Live from the Lilith Blog 1 of 2
March 9, 2016 by Eleanor J. Bader
That was a decade ago, when the actor-comedian-singer-chanteuse was 71. “I was scared of heckling,” Forest admits. “I was afraid no one would want to listen to an old Jewish woman. Before this experience, I’d spent decades singing on stage. In fact, I’ve been performing since I was a child, but when people laugh and applaud at a comedy club, well, I get naches, great pleasure, from it.”
Forest’s smile widens as she sits back in her chair to discuss her life’s trajectory. Born in 1934 in Newton, Massachusetts—one of the few Boston suburbs that welcomed Jewish residents—she describes her family as “conservative Republican.” Nonetheless, by the time Forest was eight or nine, her mom had become an adherent of Jewish Science, a spiritual movement that emphasizes the role of affirmative prayer, divine healing, and the importance of maintaining a positive attitude. At the same time her mother loved to throw large parties and tell off-color stories and jokes to her friends and neighbors. Unbeknownst to the adults, young D’yan would eavesdrop from the home’s second floor.
Forest found the narratives alluring—even when she did not fully understand them—and something inside her clicked.
Still, despite these occasional forays into impropriety, the era’s gender boundaries were rigid, and Forest—whose birth name was Diana Shulman—understood that she was expected to marry “a nice Jewish boy” when she came of age. So she did. After graduating from Middlebury College, where Forest was the only Jewish female, she accepted a proposal from an ambitious young attorney. The liaison lasted for four years. “He did not know how to pleasure a woman,” Forest laughs. “I was a stupid virgin when I met him. If I had fooled around before marriage I would have known not to marry him.”
The alliance proved useful, however, as fodder for Forest’s subsequent career as an entertainer; like many of Forest’s experiences, anecdotes about matrimony eventually found their way into her one-woman shows and monologues.
The most recent, A Broad Abroad, debuted in February during New York City’s Frigid Festival; critics sang its praises. In the hour-long show, Forest sings, dances, plays the ukulele and piano, and tells a plethora of ribald stories about the many men she’s dated and bedded. Reviewers called it funny, charming, and irreverent. Her other shows, including I Married a Nun and My Heart is Purrin’ Again, recount the vicissitudes of lesbian romance, something she also knows about first-hand.
“After my marriage to Irwin ended, I went to Paris,” Forest explains. “While there, I discovered men and women. I broke out. I was curious about everything.”
Call it a crash course in independent living, a multi-year program that taught her to juggle pantomime and voice classes with sexual escapades and full-time work as a cabaret singer. Forest’s blue eyes widen as she gleefully reminisces about this period—the early 1960s.
Why did you leave the City of Light? I ask.
For a moment, Forest becomes somber. “My parents,” she explains, “wanted me to come back to Boston. The excuse was a family wedding.” Eventually, she continues, she and her folks reached a compromise: Rather than returning to New England, Forest agreed to move to New York City. In short order she found an apartment in the West Village, joined the Musicians Union, and found several jobs. “I think I played and sang in every bar, restaurant, and club in the City,” she says. “I made a very good living but it was, and still is, an alcoholic atmosphere and I don’t drink very much.”
She also traveled to the Catskills where she plied her trade, singing in nine languages. “I did this for about 15 years,” she says, “until the Catskills started to fade. I’ve performed in cities and small towns throughout the U.S and played internationally, in Barbados, Canada, Greece, France, Israel, Jamaica, and Mexico.”
Did you ever want for work? I ask. And did you face any roadblocks?
“Oh, God,” she sighs, taking a deep breath before resuming our conversation. “One agent told me that I couldn’t be a singer if I looked Jewish so I had a nose job. Another told me that I couldn’t perform if I had a Jewish name, so I became D’yan Forest, and still another told me that I couldn’t be a comedian because I wasn’t ugly. He said that only ugly women became comics.”
For a moment, Forest sounds angry, furious about the overt sexism and anti-Semitism that was then pervasive in the industry.
After a momentary pause, however, Forest continues. “I wish I’d been born 50 years later,” she says. “There were so many limitations on young girls when I was growing up. I remember being in second grade and telling someone that I wanted to wear a helmet and play football. I hated being told, ‘no, girls don’t do that.’ I hated having to wait for boys to call me. Then, when I was a teenager, in 1950 or 1951, I asked my parents for a guitar. They got me a ukulele instead because they thought that guitars were only for boys.”
Forest shakes her head as she points to the many ukuleles hanging from the walls of her brightly-painted living room. At the same time, she makes sure to emphasize that she feels incredibly lucky. “I’ve had a nearly six-decade career doing what I love,” she says.
Of course, she adds, there have been moments of heartbreak and disappointment, but thanks to prodding from people like Rabbi Joyce Reinitz, a psychotherapist and author of Reclaiming Judaism as a Spiritual Practice, and writers/directors Stephen Jobes and Eric Kornfeld, Forest has no reason to think about slowing her pace or retiring.
“I absolutely love to perform, sing, and do comedy,” Forest gushes.
Now, though, it’s time for our 90-minute interview to end so that Forest can rest for a while. “I want to review my lines for tonight’s performance,” she grins. “After all, I’m almost 82 and my memory isn’t what it used to be.”