By JOHN DeMERS
Actor Bryan Batt of TV’s Mad Men fame and I have, I think, only one major thing in common – and that thing goes by a two-word name: New Orleans. Both of us were born and grew up there, though I a decade before he did. Both of us came to understand its arcane rituals and tangled social labyrinths, even though he had personal encounters with more of them than I did. And both of us watched the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina from somewhere other than New Orleans – I from a life in Texas, he from a vacation in Sonoma.
To have that two-word name in common, and then to read his new memoir She Ain’t Heavy, She’s My Mother (Harmony Books, $24) makes the experience a wild, eye-opening and lump-in-the-throat ride through the very different lives he and I led in the very same locations. The fact that Batt’s family owned (and his grandfather created) the now-gone amusement park called Pontchartrain Beach, where I virtually lived every summer, only ups the ante, I’m afraid. I can almost see – almost – my own late mother and father sipping from a shared Tiki Bowl at the faux-Polynesian Bali Hai restaurant as I raced between the Zephyr roller coaster and something called The Wild Maus. It was neck-and-neck whether their evening or mine could leave a person feeling sicker.
In the “art imitates life” department, there’s something thought-provoking about an actor who played a closeted gay advertising art director in early 1960s New York (three seasons as Salvatore Romano on the award-winning AMC series) writing about his own coming out 15 or more years later. Clearly, thanks to a lot of social and cultural changes, these were two different Americas – and therefore Batt’s own journey seems a great deal less agonizing than Sal’s. Many readers will be struck, in fact, by the full acceptance and support he felt all around, from his older brother Jay (who apparently had only an off-color wisecrack) to his mother, who perhaps understood better than anyone all along.
The biggest surprise on this score, as on several others, has to be Batt’s late father. Perhaps it had something to do with John Batt’s feeling overshadowed by his father, Harry Batt the great and powerful, that helped him see, through his own dark struggles, that his son was involved in nothing more or less. The alcoholism that claimed John Batt’s life at age 55 and the single extramarital affair that nearly split apart his family are bedrock pieces of this family saga. They are related with insight, just enough objectivity to apply some facts, but mostly warmth, deep understanding and everlasting love.
As the title implies, She Ain’t Heavy is primarily about Batt’s mother, Gayle. It may be a bit of a cliche, a gay man writing about how much he loves his mother; but that isn’t how this feels at all. For one thing, the tale is peppered – no matter how much the guy drank and cursed – with moments in which young Bryan felt accepted by his father. For another, his portrait of Gayle is clear-eyed enough, all things considered, to give our shared literary canon yet another Steel Magnolia, though definitely a Magnolia New Orleans-style.
Despite the book’s promotional copy, nothing is generically “Southern” about Gayle Batt. She races from D.H. Holmes to Rubenstein Bros. on Canal Street after lunch at Galatoire’s, picking out outfits for Spring Fiesta, the Mad Hatters Ball or the next high-society Carnival wingding. As she grows older, her faith and courage in the face of illness, numerous surgeries and inevitable decline give the book a poignancy that anyone who’s been around this earth a while can share.
She Ain’t Heavy succeeds on a couple other levels as well. It is, though to a lesser degree, a showbiz memoir, with Batt’s early tendencies to be “theatrical” leading him to, well, theater. His contributions to Broadway successes like Starlight Express, Cats, Beauty and the Beast and Sunset Boulevard are sketched in against the passage of time – bookmarked by such events as the death of Princess Diana and, of course, the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. The “tricoastal” life that came with Sal and Mad Men will intrigue members of the show’s cult-like following, though the narrative stops short of Sal’s apparent disappearance from the show in late 2009.
And the book is also a restrained love story, describing Bryan Batt’s 20-year partnership with Tom Cianfichi, with whom he now owns the Hazelnut gift and home accessories shop in uptown New Orleans. On these pages, Batt doesn’t seem to be fighting any battles, making any political statements, or grinding any axes. Whether he’s writing about Tom, his mother, his father or his brother, this is just another human love story. And everybody loves one of those.
Photo: Bryan Batt (left) in a scene from Mad Men.