Eugene Morris Jerome, the precocious hero of the new Broadway hit Biloxi Blues, loses his virginity during World War II in Gulfport, Miss, under the tutelage of a platinum-hearted hooker. (She also conveniently black-markets perfume and silk stockings on the side.) Marvin Neil Simon, Eugene’s creator and alter ego, lost his after the war in a Manhattan hotel room with a prostitute hired by his benevolent younger brother, Danny. Both character and playwright did their basic training in Biloxi, Miss. and later wrote for Army and Air Force publications. Both felt guilty ever after that their literary careers were enhanced by the military. And both hate lima beans and liver.
As the similarities suggest, Neil Simon, 57 (he dropped the Marvin), is adept at semiautobiographical writing—a term he approaches with the same caution Eugene uses in sniffing the “mystery meat” in the Biloxi mess hall. “People want to know, ‘What part is true?’ If you say it’s true, it means more to them. But that’s not what it’s all about,” explains the playwright. “What I do is like creating an abstract painting. The tree doesn’t have to be where the tree is in the park.”
With 22 plays to his credit in 24 years, Simon has proved to critics and fans alike that he knows exactly where to put the tree. His 23rd play, an all-female reprise of his 1964 hit, The Odd Couple, starring Sally Struthers and Rita Moreno, opens in New York this week. Now Broadway is Simonized with three of Neil’s plays, including a saga of his early childhood, Brighton Beach Memoirs, and its sequel, Biloxi Blues, which has just earned him the 1985 Tony for best play.
Simon tries to keep such success in proper perspective. “I’m grateful but not overwhelmed,” he says of his Tony. “I put more emphasis upon longevity than awards. We don’t know if Shakespeare ever won one. Did they say, ‘Best Play 1594: Taming of the Shrew?’ ”
When he drops such wry asides, Neil looks a little sheepish behind his tortoiseshell glasses—as if he had said something naughty. Generally he is a solemn-minded, straitlaced kind of guy who could pass for your accountant or podiatrist. “You don’t go around being funny gratuitously,” he explains. “It’s a private thing—like being loving.”
And love is on Simon’s mind these days. A year and a half ago at a movie screening in California, he met Ann Bell, 35, who was working with Hollywood superagent Sue Mengers. “This is going to sound like a line I’ve written,” warns Simon, “but she opened the door for me like a cool breeze coming in.” At the time they met Ann was getting divorced from actor Craig (Four Friends) Wasson, who is the father of her daughter, Sarah, 3. Neil was recovering from the breakup of his 10-year marriage to actress Marsha Mason, whom he wed after his first wife, Joan Baim, died of cancer in 1973. “Neil was going through a lot of stuff about Marsha,” remembers Ann. “I felt he wasn’t as strong as I was then. Mothering is my calling in life. I’m a nurturer.”
The nurturing has continued ever since, and Simon—for the first time—is exercising some caution. “I’m doing it really slow and smart this time. I knew Joan only two months before the wedding. Marsha and I got married 22 days after we met.” The courtship with Ann, glacial by Simon standards, will, he predicts, lead to living together. As for marriage, “I don’t think about it as being important anymore.”
What is important, Simon says, is exploring his feelings about having a 3-year-old child around in these mellow middle-aged years. Neil’s daughters by Joan, Ellen Simon Bishop, 28, a choreographer, and Nancy, 22, an aspiring director, are long gone from the Bel Air home and the Manhattan duplex, and Simon is wary about starting over. “I can’t read Mother Goose anymore,” he laments. “My own stories are better.” And then there’s the matter of mobility. “I would have been on the French Riviera with Ann the night after Biloxi opened, if she didn’t have her baby. It’s a blessing and a problem.”
Such domestic quandaries sound like the makings of a Broadway comedy, though so far Neil isn’t tempted. “He says he has only about 10 minutes worth of material,” explains Ann. “We don’t have conflict in our relationship. With Marsha, Neil had guilt over Joan’s death. This has been too easy.”
For now the author is preoccupied with future projects—the filming of Brighton Beach Memoirs, a new play about Eugene’s apprenticeship as a writer, a movie script for Eddie Murphy called Mr. Bad News—not to mention Simon’s consuming relationship with Ann and the troublesome flotsam of everyday life. Neil’s back is bothering him badly, his thyroid is acting up and he is tired of California, where he now spends about half the year. “It’s all about work out there,” he gripes.
Manhattan also irks him as he sits in his New York living room, a scene typical of a Simon stage set with its muted modern furniture and giant potted palms. He stares lugubriously at the two high rises under construction that threaten to blot his panorama of the skyline. “I’m buying the air rights to the World Trade Center,” the playwright warns. “It’s my only chance for a view of Manhattan.” He smiles his naughty smile, waits the proper interval for laughter and—bidding his audience farewell—saunters offstage left.