Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Quote of the Day (Nathanael West to F. Scott Fitzgerald, Relating the Reception of His Most Recent Book)

“The box score stands: Good reviews— fifteen per cent, bad reviews—twenty five per cent, brutal personal attacks—sixty percent. Sales: practically none.

"I’ll try another one anyway, I guess.”—Nathanael West in a letter to F. Scott Fitzgerald, June 30, 1939, discussing the critical and popular reaction to his last novel, The Day of the Locust, in Nathanael West, Novels and Other Writings (Library of America edition)

Neither West no Fitzgerald ever had the chance to “try another one.” Amazingly, these two writers who spent time in Hollywood as screenwriters died within 24 hours of each other a year later--Fitzgerald through a heart attack, West in a car crash that also killed his wife.

The closeness of their deaths capped a relationship that at first glance might seem incongruous in authors with such different styles and worldviews. Yet they formed a great bond, formed in mutual respect for each other and in resentment against a film colony that hired them for recognizable individual talents before doing everything it could to neuter these.

It would be hard to find projects as different as The Last Tycoon, Fitzgerald’s unfinished novel about a Hollywood producer who is a romantic at heart, and The Day of the Locust, a surrealistic fable of Tinseltown hangers-on that ends with an apocalyptic riot.

But Fitzgerald, with typical generosity to younger writers (such as Ernest Hemingway, who showed his gratitude multiple times after he’d become a success and Fitzgerald was on his slide downward), had recommended West for a Guggenheim fellowship (unfortunately, West didn’t receive the grant). West deeply appreciated the assist, perhaps sensing a kindred spirit—someone afflicted with the same sense of depression.

It’s impossible not to admire both men’s sense of iron resolution.

Its generally favorable critical reception notwithstanding (like many writers, West remembered a single brickbat and forgot all the bouquets), The Day of the Locust only sold about 1,500 copies—only half its initial print run—from publication in May 1939 to the following February. Fitzgerald, fired for drunkenness while on a trip up to Dartmouth College to gather material for a script, was now freelancing for three different studios, trying to stay sober so he could pay for his wife Zelda’s stay in a mental institution and for his daughter Scottie’s college education at Vassar.

Both men would receive posthumous recognition as American masters. The turnaround for Fitzgerald began with Princeton friend Edmund Wilson, who edited the shards of The Last Tycoon as well as a collection of essays, The Crack-Up. It would take the 1950s before the American intelligentsia awoke to the brilliance of West’s bleak vision in The Day of the Locust.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Quote of the Day (Former Record Mogul Walter Yetnikoff, on the Duality of Michael Jackson)

CNN anchor Carol Lin: “What was Michael Jackson like?”

Former CBS Records head Walter Yetnikoff: “Well, he's many different people, as a lot of us are. Part of him is a child. And you know, people have said that they've heard him speak in a different voice, you know, other than the squeaky one. I've never heard anything other than the squeaky voice. And I knew him quite well. And the story I tell to illustrate, you know, the childish part of his nature is, we were at a formal affair. And he had the monkey with him. And I was there. And we were all dressed in tuxedos, except for the monkey. And he turned to me...”

Lin: “This was Bubbles, right?”

Yetnikoff: “This was Bubbles, yes. I think there are a number of Bubbles, actually. And he turned to me and he said, ‘I have to tinkle. Can you take me to the potty?’

“I didn't actually, or else I might have more to report. So that's sort of the childish part of him. He was also in that era, quite an astute business person. You know, he bought the Beatles publishing catalogue. He was very careful about contracts. So in a lot of technical ways, he was a very good businessman.”—Transcript of Carol Lin interview with Walter Yetnikoff, CNN Sunday Night, March 14, 2004

In Yetnikoff’s wild, bridge-burning tell-all, Howling at the Moon, few figures evoke as much simultaneous hilarity and pathos as Michael Jackson. That duality—the same kind expressed in the droll, jaw-dropping anecdote above—lies at the heart of Jackson’s life and career.

The torrent of reactions unleashed by the death of the self-styled King of Pop indicates just how often he crossed boundaries—between rock and R&B, reality and fantasy, black and white, male and female, straight and gay.

Yetnikoff’s tale—which, given the publicly displayed absurdities of the singer’s life, cannot be dismissed out of hand—points to the boundary that Jackson was ultimately powerless to cross, one that inevitably led to last week’s tragedy: the divide between childhood and adulthood.

He never had a childhood, the child-man Jackson confessed to Yetnikoff, who was left shaking his head as much at the star’s personal deficits as at his record-breaking achievements: “‘Understand,’ he told me, ‘that I was a star when I was six.’ Sometimes I felt that he was still six. I wasn’t sure he could name the President of the United States. He had no social skills. He was a child who sought the company of other children.”

There it is: the King of Pop in his true role—not Captain Eo, but Peter Pan.

Last week, channel-surfing from Channel 4 to Fox’s New York news affiliate, I was struck by how gingerly anchors at both stations approached the child-abuse charges concerning the star. Those allegations cannot be discounted either in assessing his career or in judging him as a human being.

That Jackson became in the 1990s the quarry of an tabloid press heavily influenced by Fleet Street émigrés can’t be doubted. (For confirmation, if you ever get a chance, try to hunt down sometime a 1994 PBS Frontline documentary, Tabloid Truth.) But Jackson’s own increasingly bizarre behavior served as carrion for the journalistic vultures.

Jackson’s father Joseph subjected him to physical and emotional abuse as a child. At the end of the day, we are left with the real possibility that Jackson conformed to the prototype displayed by many child molesters: the victim who in turn becomes victimizer.

A line from Josephine Hart’s novel of politics and sexual obsession, Damage, partially explains Jackson’s dilemma: “Damaged people are dangerous; they know they can survive.” On the contrary: the singer’s life contained more than enough danger, but his death proved he could not survive the emotional turmoil that increasingly threatened to engulf him.

Hanging a child out of a high window for a crowd of fans to glimpse is more than the “terrible mistake” Jackson copped to—it’s child endangerment.

In 1994, Jackson’s attorney Johnnie Cochran negotiated an out-of-court settlement of child-molestation charges for an amount that has ranged from $5 to $20 million. Expensive legal assistance was also required to win him acquittal in his 2005 criminal trial on child-molestation charges—though at least one juror told reporters that he believed that at some point or another, Jackson had molested some child.

Subtracting his millions, then, would have put him in far graver legal jeopardy.

If Jackson was really some kind of Holden Caulfield, as certain enablers insisted, then why did he possess stashes of pornography in Neverland that could be picked up by his young visitors? Why did he see nothing wrong or even borderline creepy with sleeping with children?

In adulthood, Jackson became celebrated for his seeming ability to do it all: sing, compose, produce, execute dance moves like the Moonwalk that even impressed Fred Astaire, command a crowd, and star in videos with all the wizardry of a full-length MGM production.

Unfortunately, even with all the business acumen that Yetnikoff noticed, the one thing Jackson couldn’t do mattered the most to him: retrieve a stolen childhood.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

This Day in Yankee History (“The Great DiMaggio” Returns to Clobber the Red Sox)

June 28, 1949—Baseball’s greatest rivalry, between the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, recorded one of its most astonishing chapters, as the Bronx Bombers’ Joe DiMaggio (in the photo accompanying this post with brother Dom of his team’s rivals), back on the field after a painful bone spur had sidelined him for more than two months, began a pivotal three-game series by single-handedly pulverizing the Bosox.

This year, Yankee fans like myself have been forced to deal with another summer in which our team tries to stay close enough to the Red Sox that they won’t fall irretrievably behind if catastrophe strikes.

I suggest that Joe Girardi hand out to each of his plays a copy of David Halberstam’s terrific Summer of ’49 to see how the Bombers withstood the heat of a prior pennant race. In particular, he should get Alex Rodriguez to forget about what he’s going to do now without his steroid crutch and instead absorb the lessons in determination, single-minded concentration and self-confidence demonstrated by a prior five-tool, three-time MVP.

In the early 1970s, like most eighth-graders then and since, I was forced to read Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea (1954), a title that, like John Steinbeck’s The Pearl, is invariably assigned by skittish English Department chairs who choose a subpar rather than prime work of a great author because they mistakenly believe that students of a tender age will respond better to simplicity than to quality. It’s a little like Bob Dylan’s 1988 CD, Oh, Mercy: it’s not really a return to its creator’s great days, but the mere fact of an improvement after a creative drought is enough to cheer partisans.

But there’s one vignette in The Old Man and the Sea that almost redeems the purchase price, all by itself. In it, the fisherman of the title, Santiago, gives the kind of comfort that fathers in the New York area were used to imparting in those years:

"The Yankees cannot lose."

"But I fear the Indians of Cleveland."

"Have faith in the Yankees, my son. Think of the great DiMaggio."

