Letter from the Berkshires
September, 2012
© 2012 Joel

Quote of All Times

Learn from the mistakes of others. You can’t live long enough to make them all yourself.- Eleanor Roosevelt

Eleanor, wanna bet?- Joel

Quotes of the Issue

The biggest way people give up power is by not knowing they have it to start with.- Alice Walker

These are ridiculous times, and if it all makes sense to you, there’s probably something wrong.- Barbara Milrod, M.D., Professor of Psychiatry

It’s ironic that the folks who dug the ditch (Republicans) are trashing the guy (Obama) who is trying to fill it up.-Anthony Foxx, Mayor of Charlotte, N.C.

When two men in a business always agree, one of them is unnecessary.- a Chinese fortune cookie


In June, those who study such things concluded that cursing on a regular basis is good for our health. Readers have commented how well I look these days- and vice versa.

About The Election


“The work goes on, the cause endures” said Edward Kennedy.....But if it really is to endure, then the means of advancing it will surely have to evolve, taking full account of unpleasant realities: the scale of the debt; the depth of public suspicion not just of government but of most institutions; courts that have grown hostile to claims of civil rights and assertions of governmental power; and the tenuousness of our commitment to the common good.- Jeff Shesol in his review of The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama by Eric Alterman

Remember when teachers, public employees, Planned Parenthood, NPR and PBS crashed the stock market, wiped out half our 401Ks, took trillions in taxpayer funded bailouts, spilled oil in the Gulf of Mexico, gave themselves billions in bonuses, and paid no taxes? Yeah- me neither.- Anonymous

What’s most distinctive about the current presidential election and our political culture isn’t their negativity... but how unconditionally so many partisans back their side’s every edict, plaint and stratagem.... They surrender to and accept instructions from a designated leader rather than examining each new assertion on its own merits, for its own accuracy. They submit, urged along by emphatic oratory, slick advertising, facts thoroughly massaged and lies smoothly told.- Frank Bruni, New York Times


Please don’t delude yourself that Frank Bruni’s comments are directed solely at “the other side.”

Financial institutions and corporations need to be regulated, as government, doubtless, needs to be held accountable, too. The latter is accomplished on election day, by fair judicial oversight, and by a free and active press.

Eliminating or curtailing social services because some recipients cheat (Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queens,” aka impoverished African American mothers) is like altering benefits and subsidies for businesses and upper class Americans because some are despicable cheaters, too.

Retired Republican Senator (and self acknowledged character) Alan Simpson made the commonsensical observation that one can achieve compromise without compromising one’s principles. I would like to see Rational Compromise political clubs, comprised of mature Republicans and Democrats, spring up around the country. And how about both parties selecting delegates to their conventions (to the extent, given the power of primary elections, that such delegates make a difference) and nurturing candidates who “get” what Alan Simpson said?

The Democratic National Convention

Could I be going heterosexual after all these decades? Watching the Democratic convention I fell in love with Elizabeth Warren, Sandra Fluke, Christine Quinn and Sister Simone Campbell, women all.

Let’s Put Another Businessman in the White House
(The Bain of Our Existence)

Can any American doubt that governments, like religious faiths, medical practices, the arts, relationships and families, ought to run with an eye to the bottom line? Surely you know that our nation’s greatest presidents came from the ranks of businesses. George Washington managed Martha’s plantation, and John Adams was CEO of a farm. I forget which corporation Jefferson was in charge of, but he was so busy being brilliant he had to sell his books to eat. Less known is that Honest Abe once owned a tavern in Illinois.

Presidents without entrepreneurial experience made a dismal account of themselves, indeed. Theodore Roosevelt was a government employee all his adult life, as was his cousin Franklin. Harry Truman ran a men’s clothing store, and we all know what became of that. Eisenhower relied on the government payroll except for a short stint at Columbia University.

And what did the twentieth century quartet of Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon and Ford- lifelong government employees all- give us anyway? The space program, a nuclear test ban treaty, civil and voting rights and Medicare, an opening with China and post Watergate relief. Jimmy Carter must have been our most successful president because he ran a peanut farm. Ronald Reagan, another dismal failure, once ran an organization, but it was made up of show people and called- oh my God!- a union. Bill Clinton was no businessman, and George W. Bush failed spectacularly in oil.

Throughout our history, then, presidents inexperienced in business have been the Bain of our existence.

Bash A Teacher Month

I propose we dedicate a Bash A Teachers Month each back to school September. Won’t Back Down, a new documentary from the makers of the hit piece Waiting for Suoerman, again puts the blame for poor student performance on teachers and teachers alone. In this the filmmakers are not alone.

