“While my dreams of becoming a great baseball pitcher were on the wane, I still felt the need to do something athletic. Preferably something that didn’t involve too much coordination or the letting down of team members. Something like — running! For years I’d thought about running as I watched joggers trotting along the Charles River; finally one day I stopped thinking about it, bought some decent running shoes, and hit the pavement.
ON the first day I ran a mile. I thought I was going to die. It was wrong to be that sore. But after babying myself for a few days, I took to the road again and made sure that no matter what, I ran two miles a day. My blisters and my hamstrings screamed afterwards but no matter how tired I was or how bad the weather, I did my miles.
I can’t remember exactly when two miles started to feel like nothing, as natural as breathing, or when I felt I could have kept on running another two miles with ease. But I do remember one gorgeous fall day, the air tasting like apples and smoke, and I never felt so alive. I was forty-three years old, and except for those times lifting weights as a teenager, I’d never before felt this sense of grace and integration with my own physicality.
Running saved me. Problems with women, my worries about my son Aldo, issues with the show — everything fell into perspective as I racked up mile after mile. The rhythm of running was like music to me; I ran listening to Lester Young, Sousa marches, Count Basie, even Wagner. Sometimes I was so lost in the running and music I had a sensation of floating. I began to run the four miles to the studio and back from my South End condo, keeping a change of clothes at the station.
One day I blew into the building after a brisk run from home and made my way to the men’s dressing room to shower. Standing in his underwear, shaving, was Vincent Price. I took me a few seconds to reconcile the star of The Fly, and The Pit and the Pendulum, and at the time the voice of Mystery Theater at PBS with the tall man I saw before me, who calmly kept on shaving as I stood there staring.
‘I’m sorry, Mr. Price, I can come back…’
‘No, no, come in, young man. I’m just finishing up here.’
I introduced myself, tossed my bag down, and threw some water on my face. ‘You have such a wonderful voice, I’ve enjoyed listening to it all my life.’
‘My voice is nothing. You want to know who had the most beautiful voice in the world? Mario Lanza. We’ll never hear anything like that again on earth, my boy,’ he said, rinsing his razor.
‘Weren’t you in that movie with him, Serenade?’
‘Indeed I was.’
‘Such a shame he died so young,’ I said. ‘At least we have another great tenor today, Pavorotti!’
‘You’re right. Thank God for Luciano.’
We talked for at least fifteen more minutes about his art collection, acting career, cookbooks he’d written, everything under the sun until he was clean shaven and dressed. Later I learned he’d offered to lend his best House of Wax voice on outgoing messages for several WGBH employees. He was a real gentleman, as elegant as you might imagine him. I, on the other hand, did my show in sweaty jogging clothes because I had completely forgotten to take a shower.
If you had told me back in 1978 that I’d soon meet a woman who would change my definition of what a relationship could be, I ‘d have laughed in your face, laced up my Nikes, and taken off for a really, really long run.
But that’s exactly what happened. And I’ll be forever grateful it did.
At the time I’d rescued myself from the suburbs — I am not a suburban guy, I learned — and settled in a small rental in Somerville. I started hanging out with my dear friend, jazz pianist Dave McKenna. Whitney Balliett, critic for the New Yorker, called him ‘Super Chops’ and ‘the hardest swinging jazz pianist of all time.’ Dave had an unending repertoire at the keyboard and a magical left hand that made a bass player seem unnecessary. For a decade he was a pianist-in-residence at the Copley Plaza Hotel, where everyone came to hear him play, including Tony Bennett, Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Rosie Clooney, and Joe Venuti. But beyond his brilliant playing, he was a gas to hang out with, always up for fun, and ready to hit the town for a good meal.
Inman Square was our stomping ground. We had our choice of the Inman Square Men’s Bar, Ryles, Joe’s Place, and the original Legal Sea Food, although mostly we’d hit the Chinese restaurant around the corner for the General Tso’s Chicken.
It was around this time that I started hearing about Joyce.
Marty Elkins, a singer friend of Dave’s, told me Joyce ran this place called the Turtle Café with her business partner, Nancy Madden. Every time Marty saw me she said the same thing: you have to meet my friend Joyce; you’d like her, I just know it. And every time Dave and I went out, we’d walk right past the Turtle, with its glowing purple neon turtle in the window. I never stopped in at first; I’m not sure why. Later I learned Joyce had spotted me a number of times passing her restaurant on my way to eat Chinese next door. Finally Dave said, ‘Look, I’m playing at the Turtle next Friday. You’re coming with me.’
You know how sometimes you know things even before you know them? That’s what that Friday night was like for me. I put a bit more thought into what I wore; I heard Marty’s words, “You have to meet this woman’ over and over in my brain, and my heart beat a little faster as I walked past the Chinese place, [Editorial note: the “Chinese place” has a name: it’s Jae’s,] ignoring that moo goo gai pan smell, and opened the heavy mahogany door of the Turtle Café for the very first time.
And, oh dear God, there she was. This woman mixing cocktails behind the bar with supernatural grace. A ringer for Jennifer Jones. I was officially knocked out.
And then she smiled at me.
I guess I must have frozen in place because Dave gave me a shove and I snapped out of my stupor.
‘Joyce,’ Dave said, ‘This is Ron Della Chiesa.’
‘Oh yes,’ she said, with a brief glance, ‘I listen to you sometimes.’
And that pretty much wrapped that up. In contrast to my needing life support, she didn’t seem particularly blown away.
