Arnold Weinstein

Dazzling playwright and librettist
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The Independent Online

Arnold Weinstein was one of those beloved Manhattan figures whose vast number of famous and infamous friends, long Bohemian legend and arcane expertise, whose wide reputation as bon vivant and raconteur somehow obscured his many serious achievements. Weinstein was a scholar, teacher, published poet and highly successful songwriter and librettist as well as award-winning Broadway playwright, yet preferred to play the dilettante and so was perceived as such.

His suite at the fabled Chelsea Hotel was numbered 7-11 and like that store seemed open all night, welcoming a continual array of fans and well- wishers, from old-timer drunks to youthful academic researchers. The walls were hung askew with gifts from many artist admirers, the floor and grand piano agroan with books and his balcony was one of the few in the city to afford a view of both the Hudson and East rivers, proof of his range.

Weinstein was born in 1927 in New York, if conceived back in England, to British parents who were, as he later discovered to his delight, related to Mike and Bernie Winters of music-hall fame. Growing up in brutally rough Harlem and then the Bronx, Weinstein was attracted both to the vivid street life all around him, this specifically American idiom, and his burgeoning intellectual pursuits, a love of language and indeed languages, dead or alive.

During the Second World War he enlisted in the US Navy and saw service with the rank of "fireman" on a destroyer, and this past as a "sailor" became no small part of his mythology. Returning to New York he enrolled at Hunter College on the GI Bill, whilst throwing himself into the febrile creative downtown of that era. It was then he met his longtime friend the artist Larry Rivers and moved in with him at 77 St Mark's Place. Indeed one of Weinstein's finest pieces of work was Rivers's 1992 autobiography, What Did I Do?, that they spent several years writing together. In this Rivers recalls those early years:

He spent long hours learning two useless languages and working for the Phi Beta Kappa key he has never worn. I appreciated his rent money and his presence.

His happy vision remains of "Arnold at a table, smoking a thin cigar, translating a Greek poem".

With his accumulation of useless languages, including Greek, Latin, Yiddish and Ladino, Weinstein went on to Harvard to receive a Classics degree. He also received a full Rhodes Scholarship and double Fulbright to boot. Thus it was while sojourning in Italy that his involvement with music began, when he was asked by the composer Darius Milhaud to create a libretto. The final result being "too American" for the Frenchman's taste it was handed over to his young American student William Bolcom. The result was Dynamite Tonite.

Whilst in Europe Weinstein naturally continued his wilder social adventures. As the songwriter Fran Landesman recalls:

When we first met Chet Baker in Rome he brought along his very best friend Arnold, because Arnold was always a friend of all the jazz men. As far as I knew, he knew everybody. We all went to party at the amazing palace of Mussolini's jazz-loving son, a jazz pianist. I went under the piano and there was Arnold already, I don't know why he was under the piano but we started fooling around and then he cried out, "No, you're Jay's wife!"

Both Fran and Jay Landesman worked with Weinstein on the cabaret revue Food for Thought which opened in St Louis in 1962 and transferred to Yale. Jay Landesman recollects:

The show had a great song, "Food, Glorious Food". It was supposed to run a year and ran a week. Back then Arnold drank a lot, straight vodka, gallons of it, he even drank Larry Rivers under the table. Arnold did comic versions of High Yiddish and Low English, he used compound sentences that rhymed - we thought he was a genius!

Or, as Fran Landesman puts it,

He had a very good concept of Weinsteinian English, he would always say "Shall we commit sittage?" instead of "Shall we sit down?" or "Shall we commit some danceage?" not "Let's dance". Back in St Louis he was keen on this medicine Paragoric with lots of opium. We drove round the city getting two ounces at every chemist. He was drinking wine and someone came up: "I didn't know you were a wine connoisseur - I thought you were just a Paragoric connoisseur." Arnold replied, "Oh, I can tell the difference between a good Paragoric and a so-so one."

Weinstein's first and perhaps most successful piece of straight theatre was Red Eye of Love, a surreal comedy set in a meat store. The money for its first professional production in 1961 was raised from a variety of friends, including the pop maestro Jerry Lieber, Roger Stevens, producer of West Side Story, the budding mogul Hal Prince and such artists as Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline and Philip Guston, who each gave Weinstein a painting to sell. The play opened at the Living Theater on 14th Street to excellent reviews and won an Obie, and Weinstein was signed up by the powerful agent Audrey Wood, who represented Tennessee Williams; but it never moved to London as expected and dwindled to cult, only being republished in 1997.

In 1962 Weinstein created the musical Fortuna with the composer Francis Thorne and two years later Dynamite Tonite brought together Barbara Harris, Gene Wilder, Lee Strasberg and even Mike Nichols, the first play he ever directed. This work was revived five times, always to acclaim and penury.

Around this time Weinstein took up teaching, everything from English literature to playwriting, Greek and Latin, his courses much in demand from Yale to Columbia University. The playwright John Gruen vividly recalls Weinstein's style:

I remember the dazzlement of sitting in one of Arnold's classes. Robert Lowell's adaptation of Prometheus was about to open. That day at the Yale School of Drama, Arnold had the original Greek text strewn in front of him and Lowell seated beside him. Arnold spot-translated the two texts, comparing the Aeschylus to the Lowell and then having Lowell explain his choices. I can still see Arnold pounding out the Greek rhythms to Lowell's amazement and delight.

Outside academia Weinstein collaborated with the New York School poet Frank O'Hara on a musical comedy, Undercover Lover, adapting Kurt Weill's Mahagonny (for a production in 1970), writing the play The Party (optioned but never produced by David Merrick) and with Bolcom creating the opera McTeague, which was directed by Robert Altman in 1992. Later Weinstein would work with Altman again on writing a musical adaptation of his 1978 film A Wedding. The Bolcom-Weinstein team also produced an opera version of Arthur Miller's A View from a Bridge, working closely with the playwright, which opened at Chicago Lyric Opera and came to the NY Met in 2002. There was also an adaptation of Ovid's Metamorphoses (1973), the musical Casino Paradise (1990) and a version of Brecht's Galileo Galilei, written with Philip Glass (2002). But Weinstein was probably best known in his latter years for the elegant cabaret songs crafted with Bolcom. These received regular performance in small downtown spaces and were issued as a series of records, one proudly featuring Rivers's sketchy charcoal portrait of Weinstein.

Interviewed in 1967, Arnold Weinstein spoke dryly of his work as President of FFOF or "Foul Fumes of Failure", a worldwide subsidiary of ITOF, the "International Theater of Failure". "Failure fans," he said,

have a hunger for immortality and they like to rub against other failures because that way they have a little contact against death and are, as it were, inoculated against it. I suppose failure has gone to my head. You see failure excites me. It gets me hot. I like to roll in it. Tousle its hair. Pinch it out of shape. I like to kick it around the room for laughs. It makes me devilishly attractive. Life is too short! Great failures never die!