Andrew is taking photos of me. I had become one of Andrew’s subjects for his creativity since we met. He was studying at Pratt institute toward his architecture degree. In the 32 years that I (Bruce Baumwoll) and Andrew Reach have been together we have saved 54 animals from the streets of the cities we’ve lived in. At this point we are not sure who saved whom, for without these animals we surely would not have ended up in the places we have come to. This is their story and ours.
It was spring break when Andrew and I met in Florida. I was living and singing around Miami and Ft. Lauderdale. I had been working and living with Ellen Burstyn, the Oscar winning actress for the film “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” for over 3 years. From her example, she had helped me in many ways, from studying at the Actors Studio to the way I would learn for the rest of my life. She taught herself so much. Her bed was always filled with so many books. She helped me to see that, I too, could be all that I hoped to be, and that I could learn. We would sit with groups of people and read from Gurdjieff and so many other great authors. She gave me so many books to read, and I would write down all that she would read, and I would find them myself.
When I got the job, Ellen was involved with William Friedkin. He had been her director for the film “The Exorcist” which, at that time, was a major hit. There were lines around blocks in every city in America to see that movie. I would not see the film when it came out, for I was afraid it would cause me to have more visions. Life has a funny way of working out. I ended up seeing it in a private screening with Ellen next to me. All the living room furniture had been given to Ellen from the set of the film. Not until that moment did I realize, as I was watching the film, that I was watching it on the actual couch from the movie.
I would meet William Friedkin for the first time as they skinny-dipped in the pool. The house that Ellen lived in was called the Ferry House as it was the original Ferry House of the Dobbs Ferry that connected Snedens Landing on the west side of the Hudson River to the town of Dobbs Ferry on the eastern side. At one time Vivian Leigh and Laurence Olivier lived there.
When I got the job at her house she was just getting ready to star on Broadway in the play “Same time, Next Year” with Charles Grodin. It was a fabulous moment when Ellen won the Tony Award for the play. When Charles Grodin’s film, “King Kong” with co-stars, the young Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lange, I would be there right next to Ellen at the World Premier. It was an amazing night.
Ellen had given Charles this book when he came for dinner while they were doing the play “Same Time Next Year”. As he was leaving the house, he gave it to me.
We later moved up the way to the Stone House, a great big mansion. I had always been a boy that lived in movies. The world of film was my life’s passion so to end up there was, in my mind, meant to be. To say I was in my bliss is mild. One of my fondest memories is holding up Ellen Burstyn’s Oscar and Tony, thanking my imaginary audience for my own work. I can still feel the thrill of touching and holding them up.
In her Oscar winning role of Alice, Ellen wins Best Actress as a single mother who finds her way. One of the great films of the 1970′s by one of the greatest directors, Martin Scorsese, doing what he does best-making great films.
Meeting the people I met there was a chance of a lifetime, from Albert Schweitzer’s live in companion for the last 20 years of his life, to so many great artists from the Actors Studio including Lee and Anna Strasberg, and other fascinating people from all walks of life. There were so many teachers. I would be taught by them at the kitchen table. Some of the people were major players in film and theater at that time.
Some of the people that I grew fond of were Ralph Roberts who, at the time, was one of Ellen’s masseuse’s. He was anx actor. He was in the film “Bells are Ringing” with Judy Holliday. He had worked for Marilyn Monroe and had known her well and he would tell me so many stories that I loved. Another person who had an impact on me was Fred Haines who had done the almost impossible task of turning James Joyce’s Ulysses into a screenplay.
At the time, Ellen Burstyn was practicing Sufism, bringing many spiritual men and women to the house. It was an amazing place to learn for a young man that had spent so much of his time growing up alone. I was a true sponge. The more you taught me the more I wanted to learn and that has never stopped.
Because of my learning challenges, my parents found it easier to contain me at home to be what they thought to be best for me. I stayed in the house huge amounts of time when I was young. Soon, I began to clean and cook for them. I did that until I left home. So I was not prepared for the real world. When I did start to work, I would become a domestic and clean houses, which, of course, I was very good at. I had only two of these jobs before I worked for Ellen. At first, I was hired to take care of the Ferry house. As she got to know me, she open up to me and I moved in to the main house very early on with my constant companion, my beloved dog, Maggie. And that’s when she began to teach me. I moved into Stone House and lived there for almost 8 months alone . While the work went on, much needed to be done before Ellen would move in.
