Letter From L.A.
May 2013
© 2013 Joel

Quotes of the Issue

Shame on us if we forget Newtown.- Barack Obama

Millions of people who would do anything to get out of jury duty spent eighteen days listening to testimony in the Jodi Arias trial.- Randi Rhodes

Runners Up

Truly speaking, it is not instruction but provocation that I can receive from another human soul.- Ralph Waldo Emerson

When the emotion is taken out of a debate, compromise becomes much more possible.-Chuck Todd, MSNBC

Remind yourselves that your hips are hinges for walking, not pillows for sitting.- Galen Guengerich

Good news. You can go back to the usual misery of flying.- Christine Romans, CNN, after funding for full-time air traffic controllers was restored

You Say “Sequester,” He Says “Sequestration”

How can anyone use “sequester” as a noun?” asks linguist Henry Hitchens. “The word is sequestration, and if you say anything else you should be defenstrated.”

This Church Is More Than Green

The Bible says no more about marriage than the Internet.- source forgotten

The Green Street United Methodist Church in Winston-Salem will stop performing weddings for straight couples until same-sex marriage is legal in North Carolina, reports Salon. Go to the Church’s site and read their magnificent statement on the subject for yourself.

Valerie Harper

In April, the beloved actress announced she has a rare form of brain cancer that will likely take her from us very soon. Lloyd and I had the pleasure of briefly chatting with Ms. Harper after she got the news, but days before we or the public knew about it. When we mentioned our almost forty-seven years living together and our involvement in the days of Harvey Milk, Harper said we were “in the vanguard of great social progress,” and added we were “two cute customers.” And then she kissed us.

A world without a woman of her kind spirit is difficult to imagine. Valerie Harper is setting an example as much about dying as living, because dying is a part of everybody’s life.

The Boston Bombing

Twisted, perverted, cowardly knockoff Jihadists.- Vice President Joe Biden

Terrorists want ‘few deaths and many watching.’ If we who are watching aren’t afraid, it (the Boston bombing) did not work.- Fareed Zakaria

You’re heading for the boneyard, bros, and something else. It didn’t work! - Joel

Readers will be glad to know that our friends in Boston, John McCarthy and his family included, were unharmed by the destruction at that city’s Marathon. One of John’s nephews was shocked to learn, however, that former co-worker twenty-nine year old Krystal Campell was among the three who died that afternoon.

The horror of the carnage aside, if that were possible, many issues require our attention. They include our dependence on others, in this case Russia, for timely intelligence, internal security and terror prevention, immigration policies, Muslim attitudes and attitudes toward Muslims, Muslim integration into predominantly non Muslim societies, the criminal justice system, the death penalty, the words we use to describe the Boston bombers, and even where one of their corpses can be buried. Entire books will be devoted to these and related topics, so I must limit my observations.

Once again I turn to New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who wrote on April 28th:

We surely must not tar all of Islam in this. Having lived in the Muslim world I know how unfair that would be. But we must ask a question only Muslims can answer: What is going on in your community that a critical number of your youth believes that every America military action in the Middle East intolerable and justifies a violent response, and everything Muslim extremists do to other Muslims is tolerable and calls for mostly silence.

He offers angry Muslim youth an alternative.

If you’re upset with U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, why don’t you go out and build a school in Afghanistan to strengthen that community or get a degree yourself to strength yourself or become a math teacher in the Muslim world to help its people to be less vulnerable to foreign powers.

Friedman touches on a misplaced anger that is theirs, and sometimes also ours. In the days immediately following 9/11, George W. Bush went out of his way to attend worship at a mosque. Within days of the Boston bombing, innocent Muslims and those mistaken for Muslims were assaulted and insulted in our country. In Time Magazine, Fareed Zakari points out that “Since 9/11, foreign-inspired terrorism has claimed about two dozen lives in the United States. Meanwhile, more than 100,000 have been killed in gun homicides and more than 400,000 in motor-vehicle accidents.” The majority of violent deaths in America have not a thing to do with Muslims.

I want to make this very personal. Imagine individuals who share our national backgrounds or ethnicities- be they Irish, Italian, Israeli, Cuban, Greek, German, Russian, French, WASP American, Christian or Jewish- unleashing spite-filled fury in the name of God. How would we who are innocent and love our country feel if we were subsequently humiliated and discriminated against, or if we found our houses of worship closely watched and our religions labeled dangerous? Do so-called Christian militant hate groups represent the whole of Christianity? Accordingly, bogus Internet claims that Islam is a religion of violence are unwelcome and will go unread by me.