As we now know, 10 years after his death, DiMaggio’s Achilles heel lay not so much in a physical but in a moral defect that, under the tutelage of Ty Cobb, evolved from an early insistence that he be paid what he was worth to an unrelenting miserliness by the time of his death in 1999.

The great paradox of his career is that the slugger, a man so aloof that he was said to “lead the league in room service,” also endlessly inspired his teammates, and perhaps never more so than during a pennant race with the Sox that became a classic. "We wanted to perform like DiMaggio," second baseman Jerry Coleman recalled years later. "Because of that. . . you push yourself harder."

The prior winter, the Yankee Clipper, aware of every penny he was worth, became the first baseball player to sign a $100,000 contract. But the first half of the season was a trial for him. His father died, the pain in his right heel throbbed, and the combination of enforced idleness and his perfectionist tendencies resulted in stress so pronounced that his ulcers flared up.

In the later years of his Hall of Fame managerial career, Casey Stengel’s use of the platoon system became much remarked upon. But he’d never used it much until, by necessity, he had to this first year with the Yankees. Not only was DiMaggio out, but Stengel didn’t have a regular first- or third –baseman and, after the hardy troika of Allie Reynolds, Vic Raschi and Eddie Lopat, his major hope for the pitching staff was divine intervention.

Miraculously, all the maneuvers paid off, and the Yankees were sitting atop a five-game lead as they headed toward the end of June.

But their Ted Williams-led rivals—who, every spring from 1947 through 1951, would be picked to win the pennant by The Sporting News—were showing signs of rounding into championship form. Their manager, Joe McCarthy, was dying for the opportunity to rub it into the former employer that had greased the skids on him during the 1946 season, edging him out for "health" reasons.

In mid-June, DiMaggio woke up one morning to find that the pain that bothered him in his right heel had, mysteriously and blessedly, vanished. He hadn’t picked up a bat in two months, but now convinced himself that, come hell or high water, he’d be ready to play in the Red Sox series at the end of the month.

By the end of the lost weekend in Fenway Park, it was the Red Sox rather than DiMaggio who were feeling the pain:

* June 28--DiMaggio’s two-run homer off Mickey McDermott provided the margin of victory in the Bombers’ 5-4 victory.

* June 29—With the Sox leading the Bombers 7-1, the Yankee Clipper cut the score to a far-more-respectable 7-4 with a three-run blast in the fifth. His solo shot in the eight broke a tie and paved the way for a 9-7 victory.

* June 30—With the Yankees barely holding on to a 3-2 lead in the seventh, DiMaggio engaged in a war of wills with Red Sox ace Mel Parnell, battling to a full count before sending the ball skyrocketing over the steel towers in left field, giving the Yankees a 6-2 win and a sweep of the series.

Four homers in three games. When the Red Sox lost the pennant on the last day of the season to their archrivals, they would all wish that something had prevented DiMaggio from playing that weekend three months earlier. But it proved once again why he was regarded as without a peer in the "summer game."

A half century later, New Yorker baseball writer Roger Angell aptly described the impact of the son of a San Francisco fisherman who inspired Hemingway’s Santiago: "No one else brought such presence and quiet command to the hard parts of the game, or is remembered by all who saw him play as being engaged in a private vision of his work that was offered daily for our pleasure."

Quote of the Day (Jackie Gleason, Amateur Theologian, on Sin)

“I have always believed that most sins are committed not because of the inability to control them, but because of the ability to perform them.”—TV comedian Jackie Gleason, quoted by Edith Efron, “Jackie Gleason on Sin, Music, Plato, Pity and Other Subjects,” TV Guide: The First 25 Years, compiled and edited by Jay S. Harris in association with the Editors of TV Guide Magazine (1978)

Yesterday, flipping through this anthology for story ideas, I came across this interview. It fascinates me because of the yawning contradiction between “The Great One’s” lifelong beliefs as a Roman Catholic and his frequently losing battle with just about every form of the Seven Deadly Sins, most notably pride, wrath, avarice, gluttony, and lust.

From time to time, Gleason made attempts at reform, including a reconciliation with his first wife, but these seldom lasted.

Gleason’s heavy drinking—borderline alcoholism, I think—is very much to the point of this quote. Addiction, we have come to believe after years of AA, certainly results from “inability to control” a biochemical mechanism. Yet the comedian seems to be rejecting psychology’s insights into addiction.

It all comes to mind with the story this past week of South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford. Why anyone would go to such lengths—down to South America, no less—to be with a mistress?

Now, I’ve heard all kinds of tales over the years about the sexual escapades of politicians (including a long-ago mayoral hopeful in my hometown who funded his mistress’ massage parlor). But Sanford’s case, like few others, raises the question of sex addiction.

Gleason’s remarkably old-fashioned take—perhaps instilled by the lessons of his impoverished Irish Catholic mom, perhaps by his own hard experience—is that we (very much including Sanford) shape our own destinies.

In this context, Sanford’s affair could take the astonishing turn it did precisely because the governor’s power and opportunities as head of a state seeking foreign investment afforded him numerous possibilities for what the Church (far more than it has been recently) once called “occasion for sins.”

Bill Clinton, guilty of his own variation of Sanford’s madness, explained in four words why he became involved with Monica Lewinsky: “Just because I could.” That’s a pithier seconding of Gleason’s point.

Gleason’s final project, the Garry Marshall-directed dramedy Nothing in Common, might surprise those who fondly remember his Ralph Kramden, Reginald Van Gleason, and even Minnesota Fats, yet I suspect that, filming only a year before his own death, he identified strongly with his part, in much the same way that John Wayne did with his cancer-afflicted gunslinger in The Shootist.

As Tom Hanks’ irascible father, Gleason does nothing to sugarcoat the selfishness and thoughtlessness with which his character has lived his life, particularly concerning his estranged wife. But a life-threatening medical condition brings him face to face with the meaning of his life and work—something that obsessed Gleason in his TV Guide interview, when he talked at length about original sin and living life with purpose.

At the end of Nothing in Common, Gleason’s sour patriarch finds himself saved despite the sum of his many wrong moral choices. He marvels at the mystery of love that has drawn his son closer to him. With time and the same sense of atonement (something sorely missing to date in his self-serving reflections about King David continuing in office), Sanford would be fortunate to experience the same moral awakening.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Quote of the Day (David Letterman, With a Belated Apology)

"I would like to apologize especially to the two daughters involved, Bristol and Willow, and also to the Governor and her family and everybody else who was outraged by the joke. I'm sorry about it and I'll try to do better in the future."—David Letterman, Late Night With David Letterman, apologizing for his joke about a daughter of Gov. Sarah Palin being “knocked up” by Alex Rodriguez on a visit to Yankee Stadium

I had been gathering my thoughts about the Letterman-Palin spitting match, only to be diverted by other subject matter (and some events unrelated to the writing of this blog) over the last week. Over the last couple of days, I wondered about just shelving the whole thing, thinking the matter was passé.

Ultimately, I thought better of it, for two reasons:

1) I had so much written already, so why discard it?

2) Even when she does nothing remotely newsworthy or even interesting, Gov. Palin possesses some mysterious quality that makes otherwise allegedly normal people—not just erstwhile aging GOP Presidential candidates but also current but aging talk-show hosts—lose their minds.

Given the distractions Palin caused his campaign, John McCain is probably wondering these days if her star quality and the precedent he set in choosing her was really worth the candle. Similarly, Letterman might be wondering if the chance to score a few cheap laughs at her expense was really worth a situation that scared the network suits and forced him to make an unusual and very public apology.

Nobody with any sense other than historians, I thought, would take any notice of Palin for, oh, at least another year and a half. Actually, I was praying that nobody would take notice of her. With an economy still taking on water, with the Middle East a mess and with North Korea bellowing at Japan and the U.S. and anyone else it has a mind to, the least I need is braying from another Presidential hopeful.

But damn if John Kerry didn’t go and put Palin in the spotlight again! (What was I saying about “erstwhile aging GOP Presidential candidates” just before?)

In the middle of last week, as speculation began to swell on where in the world was Mark Sanford, the junior Senator from Massachusetts said at a party gathering, "Too bad if a governor had to go missing, it couldn't have been the governor of Alaska. You know, Sarah Palin."

There were some guffaws reported at the event, but my guess is that these people must have been paid to do so. Otherwise, the remark offers ample evidence why a couple of years ago, after another gaffe (about the educational level of armed-forces enlistees) slipped from his lips, Democratic primary support went “missing” for its 2004 standard bearer. You know, John Kerry.

Leave aside the dubious humor of wishing someone could disappear. There’s that tone, the sense that Lord Kerry, whose comically high self-regard rivals a former barfly in his state, the fictional Dr. Frasier Crane, has deigned to tell us something we don’t know after a high-profile Presidential campaign that concluded less than nine months ago: i.e., that Sarah Palin is the governor of Alaska.

