Doing the Shimmy with Thomas Mann

September 2005

I’m sleepless between midnight and dawn, drinking mint tea and smoking. Perhaps it’s time to take in some narcotizing TV. After midnight there’s usually an old movie on the ABC. The screen zaps into fuzzy and saturated Technicolor. Beautiful people swan around in tuxes and powder-blue gowns somewhere on the Riviera. Why, there’s Humphrey Bogart dangling a cigarette! And is that Ava Gardner dancing the night away in a gypsy camp? She’s not a gypsy; she’s a famous movie star, raven tressed, fiery and tragic. The scene shifts to a restaurant. The music is lush, smoky and jaded. It’s the Casino de Monte Carlo. A couple of rich and garrulous Americans, several playboys and hangers-on sit around a table. An elderly gentleman, witty and melancholy, has drunk too much, nodding off into his champagne. He manages to stand and toast Count Vincenzo Torlato-Favrini. His creamily wrinkled countenance is resigned.
“He is a king among counts, whereas among kings, I am a clown.”
It’s the world-weary pretender-king surrounded by the nouveau riche. His eyes sidle with a sly twinkle towards the camera lens, stealing the scene. I recognize that face. I mean, I knew that old man, that actor. The film is The Barefoot Contessa with Humphrey Bogart as washed up movie producer Harry Dawes, and Ava Gardner as the downhill-dancer Maria Vargas. The old king is Tonio Selwart. I used to visit him years ago.

I’m vacuumed back to my first heady months in New York City.

I’d left Heathrow on a-one way ticket on Bangladeshi Airlines for ninety pounds, the cheapest, and arrived in New York on May 5th 1989 and got myself a room at the 63rd street Y. It reeked of pee. The grimy and battered color TV had a picture as dirty as Broadway snow. My second night there was the night of the Kentucky Derby (Sunday Silence won that year). For days thereafter, in a penniless rush, I attempted the conquest of Manhattan on foot and by phone. There were the usual rebuffs.
“I’m sorry Mr Kaplan is still at lunch, don’t you have a number he can call you back on?”
And the usual social enquiries: this one from a smoke and whiskey timbred woman chasing me out of the Church of the Incarnation one Sunday.
“Are you renting yet? How much do you pay, how much do you pay?”

Then I found a crack in the wall, and through it, heard a crisp, delicately cultured answer.
“I’ll be back in town on Tuesday. Dooo come and have tea, won’t you dear?”

Felicity Mason was a graceful English beauty who taught acting with the Michael Chekhov school, had had a string of young lovers, and had written a tell-all about her sex adventures under the pen name “Ann Cumming.” In her seventies, she still knew how to draw a young man in—she told me an anecdote about her last lover, a tall moody Italian in his late twenties, who yearned to remain close but passion-free after their brief affair lost its sparkle.
“My dear boy”, she’d replied to his platonic plea, “we could be lovers, but we could never be friends.”
Felicity knew many of the minor stage luminaries of generations past and was very kind to lonely young men. She knew to get people together usefully.
“Tonio’s a dear friend who’s ninety-three and gone rather blind. He needs someone nice and intelligent to read his letters to him. Would you mind?”

As the summer grew hotter, sweatier and louder I trudged every week from my shared space on Madison and 38th, ducking through the clang and rumble of 42nd street, up the 5th Avenue canyon and over to an old pilastered apartment building on W57th to visit Tonio Selwart, an ancient Austrian actor who lived alone in a one-bedroom apartment facing the back.

June 2 1989. Hot exhausting day. Living at Tom Sweeney’s on Madison and 38th. Met Tonio, 93 yrs. An old matinee idol from Austria. He’s blind, and needs someone to read his letters to him once a week.
Tonio’s apartment is tired and chintzy, with custard coloured paint on the walls and yellowed floral drapes over little grey windows. The rooms are cluttered with photos: of himself and his wife together in the thirties, studio shots of him in Ruritanian uniforms, or young and cocky and delicately fey, a studio sailor-boy with a creamy blond mop. Everything he needs has been arranged on shelves and little tables around the room. There’s a box for bills, and a box of letters. A very large magnifying glass sits on a lace doily.

June 18. Spent two hours reading a couple of his letters to him, and some of my poetry. He thought it was good, original, evocative. Likewise, the bits of my music compositions I played him.
I’m reading him a letter from Switzerland, from an elderly Italian countess. She regrets she has not heard from him in a long time. Is he in good order? Why does he not write? Then something about her sister Louisa, who had died. The fine, shaky handwriting is in a watery indigo, as though from a very old bottle of ink. Tonio wants me to draft a reply, and he gets me to fetch a box of paper and a pen, but then he hesitates.
“No, perhaps we shouldn’t do that Larry.”

