The bookstore “pop-up” for Niek Tosches’s Ditto: Living High in the Dirty Business of Dreams reads: “The Great American Show Biz Story — Straight Up with a Hark Twist” — and dark it is. Darker than umber, darker than George Bush’s heart at 12:09 a.m. This is the book that deconstructs, now and forever, any and all distinctions between love and money, an and shit. It’s also, beyond the shadow of an etc., the finest celebrity bio ever writ. Gertrude Stein’s Picasso might lx- number two. But that was only 50 pages. This one is 548.
Dean’s in it — natch — as are Jem", Frank, JFK, RFK, and Dodo Marmarosa, the piano player on Charlie Parker’s “Moose the Moochc,” “Ornithology,” and “Yardbird Suite.” So are Skinny D’Amato, Ruta l.ee. Anthony Franciosa, Ray Walston, Jimmy the Greek’s half sister, Thalmus Rasulala, and Honor Blackman. Irene Forrest isn’t, not in the main text, but she docs get a hearty thankvou in the acknowledgments.
Nick Toschcs (rhymes with “galoshes”) is the best goddam writer I know. Can you think of anyone better? Um.uh...time’s up — you can’t. Credits include: Hellfire, Cut Numbers, Power on Earth, Unsung Heroes of Rock ’n’ Roll, and that great piece about “men’s groups” Penthouse hasn’t printed vet.
On a day like today, seems like only yesterday, him and me got t’gether and I asked him some stuff.
Q. Basically, I think this is a rare book that actually takes the position, in a serious manner, that sleaze is as relevant a focal point as alary — and even this shall pass.
A: I would go along with that. ’Cause to me it’s like mediocrity is the greater part of glory.
Q: But I mean even like, like with Dean you’ve jot even the phase of things where it is nothing but sleaze, even that has no ultimate staying power.
A: Right. Nothing is forever. Like Heraclitus — everything flows.
Q: Ton’ve got a guy here, as opposed to what the I..A. Times reviewer said, where here’s a
singularly uninteresting guy, you’ve got a character who more than anybody I’ve ever read in a bio, a history, uh, in any non-fiction book that deals with somebody’s life — here's a guy who just absolutely encapsulates the notion of, y’know, that the difference between something and nothing is nothing.
A: I agree with that, I mean to me Dean represented, he still represents, a great many things. How many of them are intentional, how many of them are intrinsic, it’s difficult to say. But he certainly is an important figure.
Q: He’s somebody who actually has a grasp of the meaninglessness of it all.
A: Which is probably the rarest quality, uh, in humanity. Of all the philosophers I’ve ever read, the only one that spoke of that was this guy Nicholas of Cusa, this medieval guy, where he said stupidity is the greatest thing which we can attain — realizing how stupid and meaningless we are.
Q: Tcah, but let’s say you got people who glimpsed that in the short run, like Jim Morrison, but he didn't make it to 2S, and here’s Dean in his
A: Seventy this past June. So maybe, at this point, since Dean is pretty much a total recluse, if he had said dumb, profound things all his life he’d Ik considered to have taken a monastic, Taoist silence at this point, but instead the things he said were never pretentious.
Q Right. So in fact his silence is just, y’know, proof that, uh, that even wisdom can't save you. A: I guess so. But it got him to 75, which is more than, farther than it got Elvis, than it got Jim Morrison. And I also think it’s nobler for him to be silent at 75 than it is for Sinatra to be singing.
Q Well I think you did a great, uh, Sinatra has a great secondary presence in the book, and certainly Jerry Lewis.
A: Well with Frank I was just basically recounting what I had seen, the picture of him that I’d seen, he’s a guy that I’ve never really had that much direct interest in. When I met
Jerry he was like, y’know, an extremely interesting character — I’d never really met anybody quite like him, in that he went through at least three distinct personalities, all within a span of hours. He was like the Telethon Jerry, the King of Comedy Jem’, the loving Jerry, the less loving Jerry, and who knows?
Q How’d his hair smell?
A: I didn’t really smell the man, but it looked fine.
Q It wasn’t so aromatic you could smell it across the room ?
Q: So you saw him on his boat?
