Liza Minnelli, photographed in New York City on December 13, 2001. In October 2000, she was stricken with encephalitis, which left her unable to walk or speak for weeks.
Liza Minnelli’s life has been a heartbreakingly close replica of her mother’s tragic spiral: the drugs, the weight problems, the health scares, the doomed love affairs. A year ago, Judy Garland’s daughter seemed headed for the bottom, but this March 16, after a six-month courtship, Minnelli will be marrying her new manager, Producer David Gest (with Elizabeth Taylor as maid of honor and Michael Jackson giving the bride away), then launching her first European tour in five years. Is Gest, with his knack for organizing multi-performer extravaganzas, the right man for this one extravagant star? Jonathan Van Meter wonders.
The man behind the curtain is David Gest. He is the producer of "Miracle on 34th Street," a yearly Christmas concert at Madison Square Garden. Even though it is very dark behind the curtain, where he is standing in front of a bank of backstage video monitors, Gest is wearing sunglasses. The weather this December has been strangely warm and muggy, but he is dressed as if he is freezing -black double-breasted Brioni jacket, black turtleneck, and one of those silky fringed indoor scarves, also black, that men of a certain ilk and era wear as a natty accessory. Gest's eyebrows appear to have been plucked or waxed into high arches that lend his face a look of perpetual surprise. The carroty hue of his skin suggests that either he is wearing makeup or he spends a little time at the tanning salon. Indeed, the first time I saw a picture of him in the press, I thought he was black.
As a producer, his specialty is multi-star extravaganzas, sometimes for charity, sometimes not. The concert he is overseeing tonight is being sponsored and broadcast live by the dance-and-R&B station WKTU and therefore features mostly black and Latin performers: Blu Cantrell, Shakira, Enrique Iglesias, Mary J. Bilge, Amber, Shaggy, Alicia Keys, and the Sugarhill Gang, among others. As I wander through the backstage fray, Mariah Carey, giant and voluptuous, swans past, dressed in something typically inappropriate. She has just finished introducing the neo-disco vixen Deborah Cox to a roaring multicultural stew of outer-borough teens and twenty-somethings. Also on the bill is Liza Minnelli, who is not normally heard on WKTU but who happens to be David Gest's fiancée.
When I first found Gest behind the curtain, I could not help but think of the Wizard of Oz-the intense little man, hidden from view, hands on the levers, conjuring illusions. When he finally looks up from the monitors, I introduce myself. "Have you met Liza?" he asks. And off we go, down a curving hallway lined with walkie-talkie people-an increasingly militaristic presence at all modern-day celebrity spectacles. When we finally arrive at Minnelli's dressing room, she is all a-twitch, scampering about, readying herself for her Big Number. She will sing "God Bless the Child" with Chaka Khan and then close the show with her signature "New York, New York," backed by the now inevitable chorus line of firefighters and cops.
Minnelli's entourage consists of her personal assistant, Mohamed Soumayah; her hair person, Eric; her makeup person, Louis; and her best friend, Marisa Berenson, with whom she starred in Cabaret lo those many years ago. The four of them hover around Minnelli like bumblebees while she chain-smokes and gulps down sugary coffee. They're helping her get into costume: black fishnets and bodysuit; a black, oversize man's button-down shirt with the sleeves rolled to the elbows; loose-fitting black suede boots that rise to just above the knee. The hair, dyed jet-black, has been gelled into that spiky punk-pixie we've come to know so well. The overall effect is very, very… Liza. It's a look she owns-even if she pulls it off with a bit less pizzazz than she once did.
Life’s still a cabaret:
Minelli gets touched up by makeup artist Sonia Kashuk.
Hairstylist John Barrett.
Minnelli turns 56 this month, but she looks older, which is probably the result of the rough ride she had in the late 90s. In the past five years she has had her knees and back operated on, has contracted double pneumonia, has had both hips replaced, and has gained and lost many pounds. She has always had a loyal audience, but recent efforts to boost her visibility have been stymied by her health. In 1997, shortly after she replaced Julie Andrews in Victor/Victoria on Broadway, she had to have polyps removed from her vocal chords and couldn't speak for months. In the spring of 2000, pain from her second hip replacement forced her to cancel the Minnelli on Minnelli concert tour after a month-long in New York. And then there was the day in October of that year when paramedic found her "semi-conscious and disoriented" on the bedroom floor of her rented waterfront home in Fort Lauderdale. Tabloids reported that she had suffered a stroke and ran gruesome pictures of her in a wheel chair coming out of the hospital. Indeed, she had been near death, not from a stroke but from encephalitis, an infection of the brain, which left her unable to walk and speak for several weeks.
