Excerpt from D’yan Forest
Known by critics as the “naughty version of Betty White,” it’s no surprise that 86 year-old stand-up comedian D’yan Forest’s vibrant personality shines in her new memoir, I DID IT MY WAYS. In these candid tales on heritage, love, identity, divorce, and ageing, Forest dares readers to dream big, fall flat, and live life to the fullest. Showing us how to age defiantly and embrace identity, Forest reminds us that love has no age nor gender.
Turning to stand-up comedy in her 60s, D’yan’s inspiring second act exemplifies the diverse experiences of women aging with attitude.
D’yan has generously shared an excerpt from her book. I Did It My Ways: An 86-year-old stand-up comedian’s lifelong journey from prudish Bostonian to scandalous Parisienne, and beyond
“Try Not to Be So Jewish”
BY NOW THE SIXTIES WERE GETTING SERIOUSLY SWINGING FOR ME. I was making the most of it, performing in a transvestite club, going to swingers’ parties and hooking up (and laying down) with my regular girlfriend, Michèle.
Maybe my parents sensed that I was having just a bit too much fun. They didn’t know anything about my love life, of course, except that I wasn’t remarried. But one day they wrote and told me that my niece (my brother’s daughter) was getting married, and said I had to come back to Boston for the family celebration.
Well, I didn’t want to leave Michèle and she definitely didn’t want me to go.
“It wouldn’t be for long,” I promised her, though I wasn’t sure that was true. I wrote back home telling Mom that it was a long way to come just for a niece’s wedding. Michèle was very grateful and showed me in some extraordinary ways.
Just after that, a cousin who was in the liquor business, and often travelled to France, came to see me. He took me to a fancy restaurant and laid on the family pressure.
“Everyone expects you to be there. It will be a big family occasion. Your brother will be so disappointed. Your mother is in a state of nervous exhaustion worrying about you. She can’t understand why you don’t want to get married again yourself.”
Well, he didn’t say it all like that. He interspersed the arguments between glasses of wine and brandy. Getting mildly drunk on French booze was part of his job.
“Have you got a boyfriend in Paris?” my cousin asked.
“No,” I said truthfully.
“Don’t you want to find a new husband?”
“I’m sure you could do better than the first one.”
He was right about that, though he had no idea that I was already doing much better with a woman.
“Just come back for the wedding and see how you feel,” my cousin said. “Your Dad will wire the money for the ticket. Or I can advance it to you now.”
I think that despite myself, I was feeling guilty about being a lesbian. And my cousin was a very skillful ambassador for the family.
“OK,” I told him. “I’ll come back home, but just for the wedding.”
I broke the news to Michèle the following day, and she was really upset. She begged me not to get on the ship.
“It won’t be for long,” I promised her again.
And again, she didn’t believe me. The next night she turned up at my room in the Cité Universitaire. Both her forearms were bandaged. She told me she had cut both her wrists, then chickened out and gone to the hospital to get the wounds treated.
I was horrified, and in a cruel way, her desperation made me even more determined to go home. It would be wrong, I thought, to give in to that kind of blackmail. I had to go back to Boston, attend the wedding, then return to Paris to prove to Michèle that I cared for her.
I got on a ship at Le Havre and cried for the entire five-day trip across the Atlantic.
Softening the Blow
TO SOFTEN THE BLOW OF leaving Paris, on my first weekend back, I met up with one of my oldest friends.
This was Johanna. I’d met her at girl scout camp in Vermont when I was 16 and she was 14. One Sunday at camp, we walked together to the Federation Church, where we were going to sing in the choir. It was about a mile away, and we got chatting. We found out that we were both Jewish, and thought it was funny that we were going to sing in the choir of this Protestant church. It turned out that Johanna was a New Yorker, born in Czechoslovakia, who had escaped to America to flee the Nazis. It was fascinating to hear her tell stories, like how when she was four years old, she had had to wander around the streets of Paris while they were waiting for their visa for America.
I was always a goodie-goodie girl, but after church that day, where we’d had lunch, we were cleaning up the tables, and started throwing wash cloths at each other. I had never been so wild, and we laughed so much. A couple of weeks later, when she went home, I was sure I’d found a friend for life. Afterwards, though, we’d gradually lost touch, and I hadn’t heard from her in at least ten years.
Anyway, that first weekend back in Boston, I went to a play in Cambridge, and when I came home to my parents’ house, I was told that Johanna had called. I was astonished. I called her back, and she was living just a mile away, with her husband and two kids. We chatted as if we’d never been apart, and we became best friends again.
