I'VE NEVER REALLY enjoyed her singing, but she is a legend, after all. She was primarily known as a scat artist, often ignoring a song’s meaning or depth. Melody could be elusive, as she affected the harmony lines and intonation of a tenor sax or an adventurous trumpet player. Her innovative stylings caused her to be worshipped by beboppers, revered by jazzbos everywhere. Though I wasn’t a fan, I appreciated the artistry, shared the passion for singing and wanted to meet the infamous Anita O’Day.
So when Ed, my record producer, offered to set up a brunch on my last morning in L.A., I jumped at my chance. He had been working with her on a comeback record and the two had gotten chummy. The site would be the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel where I had performed just two nights earlier. I was in town for a recording date at Capitol Records and for a short run at the Cinegrill. My singing style was more Garland and Gorme, Great American Songbook stuff. I was there doing a show celebrating the music of Doris Day. Though I was sometimes described as a jazz singer because of my freedom with the melody, I never strayed as far as Anita was wont to do. When I listened to her, it was hard to separate her singing from her tempestuous personal life, well chronicled not only in newspaper headlines but in her own autobiography. Given the extent to which she abused her body with drugs and alcohol, I was surprised she was still alive. Apparently, it had started to catch up with her. She was now in an assisted living facility in Hollywood. Before brunch, Ed decided we would pick her up there to allow more time together.
“She’s not an easy person to know,” Ed warned on the way over. “But I think you two will hit it off. It’ll be fun.” I hoped so. But “fun” wasn’t a word I would immediately associate with this legendary diva. She had been defiant and rebellious all her life, a walking antisocial personality disorder.
Even at 81 she was dressed to the nines, complete with false eyelashes. Like the equally legendary Joan Crawford, she apparently felt that appearances need to be maintained no matter what. I found that admirable and, really, had expected it. As she approached the car, I got out and extended my hand.
“It’s an honor to meet you, Anita,” I choked out.
She didn’t say anything, just glared at me. Uh oh. Should I be calling her Anita? Should I be more deferential? What would I talk about with a jazz legend? We had a record producer in common and, of course, singing. To talk about the latter, though, seemed presumptuous at best.
Anita got in the car and immediately asked where Ed’s wife was, seeming surprised to see me instead. Ed explained, “This is Pam Munter. She’s a singer, too, doing an album at Capitol. I thought you two would enjoy each other. Donna couldn’t make it today.”
I looked over at her and smiled, but still felt the frozen glare. Her “Hi” came out like a burp.
I had read her autobiography, in which she had detailed her substance abuse and promiscuity. Should I talk with her about her life? No. That would be like an interview. I had even left the camera at home, not wanting to seem the least bit exploitive. I just wanted to meet her, to talk with her. A real, honest-to-God legend, a survivor.
I was middle-aged and just starting my way up the musical food chain after retiring from an unrelated career. She had been doing it since before I was born. I wondered what I might learn from her. And, as a show biz junkie, I just wanted to spend time with her.
After a few minutes of uncomfortable silence, she thrust her fused right hand in front of my face. “I fell down the steps of my trailer late one night,” she told me. “It was dark, and I missed a step. Still hurts like a sonofabitch. I was in the hospital for almost three years.”
I sympathized, but I knew better. She had been hospitalized on and off for her heroin addiction. Any injury she had suffered almost certainly came when she was under the influence of something. But she wasn’t interested in any words of comfort. Within the first few minutes, she talked at us, about the food at her assisted living facility, what she might have for lunch in a few minutes, the traffic on the road. There was no opportunity for conversation. She a monologist, and I could see what I needed to do to maintain her good will: let her roll.
We went for brunch at her favorite Sunday spot, the restaurant at the Hollywood Roosevelt. We arrived early, so I could get to know her, though the reverse was clearly not part of the plan. While we waited, she complained because the booking manager there had been taking a long time to give her dates at the Cinegrill, the showroom downstairs. When I saw the manager across the room, I called him over and introduced them, thinking the contact might facilitate a quicker resolution.
“Chuck, you know Anita O’Day,” I said, smiling.
“Oh, yes, Miss O’Day. I’ve been meaning to call you.”
Anita scoffed, “Uh huh.” Chuck was obviously ill at ease. She likely affected everyone this way. I didn’t know why he hadn’t called her, but I had an idea, given her history.
“I’ll be in touch soon, Miss O’Day. Enjoy your brunch,” he said, as he backed away. Anita quickly turned her head away and said nothing.
