'MONEY IS LIFE'S REPORT CARD'

William Hamilton people are unmistakable. Their ethnic characteristics are rather blatantly drawn -- their noses are longish, the eyes set close together and puzzled under thin, raised brows, and the jaw tends to be long and lean. They are stereotypically, unavoidably WASP. Their outlines are sketchy but revealing, as are their observations. One of Hamilton's favorites is the recent cartoon of a woman at a party trying to describe another couple. "Oh, you'll adore them." They're French, and they have lots of -- you know, money."

Now these amusing cartoon characters are available in a new form. No, he's not marketing anything tacky like sheets, dolls, or soap. The new versions are alive and doing quite well in a play called "Save Grand Central." The play had a two week run in New York's Phoenix Theater and will open at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., in May.

The biggest William Hamilton character is himself. He's tall, craggily and preppily handsome with dark hair and a firm jaw. The morning I interviewed him in his dramatic West Side living room -- about an acre of cream colored carpet ending in some matching low couches pushed up to a spectacular view of New York -- he was wearing a gray flannel suit, checked shirt, and black suede slippers which up until then I thought only existed in ads in the New Yorker. He looks, in short, as if he had lots of, you know, money. But he doesn't. Or so he says.

"I can barely make it from month to month," he says, and allows that this is a family tradition. "My father came from a rich family and hated money and hated the effect of it on people, and got rid of all of it in his life that he could. He's the guy that really said he felt money was going to cease to exist as a concept [a line that goes to Charles, a young architect in "Save Grand Central"] and he lived that way: 'There's no such thing. Other people work.' So it was constantly something that was on our minds because we were going broke under his regime."

though the Hamilton holdings are in St. Helena, California, anyone anyone who reads his cartoons knows perfectly well that William Hamilton's spiritual home is on the Upper East Side of New York. As it is for his readers in the New Yorker and his syndicate of newspapers, not to mention for all his characters, in flesh or in ink. He claims this is because he spent his "formative years" -- just after coming out of the army -- there, and not because he went to Andover and Yale with denizens of those reaches. Basically, though, the Upper East Side is a state of mind.

"Although this play is certainly about New York, an awful lot of people who are just like that live in South Dakota and northern Mexico," he said. "And they all find me. Soul brothers." In fact, the play did very well in Los Gatos, California.

What is this great bond based on? I ask, as if I didn't know.

"I think money is certainly a big themse but I don't think it by any means is the whole story . . .," he says. Nonetheless, some of the biggest laughs and warmest applause during the play went out to Roger Maynard, the conservative, graspingly rich lawyer, for making remarks like "Money is life's report card!" when challenged by his chirpily liberal wife, Lucy.

The fact that the theater itself was on the Upper East Side may have had something to do with the knowing laughter. At the end there was a buoyant feeling in the air. People went out chuckling, repeating lines to one another. For many, the experience of "Save Grand Central" was, if not life affirming, life style affirming.

It wasn't meant to be that easy to swallow, Hamilton says. The story is basically a partner-switch: rich, rigid Roger and his wife, sensitive, silly Lucy Maynard fall in love with, respectively, the haughtly hispanic countess Cristina, who mistakenly married Charles Malcolm, and Charles himself, an architect losing all the countess's money backing a restaurant named for Le Corbusier. More important, it is Charles alone who is sensitive and silly enough for Lucy.

But perhaps too sensitive and silly for the audience. It was Roger and Cristina, the old guard, who got all the laughs for their ringing statements of faith in the power of capital. Hamilton says he wasn't taking sides when he wrote it. He wanted it to end up with "everyone coming out even" living happily , in a sketchy sort of way, ever after.

"As a playwright you're not as in control as you think," Hamilton says. "I'm writing a new play in which there's a man who I just loathed. And I tried to make him the most loathsome creature and contemptible and everything. Well, he's now the star of the play. The most interesting person. I just couldn't do it. He just got better all the time."

In this play, Roger, as coincidence would have it, owns the building Le Corbusier is in. Cristina wants to pull her money out of the restaurant, and Roger schemes to turn it into a a fast-food restaurant. Charles wants to honor his favorite architect and serve good food, while Lucy would like to save Grand Central Station, which is threatened in some way which is not made clear.

Charles and Lucy stand for the concept of having fun, but unfortunately the bad guys are much more diverting. Roger and Cristina have clearly staged a coup: "They're firm. Their language is fun and their point of view is fun," says Hamilton. "I think the other [couple] is going to be fun, too, when it's fully realized." Right now, though "they're very, sort of, sweet and hopeful in mad, headlong love, which I don't think comes off."

Part of the problem, he thinks, is that Michael Ayr, who played Charles looks a little too young for Linda Atkinson, who is Lucy. Ayr has other commitments, so a new Charles will be found anyway.

One thing both of them have going for them, though, is an alarming resemblence to Hamilton's cartoon characters. Lucy has that thick, pulled-back and turned-under hair you always figured was dark blond, and intense, searching dots for eyes. Charles has black corkscrews for hair, a pointy nose holding up preppy-liberal wire glasses, and those slightly bulging muscles at the sides of the mouth one gets from being articulate early in life. I asked Hamilton if he cast them that way on purpose and he said no, they had grown to resemble the characters, "the way people resemble their pets."

Even more alarming was the audience. You forget those cartoons and the play are based on real life, until you sit in an auditorium in the East seventies for a couple of hours. It was a houseful of dead ringers for those cartoons. Not so much in looks, though there were some rangy men in dark suits and pretty though vaguely concerned-looking women. But it really came out in the laughs.

