Celebrated actor Frank Langella shares the details of myriad encounters with notable figures from the stage, screen, the arts and politics in his candid memoir, "Dropped Names." Here's an excerpt.
As the afternoon progressed our napkins would grow increasingly damp with tears of laughter as Noel Coward reached into his bottomless hamper of stories, jokes, one-liners, and character assassinations. And the sight of my President pounding on the table with one hand and holding the other out, palm up, to Coward, begging him to wait while he caught his breath, has never left my memory. To see the leader of the free world so hopelessly convulsed with laughter, wiping his eyes continuously, and to watch his wife genuinely delighted to see him so happy, made a profound impression on me. How glorious it must have been for him. Not a single subject of importance discussed all afternoon. No current affairs, political views, or social commentary. Add to that the fact that Coward's stories became increasingly vulgar with the liberal use of dirty words made even funnier by his pronunciation of them in his beautifully pronounced, trademark clipped staccato."
We retired to a sunroom, directly off the dining room, for coffee and dessert. It was three steps down into a cozy and bright space, also facing the sea. There was a couch under a large window, directly across from which sat a baby grand piano and several small armchairs scattered about. The President flopped down on the couch, Adele next to him. Bunny and Paul took an armchair each and Liza curled up on the floor at her mother’s feet. Jackie and I ended up sitting on the steps, shoulder to shoulder. “Isn’t this fun?” she whispered as Sir Noel took his place at the piano. It was then she explained to me the purpose of the afternoon. Coward was in Boston trying out a new musical entitled Sail Away, and Jackie asked Bunny if she could, through Adele, invite Mr. Coward down to the Cape in order, as she put it, “to give Jack a good time.”
More in books
Act 2 was a triumph for Coward as he tirelessly sang one signature song after another: “Mad About the Boy,” “If Love Were All,” “Mad Dogs and Englishmen,” and as the last note of each song left his lips, Jackie would request another and another, and sing every lyric along with him. At one point we all sang “I’ll See You Again.” Like all the others, she knew it by heart, and following her lead, the President sang along just a beat behind.
“Okay now,” said Adele in a loud forthright voice, “let’s get this show on the road. Come on, Jack.” She grabbed the President with one hand, swept the magazines off the coffee table in front of them with the other, and said, “Noelie, give us ‘A Room with a View.’ Hit it.” He did, and for the next ten minutes I watched the President in his yellow pants, just two feet away from me, attempting to follow Adele Astaire in a soft-shoe dance that had the rest of us singing to the music and Jackie up and snapping away. His face was blissfully silly as he feigned a nightclub entertainer and tried to mirror Adele’s moves: hands out in front of him, feet shifting in small kicks, body turning in circles one way and then the other, and slapping his hands and thighs in the tried-and-true vaudeville style.
Two choruses and Sir Noel brought the song to a resounding finish. By now we were all up on our feet applauding wildly and the President stepped from the coffee table, took a bow, reached for Adele, and she joined him on the floor, each of them bowing with mock humility as the piano played them out of the room. I turned to Jackie, who was beaming with happiness, and said my first words to her since “hello.”
“Not bad for a President.”
“Not bad for Jack,” she said.
We all trouped out to the lawn to say our good-byes, and before boarding the helicopter the President said to me:
“What do you think, Frank? Should I keep my day job?”
And then he was gone.
I left later in the afternoon, having sneaked back into the dining room to steal the small bouquet that had been in front of the President’s plate. And that night I replayed every moment of the day in my mind. Coward had ended a medley from his new show with a haunting ballad entitled “Something Very Strange.” And as I sit here writing this on December 12, 2010, looking at snow-covered grounds from a window in the countryside forty-eight years later, Sir Noel’s lyrics seem sweetly prophetic.
This is not a day like any other day!
This is something special and apart!
Something to remember
When the coldness of December chills my heart.
Nobody is melancholy. Nobody is sad.
Not a single shadow on the sea.
Something very strange is happening to me.
All but two of us from that day are gone now: Jack, Jackie, Noel, Paul, Adele, Buds, and Liza. Other than myself, the sole survivor is Bunny Mellon, who in 2012 will turn 102, and has remained my lifelong friend. The President, had he lived, would be ninety-three years old. I kept the flowers I had taken from his place sitting in a tin cup in my room for the rest of the summer, until they withered and died. Of the forty-six years Jack Kennedy spent on this earth, I was privileged to have been in his company for four hours when he and those flowers were still in bloom.
It was a day not like any other day. Nobody was melancholy. Nobody was sad. And there was not a single shadow on the sea.
EXCERPT from DROPPED NAMES © Frank Langella 2012. Published by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. All Rights Reserved.
© 2012 MSNBC Interactive