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Once a week, with feeling

The city is full of guy groups that meet through thickening waists and thinning hair to connect, confide and show men can be touchy-feely too.

June 20, 2004|Michele Willens | Special to The Times

Men don't talk to each other.

Well, OK, they talk royal flush vs. full house, Shaq vs. Kobe, Red Sox vs. Yankees. But they don't sit around, as do women, and reveal, share intimacies and frailties. Right?

"That's a myth," counters writer-director Andrew Bergman, who's been meeting weekly in New York City with five men for more than two decades.

Retired Los Angeles businessman Bill Newman, who surprised himself by responding so openly to the group he attends every Wednesday in Beverly Hills, agrees: "We discuss confidential problems of a psychological nature."

The truth is, there are plenty of men of all ages who meet regularly and get right down to the most human of stuff.

"It would be best if they could do it one on one with each other in a more natural way," says Los Angeles psychiatrist Dr. Roger Gould. "But these groups are the next best thing, great training experiences. Work and sports aren't the right realms for real talk or for exploring the vagaries of life."

And if you think these men's groups take it lightly, think again.

"I came back from Iowa on a 6:15 a.m. flight just to make it to our lunch," says CNN commentator Jeff Greenfield, who's part of the Bergman group.

"Last Wednesday I gave up a potential new client meeting because it interfered with the group," says another member, advertising executive Jerry Della Femina. "Heck, it was only a $5-million account."

Della Femina was the last member admitted into that group ("I sort of auditioned") 23 years ago. And while today he calls it "a lifeline for us all," he admits he was a rather reluctant joiner.

"When I met my now-wife, Judy," he recalls, "she complained that I had no male friends. To which I explained I don't like men friends, I prefer the company of women. It was not her idea of a good way to start a relationship, so she kicked and screamed and got Joel [film critic Siegel] to invite me."

Not that he's completely turned around: "It turns out I only like these guys."

His wife felt that Della Femina needed male friends to confide in and that it would ease her burden. "Men are still overly dependent on their wives to create a social life," Gould says, "and too dependent on them to be their emotional connections."

My father, who died last year, was not the most, shall we say, intimate of men: There was a quip for everything, and he deflected personal conversation by asking most of the questions. And yet he was part of a Los Angeles group that called itself the Tuesday Knights (they met the first Tuesday of the month) for more than 25 years. Comprising about 10 men and founded by advertising executives team Jack Roberts and Ralph Carson, the group was formed to discuss national issues. But eventually they discarded the political for the personal.

"It started lagging in the early '80s," recalls Lillian Carson, widow of Ralph, "and then Ralph got sick" (with the lung disease that took his life a few years later). "His wish was for the group to get back together on a regular basis, and that's when they began to talk more personally and the bonds grew."

Different sparks

Men's groups often tend to start up around a specific topic, as the Tuesday Knights did with politics and as did another group that has been meeting at the Brentwood Country Club monthly for more than 30 years. ("Only once did it get personal: when my wife left me and we all talked about our marriages," recalls member Wesley Bilson.)

In the case of the Coffeehouse group in New York, journalists and show people get together simply to schmooze: "a place to meet without offices," says NBC producer Paul Greenberg, a member along with New Yorker writer Roger Angell.

When actor-singer Mandy Patinkin found himself talking one night at a party with three men who had young boys in the same Manhattan school, he suggested they meet regularly to discuss raising sons.

"It was an amazing release, to learn how others were dealing with similar issues," says member Warren Sherman.

The longer such groups continue, of course, the more chance that a crisis will arise among the members: So it was with the fathers' group when one of the dads contracted terminal cancer.

"It was wrenching and felt like a death in the family of all our families," Hoyle says. "Mark used to say the father's group was really about family. When we got together about a month before he died, Mark was still talking matter-of-factly about death, cancer and fatherhood. He was not naturally a guy to talk about himself, but the group allowed him to tell us that it was important our sons not see him giving in to this devastating disease."

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