the rim but Yale was the hub, even for those, like me, who kept our distance from him.

We called him our “guru”. Yale looked a little like a guru, but then he looked a little like a lot of things. He was in his late sixties at the time, with a big, bald head, old-fashioned glasses with wire rims, and a face scored with deep lines between his nose and his mouth which was itself a line, a lipless crack. Age had wasted his body, but he must have been a strong man in his day judging from his thick, peasant’s neck and thighs, inherited from his ancestors in some East European shtetl. There was a peasant coarseness in some of his manners, such as the way he rooted in his nostrils with his outsized check handkerchief or sat with his legs apart at meetings, his balls peeping out of the shorts he always wore, winter and summer alike. He looked as if he could have been anything from a comedian to a bare-knuckled boxer. The English members of the meeting were reminded of the typical features of an old school East End villain or hard man. Yale was ugly in that striking way- all the more striking in Los Angeles where a kind of aesthetic cleansing operates so that you rarely see any but physically perfect people.

Appearances, of course, are deceptive. Yale was no thug but a New York Jewish intellectual, a cultured, bookish person whose father had been a popular left-wing novelist in the 1920s and 1930s, a sort of lending-library Upton Sinclair. Yale had spent his own working life first as a journalist, and later in advertising. By all accounts, he’d been a wild man on booze and drugs for decades although bythe time I knew him, he was soft-spoken and mild-mannered, verging on the avuncular, albeit with a wolfish, predatory tinge to his features.That accounted for the slight dissonance you felt every time you met him, your momentary, subliminal recognition of the difference between the man he had been and the man he’d become, between his force of character (whether for good or evil) and a hard-earned, self-imposed benevolence and restraint.

I think that’s why some people distrusted him on sight. Women in particular were put off by his appearance and suspicious of his motives, After three marriages and the usual quota of affairs, Yale felt the same abouttheirmotives, if not their appearance. Typically, he dealt with women in one of two ways: either he ignored them, or he stood too close and spoke too importunately to them in a toothless parody of seduction. My then-wife, who admittedly took a mordant view of human nature, couldn’t stand him. She thought he was a conman who manipulated his “boys” into running his errands, driving him where he wanted to go (Yale didn’t own a car, a sure sign of poverty in L.A.), buying him meals and, in the end, paying his living expenses. We called him our guru in an affectionate, ironic way but my wife called him our guru and meant it, since to her all gurus were charlatans.

I thought- I still think- she was wrong about Yale. Yes, there was a grain of truth in what she said, just as there was a grain of truth in her description of our weekly meeting as “a bunch of ex-drunks sitting around congratulating each other because they stopped doing something they should never have done in the first place.” Recovery is full of petty princelings, minor-league demagogues who trade on their sobriety to gather a group of acolytes and turn the programme into a billet for themselves. But I don’t believe Yale was one of them. His demands on us were real but they were a trade-off, balanced in his own mind-and ours- by the unlimited time and effort he put into talking and listening to us, which was pretty much all the time and effort that he had.

Nevertheless, I kept my distance from him. Partly because of my wife. Partly because, when we first met, I was less than a week sober. I saw the way the others treated him. I soon learned that many of our group spoke to him on the phone once, twice, even half a dozen times each day. Some wouldn’t make a decision or take any action, large or small, without consulting Yale first. Having just ended one 20-year dependence on alcohol, I didn’t want to replace it with another, different dependency. I guess I was still a rebel in those days. Like many alcoholics. I was suspicious of leaders, however benign or democratic. Nor was I interested in Yale in his role as a loving father figure, unlike some of the others who had never had a father like that in their own lives.

Part of this, part of my impression of other people’s closeness to Yale, turned out to be illusory. Shortly after his death, I mentioned Yale’s marathon telephone service to one of its recipients, a man I knew had called him daily. I was astonished when the reply came back, “Oh, Yale gave the worst advice in the world. None of us would have dreamt of following it. This was someone who hadn’t held a job in twenty years and whose romantic relationships had all ended in disaster. We just called him because we liked to talk to him.” By then, I had no trouble adding what was not said- “and because we knew Yale was lonely and liked to talk tous.”

If Yale the guru was as much the creation of his boys as vice versa, what about Yale the man? I never learned more than disconnected episodes from his life story. I knew about his lost weekends- more likely lost months- in Mexico along with William Burroughs, an auburn-haired showgirl and a limitless supply of drugs in what must have been the early to mid-1960s. I heard about his stays in various mental hospitals. In his favourite loony bin, Yale edited the patients’ newspaper and protested bitterly every time the doctors told him he was well enough to leave. “I was happy in the asylum,” he told us. “It was the outside world that drove me crazy.”

Before his disease caught up with him, in that frantic race for achievement which is common among young alcoholic/addicts, some of whom seem almost to sense what lies ahead and try to outrun it, Yale was a success. He ghost-wrote a Broadway gossip column. He moved from journalism to PR, then from PR to advertising. In those days, the latter was both a well-paid business and one which tolerated bad behaviour under the rubric of creative temperament. For years, Yale led a double life as adman by day; madman by night. Heroin and champagne were his drugs of choice, but he took almost anything-and everything. Around this same time, he developed a habit of going armed to parties. After a few drinks, he’d pull out his gun and blaze away at random. Eventually, no one wanted to know him. “I was mixing with the scum of the earth and I was too crazy even for them,” he told us.

