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BY JERRY TALLMER | There was once a mercifully forgotten book and television series called “I Led Three Lives.” Well, David Rothenberg, a Greenwich Villager for almost all his 79 years, has led more than a dozen very full lives, as clocked via the chapter headings of his just published life story, “Fortune in My Eyes.”
The Theater [Off Broadway]
“Fortune and Men’s Eyes”
The Fortune Society
Candidate and Transition
The Fortune Academy
“The Castle.” A play.
That opening chapter, “Attica,” deals with the tense, terrifying few days in September 1972 when David Rothenberg was one of a group of (so to speak) civilian monitors — newsman Tom Wicker, leftist lawyer William Kunstler, Congressman Herman Badillo, et al. — brought to the big overcrowded prison in Upstate New York where the inmates had forcibly taken over the cells and the yard while the National Guard troops assembled with rifles at the ready.
In that yard, says Rothenberg, “We were called upon to describe ourselves. I said I was the producer of ‘Fortune and Men’s Eyes’ ” — the searing Off Broadway 1967 prison drama (and 1971 film) ignored by the Uptown press — “and a founder of the Fortune Society,” a body then and still to this day devoted to helping prison “graduates,” male and female, to get back and stay back on their feet.
Rothenberg was welcomed by the rioters’ leaders, among them a fellow in his 20s, L.D. Barcley, who was in prison for a traffic violation, and would die under gunfire a few days later.
“An eloquent young guy. What a loss,” Rothenberg recalled in a recent interview with me.
David looks back on Attica as “certainly the most exciting, most emotional thing in my life” — which is why he led off with it as the first chapter of “Fortune in My Eyes” (Applause Books, $29.99).
“It’s like the theater; you have to catch the audience’s attention right away.”
On the fourth day Governor Nelson Rockefeller, having turned a deaf ear to the Attica warden’s plea that he, Rockefeller, come in person to the besieged prison, sent in the New York State police and the National Guard.
Result: 39 dead, including 10 prison guards.
By then, Rothenberg and all the other observers had been ordered off the scene and sent back home.
“If we’d been able to stay, they’d never have sent the troops in. Kill Badillo? Not a chance.”
And in fact it was Herman Badillo who, the next day, spoke the most telling words about Attica. This newsbreak listener can still hear it: “I don’t know what the hurry was. There’s always time to die.”
David Rothenberg was one of that handful of young aspiring 1950s and ’60s theatrical publicity men — Merle Debuskey, Howard Atlee, Bob Ullman, various others — who came up as apprentices to the hardened old-timer types who inhabit plays and movie scripts by such as Ben Hecht. David was one of the first who, for instance, press-agented the earliest plays of Edward Albee.
“Bob Ullman is 90 now,” he said. “He’s got a little shop out on Long Island. We talk all the time. It was Bob who got me the job [of press rep, way back] at the Bucks County [Pa.] Playhouse, and it was [Bucks County Playhouse head man] Mike Ellis who got me to Alex Cohen,” a very big-time Broadway producer over many years, the kind of gentleman who would say to young David Rothenberg: “Grab a couple of shirts, kid, we’re flying to London two hours from now to talk with Richard and Elizabeth.”
If you don’t know who Richard and Elizabeth are (were) — or, as I once also wrote, Bette, Lauren, Judy, Al, Alvin, Joan, Peggy, Tennessee — you shouldn’t be reading this newspaper.
“I mean here I was, a kid from Teaneck, New Jersey, although I was always confident of my ability… .”
It was Alexander H. Cohen who in 1964 had the gold-plated idea of bringing Richard Burton to Broadway in a play called “Hamlet,” by a fellow named Shakespeare, with tryouts starting some weeks earlier in Toronto, Canada.
The “Hamlet” company would include Sir John Gielgud, director, Hume Cronyn, actor (as Polonius), and Elizabeth Taylor, Hollywood’s Queen Cleopatra and Richard Burton’s upcoming wife to be (twice).
Elizabeth was, oh, not exactly lonely, up there in Toronto, but she had a lot of time on her hands and no one to talk to, or with.
“Let’s go over there and have lunch,” she one day said to 30-year-old David Rothenberg — which is what they did, not just that day but every day, and she was David Rothenberg’s date, or vice versa, hand in hand, opening night of the Toronto production.
They lunched, they dated, and they talked.
“We talked about issues, and the world, and the civil-rights movement,” said political activist Rothenberg. “She was — a friend. She had the social skills to keep the conversation flowing. And she had guts. She challenged Reagan [for ignoring the plague that was decimating the homosexual population]. I mean, he wasn’t mean, like Newt or Nixon.” But Reagan just wouldn’t talk about AIDS.
