Local author, comedian were one-of-a-kind national treasures
I read a lot. Books, mostly. Two of the most enjoyable books I’ve read so far this year were written by Barnaby Conrad, who founded the Santa Barbara Writers Conference a half-century ago and would have turned 100 years-old today. (He passed at age 90 in 2013.)
I started with “Time is All We Have,” about Mr. Conrad’s recovery from booze, coupling it with “Name Dropping,” a chronicle of the popular San Francisco saloon he created and ran for a decade. Barny, as he called himself, with that particular spelling, named the joint “El Matador” after his bestselling novel (which paid for the bar) and, since he was also an extremely talented portrait artist, painted the bullfighting mural on its main wall.
The Libran I am, I read (for balance) the booze-denied and booze-fueled books side-by-side, a lesson in irony.
By the time he was in his late 50s, Barny admittedly would start most mornings at a lower State Street bar with a double greyhound (gin and grapefruit juice) or two and, having endured multiple DUIs, once got himself a two-week stint behind bars at county jail in Goleta.
Mr. Conrad laid bare all these sordid details of incessant boozing in his 1986 memoir of the 28 days he spent recovering at the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage.
Gordon Lish, a longtime book publishing editor at Knopf and known for the literary salon he ran for years at his New York City home, liked to say that revealing oneself is a fundamental ingredient of good writing. (Mr. Lish used to instruct his students, “Write about your most embarrassing experience.”)
Barnaby won that prize. His self-deprecating, conversational, character-and-dialog driven memoir reveals himself bare and may be one of the truest books ever penned on understanding the disease of alcoholism — and how best to recover from (and manage) it.
Whoever made the movie “Big Fish” must have been thinking of Barny. This was a man who knew everyone who was anyone mid-last century, which was why, of course, he could drop so many names — from Gary Cooper and Lucille Ball to Steinbeck, Kerouac and William Saroyan, to name but a few — and does so adroitly in the booze-infused story of his storied bar.
Happy 100th birthday, Barny!
AND A NOD TO JONATHAN WINTERS …
…who was Barnaby Conrad’s close friend, a longtime Montecito resident and the “national treasure” we lost in April 2013.
Twenty years ago, I ran into this iconic comedian on Coast Village Road in Montecito and stopped to tell him about my plan to open an insanity-themed Bedlam Bar in London, England — would he sell me a few of his drawings to hang on the wall?
“London, huh?” Jonathan Winters, clad in fishing vest and hat complete with hooks, unclenched his jaw and fixed his eyes into mine. “I like London. They get irony over there. Everyone’s so square in this country, in line here. I’m perpetually out of line.
“When I was in a sitcom, every day was a new war, seven writers laughing at everything they had written. I would tell them, ‘It‘s not funny,’ and they‘d say, ‘Don‘t worry. We‘ll make it funny with canned laughter.’
“The people who make big money are one-dimensional,” Mr. Winters continued. “They stick to one thing, that’s all they do. Society likes that, rewards you for that. That’s how society wants you: slotted. So now I paint instead. Should I paint flowers or something nice? No, I think I’ll do what‘s in my head. I wonder what the shrinks would say about Magritte and Dali?”
Mr. Winters paused. “So, you want some of my drawings, huh?” He glanced around furtively. “Can you pay cash?”
We met that evening in the old Montecito Bar of the Montecito Inn.
“Some people think I’m crazy,” Mr. Winters began, as he thumbed through more than three dozen pen and ink drawings he’d brought along. “That’s fine, I like it that way. Whether I’m crazy or not is all the same to me.” He winked. “Main thing, I’m comfortable in my own mind.”
“That’s how we envision the Bedlam Bar,” I said. “An asylum for creatives.”
“Asylums are wonderful places,” said Mr. Winters. “Everyone inside admits to being nuts up front, including the shrinks, so everything is out in the open, no pretensions. If there’s a problem, it’s with normal society, where the crazies don’t own up, and even worse, you have to deal with sane people. It’s easy to tell who they are.”
He looked right and left. “They’re the ones in line all the time.”
Jonathan’s drawings were studies in out-of-line-ness. “How do you know about asylums?” I asked.
“Are You kidding?” Mr. Winters lowered his voice to a growl. “I spent eight months in one of those places. It was after my second breakdown. I cracked, began to hallucinate. Uh-huh. That was back in 1962. In those days there was no lithium, no Prozac. They sent me to Hartford, Conn., to a nuthouse called the Institute for Living.
“The scary part wasn’t the other whackos.” Mr. Winters shook his jowls. “Them, I liked. They just wanted to have fun, which society can’t accept. It was the stuck factor that terrified me. I’d never lost my freedom like that before. Losing your freedom is a lot worse than losing your marbles. Heavy gates. Locked wards. Patients screaming.
“Can you imagine, calling a place like that an institute for living? You’re locked in, Jack, and they’ve got the key. No amount of money buys a ticket out — you’re stuck inside till they decide to let you go.”
SHRINK-WRAPPED, LOOKING FOR A LABEL
“What was wrong with you?” I asked.
“Yep,” said Mr. Winters. “That’s exactly what I asked one of them fancy-pants shrinks after a month: ‘What is my label?’ ” Jonathan stared past me, from the part of his brain for which there is no return address.