Yale’s favourite story was about how he finally got sober after numerous failed attempts.He told this story to everybody, and more than once. It took place in Room 251 of the Dawn Dee Motel in Santa Monica. He particularly liked the words “Dawn Dee Motel” accompanied by the precise room number- the whole seedy ambience it conjured up, like something out of film noir (Yale was a great film buff and a connoisseur of Hollywood’s golden age, but then so are half the population of Los Angeles). Yale kicked heroin and booze cold turkey at the Dawn Dee Motel, 20 years before we met, and from all I heard it had taken him most of the intervening decades to calm down and learn to live without them.

Following which, he became a guru in the best sense. He became one of those recovering alcoholic/addicts who embody sobriety to others still feeling their way down that long, largely unlit road. It’s been said, if you’re a real alcoholic (or addict) your problems onlystartwhen you get sober. I used to watch him in meetings sometimes when his head lolled back and his mouth fell open and he looked like a turtle retreating into its shell, and I’d try to connect the two Yales- Yale the wild man whose escapades, both drunk and in sobriety, I’d heard about, and Yale the mild senior citizen I knew. My only clue to this enigma was the diagnosis psychiatrists used to make of him and that Yale often repeated to us with a laugh. “They told me I suffered from free-floating anxiety syndrome”, he said. Once or twice in our six years together, Yale let it be known that his “free-floating anxiety” had returned and that it was, in fact, a universal dread.

That made sense to me. Yale may have modelled sobriety for many people, but his most important service to me was to model addiction. When I grasped the connection between dread and fear on the one hand and madness and addiction on the other, I learned something about my own disease. Something-not everything. It was only after Yale died that I realised how completely my alcoholism had determined my own life, thus closing the distance between us at last and revealing that distance to have been based on nothing but my own reluctance to admit how alike we were.

By then, Yale had given me another gift, which was his death. Yale was the first person I saw die, whose death I witnessed in detail. On the night he told us he had liver cancer, the meeting was at J’s house in the Hollywood hills. We sat on the sofas in J’s living room, facing the sliding glass door which filled one whole wall and gave access to the deck suspended over a canyon below. In the day, there was a view of ravines, brushwood, more hills and the tops of other houses in the trees; but at night, everything was black, a black earth studded with lights and a black sky studded with stars across which jets coming in to Burbank wheeled with their blunt shadows and winking wingtips. Yale kept his scarf tied around his throat as he spoke. It was winter, he was cold, but he still wore his baggy British Army shorts, his thick walking socks and his Birkenstock-style clogs. At some point in the evening, I felt as if I saw everything from the outside, Yale looking like a geriatric scoutmaster surrounded by his troop of middle-aged, far-from-innocent scouts.

It went very fast after that. Within two months, he was in the terminal ward at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Westwood, a place Yale always referred to as his “hotel” because he checked into it so often. A vast, modern complex run by the US government, the VA isn’t so much shabby as basic and cheerless. It’s also the only place in west Los Angeles where you see black faces, both among the staff and among the patients and their relatives. I used to visit Yale late at night. Every few days, I would drive out to see him, negotiating with difficulty the awkward turn-off from Wilshire Boulevard into the VA grounds which are like a desert island, isolated not by an ocean but by several main roads and the San Diego Freeway, along which traffic pours ceaselessly at all hours. Once I got inside the building, though, the hospital corridors and the elevators were silent and empty except for the background thrumming, as of the workings of some hidden machinery. At the entrance to Yale’s ward, a night nurse looked up briefly from her desk and nodded to me. The door to his single room was always open and the light was always on. Yale lay on a high bed like an exhibit in a museum, like a modern version of some petrified ancient lying in state. He was pumped full of morphine by then, which is an interesting irony for a recovering addict. He recognised me but often he couldn’t speak. I would watch as he chased his thoughts through the morphine fog and struggled to match them to the right words.“Don’t”he said to me but I couldn’t tell what he meant- don’t be sad? don’t be here?Mostly, I sat with a book and read while he slept and woke, slept and woke. His breathing was terrible. It came in great wheezing gasps. Once, he kicked the thin hospital bedclothes to one side and I saw that they had his lower body wrapped in an outsized nappy, like a giant baby.

After he died, when we emptied his apartment, and prior to disposing of his two cats, we expected to find a manuscript. Yale was supposed to have been writing a novel, a grand oeuvre he’d been working on forever. In his minuscule front room, the books had long since taken over every inch of space, stacked on the floor, the chairs, the coffee table, forming an impenetrable barrier between the door and the windowsills and walling in his small desk with its obsolete word processor. But they were all books written by other people. There was no sign of any manuscript of Yale’s, no writing of his of any kind. Perhaps he burned it when he knew he was dying. More likely, he never wrote a word. As I say, I knew only fragments of his history, but I did know that his father was a successful writer, that Yale himself always wanted to write, and that there was a story there- or the opposite of a story, a silence. Although we had things in common, when I try to imagine his life- the wildness of his addictions, the stays in the asylum, then the 20 years of sobriety and non-writing, let alone the marriages and love affairs in between- I am unable to do so. Nor can I explain the Gatsbyesque collection of shirts. I know that he loved us and we him. Beyond that, I can’t say what it was about Yale that caused twenty of his fellow alcoholics and addicts so to admire and respect him that we followed his example into recovery, as we will one day follow him into that solitary hospital room where his profile was stamped like a coin on the blacked-out window and where the blinds, whether at Yale’s request or due to some oversight on the part of his nurses, were never closed. All contents mike bygrave 2014