Letter From Los Angeles
Quote of The Issue
Senator Ted Cruz says things that dumb people think are smart.– Bob Franken
I have everything in life that money can’t buy. – Warren Buffet
Here is my crazy ideology, and the world will have to bend to it because I have a donor in Vegas who will fund it and a gerrymandered district back home that will endorse it.– Thomas Friedman
So what the Republican party is doing with Obamacare is turning a window of opportunity into a grave, and the party’s cooler heads know it.– Frank Bruni
NSA Surveillance-Relevant Quotes
If government isn’t more forthcoming and transparent and keeps amassing “secrets,” an Edward Snowden or a Bradley Manning will do the job for them thinking they’re doing the job for us. We need clarity from the President about what must be kept a secret from the people and why this is the case. This must be done convincingly.–Fareed Zakaria
Must a government, of necessity, be too strong for the liberties of its own people, or too weak for its own existence? – Abraham Lincoln
Gun Murder Quotes
There are no accidents. There are simply irresponsible, stubborn, cowardly adults unwilling to stand up against the gun lobby and those who support it.– Jodi Sandoval, whose fourteen year old son was “accidentally” killed last year with an accessible handgun belonging to the grandfather of his friend
What is this- open season on math teachers, school kids, NSA officers, individuals in shopping malls and naval yards, nineteen year old women seeking help following auto crashes, teenage birthday party-goers, and thirteen year old boys carrying toy guns in Santa Rosa, California? Anyone who makes firearms available to irresponsible others is a menace. What would the gun industry lobby have us do, abolish bad and stupid people?– Joel
Surrounded by the animals we love, we know that many animals contribute to our lives. We give thanks for all of those who, unknowingly and unasked, help us. For worker animals, the dogs who guard us, and find our lost, and guide our blind; for beasts of farm and field who provide us with food and clothing, who tote our burdens and entertain us with their pranks, and for the animals who give their lives so that we might live.– Blessing of the Animals, First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church, Cambridge, Ma.
Angels of The Edition
The American Airlines passengers who, without hesitation, headed to the rear and donated their first class seats to armed service members returning from Afghanistan.
Our former veterinarian, Bernard Collins of Lee, Ma., died just a year ago at the age of eighty-three. Amazingly, “Uncle Bernie,” as my dog liked to call him, biked from Washington (Seattle) to Washington (D.C.) when he was sixty-nine. Not everyone will make that effort at any age, but the doctor’s example merits recognition.
Conflicting P’s: Plutocrats and Populists
Imagine a climate in which partisans on both ends of the political spectrum fight fiercely for supremacy over one another and the plutocrats who run the show, and that, in their heavy-handed way, they get what’s going on. Few commentators “get it” like Chrystia Freeland, author of Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else does. Her article, “Plutocrats Vs. Populists” (New York Times, Nov. 3, 2013), is one of the most incisive analyses of contemporary political challenges available, and I urge those interested to read the piece themselves.
Freeland contends that “as a populist wave crashes in on both sides of the Atlantic, the plutocrats, for all their treasure and their intellect, are in a weak position to hold it back.” The American wave comes in the form of Tea Party conservatives, and liberals exemplified by New Yorkers who have just elected Bill de Blasio their mayor. Too bad neither side acknowledges their commonality as members of the economically squeezed middle class nor sees the value of coalition.
To her credit Freeland resists the temptation to craft a hit piece, although she is not afraid to grind some axes here and there. Neither “liberal nanny state paternalism” nor the “philanthrocapitalistic” efforts of Bloomberg, Gates and Soros are snap solutions, “and voters are smart enough to appreciate that.”
Following a fascinating contrast of past and current political modes of operation, Freeland concludes that “Plutocrats, as well as the rest of us, need to rise to this larger challenge “ of “coming up with a fully convincing answer to the question of how you harness the power of the technology revolution and globalization without hollowing out middle class jobs.” In the meantime, she maintains, we can expect ferocious battles characterized by “more extremist politics and a more rancorous political debate.” Did she say more rancorous?