Of course, I couldn’t tell her and her husband everything I’d been doing in Paris, but maybe I told them just a little too much. Because one day the husband called me and said he needed to talk.
“Sure,” I said, “go ahead.”
“Not on the phone. Can you come over?”
“Of course. When?”
I thought this was a little bit strange, but I drove over, and when I got there, Johanna wasn’t home.
“She’s taken the kids to her Mom’s place,” he said.
I asked what he needed to talk about and he looked embarrassed.
“You were living in Paris,” he said.
“I bet you saw some things.”
“You mean, like the Eiffel Tower? Sure.”
“No, I mean, I bet it was wild, right?”
“During the summer sales? Yes, really wild.”
I guessed what he was referring to but I didn’t really want to go down that road.
“No, I mean… you must be experienced.” He wasn’t talking about golf.
“A little,” I said, feeling a stab of guilt about Michèle.
“Johanna is not experienced at all,” he said.
“But you’ve got two kids. Isn’t it your fault if she’s not experienced?”
“It’s not exactly about experience. More about being adventurous.”
“You want her to take you to the Amazon jungle or what?”
“Well, a little jungle savagery would be a good thing,” he said, and looked at me in a way that suggested I might be the wild thing he was looking for.
When he kissed me, for some reason, I didn’t resist. Maybe I was missing the sex I’d had with Michèle. Maybe my guilt about making her sad made me feel a responsibility to console someone else, like Johanna’s husband for example.
We ended up in bed. And compared to my ex-husband Seymore, this guy wasn’t bad. Not as delicate with his fingers or lips as Michèle but attentive and passionate. So we started meeting up regularly for sex, and even though I was betraying my friend, I have to admit I enjoyed it. The fact that Johanna might walk in and catch us only added to the excitement of the adultery. Once a Parisienne, always a Parisienne.
AFTERWARDS, I WENT HOME AND wrote a long letter to Michèle, promising her that I’d be back soon, and saying how much I missed her. And I meant it all. But the wedding came and went, and I kept putting off my return trip to Paris. Michèle sent a couple of chatty letters, then they started to turn bitter and recriminating, and I got a little scared of her. And meanwhile I was meeting up with Johanna’s husband for regular trips to the jungle.
I was in a real mess.
ADDING TO MY CONFUSION WAS my uncle, the founder of the Berklee School of Music in Boston. Maybe he was under pressure from my parents to convince me to stay in America, I don’t know, but in the spring of 1966, he started advising me to move to New York, where there were plenty of performing jobs. That was what I wanted, wasn’t it? To perform, like I’d been doing in Paris? Well, here was my chance and New York had far more openings than Paris. I was on home territory. I could end up on Broadway!
Naturally, I was tempted. With my parents’ help, I rented a tiny studio apartment in the middle of Greenwich Village. It was at the start of the hippie time. I didn’t know a soul and would walk around the Village feeling shocked by all the young girls in T-shirts but with no bra. (Remember, I’m from Boston).
This was when lots of people started smoking marijuana. I was very innocent about that. One day I met a nice guy somewhere in the Village and he invited me to a party that night in his apartment. I got there at around eight and almost nobody was there. I listened to some music, had a few drinks, chatted to the host of the party, and then finally, a couple of hours later, crowds of people started wandering in, and they all sat down on the floor and started smoking. I wasn’t sure what was going on but everybody was really quiet, and stopped talking.
They kept offering me to share their cigarettes and it finally occurred to me that it was a pot party, and everyone was getting strung out. I’d been to much wilder parties, of course, where dozens of people took off their clothes and started making love in front of everyone but then they’d been drinking champagne and cognac. But these were drugs, illegal drugs! I left as fast as I could!
A few days later, a nice person who lived in the building next to me said they were having a party that evening, and asked me to come. When I arrived, nobody was smoking—instead they were all arguing about the Vietnam War. They were trying to figure out what they could do to stop it—write letters, demonstrate, hand out leaflets, etc. I had never seen people in Boston so passionate about politics and I was astonished. I felt uncomfortable and left that party early too.
I just didn’t fit in. Swinging, stripping and sexual exploration were fine, but pot and Vietnam? Count me out.
I wrote to Michèle telling her that I missed her and Paris. That our times together had felt so free and natural compared to this weird stuff that was going on in New York where I felt so out of place.
Of course, she wrote back saying “come home to Paris!”, and I was touched. But I just couldn’t go. Not yet, anyway.