Since then, Minnelli has been engaged in the painstaking task of reversing years of bad habits and clawing her way back to health, not to mention fabulousness. Tonight, despite her forced cheerfulness and chin-up longanimity, she is slightly hunched over and moves as if doing so hurts. But if she is tired or in pain, her fiancé doesn't seem to notice.
"You look great," Gest says to Minnelli.
"Ooooh!" she says, wrapping her arms around him and fixing those big goopy eyes on his sunglasses. "That is so sweeeet." Sure enough, they do kind of fit together: both are barrelchested yet smallish (Gest is five feet nine; Minnelli wears heels that make her seem taller than her five feet four), both have large brown eyes, both wear black all the time, both also have "black" hair.
Gest looks at me and launches into a prideful little speech that I will hear several more times before the night is through. "A year ago," he says, hands on Minnelli's hips, "she was near death. She couldn't walk, was 60 pounds heavier, and now look at her! Isn't it amazing?" Minnelli stares unblinkingly into his face, smiles, and then grabs Berenson's hand. "My honey and my best friend!" she says in that tremulous voice. "So much love in one room!"
Just then, Deborah Cox appears in the dressing room. She's a friend of David's, like so many of the young black pop stars on tonight's bill, which means that she is now a friend of Liza's. "Ooooh, girl," says Cox as she lightly touches Minnelli's freshly coiffed do. "Look at you! You've cut it all off since I've seen you."
"And she lost it all off, too," says Gest, drawing attention to her weight once again.
"Oh my God, girl," says Cox. "Shut up!' New York, New York,'for real."
"You look great," says Gest to Cox before ushering her out of the room, "and you sounded gorgeous."
Looking great and sounding gorgeous is the coin of the realm tonight, what with so many big-voiced glamour-pusses on the bill. Gest will not have it any other way. "Remember who you are" is his mantra-like piece of advice to his fiancée as he urges her -in truth, commands her- to tap into that famous inherited reservoir of public bravery in the face of tragedy and personal turmoil.
Minnelli with her dog, Lily Minnelli, said to be a descendant of none other than Toto herself.
When Minnelli appeared early last September in the Michael Jackson concerts, also produced by Gest at the Garden and later broadcast as a special on CBS, she was not looking great and sounding gorgeous. It was her first time in front of a big audience in many, many months, and she was not ready. She had let her hair grow out into an unflattering, very un-Liza mop of curls, was overweight, and performed in a deeply unpizzazzy dress that you might expect to see on, say, Tyne Daly or Shelley Winters. Her voice -always a singularly odd and unpredictable instrument-seemed incapable of going where she wanted it to go as she sang the lachrymose Jackson ballad "You Are Not Alone." It was excruciating to watch, relief coming only when a gospel choir filed onstage and drowned her out. In fact, the entire show had a rather grotesque quality. Whitney Houston was shockingly thin and ragged. Jackson had his usual Kabuki face on. He was seated between Macaulay Culkin and Liz Taylor -the mother of all troubled stars, but especially Jackson and Minnelli, for whom Taylor took on the role of surrogate mom after Judy Garland died.
It was at the Jackson concerts that Minnelli and Gest reportedly met. Three months of romance later, for all her backstage quivering and compulsive smoking at the Christmas concert, Minnelli appears to be in much better shape. As Gest says, "The confidence is back." With her performance still 30 minutes off, Gest and I return to the curtained-off area just behind the stage where he once again takes up his wizardly position in front of the monitors. He began his career in publicity at London Records in L.A., and eventually became a manager, with a client list that included Al Green and the Doobie Brothers. He is known in the business for his ability to soothe the raging egos that are an inevitability at events such as tonight's. As Whitney Houston will later tell me, "He always makes everyone feel like they are the most important person in the world." This evening, the show is running so smoothly -15 to 30 minutes ahead of schedule- that he can't help but brag a little. "This is what you call putting a show together," he says to me, as if explaining earthling behavior to a new arrival on the planet.
