Liz Smith: Remembering the divine Marvin Hamlisch

Marvin Hamlisch (Photo: Francesco Scavullo).“But in December there’s just one place for me Mid the California flora I’ll be lighting my menorah. Like a baby in its cradle I’ll be playing with my draydel Here’s to Judas Maccabeus, Boy if he could only see us Spending Hannukah, in Santa Monica,By the Sea!”

This is an underground song written by Tom Lehrer as a Jewish take-off of “White Christmas.” It used to simply throw Marvin Hamlisch into fits of laughter when some of his pals would sing this at the annual Christmas party, hosted by either Sir Howard Stringer of Sony, or Nora Ephron of the perfect dinner party.

We would always have Marvin accompany us, but he hadn’t written Lehrer’s comic lyrics and he’d plead he didn’t know the music. We didn’t either, as we’d only ever heard the song sung in public by music and nightlife expert Michael Feinstein.


But such occasions were the private highlight of Marvin’s life. He loved to go to parties and be asked to play for prominent people who liked to sing, but couldn’t really. He would always ask Nora to sing the true “White Christmas” and he’d almost faint with pleasure because she knew all the words to the Irving Berlin verse, which is about Christmas as celebrated in Beverly Hills.

Marvin could actually play anything brilliantly, as he proved over and over in public performances and concerts. He’d take pop music and give it the Beethoven or Mozart treatment. He was both a serious musician and a comic actor. He adored show business and it paid him back, by giving him every award the entertainment world could dream up — from three Oscars to Emmys, Grammys, Tonys and finally, the ultimate — the Pulitzer.

Marvin Hamlisch accepts an Oscar for The Sting at the 46th Academy Awards in 1974 as presenters Donald O'Connor and Debbie Reynolds look on. (Photo: Handout/Reuters).

Bob Avian and Marvin Hamlisch with members of the 2006 cast of "A Chorus Line" on April 26, 2006. This was the first Broadway revival production for the musical that won the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and Tony Award for Best Musical and ran for 15 years on Broadway. (Photo: UPI Photo/Ezio Petersen).

WHEN I think of Marvin, there are two phases — the time when he was merely famous and commercial, writing Broadway and TV hits. And after he won the Pulitzer Prize for his contribution to “A Chorus Line,” which made him practically immortal

He was no different, from the moment he was an aspiring musical prodigy, to his early fame, and then his exalted experience with the other greats who created Broadway’s biggest hit. Marvin was always Marvin — in a class by himself.

I don’t know how I met him; it seems I always knew him. And there were years when Barbara Walters, his idol, and I would entreat him to help us do ridiculous turns for charity. He would encourage us to the heights, so we got away with it.

Marvin with Nancy Reagan

Marvin wth Terre. (Photo: gettyimages.com)ONE OF the highlights of my life was a trip to Egypt back in 1990 as a guest of Barbara among a lot of VIPs. I dubbed this excursion “A lot of Chiefs and one Indian — me.”

Barbara’s celebrity and fame paid off for us. We were in line, wearing shorts and tee shirts, at the Cairo Museum, when an official caught sight of Barbara and waved us ahead. We hadn’t asked for VIP treatment but we got it. (Barbara had become world famous for interviewing Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat back in 1977.)

As we were marched ahead, we caught sight of none other than Marvin and his new bride, Terre, waiting in line, waving to us. Marvin was yelling: “Hey, it’s me — your accompanist!”

I noticed Mrs. Hamlisch was all dressed up, wearing a picture hat. We were swept into the Museum too quickly to have a visit, but we all began to question our own tourist fashions. I have always felt guilty that we didn’t sweep Marvin and Terre along with us. But they seemed happy and content just to wave and shout.


Back row, left to right: Ed Kleban and Marvin Hamlisch. Front row, left to right: James Kirkwood, Michael Bennet, and Nicholas Dante.AFTER MARVIN finished his major contribution to “A Chorus Line,” his favorite anecdote became one he would always ask me to tell. It was about the morning the Pulitzer Prize was announced.

The writers of “A Chorus Line,” Jimmy Kirkwood and Nick Dante found themselves on a plane from Canada. Beside themselves with joy and disbelief, they ordered drinks. The stewardess served them, adding some nice little peanuts. They kept chug-a-lugging drinks, hitting each other, fondly congratulating themselves.
Ordering once again, the stewardess brought their booze but said she was out of peanuts.

Jimmy screamed: “But you must have peanuts! You must! We just won the Pulitzer Prize!!!!”

This story simply flabbergasted Marvin Hamlisch; he loved it so much. “Tell it again, Liz. It’s so great!”

Marvin Hamlisch the Public Theater's Joseph Papp at the 3,389th performance of the Broadway musical "A Chorus Line" in New York in 1983. (Photo: Associated Press / August 7, 2012).

IT WAS evidently written into Marvin’s will that everybody who came to the aforementioned Christmas parties must be invited to his funeral!

Today, 2-5 p.m., Marvin’s wake is at Frank Campbell’s on Madison Ave. Tomorrow, the world is saying a truly fond farewell to him at Temple Emanu-El on Fifth Avenue. He is gone from us suddenly, unexpectedly and all too young.

I like to think of Marvin and Nora Ephron conjoined in heaven, now singing and playing show tunes and everything else, asking angels to sing along.

It’s as good a theory as anything anybody else has dreamed up, even if it’s not scientific. The meaning of the universe? Nobody really knows, but now Nora and Marvin do.

This column originally appeared on NYSocialDiary.com on 8/13/12

2 comments so far.

  1. avatar Rho says:

    May he rest in peace.  There will never be another like him.

  2. avatar jjfnygrl says:

    Ms. Smith,you have written one too many farewells in the recent months.To most of us,these women and men have been legends,people that have amazed and inspired us with their talent.
    To you, these people were Friends. I just want to say thank you for sharing your precious memories with all of us. Jackie