Now to the words we use to describe the brothers tsarnaev. Words like “madmen” and “monsters” reflect our inability to put what we think of them into words. (I prefer “son of a bitch,” which, in this case, seems so appropriate.) I express my contempt by writing the names of loathsome individuals entirely in lower case because doing so makes me feel better. In the process I dehumanize my enemies, which may be a mistake.

I reject terminology that absolves perpetrators of responsibility for their actions. “Monsters,” which are fictionalizations and therefore nonexistent, comes to mind. Hitler has been called a monster. The hell he was. Hitler was human, which is more than enough to scare us half to death.

“Terrorists” and “murderers” are more accurate, objective labels than those signifying mental illness. To Salman Rushdie the brothers are “disturbed.” Tom Friedman calls them “sick.” The mentally ill are far more likely to be crime victims than their perpetrators. Nuts is not the same as evil.

That the brothers tsarnaev were twisted human beings is beyond dispute. They bear sole responsibility for their actions, radical Islamic influences notwithstanding. Americans and Bostonians are blameless for the evil acts regardless of our foreign policy. That said, the issues outlined at the beginning of this segment must not be ignored.

Bang, Bang, Sis Is Dead
Nutbags in America

Dying is a part of everybody’s life, but this is just ridiculous. On April 30th, a five year old Kentucky boy accidentally shot his two year old sister to death while playing with the “starter” rifle he had been given for his birthday. His grandmother thinks it was “God’s will.” No proposed American gun law would have been of help in such an instance. Only parental judgment could have prevented this from happening, and the parent s’ judgment is very much in evidence. The price their daughter paid is unimaginable; she deserved to live. Still, the brother could have taken the life of someone else’s child.

A recent poll by Farleigh Dickenson University reveals that 29% of Americans believe an armed revolution against the federal government will soon be necessary. This sentiment is strongest among male Republicans who haven’t spent much time in school. 25% of Americans, it has also been reported- 25 percent!- believe that the Newtown massacre was “staged” by the government in a move to “take away our guns.” For once I’m going to take a swipe at high school social studies teachers. Why aren’t they teaching kids not to believe the crap they listen to? And what about our family doctors? Why aren’t they referring more of their patients to psychiatrists?

The gun manufacturers and ammunition lobby prevailed against Democrats, Republicans, Independents and 74% of the NRA’s membership in defeating the background check measure in the U.S. Senate. I, for one, have no intention of rolling over and playing dead. The fight will continue in the states, and my support for gun control will continue until Newtown moms and dads throw in the towel, which will be never.

The Obama Piece I Promised Last December: “Where’s The Story?”

“Still Waiting For The Narrator In Chief,” by the New York Times Magazine’s chief political correspondent Matt Bai, appeared in that paper’s November 4, 2012 edition. I wrote this several months ago and have first found space for it in an edition.

Barack Obama’s ascendancy, leadership and times are the stuff of history. From the beginning we’ve been fascinated with the man. Initial adoration and subsequent disillusionment have been common among progressives; hostility and suspicion in the minds of others. Where leaders want to go and how they get there is my concern. Personal qualities interest me only as they relate to a president’s effectiveness. Obama, for example, has been known to make tough political decisions on his own, such as Libya and Syria, which tells me he’s a loner who is not averse to risk.

Despite some substantial first term accomplishments, Obama’s re-election was not guaranteed. How many of you remember Clara Peller in the 1980s “Where’s the beef?” TV commercials? Matt Bai wondered “Where’s the story?” in his most incisive piece.

Obama’s job was to “tell a story to the American people that gives them a sense of unity and purpose and optimism,” Bai reports, “and it was on this score that he had fallen short.” In the 2008 campaign, “in books and speeches... Obama showed himself to be an evocative storyteller... all of which makes it even more baffling that Obama’s presidential alter ego, this grayer and more somber version of his literary self, spent the past four years immersed in legislative minutiae and marching out dull slogans...while failing to advance any larger theory of the moment confronting the country and what it required.”

Bai holds the president’s senior aides, most of whom assisted him in the Senate, responsible for failing to “think...about how to build support for a governing agenda.” Had Obama first been a governor, he would have grasped the need to “make that kind of sales pitch.” Bai also points to “Obama’s obvious aversion to political theatrics.” I remember FDR having told a reporter that he had to be a kind of Greta Garbo, a leading actress of his day.

Obama “seemed unconcerned about advancing a sustained argument (for the rightness of his policies)” because he and his aides “decided that the argument had been won, And this, more than anything, explains how the narrative really got away from the president” at the start of his first administration.