The afternoon before the concert, I met up with Gest's publicist, the legendary Warren Cowan of Rogers & Cowan. He is 77 years old and has worked in Hollywood publicity for more than 50 years. He was Judy Garland's publicist for the last 10 years of her life, and now, thanks to Gest, he is Liza's publicist. He mentioned that the three of them had had dinner the night before at Campagnola on the Upper East Side. "Fans were coming over to the table, and she got up and hugged them and took pictures and hugged all the waiters," Cowan told me. "I've never seen anything quite like it. I must tell you, she was just full of life last night, so spirited and having so much fun." He looked at me over the top of his glasses. "You'll see." As the dinner had come to an end, Cowan said, Liza took out a lipstick and wrote MRS. LIZA GEST in huge red letters on the tablecloth. "It reminded me of her mother in the remake of A Star Is Born, " Cowan told me. "She goes to a premiere after her husband has committed suicide and they introduce her and there's a big close-up and she says, 'My name is Mrs. Norman Maine.' And that was the end of the movie."
Comparisons of Minnelli to Judy Garland are impossible to resist, they look and sound so much alike. Watching Minnelli crash about through her life, repeating the same mistakes her mother famously made, is heartbreaking. Her half-sister Lorna Luft's 1998 memoir, Me and My Shadows, is a riveting book, surprisingly unvarnished. Chapter 17 is called, simply, "Liza," and it details Minnelli's complete and total meltdown in the early 1980s from alcohol, cocaine and pills, and a bad marriage to the sculptor Mark Gero. With the guidance of Liz Taylor and the use of Frank Sinatra's private jet, Luft managed to kidnap her sister in 1984 and get her into rehab for the first time at the Betty Ford Center.
According to Luft's account, in the car on the way to Sinatra's plane that fateful morning, Liza, coming out of a stupor, suddenly yelled, "I want a hot dog!"
"You don't need a hot dog," said Luft. "We'll eat on the plane."
"I want a fucking hot dog!"
Luft writes, "You do not want to be in a car with my sister when she's yelling .... When my sister is angry, she's scary."
Just like Mama. When Garland was overcome with drugs and rage, she scared her children half to death.
But this isn't the only bit of Mama's baggage that has been passed down to her children. There is also an uncomfortable legacy of mixing family and business. Garland's relationship with her mother, Ethel, was destroyed when her mother became her manager and stopped being a parent. Her third husband, Sid Luft, also served as her manager, and she married her greatest director, Vincente Minnelli, Liza's father. I cannot help but think that Liza is following this pattern by marrying David Gest. One night at Minnelli's apartment, a few weeks after the Christmas concert, I ask them about this. Are you now Liza's manager?
"Yeah," says Gest.
"We're a team," says Minnelli.
Seems like family tradition, I say.
"That's how I grew up," says Minnelli.
"I never wanted to be her manager," says Gest. "I just know what's best for her. I will never let my wife be taken advantage of by anybody. There's too many sharks out there."
"And I've met them all," says Minnelli as she lets rip with one of her loud, maniacal cackles.
Another family pattern is less discussed: marrying gay men. There were constant rumors circulating that Frank Gumm, Garland's father, was a "latent homosexual," as there were about Vincente Minnelli. Garland's fourth husband, Mark Herron, was also reportedly gay. Liza herself was married to Peter Allen from 1967 to 1972, when he came out of the closet and broke her heart, though they remained great friends until he died of AIDS in 1992. As for Gest, because he is a 48-year-old man who has never been married, because he is such a fan and friend to so many older female showbiz legends -Janet Leigh, Bette Davis, Janet Gaynor, Elizabeth Taylor, Shirley Temple- because he has a collection of Lalique crystal, well, people like to talk and the tabloids have made insinuations. It is an easy and perhaps an unfair assumption. When I ask Gest about his previous serious relationships, he says he and a girlfriend lived together for 12 years. That ended when he was 29. He has since been "married to my career. And then I just went head over heels for Liza."
So in love
Producer David Gest and Minnelli, who are to be married in March. “I found her to be the most courageous woman I’ve ever met,” he says. “Does she look gorgeous? But she looks beautiful inside, too.”