There’s also the fact that at the point when Kerry made his remarks, Gov. Palin was visiting her state’s troops in Kosovo and Iraq, where her oldest son has been stationed. I imagine that if something ghastly happened while she was over there, the senator would have to harrumph and backtrack on the double.

Tone and context were also part of what tripped up Letterman, but only part. The affair represented almost a Rorschach test in our national politics.

But before we get to that, to answer some questions you might have had:

* Do I think Letterman is sexually perverted toward teenage girls, as initially implied by Gov. Palin’s spokesperson? No. Give me a break.

* Do I think Letterman was sincere in his apology? No.

* Do I think Letterman is blameless in this whole thing? No.

It was fascinating to watch the sides line up on this issue. The more likely you were to be liberal or to love Letterman, the more likely you were to believe that Sarah Palin was, as one respondent put it on one Web site I saw, a “media whore.” The more likely you were to be conservative or to love Letterman’s former late night rival, Jay Leno, the more likely you were to want Letterman picketed, pickled, boiled, roasted on a pit, then fired.

I have a somewhat different perspective. I’ve never felt undying allegiance to Letterman or Leno, and though I’ve never voted Republican in a Presidential election, I’ve split my votes among Democrats, Republicans and independents in other races over the years.

If you want to characterize me, call me a contrarian, someone constitutionally averse to sticking with one set of people whose positions, through mutual reinforcement, will only calcify over time.

I don’t expect to vote for Palin for President if she runs in 2012. Her positions on the environment, energy and guns would, by themselves, lose my vote, but her resume is, to put it mildly, thin.

Letterman said he didn’t intend 14-year-old Willow, but instead her 18-year-old sister, the famously unwed mom Bristol, to be the target of his joke. I have no reason to dispute his defense that he’d never joke about a 14-year-old and statutory rape, and I think Palin was merely making political hay when she said she didn’t believe him.

Anyone who has ever put his words out for examination, either orally or in print, is bound to sympathize with the “Late Night” host’s bewilderment that the perception of his remark did not match his intentions. Which of us hasn’t said or thought, “Why don’t you understand what I’m trying to say?”

But none of this, in the end, constitutes a get-out-of-jail card for Letterman. This was not a joke wrenched out of context. Letterman is clearly nonplussed why so many people—not just conservatives, as you’d expect, but even the otherwise progressive National Organization for Women--were bothered by this.

So let me boil it down for him in a way that he—and other comics—should grasp:

Say what you want about politicians and officeholders. But if their kids are underage, spare us—and them—your barbs. They didn’t ask for it by entering public life. Just leave them alone.

Blogger Andrew Sullivan seems perhaps even more bothered than Letterman by all the fuss. Why shouldn’t people go after politicians’ families, he believes, since candidates put them on display for the voters?

Politicians, narcissists that they are, should understand that they enter the political arena at their own risk. And unlike shy, retiring Rachel Jackson or Mamie Eisenhower, today’s Presidential spouses are not just adults but, post-women’s-lib, active participants and public partners in their husbands’ campaigns.

But candidates' kids didn’t ask their parents to go for the grand prize. They have become collateral damage in partisan attempts to get at their parents.

It’s all part of the widening nastiness of politics over the last two decades. When he made fun of Chelsea Clinton’s looks on the air 15 years ago, Rush Limbaugh did nothing except expose his own cruelty. I was disgusted then, just as I am angered now at the treatment of Bristol and Willow.

Don’t get me wrong: after you pass 21, you’re pretty much on your own as far as your choices are concerned. If you’re one of Franklin Roosevelt’s sons, using your father’s name and power to get by, or Neil Bush, involving himself in a savings-and-loan just when this financial scandal became a big thing in his father’s administration—well, good luck.

But younger kids are different. Adolescence is about experimenting, stepping gingerly into a self you may not know yet. You’re not always going to make the right move.

If you’re a baby boomer, you’re likely to know of someone who’s made a fool out of themselves at least once with alcohol or other drugs during their teens. You might know someone, like Bristol Palin, in a crisis pregnancy. Heck, it might even have happened to you.

But chances are, you didn’t end up on the front pages of newspapers, on CNN or hundreds of blogs over it. Nobody is interested in it. Nobody should be, even if their parent is a politician.

A useful yardstick for assessing how to treat the erring children of politicians is Al Gore III. Two years ago, he was arrested for possession of drugs while he was driving. Since he was 24, that treatment was appropriate.

But while his father was Vice-President, when he was 13 and at the DC prep school St. Alban’s, the younger Gore was caught by school authorities with some mind-altering substances. The matter was publicized in the U.K., but not here in the U.S., because Gore made a personal appeal to journalists, many of whom had teenage kids at St. Alban’s and similar exclusive prep schools: What if it happened to your kid?

The reporters saw his point and almost universally sat on the story. I think they were right to do so. Kids should not be defined in the public eye at such a young age by a mistake, or even by a few of them.

I wish reporters—and comedians—would act with similar restraint today. Even if Letterman was correct that he went so far as to verify Bristol Palin’s age before ridiculing her (17 at the time of her pregnancy), he still would have been wrong to do so. The fact that so many other comedians besides him had already done so was no excuse.

I think Letterman’s joke boomeranged on him, in a way it might not have under other circumstances, because of:

* The sheer mass of his jokes about her. Evidently, over the last year, his number of jokes about Palin outnumbered those by Leno, Conan O’Brien, and Jon Stewart—none of them, be it said, disinclined to go easy on the governor—combined. Letterman had laid the foundation for a perception that he had something of a vendetta against her.

* The “Top 10 Highlights Of Sarah Palin's Trip To New York”. Some of the other remarks about Palin that night by themselves reeked with vehemence.

For instance, #9: “Laughed at all those crazy-looking foreigners entering the U.N.” A suggestion of zenophobia, perhaps?

Or #3: “Finally met one of those Jewish people Mel Gibson's always talking about .” Hmmm…anti-Semitism? If that was not what that one was about, what exactly was he hinting at?

Or #2: “Bought makeup from Bloomingdale's to update her ‘slutty flight attendant’ look.” Since when are flight attendants “slutty”? Since when is Palin? Since when has any major female candidate in memory been labeled “slutty,” aside from this instance?

It took a lot longer for Letterman to apologize to the Palins than he did when he made Paris Hilton cry a year and a half ago for her stint in the slammer. There’s a problem there.

I think Letterman will come back from this misstep, but it will take him longer to recover than he did from his disastrous appearance hosting the Academy Awards in the 1990s.

Last fall, Wall Street Journal media critic Dorothy Rabinowitz speculated that Letterman’s on-air fury over being ditched by John McCain was reminiscent of Arthur Godfrey’s exposure as a crank when he went after Julius LaRosa in the 1950s. The Sarah Palin incident makes that observation look especially prescient now.

It would be a shame if this highly talented comedian became defined by a mistake. But that was the same treatment he accorded Bristol Palin. He was certainly right, after Palin initially protested, that his joke was in "poor taste." He was also right to accept his mother's advice and apologize to the Palins. Let's hope that, like Bristol Palin, he'll make an effort to learn from his mistake.

Friday, June 26, 2009

This Day in Broadcast History (Fred Allen Airs Last Radio Show)

June 26, 1949—The final episode of Fred Allen’s radio show did more than bring to an end 17 years of the career of one of the broadcast medium’s most popular—and, among his peers, most admired—figures. It also served as an object lesson in how fickle the American public can be when a new technology replaces an old one.

Only 26 months before, Allen had reached the height of his career by landing on the cover of Time Magazine, which celebrated the nasal-voiced comedian’s achievement in producing a remarkably literate entertainment that had captured the allegiance of hundreds of thousands. Only a year later, his show had fallen to only 28th place—and, with television no longer an upstart technology, but an increasingly established one, the possibility loomed that there would be no end to his fall.

Allen’s last show featured the comic who figured in a fake feud that fueled the ratings of both men—Jack Benny. Unlike his good friend, Benny would go on to forge a new career for himself on television that would equal and even surpass what he had achieved on radio.

Last year, I commented briefly on Allen in the context of his quip about Ed Sullivan. I think he warrants far more extended treatment than that, however. In a short space such as this, I still can’t do him justice, so for now I think I’ll just confine myself to aspects of his life and career that appeal to me:

* His first major job growing up was working in a library—the Boston Free Library, as a matter of fact. His father, a bookbinder, had gotten him the position. It served as a launching-pad in his show business career for two reasons: a) he had access to all the books this highly intelligent, studious, and curious mind could want, and b) one of those books, on juggling, enabled him to enter the library’s amateur night show, and start his career in the entertainment industry.

* A talented performer, he was far less staff-dependent than other stars, before or since. True, Allen did hire people like future novelist Herman Wouk to work for him. But they functioned more as sources of raw material than as people who did most of the work. Ninety percent of the show’s writing derived from Allen himself, either writing or rewriting.

