True Stories

Memory lane

by Jim Piechota
April 7, 2011
True Stories: Portraits from My Past
by Felice Picano
Chelsea Station Editions, $16

Franz Kafka once wrote, "It is hard to tell the truth, for although there 'is' one, it is alive and constantly changes its face." Telling truths is something that popular, prolific author and memoirist Felice Picano does extremely well. This is most evident in True Stories: Portraits from My Past, his latest collection of expanded personal essays and life reflections. While some are new, many of these pieces have enjoyed publication in other anthologies, but Picano presents them in their unedited form, free from the shackles of word counts and the red editing pencil.

In the introduction, Picano bows to the "strange, wondrous, or simply nutty" people who have passed through his life, since they're the ones who helped him become the writer that he is today. By extension, his writings are a grand gesture to "those I related to, over the years."

As far as celebrity encounters are concerned, Picano boasts a lion's share of personal interactions with divas, doyennes, and a few gayer-than-gay scribes along the way. The "British Auntie" in the opening story is none other than poet W.H. Auden, who accidentally (and quite flamboyantly) dropped a geranium flowerpot down onto St. Mark's Place where a youthful Picano and "working" actor-pal George Sampson happened to be strolling. While "his costume was curious and his apartment a horror," Auden remained magnificently "something to behold."

In another rousing segment, a financially-challenged Picano becomes bewitched at a show by the indomitable Bette Midler, who, back then, was considered just an "energetic little red-haired woman" performing torch songs and Broadway hits at "the tubs." He recalls being shooed in through the side entrance of the Continental Baths, perplexed yet immediately entranced by Midler, who crooned to the boys in short white towels and ear-to-ear smiles. The mid-1970s found the author toe-to-toe at Fire Island summer shares with Frank Diaz and Jack Brusca, who each enjoyed their numerous carnal pursuits, but "we were never more than three for breakfast."

Elsewhere, Picano recalls interactions with fashion columnist Diana Vreeland (supposedly the real boss-from-hell from The Devil Wears Prada ), Charles Henri Ford, and even Tennessee Williams, one of the author's idols.

His more commonplace pieces (sans celebrity glitterati) are just as compelling and entertaining, but in different ways. Tender portraits of good times with childhood friends like James ("a fine romance, with no kisses") morph into supreme lessons taught to him at 4 a.m. with a rifle at his Grandpa's side, a bike ride that levels the playing field with a school bully, and the exorcism of some heady personal demons.

Picano's memory is impeccable, and his ear for dialogue just as distinctive and richly realized. Stories about his Manhattan apartment poltergeist charm with the same innocence as tales of his summer adventures frolicking in Manhattan and beyond. Appealing and wonderfully anecdotal, the essays shared here harken back to a cloudless era when fun was freewheeling and the consequences of that fun were overcast at best. With this collection, Picano pays tribute to the many unsung heroes of his past who have long since fallen, forever etched both in memory and the occasional bout of inexplicable laughter and tears.