I have only a few more hours with Tilda’s children; they’re leaving on an 11 a.m. flight to Inverness (by way of London). When I arrive at the hotel, Tilda has somehow managed not only to pack up all the toys and books and clothing, she finds time to talk to me about the evening before. “It’s rather like doing a one-woman show, having a dinner that big in one’s honor,” she said. “When you do a one-woman show and people come to see you backstage, you’re the only point of connection. It’s daunting.” I adore children, feel as if I have absorbed them into my being, and am sad to see them go. These moments—now, in the hotel room, and then cabbing over to a small coffee shop to meet Justin Bond (of “Kiki and Herb” fame and a close friend of Tilda’s)—will last a lifetime in my memory.
In the car, Boy and Honey sit huddled in the back. Tilda promises them a nice visit with their Aunt Kiki, who, onstage, impersonates an ancient saloon singer with appropriately depressed aplomb. As we speed along to the East Village coffee house where we’re to meet Justin, Honey begins humming a song. Tilda and I are discussing the casting of a film we’d like to do together, which I would write and she would star in and produce. Of course, the movie would never get made if I threw my hat into the ring as a director, which causes less of a pang than the memory of holding auditions for Don’t Explain (the movie I wrote about Billie Holiday and Orson Welles),back in the day, when Christine Vachon, the producer, said my friend Darryl Turner and I could co-direct it.
It was an exhilarating time. One of the great auditions we held was with the actress Peta Wilson, who was the star of the TV show La Femme Nikita. Darryl had written the part of Charlotte (a fictional character) with Peta in mind. In the script, Charlotte is something of a wild child: reckless, witty, and in love with Billie Holiday. Peta’s audition was a scene that showed how in love Charlotte was with the unknowable, dangerous, and closed-off Billie. Peta’s audition frightened the casting director: She cried; she licked the casting director, who was reading with her, on the face; she filled the small audition with our words and emotions, making them her own. After I applauded her audition, Peta said to me, “You’re a director.” Her comment was an attempt to forge a connection between us; she trusted me as her guide; I needed her to make my writing come to life.
This memory crossed my mind as I climbed back into the car after dropping Tilda off at the coffee shop—we would say proper good-byes later—and headed off to interview the great singer Jimmy Scott for The New Yorker. He is staying on East 27th Street, not far from the club where he’s playing. The hotel is a transient one, like something out of John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy. Scott’s recent wife—his fifth—says it’s a fleabag, and it is: One can smell disinfectant and fried chicken clotting the industrial carpet. But Jimmy doesn’t mind. “That’s show biz, baby,” he says.
When I arrive, Jimmy is wearing a sky-blue head rag, dark sweater, and trousers. He is very thin and his wife is not. She is perhaps 20 years younger than Jimmy, who is in his late 70s and a raving beauty still. Because of a childhood malady too complicated to go into here, his testosterone levels are low, so his body is practically hairless, his voice beautiful and high. He looks like a beautiful aged colored child-woman. Jimmy is all about connecting: with his wife, the audience, himself. About living and making art, he says: “You can give out, baby, but you can never give up.” Which is one definition of grace.
Photographs courtesy Darryl Turner, 2004.