Making the Cut: Remembering Warren Lyons

Leonard Lyons (left) and William Saroyan
Leonard Lyons (left) and William Saroyan (images via and the author)

LOS ANGELES — In the late fifties and early-to-mid-1960s, when my father came to New York and checked into the Royalton for stays that varied in length from a few days to several weeks, he would run into his friend Leonard Lyons, the New York Post gossip columnist, who invariably wrote an item or two about him in his column, The Lyons Den.  Although he’d passed his peak as a literary movie star of the thirties and early forties, William Saroyan was still a colorful, engaging figure and one whom Lyons clearly held in high esteem.

A view of The Lyons Den in the New York Post in the 1960s.

The first time I remember seeing Lyons’s son Warren, I was probably with my dad.  It was some sort of rehearsal or read-through of a musical in a Broadway theater and Warren was playing piano on stage with the performers, a part of the production team for the show.  He was a smiling young man with an efficient air. I don’t think we actually met that day, but I was aware of him now, more or less my contemporary in New York, our famous fathers long-time friends.

A few years later, he was the producer of John Guare’s first play, The House of Blue Leaves, and around this time, too, when my first book of minimal poems was published, I received a phone call and a note about it from him. I didn’t really know him, if in fact we had even met, and he seemed to be congratulating me in an exaggerated way or, perhaps, by being over-effusive, making fun of the book. Since I had no face-to-face contact with him, I wrote off this response as ambivalent buffoonery.

After moving to Northern California in the early seventies, I heard from him again, now living in Los Angeles. Then, when he came north for a meeting or seminar of Werner Erhardt’s est, which was then at the peak of its vogue as a self-help intensive, he visited my wife Gailyn and me in Bolinas. This was our first actual meeting, and Warren brought to it a kind of peremptory sunniness, along with a conversational mantra that I thought might have had to do with est.

“That’s alright,” he would say, smiling, of virtually anything that came up in conversation.

*    *    *

A decade went by, and in the late eighties Gailyn and I with our three children settled in Thousand Oaks, just north of Los Angeles, and eventually saw him again. He was now living with an attractive woman around our age, Judith Siegfried, and we spent several pleasant evenings with them as well as attending an afternoon party at their spacious Century City apartment.

While I’d continued to be a writer, expanding into prose genres as I went, I’d also taken a series of second jobs in Public Relations, while Gailyn, a painter, had worked as an interior designer both independently and for Ethan Allen. Warren too, no longer a producer, had worked in other fields, including commission sales — and at the same time was now playing and singing the Great American Songbook at several clubs in Los Angeles. I loved the songs he sang — by the Gershwins, Frank Loesser, Jerome Kern et al. — and this new incarnation seemed to fit him. He and Judith, who also sang, put together a cabaret theater act, and performed it at a small theater in the Valley — a polished, enjoyable show that had only a smattering of an audience the night we attended.

Warren grumbled a little about Michael Feinstein, and about Lee Gershwin, Ira Gershwin’s widow, with whom he’d been close, who had betrayed him by giving Feinstein rather than him access to the Gershwin archives. But he didn’t make too much of it; he was, after all, an est graduate.

In fact est now had a new incarnation, the Landmark Forum, no longer in association with Erhardt, and Gailyn and I both took the three-day intensive, and I took the Advanced Course as well. By now I’d turned fifty and weathered a few life storms I wouldn’t have predicted, and was glad for the extended psychological time-out the Forum afforded its attendees.

The children of the famous see a different side of things than might be supposed. For a family only in America for a generation or two, fame can be a kind of fast-forward assimilation — certainly it was for the Armenian-Jewish family I came from, and perhaps it was something like that for Warren’s Jewish family too.

We never discussed this, or the liabilities that might come along with it. Warren wasn’t that kind of a talker: at heart, I think, he was an entrepreneur, and characteristically moved quickly, sometimes in search of a solution to an immediate problem. One evening he invited me along to his regular DA (Debtor’s Anonymous) meeting and shared the little spiral notebook in which he recorded each and every financial transaction, even the most miniscule. Although there was still buoyancy in his manner, one sensed that he was struggling with an issue weighing heavily on him.

He had combined self-help and his love of music in a series of workshops called “The Joy of Singing,” which garnered endorsements from many famous entertainment figures in Los Angeles. We received announcements of the workshops, but for a variety of reasons didn’t attend one. I’d lost a job in PR in Ventura County, and then been hired to teach in the Master of Professional Writing program at USC. With children no longer living with us, in the fall of 1996 we moved to a small apartment in Santa Monica, by which time I’d lost touch with Warren. By now, too, I knew that he and Judith had broken up.

*    *    *

Ten years later, in 2006, incidental to an email exchange I had with his friend John Guare, I had an email from him. He told me that he’d contracted Parkinson’s Disease and couldn’t speak on the phone but would like to get together. He suggested that we meet at a Ralph’s supermarket in his neighborhood in Brentwood and I could then drive us to his apartment.

I recognized him, with a cane, near the entrance inside Ralph’s, and we made our way through the parking lot to my car. When he spoke I needed to decipher what he said. He directed me to his apartment on the first floor of a small apartment building nearby, an apartment that turned out to be quite large and well set-up.

Entering with him, I became aware of framed photographs on the walls and on living room end tables, and each photograph was of Warren with a celebrity. As far as I could see there were no photographs that didn’t include a famous companion.

Conversation was difficult but he told me he’d been going through the Lyons family home movies from his childhood and had put together a film of the highlights, which he invited me to watch with him in a den-like alcove where we sat on a sofa in front of the television.  Like the photographs, the film exclusively featured celebrities, albeit this time among the Lyons family at large, including his three brothers and prominently Leonard and his wife Sylvia.

I kept waiting to catch a glimpse of my father but he never appeared, although I knew he’d been one of Leonard’s favorites. I imagined this might have been because his current standing in the fame sweepstakes had slipped and, ridiculous as it was, felt anger.

Afterwards we sat at the kitchen table with cups of tea. Warren communicated that during his life he’d always been preoccupied with what was going on somewhere other than where he was at that moment. He glanced back toward his living room, as if to catch something that might have been going on there.

“Even right now,” he said, looking back at me.

He had come to a full stop inside himself and shared it with me without pretense. A short time later he moved to a special care facility on the East Coast, and in 2012 he died. He was 72.

*    *    *

In 2001, during the time we were out of touch, Warren self-published a book, If You Don’t Fit In, STAND OUT! Insights, Reminders and Affirmations. After learning of his death, I ordered the book, thinking it might add to my scant knowledge of his life. Made up mostly of Twelve Step-style maxims and slogans, one to a page in big type, it’s impersonal except by implication. But the “About the Author” note at the end, a page- and-a-half in a standard type size, although framed in the third person, amounts to Warren’s more personal reckoning:

Raised by a workaholic father and compulsively critical mother, [he] naturally became a work-addicted self-critic …

Only when he played the piano and sang, did the racket stop …

This led … to his founding of The Joy of Singing! — and more than 230 three-day Joy of Singing workshops on both coasts, garnering praise from past students including Jeff Bridges, Marianne Williamson and Michael Feinstein.

I wish I’d taken one of the workshops at the time.

A photo of Jeff Bridges and Warren Lyons from the back of his book.
A photo of Jeff Bridges and Warren Lyons from the back of Lyons’s self-published book, “If You Don’t Fit In, STAND OUT …”
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