Many of the president’s early economic initiatives, such as “short-term stimulus, long-term investment, modernization of financial regulation and the tax code...were probably necessary and salable, too, if Obama had seen it as one of his central responsibilities to explain how they all fit together....Obama forged ahead with all these policy solutions,” including a healthcare plan and auto industry bailout “which, absent any real marshaling of public opinion, emboldened his opponents and caught much of the country by surprise.”

Returning to the 2012 election, Bai concludes, “In this era of elections that teeter on the votes of a handful of states...an election result isn’t a final verdict on one governing philosophy over another, but rather a signal that the voters have agreed to hear your case. Once you’re in office,” and this is crucial, “the story you tell about and to the country isn’t some barely tolerable performances that distracts you from the job of being president. It is, to a large extent, the presidency itself.”

Even an Obama agnostic like myself was confounded by the post-2008 election breakdown of the president’s communication skills. I’m very sensitive to this; I can smell a load of blarney several blocks away. The president was often cool, dry and dismissive in his public pronouncements, and at his worst in his first 2012 presidential debate with Governor Romney.

I like my politics and business cut and dry, with as little sentiment as possible. There’s time to cuddle later on. But effective leadership requires uncommonly effective perception and communication skills. From what I’ve seen of his second term to date, exemplified by his response to the Newtown massacre, Barack Obama has learned his lesson.

Addendum, May, 2013 Or has he?

May I Please Have Your Autograph?
I’m Out of (Chronological) Order Once Again

On June 7, 1965, on my way to lend a hand building scenery at my grad school theater department, I spied a headline at a newsstand. Judy Holiday had died, two weeks short of her forty-fourth birthday. I mourned the loss of an exceptional star of Broadway shows and movies. I remembered when she told me “Oops!”

Bells Are Ringing was on my must-see list from when my dad gave me the original cast album within weeks of its opening in 1956. Judy Holiday, its star, had been a household name for me. The run of Bells Are Ringing (1956 to 1959) coincided with my meeting Lloyd and discovering that Bells featured player Bernie West lived in our neighborhood.

Pre-Lloyd, one winter Saturday afternoon, I waited for Miss Holiday to come out between performances. Her car, a two-tone red and white Oldsmobile Holiday 98, and her driver were waiting for the star in Shubert Alley. Once I had asked the chauffeur, who, curiously, never wore a uniform, where his lady went between shows, and he replied “Miss Holiday goes home for dinner.”

Home? An actress had a home? In my imagination only middle class, boring people like my Yonkers parents had homes, and theater people lived on a different existential plane, like we Christian Scientists after we were dead. Judy Holiday had a home in The Dakota, where John Lennon later lived and died. And in that home she had an aging mother and a son. On another occasion I spied Holiday by an open stage door, in costume and makeup, lovingly holding her little boy.

The actress who made theater history with her portrayal of dumb blonde Billy Dawn in Born Yesterday boasted a genius IQ and a wit to match. Of her profession she said, “Acting is a very limited form of expression and those who take it seriously are very limited people. I take it seriously.” How could one not love her?

I tried not to mind the cold as I waited for her signature. Finally- voila!- Miss Holiday. “Miss” preceded actresses names back then, even if they had been married fifty years. Most were known by stage names anyway; Holiday was born Judith Tuvim. Impersonality in the theater of those days was equated with respect, and with hierarchical control. Directors rarely addressed cast members by their first names, and they expected the same formality in return. No one dared call George Abbot anything but “Mr. Abbot.” Over-familiarity is a more recent development.

Back then, Broadway actors wore dark glasses on the street. In some cases the purpose was to go unrecognized, as if wearing shades at midnight wasn’t going to call attention. One of my favorite quotes from Auntie Mame is “She couldn’t have been more conspicuous if she were naked.” For some actresses the glasses were meant to cover the garish stage makeup of the 1950s, for others it was just a fad.

Judy Holiday sported shades, a kerchief, slacks, and a mink coat that looked older than my grandma. Although she respected her audience, Holiday wasn’t keen on giving autographs, yet she stopped and graciously began to sign my piece of paper. “Oops!” she exclaimed, as she dropped the pen. I scooped it up and Holiday completed signing, then got into the car that bore her made-up name and headed home. For years I said “Oops” as often as I found excuses to because “she” had used that word.

Another actress, if one could call her that, turned out to be even prettier, more tastefully dressed and “genuine” than her public image and biography suggest. Zza Zza Gabor was heading into the Waldorf Towers, where she lived at the time, accompanied by her mother one fine spring, 1960 afternoon. I followed them into the lobby and got myself another autograph. Jolie, the over-dressed costume jeweler/ mother of Zza Zza, Eva and Magda Gabor, was displeased by my attention. Her daughter, in contrast, was down to earth, and I felt I was with a friend.

