‘Dad lived his life like it was a party: always having fun’ To celebrate Father’s Day, Cosmo Landesman takes a voyage around his own
- Cosmo Landesman reminisces about his father who was anything but normal
- British-American journalist recalls how his father was unconventional to the end
- He was self-obsessed, sex-mad and selfish but made life fun for his family
The year is 1967 and it’s the Summer of Love. I’m a chubby American teenager in a tough North London comprehensive school called Holloway. It’s parents’ day and a steady flow of dads – and mums – is passing through the school gates. These dads wear smart suits, ties, shiny shoes and have short, neat hair. They look like they’re dressed for church.
Among them, I spot a dad who looks like he’s dressed for a rock festival. He has long hair, big dark shades, red ‘love’ beads around his neck, bright yellow flared trousers with large floral patterns and he’s wearing… sandals. His toenails are clearly visible. They are painted bright purple – and my face is bright red because that’s my dad.
Earlier that morning I’d begged him to come to parents’ day in normal clothes. ‘Please wear a suit… please don’t wear your sandals… please don’t look weird… just be a normal dad for one day, please!’
Cosmo Landesman reminisces about his father, Jay Landesman (pictured) who was anything but normal. He was self-obsessed, sex-mad and selfish but made life fun for his family
‘A normal dad?’ he said. ‘What the hell is a normal dad?’ I wasn’t quite sure, but all my friends at school had one – and I wanted one too. Normal dads were, well… normal. You know, a bit dull and emotionally distant, but decent and dependable. They were not loud and embarrassing; they didn’t burst into show tunes on the street like my dad and flirt openly with any woman possessed of a pulse. Normal dads just quietly went about their business doing dad things, while my dad always had to be the centre of attention, the star performer of any room – especially when it was filled with my friends.
Unfortunately for me, my dad didn’t do normal; he always did the unconventional. Even when he abandoned his hippie look for his trademark suit – which he designed – it was an example of what he proudly called ‘the tailoring of the absurd’. In the early 1950s he was a hip beatnik hanging out with the King of the Beats Jack Kerouac in Greenwich Village. Later, he set up a cabaret theatre in his hometown of St Louis called The Crystal Palace, where young performers including Woody Allen, Lenny Bruce and an unknown Barbra Streisand appeared.
One day he decided he was bored with America so he packed up his family, left the dishes in the sink and headed to London. It was 1964 and he had one phone number: the comedian Peter Cook. Through the Cooks my parents met the great and the groovy of swinging London. At breakfast my dad would amaze me with his tales of dinner with John Lennon or Paul McCartney at Peter Cook’s house. Having dinner with a Beatle in 1964 was like having tea with God. No wonder I wanted to be like my dad when I grew up.
Cosmo (pictured) says his dad taught him how to mix the perfect martini, how to be funny and socially fearless.
I can honestly say that my dad didn’t teach me one sensible thing about life. He never mentioned the importance of education, the value of hard work, being self-reliant and responsible. He did give me some great advice: ‘Don’t take everything so seriously, especially yourself’ – which I foolishly ignored for most of my life.
He taught me how to mix the perfect martini, how to be funny and socially fearless. My dad would walk up and talk to the likes of Jack Nicholson or Jimi Hendrix, like they were old friends. And yet he wasn’t some celeb groupie. He always had time for people that nobody else had time for: the misfits, the oddballs and the lonely of London. If he saw someone standing on their own at a party, he’d always wave and shout: ‘Come and join us!’
The sad thing about my dad was that he always felt like he was a failure because he wasn’t really famous or more successful. He had a show on Broadway in the 1950s that bombed, two volumes of biography in the 80s that flopped and a talent agency for untalented people that folded after two months. But to me he was a great success. For not only was he the life of the party, he lived his life like it was a party, filling it with interesting people – writers, actors, musicians – and always having fun. He never had a job that bored him, he had beautiful girlfriends and a wife who adored him.
Unfortunately, he had an oversensitive son called Cosmo who was always criticising him for being himself. But then he was one of those larger-than-life dads who leave you feeling small and in his shadow. We had good times and bad times. He wanted me to be more of a buddy than a son and for us to hang out together. We did for a while – he took me to louche drinking dens in Soho like the legendary Colony Room – but in my late teens I was always afraid he would embarrass me so I kept my distance. Later, I learned how hurt he was by this and I was sorry.
He says his dad came from a generation of men who didn’t worry about being a good or bad dad the way we do
Yes, my dad was self-obsessed, sex-mad and selfish, but he made life fun for his family, taking us off to rock festivals instead of museums. When it comes to fatherhood I’ve always felt a bit of a failure compared to him. I wanted to be a Great Fun Dad for my boys too, but it didn’t work out that way. Actually, most of the dads I know with teenage kids also feel a bit of a failure.
My dad came from a generation of men who didn’t worry about being a good or bad dad the way we do. They just got on with their lives. Back then, children wanted their dad’s approval; now dads want their children to approve of them.
Towards the end of his life it was odd to hear my 91-year-old dad, then bedridden and with Alzheimer’s, say to me in a moment of rare clarity, ‘I’m sorry I wasn’t a better dad to you.’ I took his bony hand and I said: ‘No, you were a good dad – bloody weird, but wonderful!’ He smiled. I blubbed.
Yes, my dad was an Ab Fab nightmare who embarrassed me for over 45 years but, looking back, I’m so glad he didn’t do normal.
- Cosmo’s latest book, Jack And Me: How Not To Live After Loss, will be published on 25 July by Eyewear, £20