In a voice that belonged to somebody else, Mr. Winters mimicked, “I don’t want to give you a label.” He resumed his normal voice. “Why not? I’m not psychotic. I’m not schizophrenic. could be manic-depressive. I’ve made a fair study of mental illness. I’m certainly not catatonic, or we wouldn’t be talking. I’d be sitting here staring at you. No, I’m shrink-wrapped, looking for a label.”
“He must have respected your understanding of this stuff,” I commented.
Mr. Winters shrugged. “Maybe. But he still wouldn’t give me a label. He told me I suffered stress. ‘OK,’ I said, ‘but I still need a label. I’m paying for a label.’
“ ‘Let’s forget the label,’ he said.
“ ‘All right,’ I said, ‘let’s forget the 12 grand.’ ”
“I bet they didn’t forget the 12 grand.”
“You got that right.” Jonathan smirked. “After five months, the head shrink calls me in to see him. He says, ‘You have a lot of anger in you.’
“Sure, I had a lot of anger in me. Mostly about my dad. He used to call me the dumbest white kid he ever met. …
“I once asked my mother — she left my drunk father when I was 7 — why she bothered to have me, and you know what she said?”
I shook my head.
“She said she thought it was a good idea at the time. A good idea at the time?” Jonathan’s eyes bugged. “That’s heavy. When I came home from the U.S. Marines from the war, I looked everywhere for my old toys. Couldn’t find them. I asked my mother, ‘Where are my toys?’ She says…” Mr. Winters changes his voice to a falsetto mimic. “‘Oh those? I gave them away to the mission. Who knew if you were coming back?’”
Jonathan glared right through me. “Who knew if I was coming back? No wonder I had a lot of anger! I’ve been buying old toys ever since! My house is bursting at the joints with old toys — and it’s a big house!
“So we’re sitting there, and Doctor Fimley says to me…” Mr. Winters altered his voice to a nasal twang. “We think we can do something about your anger.’”
Mr. Winters trembled and resumed his real voice. “Made me all sweaty. I knew what kind of something he was getting at. Old sparky.”
“Shock treatment.” Mr. Winters placed both index fingers on either side of his head. “Zzzzzzzzz-zap!” He shivered.
“I did not want them to do that kind of something on me. Nobody knew how or why it worked — or what it took away. So I ask Doctor Fimley: ‘What are you erasing from me — age 12 to 17? Eighteen to 24? Which part of my mind are you going to zap clean?’
“Old Fimley looked at me with a blank face. He couldn’t say. Because he didn’t know. So I said this to Fimley: ‘I was in the war. I know people in demolition. If you do what I think you’re going to do, you will be visited.’ He laughed nervously and asked if I was threatening him.
“ ‘No, uh-uh,’ I said. ‘Listen carefully: I know people in demolition. You will be visited.’ ”
“So what happened?”
“I never met old sparky. Fimley knew I was serious.” Mr. Winters retreated into the outer un-limits of his mind.
“How did you spend your days at the asylum?” I asked, trying to lure him back.
“My room was about 10-by-12, with a barred window that overlooked the front courtyard. I could see the crazies come and go. My roommate was a young man named Jimmy. He served Uncle Sam at Anzio, and his father was a big Cadillac dealer. Jimmy’s dad committed him after Jimmy spent two months as a salesman and couldn’t sell a single Cadillac.
“I asked Jimmy, ‘How long you been here?’ ‘Two years,’ he said. That worried me.
“One day, I was walking around the grounds, plotting an escape, and a guy jumps out from behind a poplar tree. ‘You’re that famous comedian,’ he says.
“ ‘Who me?’
“ ‘Yep,’ he says. ‘This is the only place where nuts feed the squirrels.’
“You had to like these people. You couldn’t like them too much, though. At a dance social, I squeezed too close to a woman who thought she was Marie Antoinette, and they threw water on us.”
A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD
“But you eventually got out?”
“Oh yeah. They let me out after eight months, though they never did say what was wrong with me. I wasn’t home an hour, and the phone rang, a call from (director) Stanley Kramer. He wanted me to play a role in a movie he was going to shoot, about six months’ work. said, ‘No, I don’t think I’m ready yet.’
“My wife overheard me and started talking. She said…” Mr. Winters altered his voice to mimic his wife in falsetto. “ ‘You better take it. If you don’t, they’ll never call you again.’
“So, I did what she said. And that’s how I ended up in ‘It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.’ ”
“You’re telling us you went from a madhouse into a mad, mad, mad, mad world?”
“Gee, I never thought of it that way.” Mr. Winters scratched his head. “Ironic, huh? After I left the Institute for Living, I stumbled, I fell. I didn’t stay down long. I still have my problems. I understand them. Nobody has to explain them to me. I’m living with me. I’m not a cry baby, not a wuss.”
Mr. Winters snapped out of a glower and made eye contact with me. “See any drawings you want?”
I chose two.
Mr. Winters counted the C-notes I handed him and stuffed the cash into his shirt pocket. “Now,” he said, “I’m going to give you the best advice I know.”
God had deemed me worthy of Jonathan Winters’ best advice!
“Life is a s— sandwich,” said Jonathan. “But if you have enough bread, you never taste the s—.”
Robert Eringer is a longtime Montecito author with vast experience in investigative journalism. He welcomes questions or comments at email@example.com.