The last three blocks to the T station are an uphill walk, and lately I’ve been sweaty and panting by the time I get to the entrance. Today, I’ve unzipped my long red coat, and it flaps against the wind as I lean into the incline.
King Lear trotted from downstage to up, leaning into the incline, his ragged purple robe trailing on the ground behind him. Upstage left, a lone tree, spiky and barren, jutted up from the imaginary moor. Portraying Lear, actor Lee J. Cobb labored like a hobbled horse. His breath heaving, he angled his body like a ski jumper, made it almost parallel to the stage floor, straining with both drive and surrender. Sit-ting in a half-priced Orchestra seat, I noticed his effort. I was fourteen and wandering freely in Manhattan. What a great performance, I thought, to act as if it’s hard to trot up a stage.
Make it a great performance, I think, every time I climb the stairs up to the glass-walled meeting room in my office, plant myself in front of the giant ficus tree, and present to visiting clients. Gliding from one slide to the next, I tout my company’s services, field questions, address objections. I used to be nervous before these kinds of meetings with big-titled people from the mega-corporations that dwarf mine. I’m past that now. They don’t know what I know, I realize, and they don’t know all that I don’t know. I speak authoritatively, though I occasionally and disarmingly confide my ignorance about things that don’t really matter. I’ve learned that doing this helps to break down barriers, to forge a connection, to be liked.
“Be liked and you will never want.” That’s what Willy Loman tells his son, Biff, in Death of a Salesman. Lee J. Cobb played Willy in the play’s 1949 premier, which my parents saw on their honey-moon in New York. In his wrinkled shirt, with his rumbling voice and a single dismissive wave of his hand, Cobb seared that character into my father’s mind.
“The only thing you got in this world is what you can sell,” Willy’s neighbor, Charlie, tells him. “And the funny thing is that you’re a salesman, and you don’t know that.”
A salesman at the time, trying to get local grocers to make room in their freezers for a strange new product—frozen dinners—my father didn’t know that either. Or at least he didn’t want to believe it. Chicken Chow Mein and Sara Lee Brownies were no more nutritious for the soul than they were for the body, and it was Biff, Willy’s lost and drifting son, in whom my father saw himself.
“Why am I trying to become what I don’t want to be?” Biff demands of Willy late in the play, trying to once and for all break free of his father’s expectations, to be his own man. “What am I doing in an office, making a contemptible, begging fool of myself, when all I want is out there, waiting for me the minute I say I know who I am!”
“Who is it that can tell me who I am?” King Lear entreats. Lee J. Cobb’s voice had an anguished vibrato, so resonant and deep that he didn’t need to yell. Though only a few years later I’d be reminding my senile grandmother of where she lived and who I was, at fourteen, I interpreted Lear’s broken cry as a philosophical inquiry, as a question of identity similar to my own. Just as I pondered what I stood for, I thought he was asking, Am I a king or a pauper, a loving father or a petulant tyrant? Only now do I recognize it as a terrified plea of an old man who has lost his bearings.
On the mornings that I weave my car through the intrepid bicyclists, past the picketing electrical workers outside the latest condo construction site, to get to the marbled lobby of my office, I feel as though I’ve lost my bearings. What am I doing in here with the corporate honchos, I wonder, instead of being out there with the bleeding hearts?
“You lousy bunch of bleeding hearts,” Lee J. Cobb, playing Juror Number 3, rages at his fellow jurors in 12 Angry Men. “You’re not going to intimidate me - I’m entitled to my opinion!”
Born Leo Jacob, he seemed to specialize in fallen men, gruff captains of their own pathetically small boats who, submerged by much larger forces, go down raging. And in his off-screen life, he knew something about being overwhelmed. In 1951, he was identified before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) as a former member of the Communist Party, and was called upon in turn to name names. For two years, Cobb refused to testify before HUAC, despite being blacklisted. But finally -- broke, unemployed, unable to borrow money, tailed by the FBI, his wife institutionalized from the stress -- he relented, and gave up the names of twenty other former party members.
“I had to be employable again,” he said in a 1970 interview.
Was this cowardice or capitulation? Was Cobb being craven or simply realistic?
“You have to be realistic. That’s what he always told me.” My father was explaining to me how he’d ended up with a chemical engineering degree and a job in a paint factory at the age of twenty-two. “The Depression just crushed my father. Since coming to this country at thirteen, he’d worked so hard to build something, from being a rag peddler to having his own business. When the Crash of 1929 happened, he lost everything, and he was determined that we would have a trade, some way to support ourselves even in hard times. No son of mine is going into the schmatah businesss. That’s what he’d say, over and over again.”
“And you listened?”
“I listened.” He smiled sadly. “In those days, we listened. And remember, my mother died when I was in college. He was already a broken man. I couldn’t break his heart.”
“And yet … “
“And yet when I was in the Sherwin-Williams factory, doling out the pigment into the base, I felt the moments of my life swirling away. So when your mother’s Uncle Moe offered me the chance to be my own boss and have my own business, I jumped at it.”
“That’s when you started selling frozen food?”
