The Luncheon Society/The 2011 “Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know” Woman’s Reading Series/ Jamie Rose, Samantha Dunn, Carrie White, Hunter Drohojowska-Philp, Christina Haag and Jillian Lauren/ Los Angeles—Napa Valley Grille October 20, 2011/Manhattan—Prime House/November 10, 2011

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Lady Caroline may have described Lord Byron that way but it certainly fits The Luncheon Society.  We had two wonderful luncheons on both  coasts.   These are smart women who are great writers.

In Los Angeles and New York, we convened  at locations we know and enjoy; Napa Valley Grille  in Westwood and Prime House in Manhattan.   Jamie Rose, Samantha DunnCarrie White and Hunter Drohojowska-Philp joined us in LA; Jamie, Christina Haag, and Jillian Lauren joined us in NY.

The History. Back in 2008, I called a couple of LA writer friends  to have a reading.  Joining us around the table at La Terza were Erika Schickel, who read from just-published memoir, “You’re Not the Boss of Me,” a whip-smart tome on being a hip parent. Anne Beatts , a pioneering writer who became the first woman to helm The Harvard Lampoon and the first female writer at Saturday Night Live, read from her unpublished memoir about attending a funeral with John Belushi.  It screams to be published. Writer and memoirist Eve Brandstein, who with Anne has created a ton of stellar television, read poetry and reflected upon her childhood in New York City. Rachel Resnick read from the galleys of her soon-to-be-published memoir titled “Love Junkie,” a harrowing life story of somebody coming to grips with her own demons as a love and sex addict. Rounding out the group was our old pal Colleen Wainwright, an LA blogger extraordinaire who did something wonderful in 2011 by raising $50,000 for Writegirl, an LA nonprofit which partners women writers with at-risk teenage girls for creative writing workshops and one-on-one mentoring.  It was part of her milestone birthday; when she exceeded the figure, she gladly shaved her head as a crowd of friends cheered.   All five are equal parts vibrant, brilliant, and cool.

For some reason, I never got around to scheduling another “Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know” (MBDTK) gathering until I sent out a few emails in late summer 2011. Eve Brandstein was directing a play in Los Angeles and mentioned that one of her actors, Jamie Rose,  was ready to publish a memoir on how Tango allowed her to “let go.”   A few phone calls later and we had luncheons scheduled in Los Angeles and Manhattan; I hosted the gathering in Los Angeles and Eve ran the show in Manhattan. Jamie was critical in building out the roster of writers.

Perhaps The Great Recession sapped the marketing guts from the publishing industry because good writing remains unsupported and stillborn on the shelf.  So The Luncheon Society will step in and do what it can. As we move forward, MBDTK will be one of those fun gatherings, the kind where calendars are kept open and people disappear down into our world of “Adult Drop-In Daycare,” a Luncheon Society stylemark since 1997.

Both luncheons were anchored around our pal and LA-based writer/actress Jamie Rose, who penned, “Shut Up and Dance!—the Joy of Letting Go of the Lead—On the Dance Floor and Off.

This book served two masters wonderfully. First, this is a self-help book for those who over-function within their relationships by trying to control every single outcome.  Second, Jamie also gave us a travelogue of her life, which took her from child actor to primetime acting on Falcon Crest during the 1980s, and a career of steady work that continues to this day.  However her personal life, by her own admission, was a mess.

After finding herself in relationship after relationship with self-absorbed men who failed to share a co-creative lifestyle, she finally hit rock bottom and discovered a realization that would carry her upward; she would have to be her own best partner.  She could no longer suborn her self-esteem to the elusive notion of an ideal relationship.  Then she discovered Tango and with it, she introduced us to the devoted subculture in Los Angeles.  For the uninitiated, Tango is a highly formalized dance, where the male leads and the female follows. When we see it in the movies, the cameras are usually pointed upward at the faces of both dancers and away from the real action. Lost in the swelling of the music, we rarely see that the lead/follow relationship that can make a couple float so effortlessly across the floor.  What exists is the level of trust between both dancers; each understands the role of the other implicitly because one has to lead and another has to follow.

Although she was ready to get married, her boyfriend wasn’t. His reason?  She wrote, “They fought too much-and unfortunately, he was right.” But something magical happened when she signed up for tango lessons. She realized that calling the shots in every situation may be the root cause for many of her headaches. In Tango, like life, both parties work together with steps that take you from one side of the room to the other.

Jamie’s friend Samantha Dunn also joined us for her memoir titled Faith In Carlos Gomez, a Memoir of Salsa, Sex, and Salvation ,  which detailed her love for the dance.

