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New York, New York

Wrestling With Andy Kaufman

The hoax at the Andy Kaufman Award show led to speculation the notorious comic faked his death—a joke that wouldn’t have been out of character. When a fresh-faced Glamour editor mingled with him the year before he died, Andy talked about disappearing.

Credit: Marc-Anthony Macon

I was working as an assistant entertainment editor for Glamour magazine in New York back then. A publicist called to pitch a bizarre play involving Debbie Harry and Andy Kaufman wrestling. My editor didn’t think our readers would be interested in wrestling, but they were interested in knowing what Blondie was doing. She told me to “check out” the rehearsals during my lunch hour.

This was April 1983. This was the year Karen Carpenter died of not eating and Tennessee Williams died choking on an aspirin cap. We were all dancing at places like Area to “Beat It.”

When I saw that the stage was a wrestling ring meant to look like one in Atlantic City, I knew I’d never write about it, not for Glamour. I sat in a bleacher-style seat, one seat away from Debbie Harry, who had a white towel around her neck even though she wasn’t sweating. She was no longer the petite blond of Blondie. She was chunky and she had red hair and she got up to move around the ring with Andy Kaufman. This was her Broadway debut. Andy wore white leggings, baggy shorts, and a white T-shirt. He had a big belly. They both wore wrestling shoes and acted ridiculously intense. I knew very little about the entertainment world, but my first thought was why are these two famous people ruining their careers with wrestling? They couldn’t think of anything else?

They weren’t on stage for long. Debbie Harry sat back down near me, but not next to me. I told her my name and the magazine I was with and she got up and moved. She told her publicist she didn’t want to meet me.

Andy sat down next to me. Maybe he saw that I had a tape recorder and that I was writing in a notepad. Maybe he felt sorry for me.

I had only been working at Glamour for one year, but I had been turned down before. Alice Walker hung up on me because she said she had better things to do than to answer questions for Glamour. I tended to have more respect for the ones who refused interviews. I watched Debbie Harry’s still beautiful, pale white profile as she yelled at her publicist. We would run the story we already had on the Pretenders or Joan Jett or someone else, after all. Even I knew then that this play would fail.

Andy sat down next to me. Maybe he saw that I had a tape recorder and that I was writing in a notepad. Maybe he saw me and liked me. Maybe he felt sorry for me. Maybe he overheard, Glamour, and thought, well now ...

We talked. I can’t remember what we talked about, but I remember laughing. I remember thinking I should be appreciating this moment more because it wasn’t an interview. I dated men in college who had a bizarre adoration for Andy Kaufman. They would drink and do imitations of Andy doing imitations of the Eastern block immigrants he did on Saturday Night Live, ending the evening with “Tank you veddy much.” I never thought it was funny when they did it. But there I was in the bleacher seats laughing. Andy kept playing with tone. At first, it wasn’t what he said, but how he said it, and then he would turn the formula. He said something ridiculous all serious, no smiles and I tried very hard to best him. I was that naïve.

He challenged me to a wrestling match. Not on stage, but privately, backstage, behind the bleachers, not in front of anyone. He was the one who pointed out that I was wearing a dress. It was a blue cotton dress with a drop waist and pink flowers. I met Keith Richards and danced with Mick Jagger at Tavern on the Green in this dress. Ron Wood said that I was a “smiley little bird” in this dress. It had become my good luck dress. It was one of the few dresses I could afford. I had two suits and this one dress. I wore the dress to one of my first screenings of The Day After, a TV movie about the effects of a nuclear strike on a U.S. town. It was a comfortable dress I could wear to work, one that would survive a nuclear strike, then take me to cocktails and dinner afterwards. I still had a perm then too, and my hair was unbrushed in a Tina Turner way, my method of avoiding a Manhattan haircut for which I had neither the time nor the money.

