Foreword to Dear Muffo
Harold Conrad says he once saved my life by grabbing a television set just as it was ready to fall on my head during a fight. That is about as true as any of Harold’s stories, which is to say, more true than you would expect. I was on the floor (temporarily decked) and the set was tottering when Harold grabbed it. So I accept his account. It has the generosity that attaches to insane events. The charm of these stories is Harold’s saturnine, mildly cynical calm in the eye of the vortex of the prodigious and short-lived hurricanes he writes about. If dinosaurs ever came wandering out of the jungle, we would not only have to find a zoo, but somebody to feed them. Harold would do it. He feeds dinosaurs. If you do not know the necessity for this, you will never, for instance, understand the pain he feels when Humphrey Bogart rejects him, or the great love he bears for Erich Maria Remarque who welcomes him, nor his disdain for the Duke of Windsor and his affection for Sonny Liston.
Of course, in this book, celebrities are pushed out of the way by legends until Conrad could stand accused of being a name-dropper, if it were not that name-droppers have so little to tell us — they drop names like coins. The best you can hope for in such memoirs is that the name gives a good ring when it hits the counter. Harold Conrad, however, made his working life out of providing special services to a galaxy of stars in various professions, and since he was a trouble-shooter, a fixer (not of fights but of ruptured situations), an anticipator (of maniacal oncoming troubles), and because he also, as Budd Schulberg says, loved the action, and chose therefore to be around in his spare time as well, he ended up knowing more than just the value of the names of the people he worked for. Some of them he even knew by the way they threw their clothing on the floor. He was there not only when they were up, but he knows how they speak when they are down. His book has the tasty charm, therefore, of telling us a few hard unforgettable little things about each of these high-media artists, and legendary hoods. Of course, Conrad also lights them well in the glow of the people who surround them, all those showgirls and hustlers, those savagely hungry reporters and con men and grifters and unnamed Hollywood producers. One could even say Dear Muffo serves as a hard-core gossip guidebook to Broadway, Hollywood, and the fight world, but I think it is better and more intimate than that, and finally more useful. It improves our idea of celebrity in the way that a sharp and practical rap on the side of an old radio will take the interference out of the sound. America is passing now through a gluttonous over-engorgement of interest in celebrities, but as always, our tragi-comedy repeats itself: In the right place at the right time, we always have the wrong instruments to use for measure. Our foreign policy has invariably been run by men who couldn’t read a page of Marx without falling asleep, and celebrity these days is gauged by People magazine. Who but those preppy editors, those ex-Timers and ex-Lifers, would have less real instinct for the surrealistic world of the celebrity? So the notorious in America come to us out of the rosy smog of People’s pages, and it never works. To the degree that the young mind of America is formed by such lives, our vision will blur. How delightful then that my old friend Harold Conrad has brought his crazy laser to the same material, for it breathes under his sharp light.
In fact, these stories inspire me with a desire. I would love to see them on television, and that is a curious remark to make, for how can there be a form more detestable than docudrama? The surest way to end with a permanently skewed view of our history is to have an actor with a mediocre personality pass before us each week playing a great man. History becomes, on the instant, incomprehensible. But these letters to Muffo might provide a small corrective to such sludge. I can see series around Harold Conrad and Mara Lynn and their adventures week by week as Howard Hughes tries to date Mara, and Joe Adonis gets Georgie Woods’ nose fixed. Next week, Mara is dancing in the show at Monte Carlo, and Harold is buying drinks at the bar for the Duke of Windsor. Enter King Farouk, with his lecherous eye, and Harold is obliged to tell him to get lost. What good Saturday nights this could bring for middle-aged stay-at-homes! We could see Harold fix good relations between Frank Costello and Walter Winchell, or witness young Cassius Clay giving a boxing lesson to Ingemar Johansson. George Plimpton would introduce Marianne Moore to Muhammad Ali, and a poem will be composed on a napkin by the fighter and the lady. Margaux Hemingway will help Harold do publicity for Evel Knievel’s jump across Snake Canyon, and we will be there when Virginia Hill tells Senator Tobey why her gangster boyfriends get around to giving her so much money. Yes, we may even turn on the set to see which celebrity is going to get put into focus this week as Harold Conrad travels back on Memory Lane. What a good-smelling astringent it would be! It might even cut through a little of the miasma of our godawful out-of-whack deranging spirit-leaching on-going static-exhaling national gong show. Thank you, Harold. Reading your book has given back some of those long-lost expletives TV took away.
- From Conrad, Harold (1982). Dear Muffo: 35 Years in the Fast Lane. New York: Stein and Day. Reprinted by Project Mailer with permission of the estate of Norman Mailer. (82.26)