One might think that being the most popular playwright in America, with hit after hit on stage and screen, would make one feel secure. And one would, of course, be wrong.
“I’d had an enormous run from 1961 through 1968, and I felt, if not quite on top of the world, at least that I was living on one of the higher floors,” Neil Simon recalled in his memoir Rewrites.
“But the thought was always there that they could take it away as fast as it came, a symptom all too familiar to almost everyone I knew or read about in show business who rose quickly to the top. In my insecurity I wondered when I would be accepted as having ‘arrived.’ And I constantly thought maybe one more play would do it. It never happens, of course. No shadowy figure appears in the middle of the night to deliver a letter that says, ‘You’ve arrived.’ Success is not something you can hold in your hand. Joan was something I could hold. And Ellen and Nancy — I could hold them.
Simon met one source of his insecurities outside Sardi’s one rainy night. “For as many people out there who applaud your work, there’re an equal number who dismiss it out of hand. I once met Pauline Kael, the former film critic for the New Yorker, who was held in very high esteem — except by anyone I ever spoke to. There was no denying she was a brilliant writer who seemed to prefer Polish or Czech films made on a budget of twelve dollars with stories somewhat on the lines of ‘How a Greek sailor wakes up on a beach one morning with a woman’s brown shoe in his pocket. The rest of the picture traces his search.’ Fortunately the picture invariably ends before you ever find out.
“That was Art. I didn’t write Art.
“We met one evening as we were leaving Sardi’s restaurant, where the New York Film Critics Awards were being handed out,” Simon said. “Ms. Kael and I were both standing under a canopy as the rain pelted New York, and I had very little sympathy for the fact that her new shoes were getting wet, since she had stepped on my own feet every time I had something to show the public.
“As we both waited silently for a cab, we glanced at each other, knowing someone had to say something first. She made a halfhearted attempt at a smile, and said, ‘I haven’t been awfully nice to you over the years, have I?’ I made a full-hearted attempt not to smile, and said, ‘No, you haven’t.’ She said, ‘Well, it’s hard not to knock you. You keep coming around too often.’ Then she got in her cab and quite surprisingly flew up into the night sky, as I thought I heard a cackle in the distance.”
Critics and playwrights can be both natural allies and natural enemies.
Maybe the trouble was something as simple as Kael’s nagging awareness that nobody needed her to explain to them that Simon’s films and plays were enjoyable.
Of course, there’s also the possibility that she thought she was paying Simon a compliment.