Dunn, whose earlier novel “Failing Paris” was a PEN/West finalist found herself seriously injured after a horse accident which required several pins to be paced into her shattered leg.  This was no ordinary accident because the threat of infection made amputation a real possibility but the self-described klutz used her convalescence to re-examine her life.  While at a party, she becomes utterly charmed by a blacksmith from South America. She dares herself to take a dance lesson in order to better impress him because a better understanding of his culture might lead to something far more interesting. 

However something far more profound occurs; salsa revitalized her battered leg but liberated her in a way those other therapies missed.  While Jamie was drawn to Tango for its structure, Samantha looked to Salsa to open a new chapter to her own life.   It also opened the door to better understanding herself and the ascending vibrancy of LA’s Hispanic culture.  The rhythms are equally subtle and complex but having a leg that sets off metal detectors at LAX puts the screws to a larger question:  can you overcome life’s obstacles when something wonderful comes your way? Sometimes the best way to answer is that question is to let your soul, not your head, answer the question. 

When I think of Carrie White, I think of somebody who emerged triumphant after she excised the horrible demons of her youth, complete with a long descent into a dark corner of drug and alcohol addiction that nearly killed her. 

However, every talented soul deserves a second chance and she delivered.  Her memoir, Upper Cut: Highlights of my Hollywood Life , takes her from her chaotic Hollywood upbringing through her brief stint as Playboy’s Playmate of the Month, to how she became the top Beverly Hills hairstylist in a world wholly monopolized by men.  Soon, she found herself in-demand as the rare stylist who understood what actresses like Julie Christie or tastemakers like Diana Vreeland wanted. 

Her clients comprised Hollywood’s “A List.”  She was one of those rare talents who could handle Hollywood’s reigning women and the upstarts of the 1960’s—perhaps because she listened. Those knockout covers for Vogue looked far more stylish with Carrie’s guidance because she intuitively knew how to make them more stunning.  She worked in film and helped create the severe look that helped Louise Fletcher win the Oscar as Nurse Ratched in One who Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  She even helped United Airlines create a more professional look for their flight attendants, which long before workplace rules changed became the recommended “look” for their fleet.

However, her damaged childhood and a fast life in Hollywood evolved into a slow downward spiral that nearly ruined everything. By the late 1970’s and early 1980’s her talent was eclipsed by a messy series of cross addictions. When she moved in with a foreign-born princess identified as “K,” the problems only escalated. Worse, her young children found themselves thrown into the chaos and wondered aloud if their mother’s final appointment would be an obituary.  Moving to sobriety was no easy task for Carrie and she documents the “starts and stops” with gruesome candor. 

As she improved, she met with her former clients and made amends for her bad behavior.  However, the toughest relationships to rebuild were those with her children. She returned to the world of salon care, and after great effort, has reclaimed her position as one of the top stylists in the business.  It is a great story of redemption and forgiveness.

When Georgia O’Keefe biographer Hunter Drohojowska-Philp looked for her next project, she found inspiration within her own backyard.   That book became Rebels in Paradise: The Los Angeles Art Scene of the 1960’s.    Drohojowska-Philp, a journalist and art critic for a variety of regional publications, noted that while Los Angeles was the center of the Hollywood machine, there was no art scene beyond the MGM Prop Department. The Great American Art Museums were found in Manhattan and surrounding them was the critical mass of creative talent. For those looking westward, the LA Fine Arts scene either failed to exist or excite, but a group of talented artists and patrons took matters into their own hands.  The emerging culture that fueled the explosion in Pop, Minimalism, and the surrounding Conceptual Art Movements now celebrated came of age in 1960’s Los Angeles. 


 

When you’re present at the creation, you can create your own rules.  Styles and artists which would have been smothered by convention or shuttered aside by taste had a chance to blossom. People who made their living making movies found a new creature comfort in fine art. Non-traditional patrons like Dennis Hopper became enthusiastic supporters. Andy Warhol had his first show and Marcel Duchamp had his first retrospective in Los Angeles, not New York.  Waiting in the wings were artists like David Hockney, Robert Irwin, Bruce Nauman, and Judy Chicago; architects like Frank Gehry; a music scene like The Doors, The Byrds, and everything else coming out of Whisky-a-Go-Go ,and you have ready-mix culture eager to explode upon a blank canvas.