He asked me if I had it turned on. He was referring to the tape recorder, though he didn’t make a big deal about double meanings. I know it was on, because it recorded everything, and I know this because afterwards I played it all back, then later, when I quit my job at Glamour, I stared at those mini-tapes marked “Andy Kaufman” for the longest time, wanting to take them, but leaving them in the end because I had been on the job, so they inevitably belonged to Condé Nast.

We went behind the bleacher seats. No one saw us. The staff and crew were busy packing up and talking about the ridiculous play. This was the juncture in time when Andy was desperately trying to revive his career.

He spread a blue mat out on the floor. He told me to take my shoes off and I did. I was young. I had nothing to lose. That month, a bomb planted by Shiite Muslims had destroyed the U.S. Embassy in Beirut. Reagan backed Contra rebels in Nicaragua. Millions were dying in Ethiopia from the two-year drought. Rock stars sang for them. In my mind, at that point in time, the worst thing that could happen to anybody usually happened in other countries.

I had on my lucky dress. I know I thought about what I wore underneath the lucky dress too. Before I left for New York, my college roommate and I went to a going-out-of-business sale at a lingerie shop in Grinnell, Iowa. I loaded up on garters from the 1950s and silk stockings that came folded in beautiful beige boxes. I was wearing these when I wrestled with Andy.

I straddled him, holding him by his wrists for a long time. Did I say I had nothing to lose? Did I say I was very young?

I pinned him midway. It wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t difficult either. This was before I ever heard about weights or really “working out.” Every now and then I ran or swam. But I was young. I didn’t have to do anything with regularity. Not even boyfriends.

Of course he could have been faking it all. I knew that then and I know that now.

I straddled him, holding him by his wrists for a long time. Did I say I had nothing to lose? Did I say I was very young? He had the belly, a high belly, so the straddling was difficult. I inched more towards his chest, thinking, knowing, that to inch the other way would be dangerous. Dangerous? There I was in my dress, in my garters, straddling Andy Kaufman, pinning his hands to the mat, saying, “I win.”

He asked if the recorder was still on. I said yes. He reached over and turned it off. La Toya Jackson did this once, and made me erase everything that she and her mother had said, which was not much. So I laughed at Andy, and reached over and turned the recorder back on, and as I rolled off, he put his hands on my waist in the nicest way to help land me from his belly as though to fall would be equivalent to a tumble off Mount Everest.

He said I had to promise I wouldn’t tell anyone about this. He made me promise. He was doing that tone thing again, but this time, I really couldn’t tell if he was joking or not. You have to promise. If it got out, he said. If people knew, he said. I think I owe you money now, he said. And I did promise I wouldn’t tell, but I was still laughing when I promised.

Out of the blue, that same week, Andy came to my office in the Condé Nast building, which, back then, was on Madison Avenue in Midtown Manhattan. He wore cut-off shorts, a Hawaiian shirt, and a crochet hat he said he stole off a black “dude” in Harlem. Of course, he knew what he was doing, going into the building where he’d be riding elevators with models and editors for GQ, Vogue, and Vanity Fair. Betty, our receptionist, was tickled with Andy. She personally walked Andy to my office, introducing his presence with great flourish, giggling all the while even though he didn’t say a word, all business in his Hawaiian shirt.

He wanted a tour, which I gave him, but he stopped midway down the hall, between Research and Beauty. He looked pale. He kept coughing. He said he didn’t want to meet anyone and he stuck his head inside my over-sized bag. I don’t know why I had the bag with me, maybe because I expected to go to lunch with him. But I remember clearly that he stuck his head inside my bag because it was such a bizarre, hilarious, and intimate thing to do. I read recently that women unconsciously consider their handbags extensions of their bodies, so that when a woman, say, pets her purse while talking to a man, the man can assume she is being flirtatious. I think nothing of handbags, but I knew even then, that when a man—comedian or otherwise—sticks his head inside the bag I’m holding, it means something.

He said he had come by to take me to tea. He said he had a cold and a cough and he was fasting. He said he was purifying himself. A yogi in LA taught him to fast flues out. But he could have tea. He knew of a place. My boss had not come in that day and wasn’t there to say I could not go to lunch. I didn’t hesitate.

