About That Gala for McGovern

Earlier in this blog, I published a non-fiction piece called “Bodyguarding Paul.” Here is a fictional account of the same story, written as an assignment in my writing class.

The campaign was not going smoothly.  The outcome, an increasingly dim prospect as George McGovern’s 1972 Presidential race entered its final stretch run. Joyce Hanrahan, the 36-year-old divorced mother of three, office manager of McGovern’s cramped yet gaudy Coventry Street campaign headquarters just off Leicester Square, let out a howl of delight.

“We’ve got Paul!”  She jumped up out of her seat, and gathered her flock of elderly and youthful volunteers, ex-pats all, for the big update. “This oughta stir the troops,” she thought.  And she’d turn out to be right.

American presidential campaigns are international affairs.  Not only are American citizens living overseas eligible to vote, but they are also eligible to contribute campaign cash to the candidate of their choice.

Often well-heeled and politically to the left, mining for political donations in European capitals had become, by 1972, a tradition and campaign necessity.  But emptying wallets did not come easily.  Campaign pros needed certain skill sets. The talent for persuasion, of course, was essential, but one also needed connections.  Turns out, Joyce was particularly strong in both departments.

Joyce Hanrahan grew up in Bel Air, California, daughter of Miles Hanrahan, the vaunted film noir screenwriter, and Charlene Sizemore Hanrahan, a cinematic make-up artist. Charlene became infamously powerful by cultivating trusting relationships with a set of stars, including Jane Mansfield, Ginger Rogers, and, as providence would have it for her daughter’s political life, Joanne Woodward.  Their movie contracts stipulated that Charlene must be on set or they would not.

Joyce had been fixated on a campaign concept since June, right after McGovern had all but secured the nomination. She would hold a major fundraising event in London and try to draw on her Hollywood connections to make it soar.  Sure, it would be a vehicle to haul in cash, but it would also be a chance for real fun. Joyce liked real fun.

“Look you guys,” Joyce slowly started speaking. It was almost in a whisper to her small but eager group of campaign volunteers.  “Our October 9th ‘Gala for McGovern’ is now really shaping up.  I just got off the phone with his scheduling agent and get this: Paul Newman has committed to attend. Paul’s an amazing guy and really knows his politics.”

“And he’s also awfully cute,” interrupted Valerie Ingram, who at age 67, was trim, lively and ready to party.

“Yes, indeed he is, Val!” Joyce laughed with a cathartic release, as she continued with her spiel. “I think we now have the star power to pull this thing off.  But it will have to be a full team effort here at HQ.  I’m going to ask each of you to tell me how much time you can commit in the next six weeks.  I want you to go home today, talk to your family, and then come back and let me know the dates and hours you can provide us.”

For 17-year-old Dan Farber, this was just the kind of useful excitement he sought.  His dawning political awareness was recently spawned by an enmity toward President Nixon and passionate support for McGovern’s anti-Vietnam War position. Volunteering at campaign headquarters also got him out of the two-bedroom flat he shared with his father, a social work professor on sabbatical, and his mother, with whom he was in full teen rebellion mode.

The “Gala for McGovern” was to take place in the corner of a convention complex under the arches of Charing Cross Railway Station in Central London. Joyce had compiled a list of stars (her mom called them “bankables”) and up-and-comers whom she thought could draw a throng.  It was hard work to get the first few notables to commit, but once some of the pretty folks were on board, others would want to be seen with those who are seen. 

She knew Paul Newman would be a big kahuna, but as it turned out, his appearance would come with a price. He was obsessed to connect with the author Kurt Vonnegut. Joyce knew Vonnegut’s agent Charlie Steinmetz since they had been lovers at USC in the late 50s. She also heard that Vonnegut had been staying in London for the last three months doing research for another war novel (and according to Charlie, shtupping a gal pal he had met while strolling Hampstead Heath). Newman told Charlie that he loved the movie “Slaughterhouse Five” and wanted Vonnegut to release the film rights to him for “Cat’s Cradle.” Joyce promised Charlie that the Newman-Vonnegut meeting could occur at the Gala, and in addition to negotiating rights, they could appear jointly to help the presidential ticket.