* He took on the censors from the beginning. Few performers have fought them week after week with his tenacity. They dogged him virtually from the moment he stepped in front of the microphone, objecting even to innocuous routines such as this: “My sister married an Irishman”—“Oh, really?”—“No, O’Reilly.” In turn, he skewered the advertising and network suits every chance he could.

* He was a truly decent human being, with a kindness to match his intelligence. After his death, Wouk hailed him in this manner: “His generosity to the needy, his extraordinary loyalty to his associates (in a field not noted for long loyalties) showed the warmth of heart that made his satire sound and important.”

* He was devoted to his wife. Like Benny, Allen put his wife, Portland, on the show. When advertisers claimed that their testing of audiences showed that the show would be better off without her, he refused to budge, saying that he would only stay on if she did. It was said that the two things he lived for were the show and her. He never drove, so one of the more common entertainer sightings in Manhattan was of Allen and his wife walking arm-in-arm from their hotel suite. On one of the few times he didn’t do so, on St. Patrick’s Day in 1956, he suffered a heart attack and died. If he’d had the chance to comment on it before he died, I’m sure he would have noted that it served him right. A product of a broken home himself, he made sure that he would break that pattern in his own adulthood.

Quote of the Day (Robert Knox Sneden, on a Hellish Prison From a Prior American War—Andersonville)

“More than half of the sailors and marines are dead as also the Massachusetts battery who came in with the Plymouth prisoners. All the officers who belonged to Negro regiments and who were put in here sometime ago are dead with the exception of Major Bogle of [the] 17th Massachusetts Regiment. Corpses are now piled up near the dead line at the south gate inside to be taken out at sundown. The sight is sickening and horrible beyond conception. All are nearly naked, black as crows, festering in the hot sun all day, covered with lice and maggots— while thousands of big flies swarm on the bodies filling their mouth, nose and ears. The stench is sickening too— worse than any battlefield. Some are so decomposed as to have to be shovelled into the dead wagon!... Sometimes the dead lie there a day or more. I have counted twenty-six dead in one day who lay in the sun festering until an hour before sundown, which is the only time the Revel officer at the gate permits them to be carried out to the bough shanty outside known as the dead house.”—Private Robert Knox Sneden, diary entry for June 26 to 30, 1864, from the Civil War prison of Andersonville, Ga., in Eye of the Storm: A Civil War Odyssey (2000)

Decades after the stench had disappeared and the war dead properly honored at Andersonville and other military prisons of the massive conflict between North and South, citizens of Monsey in upstate Rockland County, N.Y., became accustomed to seeing a cranky, aging man who, unable to make serious headway as a commercial artist or architect, continually fired off letters to the War Department's pensions unit, urging them to give him more money. Maybe some in the community knew he’d been a war victim, but could they have known how deeply the wounds still stung in Robert Knox Sneden?

Americans have come to know a great deal about Guantanomo and Abu Ghraib, but how many know about Andersonville or Richmond’s Libby Prison—or Point Lookout in Maryland or Elmira Prison in the North?

The abuses at Andersonville were punished swiftly at the war’s end with the trial and execution of its commandment, Henry Wirz. But one of the most indomitable witnesses to the horrors there was Sneden.

In a burst of patriotism, Sneden signed up with the Union Army right after Fort Sumter, becoming a mapmaker. He saw action in half a dozen battles in the eastern theater of operations, but he bore his most significant testimony to the war’s horrors when he was sent to different Confederate prison camps, most infamously Andersonville.

In the 1990s, John Frankenheimer directed Andersonville, a TNT movie about life in that camp. As good as that drama was, I can’t help think that its images could have been improved had Sneden’s drawings come to light and been published sooner.

Andersonville excited controversy as soon as the war ended, and continues to do so as far as questions concerning Wirz’ intent and ability to improve conditions are concerned. There was no question at all for Sneden, however, that the camp was an outrage.

What made Sneden’s work—the largest collection of Civil War soldier-art ever published—so unique was not simply its quantity but the harrowing conditions under which it was created. To keep his pencil sketches from being confiscated by guards, Sneden hid them in his shoes and even sewed them in his coat.

The dire conditions he endured during 13 months in prison—starvation, fever and despair—left Sneden physically damaged and psychically maimed. Unable to establish himself as an artist, he never married. In the mid-1880s, he found only a meager measure of satisfaction when the Century Publishing Co. used a few of his images for its epic series, Battles and Leaders of the Civil War.

Sneden chafed at Monsey or, as he put it, “this miserable snow town.” He lived the last couple of decades in the Soldier’s and Sailors’ home.

“I leave no posterity, but a good WAR RECORD,” Sneden later said of his time in the war. Nearly three-quarters of a century after his death, it was discovered that he had left a great deal indeed to posterity—nearly 1,000 images, along with a 5,000-page diary-memoir that turned out to be one of the most startling contributions to the literature of the conflict.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

This Day in Theater History (Philly Stage Opens Despite Quaker Opponents)

June 25, 1759—The first playhouse to be built in Philadelphia, the Society Hill Theatre, opened on the southeast corner of Vernon and South Streets, just beyond the city limits of the time, all the better to avoid the ire of Quakers who had sought every means to contain what they perceived as a moral pestilence.

In October 2005, while attending a delightful performance of the musical Finian’s Rainbow at Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Theatre, I marveled at all the memorabilia downstairs in the bar, called, appropriately enough, Barrymore’s Café. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the City of Brotherly Love was the first important theater center in the American colonies.

Surprisingly, though, the tolerance for which the city was becoming famous was not very much in evidence at all in the half century it took to get any kind of enduring theater built at all there.

Now, you’d expect that kind of hostility from the Puritans, whose idea of fun was to hang witches in Salem, drive out heretics they didn’t like, and, because Prozac hadn’t been invented yet, spend countless hours confiding their deepest fears to their diaries instead of psychiatrists or bartenders.

Indeed, as I noted in a prior post, Samuel Adams represented a particularly virulent form of this killjoy during the American Revolution and shortly afterward, even seeking to deny theater as a much-needed psychological release to the men fighting for independence against Great Britain.

But the Society of Friends represented another matter entirely. As late as 1785, at a yearly meeting, the Friends were being warned to “avoid the attendance of vain sports, and places of amusement which divert the mind from serious reflection, and incline it to wantonness and vanity.”

Before the Society Hill Theatre went up, then, the dramatic muse had a distinctly checkered history with the Quakers:

* From 1700 to 1713, on three different occasions, the Provincial Assembly, at the behest of the Quakers, passed laws banning “stage plays, masks and revels,” only to be forced to repeal them.
* James Logan, mayor of the city, complained in a 1723 letter that the “sober people” of the town wanted him to ban itinerant players from passing through—a real political problem, as Governor William Keith loved such performances.
* In 1749, the same year that the first actors’ performance was held in the city—Joseph Addison’s tragedy Cato—the Common Council urged magistrates on toward “sending for the actors and binding them to their good behavior.”

I don’t understand, I hear you saying. What’s the big deal with a little fun?

Well, to some extent, the reputation that theaters had developed in Europe as dens of sin and decadence carried over here. A good girl didn’t go to these establishments. But Pennsylvania’s Common Council listed other reasons, too, for the prohibition, noting “the encouraging of idleness and drawing great sums of money from weak and inconsiderate people.”

That was the state of affairs when David Douglass took it upon himself to build, at last, a playhouse in this great colonial urban center.

If you want to know the truth, Douglass was hardly the Olivier of his time, let alone his own troupe (which, within four years, would be known as the American Company). That honor belonged to his stepson, Lewis Hallam Jr., who became the earliest known American actor to tackle Hamlet. (He’s the guy in the image accompanying this post.)

Nor was Douglass a great box office draw. That distinction belonged to his wife, young Hallam’s mother, who was still enough of a looker to play decidedly younger women (and all this before cosmetic surgery).

But other words come to mind besides “stars” when it came to Douglass, words with their own peculiar magic that came in handy when dealing with difficult people: “tactful,” “elegant,” and “gentleman.” Two government officials found these qualities particularly endearing:

* Governor Denny, who allowed Douglass to proceed, with the stipulation that the soon-to-be dubbed "American Company" stage a benefit for the Pennsylvania Hospital (which they were happy to do); and
* Judge Allen, who, after ruling in favor of Douglass, remarked that he’d sometimes learned more about morality from plays than from sermons.

Douglass became the colossus of American theater in the two decades before the Revolutionary War, keeping the dramatic arts alive despite the periodic need to hitch up and move elsewhere because of the disapproval of bluenoses. At the beginning of the Revolutionary War, he left for Jamaica, where he became a magistrate on the island. After the war’s outbreak he was forced to flee to Jamaica, where he died in 1786.

Happy Birthday to Pop Music’s Anna Karenina!

