Ghosts of Christmas Past

I suppose every recovering alky or addict has mixed feelings about the holidays. During my hardcore partying days in New York City, Christmas was the perfect excuse for excessive celebrations — not that I needed an excuse to binge drink back in the 80s. It seemed every company either had an office party or rented a nice restaurant to host year-end bashes. That’s how I got into an altercation with Ethel Merman.

Yes, that Ethel Merman. I was in my mid-20s and had transitioned from newspaper reporter to marketing, landing a job with a direct marketing firm that brokered mailing lists for big clients such as Newsweek, Dow Jones and American Express. Our parties were legendary in direct mail circles. The guys I worked with were boozers too, but at company functions we were expected to behave professionally. We even wore tuxes at some events.

Anyway, there I was at one such Christmas party, trying to act the part of a young account exec on the rise. Rather than drink beer or wine, I went the cocktail route. Black Russians. Seasoned drinkers will smile at the foolishness of that choice. It’s mostly vodka with a splash or two of Kahlua (coffee flavored liqueur) on the rocks, a drink that goes down deceptively easy. After two or three of those, I was feeling pretty loose. Then I heard a buzz in the room and turned —

Ethel Merman unexpectedly showed up with an entourage in support of her “protege,” a younger male singer who was our entertainment that evening. Coworkers and clients approached the aging star, eager to shake her hand and ask for autographs. Rumors quickly swirled around the room that she was soused and had a nasty temperament. For some reason, I was seized with the notion that I would charm her (the “reason” may have been my fourth or fifth Black Russian). I walked up to her and said this: “Instead of asking for your autograph, would you kiss me so I can say the great Ethel Merman kissed me?”

She gave me a sour look which contorted into a twisted smile in my fuzzy recollection… and then she kissed me on my cheek. In my astonishment, I blurted out, “I can’t believe Ethel Merman kissed me!” In the same moment, I kind of threw out my arms to express my astonishment and the cocktail in my hand splashed on her dress. Her swift reaction caught me off guard. She threw her drink on me and gave me a look that would wither Medusa. People turned and stared at us. It actually made me angry that she would do something like that — and I let her know it on the spot.

“What I did to you was an accident,” I told her. “What you did to me was… malicious!” Then my boss grabbed my arm and gently tried to steer me toward the door while I was threatening to sue her. “Rich, you can’t sue Ethel Merman! You’re lucky she isn’t a client,” he said as he hailed a cab for me outside the restaurant. I’m not sure if the company owners saw what went down between Ethel and me, but I’m sure they heard about it afterward. Probably the only reason I wasn’t fired for that incident was that the owner was an even heavier drinker than me, and because of that, his wife (the co-owner) cut the younger guys some slack.

When Ethel Merman passed away in 1984, I got calls from clients who were at the infamous party to express their condolences. After all, she kissed me once and threw a drink on me in the same evening. Ours was a brief and stormy relationship.


On a more somber note, the other ghost from Christmas past that haunts my memories of Manhattan, is the night John Lennon was killed. I’m not certain if I was returning home from a company party or was just out drinking with the boys after work. It was a Monday, which would be a strange time to host a party. Anyhow, what I recall is I was very intoxicated and it was late as a coworker and I headed toward the subway. I saw a bundle of newspapers on the sidewalk. There was a huge headline on the front page about Lennon being shot dead — I bought a copy in disbelief. It was just hours after the shooting, and the news was already out in print.

On the subway ride home, I began crying. Why would anyone want to kill John Lennon? To New Yorkers, who came there to be a part of this city because it seemed to embrace everyone and anyone, rich or poor, famous or infamous, regardless of ethnicity or religion, John was one of us… it just seemed so wrong and so sad and senseless. My tears caused one of my contact lenses to come out, and I couldn’t find it on the grungy subway train floor. I walked home unable to see out of one eye clearly, and whatever holiday spirit I had been feeling was gone. Thirty years later I still feel a sense of loss around December 8.

Peace out.

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4 Comments on “Ghosts of Christmas Past”

  1. Ethel Merman??!! One of my best friends in high school used to do a great impersonation of her. You continue to constantly surprise me.
    Your Lennon story is touching. I think we all still ask why anyone would want to kill him, of all people. His absence leaves a giant hole still, and we can only wonder how many musical gifts the world was denied when he was taken. Many of us recall exactly where we were when we heard the news. I was bartending — and drunk.

  2. richfigel Says:

    Speaking of bartenders, Bruce Willis (who I knew from Montclair State College in NJ) eighty-sixed me from a NYC bar he was working at before he got his first TV acting gig on Moonlighting! I should have kept in touch with that guy, huh?

  3. gerry boyd Says:

    rich: i am one year clean and sober today. never had your kind of exciting adventures, just got tired of it. as raymond carver pointed it, it takes a lot of work to be a good drunk. ha! never thought reality could be so weird and wonderful all by itself. cheers. gerry

    • richfigel Says:

      Hey, Gerry – Congrats on your sobriety! Yeah, it’s exhausting work being an alky or addict. When I look back at my old journals from those days, it’s a wonder I could hold a job and do everything I did when I lived in the city. But you know, before it got really bad for me, I also had some wild times that I don’t regret. In fact, I wouldn’t have met my wife (who also was the one who convinced me I needed to quit drinking) if it wasn’t for a night of us two getting hammered over beers at a Japanese karaoke bar in Honolulu not long after I moved here. That night I told her about my Great American Novel that I was going to write, and all my other grandiose plans… The big dreams may not ever happen, but now I’m grateful for the small things we share. Life is short — I’m really happy to hear you’re still you! Aloha, Rich

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