Best and Worst Friend
One of the advantages of outliving people you knew is that you can write freely about them. The worst best friend I ever had was named Nathan Povich Mensh. We were kids when we met in 1941 in Washington, D.C., where our houses backed onto each other, with an alley between. I was eight, and he was seven. Nathan lived with his mother, Doris, his father Ben (who worked in a bank), his sister Marsha, and their maid Henrietta (from whom I learned some of the popular songs of the day).
It was through a collision with Nathan in the alley, where we were both running to catch a tossed-up ball, that I lost my two front teeth. Some time after that, I was riding with Nathan and his father in their car. I was sitting between them. Nathan said something his father didn’t like. Ben, who was driving, stretched across me to smack Nathan, but his arm struck my mouth, and broke the denture I had just recently had installed.
Nathan was small for his age (my mother called him “The Squirt”) but tended to compensate by being loud and aggressive. Nevertheless, we were “best friends.” We went to the same school and Hebrew School, and one summer, we went away to camp together. It was Camp Airy in the mountains of Maryland. In those days – and for long after – I was, thanks to some whim of my mother, known to everybody as “Junior Brilliant ” (although my father’s name was Victor). I hated my real names, Ashleigh Ellwood, which Nathan knew – but I made him promise not to tell. There is still in existence a letter I wrote home, telling my parents that Nathan was threatening to reveal my names to my fellow-campers. Apparently my mother approached Doris Mensh about this, and the threat was never carried out. But that was the kind of “best friend” I had.
Later Nathan conspired with other boys at the synagogue to get me demoted from my elected position as President of the “Children’s Congregation.” This also didn’t work, possibly because it was known that my family would soon be going back to England.
But we were friends, and we did play together, and often went to the movies together. Once, for some reason, his father “parked” us in a theater for several hours, where we had to watch the same movie over and over again. I still shudder when that film, Northern Pursuit, comes on TV. (The German villain is played by Helmut Dantine, whose name confused me, because of its similarity to Dentine Chewing Gum which was widely advertised at the time – I can still sing you the jingle.)
After we left Washington, I practically lost contact with Nathan, except once, when he was in the Navy, and I was a graduate student at Claremont, where he came and visited me. We seemed to have so little in common, I couldn’t help asking myself, “How could we ever have been friends?” Subsequently, I think he went into the used-car business.
But many years later, when I’d made something of a success with my Pot-Shots, Nathan came into my life in a different connection. As I told you, his middle name was Povich. His uncle, Shirley Povich, who was a very well-known sports writer for the Washington Post, had several children, one of whom was Maury, who became a major celebrity as host of his own TV show.
Nathan now apparently sought to capitalize on his relationship with his cousin Maury, and his “friendship” with me. He approached me by telephone with the idea that he could get me on the Maury Povich Show – but he would want to be paid for this service. So, he was now no longer my friend, but my agent. Hungry for publicity, I didn’t decline. If this scheme had panned out, it would probably have changed my life.
But it turned out that Nathan didn’t have as much influence with his cousin Maury as he thought – or wanted me to think – and the whole plan fizzled. Despite whatever literary reputation I may have achieved, I’ve never yet been on any widely-seen TV show.
That was the last direct contact I had with my former best friend. When I tried to look him up a few years ago, I found that he had died in 1999, and is buried in a “National Cemetery,” in a place called Indiantown Gap in Pennsylvania.