We took a cab downtown, then we sat at a table at EAT. The overhead fans were going. We used the restaurant’s crayons and doodled on the white paper tablecloth as we talked. I think I ordered a muffin, while he drank pots of herbal tea. He said he looked me up in the phone book. He called and called. He said he wanted me to go out with him and he wanted to know why I didn’t have an answering machine. Answering machines were relatively new at that time and I told him that when I wasn’t home I wasn’t home, end of story. The fact was I couldn’t afford an answering machine. If people called, they called me at work where I sat behind a desk most of the time wearing my blue dress.

Andy said my job was not a dream job. How did this comedian I barely knew, know my own mind, when I, in fact, did not?

We talked about yoga and concentration, what focus really meant, and, out of nowhere, in an angry way, he asked me what I was doing there? I said I was drinking tea with him. But he wanted to know what the hell I was doing there, in New York.

I told him I was working at this job that was considered a dream job by so many. My editor was in fact in the habit of standing before me and asking me if I knew how lucky I was to have the job I had because there were so many other girls who wanted it. Lines of girls, she said.

Andy said my job was not a dream job.

How did this comedian I barely knew, know my own mind, when I, in fact, did not?

I know now that he was sick and that he knew about the cancer. And I know now that he didn’t tell many people, and that later, when he did tell, very few believed him. They thought his “sick act” was another performance.

Was the illness or the treatment wreaking havoc on his moods? Not long after tea with Andy, I read in Page Six that he beat up a photographer, or was it a fan? His anger came quickly and out of nowhere, I could see that.

He was living with his father at the time and his mother had been very sick. At least that’s what he said. He said he and his parents were getting close again and he was glad for that and for this in-between time. I remember thinking that we had slid into what I considered an earnest conversation. No jokes, no tone thing. Just two people having tea—nervous, doodling, talking. I wish I had saved the doodles.

When he finished his tea, he put down his cup in the most careful and quiet way, and said that we should leave.

I agreed, looking at my watch, thinking of all I had to do at the office.

Andy said he meant we should get out of here, as in, out of town.

That was the year you could fly from New York to London round-trip for $150 on People’s Express. You really could just take off. My editor flew to Paris one weekend, just to go shopping. Meanwhile, I stayed holed up most of the time at the office, rotating my one dress and two suits.

Now of course, I think I see it. Andy was sick, and he was looking for something, a way out, cures, and maybe comfort. Or maybe he just thought I needed the help. Maybe he felt sorry for me. I had not formed many close friendships since I had moved to New York. I saw that the people I worked with all lived in “units” similar to my cage called a studio apartment, and that we were all living and breathing our jobs, and our jobs had become who we were and we had become our jobs.

In the 1999 movie Man on the Moon, Jim Carrey playing Andy Kaufman says to Courtney Love playing Andy’s girlfriend, “You don’t know the real me.”

“There isn’t a real you,” she says.

“Oh yeah,” he says. “I forgot.”

I know now that he had a girlfriend then, but I did not know that then and he never mentioned anyone else. I liked Andy, liked figuring out his brand of comedy, and his storytelling never really having a punch line. On a separate occasion, Bill Murray came to the office—and he too wore a hairnet. He had good fun, joshing with my editor and with me. He and my editor graduated from the same high school in a northern suburb of Chicago. He played her, not by changing his voice, but by asking her questions about her accessories, and she laughed even though she could have just as easily been insulted. His tone was clear. You knew exactly when Murray was serious and when he was joking. Not many gray areas, which made his comedy easy.

Andy was all gray.

 

With 14 previews, Teaneck Tanzi: the Venus Flytrap opened at The Nederlander Theater on a matinee and closed after the evening performance.