In the 1970s, when she appeared on Broadway in Forty Karats, Zza Zza was as friendly with her fans as she had been with me. She drove her own Rolls Royce through Manhattan’s traffic. Imagine the stares from other drivers.

The Segment Proper

Each of our autographs comes with a story, some as minor as the expression on the signer’s face. I’ve forgotten some details, but not those concerning Sammy Davis, Jr. In 1960, that magical year for us, Lloyd and I crashed the curtain call of a Broadway musical (more about that ritual in the next edition) and noticed a newly married couple standing in the rear with us. Sammy Davis, Jr., the husband, had married Swedish actress May Britt (born Maybritt Wilkens) , a notable achievement of its day. Less than a decade earlier, movie mogul Harry Cohn threatened Kim Novak that if she continued seeing Davis, even as a friend, the entertainer stood to lose his life. We approached Davis and Britt because they were famous and to show our approval and support. Each of them couldn’t have been more gracious and endearing.

Across 46th Street from our beloved The Sound of Music was the 1960 revival of Finian’s Rainbow, a musical with great songs and a socially progressive story. This so-so version starred TV’s Jeanie Carson (who met her future husband, Biff McGuire, in the show) and comic Howie Morris, both of whose autographs we obtained.

Fiorello, the 1960 Pulitzer Prize winning musical about the political career of New York’s Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, who was in office when I was born, yielded autographs from its star Tom Bosley, later of Happy Times fame, and featured player Pat Stanley. Patricia Wilson, who played the mayor’s second wife, was seated next to us at a wedding twenty-five years later and lives not far from us in L.A.

In 1960 also, Gore Vidal’s political drama, The Best Man, debuted on Broadway. The cast was headed by Van Hefflin and Frank Lovejoy and Hollywood old-timers Lee Tracy and Melvyn Douglas, both of whose autographs we got. In the 1970s I was in a drug store on Manhattan’s Upper West Side when I heard the pharmacist tell the delivery man, “Here’s an order for Melvyn Douglas.” “The actor Melvyn Douglas?” I inquired. “Sure,” I was told. “He lives upstairs.” I had thought he was in Malibu or Forest Lawn.

Fortunately, Lloyd stayed in New York for college as I had, so we continued our theatrical adventures. My thanks to Fred, Lloyd’s college friend and faithful reader of my letters, for the following memory. In the early 1960s the chums noticed a familiar-looking couple seated on a bench in Central Park. Lloyd identified the man as Eddie Albert. Fred got Albert’s autograph and he presented it to Lloyd. As they walked away Lloyd told Fred that Albert’s wife was the actress known as Margo (her full name makes Marybritt Wilkens Davis’ seem almost normal), but her autograph had not been gotten.

Few remember that TV game show host Gene Rayburn took over when Dick Van Dyke left Bye, Bye Birdie for fame in Hollywood. Rayburn looked dapper the day he signed for Lloyd in Shubert Alley, not far from where Judy Holiday said “Oops!” to me. Coincidentally, a regular at the Thanksgiving party Lloyd and I attend each year is Mr. Rayburn’s niece, a documentary filmmaker.

I’m not certain where or when Robert Ryan signed Lloyd’s book. The son of a gun could act, but he and Nanette Fabray made a terrible mistake by starring in Irving Berlin’s musical Mr. President. We caught the out of town tryout on our first trip to Boston in 1962. The Prudential Center was under construction, JFK in the White House, and the Boston Strangler on the loose. And so were Lloyd and Joel, who had finally become a couple. To add to the evening’s festivities, we waited on a line for dinner with the real Maria van Trapp.

Mr. President gave us such unforgettable ditties as “It Gets Lonely in the White House” and “The Secret Service Makes Me Nervous”. We’re certain that George and Laura, followed by Barack and Michele, hummed them all the time. We likely waited for Robert Ryan by the Colonial Theater stage door, although how we kept straight faces after that dog of a show I’ll never know. Mr. President caused considerable embarrassment for President and Mrs. Kennedy when they attended a performance with the French Ambassador in Washington, D.C. One of the lines demeaned Charles DeGaulle, then President of France. JFK was furious with the show’s composer.

Good shows and bad, “we’ve seen them all, and we’re still here,” to borrow a lyric from Stephen Sondheim. We’ve never seen a show without paying, but we sneaked into many a Broadway curtain call. More about that and “much, much more” next time.

Joel: Letters