The following is from Tom Barbash's novel, The Dakota Winters. Anton Winter, back from the Peace Corps, returns to his childhood home: New York City’s famed Dakota apartment building where he tries to revive his father's career as a late-night host. Barbash is the author of The Last Good Chance, Stay Up With Me, On Top of the World: Cantor Fitzgerald, Howard Lutnick, and 9/11: A Story of Loss and Renewal.
To begin with, there was the malaria.
I had been in Gabon in the Peace Corps, where my job was to help people improve their nutrition and access potable water. I helped design and implement a water filtration system and was in the midst of building a community center with a large kitchen and a bare-bones medical clinic. I swam with hippos, danced myself, with thirty others, into a trance state, read a lot of Ian Fleming novels, and lost almost twenty pounds. I went ten months without so much as flirting with a girl and then had a consciousness-expanding weekend at a hotel in Libreville with the twenty-year-old daughter of a State Department official.
I had the sense I was figuring things out over there, far away from my friends and my parents, but if my trip was a movie, I’d been yanked out of it in the first act, while things were still building, and before I knew what all the plot threads added up to. I felt like I was on the verge of a significant breakthrough, or within sight of the verge. I was only gone for thirteen months, but the city looked different when I got back. It was beautiful under the snow and dreamy, though that might have been because I was dreamy. I took walks and pretended I’d come from a small village, thousands of miles away, and imagined what all this would look like.
A lot of my time, though, was occupied with being sick. I once had pneumonia in high school, and I’d had a few nasty colds, but nothing to prepare me for this. I think I can remember the precise moment when the infecting occurred. I remember lying under my mosquito netting and realizing there was a mosquito trapped in there, and then being unable to get her out (only the ladies bite, my doctor said), and fearing if I ripped the netting all of the mosquitoes in the room would attack me, and anyway I was so tired. I was in and out of sleep. It took a while for me to get sick and then I had all the classic symptoms: a shirt-drenching fever, deathly chills, hallucinations that would begin again each time I closed my eyes. The doctor who treated me in Bongolo Hospital in Lebamba said I could have died. If I’d waited another day I would have. And in truth I did think about death in my misty, hallucinatory state. I pictured people at my memorial service, and I imagined them saying incredibly kind things about me.
I was sent back in a Pan Am 707 that stopped for refueling in Paris. I don’t remember much about the flight over the Atlantic. There might have been a movie. I drank half a beer. The woman next to me wore nice perfume and was reading Sophie’s Choice. My parents met me at the airport, and my father kept hugging me and staring at my face. “Malaria,” he said, as though getting used to a new name.
My illness became a story Buddy liked to tell people, that his older boy contracted malaria in Africa, and he’d list the luminaries who’d had malaria: Dante, Caravaggio, Lord Byron, who’d all died from it; and others who’d just had it, like Hemingway, Lincoln (in his Kentucky childhood), and John Kennedy in World War II while in the Solomon Islands. Not much was asked of me in my first days back. I remember watching some of the NFL play-offs—the Rams upsetting the Cowboys; Vince Ferragamo threw for three touchdowns—and I remember reading about, and seeing on television, details about the hostages in Iran, and then the Soviets invading Afghanistan. I was emotional about things I read in the paper. For instance, I was undone for around two days by the news of the death of Joy Adamson, the author of Born Free. The story said she’d been mauled by a lion in Kenya. She’d been out for a stroll and was due back to listen to a broadcast of the BBC. Her body was found a hundred yards from the camp. She was sixty-nine years old.
We saw that movie five or six times when we were growing up, and during each viewing I’d wept. I’d also developed a crush on Virginia McKenna, the actress who played Joy Adamson, and had thought about her in my own days in Africa. I had wanted to meet someone like her, blond hair and a starched thin khaki shirt, and fall in love and stay, or take her back to New York with me.
“Live by the sword, die by the sword,” Buddy said, but the news had upset him as well.
I was also wrecked by the plight of the hostages in Iran. A photo ran on the front page of the New York Times with two hostages reading letters from the U.S., a large pile of mail strewn on the floor in front of them. Clergymen went in there with Christmas cookies, rosaries, and Bibles and said everyone was in good health, though there were also stories of them being blindfolded and tied to radiators.
The Shah of Iran, whom I’d met once at a party at Rowan Rose’s house, was exiled to an island in Panama that we’d gone to on vacation. He was staying in a house my father had once rented. There were pictures of him wading in the ocean with armed guards watching him from the beach.
