An interview with Elliot Tiber, whose Palm Trees on the Hudson: A True Story of the Mob, Judy Garland & Interior Decorating was published January 3 by Square One Publishers.
Why did you decide to write this prequel to Taking Woodstock?
With the success of Taking Woodstock—including the tremendous experience of having my story turned into a feature film by director Ang Lee—I had countless reporters asking me where I had come from and what my life had been like before Woodstock. I wasn't just dropped on my head in the Catskill Mountains by some alien spacecraft during the summer of 1969—I had grown up gay in Brooklyn, New York. So I talked a lot about my life back in Brooklyn and later in Manhattan, where my mother’s scheme to turn me into a rabbi clashed with my own desire to become an artist, a hairdresser, or an interior decorator—perhaps, if I was lucky, all three. When I started talking with my publisher, Rudy Shur, about all those pre-1969 experiences of mine, he said that this was a part of my life that I definitely had to share. So I was off and running. Over 1400 pages later, though, I was told to step away from the typewriter and cool off with an egg cream or two—still my all-time favorite drink!
Since New York’s Hudson River isn’t noted for its palm trees, can you explain your new book’s title?
You mean, it isn’t obvious? [laughs] Well, I had become a very successful New York City-based interior decorator after graduating from Hunter College in the early 1960s. I had a good eye for how to spiff up a room. Whether a department store window or a private apartment on the Upper West Side, I always delivered the goods. Word got around about my work, and I soon went on to design the luxurious mansion of a Supreme Court judge. He introduced me to a city-government politician who owned a well-known nightclub in need of some decoration. How was I to know that I would now be designing interiors for a biggie in the mob? My work on the nightclub was a great success, so I was engaged to decorate a ferry boat set to cruise the Hudson River for the 50th birthday party of the nightclub owner. I was given “carte blanche,” so I conjured up a heady mix of Arabian Nights décor; a bevy of muscle boys covered in gold body paint and stationed as servers throughout the boat; and at least a hundred rented palm trees. Again, how was I to know that most of the five hundred guests—politicians, mobsters, city-life denizens, and high society royalty—would get drunk, wild, and crazy…. and in that order? And what they did to those rented palm trees—let’s just say it gave me a hell of a title for the book.
As you did in Taking Woodstock, you describe the lives of gay men in the 1950s and ‘60s. What might today’s gay populace find surprising from that period, and what’s your reaction to being called by the New York Times a “gay rights icon”?
Maybe I’m too cranky now at 75, but it seems that many younger members of today’s gay/lesbian community take their current freedoms for granted. I always knew I was gay, but there was really no “choice” at all for many of us in the 1950s and ’60s. We often had to remain closeted just to remain safe. Coming out in the summer of 1969 was the most dangerous yet liberating thing that ever happened to me. That summer lit a fire in my head, and the flame has never gone out. But that epiphany does not happen for me in this new “prequel” book. Instead, I take time to show all readers—gay, straight, whatever—just how painful and often unbearably lonely it was for American gay men in those years. I also write about my frustrating experiences with psychotherapy during those years. Back then, it was either “Story Time with Dr. Freud” or the ingestion of any number of pills designed to make you feel better for being who you were. If so many people hadn’t been hurt back then by the misguided theories and practices of shrinks, it would actually be funny. I put a lot of humor into those memories throughout the book—it has always been easier for me to deal with life by turning tragedy into laughter. As for the New York Times recognizing me as a “gay rights icon,” I figure it’s about time! [laughs]
In Palm Trees, you describe a chance meeting with Judy Garland. How did that come about?
Among the bigwig and lowbrow guests on the boat that night back in 1968 were Mayor Lindsay and the one and only Judy! She was my total love and screen icon from when I first saw her as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz when I was only eight years old. Throughout my first years in New York City as an interior decorator, her music was the soundtrack to my life. I would listen to her songs constantly on my apartment jukebox, which was stocked entirely with Judy records. So I was understandably thrilled to learn that I might get the chance to meet Judy during the boat cruise and party. When her limo pulled up on the pier that night and Judy stepped out, many of the nearly five hundred guests—me included—rushed to the dockside decks on the boat to see her. I worried that the boat might tip over from all the excitement! That night was insanely thrilling for me. An unexpected altercation took place that night on the boat. As a result, I found myself alone talking with Judy for only a few minutes—but those few minutes have stayed with me these many years. I didn’t know at the time that Judy often married gay husbands. Had I known, I would have proposed to her then and there on the boat—under one of the palm trees, of course.
Taking Woodstock was made into a movie directed by Ang Lee. What was that experience like, and would you like to see Palm Trees turned into a film? (And if so, who would you cast as you?)
Taking Woodstock was selling fairly well as a hardcover when first published in 2007. I was on a San Francisco TV talk show around that time, and the other guest was Ang Lee. I had a chance to meet him briefly in the TV studio’s green room. I knew I had maybe two minutes to talk with him, but I had so much to say. So I spoke to him in a kind of “fast-forward” mode, telling him that his movies were genius but that everyone died in them and that they were so sad. I didn’t so much propose a movie project to him. Instead, I told him that he “needed” my funny and happy story as opposed to doing yet another serious drama. A few months later, he agreed. The whole experience was like a wonderful dream—Ang Lee and company made a beautiful movie, and I continue to receive loving and thankful notes from people who have read my book and seen the film. I would absolutely love to see a companion film made from my new book—who wouldn’t? As for who I’d like to see portray “me,” I would want Brad Pitt to play me since we look so much alike [laughs]. Or perhaps Whoopi Goldberg! After all, her name ends in a “berg” just like my original family name, Teichberg. Who knows, perhaps Whoopi and I are related?