Speaking of Which....
I was struck by Goldman Sachs Chairman Lloyd Blankfein’s assertion that of the two- philanthropy and corporations- the latter is unquestionably more benevolent, and by Michael Bloomberg’s judgment that the top 1% of New Yorkers will “make it,” while those who fall below the top 20% in wealth will “struggle” all their lives without a “proper education.”
Brats Are Not Inevitable
Brats are made, not born that way. We’ve all been bothered by little children throwing tantrums in public to get attention and whatever else they want. When I mentioned a neighboring noisy brat’s behavior, a listener added “which is normal for kids that age.” What, then, about the grandchildren of two summer neighbors in the Berkshires?
When I asked that couple if a pair of teenage boys who were skateboarding outside my cottage belonged to them, their immediate reaction was, “Did they do anything to disturb you?” “To the contrary,” I replied. “They bid polite good mornings and talked among themselves like grownups.” When we met other of their grandchildren two years ago, I introduced us as Joel, Lloyd and John. Later the grandmother explained, “We insist they address adults by their titles and their surnames, but we’ll make this an exception.”
We live in a people pleasing culture, which nobody can deny. The more I eat at restaurants the more I want to eat at home. I witness eater after eater (if they’re servers, we’re eaters, damn it!) thanking “servers” profusely for simply handing them the menu or the check, the latter after endless interruptions of “Is everything OK?” and clearing the table before everyone has finished eating.
Our obsession with pleasing others extends to murderers, who are merely “shooters” now. Our dread of disapproval, which we’d go to almost any length to avoid, extends to the children in our care. In Individualism Reconsidered, David Reisman recognized that sixty years ago.
Parents: If our summer neighbors can nurture children without celebrating bad behavior, you can do it, too, We’ve witnessed adults incite their kids to shriek and squeal as if there were something toxic about quiescence. Perhaps they’d do better bringing up stuffed toys.
He Is Sixteen Going on Forty
While visiting Cambridge this early October we checked our messages at the nearby library, a miracle of resources, design and friendliness. At the next table was a high school junior reviewing math with no-nonsense tutor in preparation for an upcoming crucial exam. The boy was obviously bright and able, but he was as tight as any drum.
Is this what we want for our youth- coaching, tension, testing, coaching? Amanda Ripley provides relevant insights in the recently published The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way, of which I’ve read reviews. South Korean high school students work incessantly and get very little sleep. Until recently their coaching academies were open the entire night.
Finland sits at the top of the world’s educational achievement, and the Finns are on to something Americans are just beginning to understand. Their students can’t imagine school is anything but work. Are they also nervous wrecks, or has some kind of balance been achieved? We need to know that, too.
Ripley correctly reasons that “(Historically Americans) hadn’t needed a very rigorous education, and they hadn’t gotten it. Wealth had made rigor optional.” Today, however, “everything has changed. In an automated, global economy kids need to be driven; they need to know how to adapt, since they would be doing it all their lives. They need a culture of rigor.” In short, we must prepare our children to compete.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg knows a thing or two about competition; the word’s his mantra. The possibility that New York City could lose its preeminence to London is almost too much for him to bear. (Something wrong with being #2?) When I told a friend in Boston what I had witnessed at the library she said, “The kids had better get used to the stress and competition now, because they’ll have it full time soon enough.”
Is the choice we offer youngsters in the second decade of the twenty-first century between relentless work and competition and a more relaxed but unproductive country? Dare we contemplate the benefits of leisure as we did in the American dominated, prosperous era following World War II?
I was struck by another thought while in that Cambridge library. The sixteen year old told the tutor he was thinking of going away for the upcoming Columbus weekend. What will become of children whose parents are unable to afford weekend vacations and tutors and, in many cases, are barely able to buy food and pay the rent? Inequality, to me, is as insidious as our country’s continuing to fall behind. Are we no longer all in this together?
