Liz Smith: A Night With Broadway's Phyllis Newman — Talking Texas!

“TOURISM DESTROYS the object it loves,” said travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor.

My friends in London over the last few weeks, complained by e-mail that it rained on them for eleven straight days. But now they are back in New York at the height of the coming and continuing hot, hot, hot weather and they are wishing for rain.

THE DEATH of the great film critic Andrew Sarris, a champion of the Woody Allen auteur theory, leaves a vacuum. He operated at the peak along withPauline Kael, Stanley Kaufman, John Simon and Manny Farber. This all reminds me of Joan Didion’s anti- film critic remark: “Making judgments on film is in many ways so peculiarly vaporous an occupation that the only question is why anyone would do it in the first place.” She likened it to “doing petit-point on Kleenex.”

These days there isn’t much meaningful film criticism, merely remarks about box office and which blockbuster out-did the other.

THE TONY-winning actress Phyllis Newman — the girl with the best laugh on Broadway — lives in a beautiful penthouse apartment overlooking a green-swarded Central Park. Her next door neighbor is Jerry Seinfeld and she once had another neighbor, Glenn Close, who often climbed over the fence to see her.

Phyllis is the widow of Adolph Green who was a genius lyric and screenwriter. Everybody in the theater world misses Adolph. But Phyllis carries on her fund-raising for the health care of women in the arts. She has raised millions in this effort.

Phyllis Newman and Adolph Green.

The other eve she gave a divine dinner party for a few of her posh pals (Cindi Leive of Glamour and her husband, film producer Howard Bernstein) and a few loud-mouth Texans. There was no chance that these VIPs could get a word in edgewise as we Texans were so vocal. And, we were — media maven Joe Armstrong who always answers his own phone as “Rupert Murdoch’s office.”

Then there were Judith and Bill Moyers of PBS, producer and performer onBill Moyers Journal … likewise, Don Carleton of the U. of Texas’ Briscoe Center (he is also the biographer of Walter Cronkite and has written many books) … and yours truly.

Joe Armstrong and Liz in 2000. Photo: Erica Berger.


While we were at dinner, Moyers gave a precious artifact to the “Texas” collector Joe. He gave him one silver cufflink that had been owned byPresident Lyndon Johnson for whom he had worked as a White House aide. The cufflink bears a ten-gallon Stetson and the initials “LBJ.”

Moyers said that during the 1960 presidential campaign, one of LBJ’s shirtsleeves with the cufflink in it, was torn off his shoulder by an excited crowd. When the LBJ gang reconnoitered in their hotel, Lyndon removed his remaining cufflink and offered it to Bill, saying:

“Here. I want you to have this. If you can’t protect me any better than you just did today, they’ll just get this other one the next time I’m in public.”

Joe's silver cufflink (gifted to him by Bill Moyers) that had been owned by President Lyndon Johnson.

This began a heated discussion about how LBJ’s eventual policies to carry out some of JFK’s social programs, like the Civil Rights Act, caused Texas and the South to go “conservative” to this very day. And President Johnson knew that would happen but acted in a very liberal manner anyway to do what he thought was right.

All this led to a discussion of the N.Y. Times columnist Gail Collins and her new book As Texas Goes … which means “as Texas goes, so goes the nation,” and it is a book in which Ms. Collins says that the Texas type of states rights politics have “hijacked the nation.”

LBJ and MLK.

We ended up learning something else interesting. Except for its dashing football program, my alma mater, the University of Texas, is frowned upon for its liberal teachings and given a hard time by conservatives. Recent “redistricting” in the Lone Star State has given the city of Austin five separate conservative congressmen. In the past the city of Austin had one politician who more or less pled the causes of the city and the University. Now, that great school is at the mercy of a splintered quintet of Tea Party-ers.

I recalled that back in the “good old days” just after World War II, when some of us were shouting for the University to, at the very least, admit black people to the graduate school. Then, the Board of Regents was rumored to want to chisel off of the famous administration building, the Biblical Jesus saying: “Ye Shall Know the Truth and the Truth Shall Set You Free,” in favor of putting up Nietzsche’s “Discipline is the Foundation of the State.”

Mr. Carleton, an Austinite, murmured: “They still might do that now that you’ve reminded them of it.”

When we departed from Ms. Newman’s grand apartment, Phyllis said to me: “Imagine this happening to me! A dinner party where we talked about Texas and not about Broadway!”

This column originally appeared on on 6/25/12

2 Responses so far.

  1. avatar Baby Snooks says:

    I miss the really good reviews of film by the really good critics. It always added something new to what I had just seen. Put it in a different perspective. Added a nuance to it.  Made it more memorable. Or made me want to see something. Even Rex Reed managed to add something new. Even when he was biting and bitchy about it. Apart from Rex Reed, who’s left?

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