June 25, 2005—At Tony Curtis' 80th Birthday Party & Art Sale at the MGM Grand, the only person I recognize is Norm! (The exclamation point is not part of my sentence; it is part of his name.) Norm!, who is the gossip columnist for the Las Vegas Review-Journal, is busily talking to the assembled guests, as well he should be, for I've no doubt the place is lousy with Great American Success Stories, and maybe even millionaires. Norm! would know this sort of thing better than I, which is why Las Vegas is on a first-name-and-a-punctuation-mark basis with him, while I use three names and remain unknown.
My mind, in any case, is less on the crowd than on the cause: The party is about more than fêting a guy who's a hell of an actor and a pretty good artist, too. Tonight, Curtis has put a lifetime's worth of his artwork on the block to raise funds for the Shiloh Horse Rescue and Sanctuary, which he and his wife, Jill, own, and which she runs. As we pointed out recently in the Weekly, 65,000 horses were slaughtered in the United States last year for human consumption abroad. Jill Curtis' mission is to save and care for as many threatened horses as possible, adopt some of them out to good families, and work to see that the practice of horse slaughter is abolished. Shiloh occupies a small plot on the far southern end of Las Vegas Boulevard, but it will soon expand to a 40-acre facility in Sandy Valley. Neither the new digs, nor the continuing rescue and care of the horses themselves, come cheap.
No, this is not a Tonython. Tony Curtis has done quite well for himself, thank you. But the idea seems to be that Shiloh should be a thing of permanence, and ensuring its long-term success requires more than just a robust savings account. Curtis' art dealer and old friend Marvin Wiseman put it this way: "I said to Tony, 'You're going to have to empty out either your bank account or your art collection. You can be art-rich and dollar-poor, or you can sell all this stuff.'" So Curtis decided to sell all this stuff.
What is this "stuff"? Well, first of all, it's the best Rorschach Test of an American celebrity you're ever likely to see. The Curtises really should have invited a team of psych-school profs, because once this collection is broken up, we'll never again be able to witness in brush strokes such clear evidence of the long-term effect on the human soul of having had an affair with Marilyn Monroe. Most obviously, there is the glass box "assemblage," a sort of diorama, called "The Affair," with a yellow-tinted photo of Tony and Marilyn on a pier. In the foreground, there are the pieces of a broken watch, as well as an ornate ivory ornament. On the lighter side, there is "Hot Lips," a collage-painting with a young Curtis standing, brush in hand, in front of a canvas on which he's painted a Warholian Marilyn with hot pink accents. (There are a whole series of these Young-Tony-with-Canvas pieces, from one on which the gang from Some Like it Hot appear on the canvas to one on which the canvas appears blank from a distance but, upon closer inspection, has a ghostly bouquet rendered in white oil paint.) There is the Toulouse-Lautrec-ian portrait "Rosebud," in which a rather Marilynian figure stands beneath the stenciled title. And there is the more cryptic "A Rosebud," in which a line-drawn hand extends a finger toward a tiny pyramid, as if to push a button that, in some wondrous future or (more) wondrous past will bring all the things the heart desires. There is the haunting assemblage "Mysterious Eyes," in which the back of the box bears a biology-text diagram of the human innards, with children's alphabet blocks in the foreground and, hovering just behind the glass, cutouts of two seductive blue eyes. The surface of the glass is painted with the blue rudiments of a face.
Though there is a good deal of bright, impressive work that echoes Matisse and, occasionally, Van Gogh, I find myself tugged most of all toward the oddities: The reflection of a line-drawn female hand in the mirror of a line-drawn vanity—the hand has a wedding ring; tied to the wrist, a string. (The name of the piece is "Alexandra.") The collage-painting "Attitude" has at its center a photo of a coldly vamping woman in leopard print; she is suspended in a translucent yellow box; marionette strings issue from her head; behind her—minimalist white-on-black drawings of a man and a nude woman.
I am approached by a clipboard-bearing volunteer from Tony Curtis Studios. Am I interested in a painting? Indeed, I am interested in many paintings. I do not, however, have $12,500 on hand to support my interest. I am also interested in making a movie, operating a small publishing company and opening a school. I do not have the money for those interests, either. Thank the Lord that there are people in this world who have the money to support their interests, for it is they who save the horses.
This party will get better and better for Tony Curtis. Representatives of Sen. John Ensign, who has been active in the pro-horse wars, bring their greetings, as well as greetings from a peculiar Washington power couple named George and Laura. Congresswoman Shelley Berkley tells us what it was like to grow up with a mother who'd once had a crush on the best-looking boy in her high school, a boy named Bernard Schwartz, who wound up turning into Tony Curtis, who in turn wound up living in Berkley's district. Jamie Lee and the Curtis kids line up on stage, announce that they grew up in a house that smelled of paint and turpentine and that it has always been their contention that theirs was not the household of a movie star, but of an artist, and then they proceed to give the artist a gift worthy of a movie star—
A suspiciously large cake is rolled onstage and a Marilyn look-alike jumps out and sings, in the customary just-for-you-Jack-Kennedy style, "Happy Birthday to You." We are invited to sing along, and on "...happy birthday Mr. Curtis," I accidentally say "Mr. President." This is ghoulish on so many levels. Tony and Jill don't seem to mind. They kiss near the edge of the stage, and Jamie Lee has to remind them that the festivities have not come to a conclusion. "Oh, Mr. and Mrs. Curtis!" she calls, sing-song, good- natured, seemingly full of affection for her father, the actor and artist, and his young wife, the champion of doomed horses everywhere, a woman who spends her days cleaning stables and grooming recently half-starved horses, but who tonight looks more like Marilyn than Marilyn's look-alike.
Tony Curtis turns and smiles, still holding his wife's hand, holding it tight, understanding full well, one imagines, that even an old star on his birthday can't possibly outshine a blonde on a mission.