Seeking Ageless Wisdom? Ask the Aged

'How To Live' cover
How to Live
By Henry Alford
Hardcover, 262 pages
Twelve
List price: $23.99

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Henry Alford

Henry Alford's previous books are Municipal Bondage and Big Kiss. John Woo hide caption

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"It is commonly said — but I believe it anyway — that old people are wise," writes journalist and humorist Henry Alford on the first page of How To Live, his pompously titled, not at all pompous new book. A few years ago, Alford went digging for the wisdom of the ages, which he hoped to discover by talking to the aged. The result is a thoroughly nutty mess of a book that is also unexpectedly and intermittently wonderful.

Alford dutifully interviews a laundry list of grizzled luminaries, including imperious (but in this meeting, positively sweet) literary critic Harold Bloom, the wheelchair-bound author/guru Ram Dass and an exceedingly kooky Sylvia Miles, who keeps an Andy Warhol doll on a little shrine across from her toilet. His encounters are terrifically fun to read about, even if they yield few discrete pearls of wisdom, let alone an overarching philosophy.

Instead, the rambling narrative is held together by the unfolding marital crisis of his mother, Ann, and stepfather, Will. After 31 years of togetherness and Will's botched suicide attempt, Ann decides to end the relationship. Her exit line is characteristically blunt: "I've made my plans for the rest of my life, and they don't include you." As Alford puts it, "She doesn't cut to the chase; she starts at the chase."

This vibrant and idiosyncratic octogenarian unwilling to live out her remaining years in a moribund marriage becomes the story's de facto heroine. A bird-watcher and avid traveler, Ann is ever game for the new adventure, which includes playing the role of a Chiquita Banana in a retirement-home play.

Anecdotes and aphorisms pile up while Alford persists in attempting to glean wisdom from the senior set. In the end, however haphazardly, the book comes closer than you might initially expect to fulfilling the promise of its title. As a reporter, Alford is generous, droll and boundlessly curious, qualities that his favorite subjects, not coincidentally, also exhibit in abundance throughout this funny and eccentric volume.

Excerpt: 'How To Live'

How to Live
By Henry Alford
Hardcover, 262 pages
Twelve
List price: $23.99

Chapter 10

"People disappoint you. Lovers disappoint you. But theatrical memorabilia stays with you, as long as you keep it under clear plastic."

These are the words of a woman who'd been married three times by the age of twenty-five.

These are the words of a woman who has twice been nominated for Academy Awards and who once prepared an Oscar acceptance speech that ran, "I want to thank my ex-husbands for deserting me and making it possible for me to be here tonight."

These are the words of a woman who has outlived many of her friends and collaborators, including Andy Warhol, Zero Mostel, and Tennessee Williams.

These are the words of a woman who jokingly refers to her memorabilia-drenched apartment as a "museum" and to herself as the apartment's "gatekeeper."

These are the words of actress Sylvia Miles.

I'd met Sylvia Miles at a crowded party about fifteen years ago and had been impressed by her intelligence. She's prone to good anecdotes and to truisms such as "The establishment selects the avant-garde." I'd talked with her once on the phone after the party and then lost touch with her. But soon after I started on my quest for elder wisdom, I'd called her. Her statement about theatrical memorabilia bespoke an interesting take on the theme of self-preservation.

"Of course I remember you!" she shrieked, her excitable, interborough voice a veritable welcome-home sign. She suggested we could have lunch underneath the portrait of her that hangs on the wall of Sardi's, the restaurant in Times Square. I said great.

But when I called her a week later to remind her of the plan, Miles had changed her mind: "No, not under the portrait. Across from the portrait. That way we'll see it better."

Miles was waiting for me when I got to the restaurant at noon. If it is the actor's business to make a strong impression on others, then this Manhattan-born-and-bred hot tamale can be said to be a consummate businesswoman. You can't not look at her. Onscreen, the engine of this dynamic is emotional intensity. Her best-supporting-actress nominations, for 1969's Midnight Cowboy and 1975's Farewell, My Lovely, were prompted by a combined nine minutes of screen time. After Maureen Stapleton saw Miles's riveting turn as a tough-talking kept woman in Midnight Cowboy, she told Julie Harris, "Isn't that amazing? They went out and found a hooker and put her in this movie!" We could all profit from occasionally cultivating the fulsome certainty of Miles's chicken-leg-wielding yenta in Crossing Delancey after she introduces Amy Irving to Peter Riegert. (Instructions: Remove right hand from leg of chicken. Suck delicious grease off right thumb and index finger. Announce, "A poifect match!")

In person, though, the engine of Miles's impression-making has more to do with her looks, voice, and clothing. I invoke the phrase "throaty Sambuca rasp." I invoke the phrase "ten pounds of gorgeous in a five-pound bag."

