Friday, February 17, 2012

On Wolves, Demons and Other Monsters


Dear Mackenzie,

You’ve had a lot of success in the entertainment industry at a very young age, and people often ask me how I feel about you being an actor. I answer that I’m excited for you. I say that in my experience it’s very hard to find something one is passionate about in life, let alone at your age, and the fact that you’re doing well is an added bonus.

I also acknowledge that having seen first-hand the ups and downs which artists endure, and how difficult that life can be, I am conflicted at the same time. I add that this is not the childhood I would necessarily have chosen for you.

The truth, though, is that most days I don’t feel particularly conflicted. You love what you do. I see how much you enjoy auditioning, being on a set or on a stage, going to premieres, and being on red carpets. What’s there to be conflicted about? Thus I get lulled into a false sense of security. But every so often the conflict and the dread I do feel about you having a life in the arts hits me upside the head like a two-by-four.

When I was starting my career in the early 1980’s, several of my clients were recording artists in the R&B world.  I remember at some point the town started to buzz that Clive Davis, the legendary head of Arista Records at the time, had discovered yet another singing sensation, this one with roots in the gospel world. 

In those days MTV was an actual music channel and played music videos around the clock. One day a video came on called “How Will I Know” and the singer took my breath away.  She was beautiful. She exuded a playful sex appeal. Her voice was radiant. Her name was Whitney Houston. She burst onto the scene and into the American consciousness and became a big star almost overnight.

I only met Whitney Houston once. It was early in her career, and she couldn’t have been more than 22 or 23 years old. I was at some industry event with a client whose own career at the time was even more nascent than Whitney’s. My client noticed her across the room and said she wanted to meet her.

This was long before bodyguards and entourages and Bobby Brown came into her life, and I went and introduced myself. I told her that the firm where I first worked after law school represented her cousin Dionne Warwick and that one of my very first assignments had been to drive to Ms. Warwick’s house with some legal documents for her to sign. I said that Ms. Warwick was the first star I had ever met, and that afterwards I had literally called my parents back home to tell them that their son was now officially in show business.

Whitney was very gracious and she, my client and I all chatted for a while that night. From then on I watched from afar as she became a huge recording artist, and then a movie star as well.  As time went by I also watched from afar as she struggled with her addictions and her personal demons.  Her instrument deteriorated and her career struggled as she abused her body and her psyche.  

On the day of her death we were all discussing Whitney at dinner and you said you didn’t know who she was or why she was famous.  Sometime when you have a chance, my sweet daughter, you should experience the transcendent talent she possessed.

Watch the video that launched her into superstardom. Savor her soulful rendition of “My Love is Your Love”, “I Will Always Love You”, the national anthem (believe it or not) or any of the other hits that led her to become one of the biggest selling recording artists of all time. See her luminous performance in “The Bodyguard”.

I was sad when I read of her untimely death.  And I got a terrible pit in my stomach thinking about you in this industry, and of all the minefields that can explode on you if you’re not careful.

As I write you this letter no one knows exactly what caused Whitney Houston’s death, but it’s likely that her demons and addictions played a role.  I suspect every artist views her passing the same way NFL athletes look on when another player is paralyzed or otherwise severely injured during a game.  With sympathy and sadness for a fallen comrade, and with the unspoken but very real knowledge that “there but for the grace of God go I”.  

It turns out, Mackenzie that I’m in fact profoundly conflicted.  I want you to do what you love. I want you to succeed at it. I want you to buck convention. Yet at the same time I’m frightened for you when I see how many people get overtaken by the volatile mix of adulation and rejection that are part of an artist’s experience. The wolf at the door and the personal demons lie in wait side by side.

I pray that your mom and I can help keep you grounded and happy.  I pray that (to paraphrase Rudyard Kipling) you can treat those two impostors called triumph and disaster just the same. I pray that no one with character deficiencies like those of Bobby Brown ever finds his way into your life or into your heart.

So I will continue to support your artistry. I will continue to delight in your successes. I will continue to be the best father I can be and to hug you as often as you will let me.  And though I’ll try not to show it, I will continue to worry about you and to ask whatever higher power is out there that wolves, demons and other monsters stay away from my little girl.

All my everlasting love,

Dad

2 comments:

  1. Okay, I love your letters too. You write well. I'm not nearly as engaging as you are, I hope that my love makes up for my like of prose in my letters to my girls.

    Here is a worry that I live with that is something like what you are describing, I worry that I will introduce my daughter to a lifestyle or culture that will prove to be injurious or fatal.

    Whether they are in the entertainment industry or not there is so much out there that we have so little control over. Will teaching my girl how to skateboard lead her to follow in with fringe skateboarders who hate authority; will she get good enough to try dangerous stunts? The list goes on.

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    1. Thanks Alex. I agree. It's scary. Hope and fear. Both barrels pointed straight at them.

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