The JFK Assassination Anniversary
Many of you remember where you were when John Kennedy was assassinated fifty years ago and how the news affected you. When I walked into our apartment and found my mother’s maid in tears, I was certain that something had happened to my father. The sight of my mother perched on a sofa arm staring at the TV assured me that my dad was not the victim. The President was not yet dead, but when Walter Cronkite broke that news I blurted, “Lyndon Johnson’s president, God help us!” and tactlessly repeated the rumor that a black man pulled the trigger.
The remainder of our Thanksgiving weekend was the surrealistic unfolding it was for everybody else. An aunt who had been food shopping when the news broke witnessed a clerk jump over the counter and eject a customer who proclaimed he was happy that the president was dead. That Sunday Lee Harvey Oswald was shot prime time.
The day after Thanksgiving I kept an appointment for a college graduation photo session but was not in as good focus as the camera. Our Christian Science church broke with tradition and held a special service during which the Reader barely disguised his grief. My CBS TV correspondent cousin Stephen Banker stood a foot off- camera from Jackie Kennedy and her children as they left the White House for the walk behind the coffin.
My earliest JFK memory dates back to the 1960 campaign, when I was sent to Kennedy and Nixon New York headquarters to pick up campaign materials for a window display that the Fifth Ave. clothing store where I worked part-time was planning. All I knew of Kennedy was that his father was an S.O.B. A campaign coordinator in a corner office told me I should favor Kennedy because the candidate was young like me. Age forty-three did not seem young to the eighteen year old Joel.
That October, JFK, and later Nixon, campaigned at NYU where I was enrolled. Kennedy stood atop the student center and said something about “moving America forward,” and I remember how thin and well dressed he appeared. Although I had favored Richard Nixon, I was impressed by the new president’s dash, family, associates, religiosity, glitzy society wife and, most especially, his Harvard education, which reflected my barely-out-of-adolescence values. I saw the world in terms of hierarchy then, with the Kennedys at its apex.
A bust of JFK I bought for $50 nearly fifty years ago still sits atop my desk. The original, in the Kennedy Center lobby in D.C., was the only bust for which the president ever sat, and its presence reflects my regard for the piece more than my adoration of the man.
My only sentimental thought about the Kennedys occurred after Ted died a few years ago. A cartoon depicted the Senator, white haired, stooped and frail, boarding a sailboat. Helping him was a smiling young Robert Kennedy, and the JFK we remember was in sports clothes at the helm. The minute Ted’s feet were off the shore he, too, would be young and with his favorite people once again. Imagine a similar transformation for those we’ve loved and those who’ve served us well.
What if... What if...What if?
What if Kennedy had lived to serve a second term? New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson has reviewed the extensive literature and finds the judgment inconclusive and the man “elusive.” The thirty-fifth president relished his opportunity and gave it his best, of that I’m certain. His handling of the Cuban missile crisis was deft, thank goodness, although credit is due Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, too.
Even as we celebrate President Kennedy and enjoy again the gloss he projected back in his day, I hope we don’t get carried away by the sentiment and images. In 2004 a sales clerk in Montreal astonished me by his conviction that John F. Kennedy was the greatest American president. I spoke of Washington, FDR and Lincoln before shaking my head and going on my way.
May I Please Have Your Autograph?
The more I write about our collection the more I recognize my account is incomplete. My memories come mostly from the two old fashioned autograph books we keep in safe deposit boxes; however we’ve also got autographs on programs, photos, and even scraps of paper, most of which are in storage. (Our buddy John collected his on coffee cup container tops and paper plates, but more of that later in the series.) Reporting on inaccessible sources will appear in segments I call “Off The Books.” Occasionally I’ll mention autographs I’ve skipped in “I’m Out of Order.”
