May 25, 2014
Monticello College, now Lewis and Clark Community College, was a private women’s institution since the 1800s, and, in the late 1970s, the subject of much Alton gossip, all of it revolving around sex and wild girls. Boys loved the place, for obvious reasons. Monty had a wonderful theatre and a problem—no boy actors. I was one of the lucky local guys that were recruited. I appeared in the musicals “Oliver,” “The Fantastiks,” “Guys and Dolls,” “Once Upon a Mattress,” and my favorite, “The Boy Friend” (I was Tony, the boyfriend), and a lot of plays.
Opera singer and Broadway and Off Broadway star Jeanne Beauvais, who had been in the second New York production of “The Boy Friend” with Sandy Dennis, in 1958, came to Monticello to revive her Boy Friend role of Madame Dubonett. It was an unforgettable experience for a cast of teenagers to appear with an actual star.
Jeanne was born in 1917 to a French mother and an American father. She had the voice of an angel and was very soon a fixture at the Light Opera Works in New York, and in cabarets and recitals. She lived her whole professional life in the artist’s apartments above Carnegie Hall, known as New Bohemia. Her apartment mates included Katherine Hepburn, the playwright Paddy Chayevsky, Marlon Brando (he was evicted after having too many roommates including Paul Newman), the composer god Duke Ellington, the fabled Actor’s Studio, and an always naked Norman Mailer.
Jeanne and I took a shine to one another. I couldn’t dance a lick, and I needed to have some moves, to keep out of the way of the real dancers, including the fabulous Julie Parrs, whose mother Betty, a storied choreographer, got the unenviable task of teaching me enough dance steps to look cool. Jeanne and Betty would poke gentle fun at me: “Gene, you are too pretty to be a boy.” “Julie Andrews would love to sing with you!”
Jeanne was slightly older than my father, but she acted like she was thirty. She was of The Bohemian generation and brought up in an artistic family, and she had no regrets. She loved her life in the Carnegie apartments and the swirl of famous people she knew as friends and coconspirators. She didn’t get the Zeitgeist of the Midwest. “Gloomy people, the Alton people, Gene. Come away from the gloom. You belong in New York.”
Jeanne and I would sit for hours and talk, and she told me about her New York life and her friends, the composer Virgil Thompson, the music god Leonard Bernstein, and her correspondences with Thompson and Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. Being a kid, I couldn’t have appreciated those stories as I do now.
For the three weeks I knew her, Jeanne never let up on a theme: I must go to New York. She would introduce me to people. And our director, Robert Macek, sent me a letter: “You are ready for New York.” (Bob always wore neckerchiefs; I took up the habit and thought I was the cat of the walk.) Anybody who knows me knows better than to tell me what to do. I am the master of indecision.
I was so scared of the dancing issue, Jeanne and I would be walking on the Monty campus and she would suddenly take my hand and pirouette over and over and sing, and call me her Tony, and Monty girls would be watching, and I became adept at the one finger pirouette, with actresses twirling around me, and the beautiful Julie Parrs would shake her head at the ineptness I displayed.
What a ride for a hayseed from Mt. Vernon, Illinois. “The Boy Friend” played to sold out audiences. I didn’t go to New York (though I would, as a playwright, in 1983); I went to Chicago, at the height of the folk music scene, where musicians would scold me for having too good of a voice. I would hang out at the Old Town School of Folk Music and meet the likes of Steve Goodman, Arlo Guthrie and John Prine. Prine told me, “Rough it up, kid.” Prine was the prince of rough.
Jeanne Beauvais went on to star in several more “The Boy Friend” revivals, sing opera recitals at Carnegie Hall, and lead the Save the Carnegie movement. She died in 2007. HarvardUniversity houses Jeanne’s letters and artifacts.
I heard Julie Andrews, who was in the Broadway production of “The Boy Friend,” on the radio, on All Things Considered, yesterday. I dreamed of Jeanne, with luxuriant black hair. I recalled my other connection to Virgil Thompson and Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein, my friend Bruce Morrissette who had chronicled the French New Wave for the University of Chicago and hung out in Paris with those storied folk. I wondered if Jeanne knew Bruce; I imagined it.
Had I been born at the turn of the 20th century instead of in the middle, I might have been a wholly different artist. The Bohemians were my people. It hardly matters today, as I write and look out at the gentle rain, in the country with Crow and a sleeping cat and hummingbirds and memories of my dear Jeanne.