Rewrites: A Memoir traces Neil Simon’s early life and his writing career from the drafts of his first play, Come Blow Your Horn (1960), through the Broadway production of The Sunshine Boys (1972). Originally conceived as a full- length autobiography, this memoir is in many ways a tribute to Simon’s first wife Joan, ending with her death in 1973. (Actress Marsha Mason, his second wife, is identified only as “someone who would eventually play an important part in my life.”) A beautiful, spirited woman, Joan is recalled with unstinting love and admiration. Simon has included family photographs that underscore his tenderness toward her and his gratitude for her support of his dreams. The final chapter on her death from breast cancer is intense and moving. Simon’s early years provide an interesting perspective for his work. He was born on July 4, 1927, to Irving Simon, a fabric salesman in New York City’s garment district, and Mamie Levy Simon. His mother used to tie him to his high chair with a rope to keep him from falling out, a practice that he holds responsible for the claustrophobia he still suffers from, although he has found some relief through psychoanalysis. During his childhood, his parents separated several times. His father would simply walk out and not come back, leaving his mother almost penniless, without a job or skills. In desperation, she took in boarders to keep his older brother Danny in school and rented out the kitchen table for card games (twenty-five cents per person, per game). Simon recalls standing with his mother in front of a woman’s house, waiting to confront his wayward father. Trapped between his unhappy parents, he found his escape from the ugliness in a library or motion picture theater.
Even when he was at home, Irving Simon was a man who kept his distance. He alternately humiliated and ignored his wife and sons. One Fourth of July (Neil’s birthday), Irving brought home fireworks and distributed them to the neighborhood children, but not to his sons. Later, however, he did introduce Neil and Danny to some men who booked entertainment for summer resorts, thus starting the boys on their writing careers.
At nineteen, after a stint in the Air Force, Neil began to write comedy sketches with Danny for CBS. The brothers continued to produce weekly variety sketches at Tamiment, the resort where Neil met Joan Baim in the summer of 1953. They were married that September in Manhattan’s Criminal Courts Building with their parents attending, although his were not speaking to each other. Their first apartment in Greenwich Village was cramped, with a sinkette, a stove, and a hole in the skylight. This apartment, five flights up, would later become the setting for Simon’s second play, Barefoot in the Park (1963), a romantic comedy about a newlywed couple. The young heroine was modeled on Joan.
The Simon brothers continued to write humorous sketches for television. When television moved west to California, the brothers went with it. Danny settled there, happily writing for the networks, while Neil continued to shuttle between Los Angeles and New York, winning Emmys for his work on comic Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows and the Sgt. Bilko Show, starring Phil Silvers.
In the spring of 1957, Simon was asked to write two variety sketches, heavy with physical humor, for a Jerry Lewis television special. It was not an experience he relished, and he offers a scathing portrait of Lewis, “half child, half cheetah. . . . a spastic, aging bellhop.” Simon hated Hollywood; his dream was to get out of television and write for Broadway. As always, Joan encouraged him.
Simon’s career in the theater did not begin fortuitously. Come Blow Your Horn, his autobiographical comedy, required three and a half years and twenty complete revisions before it was ready. On opening night, a man dropped dead in the balcony during the first act. Surprisingly, the play was a success.
Simon rejected an offer to write the $75,000 screen adaptation (which would star Frank Sinatra) in order to concentrate on theater. He feared becoming a “playwrote,” a playwright with a single comedy to his credit, but he seemed to fear writing more. Back in his New York office, he spent a few weeks throwing darts. When a tax-sheltered investment recommended by his business manager found him the owner of a herd of frozen Wyoming cattle, he began to write in earnest.
In 1964, he began to write screenplays as well, even though he knew he was primarily a stage playwright. He tried to retain play dialogue in...
(The entire section is 1880 words.)