A: Yeah, he has a boat called Sam’s Place, which had been custom-built for Mr. Gillette of Gillette razors. It’s the kind of boat you can’t buy anymore, it’s all made out of wood, and all the other millionaire boats, the yachts that were docked in the marina there, were all fiberglass. J e was the granddaddy of San Diego’s millionaire boat people.
Q Why did he moor the thing in San Diego as opposed to L.A. ?
A: I think it was basically because he lives in Las Vegas, no (Kean there, so he probably, for some reason he preferred San Diego. I didn’t ask him, ’cause I figured I had so few hours with the great man that I wanted to keep him on the Dino stuff.
Q: While 1 was reading the book I rented The Caddy and Artists and MtxJels. And the thing I was hoping, ’cause it had been so many years since I saw this stuff—and you make the great point rather quickly in the Dean and ferry section, where you say, aPerhaps we should consider the possibility that this stuff wasn’t tunny...” A: Yeah. Something like that, something to that effect. Because it seems that, though it’s incontestable fact that it was massively funny to people back then, just in terms of the success of it, it doesn’t really seem that funny today. And I was trying to think, well, how about other things that were hinny in that same time, do they seem funny today? And, uh, who knows?
Q: One thing I was hoping was, the possibility was like a longshot, but I was hoping that maybe, at least on occasion, that the true bathos of Martin and Lewis would be supplied by Dean.
A: Well, the only movie of the Martin -Lewis pictures where I saw that happening was Three Ring Circus, where Jerry actually seems to honestly Ux>k at him and say, “You’re not nice anymore.” And that’s like the movie that was sort of the beginning of the end for them. ’Cause like the only song Dean gets to sing by himself all the way through he sings to animals — they don’t even give him a dame.
Q: That was their poignant one?
Q In the ftvo that I sa ir this week, Jerry actually had a message, it was about things like friendship and tolerance...
A: And the message got stronger with each film as Jerry’s, uh, basically his role in the team
Marlin and first wife Icannic, c. 1955 grew and grew.
Q: It was almost like he was there to flagellate himself so that Dean would, y’know, put Band-Aids on him.
Q: Did you ever get a sense of how as a team they
could’ve endu red as long as they did?
A: Well, I think one of the keys, the key to understanding that, was at one point towards the end, when Jerry talks a lx nit the love that | exists between them and Dean says, “Talk about love all you want. When I look at you I just see a dollar sign.” I think he just, they ^ were both making a lot of money.
Q: Did Jerry say to you how, uh, the line where he says, when he was fucking them all, in the early days in Hollywood, he thought maybe they wanted to burp him?
A: That was, yeah. That was pretty cute, I thought. And I think like part ofwhat worked between them was, I mean here’s just this total mass of neuroses, and on the other end of the spectrum, uh, somebodywho neither knew
)ean J ex-wife says he A compfetefy content in doing absolutely nothing. ^ust sittiny watching westerns.
nor eared nor had any need to know what neuroses were.
Q: Yeah. But you think Dean actually has had, in the course of his life, moments of peace?
A: I would say more than most people. From what I understand now, his ex-wife says he’s completely content in doing absolutely nothing. Just sitting watching westerns. That’s more than most human beings can say at most times in their life.
Q: In the last chapter, what is the western that you have him watching?
A: I sort of made that up. That was my own western. The western of my dreams.
Q: That's nice. It was sort of like an alternate Duel in the Sun.
A: I dunno, I mean there must’ve been hundreds I saw. You’re the one who once said you like westerns ’cause they’re all archetypes. So I guess that’s the way they come back to me — as archetypes.
QI like the way you have each one of these lesser celebrities who worked in the films with him, every one of these people you talked to, they all have comments about Dean and at the same
time let you know who — they gave you their calling card. Like Ruta lxe...
A: Yeah, Ruta Lee.
Q She has this line that, uh, “Dean floated like wonderful shit on water* — what a line.
A: A line I had not heard before.
Q: Wonderful shit.
A: Coming from Ruta Lee.
Q: How many of those people you talked to did, I mean did you leave any of them out?
A: It was more a case of leaving much out that many of them said. I found that very few of them could like cut — I think there’s something endemic about being a so-called movie star for so many years that every thought and word, every thought they have and word they say, is almost like scripted by some force within.