Drohojowska-Philp blends the art with the artist together to create a total picture because there are times a good artist comes giftwrapped in a disappointing persona.  She also looks at the realities of craft and commerce because after the initial sale, artists receive no further compensation for the original print. I am sure Ed Ruscha would have loved a percentage of the $7 Million spent on Burning Gas Station, but when art crosses into commerce, the artist is only a signature but the bragging rights belong to the owner.  However, Los Angeles has built a series of great museums to capture the era it created:  the MOCA, The Hammer Museum at UCLA, and the Santa Monica Museum of Art.  Others are in the planning stages.  It has cemented the reputation of Los Angeles as an artistic beachhead and a serious rival to New York.

Any book surrounding the Kennedy family is a literary minefield, but Christina Haag  gets it right in her graceful memoir, Come to the Edge, her longtime friendship and relationship with John Kennedy Jr.  

Long before he married Carolyn Bessette or dated tall blonde actresses and platinum blonde pop stars, John and Christina were friends who grew up together in prep school and found themselves working together in an off-Broadway play long after studying together at Brown.  

The book portrays this John Kennedy as somebody who overcame the white-hot glare found in his first and last name. Both entered the relationship as “works in progress” and unlike some Hollywood power romances, it was preceded by a deep friendship that formed and blossomed naturally, away from the intrusive cameras of others. Kennedy, who grew up in the pages of Life and People Magazine, was cemented in our consciousness when he saluted his father’s caisson as the cortege moved from the Capitol to Arlington.  After that, there was the occasional still photo, the direct result of his mother’s efforts to keep the paparazzi away from both children. Unlike his cousins, this Kennedy stayed clear of the police blotter and never attracted any scandal to his name. Even when he stumbled and failed successive bar exams, most quickly forgave someone who added luster to his family name; whatever the temporary embarrassment that found itself on the cover of The New York Post only added to his humanity.

Most romances have a beginning, a midpoint, but sadly a conclusion too. For her story, Christina probably realized that long-term prospects were fleeting. However, a portrait emerges throughout of a young man who balanced his personal wishes against his family’s expectations but also proved that one could rise above the pitfalls of mere celebrity with humility and charm.  We know the tragic end, but in a world where tabloid biographies can be as crass as the ringing of a cash register, this memoir rises above the crowd. In the end, it speaks volumes about the subject as well as the author.

Sometimes you must wander through some terribly dark places to write great fiction.  Jillian Lauren’s first novel, Pretty , features a tale of self-destruction and redemption of Bebe Baker, perhaps a fictionalized version of Jillian herself as she struggles to find a clean equilibrium within her life. 

Bebe slowly inches her way forward in “a series of small and consistent daily decisions to behave in a more loving way toward myself.” After the tragic death of her boyfriend, she places herself in a halfway house in one more focused attempt to get clean.

It was her well-received memoir that launched a career as an in-demand writer. Twenty years ago, Jillian began an odyssey that took her from a dingy East Village apartment as an NYU dropout into the harem of Prince Jefri, the Sultan of Brunei’s younger brother.  In Some Girls, My Life in a Harem, Lauren wrote about her 18 month stint as one of the highest paid members in the world’s oldest profession.  Back in the early 1990’s Lauren was a headstrong 19 year old who graduated from high school at the age of 16 but dropped out of college soon after.  After her father severed the financial lifeline, she answered an ad to be a “party guest” for a “wealthy businessman in Singapore,” but within a short period of time, the real truth revealed itself.  Soon after arriving, she found herself at the top of the Sultan’s harem of 40 girlfriends  He showered her with hundreds of thousands of dollars of gifts, including jewelry, clothing, and cash.  However, she found herself emotionally worn to a crisp by the Sultan’s endless mind games where the spigot of attention would be showered and then shut off.  Lauren tells her story bluntly, without pity and uses some of the money to hire a detective to find her birth mother.

From that experience and others, she built a successful career as a writer but not before going through a hellacious journey of serious drug addiction and rehabilitation. Perhaps writing has become a cathartic outlet for Lauren; getting the pain on the printed page allows a good author to poke and shape it into something better. After reading through a New York Times article  reflecting her current state in life, she knows she is a work in progress, cognizant of the steps she has taken but mindful there are still miles to go. Regardless of her path, the writing will be great.

The Luncheon Society ™ is a series of private luncheons and dinners that take place in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Manhattan, and Boston.  We essentially split the costs of gathering and we meet in groups of 20-25 people. Discussions center on politics, art, science, film, culture, and whatever else is on our mind. Think of us as “Adult Drop in Daycare.” We’ve been around since 1997 and we’re purposely understated. These gatherings takes place around a large table, where you interact with the main guest and conversation becomes end result.  There are no rules, very little structure, and the gatherings happen when they happen. Join us when you can.

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