William Madison: Ally

Ruby's Rap

by Ruby Comer

Photo by Catherine Karnow
Photo by Catherine Karnow

Madeline Kahn did not have kids, but she gave birth to many memorable characters. There was the ditzy control freak Eunice Burns in What’s Up, Doc?, the sex-starved socialite Elizabeth in Young Frankenstein, the opportunistic vamp Trixie Delight in Paper Moon, and the sexy vixen Lili von Shtupp in Blazing Saddles. For us fans who can’t get enough of the funny lady, William V. (stands for Vincent) Madison has written the quintessential biography, Madeline Kahn: Being The Music, A Life. (Recently out in paperback, it includes a new chapter!)

In his work, one item you’ll learn is that not only was she sensitive and insecure about her looks, but Madeline never understood why people thought she was funny. In fact, after her debut in What’s Up, Doc?, she threw herself into therapy. You see, Madeline was a master at creating character. She would approach each role as if they were real persons, creating a backstory and a history, shooting from the heart. As we all know, comedy has its roots in tragedy! She was a dedicated actor and a classically trained singer who strived for excellence in every performance.

There’s one scene I find hysterical from Peter Bogdanovich’s raging comedy, What’s Up,

Illustration by Davidd Batalon
Illustration by Davidd Batalon

Doc? Eunice Burns cannot enter the musicology convention hall because Judy Maxwell (Barbra Streisand) has already taken her name tag. Eunice frantically bursts through the doors as attendants follow her. Once they reach the table where her fiancé Howard Bannister (Ryan O‘Neal) sits alongside Judy, Eunice pleads with him, “Tell him who I am! Tell him who I am!” Howard replies, “I never saw her before in my life.” The attendants clutch Eunice under her armpits, dragging the screaming woman out at a ninety-degree angle. All the while, her floppy flipped-up dishwater blonde wig is cockeyed and her white heels zigzag back and forth across the linoleum floor leaving heavy marks. Madeline is at her apex!

Madeline died of ovarian cancer in 1999, but thanks to social media, she will always be around. For a delicious treat, watch a YouTube video of Madeline singing “You’d Be Surprised,” by Irving Berlin, which she sang at his 100th-birthday celebration in 1988.

Madeline not only cared about her career, but also about those who were living with AIDS. She made donations and dedicated performances to AIDS charities such as Gay Men’s Health Crisis and Broadway Cares.

Wm. MadisonLike Madeline, the epidemic touched William Madison as well. A native Texan, he lost many friends to AIDS. The author has a varied career: a radio producer, a television writer, a gopher on Broadway, a stage manager and costume designer off-off Broadway, opera critic, secretary, reporter, actor, teacher, production assistant (for 1986 Broadway musical, Rags) and…a go-go boy. Okay, I must hear more about that! William graduated from Brown University and Columbia’s School of Writing, and his former bosses include Dan Rather, Connie Chung, and Teresa Stratas. William is currently busy with the memoir of Jarmila Novotná, the Czech soprano (1907–94), which was a bestseller in the Czech Republic. He’s editing the book for the American audience.

Through the years, Mr. Madison has supported Broadway Cares and other AIDS organizations as well. Since Madeline died of ovarian cancer, the author is donating a portion of his book sales to the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund Alliance.

William resides in upper Manhattan’s Inwood section, and today he suggests getting together for Sunday brunch at La Mirabelle, a restaurant on West 86th Street at Columbus Avenue. I’m there! They even have a singer waitress he tells me….

Ruby Comer: [As the host seats us, I ask] Any particular reason you wanted to meet at this eatery, Bill?
William Madison: The owners and staff greet me as a long-lost relative and never, ever correct my French grammar.

Ah, ha. You’re too much. [He grins.] I know you started the Madeline biography while you lived in Paris, it took about seven years to write, and you interviewed about 120 people. What an accomplishment—see, I did my homework. So what made you want to write about Madeline?
For one thing, nobody else had written her story. For another, her background was a good match for my own: I’ve got a long history with opera, worked on one Broadway musical and done lots of other theater, and she and I worked at CBS at the same time. I haven’t done movies, but hey, I’m willing. [He winks then chomps on his endive salad.] I’d always enjoyed her work, and I sensed, rightly, that we were kindred spirits and that she’d be good company— though I had no idea we’d spend so many years together.
I guess you’ve become quite good friends! Say, what took you to France?

After I was laid off from the staff of Opera News, I focused on writing novels. An ex-lover, who’s French, suggested that I could do that work just as easily in France as in New York, and living in France was something I’d always dreamed of. I moved in November 2004—by sheer coincidence on the day after George W. Bush was elected.

Oh for corn’s sake. Lucky you! Before we veer off any further, I need to know about this go-go boy stint. Do tell. [I take a helping of my Salade Caesar.]
Well…the scheduled dancer cancelled. I volunteered. I thought, “Isn’t this why I go to the gym?” I learned immediately that it’s harder than it looks, especially when one wears progressive lenses. People wouldn’t move their drinks off the bar, so I didn’t know where to put my feet. I made a grand total of $3, not including the $200 one customer offered me if I’d let him service me. “One career change per night is my limit,” I replied. I was just shy of my fortieth birthday at the time.