The dining room of the hotel was filled with Hollywood history. Everybody from John Barrymore to Madonna had dined in this room. People, immersed in their own conversations, didn’t even notice the jazz legend standing in line. In the minutes we waited to be seated, she suddenly began to wax expansively on her career. It was like some plug had been pulled. Her longest gigs were with Stan Kenton and Benny Goodman, which I knew about. She talked about her impressions of other singers and was enjoying having an audience who was clearly enjoying her. Benny Goodman seemed like a safe topic for consensus since his frosty demeanor put everyone off. No one liked the stern taskmaster and I assumed like Anita shared that view.
“How did you work for someone you disliked?” I ventured.
“Oh, he wasn’t so bad.”
She fell silent. I thought I may have violated some boundary, so I waited.
“Well,” she continued. “Unless you did something wrong. Then he would give you that ‘Ray’ of his.”
Every once in a while, I’d ask a quick clarifying question about Goodman, mostly to encourage the stories, which were wonderful. Never mind they were the same ones she had told in her book. It was coming out of her mouth – in person - and it was thrilling. She was holding court with her well-rehearsed stories, and that was just fine with me.
Our table was ready, and we sat down in a crowded section in the middle of the large dining room. Suddenly, the climate changed. Anita became withdrawn. She put on her sunglasses and stopped smiling. She looked for all the world like a sullen teenager.
My mind flashed back to reading about her conflicts with musicians, critics and even friends and intimates. Ed had told me they quarreled often, even as he was helping her record her album.
But what had happened just now? Had she run out of cognitive gas with her recollections? Was she having trouble tracking the conversation now? Too much stimulation in the room? Was I seeing the result of all those years of self-medication?
I tried to engage her with a few benign questions, but I could see the surliness rising like an ill tide. “What are you recording with Ed?” I asked. She turned away from me, as if to search for someone across the room. Perhaps foolishly, I kept trying. “Capitol is so full of famous DNA, isn’t it? I find it very intimidating.” Again, nothing. OK, I thought. Back off and give her a chance to recover her equilibrium. She left the table to get more food, and, when she came back, it was no better. In short order, she poured tea water into her orange juice and dropped chocolate cake into her coffee. When no further efforts returned the mood to its earlier cheerful state, it was clear my time was up.
Ed told me later that when I had gone to the restroom, he had asked her what was wrong. She said she had felt as if she were being interviewed. Of course, she, herself, had invited me in with her stories. My questions had not been not personal, not even very probing. I was seduced into the conversation then punished for being there.
Thinking about it later, I concluded that her life had been so dominated by her prodigious talent that it had not allowed the luxury of developing social skills. From the time she was 21, she was a celebrated jazz singer. No need to cultivate life’s niceties, to get to know others in any significant way. Nearly everyone close to her had been men, and she had related through music, sex and chemicals. Then there was the high likelihood of brain damage from all that drug and alcohol abuse. Work was all that mattered to her in the long run. It put me in mind of the quote from Sarah Vaughan’s autobiography, “I just sing.”
Anita’s personal story is full of tales of misguided trust, delegating her life to the wrong people, especially men. Early in the brunch, she proudly described the latest Svengali in her life, a man who tracked her down to get her to sign over the rights to all her work. She did not even recall his last name. Relationships with women, especially other singers like me, were competitive, often hostile. She had always preferred the company of men. She boasted, though, about giving a break to “that kid” June Christy when she left Kenton.
I found myself wondering how Christy would describe it.
When I got up to leave, I reached for her hand and told her it had been good to meet her. She managed a wan smile and with a mouth full of lamb, muttered, “Keep on singing, Babe.”
Even though it had been difficult, I was glad to have put myself (and perhaps her) through this. My admiration for her accomplishments and longevity were not sullied by this odd meeting but its sadness haunted me for a long time. It was a clear glimpse into the end stages of a legend, a towering talent whose other great skill was apparently sabotaging herself. As an avid reader of show biz biographies, I knew her story was not unique. In some ways, she was a victim of her own passion to sing, and I understood that all too well. Her story was, at least, a cautionary tale.
Anita died from the effects of pneumonia and congestive heart failure in 2006. Those final years saw her attempt several comebacks that were not well received by audiences or critics. She never finished the recording at Capitol Records. And I never did see her perform.
Pam Munter is author of When Teens Were Keen: Freddie Stewart and The Teen Agers of Monogram (Nicholas Lawrence Press, 2005).Her essays and short stories have been published in The Rumpus, The Coachella Review, Lady Literary Review, The Creative Truth, Adelaide, Angels Flight—Literary West and a number of other literary journals.