Then again it was Friday night, and the place was booming. A bar full of boisterous patrons, a jam-packed dining room, and Dave already off and getting set up to play his set. A cutting edge restaurant (which became the East Coast Grill), the Turtle featured contemporary regional cuisine, changing its menu every three or four days not only for variety but to continually showcase whatever was in season, a relatively new concept for its time. On weekends they’d feature jazz greats: Teddy Wilson, Scott Hamilton, Sammy Price, and Gray Sargent, a guitarist who these days works with Tony Bennett. I quickly learned it was a great place to hang out and meet these legends, since they’d usually come in to eat before their gig. I had to admit it was certainly cooler than the Chinese place.
The next morning I got Marty on the phone and asked her a thousand Joyce-related questions.
‘I think she might still be involved with someone, I’m not sure,’ Marty said. ‘But i get the feeling that’s wrapping up.’
‘I’m in the same boat. Sort of in, sort of out, but mostly out. You know, the gray area.’
Marty laughed. ‘I hear you. But Joyce is an amazing woman, you know. Did you know that Gordon Hammersley started out at the Turtle as Joyce’s protégé? The woman cooks like a dream.’
‘No kidding,’ I said, staring at the lonely can of King Oscar Sardines and stale bread on my counter.
‘Oh year, and she’s not so crazy about Chinese food.’
By the end of the day I couldn’t take it any more. I looked up Joyce’s number, picked up the phone, and dialed.
She answered. She sounded a little sleepy.
‘Hi, Joyce? It’s Ron Della Chiesa. We met last night at your restaurant. I really enjoyed meeting you.’
‘Oh yes… hi Ron. It was fun to finally meet you; I mean I listen to you all the time.’
‘Wow, that’s great. We should get together sometime.’
‘I don’t know about that…’
‘Well, when’s your night off?’
‘Do you want to go out tonight, then?’
‘Well, I’m ironing. I have this big pile of ironing to finish up.’
‘OK, then maybe some other time.’
And we said goodbye. I stared at my dingy bachelor pad a few minutes, threw on my jogging clothes, and went out for a six mile run in the pouring rain.
A few weeks later I was sitting at the bar at Ryles nursing a drink when I caught sight of her sitting at a table with Nancy and Nancy’s fiancé , Bill. Though I began to sweat, I decided this was my turn to play it cool. Well known Boston radio personality sipping a martini at the bar; what could be more alluring than that? So I sipped and gazed thoughtfully at the middle distance.
But I couldn’t help stealing glances at her. Finally she noticed me, and all she did, all she moved in fact, was one eyebrow. Just lifted it a tiny bit.
I put down my drink and sprinted over to her, leaping over a rail and knocking over several chairs in the process. Once everyone stopped laughing, I was finally able to talk to the woman I’d been dreaming about for weeks.
People have asked me what first attracted me to my wife, and of course, that was her beauty and her smile. I have to say, however, that she was and is my soul mate. How many women would sit through the Wagner’s entire Ring Cycle with me, crying at the same moments, or finding the same things hilarious or moving? I remember both of us nearly losing it when, while watching Tosca one day at the Met, the heroine jumped off the balcony of the Castel Sant’Angelo screaming, ‘We’ll meet in hell!’ and bounced right back up from the mattress beneath the stage.
One of our slogans at WGBH at the time was, “A World of Choice.’ My personal slogan quickly evolved into, ‘A World of Joyce.’ In short, I don’t think I’ve ever had so much fun with anyone in my life. Her sense of humor; a similar passion for opera, jazz, the symphony; her love of travel; her fabulous cooking; all there, of course, but mostly it is her heart, that intangible essence of humanity and kindness that defines her that allowed us to bond. Moreover, she embraced my son, Aldo, as if he were her own. She even put him to work at the Turtle Café when he was ten or eleven, trusting him to do the work, which instilled in him some real pride.
Though our courtship mostly took place all around Inman Square, we loved going to Nantucket on weekends. She was living on Beacon Hill with a gay couple when we met, George Ormiston and Vince Scardino; but over time, she moved into my condo, and we became a part of each other’s families.
I also appreciated that we not only had our own passionate interests, but that there was a mutual respect about their pursuit. By that I mean, in particular, that she put up with my growing marathon addiction. I’d been training with my old friend Paul Antonelli, now a distance runner who convinced me to jump in the pack (unofficially as a ‘bandit’) at the Boston Marathon, where to my amazement I not only completed the race, but crossed the finish line at just over four hours.
After running two more Boston marathons illegally, I ran the New York Marathon three times with a number, Joyce cheering me on all the way. I think she understood how important this was to me. The third race was especially grueling; a cold rain beat down for most of it, and I almost quit. At the very beginning of the rac eon the Verrazano Bridge, I saw a woman running roped to a blind man, and I thought, my God, if they can do it, I can drag my sorry butt through this. Twenty-two miles later in Harlem, cramping badly in both legs, I had serious doubts about crossing the finish line; then, like a vision, I saw a man under a wide black umbrella who looked like Fats Waller handing me a cup of something. It was Sammy Price, a jazz piano player known as the ‘King of Boogie Woogie’ and a guest on MusicAmerica. He’d actually shown up to support me, as he said he would! He handed me the cup of water saying, ‘It’s gin, buddy. Go, paesan, go!’ He was like an angel guiding me through those last excruciating steps. In the end I made my best time of 3:43, not bad for a forty-eight-year-old, and close to my goal of 3:30. The best part was seeing Joyce’s smiling face at the finish line and hearing Sinatra’s ‘New York, New York’ blaring over the loudspeakers, then celebrating with her family in Brooklyn.
We were married on June 10, 1986, Joyce’s birthday. To this day she reminds me that she rates two presents on that day: anniversary and birthday, but hey, it’s fewer dates for me to remember. The Turtle Café also closed the same year, and it was an honor to host that event with old friend John Henning and feature Dave McKenna, who on that final night burned up the piano like I’d never seen before or since.”