Poor Johnny One Note


The beginning of a love affair foretells the end.

I handed Johnny the engagement ring he had given me—or rather I threw it at him. I could have kept it, I suppose. It had been made for me. I picked out a three-carat marquis diamond from a package of stones that he and his father had brought me from a store owned by Hasidic Jews in Manhattan’s diamond district. He had originally suggested that I wear his mother’s emerald ring, but it was too big for me, and I wanted something that was not a hand-me-down. Something that was exactly to my taste—understated elegance. I wore the ring set with baguettes in platinum for a month, admiring it while riding the crosstown bus to my job on Madison Avenue. I was proud of being engaged at twenty-one, no longer threatened by the specter of spinsterhood. I remember my father pressuring me in my senior year of high school, when I was trying to decide where to go to college. “At Smith, you’ll never meet anyone to marry,” he said. “Cornell is a better bet. There are lots of men there.”

My mother agreed. I interpreted their comments to mean that I was not pretty enough, sexy enough, or sophisticated enough to attract a rarified Harvard or Dartmouth man in the vicinity of Smith. At Cornell I dated a series of boyfriends who didn’t pass muster with my parents. Peter was the lifeguard at our country club and an engineering student. Not rich enough. Jeff was planning on going to VISTA; absolutely not. Norman dropped out of law school to avoid the draft for a year; he then ended up with a desk job in Saigon. Forget about him. Duke, an engineer who had a dance band, a single-engine airplane, and was Presbyterian. Too daring. And then there was Patrick, the heir to Rémy Martin in Bordeaux, France. Too old and my father forbid me from traveling with him across the United States no matter how I begged. I graduated without an MRS degree to my parents’ and Grandmother’s consternation. My grandmother had no filter. “What am I going to tell Cousin Ella?” she asked. “Her granddaughter is already married to a barrister in London. And look at you.”

“Grandma, please have faith in me. I won’t embarrass you.”

She grumbled. “You already have.” When I brought a boyfriend from Cornell for Shabbat dinner, she insulted him to his face, without a care that her comment was like a stab in the back to both of us.

I met Johnny Friedkin at a charity event for the Jewish Guild for the Blind, one of Manhattan’s most popular mixers within our social circle. He was six feet tall, a great dancer. Handsome, with large blue-green eyes and a thatch of blond hair that he kept brushing with his fingers whenever the front lock didn’t stay put. Could he have been any more sexy? We danced fast and furiously to the Lester Lanin Orchestra, and by the end of the evening, I was weak in the knees.

Was this the man who would turn my life into a romantic adventure? I wanted a big life. In the 1960s, I believed the mantra that women could have it all, just not at once.

On our first date we saw Dr. Zhivago at a small art house on Lexington Avenue. When we walked outside into the cold December night, the snow was falling, and my fur hat was quickly covered in glistening white snowflakes. Holding hands, we strolled up Third Avenue, looking into boutique windows like two flaneurs without a care in the world.

“Who would you rather be—Zhivago’s wife, Tonya, or his mistress, Lara?”

Without hesitating I answered, “Lara, of course. She was the woman who stole Zhivago’s heart.”

I went to bed that evening in the apartment I shared with my sister and her best friend, without Johnny. All I could think about was the boy with the fair hair.

Johnny told me he lived with his parents on Fifth Avenue across from the Metropolitan Museum but planned on moving out. He’d found a cheap studio apartment in a walk-up building in Yorktown occupied by Czech immigrants. It had a tiny kitchen with a bathtub covered by a cutting board, and the old-fashioned toilet in the bathroom had a pull chain for flushing. I had to be careful not to step on the water bugs and cockroaches that found their way up through the pipes. There was a sofa that turned into a double bed, which we quickly made use of, sometimes staying between the sheets for an entire weekend, except to go for Italian or Chinese takeout, or take a ride in his father’s Mercedes out to Jericho, in Oyster Bay, where he lived as a child. We’d put the top down, turn the radio up, and sing Frankie Valli’s “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You.”

The houses could only be described as mansions.

“Oyster Bay,” I said. “Isn’t this where Great Gatsby takes place?”

Johnny nodded. “It’s one of my favorite novels. I love the line, ‘So he waited, listening for a moment longer to the tuning-fork that had been struck upon a star.’”

“I expected you to quote the one about the ‘green light,’ but your choice is much more poetic.” I leaned over and kissed him as he drove top speed along the Long Island Highway.

Johnny played the guitar and confessed that someday he’d quit his job at Friedkin & Sons, his father’s insurance company on Maiden Lane, and devote himself full time to his music, but for the foreseeable future, he didn’t have a choice but to work for his dad. He said, “I’ll be like Charles Ives—an actuarial during the day and composing music at night.”

What he hadn’t acknowledged was that Charles Ives was a diligent music student at Yale and wrote a symphony for his senior thesis. Johnny played the same song he composed on the guitar over and over again. I wanted to believe with all my heart that someday he’d fulfill his dreams.