The story that People magazine and Liz Smith and the rest of the celebrity press breathlessly reported in December went like this: Gest and Minnelli met on September 7 at the first Michael Jackson tribute concert, fell madly in love, and decided to get married after a three-month whirlwind. The wedding is set for March 16 at the Marble Collegiate Church on Fifth Avenue at 29th Street, with Elizabeth Taylor as the maid of honor, Michael Jackson giving the bride away, and Whitney Houston singing "The Greatest Love of All." Afterward, at the reception for 1,200, which will be held in the Art Deco splendor of the Regent Hotel ballroom on Wall Street, there will be an 80-piece orchestra and 42 acts performing through the night.
The real story of how and when the romance began is slightly different. The couple met for the first time in the late 80s when Gest was producing a Frank Sinatra tribute and Minnelli was in the show. There were a few subsequent small-talk encounters. "Other than that," Gest explains, "our paths never crossed until Michael Jackson said, 'I want Liza on my television special."' Gest was skeptical because of her disastrous return to the stage with Minnelli on Minnelli. He was concerned that she wouldn't be up to performing with a group of contemporary pop stars. "Her voice wasn't then up to par," he says. "You don't want to make her look bad. So I sent my conductor, Joey Melotti, to her house and said to him, 'Michael wants her on the show-tell me if she can hit the notes.' Because if I had to call her I'd just say, 'Look, there's just so many artists, we'll do it another time.' Joey called me and said, 'She's singing like she did back in the 70s, hitting the five-octave notes.' I said, 'I gotta see this.' I came over the next day with my dark glasses on and said, 'Hello, Ms. Minnelli.' "
"I said, 'Hi, David."
"I said, 'I'd love to hear you do this song,' and she wailed. She sounded amazing. I listened to that voice and thought, How incredible. She's really got it and the world needs to see this. I called Michael Jackson up and said, 'I gotta tell you…' and he said, 'I told you, I told you."
This all happened in June of last year, and they started dating immediately; their first outing together was to Ruth's Chris Steak House, a restaurant on the water in Weehawken, New Jersey. "I found her to be the most courageous woman I've ever met in my life," says Gest. "Does she look gorgeous? But she's beautiful inside too. And she's got so much to give, and not just because she's a great entertainer."
Minnelli bursts out laughing. "You're being so serious!"
"But it's true," says Gest.
Back at Madison Square Garden, as Chaka Khan sings her classic "I'm Every Woman," Minnelli paces in the wings, her eyes flickering with apprehension. Mohamed, a tall gentleman of Moroccan extraction, is lighting cigarettes for her, grabbing the old one from her mouth and replacing it with a fresh one. She is sweating heavily, so Marisa Berenson digs through her bag for a tissue and gently mops the perspiration off her face. Eric, the hairdresser, fusses right up to the last second, trying to keep her rapidly wilting do from falling completely flat. All the while, Gest has his mouth pressed to her ear, no doubt whispering can-do, remember-who-you-are words of inspiration. Minnelli starts shaking her booty to Khan's disco beat and, at one point, grinds herself into Gest's crotch while he rubs her back. I decide this is a good time to slip out into the audience and find a seat to watch Minnelli's performance.
When Khan introduces her -using words such as "strength" and "tenacity" and finishing with "… the great Liza Minnelli!"- I am stunned by the deafening and sustained roar that goes up in the arena. Who knew the kids loved Liza? After she and Khan finish their duet, Minnelli, alone onstage at last, says to the adoring crowd, "I'd like to dedicate this song to the man who put on this show tonight, and I'm going to marry him! Look!" She holds out her left hand with a big diamond perched on it and lets loose that crazy laugh. "HA! HA! HA! HA! Mr. David Gest! So the next time you see me I'll be Mrs. Gest. Are you ready? Are you ready? I'm really ready."
With the opening dee-dee deedle-dee piano notes of "New York, New York," she slowly begins to morph into something larger than the spooked little mess she was backstage just minutes ago. Her voice has changed because of the vocal-cord surgery-it's deeper and, in some ways, better. At one point, one of the cops in the kick line takes off his policeman's hat and plunks it on her head; she pushes it forward to a jaunty angle so that it covers her eyes, just like the black bowler in Cabaret, and the transformation is complete-she is now Big-Time Showbiz LIZA! And the crowd goes berserk.
As planned, she runs offstage and right into an idling limo. "Wow," says Gest as the car zooms down a ramp and out onto 33rd Street. "I'm really proud of you."
"It meant so much to me," says Minnelli, snuggling into Gest's chest.
"Oh, baby, you did it. You deserve it," he says.
"And the moves were good," says Berenson.