Possessed of a very pale lioness's face that is highlighted by vivid lipstick and shoulder-length blond hair, Miles was turned out in an all-black ensemble that also featured sunglasses, a diamond pinkie ring, sparkly eye makeup, and just-north-of cleavage décolleté.

The waiter asked if I wanted a drink.

"What are you drinking?" I inquired of Miles, looking at the dark-red concoction in front of her. Miles starts each day off by drinking a mimosa ("to take my pills with") and so can be said to have a certain authority on the topic of elegant quaffs.

"A bloody bull. It's a bullshot with tomato juice."

"I'll have that," I told the waiter.

"Somebody has to," Miles said.

We talked and ate for two and a half hours, covering a lot of bases. Miles told me that whenever she ran into society doyenne Brooke Astor at parties, Astor would always ask where she bought her clothes. Miles told me that when a director once said to her, "Put it on the back burner," Miles had realized, "Of course — I can always reheat it later, when I get home."

When I told Miles about my mother and Will, we got onto a long thread about obsessive-compulsive behavior. Miles told me that she suffered from obsessive compulsiveness some forty or so years ago. Part of her mania was directed at playing chess, to which she claims she was "addicted." This became a problem for her.

"So I said, Know what I'm going to do? I'm going to make my art the obsession instead," Miles told me.

"How do you do that?" I asked. "How do you transfer the obsession from the wrong thing to the right one?"

"It's like turning a negative into a positive. I did it by realizing that the most fun I ever had in my life was when I worked. So the healthy thing was to work more. Romance was not going to be that thrilling. Three marriages. I didn't need romance. But I did need my work. I had to learn how to make that my obsession."

"Was that hard?" I asked, realizing that Miles had never had children, which must have, for good or bad, allowed her a lot of time.

"It wasn't impossible. It was like the doctor saying to you, 'Look, you're gonna be in fine shape but there's no way you can eat turkey, there's something in turkey that doesn't agree with you. You can give yourself a heart attack from that.' Don't you think you can live your whole life not eating turkey but having a lot of fun?"

"Yeah, but — "

"So find something you like better!"

That Miles's profession is one that requires other people to hire her must surely have made this task more daunting. Yes, you can read your way through Jane Austen or Henry James, as Miles has done between acting gigs, and, yes, you can write your own one-woman show, as Miles did in 1981.

But what about the rest of your life?

Miles has implicitly responded to the question by turning her own person into one of her best performances. Indeed, I sometimes have the impression that I am not her interviewer, not her friend, but her scene partner. At the end of our lunch, for instance, I turned my tape recorder off and Miles asked, "How did I do? I mean, compared with Harold Bloom?" This was my cue.

This orientation, too, seems to be at the heart of her socializing. Miles explained to me that the reason she has gone out so much over the years is because "people need to see me to hire me."

"Really?" I asked. "Despite two Oscar nominations and lots of theater credits?"

"They have to see me."

But over the years, Miles has taken flak for being a fixture on the party circuit. While it is, indeed, true that Miles has added sparkle and color to her fair share of public events over the years, the media's interest in these appearances has helped obscure the fact that Miles has, theatrically speaking, done some heavy lifting: she spent two years with Jason Robards in The Iceman Cometh, and she was in the world debut of Jean Genet's The Balcony. Her appearance in 1972's Andy Warhol's Heat — in which she improvised most of her dialogue — was the first time a legit actress had starred in an underground film.

The socializing issue came to a head in 1973, when the notoriously bitchy and misogynistic theater critic John Simon — he once compared Liza Minnelli's face to a beagle's and another time called Kathleen Turner a "braying mantis" — wrote a nasty review of a play Miles was in called Nellie Toole and Co. In his review, Simon referred to Miles as "one of New York's leading party girls and gate-crashers."

So Miles decided to strike back. Miles went to a New York Film Festival afterparty that she knew Simon would be attending.

"It was at O'Neals' in the back room," she told me. "I was sitting and chatting cheerfully, and just as I looked up I saw him standing at the bar. He was facing me and talking to Bob Altman. So I went to the table and filled up a plate with steak tartare, coleslaw, potato salad, and cold cuts."

Then she walked over to Simon and dumped the food on his head, saying, "Now you can call me a plate-crasher, too!"

Miles said to me, "He called me a gate-crasher! How could I crash anything? I was invited to everything! I was the Gwyneth Paltrow of the day."

The food-covered Simon lashed out at Miles, calling her "Baggage!" He said, "I'll be sending you the bill for this suit," to which Miles countered, "It'll be the first time it's been cleaned."

