Woodstock author Martha Frankel gambles on a memoir
Photograph by Jennifer May
If you see a woman in the Boiceville supermarket wearing a nightgown and sweatpants, with a cap pulled over her disheveled blonde hair, get her autograph. Chances are you’ve spotted Martha Frankel, who recently published her first memoir, Hats & Eyeglasses. She’s en route to becoming famous for more than looking “way beyond bag lady,” in her words. Her book is due out in paperback (Tarcher/Penguin), she’s working on another memoir, and movie rights cannot be far behind. The woman who made a career out of interviewing Sean Penn, Elizabeth Taylor, Roman Polanski, Susan Sarandon, Robert De Niro, Johnny Depp, Angelina Jolie, Michelle Pfeiffer (can I stop now?) is fast becoming an interview subject herself.
But don’t stop her unless you’re prepared to get involved, because Frankel’s a born meddler. She chases runaway kids down the street in her hometown of West Shokan. She tells teenage wastrels to get a job, and then stands over them while they fill out the application. Not content to let the guys put out fires, for five years she drove a fire truck and hoisted ladders for the town of Olive. Once you meet her, there’s no escaping her influence. As the New York Times’ feature writer, Joyce Wadler, said of Frankel: “Spend five minutes with her and you will feel not only as if you’ve known her all your life, but as if you still have one of her sweaters.”
Frankel is just back from a four-month tour to promote Hats & Eyeglasses, a memoir about growing up in a fiercely tight extended family in Queens, a family that played poker or mah-jongg the way other families play tag. It’s also the story of Frankel’s mercifully brief but very costly (“tens of thousands is all I can bear to see in print, okay?”) addiction to Internet gambling, a vice she hid from everyone, including her husband.
Despite enthusiastic reviews from the likes of Oprah, Borders Books buried the memoir in its “family” section, probably because of the tag line “A Family Love Affair with Gambling” on the cover. Frankel is self-mockingly ticked off: “It’s not enough that I have to write it, spill my guts, humiliate myself in public, now I have to figure out how to market it?” But she’s happy to say goodbye to the hardback cover, a Dali-esque image that (to her mind) says “male, dark, scary.” The paperback cover, on the other hand, will say “female, friendly, funny,” which is what Martha and her family are all about.
Asked what brought her to Woodstock, Frankel does a stand-up routine that’s impossible to get down on paper. “I got married at 21 to the worst guy, ever,” she begins. “We came up here and went camping in Phoenicia for our honeymoon. I don’t know why — he hated the outdoors. We went back to Miami, the kind of place where I should really live, because I’m an ocean person and a warm weather person. But about four months later I said, ‘I’m sorry, but I think I have to go back to Woodstock,’ and here I am 34 years later. I still don’t know how to dress — I wear sandals into winter and Ugg boots into summer — but something about this place makes me happy. I think the Catskills emit a low hum that only some people can hear. I’ve found a place where you can be weird.”
Weird in a civic-minded kind of way: An active participant in the Woodstock Film Festival since its 2000 inception, Frankel moderates the annual “Actor’s Dialogue” panel — always a sellout event, because movie stars can’t say no to her. For the past 15 years she has been cohost, with Doug Grunther, of the Woodstock Roundtable, a Sunday morning talk show on WDST-FM. This is basically Frankel’s excuse to ask nosy questions of anyone within a 100-mile radius of the station, so beware.
Communicating with Frankel is easy. Just engage her in conversation at Fabulous Furniture in Boiceville; she runs the storefront on weekends while her husband, artist Steve Heller, creates masterpieces in his workshop behind the store. Or send her an E-mail, and she’s a quid pro quo kind of gal. After hearing about her book and Web site, one E-mailer — a surgeon — wrote that he was hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt; he would gamble for four days and nights, and then go straight into the operating room. Frankel immediately sent him a copy of her book. He wrote back, saying, “That’s so nice of you.” She replied: “Nice? Schmuck, I want to make sure I never walk into your operating room!” At the moment, the surgeon’s in rehab — with his copy of Hats & Eyeglasses.
So what about that next book? “You can say it has something to do with Woodstock in the ’70s, okay? About that short window of time between the pill and HIV. The early Roman Empire must have felt that way.” The other day, she says, she warned her husband, “Listen, Stevie, this new book is going to have a lot of drugs and sex, so if you’re going to be embarrassed...” He put his hand on her arm and calmly said, “That ship sailed last year.”
Excerpt from Chapter 11, “Welcome to Paradise,” of Hats & Eyeglasses
After a few months’ hiatus, I go back to the Taj Majal’s poker room. To my surprise, the room, which had been bursting at the seams for the past year or so, is half empty. I keep asking the dealers what’s going on, but no one seems to know. Finally a Vietnamese dealer comes to the table. “No players here tonight,” she says, as she gets settled. “Everyone playing online.”
“What’s that mean?” I ask.
“Why come to casino when you can stay home and play in pajamas?” she says with a shrug.
The other players don’t take notice, but my antennae go up into the stratosphere. I have never heard about online gambling — it’s still in its infancy in 1999 — but immediately it seems genius, the smartest idea I’ve ever been privy to. I’m certain I will take a foray into this new world. I’m Columbus, ready to discover, ready to conquer.
As soon as I get back to my office, I start looking up online poker. It takes some time to find the sites — there are only a few. I sign on to one called Paradise Poker, because its logo shows a gorgeous Caribbean beach. My computer is still on dial-up — cable hasn’t come to my town yet — and it takes close to two hours to download their software. I have to register, sign in, and then choose an onscreen name. Sloane, my middle name, which nearly no one knows, feels mysterious. Connected to me, but not really. Am I over 18? I check the box, assuring them that I am.
You can play for real cash or for pretend money. They give you two thousand dollars in play money and you go to one of the tables. I click a little icon, and there Sloane is, sitting at a table. Go figure, I hear my mother say. There is a little dialogue box on the bottom of the screen where players can talk to one another. The game is deadly slow, probably because we’re all on dial-up, but after three hours I have close to three thousand dollars. Okay, it’s not real, but I feel like a total winner.
I spend the next few weeks with my pretend money, playing with my virtual friends... I keep in mind what my goal is here — four to six thousand a month. Maybe just a little more. I can pay all my bills, travel when I want, go see my mother more often. I can buy my sister a fancy new car, get my niece a bigger house. Then I can help everyone I know who doesn’t have enough money. I’d never take another job. I could play poker from sunup till sunset. I would be in heaven. Really, who wouldn’t?
Visit www.marthafrankel.com for a complete biography, family photos, celebrity interviews, upcoming readings, and Martha’s blog.