"With both hips replaced!" says Gest. "And she can dance like that!" Suddenly, he breaks from his reverie and launches into an odd story for my benefit about how he recently had the waiter at a dinner party take a delicious-looking plate of veal parmigiana away from Minnelli and replace it with "broiled chicken with just some lemon, no wine, no butter, and some steamed broccoli."
"It was worth every agonizing moment, darling," says Berenson of Minnelli's enforced dieting.
"I know it," says Liza. "I know it. The way my man takes care of me, you have no idea."
Gest asks the driver to tune in WKTU so that they can listen to the end of the show. The broadcast is delayed by several minutes, and it's like experiencing a rent in time. Minnelli is singing "New York, New York." She's in the final, plant-the-feet-and-belt phase of the song. Geronimo, WKTU's annoying, unfunny D.J., starts to mock her. "She's just got on a long shirt and boots," says Geronimo's female D.J. partner. "The boot goes to the knee, and the shirt goes right below her ass," Geronimo says. "So if the wind blows the wrong way we're going to see something we probably didn't want to see." It is an awkward moment. Minnelli, who looks bewildered and a bit hurt, takes in the fact that the show her future husband just produced and cast her in includes this mild bit of humiliation. Everyone falls silent, and Minnelli stares down at the floor, absenting herself for a moment. Finally, she lifts her head, brightens, and shouts, "And I dedicated my pussoir to you, baby!"
Three weeks later, on an evening in early January, I visit Minnelli at the apartment on East 69th Street where she has lived for 20 years. It is one of those colossal white brick buildings with an ultramodern lobby of white marble and mirrors. She lives on a high floor. As I step off the elevator and head down the hall, her apartment door flies open, and there she is, striking a hilarious self-parodic pose, cracking herself up. She's wearing black slacks and a black turtleneck sweater and black heeled boots. Her lips are fire-engine red, her longish nails perfectly manicured, and she's wearing her trademark gobs of black eye makeup and false eyelashes. In a word: fabulous. A dog that looks just like Toto -is, in fact, a descendant of Toto's- races toward the elevator to greet me, and I notice that behind Minnelli, visible from all the way down the hall, are four Warhol portraits of her, hung together to form a big checkerboard of differently colored Lizas.
Mohamed takes my coat and offers me a drink, reminding me that there is "no alcohol in the house," as his charge does not drink. Minnelli has known Mohamed for 23 years. He was a servant to the King of Morocco and, after moving to America, became Halston's assistant in 1979. Before Halston died from AIDS in 1990, he had said to Mohamed, "Please take care of Liza." He's been with her ever since.
Her apartment is deeply, delightfully 70s modern. There are Warhols everywhere, a beautiful framed black-and-white photograph of Judy Garland, a few paintings by Frank Sinatra, a rather campy photograph of Halston hung next to another of Kay Thompson, the author of Eloise and Minnelli's godmother. There are big white sectionals, red carpeting, white marble floors, mirrored walls, a black baby grand, orchids, great red lacquered coffee tables covered with Elsa Peretti knickknacks and ashtrays. The Manhattan skyline glitters beyond the windows.
Minnelli's hair-and-makeup team and Willie, her large bodyguard, are waiting in the kitchen. Minnelli and Gest are heading out to dinner later; the pizzazz patrol, it would seem, is called to active duty for even the most prosaic of public outings. Minnelli's still getting ready, so she deposits me in a room with an entertainment center covering one wall. Suddenly, I can hear her cackling loudly in another room. Gest has arrived. I am told Minnelli has just gotten back today from a three-week trip to Paris, and this is the first time they've seen each other. (Gest lives on the West Side in a 5000-square-foot condo overlooking Central Park. He and Minnelli began living together almost immediately after they started dating -a few nights at her crib followed by a few nights at his.) When they come into the room where I'm sitting, Minnelli's wearing a very chic long red scarf draped around her neck. "David just gave me a present!" she says, giggling. They both flop down on a sectional, practically on top of each other, and we talk for a couple of hours.
When did you decide to get married? I ask.
"We were married the first night we were together," says Gest. In fact, he took Minnelli to the roof of his building one night in September, got down on his knees, and proposed like a man, proffering the rock she now wears on her left hand.
Minnelli says she knew she was falling for him when they started to laugh a lot together. And it's true: they are a pair of giggle-pusses. Plus, they are both creatures of the same strain of let's-put-on-a-show business, they know all the same people, and they can't keep their hands off each other.