On Labor Day, of all days, we chatted with a woman who was walking near our cottage. The friendly, witty human being turned out to be a teacher on Long Island. She spoke of how excited she is to get back to work, unlike, she took pains to note, her colleagues who are “in it for the paycheck.” Er, when’s the last time you suspected that your doctor, broker, accountant, cop, minister, mechanic or convenience store clerk is guilty of the same?

Patterns: A Movie Recommendation

Actors, writers and audiences: watch the movie Patterns, based on the 1956 teleplay about office politics and corporate dehumanization. Then watch it a second time, and then again. Van Heflin, Ed Begley, Sr., Beatrice Straight, Everett Sloan and Lois Wilson- that’s acting! Rod Serling- that’s writing!

Gun Deaths

The New York Times Magazine recently profiled Greg Ousley, a thirty-three year old who has been serving a sixty year sentence for the shooting murder of his parents, which began when Ousley was fourteen. Pre-meditated murder it surely was, and imprisoning Ousley has prevented him from inflicting further harm, but whether we ought to give our youngest criminals a chance to show they’ve changed is well worth pondering.

On the other hand, sex traffickers who kidnap underaged girls and sell them for sex, even on the streets of Portland, Oregon, are not engaged in crimes of passion and are clearly not insane. These methodical criminals know they’re doing wrong. No punishment for such individuals is too harsh for me.

Regarding the recent mass murders at the Batman opening in Aurora, Colorado and at the Sikh Temple in suburban Milwaukee, I don’t give a Rhett Butler damn what happens to the perpetrators, and my patience with gun rights advocates has expired . Guns are made and used to snuff out animal or human lives. Just call me Michael Bloomberg: let’s defeat the NRA.

May I Please Have Your Autograph?

What do Mary Martin, Ethel Merman, Katherine Hepburn, Leonard Bernstein, Helen Hayes and Lucille Ball have in common, besides having been spectacularly talented and currently dead, and who the heck are Ann Thomas, Ann Summers and Jane Carlyle? Each reminds me of a story, as Lloyd and I have been collecting autographs since we were in our teens.

In this series I’m going to share glimpses of well known, barely known and unknown creative artists I’ve obtained while asking for their autographs, and I’ll include some gossip, too. Friends have always enjoyed looking at our collection, and many have asked for more details. I would love to know of any autographs gotten by my readers, and with their permission I’ll include them in my series.

Lloyd and I are not the stage door Johnnys that we used to be, as we no longer have regular access to Broadway stage doors, and in L.A. it’s gauche to even stare. We haven’t abandoned our lifelong hobby altogether, though. We want our collection to grow in economic value, as the proceeds go to Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS when we move to our “condo” in the sky. And, we’re still stage struck kids at heart.

“May I please have your autograph?” may be the most frequently asked question in both our lives. A reader in Manhattan remembers standing by stage doors with me when we were in high school and being embarrassed when he called actress Nancy Walker by her first name. That was before I met Lloyd, my perfect partner in this kind of crime.

Long-ago stage and screen star Margaret Sullavan opined that autograph seekers wanted a piece of the signers for their own. I’ll admit I was a teenage cannibal. For me the “pieces” were discovering how performers looked and acted like off stage, and also a special kind of human contact. I was looking for a place where I belonged.

As Lloyd and I matured we targeted performers we wanted to befriend, some of whom were glad to know us, too. And we made other friends along the way. If we hadn’t waited for the Andrews Sisters outside the Schubert Theater in New York we would have never met the actor/director from Topeka who now reads this letter.

I remember neither my “first time” nor my latest acquisition, but over a period of fifty-five years I’ve gotten or been given or bought the signatures of Broadway stars, composers, a former president, a motion picture pioneer, an irascible Irish playwright, a Hollywood legend who never signed for anyone, bit players and even members of my family. The latter were the aunt, uncle and grandmother who took me to my first Broadway show, Peter Pan, in 1950. How I wish I’d asked Jean Arthur, who played Peter, and Boris Karloff, Captain Hook, “may I please have your autograph?”

Over all the years the only three who refused to sign were Sylvia Sidney, an old time movie star who looked just like the pair of pugs she carried, Martin Gable, the grumpy husband of TV’s Arlene Francis- and movie star Claudette Colbert.

The one that got away was my program to Claudette Colbert’s final stage appearance in the early 1980s. Although the murder mystery, which coincidentally took place in Lenox, Ma., was a disappointment, we were able to treat John to his first Broadway opening night. Fellow audiences members Arlene Francis, Leontyne Price, Jean-Pierre Aumont, Marisa Pavan and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., signed my program. Miss Colbert flounced out the stage door toward a limousine accompanied by designer Bill Blass. Although Colbert wasn’t in the mood to sign, I asked Blass for his autograph. He took my precious program, got into the car and drove off with it. Several years later when he died I wasn’t even sad.