It felt like the world was in the midst of some kind of seismic upheaval, and in retrospect it was. There was a revolution in Rhodesia, an assassination in South Korea, another in Afghanistan, and then the Soviets were rushing toward Kabul and thumbing their noses at our stumbling Southern president, who kept appearing on television to make threats and to seem strong and presidential.
“Such aggression will not be tolerated,” he said, and said again, with all the force of a parent telling a small child that if they pull the cat’s tail again they’ll go without dessert.
I’d read the paper cover to cover and watch the news, and at night I’d dream about revolutions and disease and marauding animals; one night one of them had a face that looked disturbingly like my father’s.
“Don’t want to get ahead of myself,” Buddy was telling me “But we might be back in the thick of it soon.”
We were at Café Un Deux Trois in Midtown on a Thursday night. My mother was home reading and helping my brother with his homework.
“One of our old producers has been floating the idea of a new show and getting some interest. It turns out people’s memories are short, he says, so long as I’m up for it.”
“And are you?”
“I don’t know. Maybe.” “You definitely are,” I said.
Reginald “Buddy” Winter, my winsome father, had a national talk show that ran from 1968 to 1978, gained a vast and devoted viewership, and won two Emmys. The list of guests included Salvador Dalí, Muhammad Ali, Gore Vidal, Woody Allen, Luciano Pavarotti, Elizabeth Taylor, Paddy Chayefsky, and John Lennon, the mainstream and the avant-garde. And then Buddy walked off in the middle of a broadcast and had a nervous breakdown, the details of which were written about in a long and largely misleading article in Manhattan magazine. Since then he’d become an item of curiosity and fascination, though many of the stories about his intercontinental voyage of recovery were pure fiction and glossed over how truly lost he was.
My mother, Emily Winter (Em, Buddy called her), had spent a month with Buddy in the Greek islands, where they ate fish and stomped grapes and behind sunglasses read books together on the beach. It felt, she said, like they’d gone back a decade, which was both an affirmation and a relief, as she hadn’t known who it was she would find when she landed in Athens.
“Anyway, nothing concrete, but it might be time to get back in game shape.”
“And mend a few fences,” I said. “Who was the producer?” “Elliot,” he said.
Elliot was one of the few who had landed a good job, at ABC Sports. When The Buddy Winter Show ended, it wasn’t just us out on the street. There were producers and cameramen, gaffers and production assistants, the green room staff, most of whom had planned to stay with Buddy for the run of the show. A lot of them resented the shit out of Buddy for walking out on them, and, by association, me. Our old cameraman, Jay Schwabacker, a gift-bearing uncle to us in the good days, spotted me on the subway once and walked to another car. The saddest was Buddy’s agent and college roommate, Harry Abrams, with whom he had a nasty fight, and hadn’t talked to since, and whose daughter I was friends with and sort of dated.
A man in his mid-forties, with silvering hair and a vacation tan, bent to Buddy’s side to speak: “I don’t want to interrupt your dinner, but I watched you every night until you went off the air. I conceived at least one of my children in front of your show.”
“I’m sorry,” Buddy said, “but I think that makes me the father.”
The man broke out laughing and said, “Good to see you holding up so well.”
Buddy asked him, “What does that mean?” “I mean you look great.”
My father was a lanky, athletic man still a few months from fifty, six feet two, with strong cheekbones, and lines around his mouth when he smiled (a cross between Edward R. Murrow and George Peppard, someone wrote). This time his smile was strained.
“How should I look?” he asked. “Exactly like you look,” I said.
The man looked at me as if to say “You take it from here, kid.” “You’re the best, Buddy,” the man said, patting my father’s shoulder lightly and holding his glance before retreating.
“Yeah, yeah. You too.”
Buddy sat there for a while staring at his plate as though there was a message for him in his mashed potatoes.
“You’ve got to get a little better at things like that,” I said. “You’re right, you’re absolutely right,” he said, and when the waiter returned my father asked him to send a bottle of wine to his admirer’s table.
We walked together up Broadway, then past the old theater that had served for more than a decade as home to The Buddy Winter Show. His spirits were bright, and he acted unfazed by the incident at dinner. A play had let out, and the audience was dispersing outside, buttoning coats, adjusting their winter hats then raising their arms toward passing taxis.
“You think they liked it, Anton?” my father asked. “They don’t seem ecstatic.”