Frank Rich of the New York Times wrote:

Mr. Kaufman’s shtick, as his fans know, is hostility, and here he is, in the highest of dudgeon, a cigarette dangling from his lips, barking at seated customers. He demands to see our ticket stubs, and, should we not immediately locate them, he loudly threatens to eject us clear out to the street. As most of Mr. Kaufman’s victims don’t recognize him, there’s sadistic fun to be had in watching the surly comedian provoke the uninitiated into angry screaming. A critic near me almost slugged him.

Andy called me at work shortly after the review came out. Neither of us mentioned it. We talked. He made me laugh even though that should have been my job that day.

We talked a great deal by phone which I felt was too much like work, but I think such relationships, if you can call them that, must be common because they are so easy. We went out some. He liked to hold my hand.

When I read in the paper that Andy died, I did not go to his funeral in Great Neck, NY, where over 300 family and friends gathered. I sat down at my desk in my office and stared at those mini-tapes marked with his name, thinking that as an entertainment journalist, I really should use them, and write about wrestling with him. Perhaps that’s when I knew I didn’t really belong where I was. Perhaps that’s when I knew I was no journalist. Joke or no joke, it just felt wrong to write about him then. I had promised after all that I wouldn’t tell about beating him at wrestling.

I recall reading what somebody said about the funeral. He kept thinking that Andy was going to pop out of his coffin. I heard that friends even poked at his body to see if this was one more performance stunt. And really, he was so good at what he did, who could blame them?

Andy died in May, and one weekend in June, I rode my bike to upstate New York, and I came upon the house where Barbara McClintock lived and grew corn that earned her a Nobel Prize for her contributions to genetics. I got off my bike, and peeking over the fence just to marvel at Barbara McClintock’s corn, I thought hard about what Andy had said: What the hell are you doing here?

I stayed on in New York for one more year. Then I quit and moved to New Orleans to write a novel. I never did write a story about Andy for Glamour.

Memory is such a strange mix of recall and taking apart what is recalled if only just to rethink the event through one more time.

He walked me home once. Or did we take a cab? I remember standing on the steps. It was 1983, the year Lynn Fontanne died. She and her husband lived in a house in Wisconsin that had a lot of steps. Her husband said that stairs were wonderful for entrances and exits and lovemaking.

The effect of the kiss did not move me, and I don’t think it did anything for him either, but still, he did not want to leave. He was sick. This was right before he left New York for the last time.

Andy stood on the bottom step. I stood on the step above. He held my hand. He had small, pale hands with bits of dark hair on the knuckles. He had those sweet, close-together eyes, long lashes, and the eyebrows of course, the eyebrows that mingled together, connecting without quite altogether meeting.

There was no way I was going to sleep with him.

I kissed him goodnight. The effect of the kiss did not move me, and I don’t think it did anything for him either, but still, he did not want to leave. He was sick. This was right before he left New York for the last time. I thought of my messy room, which I called my cage six flights up—the pulled-out sofa bed, the army of cockroaches that scattered not when the door opened, but leisurely now, after I had moved about the room. They were that comfortable in my place now. That place was no place for guests.

I regret I didn’t have the moxie or the energy that night to head for a bar and stay up to sit and talk with Andy. But I do remember I just didn’t want to and I doubt he did either.

He said then that he was going somewhere, on a trip, to the Philippines perhaps, and that I should go with him. He looked me in the eye as he spoke.

“You know, you don’t belong in Manhattan.” His tone was gentle and serious.

Back then, I remember thinking, how would you know where I belong? I was insulted because I wanted so badly to belong. I was 23 years old and he was 34. He had one year left to live.

I write mostly fiction now. I write not always about what I know, but about what I want to know, too.

In my mind, I see him so clearly. There he is in a hairnet, shorts, and the Hawaiian shirt. I can’t recall the colors, but I know yellow and red were involved. Do I say that because those are my son’s favorite colors?

He’s come to take me to tea.

Margaret McMullan has taught literature and writing for over 30 years. She is the author of six novels; her most recent, Sources of Light, is available in paperback from Graphia, a division of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. More by Margaret McMullan