The Richard Burton “Hamlet,” here in New York, was a whole other thing. Broadway has never before or since seen such crowds, such gawkers, such mass hysteria. Ms. Taylor had to live through it, or beyond it, and Mr. Burton had to drink his way all the way through it.
“I don’t know how you do ‘Hamlet’ on a bottle of vodka a day,” said David Rothenberg these 48 years later.
It was Nathan Cohen, drama critic of the Toronto Star, who in 1966 — six years before Attica — told David Rothenberg about a play called “Fortune and Men’s Eyes,” written much earlier by a now (in 1966) 40-year-old Canadian named John Herbert who had spent some time as inmate of a brutalizing reformatory for youth. The key and unforgettable scene — this playgoer still vividly remembers it — was an onstage rape, or virtual rape.
Rothenberg decided to turn from P.R. man to producer. He mounted “Fortune and Men’s Eyes” in the small, venerable Actors’ Playhouse, just below Sheridan Square, where it opened in February 1967 and was either reviled or ignored by the mainstream press.
Rothenberg particularly remembers one reviewer, the late Norman Nadel, having written: “Unless you’re obsessed by sodomy, there’s no reason to see this play.”
David prefers to think of his own mother’s tolerant law of life: “As long as you don’t hurt anybody or scare the horses in the street… .”
The nonmainstream press, including yours truly, gave “Fortune and Men’s Eyes” enough of a rave to start it rolling on for three years at two theaters (Actors’ Playhouse and Stage 73) and then onward to 40 nations around the world.
The convicts who had seized control of Attica knew all about “Fortune and Men’s Eyes.”
And out of that play was born the Fortune Society — a sort of all-around, crucial, first aid in housing, therapy, training, employment and all that goes with it for the emerging inmate of any incarceration throughout the United States and Canada.
Since 2002 the principal base of the Fortune Society has been a huge old structure dubbed the Castle because it looks like a castle, alongside Riverside Drive and the Hudson at 140th St. in West Harlem. There, in what was once a Catholic girls’ school, permanent residence is provided for 41 former prison inmates with 21 other rooms held out for emergency usage.
And there, following in founder David Rothenberg’s footsteps, Fortune Society president and C.E.O. JoAnne Page — the daughter of Holocaust survivors — has worked daily miracles for 15 or 16 years.
“I still go every Thursday to board meetings,” said Rothenberg. “And some theater people ask: ‘Are you still working with criminals?’ ”
Tit for tat. Still stagestruck, Rothenberg has prevailed on more than one ex-inmate to come with him to a Broadway or Off Broadway show, but by and large, graduates of prison are uneasy intruders on any such environment.
“But not this one guy at the Castle who said: ‘Listen, if I can get comfortable at Attica, I can get comfortable in a Broadway theater.’ ”
Rothenberg has done more than take former prisoners to live theater. He has assembled and directed two hard-hitting dramas — or staged readings — of the lifetime experiences of eight graduates of imprisonment, under the titles “The Castle I” and “The Castle II.”
Edward Albee, who goes way back with Rothenberg, came to one performance.
“There was a woman in the audience, a judge, who looked at Edward and said: ‘What did that old con do?’ I said: ‘Write plays and win three Pulitzer Prizes.’ ”
The mainstream press ignored “The Castle” as long as it possibly could. “One of my guys said: ‘Maybe I should commit a crime. That would get attention.’ ”
David Rothenberg himself got attention when in 1985 he became the first openly homosexual candidate (thus the chapter “Homo”) ever to run for City Council. Against a popular incumbent, Carol Greitzer, he received 46 percent of the vote and almost pulled it off.
David Rothenberg was born August 19, 1933 — “a Depression baby.” In the hospital his mama gestured toward a young mother in the next bed and said to her own infant son: “I was in labor with you 22 hours and she goes to the bathroom and has a baby on the night of the prom.”
David’s parents were Leon and Leonore Weinberg Rothenbeg, both New Jerseyites born in New York City.
“They weren’t political, but they had good values.”
What did your father do?
David Rothenberg has lived quietly for a dozen years on West 13th Street, and before that for 40 years at No. 3 Sheridan Square — the original Circle-in-the-Square building.
He swims 20 laps at the Y every day, walks a mile every day, does aerobics and chin-ups every day.
Two years ago a woman who overheard him talking about some of his experiences said to him: “Why don’t you write this down? I’m a literary agent, and I’ll represent you. Give me a couple of chapters and I’ll sell it.”
Pause. “So I did and she did. Her name is Julia Lord. Like Our Lord and savior. Every so often I’d read a chapter to her.”
He wrote it by typewriter.
“Computers are my enemy. They don’t like Jews. All machines are my enemies. I’m just now mastering my toaster.”
So how long did it take to write the book?
He scratches his chin: “A lifetime.”
To write it and to live it. Also vice versa.