In Sheila Weller’s Girls Like Us, a collective biography of songstresses Joni Mitchell, Carol King, and Carly Simon, a friend relates that the latter “has read Anna Karenina about ten times.” Aside from the terrific taste in great literature shown by Simon, the anecdote also suggests an intense identification with Tolstoy’s heroine.

That feeling might evoke alarm among the legion of admirers of Simon, who celebrates her 64th birthday today. Wasn’t Anna Karenina suicidal?

Well, yes—a condition that Simon, despite the dysfunctional family life of her childhood, her adult stage fright, and disappointment in love over the years, does not appear to have developed, thank God.

But Anna Karenina is (and I use the present tense advisedly, because in the hands of the Russian master, she lives as much now as she did in Czarist Russia) far more than a despairing wife. She is also intelligent, funny, warm, loving to her children, and, of course, passionate. Seemingly everyone is drawn to her. All of these qualities shine through Simon’s four decades as a recording artist.

What’s a blog for if it can’t be personal? So, here are a fan’s notes on two close encounters with the woman who helped pioneer the confessional singer-songwriter movement of the Seventies in songs like “No Secrets,” “Anticipation,” “That’s the Way I Always Heard It Should Be,” and (of course!) “You’re So Vain.”

In the early 1990s, on a lunch break from work, I slipped into the now-defunct Brentano’s bookstore on Fifth Avenue (where Scribners’ publishing house used to be) in New York. When I reached the center of the landmark, I was startled to hear cascades of applause on either side of me.

At the moment, I couldn’t figure out what was going on. After all, I’m not accustomed to cheering whenever I enter an establishment—not even at the bookstores I frequent, and certainly not before I’ve purchased anything.

Then I turned around. A lithe woman in her mid-to-late ‘40s, weighed down by a satchel full of books and trailed by what looked like an eager young female publicist, was walking a yard or two behind me. She was thinner than I had expected from all those album covers and Rolling Stone pictures of the prior two decades, making her appear somewhat lankier than she actually is.

But once she flashed that smile at the crowd, with the most famous lips in rock ‘n’ roll this side of Mick Jagger, there was no doubt that I was beholding one half of what had once been pop music’s answer to Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton as the most glamorous, talented, and rich couple in the world.

I needed to buy the book that had lured me to the store in the first place, not to mention get back to the office, so I had no time to linger to watch the singer autograph the children’s book she was promoting.

But nearly 10 years later, I had a longer, more satisfying encounter with her, at the Tower Records outlet at Lincoln Center, where Simon had come to promote—not just autograph, but sing songs from—her new holiday CD, Christmas Is Almost Here.

When she appeared, the crowd went wild. The singer recalled how she had once lived in the neighborhood in the Seventies, before she’d moved up to Martha’s Vineyard.

Simon was appearing that day with her son, Ben Taylor. While she was telling the crowd about his recent CD, she inquired of the store employee on hand where copies of his CD were and how many there were. There were about a half dozen in the whole store. “Only six?” Simon asked, shaking her head and smiling ironically, leaving the distinct impression that when the appearance was over, a long, serious, perhaps not always pleasant pow-wow would take place.

But that was all part and parcel of her intense mother love. As she sang with her son (who, in voice and looks resembled his dad), whatever stage fright she felt must have melted away. She was relaxed and in fine voice. It made me regret the many years and potential appearances that fans were deprived of because of her phobia.

After a few songs, Simon sat down to autograph the CD for her horde of fans, not saying so much that the line would crawl to a standstill but just enough to make people feel they interested her and she was grateful for their support. I still treasure that album and that encounter.

(As long as we’re talking about birthdays, I want to extend best wishes for the day to my friend Brian, who shares with Simon a great love of music.)

Quote of the Day (Neda Agha-Soltan, Becoming the Martyr for the Iran Yet To Be)

"I'm burning, I'm burning!"—Neda Agha-Soltan, in her final words after being struck down by a bullet amid protests against the stolen Iranian elections

As President Obama indicated, the whole world is indeed watching what happens. Ms. Agha-Soltan, a largely apolitical woman, from all accounts, has become a most unlikely martyr, but that’s the way things go for revolutions.

Pray that her sacrifice will not be the start of far greater bloodshed—or that the unrest sparked by the mad mullahs will be crushed.

Pray, too, that this is not the Iranian equivalent of a political false spring, the kind that came over Czechoslovakia in 1968 or China in 1989. In each of the latter cases, it took another generation and more for that nation’s citizens to live under the yoke of tyranny. (In China, they still are.)

Regime opponents in Iran might not necessarily be as pro-Western as we imagine and certainly not as secularist, but they would be a distinct advance forward from a theocracy bent on the possession of nuclear weapons and viciously anti-women. (“The Stoning of Soroya M,” an independent film opening tomorrow in 10 major U.S. markets, details one particularly hideous example of the latter.)

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Theater Review: “Waiting for Godot,” from the Roundabout Theatre Co.

If you've ever taken a poetry or creative writing class, you’ve probably heard “a poem is not supposed to mean but be” until you’re sick out of it. Why, however, does the term apply only to poetry? Since when did poetry become esoteric and the drama become accessible?

If we asked ourselves this, we could save ourselves a million arguments over Waiting for Godot—though the downside is that it might well put thousands of English teachers out of work across the country.

The Roundabout Theatre production shows why questions about the meaning of Samuel Beckett’s landmark tragicomedy are almost irrelevant. Without doing mass violence to Beckett’s text, director Anthony Page and his dream team have found a different Godot than the one that twisted you into a pretzel with its cryptic allusions.

So sit back, relax and enjoy the ride. As we surely all know by now, we don’t know where we’re going in this world anyway, right?

In their terrifying yet hilarious quest to fill the hours of a meaningless day, waiting for an agent of change who may or may not appear, tramps Vladimir and Estragon face the same Sisyphean task that consumed Laurel and Hardy as they struggled to move a piano up an impossibly high hill.

This is a different Godot than you could ever imagine on the printed page. If only they’d told us that this was not merely about metaphysics, but about metaphysical vaudeville.

Beckett was explicit in his directions about how he wanted his set to look: barren, mirroring his characters’ spiritual emptiness. But that minimalist setting is probably far better suited to the relatively intimate confines of the Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre than to the company’s more spacious Studio 54, where this is staged.

So, in probably its only significant departure from the playwright’s wishes, set designer Santo Loquasto fashioned a massive rock formation—one that looks like it could have easily fit into Planet of the Apes—not surprising at that, since both works have been interpreted as post-nuclear-apocalyptic.

Harold Pinter glimpsed in Godot a beacon for the kind of play he would perfect: one not just dependent on a text of words, but a subtext of submerged emotion that comes through in pauses and other physical expressions. Such theater calls for actors of the highest order, and the Roundabout certainly found them in its two principals, Nathan Lane and Bill Irwin.

Flamboyant characters have often provided Lane with his most famous roles (e.g., Max Bialystock in The Producers, Sheridan Whiteside in The Man Who Came to Dinner, and Albert in The Birdcage), but just as frequently opens up opportunities for counterproductive exhibitionist impulses.

As Estragon, however, the more physical member of the homeless pair, Lane reins in his inner ham, allowing the audience to perceive the full humanity of his sad-faced clown. He invests even Estragon’s lowest moments with a desperately vaudevillian energy.

“Let’s go kill ourselves,” he says, tugging on Irwin’s arms, in the same almost insanely cheerful manner that Mickey Rooney urged Judy Garland, “Let’s put on a show!” In his priceless routine trying to fit on a shoe, Lane stands Darwin on his head, locating in his character not so much a struggle for existence as a struggle with it. It might be the best job I’ve seen the actor do on stage or screen.

In past performances, Irwin made his name with expert miming. Here, his Vladimir, in contrast with Lane’s Estragon, is a man of words—one he fancies himself the brains of the outfit.

In a weird stentorian accent, John Goodman is all bombast as Pozzo—a driver of men (literally so, pushing around his slave) who, by the end of the performance, has had his world turned upside down over the course of only 24 hours—further confirmation of Beckett’s rueful view of mortality.

The only false note I found in the play was John Glover, as the slave Lucky, who seemed to be resorting to every means of histrionics (all kinds of mugging and braying) in order to steal every bit of attention in his comparatively short time on stage.

The post-show “talk-back,” moderated by Roundabout dramaturg Ted Sod, featured a discussion with Professor Annette Saddik of the New York City College of Technology on Beckett. It included plenty of fascinating details about the unusual early history of this show, including the fact that:

* It was performed in France, where the Irish-born playwright lived for years—and where he had served in the Resistance during WWII.
* When it premiered in the U.S., it opened not on the traditional home of the avant-garde, New York City, but in Miami—where it was advertised to senior citizens as, according to one just brilliant PR flack as “the laugh riot of two continents.” (This claim prompted the immortal response from one wag: “Was one of the continents Antarctica?”)