Q: Yeah. Whereas Dean, like Irene even made these comments, in terms of the psychology ofacting, once he's doing the movies without Jerry, she just thought that his whole take on the preparation, how to do it and then doing it, was exactly what, y'know, acting classes try to get you to do. And I'm sure he didn't take any of those classes.
A: No. One thing that struck me as I spoke to more and more directors and actors, people that have worked with him, w as that they were all, to one degree or another, in aw e of him, y’know'? I mean you get to the point where what’s his name, uh, Daniel Mann, saying in many ways he was better to work with than Marlon Brando. That he not only knew his ow n lines but everyone elsc’s. It was almost as if he could just cat this stuff and spit it out. And I think at one point in the ’60s he just decided for some reason to stop, that none of it meant
anything, and everything he did after that was just travesty — sinking further and further into sleaze. Which in a way is more noble than just sinking further and further into some pretentious search for meaning or...
Q: I like when you mention that line in Some Came Running where, uh, “She's just a pig.” / just saw that a few weeks ago and I thought: what a delivery!
A: Yeah. He’s the best thing in the movie. He does that so beautifully. “Even she knows she’s a pig” — or something like that. But he docs rings around a lot of the people he was with.
Q: Did Dean make any, were any of the later movies gore films?
Q Movies with substantial amounts of violence? A: No. He stopped basically in ’75, unless you consider the Cannonball Run movies...
Q: Did you see those?
A: Yeah, I saw them all. I saw them all. The one I liked the best, I mean most people go for the ones with the so-called, his great acting moments, like The Young I Jons, Rio Bravo, Toys in the Attic, uh. Career, but I like Kiss Me, Stupid, w here he plays a character called Dino. He plays himself, and it’s an immersion in total sleaze. It’s like the only movie to be banned by the Catholic Ixrgion of Decency other than Baby Doll. It’s very funny, it holds up, Ray Walston was good.
Q: So which is your favorite of the Matt Helm movies?
A: I guess the first one. But the third one is a favorite in a way, it was almost like, y’know, honoring the spirit of Edward D. Wood, Jr. Like Dean insisted, he didn’t wanna go to the Riviera to do the Riviera scenes, so they had to build a fake Riviera for him on the set, and the special effects were on the level of large sparklers. They just, it’s just total junk that made money. Sometimes I got the impression they wanted to just see how- much of this stuff will people cat, how much will people swallow, one way or the other.
Q Speaking of Edward D. Wood, this Wood book came out a few months ago, and then your book, and it's like both books, they're the first two books I've read about Hollywood that're worth a damn, and they're both written by New Yorkers.
A: Well, I don’t know if that means anything, but in my research for this I was reading a lot of stuff. One of them, this book, w as pretty interesting, called An Empire of Their Own, it’s about Jews in Hollywood — but they don’t
yet had the world to do with it, y’know what I mean? I really think Dean Martin was and is the reflection of some great eternal, uh, principle as much as Elvis was.
Q: And after reading this, I would say more than Elvis.
A: Yeah, but most people would think, well, Elvis is much more famous — especially now that he’s dead. I mean he was basically forgotten until he died.
Q Elvis was a guy who had hits early on, and with Dean it took a while.
A: Right. But I also think they both descended
SrJt, think 2)ean Wart in
was an cl is the reflection of Some great etemaf, uh, principle as much as Oku was.
into the heart of schmaltz, forget about the heart of darkness, the heart of sleaze. Dean was much more of a pioneer in terms of sleaze, he did “Gentle on My Mind” before Elvis did. Plus Elvis idolized Dean, so there was a lot of mystery there — like who do the idols idolize?
Q: I like when you have Dean versus Hemingway — who will win ?
A: Oh, the beer ad.
Q Well, not just the beer ad...
A: Same TV night. For Whom the Fell Tolls and The Dean Martin Show, yeah. Sec, to me that says a lot right there. ’Cause by then
Hemingway had become just a bundle of pomposities and self-pretensions. Art with a capital A.
Q What’d you call him, made-for-TV?
A: I think he really was, he became, he was the first, a madc-for-TV character, a made-for TV writer.