Pass this quickie quiz and you’ll guess some of my choicest finds. Who were:
The First Lady of the American Theater? (That was too easy, unless you’re very young.)
The movie star whose acting emotions, it was rumored, ranged from A to B?
The alcoholic genius of an Irish playwright from the 1950s and early 60s who didn’t make it past his forties?
The campy deep throated stage and film star who could barely walk or see straight due to booze and drugs, who was known for saying “Dahling.”
The early comic TV series star we all still “Love.”
The star who beamed when I told her, “You’re talented, beautiful, intelligent and a good person. Aside from that I have nothing nice to say.” (Answer: Eva Marie Saint.)
The formidable Broadway musical legend whose first of many husbands, I let her know, had once been my mother’s boyfriend. (You should have seen the look I got from Ethel Merman!)
The one who exited a Boston stage door singing “Love you!” to no one in particular. (Elaine Stritch)

But please don’t blame my childhood neighbor Charlie Silver. These kinds of things are not contagious, doctors say. Charles Silver was a grouch for not insubstantial reasons. First, he had lost a leg in World War II. More painful, perhaps, was that he and his wife lived in the apartment below ours when I was growing up. Mrs. Silver’s avocation was complaining I made too much noise. Mr. Silver also had an avocation: collecting autographs. After we moved to Yonkers I read a newspaper article about his incredible collection. Winston Churchill, Gandhi and FDR were among his many finds. Silver wrote to them and saved their replies in his scrapbooks.

I’ve saved mine from the Queen Mum, or should I say from her lady in waiting. Well, how many letters do you have from ladies in waiting, just offhand? In 1952 Queen Mother Elizabeth, recently widowed of King George VI of The King’s Speech fame, visited the United States and stayed with the British Ambassador to the U.N. in New York City. At the time I was in love with her daughters Elizabeth and Margaret, so I wrote the Queen Mum a letter of welcome to my city.

“Look, Joel!” my own mother announced one afternoon after picking up the mail, waving a letter bearing the royal crest of England. Unfortunately that letter is in storage three thousand miles away or I would print its few short sentences in their entirety. Queen Mother Elizabeth had been thrilled to receive my hearty welcome. The typewritten missive bore the signature of one of her Majesty’s ladies in waiting. I got another surprise that evening when a neighbor said something about my prize possession being a form letter. My mother gave her a look too late. Ten year old Joel’s enthusiasm was undiminished, and I was the only student at P.S. 114 who could use lady in waiting and form letter in a single sentence.

The two that got away still make me and Lloyd weep. In 1960, while Lloyd, his mother and her gentleman friend Win, whom we called Lose, were vacationing on Cape Cod, the latter encountered presidential candidate John F. Kennedy signing anything that could take ink at a nearby shopping center. Did he think to bring a mint JFK back to Lloyd or to his mother? He did not.

No excuse exists for our not getting a signature from Joan Crawford. The widowed Queen of Pepsi Cola lived in our co-op apartment building at 150 East 69th Street in New York, although on a higher floor and an infinitely higher sphere. Our pug dog Moppet was the original star appreciator dog on all the planet. Once she yanked us over to Lee Radizwill, Jacqueline Kennedy Onasis’s sister, in Central Park, from which a conversation followed. She pulled the same when she spotted TV and radio personality Arlene Francis walking with actor Tony Roberts on East 69th Street one afternoon. And she had Crawford to play with in our shared lobby.

Our building intercom number was the inverse of Crawford’s, and on the rare occasions I called up to Lloyd as I was going out the door I invariably mixed up the numbers. At first the neighbor with the velvety voice excused my errors, but after several such mistakes she cautioned me to get my numbers straightened out. “Who am I getting when I misdial?” I asked the doorman. “That is Miss Crawford,” he answered in his German accent. Oh my God! “What’s she like?” I asked him like a idiot. “Miss Crawford is very nice,” he explained, adding after a pause and with a changed expression, “when she gets her way.”

An older woman we knew in the building had baked cookies for the movie star and was rewarded with a handwritten note of thanks. Neighbors who knew Crawford maintained that she was lonely. All I had to do was slip a note under her door, or leave it for her at the lobby desk. But Lloyd thought that wasn’t proper.

By then, the mid-1970s, Lloyd and I were pros at getting autographs. For years I got mine on theater programs and even scraps of paper. In 1959 Lloyd was given an autograph book by his actress cousin and we were really underway. Aside from our signed programs and photos, we’ve filled two autograph books and keep them in bank safe deposit boxes. They’ve now worth a tiny fortune.

I’ll begin sharing their contents and what it was like to meet each signer in the next edition. Each autograph comes with a memory of a time and place, and of an individual who made her or his living on or near a stage. This series may take you back to when you were theater crazy, too.

Joel: Letters