Palm Trees on the Hudson: A True Story of the Mob, Judy Garland & Interior Decorating, by Elliot TiberSquareOnePublishers.com183 pages$24.95
Palm Trees on the Hudson flows so lyrically it should come as no surprise to learn that Elliot Tiber has also written and produced musical comedies. As a writer, and avid reader, I find few books that should be read in one sitting, thereby allowing the reader to watch the plot unfold seamlessly – like a conversation. This prequel to Taking Woodstock is an exception.
The memoir opens in a darkened cinema where young Elliot watches The Wizard of Oz, instantly entranced by Judy Garland, thus foreshadowing his lifelong love for her and her influence on him as muse and a gay icon.
Young Elliot’s mother is also in the theater with him, although she is not there so much for the yellow brick road. During WWII, plates were given with the price of admission to keep customers, although “Momma” was not there to build her collection of tableware. Instead she put the pieces into her store window to sell. This eloquently parallels the relationship Tiber has with both women – one inspires him, one tells him not to drop the plate.
Tiber’s boyhood is spent developing himself artistically and entrepreneurially. Eventually – much to his mother’s chagrin – he takes himself to Manhattan, where he gets his degree in art from Hunter College. His mother wanted a rabbi, or “at least a dentist.” She is mollified when her son becomes a professor of art.
Initially, after college, Tiber finds work dressing storefront windows, while also selling his paintings. He also becomes friends with a wide variety of Greenwich Village gays, drag queens, leather daddies and other eccentrics. What he seems to be missing is someone to love, someone to share life with and Tiber says he cried himself to sleep many nights.
His career soon shifts, and Tiber finds himself in perhaps the only career in which – even during the middle of the last century – a gay man is desired. He becomes a successful interior decorator.
Tiber’s fleeting – but scary – run-in with the mafia comes after he is asked to create and organize a fabulous birthday party for a Manhattan nightclub owner. There he fulfills a dream and meets Judy Garland at the party, a grand affair on a boat. Yet, things almost immediately capsize for him financially. He goes to his parent’s hotel in upstate New York – a dreaded location due to its lack of revenue, and stifling mother – to recoup from his tribulations in the city. Soon after, feeling isolated and depressed, while sipping an egg cream, he realizes that he must return to New York.
However, it’s not his mother or father, who seems to live under the thumb of his wife, that convince him to go back to the city. It’s Judy’s rendition of “Get Happy” that sends him back to Manhattan, where like so many gay people have done, he reunites with friends of his that have truly become his family. Eventually he does find love, a career, and a permanent place in the world as an artist. Something his mother said he never could acheive.
This is a story that talks about the alienation gay people experience in youth, and the issues many of us go through with our families in terms of acceptance. Yet, even in Tiber’s frustrating moments his clarity and wit reveal that somewhere over the rainbow is not a place. It is our courage, hearts, and brains that lead us home.