Distracted and wet, uncombed hair dripping onto her hastily tied robe, Vicki Abelson opened the front door expecting a package delivery or the like. Standing before her was mortified actor, Robert Morse, quickly having realized he’d mistaken the day he was to read at Vicki’s salon, Women Who Write. Equally embarrassed, but delighted by the surprise, Vicki laughed and invited him in to her sunny Southern California kitchen. After all, the week before, Jackie Collin’s limousine was parked outside her condo. She rolls with it. Any single aspect of this life would’ve been literally unbelievable to her thirty years ago.
At twenty-four, Vicki Katz was an actress waitressing at the trendy, singles-centric Maxwell’s Plum on New York’s Upper East Side. She was attractive and friendly. Tips were good. Vicki had earned a degree in drama education. The choice as she’d perceived it, was $7,000 a year as a high school teacher or $20,000 a year as a waitress…pursuing her dreams.
Like any eager young actress, Vicki auditioned like crazy, securing small roles in a few NYU productions and then in the short films of Saturday Night Live. Though her moxie got her upgraded to bit parts, everything seemed to end up on the cutting room floor. She went to several psychics, all of whom told her it just wasn’t her time.
Vicki changed her name to Keats and went blonde, determined “to be anything they wanted me to be,” a phrase she’d never utter now. She married and divorced an actor. Frustrated with her career, she joined an improv group on Long Island. They were experienced and merciless, making the novice the butt of every joke. “I decided I was going to get armed.” She took stand-up classes and started haunting late night comedy clubs to get her sea legs. She was thirty.
Her first paid gig as a comedienne was organized by Vicki’s teacher. “I was a monologist. It was all my own material. And I had a Jap/Rap that killed” (a Jewish American Princess Rap—way ahead of its time) The performance took place at a small new club on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village. Attendance was to say the least, sparse. Still, the waitresses and bartender laughed at Vicki’s turn. It was a nice little venue, she thought, and should have been jammed. She suggested to the owners they book her new boyfriend’s rock band; she’d see that the club was filled. They agreed.
“So I personally get on the phone and call everyone I know. The night comes and the place is PACKED!” Management offered Vicki another night. Again, she picked up the phone. By the third night, there was a line out the door. Every evening, Vicki would circulate taking down the names and numbers of anyone who happened in. Her list grew. The attending crowd felt privileged because they’d been personally invited. There was no Twitter then. No Facebook. No iPhone. No emailing. The club hired her to do PR “a few hours a week.” Ha.
Vicki was dynamic, zealous, indefatigable. She got the cafe listed in the New York papers. Inexperienced, she thought outside the box: Each night, David Brenner began his television show by opening his button-down to reveal a cool tee-shirt. Vicki sent him the Rock N’Roll Café tee. Packed with it was a note telling the comedian her aspirations, reminding him she’d waited on him at Maxwell’s. Her bosses skeptically agreed to double her salary if Brenner wore the shirt on the air. For weeks, Vicki sat at the bar glued to the TV. A scream went up! He wore the shirt. Vicki stopped doing stand-up.
Until 1994, Vicki Keats, Rock Girl (her industry name) moved from club to larger, more prestigious club—booking/promoting name acts, staging increasingly important jams, fraternizing with headliners as well as some sleazy managers and owners, earning really good money, garnering press and every week, personally making hundreds of phone calls.
Her hours were long and backwards. Excesses were offered and encouraged by the world in which she moved. Life was LOUD, fast, and exciting. Each change seemed hipper and more chic. Each opportunity greater and more challenging.
Vicki and her teacher had developed a different kind of relationship; they married. She quit rock and began to manage her husband’s career as he segued from performing to writing, eventually landing a job on a network show and commuting to L.A. Her children, Harry and Samantha were born. Vicki channeled her outsized energy into being Super Mom. She began to attend Writing Sober meetings.
