He came from a wealthy background but was always in trouble. His parents were not particularly religious, but nevertheless insisted that little Jimmy read the Scroll of Torah and grow up to be a good Jewish boy. You can imagine their horror when they found naked pictures of Hedy Lamarr and Brigitte Bardot among the holy pages, the former in Ecstasy, the latter in Le mépris. He was given a hiding and taken to all sorts of rabbis to have his evil side exorcised, but soon after young Jimmy did it again, this time with a really disgusting picture of two girls together billing and cooing like there was no tomorrow. ‘What are we going to do with him?’ wailed his mother, while holding him with his pants down and swinging as hard as she could.
And it got worse. All Jimmy thought about was sport and girls — not in that order — and there was nothing his parents could do about it but pray and cry a bit every evening. Not his grandfather, however. He was a ‘schemata’ business king, with clothing chain stores around the Noo Yawk area and an eye for the ladies. He used to take young Jimmy Toback to Longchamps, on Madison Avenue, and when the bill would come he would take out a roll Frank Costello would have envied and slowly peel off 20-dollar bills and pay. He lived at 50 East 79th Street, in the penthouse, naturally, a place I visited last week, but more about that later in the story.
One day the grandfather took young Jimmy into a vaulted room that was filled to the brim with dollar bills of all denominations. There were 100s, 50s, tens, fives — even small ones with George Washington’s pictures on them. Jim had never seen such naked wealth and he stood there taking it all in for quite a while until his grandfather patted him on the head and told him that one day all that would be his. ‘Yippee!’ cried the little boy and ran out, probably trying to buy more dirty pictures. But it was not to be. A couple of years later, his grandfather died suddenly and his father and uncle went immediately to the vault room. Jimmy heard the screams and rushed there. The room was totally empty. Both his father and his uncle — the General — had tears in their eyes. ‘Who could have taken it?’ asked his uncle of no one in particular. ‘You’re the only one who had a key,’ yelled Jimmy, as his uncle turned and began to beat him rather hard.
Despite the mysterious disappearance of the cash fortune, James Toback went to Harvard where he was a brilliant but very undisciplined student. Sport and girls got in the way. He once faced Arthur Ashe in a junior tennis tournament, broke the black star’s serve, kept his, then started to look around the stands in case some members of the fairer sex were witnesses to what he was about to do. He dropped the next 48 points to Ashe but managed to make eye contact with at least two women. Toback married the last Duke of Marlborough’s niece, Mimi Russell — twice, I believe — but is now happily married to a very nice lady and has a teenage son whom he worships and tries to kiss all the time. ‘Stop it, Dad, you homo,’ says the boy. Once at Elaine’s, a long time ago, during a press-up contest — these were tough guys’ drunken challenges where clients like myself would bet on themselves, and Elaine would wager a fifty on her favourite — Toback’s opponent had done something like 200 in two minutes flat and Jimmy was struggling when Elaine yelled, ‘Stick some broad under Toback, it will speed him up.’
James Toback is the director of Seduced & Abandoned, the movie Alec Baldwin and I are featured in which premières next week on HBO — don’t blink and miss me — and we’ve had fantastic reviews. Toback wrote the script for Bugsy in which he inserted that wonderful nightclub scene with Countess di Frasso, a lady who taught Gary Cooper how to dress, making him the most elegant man in Hollywood, and some other things better left unsaid, and also had the nightclub singer crooning ‘Long Ago & Far Away’, a nostalgic tune that makes one hate the modern world more than ever.
Last week I went to 50 East 79th Street for a wonderful dinner party given by the writer and adventurer Bartle B. Bull and his wife Claudia. There were Sidewinders and Moscow Mules before dinner, lotsa wine during, and more cocktails afterwards. Later on, I sat on the terrace with Bartle and Michael Mailer looking over Manhattan. It was an amazing sight, both real and imagined because of the booze. We smoked and drank and then came down to join the ladies, and there was James Toback, now quite a bit heavier than before, with very bad knees and quite diabetic, and also suffering from shortitis (a sudden lack of ready cash) but as brilliant as ever, holding court and dressed like Tony Montana, or one of Fulgencio Batista’s henchmen. He had on a porkpie hat, dark glasses, and a black T-shirt with a white dinner jacket thrown over it. And trainers that were blue with pink laces. Bartle, who has been in Iraq for a long time and whose opinions we eagerly sought, had to take second place. Needless to say, the beautiful girls were all ears. It was a typical Toback evening.
Give something clever this Christmas – a year’s subscription to The Spectator for just £75. And we’ll give you a free bottle of champagne. Click here.