I’m Out of Order
How many of you know that Hal Linden, 1970s sitcom’s Barney Miller, played the male lead in the Broadway musical Bells Are Ringing after Sydney Chaplin, Charlie’s son, had left the show. Our friend Bernie West played the dentist/songwriter, and Lloyd and I visited him regularly each Saturday afternoon. Bernie brought us on the stage and introduced us to Betty Comden of extensive Broadway and movie book and lyric fame, e.g. Singing In The Rain. Comden was conferring with the stage manager and clearly in no mood for autographs, but on another occasion her partner Adolph Green signed cheerfully. Linden, who sang and danced with the best of them when in his thirties, greeted us warmly.
Another autograph from those days was from Don Porter, whom you may remember as Ann Southern’s boss on the 1950s TV sitcom Private Secretary.
I waited for Carmen Matthews to leave her stage door for a reason. Mathews can be seen occasionally on reruns of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, but in the 1950s she did a lot of Broadway. My prep school headmaster Carrington Raymond and Miss Matthews were fellow Episcopalian parishioners, so I was certain the actress would be glad to meet me. She had no idea who Mr. Raymond was.
Fred Clark was a familiar name to TV watchers in the 1950s- he was the original Harry Morton on the Burns and Allen show- although he did movies such as Auntie Mame and plays on Broadway. At decade’s end I encountered Clark in Shubert Alley wearing a bowler hat and a velvet collared overcoat. I praised the actor and asked him for his autograph, which he gave me with a discontented snort.
The Series Proper
Broadway boasted some impressive performers in the 1960s, and we tracked many of them down. Autograph hound was a pejorative for folks like us back then; in fact critic John Lahr used that expression as the title of a novel. In those days we simply stood outside the stage doors- in heat and cold and rain- with little notice. In the current celebrity crazed era, metal gates and security guards come between the actors and their fans. That’s too bad, because today’s actors often enjoy interacting with their fans.
Lloyd and I were garden variety autograph hounds compared to Dave and Celia. In the 1950s and 60s, Dave Lefkowitz and a woman named Celia, both single, from Brooklyn and with no visible means of support, haunted stage doors and hotels where actors slept. After being profiled in local papers they became quasi-celebrities themselves. Among hounds our age were a Stuart and a Lynn, two regulars at The Sound of Music. We became friends with Stuart and even brought him home,
The 1960s musical Carnival was based on the popular movie Lily of the 1950s. In the lead was lovely-voiced Anna Marie Alberghetti, who still makes occasional appearances in Palm Springs, Ca. She so hated Carnival’s producer David Merrick that she hung his photo above her toilet. Another autograph from that cast was from Kaye Ballard, who now calls the old Lucille Ball/ Desi Arnaz Palm Springs house her home.
One of the most memorable autographs of that period may not have even been signed by its star, who was so stoned after her performance in Midgie Purvis she had to be carried to her car. Nonetheless the program, which was signed out of sight backstage, is inscribed “Bless You, Talullah Bankhead.”
After Robert Preston, who made me explain why I wanted his autograph, left The Music Man, Lloyd and I finally got to see the show. Harold Hill was played by Bert Parks, best known for emceeing the Miss American Pageant each September on TV. The man who crooned “Here she comes, Miss America,” wasn’t up to Broadway, but he signed without giving us an argument.
At that time, Broadway critics gave Hollywood actors terrible reviews, so we were certain that Lauren Bacall would be savaged, too. The play she chose for her Broadway debut, Goobye, Charlie, had a funny premise. A recently deceased womanizer named Charlie came back as a woman and learned what his lady friends really thought of him. Charlie was played by Ms. Bacall.
On screen, stage and street, Betty Bacall, her real name, was, and in her mid-eighties, remains, a stately beauty. In 1960 she walked by quickly with somebody beside her. Determined to get her attention, and using the best manners I could summon, I asked, “Mrs. Bogart, may I have your autograph?” “That wasn’t necessary,” she snapped, referring to my substituting her famous husband’s surname for her own, but she signed and went about her way.