I started spending a lot of time in a café around the corner from my apartment called Sutters. It was a French place with croissants and espressos—everything that reminded me of my favorite city. Well, nearly everything.
And this was where I hit on my brilliant money-making scheme: I was going to be a professional Parisienne.
Yes, I decided, I would become Edith Piaf. She had died and left a huge gap in the market. I, like a true American entrepreneur, would exploit that gap. After all, I could sing in French which almost no Americans could do, and I knew all the songs. I’d even performed them in Paris. Added to this, I knew that if I was going to get work as a performer in New York, I needed a unique selling point. The city was overflowing with singers. But they didn’t have an Edith Piaf.
MAYBE I SHOULD CONFESS THAT I didn’t get the idea in a flash of genius. It came to me slowly. Well, to be brutally honest, it was forced upon me.
Sure, like my uncle had told me, there was more work for performers in New York, but of course there was also a lot more competition.
For months after I arrived in New York, I put on slit skirts, sequins and low-cut tops (which I could never have done if I’d stayed with my parents in Boston) and accepted every job I was offered.
One of the first engagements I got was playing piano at a hotel Christmas party.
A guitarist called JT called me up. He was a graduate from the Berklee School of Music (why else do you think he called me?). JT asked if I could play rock ‘n’ roll and I said of course, though I didn’t know a thing about it. I’d completely missed out on the rock ‘n’ roll and pop revolution. Musically, I was still back in the age of Judy Garland, Doris Day and Edith Piaf, of course. With me it was showtunes and ballads, nothing rocky at all.
But I had sworn I would accept anything, so I went along to the gig at a boring, business-type hotel in Brooklyn. It was a party for a bunch of people from the same office, who were of all different ages, and all different stages of drunkenness, even right at the start of the evening. They just wanted to party, so it didn’t really matter what we played.
JT told me we’d be playing a load of standards, like “Roll Over Beethoven”. Now of course I knew about Beethoven but I never knew he rolled over. And now I was actually sitting at a piano, I thought I’d better confess.
“I don’t know any rock ‘n’ roll,” I told him.
To my surprise, he just shrugged.
“No problem. It’s all the same song, basically. I’ll yell out the chords to the first one, and you’ll see. Just follow me.”
So that’s what he did. He screamed out the chords as we did the songs, the singer and the drunken audience screamed out the words, while I jammed along, and we were a huge success.
At the end of the evening, as JT handed over my share of the night’s money—a generous $25—he asked me if I wanted to do more shows.
“Of course,” I told him.
“Not just rock ‘n’ roll,” he said. “Do you know any Irish music?”
“None at all, apart from ‘Danny Boy’,” I confessed. I guessed he wouldn’t care, and he didn’t.
“I’ll give you some sheet music, and the rest you can busk, like you did tonight.”
JT was Irish Catholic, so our backgrounds were wildly different, but we shared a love of music and performance, and 140 I Did It My Ways from then on, he booked me for all sorts of Irish events in Brooklyn. So in fact, before becoming French, I became Irish.
JT was married at the time but we dated a little. By which I mean, we slept together at my apartment between rehearsing Irish folk songs. It was just a bit of fun for both of us. I was still writing regularly to Michèle, planning to go and visit her as soon as I could.
Then, weirdly, JT started to get less Irish Catholic. He began to lose his identity. And one day he told me he was joining a Hawaiian band. About as far from Dublin as you could get.
AFTER JT STOPPED BEING IRISH, I needed to look for work, but I ran into a major obstacle: my nose.
Well, let’s get this straight (as a good nose should be). People always say that the entertainment business is monopolized by Jews, which is racist bullshit of course, but in this case, my Jewish manager started telling me that I was too Jewish.
To be fair, my uncle had warned me. As a young man, he’d been in a trio and played all over New England. He told me that when they drove up to some hotel in the White Mountains, there would often be a sign in front, saying “No Dogs or Jews Allowed.” But I thought, that was before the War, things must have changed by now. Well, apparently not that much.
My manager, who, at the risk of repeating myself, was Jewish, explained one day in his office:
“Before the bookers even meet you, there’s the problem of your name. Diana Shulman isn’t a performer, she’s a Brooklyn housewife. You have to change it if you want to be in show business.”
“You mean, call myself something like Candy Shulman?” I asked. “Or Ritzy Shulman?”
“No!” he said, so mad that he even took his cigarette out of his mouth. “Even in the Catskills, which is Borscht Belt Central, they want their crooners to be Gentiles. You got to lose the Shulman!”