“That’s exactly what I was thinking,” he said. “They’re thinking, It beats TV, but I’m not sure it was worth the sixty bucks.”
I was relieved none of the theatergoers recognized Buddy, and more likely they were in their own thoughts but I was happy to be just with him for a while. We passed the Stage Deli, where we used to escape to after the show, and O’Donnell’s Tavern and other dark bars I’d been to countless times with Buddy or other crew members. Usually Buddy wanted to get back to my mother before it got late, but more than a few times someone would sneak me drinks, and we’d all get buzzed, and at some point it would dawn on Buddy that I was sixteen and had school the next day, and he should probably get me home.
At Columbus Circle I began to tire. I’d had a couple of glasses of wine and, mixed with the medication the hospital sent me home with, I felt dreamy again, like the colors around me were leaking.
“I should have visited you in Africa,” Buddy said. “I would have, you know. We’d have had a few adventures, wouldn’t we.”
“We still can if I go back,” I said. “You’re not going back.”
“I might go back,” I said, because it was my right to say that. “You can’t,” he said. “I need your help.”
The Dakota, where Buddy moved our family when I was four, is among the most famous apartment buildings in the world. It looks like a Hapsburg castle because, like the Eldorado and the Beresford and the San Remo, it was built to be one. The idea at the time was to build in the then remote Upper West Side of Manhattan—which resembled the vast plains of the Dakotas, said the developer Edward Clark—a lifestyle to match what you’d get in a luxury hotel. The sort of place in which Marlene Dietrich, if she’d been alive then, would have been comfortable. The list of people who’ve lived there or gone to parties there is a who’s who of the last hundred years of American culture. The old New Yorker cover, which had the rest of the world as tiny dots around a small spot of Manhattan, should have had as its glorious center the Dakota, because during the time of my growing up it felt that way.
Which isn’t to say it was a snobby place—it never felt that way. It feels more like a European village—in, say, Luxembourg— open, friendly, grand, with stories everywhere, and the right people to tell those stories and to go out and live them. Not that I noticed that as a kid—when you’re a child you believe your experience is everyone’s. Still even at five or six I recognized that I was lucky, and maybe unusually so, though I’m sure there are other kids across the world who feel that way, and probably not because of a building.
In the old days on the maze-like roof, there were tents and awnings and gazebos. And on any given weekend the parties would spread to the rooftops, and you could hear the sounds of people playing music all the way out to Central Park.
We lived in an apartment owned once by Boris Karloff that has five fireplaces and two kitchens. That’s excessive certainly, but all the apartments in the Dakota are like that, with high ceilings, parquet floors, and amazing old fixtures, odd little touches you kept discovering over time, like the servants’ bells in every room that let the servant—or maid in our case—know what room you were in, and the dumbwaiters, used in the old days to whisk your dirty dishes back down to the kitchen.
The building wasn’t that expensive for a good long while. It was on the Upper West Side after all, and the Upper West Side was a rough place in the old days, with gangsters like Dutch Schultz and Joe “The Boss” Masseria, and scary empty lots, and supposedly the highest concentration of drug addicts and newly released patients of shuttered mental institutions in the country to go along with all the movie theaters and bookstores and left-wing politics.
At the front desk Hattie Beckwith waved us through. Hattie was from a small town in Ireland and had worked the front desk for fifty years, receiving and sorting the tenants’ mail and working the switchboard, usually during the days, but every once in a while at night. She had curly gray hair, and as long as I can remember wore in winter one of three cable-knit sweaters, one red, one kelly green, and the navy one she now had on.
“Who’s the stranger?” she asked my father and smiled my way. “One of your many admirers,” Buddy said.
“Oh, listen to you. He has your eyes.”
“You need a new prescription, Hattie. His are brown.”
“Oh well, maybe they are,” she said. “Nice to have you back.
Your dad needs taking care of.”
She always held a soft spot for my father, as did most of the building. We had a party each year in the courtyard, all around that brilliant fountain, and my mother would cook for days, and Buddy made some sort of pastry, or brought out some good wine, and he’d sit at one of a dozen long tables with Rowan Rose and Betty Bacall and Jason Robards and Ruth Ford. In later years John and Yoko would be there with Sean. And Yoko would bring sushi, and John would grab a chair at my father’s table, and I’d go run around somewhere else—with no need to be around the action, because it wasn’t like the action would run off and leave us.
Until of course it did.
From The Dakota Winters. Used with permission of Ecco. Copyright © 2018 by Tom Barbash.