22 December. 40 years ago in Beverly Hills I was sitting in the alcove-cum-office that I shared with my boss, The Old Man, Rouben Mamoulian. It was late afternoon, the Friday before Christmas weekend, and I was eager to get back home to my boyfriend Sol and our little room behind Musso & Frank. But there were a few more things to do before I could leave.

Mamoulian Queen ChristinaNot Oklahoma, of course, but Queen Christina (1934) with Greta Garbo and John Gilbert. Oklahoma I’ll get to presently.

The Old Man reached behind him on his desk for a volume that had a paper bookmark in it and asked me to read aloud. I found the place and began; it was a poem I’d never read before, called “Fern Hill”:

Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,
The night above the dingle starry,
Time let me hail and climb
Golden in the heydays of his eyes,
And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns
And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
Trail with daisies and barley
Down the rivers of the windfall light.

And as I was green and carefree, famous among the barns
About the happy yard and singing as the farm was home,
In the sun that is young once only,
Time let me play and be
Golden in the mercy of his means,
And green and golden I was huntsman and herdsman, the calves
Sang to my horn, the foxes on the hills barked clear and cold,
And the sabbath rang slowly
In the pebbles of the holy streams.

All the sun long it was running, it was lovely, the hay
Fields high as the house, the tunes from the chimneys, it was air
And playing, lovely and watery
And fire green as grass.
And nightly under the simple stars
As I rode to sleep the owls were bearing the farm away,
All the moon long I heard, blessed among stables, the nightjars
Flying with the ricks, and the horses
Flashing into the dark.

And then to awake, and the farm, like a wanderer white
With the dew, come back, the cock on his shoulder: it was all
Shining, it was Adam and maiden,
The sky gathered again
And the sun grew round that very day.
So it must have been after the birth of the simple light
In the first, spinning place, the spellbound horses walking warm
Out of the whinnying green stable
On to the fields of praise.

And honoured among foxes and pheasants by the gay house
Under the new made clouds and happy as the heart was long,
In the sun born over and over,
I ran my heedless ways,
My wishes raced through the house high hay
And nothing I cared, at my sky blue trades, that time allows
In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs
Before the children green and golden
Follow him out of grace,

Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would take me
Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,
In the moon that is always rising,
Nor that riding to sleep
I should hear him fly with the high fields
And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.
Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.

After I read the entire poem out loud he sat back in his chair with a dreamy look and, pointing to a passage, asked me to read it again.

And then to awake, and the farm, like a wanderer white
With the dew, come back, the cock on his shoulder: it was all
Shining, it was Adam and maiden…

And here he sat up and whispered fiercely, “A cock on his shoulder…” And here he leaned over and, laying a hand on my knee, directly looked into my face and said urgently, “Yes, yes! That is what it was like! When I was a boy…” And I want to tell you his eyes were glistening a little bit when he said that but I’m afraid to be mocked for cheap sentiment. But yes, yes, The Old Man had tears in his eyes when I read him “Fern Hill”.

So that was his Christmas present to me (plus a few extra dollars Christmas bonus) and it’s a Christmas present I want to give to you, John, not just because I’m in love with you and want to give you nice things, but because I want you to know something about the man you made such a thoughtless remark about and why I’m spending the rest of my life upholding his memory and reputation.

Everyone else, a very Merry Christmas and Other Assorted Holiday Cheer.


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