“Frozen food, dishwashing detergent… I was my own boss, but I had a lousy employee. I just wasn’t cut out for sales. I was barely making enough money to support you guys, let alone a lot of money.”
“Willy Loman never made a lot of money,” scolds his wife Linda in Death of a Salesman, taking their son to task for disrespecting his father. “His name was never in the paper. He’s not the finest character that ever lived. But he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid.”
That anguished demand, phrased in its curiously impersonal passive voice, haunted my father. “He’s not to be allowed to fall into his grave like an old dog,” Linda Loman insisted. “Attention, attention must be finally paid to such a person.”
“He needed my attention after my mother died,” my father explained. “My sister was in England, my brother had started a family of his own, so I lived with him until your mother and I got married.”
“Was he ill?”
“No, not ill…” My father’s voice trailed off. His hazel eyes looked left and upward into his memory of their drab Montreal apartment of forty years ago. “Angry. He’d worked so hard and lost so much. He was a shell of a man after my mother died … but still meticulous. He used to strip his fruit – even grapes -- with a paring knife, then throw the peel away.”
“You can’t eat the orange and throw the peel away,” a stunned Willy Loman tells the young man who has just fired him. “A man is not a piece of fruit!” Cobb delivers those lines with utter disbelief, as if explaining to an imbecile that yes, a batter gets three strikes in baseball, not two. A man has pride. A man has stature. A man should not be diminished. But Cobb’s voice shrinks with each passing moment in the scene. His chest caves in on itself, as though he has literally had the stuffing knocked out of him.
The actor was tall, and when you see film of him in the scene at home later that evening – shirt collar and cuffs unbuttoned, sleeves rolled up, shoulders sagging in his limp grey vest – you see tragedy embodied in a hollowed-out man. Predicting doom for his once-beautiful Biff, the wayward son who is trying finally to embrace his actual life instead of his father’s fantasy, Willy yells, “Don’t you blame it on me. I’m not taking the rap for this.” He deflects, confabulates, struggles to live on in an unsustainable dream.
“I couldn’t sustain it,” my father told me. “Or at least I didn’t want to. I wanted my life to have meaning.”
“Now hear this, Willy, this is me,” Biff cries out to his father. “Will you take that phony dream and burn it before something happens?”
Like Biff returning to the open sky of the West, my father changed course. After his string of businesses fainted from the lack of an oxygen he couldn’t breathe into them, after his own father died, he walked away from the life he was supposed to have and into the one he needed. His was a different dream of success.
“I dreamed of success for us, but this surpasses anything I could have imagined,” my boss says, her voice clogged with held-back tears. She waves her arm around our gorgeous new quarters on the Boston waterfront on our first day in this newly renovated building. “You did this,” she exclaims to the hundreds of employees packing the company cafeteria. “Your vision and hard work and commitment to excellence– you got us to where we are today.”
And where am I today, I ask myself. High on the totem pole, with a title and an income that would have made my grandfather proud. My father too, since he loved me and no path I took could have been the wrong one.
I’ve done no harm, it’s true. But I’ve done little good. When I was young, the sight of opulence would have narrowed my eyes, and the taste of it would have prickled my tongue. My fury at how the rich thrived at the expense of the poor would have made me howl.
“Howl, howl, howl, howl! O, you are men of stones,” a distraught Lear cries out as he staggers onto the stage in the last scene of the play, cradling the dead body of his daughter Cordelia in his arms. “Had I your tongues and eyes, I’d use them so that heaven’s vault should crack.”
That 1968 production of King Lear marked the last time Cobb appeared on Broadway. And Lear – once a tyrant, now a desiccated husk of a man – was his last great role, the culmination of all the narcissistic, belligerent, and broken men he’d ever played.
“The weight of this sad time we must obey,” concludes Albany, as Lear collapses and dies over his daughter’s huddled form. “Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.”
To me, fourteen and wandering freely in Manhattan in 1968 -- a year in which leaders were slain and people beaten, in which heaven’s vault had indeed cracked -- those words were less a eulogy than a battle cry.
Linda Loman’s words at Willy’s grave are less a eulogy than a demand to understand why her husband took his own life. But she knows the answer. She’d voiced it the night before he died. “Be sweet to him tonight, dear. Be loving to him,” Linda implored Biff as he left to meet Willy for dinner, “because he’s only a little boat looking for a harbor.”
Idealist then informer, in his final years Cobb was just another actor working to put food on the table, looking for a safe harbor in a sorry string of Grade B Movies. From humble roots, Leo Jacob had reached a great height, then slowly slid down the hill he’d so doggedly climbed.
I climb the stairs to another performance, but the fatigue in my steps as I trek upstage is real.
Julie Wittes Schlack wrote book reviews for the Boston Globe, and is a regular contributor to Cognoscenti, the online journal published by National Public Radio affiliate, WBUR. Her work has appeared in numerous journals, including Shenandoah, The Writer’s Chronicle, The Louisville Review, Ninth Letter, Saint Ann’s Review, Eleven Eleven, and Tampa Review. Julie’s is actively seeking a publisher for her collection of linked essays, Hope and Satellites, two of which were finalists for the Clarissa Dalloway and the Annie Dillard nonfiction prizes.