By Amy Phillips Penn

My mother, a native New Yorker, and a major Brooklyn Dodgers fan, fell in love for a lifetime, when she was seventeen.

After some less than ecstatic experiences with education, including a Methodist boarding school somewhere near Poughkeepsie, where the girls had to dress up in black tie and long gloves each Sunday and serve tea to each other, (she ran away countless times), she found true love with education and life at Oberlin College, in Ohio.

It was there that she made lifelong friends, the core of who moved to New York and were uber-successful.

They were Oberlin grads, with high hopes, over-the-top talent, and…they were all men: a masculine harem of intelligentsia, wonder and mythological masculinity in my mother’s collegiate eyes.

She followed their careers, and included me in the odyssey of these New York shooting stars.

“Kander’s going to be big,” she said, caressing a 45 record single with his name on it, as if it were already platinum. “You’ll see,” said my Alpha know-it-all and then some.

Gold, Platinum, Tony and theatre legend Kander went, and kept on rising.

John Kander, the composer of New York New York, Cabaret, Chicago and a spiral of success stories and awards, skyrocketed.

Then, there was William Goldman who immortalized the bible of screenplay writing, along with his own works like Butch Cassidy, The Princess Bride and Marathon Man; his brother James, who scribed A Lion in Winter; Nikos Psacharopoulos, the director of Williamstown theater, and many a New York Shakespearean extravaganza; and Charlie Blackwell, a Broadway stage manager who would love my mother forever.

Charlie was Black.

My mother was the only woman who would partner-up with him in their dance class.

He told the story every time we met, year after year, and was devoted to her forever.

When I was fifteen or thereabouts, my parents (my father did not go to Oberlin, he was a Cornelian), gave an intimate cocktail party, an oxymoron if ever there was one, for a few of my mother’s former classmates.

I sat next to Billy Goldman, and we talked… and talked some more. We didn’t come up for oxygen or an entourage the entire time.

I’d like to say that I was a teenage girl who idolized a superstar writer, and whispered her aspirations in hope of a mentor, but that wasn’t the case.

What stood out was that he was special.

I understood the spell that had seduced my mother.

The evening de-crescendoed as carolers sang “O Holy Night,” outside our window, and Brick Church.

“O night divine.”

Park Avenue Christmas trees were highlighted in pride. The New York holiday season had arrived.

Years later, my mother was asked to host a more formal evening for Oberlin alumni. Cocktails were at home, and then it was on to “Cabaret,” as a benefit for the college.

My mother handed me a draft of the invitation, and asked for my opinion.

This was an unusual in of itself.

Scanning it in front of her, with the respect it warranted, I suppressed a laugh. The committee was long and impressive, with stellar Illuminati from all worlds. There, among an all male committee, was my mother, the only woman in calligraphy.

“Family diplomacy” is yet another oxymoron, but I gave it a try.

“Do you notice anything a bit unbalanced with this committee?” I asked.

She just didn’t “get it.”

“There’s only one woman on the committee.”

She added one more woman.

My mother was highly intelligent. It was that “in-between time-of-times,” when not all women wandered the way of men in the work place.

She cherished being a part of that era and group of extraordinary talent, but never once thought of entering the ring solo.

“I would have been content to sit by Kander’s piano and just listen,” she said;

This from the “tiger of the household.”

Would she really have been satisfied to purr by his side? I think not.

Years later, after her death, I started to write lyrics: a talent I never even cultivated or dreamed of. My singing voice was delegated to mouthing words even in Kindergarten performances; I was in search of a voice and music.

I called John Kander.

“Where do I find someone to compose with, someone to sing?” I asked, ebulliently, sure that he would have the answer.

“I just go in the next room, and work with Fred,” he said referring to his partner lyricist Fred Ebb. (Ebb died later in 2004).

Was it really all that easy?

Perhaps for a chosen few it was.

I’m happy that my mother fell into rapture with a class of genius and glory. In her own dreams, she swathed herself in their alluring cocoon.

“In time, the cocoon, unraveled and unveiled New York women with chutzpah and genius.”

The New York world welcomed them in.

“It’s up to you, New York, New York.”

Featured image courtesy of Niagara Theatre


Thanks Melanie Berliet for being a wonderful editor. I will miss you.

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