"People don't realize how much we're in love," says Gest. "I'll die for her. I know it sounds weird, but all I wanted was…She had a lot of pain a year ago this time and she was 200 pounds."
"No, David!" yelps Minnelli. "I was never 200 pounds! I was 170 pounds. He's a producer-he's always exaggerating."
Gest grew up in the same neighborhood in Encino, California, as Ed Eckstine, the son of the jazz vocalist Billy Eckstine. Through that family he met the Jacksons, who also lived in the neighborhood, as did Michael McDonald of the Doobie Brothers, another childhood pal. Before long, Gest was spending a lot of time with the Jacksons, mostly Michael, five years his junior, and Tito. "David was always a kid who did things his way," Michael says. "He was a leader. We spent a lot of our childhood in a car, driving around, looking for old records, memorabilia, antiques, and hidden treasures. He was always one for playing practical jokes on me and my family."
At the age of 17, Gest had a full beard and long hair -or, as he says, "an Afro"- and he landed a job as a publicist at London Records by passing himself off as 24. Within a year he was promoted to national director of publicity and transferred to the New York office. Al Green encouraged him to go off on his own and start a P.R. and management firm -David Gest & Associates. He was only 18. Green became his first client and mentor. Before long, he had 25 artists on his roster and was making a lot of money. Soon after that, he got bored.
In 1983, at Michael Jackson's urging, he began producing charity events to raise money for older actors who had fallen on hard times. Soon his portfolio expanded: he was working on benefits with Sophia Loren for AIDS, Jane Wyman for arthritis, and Princess Diana for Great Ormand Street Hospital in London. Last year's for-profit Michael Jackson concert, which was broadcast on CBS in November and again in January, broke all previous ratings records for a music special and is currently being shown around the world. He and Jackson own the show in perpetuity -a 50-50 split.
You must be making a pile of money, I say.
"Yeah," he says.
"I'll say!" says Minnelli.
With the show's ratings, Gest has been able to write his own ticket in TV land. Now he's using his newfound power to rehabilitate his fiancée's career. On April 2 they're launching her first tour of Europe in five years with an eight-night engagement at the Royal Albert Hall in London. Then to Paris, Amsterdam, Zurich, and Vienna. Fred Ebb and John Kander are writing the show, entitled Liza's Back!, and Gest is producing. In early May they're going to film a TV special of the same name in New York City at either Radio City or the Beacon Theatre.
I ask Minnelli if she was worried about her career before she met Gest.
"No," she says. "I was trying to recover from this hip operation. I was just happy I was alive. I've fought very, very hard for my health. I just recently went… There's a wonderful place called ... Well, I'm not going to say what it's called."
"We can say what it's called," says Gest.
"All right," says Minnelli, a bit exasperated. She then explains how, just a few days after we met at the Garden, she checked herself into rehab, a place in Wernersville, Pennsylvania, called the Caron Foundation, because she was worried she had grown dependent on the painkillers she was taking following her hip surgery. Gest says that "truthfully" she just got back today from Caron -not, as I was previously told, from Paris.
I am relieved by this little flash of candor because of what I witnessed back in December, on the night of the Madison Square Garden concert, during the after-party at Minnelli's. As soon as we arrived, she disappeared into her bedroom for a long time, even as a cavalcade of stars was piling up in the apartment: Mary J. Blige, Mariah Carey, Craig David, Michael Feinstein, Roberta Flack, Chaka Khan, Star Jones, Cynthia McFadden, Stephanie Mills, RuPaul, Phil Ramone, Denise Rich, Dionne Warwick, Liz Smith, Ben Vereen, and Gloria Gaynor, among many others.
