The Cruelest Month, Part 1: Hurricane Bettye | MZS


“No, not him,” she said. “His brother.” 

“Grandma had an affair with Robert Oppenheimer’s brother?” I said weakly. “Well, I guess that makes more sense.”

I still don’t know if even that was true. Maybe there was no connection to the Oppenheimer family. Maybe it was Steve Oppenheimer, a podiatrist from Kansas City. Or maybe the last name was Offenheimer. Anything was possible with Mom. 

Genie used to say, “I envy your mother. Every morning she wakes up and she’s a completely different person.”

One time when I was in college, the Screen Actor’s Guild decided to do an emergency fundraiser for some project, and asked mom to do a concert because they thought she could fill seats without much notice. They were right. She filled up a hotel ballroom with 400 seats. She had more or less quit live gigs several years earlier, but there was enough of the legend left to fill a big room. She told me that I was the guest of honor and asked me to pick a song. I chose “Since I Fell For You,” a song I had on repeat while writing a (still unpublished) crime novel. When she got to that point in the program, she said she was dedicating the next one to her oldest son Matt, and pointed me out to the crowd, which applauded. Then she performed “April in Paris,” by Count Basie.

I felt weird even bringing it up afterward, but I had to know what happened, so I told her, “I’m confused—I told you I wanted you to perform ‘Since I Fell For You.'” She blinked a couple of times and said, “Oh, sorry, I must’ve misheard.”

She didn’t catch enough breaks, or was too deeply damaged by her own shortcomings and judgment errors and personal issues, to cross over and become one of those people everybody knows. She was under contract with a studio as a child but never became a movie star. She traveled in the same circles as many extraordinary jazz musicians (including “Blue” Lou Marini, a Dallasite who later became a member of the original Saturday Night Live band) but she never became a jazz star herself, outside of the midwest and southwest. In the mid-1970s, Mom got a contract with RCA Records under the tutelage of singer-songwriter-producer Chet Atkins and went out to Nashville to try to remake herself as a country music star in the vein of one of her biggest idols, Dolly Parton. The label recorded an album of original material in 1976 titled “Passages,” with Mom performing as Bettye Pierce, but when the first single, “The Girl From Prairie Flats,” failed to chart, RCA shelved the album. 

Mom got a couple of things out of the Nashville experience. 

One was an education in pop songwriting craft. 

The other was cocaine.

Mom was an alcoholic and regular drug user from the 1960s on. According to her, she smoked pot and hash, dropped acid, popped uppers and downers and any other pills she could get her hand on, and did mushrooms, but “never anything stronger than that.” She didn’t do powder cocaine until she went to Nashville, where it was everywhere. Bill didn’t approve of drugs, except for wine and booze. Neither did dad (he smoked pot recreationally, but stopped smoking it while composing when he got high one night in 1974 and spent 40 minutes trying to draw a perfect whole note). Cocaine might have been the great love of my mother’s life, I’m sorry to say. Greater than her sons, greater than Bill, greater than my father, greater than music. 

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