Letter From The Berkshires
September 2014
© 2014 Joel

Quote of All Times

My great fear is that we’ve in fact been visited by intelligent aliens, but they chose not to make contact on the conclusion that there is no intelligent life on earth. -Neil DeGrasso Tyson, Director of New York’s Haydn Planetarium

The events of this past summer more than adequately substantiate Dr. Tyson’s point. -Joel

Quotes of The Issue

I wish I had more time. - James Foley, beheaded by ISIS in Iraq

We may all ask James Foley’s question during our last minutes, but more time for what? It behooves each of us to answer that immediately. -Joel

Earth Hugging Quote

Our challenge in this our geological instant is to steer a path that does not cut our future short, and with it that of the many plants and animals along for the ride. That’s what is so remarkable about the age we live in. For the first time in history there’s a species that has that choice to make. -Australia’s First Four Billion Years

International Conflict Quotes

These days are dangerous.
Virtue is choked with foul Ambition,
And Charity chased hence by Rancor’s hand.
-William Shakespeare

If your opponents are killing one another, do not interfere -Colonel Douglas MacGregor, June 13, 2014

Emily’s List

Color-Caste-Denomination-
These- are Time’s Affair-
Death’s diviner Classifying
Does not know they are-
As in sleep-All Hue forgotten-
Tenets-put behind-
Death’s large-Democratic fingers
Rub away the Brand-
-Emily Dickinson

Transgender Quote

One teacher called my mother and said I’d end up in New Orleans wearing a dress if she didn’t get me therapy. -Laverne Cox, transgender actress

Way To Go, Joan Rivers

Joan Rivers performed her comic act the night before she slipped into a coma. Wouldn’t we all want to be actively involved with our passion right up to the end?

Three years ago Lloyd, John and I attended a book signing by Ms. Rivers in West Hollywood, L.A. When our turn came the comic observed that we had bought one copy of her Murder At The Academy Awards: A Red Carpet Mystery between us. “Three men, one book?” she thundered, as she signed, “To three cheap...” and I began to spell aloud “b-a-s-t-a-r...” but she just wrote “To three cheap guys.”

Then she started in on why Lloyd and I were wearing baseball caps and John’s head was bare. We removed our caps to show the contrast between John’s locks and the little that was left of ours. Rivers thanked us for making her laugh.

Hate The Religion

We face not an Islamic problem, but an Arab problem. -Fareed Zakaria

Until recently, no Muslim thinker ever claimed (violent jihad) was the central tenet of Islam.- Karen Armstrong, religious scholar

Foreign affairs expert Fareed Zakaria (Global Public Square, CNN) explains that “Jihad fundamentalism has not done well in Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world,” nor in India with its 150 million Muslims. It is the Arab world that “produces fanatical jihad,” he continues, due to its “political stagnation.” Islam is the sole institution available to challenge the paucity of freedom in these Arab lands, and “the more extreme the regime, the more violent the opposition.”

Many among us claim that the Koran requires Muslims to be violent. They base this judgment on scant knowledge of Islamic theology, Muslims, or their holy book itself. I’ve not studied the subject extensively either, but I reply on the judgment of experts whom I respect, and in lieu of scouring the Internet for confirmation of my prejudices, I’m not jumping to conclusions.

Muslim bashers make profound mistakes in logic, too. Nazis were nominally Christians, so Christianity must perforce also be a violent faith. Palestinians would say the same of Judaism, an assertion which is the self-same sack of you-know-what.

Lenore’s Observation and Joel’s Comments
About This Troubled Summer

A summer neighbor named Lenore shared this reflection with me. “I was sitting on my deck listening to the music wafting down from Tanglewood and looking at the beauty of this place. ‘How can this be,’ I asked myself, ‘with the horror happening in the world?’”

Gaza; Iraq; beheadings; plane crashes; Ferguson; Robin Williams; the U.S. border crisis; Ebola and Ukraine: a Frankenstein scenario. Tens of thousands of individuals who were alive before summer vacation are no longer, very few of whom died in bed. The following thoughts are far from comprehensive.

Dead Boys Society

Let’s begin with some dead boys. The Israeli lads slain by Hamas are Eyal Yifrah, age 19, Gilad Shaar, age 16, and Naftali Fraenkel, age 16, the Palestinian Muhammad Hussein, age 16, whose revenge killing was condemned by one of the slain Israeli teen’s families. I recommend that we honor these boys and their families by naming succeeding peace talks for each of them rather than the location of the negotiations.