In the 1980s Bacall brought the musical Woman of the Year to San Francisco, and we waited for her afterwards. Remembering to address her as Ms. Bacall, we told her that Dark Passage, her first movie with Bogie after being married, was our film noir favorite, and that we visited its San Francisco locations, especially the Filbert steps and the apartment building at 1360 Montgomery, regularly. “I just got a note from the woman who lives in the movie’s apartment inviting me over,” she told us, adding “Why the hell would I want to go back there?”
Everyone knows that Carol Channing opened Hello, Dolly on Broadway. We got her autograph when she and Sid Ceaser, then in Little Me, were boarding a taxi one night after their respective musicals. Channing spent several minutes explaining that they were late for a live TV appearance and couldn’t stop for autographs, but finally she gave in. Why didn’t she save time by signing in the first place?
After Channing left the show, Hollywood's Ginger Rogers stepped into the part. Rogers was not talentless, but she wasn’t Dolly Levi either. And what they said about the goings-on in her dressing room between matinees and evening shows....
We were as surprised as you may be at the choices for subsequent Broadway Dollies. Otherwise, we may never have gotten autographs from Phyllis Diller and Martha Raye. Both went from the stage entrance to their waiting cars wearing mink- Diller’s white- in Manhattan’s winter weather. Both were cordial, Diller presenting a surprisingly sober mien. Perhaps like funny Lucille Ball, Neil Simon- and me- she was serious at heart.
My favorite Dolly was the original choice for the part, Ethel Merman. (My mother learned that from a chance acquaintance with David Merrick’s company manager. A friend from Wisconsin who reads this letter joined us in the front row for that show. Merman “got” her character and the humor, and she belted her songs to the other side of Broadway.
Carol Channing, whose goofy “offstage” behavior belies her intelligence (she’s a Bennington College graduate, and her memoir, Just Lucky I Guess, is well worth reading) distinguished herself forever in Dolly and in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, which was revived in 1971 as the title character’s name, Lorelei, a musical Lloyd and I won’t soon forget. We were tourists at a San Francisco hotel next to the theater when we saw the out of town tryout of Lorelei, and the production knocked us all the way to Sausilito. Imagine enjoying “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend” front row center. The following winter we attended Lorelei’s Broadway opening and were horrified at the changes that had been made. The show had a short run.
A decade and a half later a handsome young fellow looked at our vacant downstairs flat in San Francisco. He and his partner signed a lease and Casey Jones (his real name) who had been the youngest member of the Lorelei company, became our tenant until we left San Francisco.
In 1986, Carol Channing and Mary Martin appeared in Legends, a flimsy comedy, at San Francisco’s Curran Theater (where we had seen Lorelei, and where the opening sequences of the 1950 Bette Davis movie All About Eve were shot), and of course we and John went to see the show. Backstage afterwards, we spent an hour reminiscing with Mary Martin, and as we were leaving we ran into Channing. The minute we mentioned that Casey was our tenant she began filling us in on news of his friends from the Lorelei cast, some of whom had died of AIDS. She was relieved that Casey was still with us.
Appearing with Carol and Casey in Lorelei was Dodie Goodman of Jack Parr and Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman fame. When she signed for us I reminded the comic actress of an event several years before. In 1963, while at NYU, I attended a Christian Science lecture at Cooper Union in Manhattan. I don’t remember what impressed me more: the architecture, that Abraham Lincoln’s speech there propelled him to the presidency, or that Ms. Goodman was in the audience. Star struck Lloyd and Joel attended church on East 77th Street because columnist Cyndi Adams and Ed Sullivan’s actress niece Julia Meade were among the congregation. If God had shown up, we probably would have asked for His autograph, too.
Next time I’ll tie up the 1960s with one of Hollywood’s most memorable silent movie stars, another Cousin Ann Thomas story, and some talented but lesser know personalities.