Oct 4. See Tonio 4pm.
Tonio shows me a photograph of himself. He’s standing by a swimming pool in Montegrotto on the Italian Riviera, firmly upright, gazing out as though at someone in the pool. A merengue peak of wavy hair, tanned chiselled wrinkled cheeks and a toothy grin. His blind eyes are pale points on a hazelnut face. He wears a crisp white shirt, biscuit coloured suede shoes and pants, and a trimly tailored white summer jacket with fine grey-blue and pale pink stripes. He carries his left hand behind his back, left foot forward, with a white walking stick in his right hand, held with forefinger down the cane. He could be an aristocrat having his portrait done. He is dressed as he probably dressed in the 1920s and 30s, like the youngest son of a tycoon, an easygoing darling. The kind who made older women relax and laugh. The kind who made older men tense and shy as they swallowed and looked away.
He hands me the photograph with a tremble.
“This is a little souvenir for you Larry, as a token of our acquaintanceship.”

October 9. Reading Tonio his letters and bills.
Tonio pours tea into little floral cups, cracked and tannin stained. He serves Sacher torte from a wooden box, which I placed next to him. He often receives a torte from a cake shop in Vienna. I read him some letters in German and a sheaf of poetry sent to him by an old friend, in German and French. Vocal chords ache after an hour, unused to sustained talk. Tonio likes my pronunciation, but I don’t understand most of what I declaim.

Oct 20. Tonio had some good advice on reading. Don’t get into the poetry too much. It tells its emotions itself. Be a little cool, natural.
Tonio gives me an envelope with $50 in it. I know he doesn’t have much but he insists, in a courtly way. Not yet having a social security number or a job I need it, but feel like a whore as he presses it into my hand. I put it in my jacket pocket anyway.

Nov 5. See Tonio. A magical evening’s conversation.
Tonio reminisces about his youth.
“I remember Thomas Mann. We were all at a costume ball in Munich in 1924. Mann was quite terrifying, serious and dignified, so. And such a great writer. But there were a lot of rather, you know, colorful people there, and someone dared Mann to come out and dance. So he did, declaring ‘only once shall I do this,’ and just then I was dancing the shimmy. And so he and I danced the shimmy together and oh, we laughed so. He then went back to his table, serious again, as though nothing had happened.”

Jan 18 1990. Tonio cancelled. He lost a tooth.

Feb 22. Read to Tonio. Did his bills.
I ask about acting, and Tonio mentions his career.
“I played a lot of Nazis Larry, but I always tried to add something to the character, I tried to make them good Nazis.”

May 20. Read his cards and letters to him. I must be getting New York hyperactive. I wasn’t as relaxed as I have been. Too much coffee.
I visited him less often after that, having found other friends and paid work. I think my last visit was on a fall day, more than a year after we had met.

Oct 24. See Tonio 4pm. Tonio asks if he may touch my face.
Tonio can sense light and dark, and is aware of shapes sitting close to him.
“I will never know what you look like Larry. May I touch your face?”
He lifts his arm and touches my cheek. He runs his hand over my brow, nose, and hair, and then my arms with his dry fingers. I am still too young to imagine what he might be feeling. And I don’t know what I feel either, perhaps empathetic, in a safe, cerebral way. I go to the bathroom before I leave. Tonio has felt his way into the kitchenette with the cups trembling on their saucers. I offer to wash them, but he calls out, “no, please don’t come in to the kitchen Larry. You may leave now.” I’m abashed, and then dimly aware of an emotional possibility. I call out warmly, goodbye, see you soon, and let myself out. As I close his door I hear a cry from inside, a sharp rising moan of loneliness and utter embarrassment.

I didn’t record regularly in my diary, and cannot remember, but this may have been my last visit to Tonio. A year or so later Felicity died. Of AIDS, whispered some with a touch of awe. I lost touch with the others I’d met at her parties, the stately old English homo with his clutch of aging lavender acolytes, the shy, terminally ill French count, the frail old Russian ballerina who knew Nijinsky, a couple of man-hungry Manhattan socialites, New Age junkies, old Buddhist beatniks, the woman I married and divorced.

I picked up a paper in late November 2002. Tonio had died on November 2nd. He was 106 years old.

I’ve tried to find some of the films he was in, most of them forgotten. I do a Google search. He had roles in many plays, TV series and films: The Cross of Lorraine, The Hitler Gang, Lupo della Frontiere, Anzio, Romanoff and Juliet, Hangmen Also Die. The local video store has Anzio, a late sixties WW2 action movie set in Italy, so I rent it. Three quarters of the way through there’s Tonio as the adjutant general discussing orders with Von Kesselring in the back of an enormous black automobile. His deferential bark has a cultured, silvery sheen. One of those good Nazi officers I suppose, a nobleman of character and wit dealing with these new vulgarities as prudently as he can.


“This essay first appeared in the monthly magazine Black Lamb, which can be seen at


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