Words of Wisdom: William Peter Blatty
Best known as the author of The Exorcist, Academy Award winner William Peter Blatty was born to two Lebanese immigrants in Brooklyn, NY. Success did not come easy to Blatty, who as a young adult worked a myriad of jobs ranging from vacuum salesman to beer truck driver. He even found himself serving in Beirut as a member of the United States Information Agency until he decided to pursue his dream of acting, which ultimately lead him to his career as an author and filmmaker. Although he considers himself semi-retired Blatty continues to write, and in 2007 the American Task Force for Lebanon honored Blatty with a Lifetime Achievement Award.
My Academy Award acceptance speech was the shortest ever in Academy history. I thanked God, the Academy and my Lebanese immigrant mother who came to America from “The Lebanon” on a cattle boat. But my remarks would surely have been longer had I said what was actually on my mind, which was, “How in the world can this possibly be?” That’s the question that I’d like to try answering here, that and why I found myself asking it.
The answer has a great deal to do with my mother, that dark-eyed, loving, stubborn, courageous woman who barreled through life oblivious to traffic lights and road signs because she knew that God was at the wheel of her car. An example? It’s the summer of 1939 and President Franklin D. Roosevelt is visiting our neighborhood to officiate at the formal opening of the Queens Midtown Tunnel which spilled out onto East 35th Street, just one door down from our apartment building. “I wanna meet him,” Mama rumbled like Vesuvius when she heard FDR was coming. My uncles—Moses, Elias, and Albert—told her it was “impossible,” to which she pityingly responded, “You cuckoo!”
On the day of the ceremony, my mother and I, together with my uncles, were standing at the outer circumference of a cordon of spectators about thirty feet from the President’s automobile. In her left hand, Mama held a mysterious, brown paper shopping bag, but I paid no attention to it at the time. All eyes were on FDR as he reached out from his car with a gold-plated scissors and neatly snipped the broad, blue ribbon that stretched from one side of the tunnel entrance to the other. Then, before anyone knew what was happening, my mother was grimly advancing on the President. It must have looked like an assassination attempt because flashbulbs started exploding, the President dropped the scissors in dread anticipation, and a covey of Secret Service men drew their revolvers and surrounded the car.
They were too late. Mama had gotten to the President.
“I wanna shake you hand,” she rumbled at FDR, and then she reached out and crunched the President’s paw in her effortlessly dynamic grip. FDR smiled weakly. Then it happened. Mama leaned over and reached into the mysterious shopping bag and two of the Secret Service men made a dive for her, but they barely got a glove on my mother before she had withdrawn from the bag a large glass jar filled with a murky, rust-colored substance. She handed it to the astonished President.
“Homemake jelly,” Mama grunted. “For when you have company.”
Three Secret Service agents escorted Mama back to the spectators’ circle, and as her gaze fell upon my uncles her eyes flickered briefly with a glint of victory and satisfaction. She was unstoppable and she knew it.
Mama’s irresistible force was once memorialized in a silver loving cup that I’d won in a “Beautiful Baby” contest, and “My God, he was beautiful baby!” she would marvel when glancing at the trophy, at times mysteriously capping this performance by turning her head to stare cunningly, if not triumphantly, in my direction while murmuring, “You Mama take good care of you, Will-yam!” I never knew what she meant by this until I asked one of my uncles about it, finally, and he reluctantly confided that Mama had “take care” of me during the Zwieback caper by bribing one of the judges, thus rendering me the only living mortal ever to have won a “fixed” beautiful baby contest, my emotions during the course of this revelation being best described, I suppose, as stunningly conflicted, although one of my thoughts then still piercingly clear was that no Everest was beyond my mother’s reach. Her page of life had been printed in boldface.
Very early in my life, my father left home, leaving Mama alone to seek our survival by stationing me at the famous fountain in front of Manhattan’s Plaza Hotel and then darting in and out among the auto traffic intermittently halted at the stop light directly in front of the Paris Theater at the corner of West 58th street to peddle “home-make” quince jelly to crusty dowagers and open-mouthed, startled men in homburgs sitting in the back seats of limousines, thus amassassing enough pennies and dimes at the end of the day to keep us comfortably destitute. She also employed still another economic dodge that I think of as her “locked landlord” gambit wherein, in a strategy worthy of von Clausewitz, she would pay the first month’s rent in advance and then repel all future demands for payment with cries of “You shurrup, you crookit landlord! I know all about you!” and while the landlord worried over what my mother “knew” about him, we lived rent-free for anywhere from two to four months, depending on how long it took him to make up his mind—and secure the necessary court action—to evict us. Within a period of ten years, we lived at twenty-eight different addresses, and I’m not complaining because it was actually rather broadening—although I never really got used to the chagrin of skipping home from school and finding my silver loving cup leaning crookedly atop a heap of our belongings out on the street. We were famous, in a way, for we were the only nomadic tribe living in Manhattan. There was some talk of our appearing in Ripley’s “Believe It or Not,” and had there been reality shows in those days, I assure you we would have been one.
