Trippin’ with Gail Gerber: What I Think I Remember
My friend former actress Gail Gerber passed away on March 1, 2014 and I write this with a heavy heart, but wanted to share some of my fondest memories of her. Gail used to get the biggest kick when I would introduce her endearingly to friends and family as “my starlet.” She would tell me, “Oh, Tom, I was a starlet for less than two years after being a dancer for over ten years and a ballet teacher for 25 years.” True, but to me she would always be the shapely blonde twitching on the sands of Malibu or with Elvis in a handful of mid-Sixties teenage movies that I would watch as a kid on the 4:30 Movie.
I met Gail in 2002 at a Greenwich Village coffee shop when I interviewed her for my book Drive-in Dream Girls, a title she knew Terry Southern would have just loved. We stayed in touch and then she relocated to Chicago. I saw her on her infrequent trips back here, but it wasn’t until she moved back to the city permanently in 2006 that we started seeing more of each other. Gail had such a vitality and grand sense of humor. I so enjoyed being around her. But I couldn’t believe I was hanging out with an almost 70 year old. Egad, she was a year older than my mother! But Gail was not like any woman I ever met at that age. Free-spirited, she smoked pot; loved New York City; bashed all Republicans; told stories of her life in Hollywood (my favorite is how she “accidentally” dropped a dog in a mailbox to get some publicity and got her face splashed across newspapers throughout the country) and her life with Terry Southern getting high with the Rolling Stones or hanging with the likes of Rip Torn, David Amram, William Burroughs, Larry Rivers, Lenny Bruce, George Segal, Geraldine Page, Roger Vadim, and, I quote, “those fuckers” Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda.
Gail had been putting her memories down on paper and I helped her write her memoir Trippin’ with Terry Southern: What I Think I Remember. Ernie was now living nearby Gail in Upstate Manhattan. Almost every Saturday for over a year, Gail would come by and we would work on her book. I would send her off with a homework assignment for the next time. Trooper that she was, Gail would take a yellow legal pad, just like Terry would do, and hightail it every Wednesday to the New Leaf, a quaint restaurant situated in the middle of FortTryonPark. With a glass of wine accompanying her meal, she would crank out anything she could remember about a point in her life. When the book was finally published, Gail told me laughing, “My brain is empty of all my memories.. I’m going to have to read my own book to remember.”
Gail just loved the New Leaf. We would go with her or meet her there on Friday nights for the live jazz. Petite Gail did not like to eat dinner at the bar not so much because of her size but as she’d say, “Nice girls from her time did not sit alone at a bar,” so she would get a table for herself always in the section of her favorite server Holly, a fellow dancer. It was always so reassuring to turn and see Gail at the table grooving to the different jazz groups. Eventually, she would join us at the bar for dessert. In Gail’s case it was a glass of Limoncello. Ernie would yell at our friend David the bartender to cut Gail or me off if we had too much to drink. He yelled often. All three of us would then stumble down the hill and walk Gail home. She so enjoyed her Friday nights there and would say to us “What fun!” as we said our goodbyes.
Sometimes at my house I would surprise Gail with one of her movies or a TV show she never saw. She would moan, “Oh, Tom!” Ernie would scold me for torturing poor Gail. But she never saw her screen work and I wanted to prove that she was a much better actress than she ever gave herself credit for. She had such a vivacious personality and comedic timing. Hell, she made 6 movies in 2 years! She stole The Girls on the Beach from the other bikini-clad gals and she was the only one brought back by producers Roger & Gene Corman for their second beach movie, Beach Ball. Once I made her watch her lead guest spot on a Peyton Place wannabe soap The Long Hot Summer with Roy Thinnes. She was amazed how good she was. She was not as shocked on how good she looked, especially when she climbed through a window in one scene, because she remembered the lighting guy and cameraman took a shine to her. “That what happens if you are friendly to the crew,” she said.
I think deep down Gail liked that she was a Hollywood actress and I am proud that I helped her appreciate that part of her life even to the point of answering her fan mail. One Friday night at the New Leaf, a young guy from Australia sat down next to me at the bar and began chatting. He had just moved to Upstate Manhattan and it was his first time at there. He only had been to another bar/restaurant nearby called Next Door. “The one with the TVs,” he said. I told him I have been there a number of times and they always have on Turner Classic Movies. He said he sat there watching Elvis dancing with some Arab gypsy girls. I laughed and said, “that is Harum Scarum—meet Sapphire” and motioned to Gail. She smiled, nonchanlantly picked up her drink and raised her glass to him. He couldn’t believe it and almost fell off his bar stool. It was such a crazy only-in-New-York moment.
Gail really became family to Ernie and me. If we were having dinner home on a Saturday, Gail was always invited. It didn’t matter how much food we had because, as we would joke, “she eats like a bird and drinks like a fish.” Gail was infamous for always being early. The door would buzz at say 2:15 and Ernie would yell at me. I’d say, “I swear I told her to come at 3!.” She and I sould sit at our kitchen bar sipping Prosecco while watching Ernie cook. They would share recipes or talk about Mark Bittman the food guy’s latest column in the New York Times. Gail and I would chat about her friends—what play she saw with her best gal pal Katie Meister this week; or what director Amy Wright was up to: or what city actress Angelica Page was in on tour; or how longtime friends Priscilla and David Bowen were coming along with their Berkshires house renovations; or how she chatted recently with John Kim, Terry’s former student. She loved meeting new people and recently made a special friend in Lucas Natali who she told me about for months until we finally met. It is these simple moments that I will miss and treasure most.
Here’s to you Gail Gerber! It was one helleva trip!