Charlie told Joyce that he’d certainly ask his client to think about it and then get back to her with an answer. But in fact, Vonnegut never did make that commitment.  This info, she kept to herself. And as the Gala date approached, and the publicity materials went out, Joyce made sure that Newman and Vonnegut got twin top billing.

Dan enjoyed his weekly Friday morning Northern Line tube run from Belsize Park to Leicester Square to hang with Joyce. Emerging from the long escalator to street level, he’d pass the seedy strip clubs, curry houses and travel agencies promising warm white sandy beaches on winter days to pasty-faced Brits. Walking through the bell-clinging front door, he’d arrive at HQ, excited to hear the latest campaign gossip. The actual work was rote. Mostly stuffing envelopes, sorting correspondence and cobbling together various task lists for other campaign volunteers. But the lure and highlights were listening to chain-smoking Joyce tell stories about parties with celebrities, and men who’d done her wrong. Once too often, his nagging about Joyce’s foul Gauloises habit got under her skin. “Those cigarettes will kill you faster than Tricky Dick at the Cambodian border,” Dan pestered.

To which Joyce responded, “One more word about that, and you can catch the tube north today and don’t bother coming back.”

On the morning of the Gala, the McGovern team loaded up party supplies and equipment and headed off to Charing Cross Station. Sprucing up the multi-story congregate space under that rail center was a frenetic pleasure. Joyce ran around directing her volunteers to affix brightly colored banners and ribbons throughout the various rooms and alcoves.  Klieg lights were brought in by video crews to highlight stages and stairs. HQ volunteers were all given white t-shirts with “McGovern 1972” stenciled in bright red and blue campaign font lettering.

Dan was assigned the task of first setting up, and then manning, the “game room.”  Intended to preoccupy the teens, or perhaps provide for some a more intimate respite from the larger, socially central auditorium, the game room was a dimly lit, 10’ x 12’ space practically hidden under the main stairwell. Ever eager to help, the game room chore was for Dan, an unexpected let down.

……

Gina Samuels, Sarah’s mom, was an experienced and savvy political animal, stemming from her days of rage and justice as a leader in UC Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement. When Mario Savio summoned his wits to risk and rise on the steps of Sproul Plaza, it was from Gina’s talking points he read. Personally shy, yet intellectually bold, Gina knew political strategy.   Years later, when Mario was reminiscing with others in his FSM leadership cadre about how the movement exploded onto the scene, he asserted that without Gina’s tactical sophistication, they most certainly would have failed.

Twelve-year-old Sarah knew only the faintest outline of her mom’s earlier heroics.  Gina ended up marrying Gary Samuels, a Londoner and fellow grad student in UC’s Philosophy Department. (Gina specialized in Kantian ethics and Gary in epistemology. Their ongoing and whimsical intellectual spats became legendary entertainment for friends and relatives.)  They moved to England immediately after graduating from UC Berkeley, and settled into a life of academic bliss, she at the London School of Economics and he at the University of London. Sarah, dark-haired and vibrant, was the social and emotional opposite of her mom: unquenchably gregarious.

“Momela, can we please go to the Gala for McGovern next Saturday?” she pleaded.  She knew this wasn’t really Gina’s thing, but she also knew her mum was a sucker for anything that even faintly projected a social conscience upon her only daughter.

“Well… sure, lovey.  Your poppa and I haven’t been out for a while and it could be …”

“Uh… um… well, Momela, I was thinking more about just going with my friends. No offense, but it would kind of be a drag to go with you guys. I’ve already asked Silvia and Shirley, and their mums said it would be ok if the three of us go together on our own.  I promise we’ll be back before 21:30.” 

Gina relented and Sarah was ecstatic.

“I know… I know… Paul Newman is going to be there,” Sarah squealed on the phone to Silvia. “This is going to be SO COOL.  What are you going to wear?  I’m thinking teal.  But maybe yellow would be louder. We should plan this with Shirley so that we stick out like a team.”

The girls arrived early, just as the doors opened at 17:30.  They were pumped.  “Where’s Paul?”, Silvia asked Rene, a bright-eyed 21-year-old McGovern volunteer, who was racing around purposefully putting finishing touches on the décor.