You see, I was a young man with learning disabilities. I did not see words in my head. I saw pictures. I hardly spoke until I was five years old. I was also born a celiac so eating was a problem. I had difficulties communicating which caused huge levels of frustration for me and caused me to be prone to outbursts. Today they would diagnose someone like me with a form of Asperger’s Syndrome or slight autism. I spent most of my life playing alone. I was super sensitive. I do not like being touched.
I would fail kindergarten and then the third grade three times. I would eventually graduate high school late, at nineteen years old. I spent my life in special classrooms on weekends, in addition to regular school hours learning how to read and how to talk without stuttering and without a bad lisp. I was one of those boys that everyone made fun of. If they weren’t calling me a fairy or sissy they were making fun how I would talk. In the sixth grade, a teacher took me out to the playground, put me on a swing, put crackers in my mouth while I swung and told me to talk. And I could! She had helped me to get past a part of my brain that did not see the words. The feeling was like when Helen Keller finally said the word “water”. I felt total freedom in my head. But to read would take learning all my life. I can still see, in my mind’s eye, the cards being put up for me to read. The fear of reading in public would take even more years to overcome. I have been blessed with many teachers in my life.
Ellen was soon involved with the new film “Providence”, to be filmed in Europe. The director, Alain Resnais, really wanted her. He would travel to America to visit us at Stone House. At one point he was outside looking around the gardens. I was with him and he told me that I should keep going with my studies, for the camera would love me and that my face showed great emotion and depth. Perhaps someday, I might be able to work for him in one of his future films, he said. I was so honored that he was just talking to me. To give me words of encouragement was wonderful for me. I still was a very shy young man. Ellen did take the role and went off to Europe to film the movie.
While she was away she would send us postcards to say hi, but also to let us know the things that she wanted us to keep up with. One of my main jobs was to take care of all the animals. There were the dogs, Bernard and Marilyn, and her many cats. Her favorite and closest cat was Georgie Baby. There was also Malcom X, Moses, Clorisa (she would run away at this time) and others. She always wanted me to comb Georgie Baby. Georgie Baby was very special to Ellen.
During the filming of Providence, Ellen had to fly home. With all the work that was being done on the mansion, the contractors refurbishing the house never let us know how dangerous it could be for the animals, and soon some of them got very ill and began to die. The lead paint that was being scraped off the walls fell to the floor. The cats would then walk on the floors and then lick themselves. Ellen came back to be with her beloved Georgie Baby for she too was dying. I was there with Ellen when Georgie Baby passed away in her bedroom. This was a very sad time at the house.
The begining of knowing that my time there was coming to an end.
This film was very close to me for I have almost died three times in this life. Two of the times were at Ellen’s mansion. One involved a fire in the part of the house that I lived in. Another time, we were all celebrating the Bicentennial on July 4th, 1976 on the Hudson River. I was too shy to go to the bathroom off Ellen’s boat that we were on, so I got in the river and within moments the river took me away. I was saved by another person living in the house, William Smith.
My first near death experience was in South Beach, the southernmost part of Miami Beach. I was five and almost drowned. Our family was staying at a hotel. My grandfather owned two hotels in South Beach, the Euclid and the Commodore. I do not know why we weren’t staying at either of them. We were staying somewhere else on the ocean around 5thStreet. I fell in the pool when I was walking by it. My father pulled me out. I know this because I watched it all happening from out of my body above the hotel. As was also the case in the experience on the Hudson, I left my body and traveled towards great light and was met by a group of souls that I felt immediately a kinship to. It was as if we all knew each other. And through their eyes I knew that they were all people that had loved me, or come before me, or souls that were watching over me. They let me know that I couldn’t stay, that it wasn’t my time, and that I had things to do, and within seconds I was back in my body. Each experience took me to a further place where I could never be the same as I was prior to them. My consciousness kept expanding.
As Ellen was finishing the film “Resurrection”, I had come to see that I must leave her home in Snedens Landing to follow my own journey and to leave all Ellen was teaching me. I could not get what I was looking for there. It was a difficult choice, but I have never been a person afraid of surviving for I had been doing it all my life. I have never been able to allow people to control me from the very beginning of my life. It’s just the way I was born.