In 2001, the couple were due to fly to the Emmys in Los Angeles, and were on their way to JFK when the towers came down. The airports closed. It was a profound experience. Vicki found herself writing, “I never thought of myself as a writer. Fifteen pages later I thought, I’m going to write a book.” A fictional memoir began to take shape. Vicki Abelson felt connected.
Four years later, the family moved to the coast, keeping their beloved New York apartment, still filled with furniture. Between Vicki’s writing group and that which she was writing about, a seismic shift occurred. “My world became about women. Up till then, most of my confidantes were men.” Encouraged by an editor, Vicki felt she needed a different kind of feedback. She’d invite a few people to an afternoon reading at her home, perhaps ask another author to join her.
Women Who Write began in 2008 with Erika Schickel (daughter of Richard Schickel) reading from her book You’re Not the Boss of Me and Vicki reading from her book, Don’t Jump. Word spread…fast. Vicki became a modern Gertrude Stein. Guests have included Marlee Matlin, Elaine Boosler, Susie Essman and Jeff Garlin of Curb Your Enthusiasm, and the amazing, evergreen Jackie Collins. Also Robert Morse, Michael O’Keefe, and Craig Bierko (Under the new WWW and Occasionally Exceptional Men Too.*) A waiting list was necessarily instituted.
“Vicki… does a great favor to women… I’ve loved being here today…Vicki’s a rock star … she’s better than that: she’s a rock star WOMAN!” Jackie Collins, Poor Little Bitch Girl
“There’s nothing better than a room full of women sharing books, words and food!” Marlee Matlin, I’ll Scream Later
Once a month in her Los Angeles home and twice a year at a rented facility in Manhattan, Women Who Write gathers some sixty-five women: writers, readers, and guests. The event is free. It traditionally begins with music followed by readings, including Vicki herself. A break for conversation, book and CD signings, and a Pot Luck meal follows. Finally, there’s an open discussion such as: Switching Gears in Midlife, Where’s Your Muse? or an exploration of what was just heard. After every assembly, a write up with photographs and video links is posted online.
The next New York conclave will take place on Jan 4th at 6 p.m. It will be interesting, entertaining, fun, provocative, nurturing and probably a bit raucous. (I’ve attended). Also waitlisted.
Vicki Katz Keats Abelson is having the time of her life. Her children are healthy and happy. She’s received a contract offer for Don’t Jump and there’s interest in the film rights. Shortlisted for Oprah Winfrey’s new network, OWN, she’s recently forged a relationship with a producing partner and is shooting a pilot. Her next book is in the works and she continues to joyfully organize Women Who Write. “It’s my bliss, the culmination of everything I’ve done…it’s beyond my wildest dreams to know people are inspired by this.” Testimonials agree.
* I asked Vicki why men are not allowed except as guest authors. “Men change the dynamic, less so as performers, but would a lot in terms of contributing to the discussion. This way, women are freer to be themselves. This is about sharing the experience of art and what’s born from it as women.”
You can read more about Vicki at www.vickiabelson.com and contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. She’s also on Facebook.
Woman Around Town’s Six Questions
Favorite Place to Eat: Nobu
Favorite Place to Shop: Daffy’s on East 57th Street; Macy’s on 34th, and Zabars.
Favorite New York Sight: The Garden in Riverside Park at 91 Street (featured in You’ve Got Mail)
Favorite New York Moment: No matter where I am, where I go, every single outing in NYC, I run into someone I know. The biggest small town in the world.
What You Love About New York: See above. And the pizza. And the Sushi. And the deli. And the Bagels. THE FOOD. And the people. And theatre. And walking amidst the hustle and bustle. And The New York Post.
What You Hate About New York: Packed trains at rush hour. Getting around when it’s slushy, or pouring.
Photos, from top:
Vicki with Robert Morse
Elliot Easton (of The Cars) Vicki Keats, Eddie Ojeda (of Twisted Sister) 1988
Jackie Collins and Vicki
Vicki and Craig Bierko