You probably didnt know it, but Artie Shaw is alive and well and living in Southern California. Hes been here for 23 years, writing books in a modest tract house at the far end of the San Fernando Valley. I went there recently to talk with him about his amazing life, and encountered a man of 89 with a startlingly high energy level. Shaws powers of recall are impressive, too.
And thats a good thing, because Shaws had a front-row seat for most of the 20th century. Born in Manhattan in 1910, Shaw was raised in New Haven, Connecticut, from where he longed to escape. He quit school when he was 14 and taught himself to play saxophone, and to read and arrange music. By the age of 15, hed mastered the clarinet as well and was on the road with Johnny Cavallaros band. Ten years later, Shaw was fronting his own band, and over the next 18 years he formed and dismantled eight more. Shaw rose to prominence during the big-band era, but that style never really suited him. And whereas Benny Goodmans peaches-and-cream music is unfailingly polite, Shaws is edgy, untamed, straining into the future.
Shaw hated the music business, though, and in 1939 he quit and went to Mexico. He returned to the States the following year, still feeling ambivalent about his career. Then, in 1954, he quit for good to devote himself to writing. His first book, The Trouble With Cinderella, was published in 1952 and is still in print, as are two other works of fiction. Incredibly enough, Shaw managed to fit eight marriages and divorces into his already packed life. A legendary ladies man, Shaw had affairs with Betty Grable, Joan Crawford and Lena Horne, and was married to actresses Lana Turner, Ava Gardner, Doris Dowling and Evelyn Keyes, writer Kathleen Winsor (author of the 40s potboiler Forever Amber) and Jerome Kerns daughter Betty.
Shaw lives alone now, in a house cluttered with art, books and, yes, music equipment. His current work in progress is running at around 1,100 pages, and he plans to edit the manuscript down for publication sometime over the next two years. Robert Altman wants to make a movie of his life, starring Johnny Depp, though its hard to imagine this rich, sprawling life condensed into a two-hour biopic.
To begin at the beginning, what sort of childhood did you have?
I was a lower-middle-class Jewish kid in a predominantly Catholic community, so I grew up completely warped by this business of The Jews killed Christ. My childhood forced a certain amount of humility into me, because I was nothing. I was nobody from nowhere, and I had to elbow people aside to get anywhere. People who knew me then said, Boy, you sure knew where you were going, but I didnt know at all. They mistook desperation for self-confidence. The only thing I was sure of was that I wasnt staying where I started.
Did your parents have a good marriage?
One of the worst I can imagine. It was one constant bicker. My father left when I was 13, and I suspect my practicing the horn had something to do with that -- it mustve been pretty bad. I didnt see him again until four years later, after I entered an essay-writing contest and won a trip to Hollywood. My father showed up when I was in Hollywood, and, seeing him again, I experienced a flood of memories, some good, some bad. I wasnt angry at him for leaving, because, like all good American boys, I was in love with my mother and wanted my father out of the way. He went, and that was okay until I learned the price of having her to myself. I was an only child, so I became her surrogate husband. I had my mother on my neck like a Jewish albatross. I created a monster. She didnt know any better, of course. She was just a peasant woman whod come from Austria to America and immediately got married.
Were your parents musically inclined?
No, but I learned late in life there was music on my mothers side. I always thought she was tone-deaf -- and she was -- but she had a brother who asked to sing at her funeral. He got up and started singing, and though he didnt have much voice left, I could hear music.
How did you discover music?
I saw a guy play a song called Dreamy Melody on saxophone in a vaudeville theater when I was a kid, and dreamt a way of escaping a life of poverty I couldnt stand. Lots of kids joined the service to change their lives, but I learned how to play the horn instead, by listening to Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke. They were the best there was, and they did things no one had done before in terms of emotion, technical ability and the element of surprise.