Heads or Hands, Hot or Cold
(Violence is For Losers)

Peace is made with heads-not hands. -William Shakespeare

A. The Middle East

isis fighters- the 21st century Middle East version of the Nazis- are called “cowardly criminals” for a reason. Violence is the weakling’s first resort. Tactical patience and diplomacy, both of which take the “ef” word- effort- offend the macho instincts of those like John McCain. Diplomacy is tough on its practitioners. Lethal force is tough on those who do the fighting, and on those who accidentally get in bomb’s or bullet’s way.

Commentator Chris Matthews offers a startlingly contrarian view of America’s role in that region of the world. “The fighting in the Middle East is never going to end,” he argues, and conflicts over territory, sectarian divisions and religion cannot be resolved by force alone. Diplomatic and political solutions must be given primacy.

Contrary to public opinion, which has been understandably ignited by beheadings, Matthews thinks the U.S. should stay out of the Middle East. “We always make things worse” by creating the conditions for future confrontations. He fears isis will use an American attack it has deliberately provoked as an pretext for striking back even harder.

What would happen if isis decapitated captured U.S. troops, Mathews wonders? When would the escalation isis is itching for ever end? I’m not certain I disagree with his analysis. We should never have gotten into this- “this” being Iraq- in the first place. Have we passed the point of no return?

B. Ukraine

In his masterful analysis, “Managing the New Cold War,” ( Foreign Affairs, July/August 2014), Robert Legvold proposes a novel approach to the situation in Ukraine. “Everything that western leaders do to induce Russian restraint must be paired with a compelling vision of an alternative path that, if taken, would lead in a more constructive direction. Both halves of this approach must be clear and concrete: the redlines must be self-evident and backed by the threat of credible military force, and the opportunities for cooperation must be specific and significant.”

Imagine using a variant of this strategy at home and on the job. Old Joe Kennedy must be smiling at Legvold’s words. The former Ambassador advised his distinguished sons: “Hot heart, cold head.”

C. The Troops

Congressman Adam Schiff correctly reasons, “The more personnel you put on the ground, the more personnel you need to protect them.” I wonder what we’re going to do with the veterans who come back from new wars gravely physically or psychologically damaged, or for the families of those who come back dead.

Ferguson, Mo.

“They’re putting these boys on trial for their own murder.” -Jesse Williams, actor/activist

“Libertarians worry about the threat of local tyrants, too, but only abstractly. In practice, they remain so fixated on the perils of Washington that they rigidly insist on devolving power down to states, cities, and towns- the very places where their nightmares are springing to life.”- Franklin Foer in “The Autocrat Next Door,” The New Republic, Sept. 15, 2014

In international affairs, everyone second guesses the man in the Oval Office. In the case of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO., everybody knows “who done it.” Liberals like myself smell still another instance of African Americans being murdered, beaten or otherwise oppressed by criminals in uniform. Other instances include the brutal beating of unarmed Mailene Pinnock by a cop on a California freeway, and Eric Garner’s murder by chokehold for the crime of blocking a New York city street. For conservatives, this is what can be expected from liberal-coddled blacks.

My advice- domestically as well as globally- is to avoid falling into your opponent’s trap whenever possible. Ferguson’s looters caused “more pain and shame in our son’s name,” declared Brown’s Mom and Dad. The Black Panthers, of all groups, deserve credit in this situation, too. The Panthers counseled a five-day moratorium on protests, cooling down, and, above all, not rushing to a trial as with George Zimmerman.

Hot heart, cold head again.

We’d all do best not jumping to conclusions. This is neither American Idol, Play Your Bias nor Bring It To A Vote. My mind is as made up as anybody’s in the land. I’m cheering for the truth.

“Officer Friendly Becomes G.I. Joe”

What’s with military equipment in the hands of small city police? In the U.K., which has a substantial disaffected immigrant population, cops no longer even carry guns. I’d like to see a carefully crafted pilot program to test that policy here.

Robin Williams Wasn’t Gay?
(In The Old Fashioned Sense of The Word)

It’s not having been in the dark house, but having left it that counts. -Theodore Roosevelt

Lauren Bacall was not a youngster, nor was Joan Rivers, but neither took her own life. The most prevalent comment on the Robin William’s suicide was that he always seemed so happy. My Hollywood-oriented readers know better.

First, however, I must tell a Robin Williams joke, delivered at a public tribute to Herb Caan, the late, great columnist in San Francisco in the 1990s. Madame de Gaulle, wife of Charles, was asked in a live American TV interview, “What is the most wonderful thing in the world?” Without hesitation she replied what sounded like “A penis!” The panicky newscaster quickly asked, “Well, then, what is the worst thing in the world?” to which she replied, without hesitation, “Un-a penis!” (For those who never studied French, she was saying “happiness” and “unhappiness” with a French accent.)