When Minnelli finally emerged, she seemed dazed. Paul Shaffer sat down at the piano in the media and music room, a microphone was set up, and slowly people filed in to watch the show. Minnelli kicked things off by singing "You Made Me Love You" to Gest. Then, very reluctantly, Mary J. Blige got up in front of the crowd to sing a duet of "You Are the Sunshine of My Life" with Minnelli. At this point, it was becoming obvious to everyone that something was terribly wrong. Minnelli was way off the beat and didn't know any of the words. Eventually, she took a seat on the edge of a couch, and Billy Gilman, the 13-year-old soprano, got up and sang "Over the Rainbow" to her. But by this time she was nodding off. Occasionally, Gest or Mohamed would give her a poke, and her head would snap up, a big showbiz smile spreading across her face. And then slowly, almost imperceptibly, her head would begin to fall again until she was gone. A 10-year-old boy singer, a friend of Gilman's named Nicolas King, got up and growled out "Cabaret" as Minnelli continued to sink further into herself. Finally, she was back on her feet. She pulled a director's chair up to the piano, sat down, and yanked the 10-year-old onto her lap. Just as she was about to sing "God Bless the Child," she turned to me and asked for a cigarette. I handed one to her, and Gest leaned in and said, "Honey, he's asthmatic." Ignoring him, she turned back to me and roared, "LIGHT ME UP, BABY!" And then proceeded to smoke and sing right into the asthmatic's face.
But now it's January, Liza's off the painkillers, and we're sitting on the very couch where I watched her dissolve into a puddle just a few weeks ago. It's heartening to see her so bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, sharp and happy and obviously not narcoticized. She is smoking less and it looks as if she has lost still more weight. Liza's back, indeed. For all her kooky behavior over the years, the public has a deep well of affection for her-people root for her, hoping that she will overcome the legacy of her mother. Even the media want to be kind, it sometimes seems, but reporters are also waiting for the fall.
The press gives you a hard time, I say.
"And then they're lovely to me," she says. "But I don't care. My life is a different thing. And I really separate them."
So you're not troubled by bad press?
"Oh, no!" she says, incredulous. "You have to separate the two. My mother taught me to do that. She said, 'Give the public what they want and then go get a hamburger someplace.' She really did teach me that."
I mention to her that my mother's name is Judy. And that my Judy has always admired her Judy for being tough and smart and, above all, funny. "She was marvelous," says Minnelli. "She was so smart and truly funny. A lot of people don't understand that. I used to try and explain my mom. I'd say, 'No, she's not tragic. She was really funny.' But they don't want to hear that. My mom knew that. She'd say, 'Listen. Let them think what they want to think. They have their right. We know who we are and that's what counts.' She gave me a great foundation, and my father gave me a great fantasy life. When I was little he would drive me to the store and he'd buy me a lot of crêpe paper and then he would take me home. He had a box of safety pins, and he'd say, 'Who do you want to be?' And I'd say, 'A Spanish dancer.' And he'd wrap this crêpe paper around me and pin it on and suddenly I was who I wanted to be. And he'd say, 'What does a Spanish dancer do?' And I'd say, 'Dance.' And he'd say, 'So dance, Liza!' He gave me a haven from some of the harsh realities. Not understanding what my mother was going through, it was nerve-racking as a kid. Until, of course, I grew up and completely understood it."
Gest, who left the room for a minute to get a glass of water, returns and sits back down right next to his sweetheart. Minnelli lights up a cigarette. "And now you're going to smoke and I'm going to move over here," he says, scootching to the other end of the gigantic sofa.
Minnelli explodes with laughter: "Oh, shush, David!"
"No, you keep smoking," he says in a jokey passive-aggressive tone.
"No, I don't want you over there," she says, stubbing out her cigarette in a beautiful Tiffany ashtray. "I want you over here."
"I'm getting over the flu and you're smoking," he says, ribbing her some more.
"I'm sorry, David," she says, sounding like she really means it. She laughs as he moves closer. "I apologize."
You can't help but wonder if Liza Minnelli misses the Good Old Days, when she was still young and jazz-hot and winning awards and starring in movies that changed the culture. When drugs were still fun and everybody smoked and friends weren't dying of AIDS.
Do you miss the 70s?
"No!" she practically shouts. "I don't miss the 70s!" She laughs at me as if I just asked if she misses being in a wheelchair. And then Liza Minnelli, who has had to deal with more than her fair share of awful things and who takes her life one day at a time, says, "I remember one day that I miss. Mia Farrow, myself, and Peter Allen and a bunch of other friends were sitting in Central Park. There used to be a beautiful restaurant around the fountain and we were sitting there and Mia was just being so bright and so funny and so hilarious. And I thought in my mind, You are your father's daughter, too. Pull back, take a long shot of this. So I remember that. And I remember the marvelous white tops on the umbrellas over the tables and ... it was just beautiful." She freights that last word with so much breathless drama, her false eyelashes flutter. "It's a moment in my life that was just perfect."