Miles explained to me that she had phoned the publicist of the O'Neals' event before going, to make sure that no photographers would be present. She didn't want people to think that she exacted her revenge for the publicity. She also told me that she thought Simon had been gunning for her because he knew that she had visited the city in Serbia that he hails from — Miles remembers its name as Glub-Glub — and that she thought it was a dump.

I asked Miles if she'd ever regretted the Simon incident. She told me that she thinks she might have gotten less acting work as a result of the incident.

"I would have liked to have worked more," she said. "But I've never regretted what I did."

I stared into Miles's steely eyes. I remembered once reading her quip, " 'Oh, look at her, she's outrageous,' they say of me.

Well, better that than I should be in-rage-ous."

Miles interrupted my recollection, saying, "My reputation is that I go out a lot. But sometimes I'll go into a grocery store, and someone will say, 'Look, there she is!' "

Miles told me that an important moment for her was the moment that she decided to be flattered by this attention — the moment she realized, "People think I'm at a party because I'm out of the house."

If you spend enough time being the life of the party, maybe you become the party.

After lunch, Miles said she was going to take a bus home, so I walked her a half block over to Eighth Avenue. Miles has a bad knee, and whenever we walk on the street together, she wraps her arm around mine and holds on with varying levels of need, depending on her physical state. I find this highly endearing. "People are gonna think you're my nephew, airing me out for the day," she said to me once.

One time, when Miles's leg was particularly bad, she had me help her with a series of errands — I photocopied a drawing of her for some Valley of the Dolls-themed note cards she was making; I bought her the New York Post and the Daily News so she could look at the gossip columns. Then she wanted me to duck into her local grocery store with her. She warned me about the store's swift-moving mechanical doors: "You have to go fast through these doors. They're strong. I've gotten caught in them."

Standing in front of the store, I looked at said doors in action. Indeed, they exerted a military dictator-strength bluntness.

But Miles and I summoned our courage, took each other arm in arm, and made a dash for it.

We entered victorious.

Just inside the store's entrance, we found a tall shelf of jams and jellies. Miles pulled down a jar of Sarabeth's Kitchen strawberry-rhubarb preserves. She handed it to me, saying,

"Open that for me, will ya?"

"Uh, sure," I said, looking nervously left and right for signs of employees who might not take kindly to my inspection of their goods.

As I stealthily started to twist open the top, Miles explained, "You have to open them to see if someone like me has already opened them."

At the time, "You have to open them to see if someone like me has already opened them" struck me as being absurdist, along the lines of Yogi Berra's "Don't always follow the crowd, because nobody goes there anymore. It's too crowded." But over the months, I've come to decide that Miles probably has opened and returned to the shelf a number of jars of jam, and so maybe this unusual shopping ritual is less absurd and more crazy-like-a-fox. The Miles conversational canon is full of such canny survival stories — like the one wherein a former boyfriend of Miles's who loved to clean bought her a somewhat elaborate, futuristic-looking Miele vacuum cleaner. " 'I'll show you how to use it,' he told me," she said, "and before I knew it, he had cleaned up the whole apartment. He said, 'Now you know how to do it.' So I said, 'But I think I need a few more lessons.' "

While Miles's offscreen persona is rooted in a worldy confidence — once, at a restaurant she eats at often, I handed her a menu, and she waved it away, saying, "A lover knows how to love, and a rapist knows how to rape" — but there's another side to her, too, one that's more introspective and seemingly mystical than her demeanor might suggest. One time, having fallen out of touch for a while, she called and told me she'd recently had a very quiet couple of weeks. "When I'm evolving, I tend to want to be quieter, not running around so much," she said.

"And what do you think you're 'evolving' into?" I asked suspiciously.

"I have no idea. But I'm not going to force it."

"Do you have any thoughts at all about what this new state might be?"

"What's that book about the states of your life? By the woman?"

"Passages?"

"Yes. It's more like something from Passages. I can always tell when I'm cleaning myself out, making room for the new thing . . . I seem to be looking forward to something. Whatever it is that's coming, I just have to make room for it, and it will come on its own." A beat. "I hope it's not a node."

I wanted to see the apartment. I craved the apartment. We'd always met at restaurants or theaters before. Miles carries press clippings with her wherever she goes — she's shared them with me, or should I say sicced them on me, a couple of times — but, memorabilia-wise, her one-bedroom overlooking Central Park is command central.

So we made a date.

Came the day.

When I stepped off the elevator on her floor, I was surprised to see Miles standing outside her door.

"The reason I came out here is to warn you," she told me slightly ominously. "It's dense in there."

She opened the door, and I stepped gingerly into a dark, cluttered vestibule that afforded views of the living room and kitchen.