Mr. Friedkin, sliding his hand down his silk Sulka tie and waving the tip at me to get my attention, asked me, “Do you know what you’re doing, Elyse? You know that my son isn’t the most stable twenty-eight-year-old.” He looked sad and frustrated. “Johnny was a bright boy and then something went wrong.”

“Like what?”

“We don’t know. Sometime in his junior year in high school while his mother and I were in Europe and he lived in our apartment with two of our show business friends, he lost interest in everything. He was in and out of trouble. Now he’s not showing up for work. He makes up excuses.”

I sighed. “He tells me he doesn’t fit in.”

“Johnny doesn’t know what it means to put in an honest day’s work—maybe his mother and I spoiled him.” He stopped, took off his glasses, and cleaned them with a monogrammed handkerchief. I suspected a tear escaped from his eye. “Think about what I’ve told you, Elyse, and please keep our conversation to yourself. He should be grateful that he has somewhere to hang his hat.”

Mr. Friedkin’s company was founded by his father, Immanuel Friedkin, a German-Jewish immigrant who had recognized that insurance was a safe bet for making millions. Johnny’s father took over the reins of the company and made plenty of money to provide a good life for his family. Johnny was expected to take over the business when his father retired, whether he was equipped to do so or not. He dropped out of college and spent a few years as a ski bum and waiter in Colorado, until his father insisted he take the job that was waiting for him at Friedkin & Sons.

Johnny was so sweet to me, and so loving. He said he couldn’t live without me. He believed in me and encouraged me in whatever I wanted to do. Unlike my parents, he was my biggest cheerleader and my rapt audience of one. I had never felt so treasured.

One morning, as I was leaving his apartment, there was a basket of home-baked cookies on the door mat.

“Somebody left these for you,” I said.

He opened the envelope that was tucked inside the basket: Dear Mister Johnny. Tank yu for gitting my groseries. My legs are beter. How much I o you? Greatfuly, Missus Backorik.

“I’ll tell her she doesn’t owe me anything,” Johnny said. “Poor lady. She can’t afford even to see a doctor. Maybe I should pay the fee.”

“You better be careful, Mister Rockefeller, or you’ll be supporting the entire building.”

He fed me one of the dark brown sugar cookies and then licked the crumbs from my lips. “I’m going to be late for work,” he said. “I thought I’d wait a few minutes for the water to warm up. I hate taking cold showers.”

Taking a last bite of the cookie, I said, “I wish I could join you.”

I was still in the “love is blind” stage, and my parents were too distracted by my father’s mysterious illness to offer me the advice I so desperately needed. When I asked my mother what she thought of Johnny, she said, “He reminds me of my brother: handsome and slightly fey with a good sense of humor. Very charming. Do whatever you want, darling.” Comparing Johnny to her brother was a gut punch.

“Mom, what are you talking about? Uncle Harvey spent a year in a mental institution after the war. He’s never been quite right in the head.”

She adored her brother. Before the war, he was considered the most eligible bachelor—tall, with wavy blond hair and mischievous blue eyes. He had his pick of young women with his Yale diploma and acceptance to medical school. When the war broke out, he enlisted in the Navy and was sent to Normandy. Coddled by Park Avenue, he was ill-prepared for the horrors of battle and was diagnosed with shell shock.

My mother brushed aside his nervous breakdown. “He’s doing just fine now,” she said. She shooed me out of her bedroom and went back to playing solitaire.

At Christmas, Johnny’s parents invited me to join them for a performance of Man of La Mancha. When the lights went down, Richard Kiley stepped onto the stage, playing the role of the dreamer chasing windmills and the woman he loves. I wore a green velvet dress. Johnny ran his fingers up and down the fabric over my thigh and kissed my neck in the dark. During intermission I confessed that I felt like I was running a fever. His mother put her cool hand on my forehead and announced with confidence: 102º Fahrenheit. (My mother does the same thing; she thinks she is a human thermometer!) We stayed for the entire show—I didn’t want to miss a minute of it—but when the limousine dropped me off at my apartment, I took my temperature, called the doctor, and was admitted to the hospital with infectious herpes of the mouth and throat. Five days in the hospital. I was not allowed visitors. Johnny called me every day and sent flowers and Godiva chocolates. I couldn’t eat, so the candy went to the nurses.

Johnny snuck into the hospital wearing a doctor’s jacket. “How do you like my disguise?” He leaned over and kissed me.

“Don’t do that,” I said. “I’m catching.”

“I don’t care,” he said.

“You’ll care when you get what I’ve got.”

He kissed my hand and sang “All of Me.”

“Do you really feel that way?” I asked.

“I’ve been so worried about you. I never want to lose you.”

After I was discharged, the doctor warned me to slow down. His advice fell on deaf ears. My mother always used to say of me, “Elyse wants to run before she can walk.” Guilty as charged.

I was working long hours as a junior copywriter at NKJ, a Madison Avenue ad agency owned by my cousin, David Kaplan (of the “K”). I wanted to prove that I deserved my job, that it wasn’t nepotism that got me where I was so rapidly. Every night I went dancing with Johnny at Manhattan’s popular discos. He always seemed to have enough money to pay for champagne.