Q: The line I think you have is aNow that Dean has beat him in both beer ads and TV, all that is left is to limp to the grave. ”
A: “A slow, sad march to the grave.” And it’s true, he never wrote another book after that. And it was also indicative too, uh, that Hemingway did an ale advertisement, where Dino, like he must’ve had many people offering him money to endorse products, and what did he pick? Rhcingold, the cheapest beer in New York.
Q I was wondering, uh, where you talk about Dean’s father’s barber shop and you mention all the brands of, is that like generic, or is it based on some evidence that these were the actual brands and flavors he used?
A: There was a local barber’s journal, and they seemed to be the ones going big in Ohio in those years.
Q Tou actually found that?
A: In the New York Public Library.
Q There were a couple items, one was called Baldpate...
A: Baldpate, yeah, and the anti-mange, that’s the one I like.
A: Yeah. Great stuff. And one reason I thought the book was never gonna get finished, I thought I would end up, like if I wanted to mention what was on the barber shelf, I actually studied diagrams of parts of a razor that was used back then. So it wasn’t all just talking to Ray Walston.
Q Also, I don’t mean to scold you, but you fail to mention, of all the big cheeses in the Ohio-Pennsylvania-West Virginia area who were
from Abruzzi, uh, how about Bruno Sammartino?
A: Didn’t know he was from there.
Q: Well, he was from Pittsburgh, and he may or may not truly have been from Abruzzi, but that’s how they used to announce it: “From Abruzzi, Italy...”
A: Your memory is better than mine.
Q: But you do mention Dodo Marmarosa, which is great.
A: From that area.
Q: A swell fact in the book: Dean ’sfirst child bom nine months after the wedding night.
A: Yeah. What was interesting is like when I first was faced with this immense task of figuring out who this character Dean Martin was, I went to the town of his birth and finally managed to dig out his birth certificate, and there was no name on it, it was blank — the man with no name. There was no name added to his birth certificate until he applied for a passport in 1950.
Q. It was like “male Crocetti”?
A: It just said “name of child,” it was blank.
Q I remember the first time that you mentioned Dean in a kind of a, like a rock-historical context or whatever — the importance of being Dean — we were in some bar near, uh, was it the Angry Squire? Somewhere near 23rd Street?
A: There iwwsuch a place, yeah.
Q: It was about ’73 or ’74, and we saw this, there was a poster for, Columbia University or somen’here, “'The Meeting of the Musics, ” they had a jazz piano guy, a sitar player, a classical violinist, y'know, rock guitarist, and you said, “What about Dean Martin?”
A: Well, in a way I still believe that, man, how many, 20 years later and I still believe it, I mean I really just — I had to come up with a nonfiction subject to write a b
Q: Teahl I believe that after reading it, but knowing you and your fondness for Dean all these years, and sharing that fondness to some extent, I certainly would never wince at the notion of anybody doing a bio of Dean.
A: If you Ux)k at, y’know, why has Elvis been raised to the level of the gtxis so much, it’s for something that has nothing to do with music, right, or these movies, which were basically, when Martin and Lewis stopped, Hal Wallis just took Elvis and made the same dumb movies. I mean all that stuff that Elvis recorded in the ’60s, the ’70s, “Do the Clam,” how much of it was, I mean Elvis was bigger than the sum of what he did, and I think the same is true of Dean.
(A- Elvis never made a good movie, right? Maybe in the beginning there are a few that are marginally interesting just because he’s in them, but really none of ’em you could call even half-decent films. Dean was making better movies than Elvis for years and years, right?
A: Well, I think what was interesting if you watch Dean’s movie career, there’s a point where he wants to do it better than anylxxiy else just to show he can, and then after that he’s back to “Okay, fuck everything, I did it,” that was it.
Q: I don’t think I ever saw Ten Thousand Bedrooms. Is that bad?
A: It’s very bad. That was almost the end of Dean Martin — as a person that could make a living.
Q: ’Cause I remember feeling sorry for him after he broke up with Jerry, and after seeing the first couple Jerry movies without Dean and they were a piece of shit too, but it seemed as if Jerry was still, still had some, uh, cachet...