I saw what she meant about denseness. Every wall, from floor to ceiling, was chockablock with posters, artwork, and photographs, most of them celebrating films or plays Miles had been in. The floor and the furniture were saddled with towering piles of Playbills and magazines and props from movies; imagine a yard sale that is itself having a yard sale.

"You live in a Joseph Cornell box," I said. "Who dusts?"

"I do. Not frequently. I can't have anyone in because they would break stuff. And I don't entertain. There's no place to sit."

Starting in the vestibule — "That's the cover of Rolling Stone with me, Bob Dylan, and Dick Cavett," Miles explained. "We were at Mick Jagger's birthday" — we slowly made our way through the cryptlike splendor.

"That's Tennessee. That's Bob again," she said as we drifted into the living room.

Miles showed me how Andy Warhol wrote "Sylvia, I love you" on any prints he gave her. "There's a lot of love from Andy here," she said.

I asked if she ever "curated" the collection, and she said no but that sometimes she did throw stuff out.

"And do some things ever seem suddenly more important at any given time?" I asked.

"I can't concentrate on it. It's my life. I have to disassociate myself from it. If something's falling down, I'll move it. But I'm not connected to it anymore because I'd be obsessed by it if I were. My time — whatever time I have left, until I get an Academy Award — is for being an actor. I'm not retired."

When we eased into the kitchen, what had heretofore struck me as a charming decorative scheme now seemed claustrophobia making. Not only were the kitchen walls covered with memorabilia, but the counters, too, were host to tiny marching armies of action figures, photos, and tchotchkes.

"You only have a few inches of counter," I observed.

"I know. The collage is moving closer and closer to me."

At one point, as I was looking at the counter next to the refrigerator, Miles scooted past me, and I literally had to suck in my stomach lest I knock things over.

And then I did.

Just as we were going through some wooden, Western-style half doors at the end of the kitchen, I brushed against a five-year-old calendar featuring photos of celebrated New Yorkers, dislodging it from its peg.

It swooped, dead bird-like, to the floor.

Miles was slightly irritated. "I knew that was gonna happen," she said, bending over and picking the calendar up. "Unfortunately, nothing can be touched."

She carefully started hanging the calendar back on its peg. I reached out to help and she said, "Don't touch it. That's why I can't have people in here anymore. It's a museum. You have to think of this place as a museum. And in a museum you don't touch things."

I apologized profusely. I stood corrected, having previously thought the designation "museum" was a joke.

Eager to flee the scene of my cloddishness, I suggested we press on.

We exited the kitchen and walked down a tiny hallway.

Miles pointed to one of many photographs on the wall and said, "That's me and Shelley Winters. She's the fat one."

At the end of the hallway, I thought we were going to take a right, into her bedroom, but instead we proceeded straight, into the bathroom. Here, too, it was as if the walls had been decoupaged with memorabilia — the two citations for her best-supporting-actress nominations, a napkin with Elizabeth Taylor's lipstick smears on it, a picture of Jack Kerouac. I was conscious, in the confines of the tiny bathroom, of our shoulders touching.

"There's the mayor and me. Bloomberg," Miles said proudly.

"Right over the toilet: nice."

Just as I'd cast my eyes over the thronelike toilet seat — it's outfitted with a leopard-print pillow that rests against the lid-Miles turned and sat down on the commode. I smiled somewhat awkwardly, suddenly feeling as if the emotional stakes of our situation had been raised somehow.

Once comfortably seated, Miles reached about two feet in front of her and pointed at a clear plastic case hanging from the wall. Inside it was a three-inch-tall Andy Warhol doll, clearly a Japanese import. His minuscule head looked out the bathroom, in the direction of the hall. From her leopard-skin perch, Miles told me, "Originally, Andy was looking at me, so I turned him around so he's facing the other way."

When she pulled her hand away from the plastic case, I assumed that it would then make its journey to Miles's lap, where its partner rested. But instead, I watched the hand as it slowly snaked behind Miles's torso and proceeded to flush the toilet. Miles smiled puckishly and said, "There was nothing in there. But I thought I smelled something."

The tour ended in the bedroom, where we found Miles's elegant sleigh bed, over which hangs a Warhol silk screen of Marilyn Monroe.

"That's the most love I ever got from Andy," Miles said, explaining that the print is of the one that's hanging in the Museum of Modern Art. "And on the back is written, 'Sylvia, I love you.' "

Warhol used to tease Miles for carrying her press clippings around with her. This fact is freighted with about seven thousand pounds of irony, given that Warhol's own shrewd sense of marketing once saw him silk-screening photographs of noted art collectors because he knew these people would shell out to acquire such flattering mirrors.

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A Search for Wisdom from Old People (While They Are Still on This Earth)

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