Howard’s birthday was May 17. Other than his Bar Mitzvah, I don’t remember any of his childhood birthday parties being particularly memorable. His Bar Mitzvah, was most decidedly memorable but we’ll get to that another day. I remember Howard’s 29th birthday because it coincided with the opening of God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater at the WPA. I thought it would be a fun idea to have the local bakery make a cake with hundred dollar bills made out of icing (I had to use my imagination, having never actually seen a hundred dollar bill). The cake was a thing of beauty – white icing, green lettering with “Happy Birthday, Mr. Ashman” on it and these great buttery $100 dollar bills.
I had a cat at the time (name of Gittel, as in Gittel Mosca, as in Seesaw, as in I am my brother’s sister). Gittel had an unfortunate and totally feline proclivity for sitting on things. On the day in question, she chose to sit on the cake box – with the cake inside.
So Howard got a smushed, green-white cake for his opening night/Birthday party. Didn’t taste half bad, though.
On another birthday, I bought Howard cufflinks, one with an R on it and one with an F. I had just seen a John Guare play called Rich and Famous.
I liked Rich and Famous, but like many such New York in-joke productions in those days, Howard had to explain it to me. Evidently, the crazed composer in the play was supposed to be Leonard Bernstein. And the playwright represented John Guare, the play’s playwright (are you dizzy, yet?). Don’t know if it was true or not but Howard said it was and that was enough for me.
In Rich and Famous, the playwright receives two magic cufflinks – one to make him rich and the other to make him famous. At the end of the show, he tosses one of them away and you never know which he chooses. I thought it appropriate for my brother, the struggling writer, to get a pair of those cufflinks, though mine were not at all magical and to my knowledge he neither threw one away nor for that matter, ever wore them.
At the time, Howard was living off the largesse of friends and family who could give him freelance work (writing a toy catalog for the company I worked for and a Mandrake the Magician novelization for the publisher he had once worked for). It sounds like more fun than it was.
We celebrated Howard’s last birthday two months after he died. I know it sounds strange but it was a wonderful afternoon. Bill, Howard’s companion, threw the party at the house he had designed for the two of them, although Howard died before they could move in. The house is still beautiful – a modern tower rising above trees and hills with sleek finishes and lots of wood. To me, it is a reflection of both Howard and Bill with its modern cool architecture and warm wood finishes.
It was a perfect spring day – if you can manage to be born in mid-May, go for it. Definitely makes for nice parties. I don’t remember what we ate or what we talked about but I remember the people. There were some actors and other theater people and backstagers and Howard’s magnificent agent, Esther Sherman, who had been as close a friend as a person can be and still get 10% of the action.
Other than that, all I remember is the feeling of love and support and union with a disparate group of people who had only one thing in common – love for this man who had left us bereft but happy. Who’d left us to move on in our own lives, always remembering our friend, colleague,companion, and brother.