ON BETTY COMDEN

 

For Alexander, Nina and me, Betty Comden was a most precious member in our extensive collection of honorary aunts. Whipsmart, with her glossy hair and snappy outfits, she was affectionate and naturally elegant -- and could crack wise like nobody's business. Boy, could she make our father laugh. They adored each other. She could play word games with Steve Sondheim and not quaver. She could quote Shakespeare and Ibsen and Bugs Bunny. She was as knowledgeable and enthusiastic in Carnegie Hall as she was at the Broadhurst Theatre. Her memory for literature, history, movies and music rivaled Adolph Green's -- and that's really saying something.

 

Bettyandadolph -- even when we were little, we understood that there was some kind of mind meld going on, but that their two bodies had completely separate lives, with completely separate spouses and children. The nature of their lifelong collaboration seemed remarkable to us only through our adult eyes. As kids, we saw it as the most natural thing in the world.

 

It seemed to us that what grownups mostly did was have fun – especially when they worked. In our father’s studio, he and Betty and Adolph spent hours engulfed in a murk of cigarette smoke (although Betty herself never smoked), laughing and screaming around the piano. During our parents’ parties, we could hear Betty from our beds upstairs; the timbre of her voice was unmistakable. She would say something, and then the whole room would erupt into laughter. We just couldn't wait to be grownups.

 

In the 1960’s, we finally got old enough to be invited along to the legendary New Year’s Day parties at the home of Betty and her husband, Steve Kyle. According to my uncle, we missed the reallygreat parties, back in the 40’s and 50’s. I hate when grownups say that. It’s probably true, but still, on January First we thought we’d gained entrance through the gates of heaven itself. Betty went on having that New Year’s Day party right up to a couple of years ago, when her living room was still as jam-packed as ever.

 

While our father was still alive, we gathered for Passover at our big apartment in the Dakota. Betty was always there with us. After our father died and we sold the Dakota apartment, the seder moved to Betty's. She clearly loved having the raucous hordes of Kyles, Comdens, Greens, Bernsteins et alia, all crammed around a table that snaked through her entire living room -- with the littlest kids mostlyunder that table, of course. In those pink silk pajamas, Betty looked simultaneously glamorous and hamische. Here was a no-holds-barred career woman for sure, yet nothing ever compromised Betty’s feminine daintiness and sense of domestic grace.

 

Every time we were at Betty’s, Nina, Alexander and I would fixate yet again on that amazing collection of framed, autographed photos on her piano. We certainly had some pretty interesting people on the piano in our house, but Betty had us beat. Charlie Chaplin! Gene Kelly! Groucho Marx! This was a level of excitement we couldn’t begin to touch.

 

One summer when I was about 7, our father decided that my brother and I would help him write a show. The characters all had fake Japanese names that were scatological family in-jokes. We didn't get very far in the collaboration, but what I remember is my father playing something we were "working on" (whatever that could have possibly meant) -- and as I leaned casually against the piano on my little elbows, I felt -- I felt -- just like Betty Comden!