A: Well, he did. His first solo movie. The Delicate Delinquent, was a big success.
Q And I remember feeling, like buying Dean’s singles, “Return to Me”and “Volare”and stuff like that, and feeling, y’know, Dean deserves, uh, at least my purchase of these singles. But I did like that stuff, I mean as far as non -rock singles went in those days, and Dean’s records were better than Jerry's movies, and Jerry had nothing but the movies.
A: Yeah, I, it was interesting, talking about buying Dean’s records at the time, I did that show Fresh Air with Terri Gross, who’s like always, it was real nice to be on her show, and I forget which, uh, she played some Dean record from the late ’50s, and she asked me what I thought of it. I said, “Well, what’d you think of it the first time you heard it?” And she said she hated it because it was, it seemed to betray the cause of rock and roll. And I tried to say, “No, what it did was open up possibilities that arc darker and profounder,” y’know?
Q: Teah. I mean 1 didn't think it was, not at the time, but the j'act that 1 bought 'em — I didn't buy Mantovani records, I bought mostly rock and roll — and I found it, on whatever level, at least as acceptable, uh, more acceptable than Perry Como, at least as acceptable as those Elvis ballads like “Ijovc Me Tender,* aI Want You, I Need You, I Iutve You, ” it was no worse than that. And I don't think I ever bought a Sinatra single.
A: I know I never did.
Q: Does Sinatra still try to be with Dean?
A: At this point I don’t know. It would be dishonest for me to say if anybody is trying to get to Dean these days, but Sinatra, as far as I know, is maintaining this schedule of nonstop performing, uh, London, I-as Vegas. I don’t know what drives him, what’s, at this
point where he can no longer — he can neither sing nor hear himself, his hearing is shit. So it’s like what is he doing? You would think that power, fame, glory, and wealth could save you from having to have a hair weave, right?
Q: While meanwhile Dean...
A: Where lX*an, y’know, is basically out of, he’s dropped out of everything. He’ll never do anything again, I firmly believe that. He’s one of the few greats that stopped ahead of death. It’s hard to think of people who have stopped of their own free will before death took them.
Q: He doesn 't play golf anymore?
A: No, he stopped.
Q: It's nice the way you slip in the line, on the golf course, where he talks about, uh, where he wakes up every morning and has a massive bowel movement.
A: Yeah. I think that’s one of the great philosophical fragments. In 2000 years they’ll find it, it’ll be next to Heraclitus or some, Parmenides — “the massive bowel movement.” In a way, it’s not that bad a definition of peace and happiness.
Q: Rut my favorite line, lemme find it...page 171: uIhe gyttecopia of starlet slutdom was his to savor at will *
A: The critic of the New York Daily News, a high literary establishment, found that line very offensive. I.ike I think in ever)' review that’s even loved the book, they’re somehow afraid that the language or the sensibilities w ill offend others. Which I figure, I mean how do you w rite about dark sensibilities without being dark?
Q: Or how do you write about anything without using your own p.o.v.?
A: There’s like a lot of concern about language lately, it seems to be getting almost, y’know, prim and proper. Like all the fuss about “Cop Killer,” I can’t figure — you think it’s 50-50? The fucks or the cops?
Q 1 think it's simply the cops. Because if they really paid attention to the record, there's a song about killing your mother on there. “Mama’s Gonna Die Tonight. ” Which would seem to be, that would be the one...
A: It reminds me of “Ghost Busters.” “Whudda you wanna be w'hen you grow up?...Cop killer!” But the thing is, like to me rock and roll, one way or another, was always supposed to be incendiary, and at least this is, whether it’s good or bad, y’know? Rock and roll was meant to start fucking trouble, and they’re doing it, which is a lot more than Sting is doing. It’s good to sec that there’s somebody out there w ho’s still, not that these people are difficult to shock, but at least throw them something incendiary. To me it’s like, in an ideal world, Dean would be on that record. He didn’t wanna play a cop, that’s what broke Martin-Lewis up — he didn’t wanna play the cop in The Delicate Delinquent. He saw the script, he said, “A cop? I won’t play a cop.” I mean if there was something Dean was gonna come out for, our of hiding, y’know, it could be to add his vocals.