This is a column about a diva. We don’t have enough diva’s anymore, not in the bigger-than-a-story kind of way. Today’s crop of names like Mariah and Beyonce and Rihanna and Khardashian are only minor specks in the firmament of divas, hardly worth our interest. Only the unfortunately named Lady Gaga has anything resembling the star-power of divas past. There is no one today like a Barbra, or a Bette, or a Mae, or a Chita, or even, a Cher. Or, a Liza. Liza is where this column begins.
In 2002, Liza Minnelli married David Gest, and I went to the wedding.
Here’s the back story: my friend Ellen has known Liza almost their entire lives, summering in Beverly Hills next to Judy Garland. Judy, who used to steal prescription drugs from the medicine cabinet of Ellen’s mother. They had a terrible falling out in their teens and rarely spoke since, but Ellen’s mother remained a close friend of Liza, living in the same building in New York City. When the wedding invitations rolled around, Ellen was included because of Liza’s friendship with her mother.
I was at Ellen’s apartment one day, and noticed a beautiful invitation discarded in a wastebasket. I dug it out, realized what it was, and asked why Ellen threw it away.
“She’s horrible,” Ellen barked, “I’m not going to go watch her marry another gay man.”
I brushed off the invitation and said: “Oh, yes you are. And I am going to be your ‘plus one’.”
So, we went to New York and attended Liza’s wedding. There was Elizabeth Taylor as the Maid of Honor, shoeless and in a wheelchair at the alter. There was Michael Jackson, the Best Man, heavily made-up and bejeweled next to Mr. Gest. Next to me in the pew was famous film critic Rex Reed, who spent most of the ceremony with his hand gently on my knee, asking, “who is that?”
“That’s Marisa Berenson. She’s in the wedding party,” I told Rex. “She’s an actress.”
“Who’s that guy?” he asked, squeezing my knee and nodding.
“That’s David Hassellhoff. He’s a television actor. Baywatch?”
“Oh. Television.” Rex shook his head in utter disregard. “Who watches television?”
“Is that Sophia Loren,” he asked. It was Gina Lollobrigida.
“Shouldn’t you know these things?” I asked Rex. He squeezed my knee again.
In the meantime, Ellen – who has no short attention span – has decided to stand up on the pew in order to see the crowd better. On the other side of Ellen was her sister Mary, who looked at me and shrugged. “Maybe you should say something. She listens to you,” Mary told as she leaned back in the pew to speak to me. “At least she’s not picking her nose.”
Finally, a full two hours late, Liza lurched down the aisle, in a 60-pound white beaded dress that you could tell was causing her to be dangerously unsteady on her feet. Rex leaned into me as she passed: “If she topples over onto Michael Jackson, she’ll crush him.”
I said, “at least we have a lot of members of the press here. Maybe Diane Sawyer could do a live report.”
“It appears Dame Taylor has nodded off,” Rex motioned to the close-eyed Elizabeth Taylor. “Oh well. This is all rather boring.”
The wedding was short once it started. Natalie Cole sang “Unforgettable.”
The reception was in the financial district, at a hotel near the site of the former World Trade Center. Once again, through a metal detector and then, you’re in. And once you’re in, you are there with everyone else who is also in, so everybody thinks everyone else is Somebody. By virtue of invitation, I was suddenly Somebody.
Ellen sat moodily at the table. Her mother Ellie, then a spry 82 years old, leaned into me. “It’s been a such a long time since I’ve had a young man on my arm. Would you escort me around?” Ellie grabbed a hold of my arm and off we went.
To Lauren Bacall: “Betty, you left your bag at my apartment after bridge the other night. I’ll have it sent back to you.”
To Carol Channing: “Carol, this is my friend, Thomas. From St. Louis.”
Carol Channing, to me, without a beat: “I just sang with the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, deeear,” squeezing out the last word as both an identity and a term of endearment.
To Rosie O’Donnell, who had just adopted: “How’s the baby, Rosie?” I shook Rosie’s hand and said hello. She said, “You look like Kevin Spacey.”
To Anthony Hopkins: “Tony. You look good. Watching those sweets?”
To Buzz Aldrin: “Buzz, this is my good friend, Thomas. From St. Louis.”
Me, to Buzz Aldrin, dry-throated and star struck, “You…you…walked on the moon.” (This, of course, before I became convinced that we did no such thing – but that is not what this column is about).
On we went, around the room, meeting a constellation of stars. Robert Wagner, Mickey Rooney, Joy Behar – with whom I ended up dancing because her partner didn’t want to dance. So, for several songs, I was Dancing With Joy.
Finally, we caught up with the bride. Ellie was beaming with pride at the sight of her friend, now on her third costume change of the night. “Liza Gest, I’d like to introduce you to Thomas Long. He came all the way from St. Louis. He is here with Ellen tonight.” Liza, a beautiful bride, looked at me deeply and smiled knowingly. With complete and genuine charm, she responded, “I’m so sorry.”
The highlight of the evening came when Sam Harris (the winner of the original Star Search) was invited to sing. Sam, since winning that show, has performed on Broadway and recorded some of his own music, but has also been a vocal coach for many of the top talents in Broadway and musical theatre. He sang “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and everyone, every single person, stopped what they were doing to listen. Every conversation halted, every snack was stopped halfway to mouths, everyone stopped walking around. For about three minutes, I wasn’t the only one star-struck.
Finally, we wandered back over to our table. Ellen was still there, deep in a funk at having to be there, and ready to go. Ellie sat down at the table, and patted my hand. She slipped me a card. “Dear, this is my private number. Call me next time you are in town.” She pulled me close to her, and in a hoarse whisper, she added: “Ellen doesn’t have this number.” Then, she leaned back and smiled knowingly, eyes twinkling like all the stars that surrounded us.