* The play was probably best received in its most unusual staging, at San Quentin. (Beckett believed the play was received especially well by prisoners because they knew all about waiting.)

* Beckett confessed to possessing “little talent for happiness.”

* His belief in the randomness of existence was ratified by his 1938 stabbing by a pimp who afterward said he had no idea why he committed this deed.

Sod and Saddik brought the house down, though, when they related a quiet, refined, subtle comment about the play to Lane by the one and only Elaine Stritch: “Oh, Nathan, if the play isn’t funny, it’s going to be a long f-g night!”

Leave your fears at the stage door, because the two hours and twenty minutes will fly by. And speaking of flying, that’s what’s happening with time right now, because Waiting for Godot only plays July 12. I urge you to see the brilliant entertainment that, more than three decades before Seinfeld, was the real, original “show about nothing.”

Quote of the Day (Ralph Waldo Emerson, on the Lack of Secrets in Society)

“There is no privacy that cannot be penetrated. No secret can be kept in the civilized world. Society is a masked ball, where every one hides his real character, and reveals it by hiding. If a man wish to conceal anything he carries, those whom he meets know that he conceals somewhat, and usually know what he conceals.”—Ralph Waldo Emerson, Conduct of Life (1860)

Just imagine: He wrote this nearly 150 years before Facebook and Twitter!

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

This Day in Religious History (Eleanor Roosevelt Column Sparks Feud With Cardinal Spellman)

June 23, 1949—Seldom if ever did Eleanor Roosevelt and Francis Cardinal Spellman shrink from controversy, but the one that began in earnest on this day with publication of her “My Day” newspaper column concerning his proposal for parochial school aid became particularly charged, with the New York Archbishop eventually claiming that the former First Lady had demonstrated anti-Catholic bigotry “unworthy of an American mother."

It took an entire summer for the feud to subside, by which time Spellman had instructed clergy in the archdiocese to denounce Mrs. Roosevelt from the pulpit, she had urged President Harry S. Truman to withdraw her nomination as a delegate to the U.N. General Assembly because of Spellman’s “strange campaign,” and the Vatican itself decided to rein in the outspoken conservative prelate.

It all was finally resolved the way heated diplomatic disputes usually are: through the intercession of a trusted intermediary (in this case, New York boss Edward J. Flynn), with the help of written statements that do nothing to paper over real differences and insincere smiles by both sides at an afternoon tea.

“First Citizen of the World” Vs. “The American Pope”

In the court of posterity, for far more numerous reasons than Spellman’s hysterical response above, the verdict has gone overwhelmingly to the woman Harry Truman called “the first citizen of the world” rather than the portly prelate often seen as, to use the title of a biographer, the “American Pope.”

It’s hard not to sympathize with a woman who stood up for the rights of Jews and African-Americans when they needed champions the most; who served as a trailblazer for women in politics; who suffered as a young orphan, a homely young mother, a belittled daughter-in-law, and betrayed wife; who always visited union workers and soldiers, making them feel that their cause was hers, too.

And it’s downright impossible to like a prince of the church who always told those in the pews which films were pornographic, denouncing all sorts of sexual sins, while at least somewhat credibly charged with being a closeted homosexual; who probably knew more about Manhattan real estate than he did about the Vulgate; and who lorded it over dissenting pastors and archdiocesan cemetery workers who only wanted to form a union so they could earn what Pope Leo XIII had said they were entitled to, like all workingmen: a living wage.

Case closed. Court adjourned.

Wait a second…

Controversies don’t begin and end as debates where points are neatly made and tallied. They spring from one’s personal interactions as an adult, one’s education, one’s childhood experiences, even the unchallenged, instinctive presumptions of those in your circle dating back generations.

If only the Roosevelt-Spellman donnybrook merely rested on a reading of the Constitution and First Amendment law! But it became so publicly turbulent because of long-simmering resentments on each side.

In short, though he acted in an uncivilized, even sometimes un-Christian manner that embarrassed his Church, Spellman had a point: Eleanor Roosevelt possessed considerable traces of an anti-Catholicism that she couldn’t fully hide and that many of her admirers would rather not acknowledge even existed.

She might not have been as reactionary as her opponent in this debate, but the fact that it erupted at all indicates that she was, in her way, equally tone-deaf to the concerns of the other side.

The Barden Education Bill

What set the two at loggerheads was a House bill by Graham A. Barden, a North Carolina Democrat, calling for funding for public schools. Spellman and the rest of the Catholic hierarchy took issue with the lack of provisions for parochial schools—a deficit that the New York archbishop ascribed to “a craven crusade of religious prejudice against Catholic schools.”

Let’s consider at the outset—how often were Congressman Barden and Mrs. Roosevelt on the same side?

Yes, he was a Democrat, but for most of the stands he took during his 13 terms on Capitol Hill—school segregation, the Taft-Hartley Act, and even other education bills (seven years later, he would kill a school construction measure)—his views strongly diverged from hers. 

At his death in 1967, Time Magazine called him a “dedicated obstructionist.” Offhand, I can’t think of another instance in which Mrs. Roosevelt agreed with him on anything—which makes it all the more striking that they did on this point.

Mrs. Roosevelt could see none of Cardinal Spellman’s concerns, and he made an ideal foil for her. 

Just as Senator Joseph McCarthy made anti-anti-communism respectable through his baseless charges, Spellman’s vitriolic, ad hominem outbursts made anti-Catholicism respectable. The process was the same: the object of denunciation instantly became “innocent by association.”

Thus, legitimate concerns about the guilt of Alger Hiss and Julius Rosenberg could be dismissed out of hand because McCarthy had accused so many others with no foundation whatsoever, and Spellman’s targets instantly won sympathy because he was always going off on someone or other.

Believers in Mrs. Roosevelt, very much including her protégé and eventual biographer, Joseph P. Lash, certainly took her side in this, seeing no grounds for his annoyance.

I think they’re missing something. Did Mrs. Roosevelt call the cardinal a “papist,” or any other loaded ethnic term? No. On the other hand, her comments were pointed, personalizing the issue more than it had to be.

Consider that the very first sentence of her column spoke of “the controversy brought about by the request made by Cardinal Spellman.” That wasn’t likely to improve his digestion as he ate his cereal.

Franklin Roosevelt, one strongly suspects, would have approached things differently. Not that he didn’t share her general worldview.

From his first days as an Albany legislator, when he became the focal point of the Democrats' anti-Tammany "reform" wing, down to the 1940 campaign, when his maneuverings for a precedent-shattering third term inevitably denied the Presidency to longtime advisor Jim Farley, FDR's dealings with Irish party leaders carried "an air of jaunty patronization," writes biographer Geoffrey C. Ward.

“Catholics and Jews Are Here Under Sufferance”

The Roosevelts’ attitudes toward Irish Catholics – and, indeed, non-Protestants in general – are best seen in a conversation involving Leo T. Crowley, a Catholic economist just appointed to a government post, and FDR’s Treasury Secretary, Henry Morgenthau Jr., who was Jewish.

Morgenthau recounted FDR’s comments in his diary: “Leo, you know this is a Protestant country, and the Catholics and Jews are here under sufferance. It is up to you to go along with anything that I want.”
The tone here – of a lord of the manor, addressing his inferiors – is as unmistakable as it is ugly.

Yet Catholics, and especially those of Irish ancestry, reaped the rewards of Franklin Roosevelt’s ascension to the Presidency. 

Recognizing their importance in his coalition, FDR appointed Irish Catholics in unprecedented numbers throughout his administration – not only in his Cabinet (Postmaster-General Jim Farley and Frank Murphy) but among his closest advisers (Bronx boss and Democratic national chairman Flynn, personal secretary Grace Tully and White House aide Thomas “Tommy the Cork” Corcoran).

Like the rest of American society, Irish Catholics benefited from the relief and massive jobs programs generated by the New Deal, and they responded with unswerving loyalty and votes for Roosevelt.

Ward's judgment of why FDR softened his attitudes towards Irish Americans is judicious but pointed:

"Franklin would learn tolerance as he went along, dictated by the realities of power; he would finally prove shrewd enough never to allow his private prejudice to deny him access to any individual who might be useful to him."

Many Irish-Americans strongly—and probably correctly—suspected Spellman of harboring GOP sympathies. 

Yet FDR, no matter what he might have privately thought, would have cleared a place for the cleric on his schedule, where the cardinal would be humored, regaled, massaged until he fairly purred.

The Roots of Mrs. Roosevelt’s Anti-Catholicism

That wasn’t Eleanor’s style. She didn’t have to work with or through the cardinal. 

Following her husband’s example, she made one of her first significant appearances on the public stage by battling Tammany Hall boss Charles F. Murphy – in this case, over his insistence on appointing two female delegates to the 1924 Democratic Convention.

During her husband’s administration and after, she did not endear herself to many other Catholics by supporting birth control and the Loyalist (anti-clerical) government in the Spanish Civil War. 

