Friday, December 4, 2015

The Hardest Day in Central Park

Playwright Neil Simon in 1969
Neil Simon’s Willy Lohman-like father had no understanding of books, plays or even fatherhood, really. He thought that the actors might have helped Neil write his first Broadway hit, Come Blow Your Horn. Irving Simon liked the father played by Lou Jacobi, telling Neil he knew so many men like that. He never recognized the character as himself.
But Irving Simon had his pride, and refused to eat in his sons’ homes, afraid he might somehow impoverish them. One day he asked Neil not to bring his beloved granddaughter Ellen along to their meeting in Central Park.
Lou Jacobi (bottom r.) played a character based on Simon's father in this comedy hit.
“I sat on the bench where we always met, and as I saw him approaching, I could see he walked gingerly, not with the usual sprightly gait I was accustomed to,” Neil recalled in his memoir Rewrites. “He looked pounds thinner and when he reached me, he sat and looked away, tears in his eyes. I sat quietly, waiting for him to gather himself. He asked how Joan and Ellen were and was I feeling well, all questions meant to delay what he really had to say. His lips were trembling as he started to speak, and the stifled sob was even more distressing than if he had just let the tears flow.
“ ‘What is it, Dad? Tell me. Are you all right?’
“Every time he tried to speak; he fumbled, he took out a handkerchief to blow his nose and hide his face when anyone passed within earshot. ‘I don’t know how to say this. I’ve never taken anything from you or Danny. You know that. Am I lying?’
“ ‘No, Dad. You never let us give you anything. What is it? Money? Just tell me. I’ll give you whatever you need.’
“He covered his eyes with his hands and this time the sobs came uncontrollably. He told me what he needed and swore it was only a loan. He would pay me back one day. ‘As God is my judge.’ I told him I would send him a check in the morning.
“I knew he was never a strong man, never a fighter, or even a self-sufficient man, despite the fact that he always worked hard. He depended on the love and sympathy of his sisters, his nieces and his nephews, who I think knew his faults but loved him. I knew and saw both sides.
“We hugged and he got up to leave; he was hardly able to look at me as he went. For a man who wouldn’t even share a Sunday breakfast with me, this had to be the hardest day of his life. I never told my mother what happened but I think somehow she knew. I grew up seeing the torment of broken families, broken lives and broken hearts. I always looked for the pain when I wrote about it. Writing about it in a play or on this page doesn’t lessen the pain, but it allows you to look at it from a distance, objectively instead of subjectively, and you begin to see a common truth that connects us all.” 

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