I couldn’t believe this Jewish manager telling me to stop sounding Jewish. But then, I reasoned, show business is all about pretending to be someone else. Wasn’t john Wayne’s real name Mary?
“How about my mother’s maiden name, Lunn?” I asked.
“Sounds Chinese,” he told me. “You want to sound French.”
“How about Edith, then?” I suggested.
“Edith? Doesn’t sound French at all. Sounds like a Connecticut grandma.”
“But Edith Piaf was French!”
“Well, she doesn’t sound like it to me. What else have you got?”
I had a think and all I could come up with was a French-sounding version of my own first name, Danielle.
“Great!” the manager said. “Danielle, nothing else. Very French. Leave the rest to me, Danielle.”
And he started to get me jobs in clubs and hotels as a French chanteuse. Nothing too well paid, but it was work, and I was getting good at acting the Parisienne. I wrote and told Michèle that she wouldn’t recognize me when I came back to see her.
Which turned out to be truer than I’d planned, because a short while after I changed my name, I hit another problem.
My manager sent me to see a booking agent, a woman in Brooklyn who only booked Jewish events. She had told him that she had a great regular gig on offer, and was really keen to fill it with one of her acts. It was to entertain once a week at a Jewish Beach Club in Brooklyn for the whole summer. My manager told her that Danielle the French chanteuse would fit the bill perfectly.
So, I went to see this woman in an old office building near Brighton Beach, the kind of place where you find private detectives in the movies. She looked just like my mother but smoked ten times more, and swore, which my mother never did.
“Shit, you’re Danielle?” she said as soon as I walked in the door.
“Oui,” I told her, trying to keep in character.
“You don’t look French. You look Jewish.”
“I am, so what?” I asked, too shocked to stay French.
“All right, shit,” she said, looking me up and down.
“We’ll send the club your resume, without a photo. By the time they sign the contract, it’ll be too late to pull out.”
So flattering. But I really needed the work and the money, so I agreed.
And while I waited to see if I’d got the job, I received yet another punch on the nose, almost literally.
Another Jewish agent, a very important guy in the business, came straight out and told my manager that he refused to get me any work unless I had a nose job. Mine wasn’t a bad nose, but he told me manager it was “ethnic”. By now I was getting the message loud and clear—my name was wrong, my face was wrong, I came from the wrong side of the American religious divide.
I called my mother to tell her the awful things that were happening to me in New York. But her reaction wasn’t what I’d expected.
“Finally!” she said.
“What do you mean, finally?” I asked.
“I’ve been telling your father for years that you ought to get a nose job.”
“What?” I couldn’t believe this.
“Yes, it will boost your career, and your chances of picking up another husband will be greatly improved. Do it!”
Ah, Jewish mothers.
So Mom sold her blue-chip stocks to buy me a blue-chip nose. And after that, I could pass myself off as a WASP, even a French WASP. I’d go to a club or hotel, sing “La Vie en Rose” and the owners would say “oh merci, Danielle,” and try to talk French with me. They swallowed the whole charade.
My French image was helped by a happy accident. I got a one-off job playing and singing for a young and middle-aged Jewish crowd at an ceanside hotel not far outside Boston. The gig was on a Saturday night, so I turned up early and spent the afternoon at the beach, swimming and sunning myself.
When I went on stage at 9pm, I found out to my horror that my voice had almost disappeared. I guess salt water and sunstroke were not ideal before a show. I was croaking and almost whispering as I sang, and thought the crowd would hate me. But they loved it. They seemed to think I sounded like a genuine French chanteuse who’d smoked too many Gauloises and drank too much absinthe. Encouraged by their applause, I even started to talk some of the lyrics, and just be sexily French.
After a few songs, I went out into the audience singing “C’est Si Bon”, the classic French ditty made famous by Yves Montand, and began to smooch suavely between the tables. All of a sudden, one 50-something woman started beckoning me over. As soon as I got within reach, she grabbed me, and sat me on her lap with her arms wrapped around me. I was surprised, but true to the rules of performing, I kept singing and smiling until the song was finished. Again, the crowd loved it. They bought right into the idea that for a French woman, anything goes.
Clearly, my new identity as Danielle was going to take me to new, exciting places. If I could get both men and women excited about me, anything was possible.
My Parisienne persona worked so well that sometimes, actual French people would ask me if I really was French.
“Bien sûr,” I would tell them.
“But you have an American accent,” they would say (in French of course).