True, like FDR, she employed Irish Catholics as close aides.

But the whiff of ethnic condescension is as unmistakable as affection in her description of New York Senator Thomas Grady: "He was a very charming Irishman, in spite of the fact that he liked his Irish liquor somewhat too well." 

(She should have been more careful about talking about ascribing ethnicity to liquor: her own father was an alcoholic.)

Even as devoted an admirer of Mrs. Roosevelt as Lash acknowledged, “Somewhere deep in her subconscious was an anti-Catholicism which was a part of her Protestant heritage.” He traced this to her great-grandmother Ludlow’s Sunday school exercise books, which inveighed against “popery.”

Mrs. Roosevelt’s son Elliott was considerably more emphatic about the sources of her prejudices in the memoir he co-authored with James Brough, Mother R: Eleanor Roosevelt’s Untold Story.

He relates in detail how, from childhood on, she associated Catholicism with Tammany Hall corruption; how she felt that Catholics owed more loyalty to their faith than their country; how she supported (as she claimed correctly in her rejoinder to Spellman) Al Smith as President, but only for as long as he proved useful in getting her polio-stricken husband back into the political arena; and how, on her most vulnerable point, she remembered her husband's affair with Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd, a Catholic.

Unlike her statements on African-Americans and Jews, where she frequently, generously—and accurately—alluded to their struggle for acceptance and rights, you would have to search high and low to find a similar comment on behalf of Catholics.

Missing throughout her columns on the controversy is any admission of the existence of the Know-Nothings, the 19th-century burning of convents, the existence of the Ku Klux Klan’s anti-Catholic activism, of “No Irish Need Apply” signs. 

(She denounced the Klan’s activities against Al Smith, but this was at a time when supporting the Democratic Presidential nominee—and the most popular party politician in New York—would prove extremely helpful to her husband.)

Paul Blanshard, an editor at The Nation and son of three generations of Protestant ministers, provided intellectual ballast for Mrs. Roosevelt’s opposition to the bill with his increasingly strident denunciations of the Church. American Freedom and Catholic Power, a bestseller in 1949 and 1950, likened the Church to the Soviet Union as an anti-democratic institution.

On one point, Mrs. Roosevelt’s attempt to sound conciliatory revealed a lack of understanding of American acculturation that had already taken place: 

“It is quite possible,” she wrote, that religious schools “may make a great contribution to the public school systems, both on the lower levels and on the higher levels.”

As a matter of fact, they already had. The presence of Catholic schools not only helped public schools avoid overcrowding, but these institutions, as Jay P. Dolan noted in The American Catholic Experience, acted as agents of Americanization for generations of successive immigrants.

On another point, Mrs. Roosevelt transformed a complicated history into a simple black-and-white one. To change “the original traditions of our nation” concerning separation of church and state, she wrote, would be “harmful…to our whole attitude of tolerance in the religious area.”

She did not note that in large parts of the nation—including New England—Protestant schools were funded until well into the 19th century, when Catholic schools’ request for similar treatment led to a convenient reconsideration of the whole concept of separation of church and state.

The Roosevelt-Spellman imbroglio had a ripple effect a decade later, when Mrs. Roosevelt saw John F. Kennedy’s Catholicism as a barrier to his ability to win the election, as well as her own endorsement of him as the Democratic standard-bearer. It has also served as a kind of prototype of subsequent troubled church-state relations.

Like Spellman, today’s Catholic archbishops have, all too often, moved with precious little political dexterity. 

At the same time, many historians and commentators have, like Mrs. Roosevelt, been unable to view the vast array of church-state issues with anything other than an often simplified view of an American tableau with as much turbulence as glory. 

The public suffers the most from this gulf of mutual incomprehension.

Quote of the Day (Edith Wharton, Sizing Up a Young Masculine Admirer)

“He said that I knew more of German literature than he does (and he sets up to be rather well-read) that my ‘knowledge of the language was wonderful’ and that he had never quoted anything (and he is very quote-y) which I had not recognized—there! ‘Lay that flattering unction to your soul, good Tonni.’ Think of my being a credit to you after all! Well, you taught me German to such good purpose that the Secretaire de la Majeste Imp. & Royale etc. sent me two splendid bouquets within a week before he left, and I am engaged to dance the Cotillion with him at the ‘Patriarch’ ball.”—Edith Newbold Jones, the future Edith Wharton, to governess Anna Bahlmann, in an 1879 letter, quoted in Rebecca Mead, “Literary Lives: The Age of Innocence—Early Letters From Edith Wharton,” The New Yorker, June 29, 2009 (registration required to see full text online)

You never know when new materials will turn up adding to or even altering our understanding of an author. Such a case is analyzed in Rebecca Mead’s article, which discusses a cache of 130 letters from Edith Wharton to her family’s governess.

The correspondence, lasting from 1874, when Bahlmann entered the family’s service, to 1915, a year before her death, languished first in an attic, then in a safe-deposit box. Tomorrow the letters will be auctioned at Christie’s.

The quote above particularly fascinates me. In it, the 17-year-old relates a flirtatious encounter with a young swain she identifies only as “the Doppelader,” or “double eagle.”

What we are witnessing here is a voice in formation. Hardly the wallflower she claimed to be in her 1934 memoir, A Backward Glance, she can’t help but bask here in masculine attention. She reveals herself not only as a participant in events, but also as an observer, and a sophisticated, cheekily satiric one at that—one infinitely attuned to pretension and ego (her own as well as others).

The only thing missing: the sense of enclosure and tragedy that came with middle age, a desperately unhappy marriage, and a fugitive but ultimately doomed love affair—the kind of experience necessary to produce classics such as The House of Mirth, Ethan Frome, and The Age of Innocence.

Monday, June 22, 2009

This Day in Film History (Judy Garland, Incomparable Entertainer, Dies)

July 22, 1969—Her death in London through an accidental overdose of sleeping pills only meant that the life of Judy Garland had come to an end. Her legend, though, burns as brightly as ever.

MGM started Garland on her untimely end more than a quarter century before by putting her on a regimen of diet pills, inadvertently hastening the departure of their brightest female musical-comedy star.

Garland’s ensuing pill addiction and mental instability made her famously unreliable and, at times, nightmarish to bear around even for those who craved her friendship and love. Several years ago, on Larry King’s show, Elaine Stritch related how hosts had to be careful in inviting the singer over to a party--if she went to the bathroom, she might wipe out the medicine cabinet single-handedly.

The singer was probably correct, however, when she noted that the only person she ever hurt by her mistakes was herself—or, as she put it far more memorably in an interview with Barbara Walters two years before her death, “The only mistake I ever made, the only harm I ever did, was sing ‘Over the Rainbow.’”

Most Garland photos I’ve seen on the Web capture her in her twenties and even teens, at her most fresh-faced and innocent. But the one accompanying this post shows her (in a duet, of course, with the young Barbra Streisand) in an episode of her short-lived variety series—President Kennedy’s favorite show. More important, she was successfully waging (no doubt helped by a rekindled love affair with lyricist Johnny Mercer) a struggle to endure and prevail over misfortune and depression.

An estimated 20,000 mourners streamed through the Frank Campbell funeral home at 81st Street in New York to view the star in her glass-enclosed coffin. Millions more, alone or in small groups, wept while watching on TV or discussing it among themselves—including a small group at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village.

How many of these men knew that Garland had given her heart to three gay men—her father and two of her ex-husbands, Vincente Minnelli and Mark Herron? No matter—in their view, her heartache somehow echoed their own. When police came to raid Stonewall, as they had done countless times before, the gin-and-grief-sodden habitués rioted, sparking the gay rights movement in the United States.

Her influence was, in this instance, incendiary, but not, I would argue, more than her talent. If I have to tell you about that, you’re probably a lost cause—though I suppose that, if you want to learn the full extent of it, renting out a DVD of her can’t hurt. Everybody knows about the full litany of her physical and mental problems.

But a good reason for writing this blog, I figure, is to inform (or remind) people of often-forgotten aspects of a life. Here are some items you might want to look at sometime showing a different side of Garland:

* All in Good Time, by veteran deejay Jonathan Schwartz, in which the son of Great American Songbook composer Arthur Schwartz offers up the briefest but most indelible of cameo appearances in his memoir by Garland, who visited the young boy upstairs in his room to sing him a lullaby: “Over the Rainbow”—“just for me,” Schwartz writes.

* Life With Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows, an acclaimed 2001 TV movie featuring a touching Tammy Blanchard as the young Garland and Judy Davis, in an all-stops-out performance, as the older, pill-popping, eternal-comeback entertainment powerhouse.

* American Masters: Judy Garland—By Myself, a PBS documentary featuring recorded commentary on her life, made for a projected memoir that never came to pass, by none other than Garland herself.

