(excerpted from the chapter “Malacology”)

Gail Papp moving into office 1966
Gail moving into office at Public Theater in 1966.
Photo: Gail Papp

I was something of a loner in these early days at The Public Theater. Although I had friendly relations with the small staff from the Great Northern Hotel when we had all moved into the Astor Library building, I seldom went out to lunch like the others did, and I was never on the inside track of office gossip.

My extreme shyness was the result of a geographically unsettled childhood during which I had attended fifteen different public schools from kindergarten to the 12th grade. My sense of strangeness as the perpetual new kid in class at a new school every year had been intensified by the fact that I was an only child tethered to a solitary, adult-centered life at home. As a result, I developed the unshakable feeling that nobody ever recognized me.
My extreme shyness was the result of a geographically unsettled childhood during which I had attended fifteen different public schools from kindergarten to the 12th grade. My sense of strangeness as the perpetual new kid in class at a new school every year had been intensified by the fact that I was an only child tethered to a solitary, adult-centered life at home. As a result, I developed the unshakable feeling that nobody ever recognized me.
The repetition of this anxious experience fostered habits of self-reliance and social disguise. Although I’d been lively as a young child, by the time I grew up I had adopted the invisible cloak of a quiet person with good manners.
Living in this bubble, I was shocked one day when Joe asked me out to lunch. Had he gone mad? This was unheard of. He only went to lunch with the Parks Commissioner, a philanthropist, a director, or actors like Julie Harris, Colleen Dewhurst, George C. Scott, and James Earl Jones. Someone like that.

Now he was asking me? I didn’t know what to make of it. Actually, I felt like hiding, but, as with Joe’s scary request that I take his director’s notes at Troilus and Cressida previews during my first summer, I couldn’t think of a plausible reason to say no. So, as I had done then, I said “Fine.”

From the outset of this first lunch at a nearby restaurant, our conversation was fun and on an equal footing. On the way to the restaurant, we discovered that we both easily read street signs backwards (Rotsa Ecalp) as well as the food on the restaurant’s menu (slessum). We also discovered that we were of like mind in preferring W.C. Fields to Charlie Chaplin, Scriabin to Liszt, and Martin Buber to Swami Muktananda, a popular cult figure in the sixties.
When I mentioned to Joe at lunch that I was surprised a theatrical biography of him hadn’t been written yet, because there was a need for something more personal than the columns of information in Who’s Who, he began to tell me about his boyhood in Brooklyn.
“I grew up in a mixed neighborhood in Williamsburg,” he said. “Aside from Jews, there were Italians, and there was an Irish section close by, and then a block away from there was a group we called the Mohammedans.
“I grew up in a mixed neighborhood in Williamsburg,” he said. “Aside from Jews, there were Italians, and there was an Irish section close by, and then a block away from there was a group we called the Mohammedans. Then not too far from there, a black neighborhood. This was the community, and it was broken up by turf. No way in the world would I leave my block without four or five people going with me, and then you took your life in your hands.”
Somehow I had pictured Joe growing up in the protective embrace of a closely knit family, but evidently, that wasn’t the way things had been and he’d had to fend for himself from an early age.
Joe on the phone at his desk at The Public Theater.
Photo: Gail Papp
The waiter appeared with two glasses of chardonnay that Joe had ordered.
Joe raised his glass.
“There was a lot of violence in my old neighborhood,” he said. “You stayed within a very narrow confine, and the difference between being Jewish and being anything else was an extraordinary difference.”
I took a sip of wine.
“I didn’t know anything about the theater then and spoke like any Brooklyn kid.”
“What did you sound like?” I asked.
“Well, we had to memorize Marc Antony’s funeral oration in school. That’s when Caesar is lying there dead in his blood-stained toga. And Marc Antony says, ‘If you have tears, prepare to shed them now. You all do know this mantle…’ We would say it this way: ‘If you have teahzz, pree-peah ta shed dem now. You-all do know dis mantull…’ That’s the way we talked.”
Joe said that he’d been able to improve his speech with the encouragement of a wonderful teacher in high school.
I asked about his unusual teenage interest in Shakespeare. I wondered if it had been stimulated by memorizing those speeches from the plays in school.
“No, I think it was because I grew up in a home where Yiddish was spoken,” Joe said. “That was our first language and English was only a second language. Because of that, I became acutely sensitive to the musical sounds of different languages and to the cadences and rhythms of the spoken word.”
Afterward, I interpreted this lunch as a gentlemanly gesture on Joe’s part, which I appreciated. But I certainly wasn’t expecting another meal anytime soon, so I was surprised when he invited me to have lunch again the following week at a different restaurant he thought I’d like.
This time Joe told me that it had taken a war to get him out of New York.
“I joined the Navy after Pearl Harbor and was on a baby aircraft carrier called a Kaiser Coffin.”
“I know about those,” I said. “My father worked on them as a draftsman at Kaiser Shipyards in Richmond, California during the war. He let me visit him there.”
“Is that so?” Joe said. “Well, the one I was on had an elevator which used to take the fighter planes up to the main deck. It was a marvelous little stage, so whenever we had time off, I would put some shows together. Bob Fosse was in the Navy with me. He was just a kid and I did a show around him. I began to like that. We toured the Aleutian Chain—that’s Kodiak and Attu—then we went to Japan and played at the Ernie Pyle Theater in Tokyo. That was really my beginning, but I never thought I’d do it as a means of making a living. That never entered my mind.”
Joe also talked about studying at the Actor’s Lab in Los Angeles after the war. The G.I. Bill had paid for it.
“I began to read and do things there I’d never done before,” he told me. “I sort of fell in love with live actors on the stage.”
“But you didn’t become an actor,” I said.

“If I had permitted myself to be more vulnerable, I would have continued in the acting profession,” Joe said, “but the ego of an actor is a very difficult thing to have to cope with because you yourself are the instrument.”

Excerpted from a chapter in Gail Papp’s forthcoming memoir

Font size
Colors