Meantime, never mind that bewildering Oscar night. I have better: a black and white photo of the Paris cinema in which on the marquee are the words: “William Peter Blatty’s THE EXORCIST.” In the seventies I appeared on the Johnny Carson show on a night when the guest host was the brilliant insult comedian Don Rickles. We were friends. Before Exorcist I was a writer of comic novels and screenplays and had written two comedic pilot TV scripts for Don, both of which were miserable failures. Seeing me as I entered the studio, Don ran to me, looked up with eyes gleaming wicked fun as he told me, “Blatty, I called my mother this morning and I said to her, “Mom, guess who’s on the show with me tonight?”Bill Blatty!” and my mother said, ‘Why?’ and when I said to her, ‘Bill wrote The Exorcist!’ she said, “How??!!’”
Well, the answer to that and forgive me for being blunt -- was my mother’s faith in God which radiated out from her like sunlight.
More things were wrought by Mama’s prayers than even Tennyson dreamed. Not the prayers that, because we do not know what is good for us, God answers in other ways. No. Mama’s God was at least as good as Sears and whatever she ordered she expected to receive without lame-brained excuses, delays, or substitutions, provided she told God at the outset of her pleadings that she wasn’t in the mood for any kidding around. He wasn’t dealing with that pussycat Job, anymore, whom my mother would have labeled a “known complainer” whose fundamental problem was a nagging suspicion that the voice in the clouds he was always complaining to actually wasn’t God at all but either “wax” or perhaps Frank Morgan still trying to take it was The Wizard of Oz; or else how could Job possibly not always be smiling with the knowledge that finally everything’s all right? My mother did everything in her power to answer most of her prayers herself; but she derived determination and an optimistic energy and aliveness from the sureness that whatever she was after could be had if only, and at the last, with the help of God; and because she knew that God was there. Who needed to hear about Job’s plagues? A man speaks to God and God speaks back and he still wants to talk about his migraine headaches?
My mother never heard of the problem of evil; but if Ivan Karamazov took flesh in her kitchen and told her those stories of the suffering of innocents the way he tells Alyosha in The Brothers Karamazov, my mother first would ask him if the “innocents” were Turks, and is so she would call him a little naïve; after that, she would ask him what he thought of soup. Yes, pain was real and so was evil; both had clawed her wet to the bone. But she knew that the bandages were coming off tomorrow. In the meantime, the instant Karamazov departed, my mother would telephone Teilhard de Chardin and ask “what in hell dis problem of evil, you cuckoo?” and, generally, what do you do about it? And specifically, why does God allow it? And then Mama would invite Karamazov back and tell him that God lets the innocent suffer for “personal reasons of His own.” She then hands him a sloppily typed prepared statement which explains that God’s “person” is meant to include the living dynamics of the universe, which He cannot interfere with at this time without danger of spoiling its ultimate destiny, a thing of incomparable beauty. Karamazov requests another bowl of lentil soup. And understands that my mother’s God isn’t dead: He is tied hand and foot, very close to an intercom, with fetters made of plans for His dream house. And that, from what I know of my mother and have seen, is what she always understood in a primitive way, which was more or less, “God knows best, you shurrup!” So mankind’s apartment is cold and needs paint and the neighbors, Hell’s Angels, are impolite? “So tomorrow we move.” The one landlord Mama never called “crookit” was God.
This sunburst of faith that powered out from my mother was mainly what kept me from feeling impoverished, for I knew that if things got really desperate, her God would wire us funds. Then too, she would give when we had little, so that finally you felt that we had a great deal. She once found an elderly former opera star, who had fallen on meager days, cringing wetly in the rain one night and shivering, leaning on a pile of her antique possessions which had freshly been hurled into the street by marshals following the issuance of an eviction order for long arrears in rent. Upon sizing up the situation, my mother’s first impulse was to congratulate the weeping old lady, though she later was horrified to learn that up until the time of this calamity the woman, whose name was Madam Horn, had been regularly paying her rent for years!
And now to all of you reading this, I offer my apologies to those who have no spiritual life, are not interested in having one, and are unimpressed with science’s validation of “The Big Bang” theory which indicates the universe had a beginning and therefore, perhaps, a Beginner. However, I’ve been asked to give you paternal advice, something that will help you to be as happy as can be in this dreary, fallen world, and my honest and most loving answer – what else can I give you? – is to seek God however you can. The world offers no bigger shoulder to rest our cares on.