So I’d tell them, “Oui, that’s because I was born in Paris but brought to the USA at a very young age.”
They usually believed me.
SOMETIMES, I COURTED TROUBLE FOR myself. I started getting bookings at huge senior women’s luncheons around the New York area. Sometimes there would be a French theme, but occasionally it was an Irish afternoon. So of course, I would go along, do Irish songs and claim to be from Kilkenny. Then at one of these Irish parties, some women came over after my first set and said, “Hey, weren’t you the singer at that French luncheon? Are you French or Irish?” I guessed that they were Irish, so I told them I was only pretending to be French, and that my family was really from Kilkenny. They laughed and congratulated me on fooling everyone. Well, they were right about that.
OF COURSE, THEN CAME THE cold shower. Absurdly, a German restaurant turned me down for a job because they said “Danielle” was too French for them. After being too Jewish for the Jews, I was too French for a place that wanted a “French” singer?
I was horrified. Next, people would be telling me that I sounded too Gaelic to be Irish. Or that I played piano too well to play in bars. Was there no way of being accepted? All I wanted to do was entertain, and yet everyone kept questioning whether I had the right to entertain them, all because of who I was or who I wasn’t. It was amazing to me. This was the 1960s, supposedly the time of freedom, be yourself, free love, equal rights, and yet segregation was as bad as it had been when I was at college, or before the war when my uncle used to play. Of course, I wasn’t suffering as badly as Martin Luther King and the civil rights activists, but I knew how they felt to be excluded.
I started thinking seriously about going back to Paris, where no one had ever stopped me doing anything because of who I was—on the contrary, they had encouraged me to break every boundary there was. But when I mentioned the idea to my parents, they told me, no way. I had to stay in the States. They were still helping me with my rent, so I couldn’t argue.
ONE DAY, IN A FIT of depression I went to pour my heart out to a friend. She listened patiently and then told me to “seize the moment”. A new nose deserved a new name, she said.
So we opened up the dictionary that I’d received from David Gorfinkle, and, to get inspiration, looked up my real first name, Diana. It said that she was the Greek goddess of hunting and the countryside. We also read that Diana was meant to be a virgin goddess, but it was too late to worry about that.
“Goddess of hunting? That’s perfect,” my friend said. “Go back to calling yourself Diana. But you need a second name. Maybe something to do with the countryside.”
We brainstormed for a while, and finally hit upon Forest. (I decided that Diana Rabbit or Diana Plow wouldn’t have been so good.)
Diana Forest sounded OK, but it was still a bit banal. So, we morphed plain old Diana into exotic (but not ethnic) D’yan, pronounced “Di-aaan”. And D’yan Forest it has been ever since.
THAT WAS MY PROFESSIONAL IMAGE more or less taken care of, but my private life seriously needed livening up. I’d finished my affair with my best friend Johanna’s husband (they’d left America for Brazil, not because of me, I hoped) and seen my Irish guitarist lover turn into a Hawaiian, so now there was a bit of a blank.
I couldn’t go back to France (not yet, anyway), because of my parents’ continued opposition to the idea, so I decided to relive some of the excitement of Paris by going to a swingers’ party in New York. The people there were all very educated and good looking, well-spoken and well dressed. After some polite talking, the clothes came off, the mattresses were laid on the floor, and everybody started mixing. But for some reason, I found it boring. Maybe the Parisians had spoiled me. Maybe I was nostalgic for Michèle. I don’t know.
I was thinking about leaving when a very handsome guy came over beside me and said: “Hello, who are you?”
He was intelligent, charming, and he asked for my phone number. We went out on a date, and met for a drink before dinner. We were chatting and laughing about the party we’d been to, and everything was going fine, but when I told him I was a cocktail pianist, playing five nights a week, he was turned right off. The atmosphere suddenly turned as cold as the ice in my whisky.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
He shook his head and shrugged.
“I want a full-time lover. Someone to meet up with whenever I want. Not just the odd evening when you happen to be free. I can’t date a bar singer.”
And he finished his drink and left. I was so astonished at this brutally frank outburst that I hardly reacted at all.
Here was someone else rejecting me for what I was. People had rejected my religion, my name, my nose, at least two of my fictitious nationalities, and now they were rejecting my job—no, more than that, my vocation, my dream.
I’d had enough of America. Financially, I was more stable. My grandfather had bought me a small apartment on West 10th Street, so I didn’t need help with rent. I’d saved up some money from working so regularly. So just before Christmas 1967, I told my parents I’d been offered a gig playing in Paris, and left.