And then Johnny got the idea that we should apply for the Peace Corps. We snuck off to Washington, D.C., and took the admissions test. Neither of us had any skills that a small village in Guatemala could make use of, but for a crazy minute, we thought it might be fun, and we’d be trained on the government’s nickel to do something worthwhile.

He enthused, “Just think about it. I can get away from my parents. You too. We can be ourselves. No expectations, no judgments.”

I gulped. I did have expectations—a few years in the jungle, and then settling down to take advantage of my degree and become parents to 2.5 children. Johnny would become a famous songwriter, or if that didn’t work out, he’d give in to his parents’ expectations, buckle down, and take over the insurance business. On the side he could still play his guitar. Cielito Lindo, “El Dia Que Me Quieras,” a song of impossible love.

We stayed overnight at the Mayflower Hotel. With the rain pounding against the window, we ordered room service, and then spent most of the night making love. I asked him, “Why do you love me? I’m not as pretty as Julie Christie or as smart as Mary Wells or as rich as Gloria Vanderbilt.”

“I’m not exactly in their league, but if I were, I’d still choose you.” He wrapped himself around me.

“That’s not an answer,” I said.

“Well, we fit.” He hopped out of bed. Digging into his briefcase, which he was using as his overnight bag, he pulled out a book. Clearing his voice, he turned to a dog-eared page. “‘Courage is the root of beauty. And that’s what draws us to each other.’ Boris Pasternak. You don’t let anything get in your way. Whatever you want you go after.”

“I wish I believed in myself as much as you believe in me,” I said. “Maybe someday I’ll be your convert.”

A few weeks later, we got the results from the Peace Corps. I passed the test. Johnny didn’t. And then Johnny’s father fired him; his absences were proving an embarrassment. He was forced to admit that Johnny was ill-suited to the insurance business. Better to rip the bandage off quickly.

Johnny tried his hand at copywriting for a company that his father did business with. They hired him as a favor, but after a few weeks, he quit. He was miserable. By that time, we were engaged. I was madly in love with him and was under the illusion that I could straighten him out, despite all the warning signs to the contrary.

And then I didn’t get my period. I was petrified that I was pregnant. On the way to work, I went to St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Slipping into a wooden pew at the back, I prayed to God that I wasn’t pregnant. My hand was shaking as I lit a votive candle and stuffed ten dollars in the alms box.

That night, I told Johnny. He put his arms around me and, looking at me with his soft eyes, said, “You’ll make a wonderful mother.”

“Are you crazy?” I said. “We’re not ready to be parents. I can’t have this baby.”

“You’d have an abortion?”

“What would you suggest? You don’t even have a job. I’d have to support us.” I couldn’t believe what I was saying. All the pent-up rage and disillusionment came pouring out.

He argued, “We could live here. I’ll get a job as a maître d’ or a waiter at The Four Seasons until I sell my first song.” He looked around at the tub in the kitchen and the radiator. The smell of stuffed cabbage wafted in from Mrs. Backorik’s neighboring apartment. “This isn’t such a shabby place, is it? And we won’t be here forever.”

“You’re just like Don Quixote,” I sobbed and then I threw my engagement ring at him, tears running down my cheeks. My aim was bad.  It bounced across the floor and slid underneath the radiator. We ended up on our hands and knees until he fished it out with a hanger.

Holding the ring between his fingers, he asked me if I was sure. I was tempted to tell him what his father had said. To spare him, I nodded, gathered my things and walked out the door, holding back another flood of tears until I was on the street.

I had to move on with my life. A few days after our breakup, I got my period. I telephoned Johnny. He sounded as relieved as I was.

He told me he had enlisted in the Army Reserve and was headed for a six-month tour of duty to Fort Dix, New Jersey. I thought about Uncle Harvey. I asked, “Will they send you off to Vietnam?”

“I sure as hell hope not,” he said. “In any case can I write to you? I might need a few words of encouragement. I’m not exactly fit for a mudhole.”

“I can’t promise that I’ll answer you,” I said. I was glad he couldn’t see the tears running down my cheeks. “Please take care of yourself.” Before he could say another word, I hung up.

I never saw Johnny again, as much as I wanted to, and I didn’t know what became of him until I learned years later that he had been involuntarily committed to a mental institution, too tender for this world. He ended his life by throwing himself off a bridge and drowned in the East River.


Loren Stephens has had essays and short stories published in the LA Times, Across the Margin, Chicago Tribune, The Expressionist, The Jewish Journal, The MacGuffin, The Montreal Review, Crack the Spine, Summerset Review, Umbrella Factory Magazine, and the Pennsylvania Literary Journal. She is president of Write Wisdom and Bright Star Memoirs, a ghostwriting company. Loren is a Pushcart Prize nominee, and in 2021 she published her debut novel, All Sorrows Can Be Borne.

Lily Elrick is a novice multimedia artist who creates art in copper and bronze, graphite, charcoal and acrylic paint.