So I left Ellen to meet my own fate. I found a wonderful apartment in New York City on the upper west side on 75th street right off Columbus Avenue. I worked as a waiter at Carnegie Deli and began to sing and look for work as a singer and actor. I had to go on and achieve my own dreams. It seems I’ve always been able to draw powerful people and minds to me.
At Carnegie Deli I began to meet a group of great entertainers who came in all the time. There are too many to mention but I had my favorites and I was their favorite waiter and they would request I wait on them. Among them were Henny Youngman, George Jessel, and the incomparable Ruth Gordon and Garsin Kanin. Henny Youngman and George Jessel would come and sit at the front tables. Henny Youngman always would yell out to me “Hey little mishgeit”. George Jessel and Henny would laugh and talk. Everyone wanted to say hello to them. They were the center of attention. But my all-time favorites were Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin. I’m a short man and they were my size. I would ask them questions because one of my favorite films is the autobiographical movie “The Actress”. They always gave me encouragement and told me to always be myself and it will come to me.
During the time I worked at Carnegie Deli in the late seventies, I studied with some of the great acting teachers of the day. I auditioned all the time. I met the wonderful young actor, Lenny Baker, who was on Broadway starring in “I Love My Wife” (which he won the Tony Award for). He also starred in the film “Next Stop Greenwich Village”. He would remain a friend until his death. We saw each other about two weeks before he died in Hallandale Beach, Florida. When we first met in New York, I would walk my dog where I was living and let her go in the park that was right across from the subway station at 72nd Street in what they used to call Needle Park. He kept thinking I was one of his old boyfriends. We became friends. We enjoyed each other. We would go out for lunches. One of favorites we would go was Ruskays. He was a very sweet man. I think of him all the time and miss him. He also showed me many things that a shy man just never sees.
I started to sing all around New York and this led me to Miami, Florida. My beloved dog Maggie would pass away soon after I got there.
Andrew was in his sophomore year of his first college degree, at the University of Florida in Gainesville, and home for Christmas break. It was 1981. We met at the Marlin Beach Hotel; the hotel where the 1960 film “Where the Boys Are” was filmed and starred George Hamiltion, Dolores Hart, Paula Prentiss, Connie Francis, Yvette Mimieux , Jim Hutton, and Frank Gorshin. Because of that film, the Marlin was a safe place for gay men and women to meet. It had become a hotel catering to gays and lesbians. We took our time and on the last night of his break, we went out for ice cream. When we came out of the ice cream shop with our cones, getting ready to get in the car, we looked across the car top where our eyes met and our souls opened up to each other and we have never been apart since. Love is a powerful thing.
We decided to meet again during spring break. We stayed at the Victor Hotel on South Beach. Miami Beach at that time had not yet undergone its reinvention. The hotel was Kosher and occupied by elderly Jewish people. Everyone was wonderful to us. On the first day, as we walked to the beach, my Andrew went ahead of me. It was there that I first saw his back. It wasn’t like anyone else’s that I had ever seen. It looked like a persons’ very defined chest, as if his head was on wrong. I wanted to run from fear of what it meant. But I am a man that has always had visions and in a second I saw and heard one at the same time. Are you going to give up real love and companionship because he isn’t perfect? And I answered back to myself, no. Our life has been blessed so many times, even though the journey has been one of great adversity and obstacles that we could never have imagined from what we think of as a good life. The next year, after he graduated from the University of Florida, we moved to New York City in the summer of 1982.
We began life on the upper west side of NYC in a hotel that we rented a room in that had its own kitchen. I watched Andrew walk up to Broadway from Riverside Drive to his first job. We lived there for about six months. Life was all in front of us. We lived there till my ex-wife decided she did not want to live in the apartment that she had gotten and fixed up on Charles Street at Hudson Avenue in Greenwich Village because it was too noisy. This would be our first real home and would bring in our first animals that we saved, Katie the dog who was found in central park on a cold march day, and Diva the cat. We were in Central Park. Andrew was taking pictures for his class at Pratt.
End of Chapter 1
I wish to thank my lifetime partner Andrew Reach for his technical assistance. Digital technology has opened me up as a way of communicating. The speed of my brain can now sync with the speed of the computer. Through Andrew’s patience and technical skills, he has enabled me to learn and become free in this new digital world. There’s nothing more powerful than love and trust.