“Paul Newman?” Rene replied. “Oh… I don’t know sweetie.  Not sure he’s here yet.”

The three girls’ anticipation only grew, as they quickly ran around the gala spaces, trying to get their lay of the land.  Asking any t-shirted McGovern staffer they saw the same question; they received the same answer.  “He’ll be here soon enough.  You’ll know it when he arrives.”

As the evening progressed, Joyce could be seen running around too, feverishly announcing the arrival of the famous and near famous.  “Lee Remick” she’d shriek. “Ava Gardner, Nicol Williamson,” she gushed.

Rumors began to buzz that Paul Newman had made it to the event and would be speaking from the upper balcony.  Dan decided to leave his lonely post by the “Count the Jellybeans” game, to see if he could get a look at Paul. He snuck deftly up the rear stairwell. 

 Just as he got to the top of the stairs, Jerry Seacrest, Joyce’s brother-in-law whom she had drafted to help at the event, spotted Dan and his wiry 160lb, 6’4” frame. Likewise wearing the official McGovern t-shirt, Jerry motioned for Dan to approach. 

 “Paul is going to come out of that door to the right,” Jerry whispered. “Stand in front of the door, and when it opens, I want you to walk in front of Mr. Newman to clear the way for him to address the crowd. Over there, on top of the balcony. Can you do that?”

 “Sure,” Dan responded with a serious look on his face.  “I can do that,” and proceeded to station himself in front of the doorway. 

The room was getting more and more filled with a mass of excited, slightly boozed humanity.  Word got out to Sarah and her crew as to the location of Mr. Newman’s entry.  “Come on, girls, let’s go for it,” she encouraged as they wriggled and squirmed their way to the door where Dan stood sentry.

“Please, please, please let us in,” they squealed.  “We want to see, Paul.  Can you at least take this paper and get us his autograph?”

“I can’t do that,” Dan commanded in his deepest and most imperious voice. “But I’m going to touch him soon.  I’ll give you my autograph.”

They fell for it.  And for the next couple of minutes, Dan was signing autographs for 12-year-old girls who were thrilled to have them. 

But on the other side of the door, Paul was not a happy camper.  “Are you frigging kidding me?!” he screamed at a sheepish Charlie Steinmetz.  “I was assured that Kurt would be here! You think I’d be here if I knew that Vonnegut would cut out at the last minute?!!”

Charlie had an incensed celeb on his hands and was pretty sure the truth was no ally. “Paul, I understand your disappointment, and we’ll try to arrange an opportunity for you two to get together just as soon as we are able. But Kurt was unavoidably called out just this morning to deal with a critical family emergency in Amsterdam. It just couldn’t be helped.”

Charlie was bald-faced lying here, and Newman had his suspicions. But Charlie also was sure that the family-oriented actor would not challenge the values inherent in the excuse.  Besides, just because Vonnegut said that there was no way on God’s green Earth he’d let some pretty boy play Jonah, or for that matter Bokonon, doesn’t mean he wouldn’t relent later after a few drinks and some wooing by the blue-eyed actor and race car driver.

Newman steadied himself.  The show must go on. It always went on.

The door opened and Dan didn’t look back.  He just felt an electric presence behind him.

 “Make way,” he intoned, as Dan spread his arms and led Paul up a few stairs and over to a point of prominence. From there, the two drew even as Newman began his address to the assembled admirers.

 “My goodness, that man’s eyes were blue!” Dan thought in amazement.  Posture erect, yet also somehow soft and relaxed, the actor held a coffee cup in his left hand, as Dan stood beside him, about one foot away to his left.

Paul Newman spoke about peace and justice and Nixonian horrors.  Dan marveled at his calmness, his graceful motions, his famous smile, and the palpable glow that emanated from his face. As Newman finished his oration, he turned to Dan and said, “Let me be with the people.”

Just as Paul spun around to greet his admirers, with Joyce audibly calling out his name as she went in for a hug, Dan’s right upper arm “accidentally” brushed Paul’s right shoulder.

 After all, he had promised the 12-year-olds!

4 thoughts on “About That Gala for McGovern

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