It was as if the audience was part of the play. For example, the scheming third world servants were roared at not because of their rather piercing awareness of the complicated situation their employers were getting knotted up in, but for their comical mistakes in speaking English.It was unnerving. But not to Hamilton. "It's delicate matter," he admits, but insists, "it's meant to laugh at racism . . . it's meant to explore something which is left terribly quiet in our relation with the so-called third world."

He agrees that, for most of the women in his audience, the primary relationship with the third world consists of not being able to get good help these days. "I think the're . . . nervous about their cleaning ladies, and that's why the play's so brutal about them." He says the play is not so much making jokes about Maria the maid's bad English, as it is making fun of Lucy, who has no idea what Maria is thinking. Maria tells her about her sweetheart, Luis, the conniving bartender, while Lucy thinks she is approving of her own crush on Charles. "there's much more going on . . . If the whites laugh at it then the audience becomes the joke," he says.

Sort of a William Hamilton cartoon? I suggest. "Wonderful," he says, referring more to what a perfect audience it is than to how acute my perceptions are.

Maria and Luis, however, are the only political element in the play. Hamilton doesn't consider himself a conservative. He doesn't side with the moneyed Roger Maynard, no matter how big he went over with the audience, nor does he seem to think of himself as a liberal. He thinks all politics are, in fact, "wildly overblown and boring."

When people first found out that he was a cartoonist, their response was "Oh, a political cartoonist?" "You can't just be a cartoonist," he says, "You have to be a political cartoonist to be respectable. The more I though about it, the angrier I got, that the whole newspaper is devoted to what's going on in Washington. We're told that's what's really happening, and our lives are something else. We're just voters. . . . I've always felt the other way, that politicians are supposed to serve you, and politics are like how the building runs or something. But it's not the purpose of your life."

"I've really devoted myself to a more social consideration of life than political," he says, and thanks to him, there is a small corner in many newspapers that is concerned with this aspect of life. And not "social" in the sense of "social con" cerns" that politicians talk about, but in the other sense. A woman peers into an engagement calendar, the phone propped to her ear by an angular shoulder, and says, "Oh, rats, Muffy -- Thursday the ninth is the night we expose the kids to Mahler."

Another woman on the phone, at her dressing table with an Ivy League husband tying his tie in the background says, "Cissy, hi -- listen, have you guys eaten? Because we're feeling intensely Szechwanish."

Women often do the talking in his cartoons, he says, because "I think they're more interesting than men." And even that's not politics. "We're at the cultural moment where they're better off. They don't know who they are and so they're capable of anything, whereas men have literally been the background."

For example, he says, in the case of the woman describing the people with "lots of -- you know, money," "If a man says that line . . . it would be awful, but a woman saying it means it's hilarious . . . Yet the thoughts is utterly sexless." Women are more interesting he says, because they're trying to "keep up all the time, with the latest cookware, the latest trend."

Far from finding that a shallow pursuit, he feels it's absolutely necessary, and not just for effective cartooning. "In this life, whether you like it or not, there is nothing you can do except be kept up with trends. It's a trendy culture . . . I don't know anybody who's not involved with trends, whether it's platform shoes or whether to care about Asia or not. Those little metal bits start appearing on shoes, just a few of them, and pretty soon the whole world's clanking with them."

What about the charge that such concerns are trivial? "I think people who think it's trivial are loathsome," he says sunnily.

That could be construed as a cynical attitude, and "Save Grand Central" looks like a cynical play. But he really doesn't spend all his time loathing people who think he's trivial. He has more pressing things to think about, like the love story at the core of "Save Grand Central." In the Opening scene, when Charles and Lucy meet, bells start to chime and things begin to click. Or they will, he promises, when the first act is rewritten. Lucy remarks that something extraordinary is taking place. It doesn't, but not for lack of tyring.

It's not so much that William Hamilton finds young lovers -- whom he describes as "sweet and hopeful" after all -- so tiresome. It's more that the audience and the actors didn't give them much of a chance. One has only to look at his drawing on the cover of the program to feel Hamilton's in earnest. It's a mass of dark suits and loosely coifed heads making small talk. Lucy, passing a tray of canapes, is giving a vaguely spellbound look over a dark shoulder. Her eyes are meeting the startled dots that are Charles's. Startled by recognition? True love? Unfortunately, the drawing raises more alluring possibilities than the play at this point. But Hamilton seems determined to save "Save Grand Central."

He has a good time rewriting, and calls this project "a wonderful toy." He even seems to be thriving in the garrulous company of mixed reviews and sniping comments, quite a change from the solitary life of a cartoonist whom no one takes seriously enough to criticize. In fact, he hates cartooning.

"I'm shifting gears in my head. It's really hard to draw now . . . IT's like playing too many stations on the radio. The knob is jammed." Does he think that's because he's heading for a career in the theater? "Definitely."

Don't despair, though. William Hamilton is still dragging himself over to his drawing table for cartoons. And he has a new book coming out called "Money Should be Fun," published by Houghton Mifflin. "I just did it for money," he says of cartooning. "Money, fame."

Nonetheless, he seems delighted to be entering the world of the theater, which he himself characterizes as "treacherous." Already he has had the rude experience of having to buy his play back from producer David Merrick in order to see it put on in a theater. He doesn't seem fazed. "It's shabby life," he will say, cheerfully. Mostly, it seems, he wants to plunge into rewrites and then begin struggling with his next opus, "War Stories."

"Lacking money is a great incentive," he says, and besides, "People in the theater wouldn't take you seriously. . . . If I had enormous trust funds, I don't think it would be the same." William Hamilton is a man without a trust fund, but he has been left a heritage of manners.

Could this mean that he is at home in the theater, cartooning the rich from afar? "Au contraire," he says, in that jauntily bad French accent which sounds so well-bred, "Those have been my friends all my life." And so far, it's paying off.

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