Bravo. At forty! Kudos. Tell me, when did you first hear about the epidemic?
I was an undergraduate at Brown University. Within about a year of graduation, my first classmate died.

How many people have you lost, Bill?
It’s difficult and somewhat troubling to count them all. I don’t want to make statistics of them. [He pauses, glancing briefly out the window onto 86th street and the passersby.] There are two losses that I still feel keenly, perhaps more so than others. Brian Greenbaum, a friend from college who was the true trailblazer of our circle. From coming out to moving to Europe, to a thousand less-significant milestones, there’s virtually nothing I’ve done that Brian didn’t do first.

Seems like a lovely guy….
Another was Chris Blazakis, the former Galanos executive who blew the whistle on Nancy Reagan’s tax fraud. Already Chris was fighting the disease, and her supporters and many journalists were quick to link his sexuality to his quest to hold Mrs. Reagan accountable. If she’d stolen sports cars, she might have gone to jail, but designer gowns? People saw that as “faggot nonsense.”

Chris was a man of great courage. Dan Rather called him a Frank Capra hero without the happy ending to his story. Chris and his partner were like big brothers to me, encouraging my explorations of music and city life.

My Lordie, what wonderful friends you had. When the epidemic hit, you were just beginning to “sow your oats.” I guess you were about twenty years-old. How did that affect you?
The combination of the epidemic and my own uncertain sexuality nearly immobilized me. I was terrified of acting on my urges with other men; whenever I did act, I behaved like a jerk afterward—the worst kind of denial. I did have rewarding relationships with three women, all of whom are still my friends and very dear to me. There were also long periods of celibacy. But it wasn’t until I worked on Rags that I had an affair with another man, to whom I could say—and wanted to say—“I love you.” [He swallows then adds] Naturally, we broke up after about three months, but it was a start.

Bill, when did you first get tested?
I didn’t get tested until the 1990s, probably from a misguided sense that having safe sex meant that I didn’t need to know my status. It took about a week to get the results, and while I waited I was depressed, anxious, fearful. I wrote a radio essay for my boss about the experience, realizing that other people might learn something, and others might feel better knowing someone else had gone through the same thing.

Indeed, a grand idea. What stands out for you about writing this book?
What struck me was how eager her friends, family, and colleagues were to share their memories. They miss her, and talking about her brings her close again. Several of the interviewees have become friends of mine too, and Madeline’s brother, Jef [spelled with one f], is the best ally a biographer could hope for. I like to say that Madeline must have been keeping watch, making sure I met the right people. However it happened, I got to know them and care about them.

What one thing stands out in your mind about Madeline Kahn?
I’ve been so immersed in her story for so long that I can’t point to any single thing. But a short list would include her love of music, her intelligence, her vulnerability, her tremendous talent, and her persistence. She experienced a great many disappointments and setbacks and faced many challenges in her life, but she just kept going.

I learned so much about her from this book. She certainly had chutzpah and charm.What’s your favorite Madeline Kahn movie?
There are many, but I like to call attention to two movies that often get overlooked. The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother was a showcase for all of Madeline’s talents, written and directed by one of her biggest fans, Gene Wilder. It’s probably the best single example of her range. The other movie I try to steer people toward is her final film, Eric Mendelsohn’s Judy Berlin. She plays a Long Island housewife with heartbreaking delicacy and compassion.

I will have to see these two flicks now. Any updates since the hardcover edition was published?
Paula Kahn, Madeline’s mother, died before I finished the first draft of the book. Her second ex-husband, Hiller Kahn, Madeline’s stepfather, died five days before her. Eileen Brennan—one of my favorite interviewees—also died before I could finish the book. Ted Barry, Madeline’s uncle, died not long after I spoke to him, and of course Gene Wilder died last August.

Anyone die before you reached them?
Yes. Harvey Korman, Dom DeLuise, Kenneth Mars, Peter Boyle. I would have loved to talked to Marty Feldman [he died in 1982] about working with Madeline on good movies, such as Young Frankenstein and Smarter Brother, and on bad ones, Slapstick, Yellowbeard.

Bill, can you comment on Madeline’s involvement with the AIDS community?
Like most people who worked in New York theater, Madeline saw how hard the epidemic hit her community and she felt the shock, horror, rage, and grief that everyone felt. She wanted to do what she could to help. That went well beyond wearing red ribbons when she went out in public, though she did that, too.
Like her biographer, she didn’t like to talk about her charity. Unlike her biographer, however, she was a performer, and so she dedicated some of her performances to raising money to fight AIDS. [William takes a bite out of his tarte du jour.] When Charles Ludlam [Madeline’s Hofstra classmate] died, Ruby, that’s one measure of loss she felt, and the motivation she found to participate in fundraising to fight AIDS.

If you’re still “mad” for Madeline, click on William’s blog: billmadison.blogspot.com, or http://madeline-kahn-being-the-music.blogspot.com/.

Ruby Comer is an independent journalist from the Midwest who is happy to call Hollywood her home away from home. Reach her by e-mail at [email protected].