A YouTube snippet which demonstrates one of the oft-forgotten aspects of Garland’s career—her tremendous sense of humor. (In this case, she relates how a moth flew into her moth during an outdoor performance of “Over the Rainbow.”)

Quote of the Day (Franklin D. Roosevelt, Laying the Groundwork for the G.I. Bill of Rights)

“But the members of the armed forces have been compelled to make greater economic sacrifice and every other kind of sacrifice than the rest of us, and they are entitled to definite action to help take care of their special problems.

The least to which they are entitled, it seems to me, is something like this:

First, mustering-out pay to every member of the armed forces and merchant marine when he or she is honorably discharged; mustering-out pay large enough in each case to cover a reasonable period of time between his discharge and the finding of a new job.

Second, in case no job is found after diligent search, then unemployment insurance if the individual registers with the United States Employment Service.

Third, an opportunity for members of the armed services to get further education or trade training at the cost of their Government….”—President Franklin D. Roosevelt, “Fireside Chat,” July 28, 1943

FDR’s vision of postwar reintegration of American service personnel was realized 11 months after this radio address, when, on this date, he signed the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944—better known as the G.I. Bill of Rights.

Though conceived to prevent the social disruption and shameful spectacle that occurred with the Bonus March of 1932, this piece of legislation did far more. It did even more than social security or the Wagner Act guaranteeing the right of workers to unionize. It moved America closer to the Lincolnian idea of equal opportunity for all.

In a world growing increasingly white-collar-oriented, the G.I. Bill of Rights gave a generation of returning vets greater access to the middle class, and even higher. Slightly less than a quarter of American military personnel even had high-school diplomas; just 3 percent had college degrees. With the help of the act, 2.2 million veterans pursued undergraduate or graduate degrees, and 5.6 million attained vocational or on-the-job training.

At the same time the act transformed the lives of the veterans, it also transformed the institutions they began to populate. Colleges and universities that were once the province of the economic elite were now increasingly opened to the middle and even lower classes.

As a group, the veterans were older, more mature, and more serious about their work than the average underclassmen to date had been. Having seen much of the world, they were also far readier to challenge professors’ theories if they did not accord with what they had seen while abroad.

Although the act’s provisions set an American precedent for generosity to veterans, all of that paled compared with the great debt that the nation and the world owed to the “Greatest Generation” for liberating countless millions from the yoke of fascist dictatorships.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Quote of the Day (G.K. Chesterton, With a Lesson Imparted by a Different Kind of Father)

“ ‘Has it never struck you that a man who does next to nothing but hear men’s real sins is not likely to be wholly unaware of human evil? But, as a matter of fact, another part of my trade, too, made me sure you weren’t a priest.’
‘What?’ asked the thief, almost gaping.
‘You attacked reason,’ said Father Brown. ‘It’s bad theology.’”—G.K. Chesterton, “The Blue Cross,” in Father Brown: The Essential Tales, Introduction by P.D. James (2005)

Among the reasons we honor fathers on this day is for imparting values. With that in mind, I thought I’d look at a different kind of father today: the Roman Catholic priest immortalized by G.K. Chesterton—novelist, poet, journalist, essayist, friendly debater of George Bernard Shaw, and master of detective fiction.

The unassuming Essex prelate is taken for granted by nearly everyone, including the police and the criminals they try to catch. This series of detective stories by Catholic convert Chesterton can, of course, be read simply for the joy of unlocking a puzzle, just as you would a Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot story.

But along the way, you’ll also enjoy Chesterton’s masterful insights into human nature, including his much-anthologized “The Invisible Man,” or views on faith that overturn conventional notions of faith, as in “The Blue Cross.”

Chesterton’s amateur sleuth became an unlikely movie hero in The Detective (1954), renamed Father Brown upon its release in the U.S. It’s not one of the more famous entries in the filmography of Alec Guinness (see the image accompanying this post), but I think it’s unjustly neglected. It’s as difficult for me to imagine anyone else in that role as to think of another actor taking over another role inevitably branded by Guinness, spymaster George Smiley.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

This Day in Film History (Film Noir Par Excellence, Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown,” Released)

June 20, 1974—While Lou Escobar might have advised heartbroken private eye J.J. Gittes, “Forget it, Jake—it’s Chinatown,” fans like myself can do nothing of the kind when it comes to Roman Polanski’s brooding meditation on corruption and loss.

Ostensibly a tribute to the gloomy, black-and-white mystery genre of the Forties and Fifties known as film noir, Chinatown was recognized, immediately upon its release on this date, as a distant mirror of the growing disillusion with American institutions.

It was hard to miss, in the final weeks of the Watergate scandal taking down an American President, that Gittes had discovered a link to a murder involving the water supply of the city of Los Angeles. 

(The real L.A. water supply scandal—the city’s original sin against nature, if you will—had occurred not during the 1930s decade lovingly recreated in the film but early in the 1900s, and it involved William Mulholland—but that’s a post for another day.)

Like the Francis Ford Coppolo epic that beat it out for most of the major Oscars the following year, The Godfather II, the primal source of wealth, corruption and violence was the family. 

That eternal wellspring of conflict, as ancient as the Old Testament and Greek tragedy, might account for why, though the original personalities and issues underlying both films have faded, these meditations on crime American-style have endured for two generations of subsequent movie fans, continually to be rediscovered and marveled at.

Now, we can see the sterling work of all hands involved with Chinatown. (For one of many examples, notice how the subtle set design by Richard Sylbert underscores the theme of the difficulty in extracting the truth. Gittes is always walking up countless steps and through endless doors, and mirrors abound—all cues that, as John Huston’s Noah Cross character warns him pointedly, he doesn’t know what he’s getting into.) But the product almost didn’t gel.

Jack Nicholson and Polanski butted heads sometimes over conception of character, but the real fracas occurred between the director and Faye Dunaway

Polanski, accustomed to a Hitchcockian style of total control over his product, didn’t appreciate the actress’ input, and eventually saw her as “insane.” He didn’t help matters, though, by yanking a stray hair from her scalp because it caught the light and ruined a prize shot. 

Dunaway can still go ballistic when asked to respond to the rumor that she retaliated for being denied a bathroom break by throwing a cup of urine in Polanski’s face.

Also contributing to the atmosphere of intrigue and tension (perhaps helpful, after all, to a thriller) was producer Robert Evans. Dunaway was able to land the role to begin with only because Evans’ first choice, his then-wife, Ali MacGraw, left him for Steve McQueen. 

Just before the film was to premiere, Evans stirred the pot again, jettisoning the original score by composer Phillip Lambro and giving replacement Jerry Goldsmith only 10 days to come up with a better one. (Fortunately, Goldsmith delivered.)

More consequentially, Polanski felt that Robert Towne’s brilliant, twisty screenplay failed in one respect: its happy ending. As a childhood survivor of the Holocaust and a widower (wife Sharon Tate was murdered by followers of Charles Manson), Polanski believed that, even when it receded, evil left an indelible stain.

And so, Gittes—a cynical marital investigator more blessed with doggedness than with smarts—at last solves the mystery—and is unable to bring to justice the powerful criminal at the heart of it. 

Worse, as he walks disconsolately away from the final killing, he knows that the evil will contaminate yet another generation--and that he inadvertently perpetuated it.

As blogger Tony Macklin notes in an extremely perceptive post, dualities abound throughout the film, including “light and darkness, vision and blindness, wholeness and imperfection, innocence and corruption.”

The most significant parallel, however, concerns rape. Rape of the land is analogized to rape of a daughter. The man responsible for both is sinister businessman Noah Cross.

The casting of John Huston in that role is completely apropos. His presence is not only a tip of the cap to Polanski’s seminal influence in making the film, the Huston-directed The Maltese Falcon, but also a reminder of the ark-building Biblical character he played in a film Huston himself directed, The Bible.

Unlike the Biblical patriarch, though, Noah Cross is not escaping water but cornering the market for it. When angrily prodded by Gittes, “What can you buy that you can’t already afford?”, Cross replies, “The future…the future.”

Everyone has his own favorite scene in the film. Mine is the love sequence between Nicholson and Dunaway’s Evelyn Mulwray. Suddenly their characters, unable to maintain their former veneers any longer, are seen by the other up close and vulnerable.

As Dunaway dresses the painful wound to Nicholson’s nose (cut off in a famous scene featuring the director himself as the principal thug), she discovers that he’s less a sleazy, wiseguy divorce detective than a world-weary idealist. 

He, in turn, upsets her precarious balance -- and begins slowly to discover that she's not really a scheming femme fatale but a damaged victim--by observing “something black in the green part of your eye.”

What Dunaway haltingly calls her “flaw in the iris” initiates moments of tenderness completely isolated from everything else in this bitter film. 

But even as it makes us care for the characters, the scene also hastens the tragic ending. What makes us touchingly human also renders us weak enough to become ensnared by the vast net of money and power.