Back to the myth of the slap-happy comic. Seriousness does not necessarily imply unhappiness, nor is a smiling face necessarily a happy face. Neil Simon, arguably the best comic writer in our day, is all business at rehearsals; Woody Allen is not the picture of well-adjustment. Lucille Ball was rarely satisfied, I have read, and a faithful reader once encountered Jackie Mason seated in a lobby with his head buried in his hands. Favorites such as Sid Ceaser have had serious addictions, and Mel Brooks and Dick Cavett were both bipolar. Danny Kaye put his troubles off on other people in the cast.

So when people observe that Williams seemed so happy, or that Danny Kaye must have been a lovely guy, they misunderstand comedians and know little of the comic impulse. One often truly laughs or cries.

Hope: My Favorite Four Letter Word

“But daddy, these aren’t people, they’re children.”- The eight year old daughter of Judge Jenkins referring to this summer’s dramatic surge of Central American children at our borders

From summer’s ashes comes some encouragement. Regardless of one’s views on undocumented immigrants, residents of Murietta, CA. who blocked busloads of confused and frightened Central American women and children from being processed at their Border Patrol Station have shown the world what trailer trash they are. In contrast, Judge Clay Jenkins of Dallas County, TX., no bastion of liberality, exhorted “people of faith” to open their arms to the refugees. Dallas Mayor Rawlings supports Jenkins’s plan to house up to two thousand of the children in county shelters.

“We should say to ourselves, ‘NOT ONE MORE!’”

Richard Martinez

On June 1, 2014 Mr. Martinez met with Peter Rodgers, the father of the college student who shot to death Martinez’s twenty year old son Chris, and several female students and himself, near Santa Barbara, CA. The bereaved fathers vowed to work together to end this kind of violence. Boston Mayor Tom Merino understands just what these dads are up against. Congress, he maintains, is in the hands of the NRA and needs to be voted out of office.

The sight of Rodgers and Martinez embracing, and the look on the face of one of their wives in the background holding a beautifully wrapped present, reminds me of something Rabbi Harold Kuschner (“When Bad Things Happen to Good People”) said on 9/11. The rabbi saw God in the firefighters on the scene. I saw God in the Martin-Rodgers get-together.

Send In The Salt

Everyone is talking about a recent “Sixty Minutes” segment on the latest in what (and what not) to put into our mouths. Coffee’s in, ditto wine, and vitamin supplements are out, we have been told. (I’ll write more about the latter in an upcoming letter.) If it’s on TV, it’s got to be so.

Remember when Vitamin E supplements were deemed key to a healthy heart? Now we’re told the opposite: E supplements exponentially increase the risk of prostate cancer. Well, they knew it was one way or the other; you’ve gotta give ‘em credit.

A retired physician neighbor who wrote the health newsletter for one of our most influential universities told me that he understands why consumers of conflicting health reports become angry and confused. I replied that I’m among them. Don’t eat eggs; eat eggs. Butter’s bad for you; now, it’s not. UC Berkeley Wellness Letter recommended rinsing three times after using toothpaste, then, barely six month later, to barely rinse at all. One dentist advises patients not to brush within a half hour after eating because that’s when teeth are most vulnerable; mine says waiting half an hour is too late.

I take everything I’m told with a grain of blood pressure raising/lowering salt, including the Gospel according to St. Doctor. Before I would follow certain medical recommendations, I’d believe Richard Nixon first.

More On Movies
(The title is not intentionally a pun)

Another of the Ever-Growing Top Twenty

Shenandoah (1965) is a splendidly written, directed and performed story which has contemporary relevance. Jimmy Stewart shines as Charlie Anderson, a hyper-independent Virginia farmer and father of six sons and one daughter who gets caught up in the American Civil War. Stewart is determined to keep the war at bay from his farm and family, but he learns that wars don’t work that way. After the death of two sons and a daughter-in-law, and a futile search for his missing youngest son, Stewart beseeches his dead wife Martha for a sign of what to do. A ringing church bell is her answer, and the final scene will touch your heart. Broadway gave us a worthy musical version of Shenandoah in the early 1970s, but unfortunately the cast recording is out of print.

Second Tier Favorites

The Man In the Gray Flannel Suit (1956). Gregory Peck plays a 1950s junior executive type suffering from PTSD acquired during World War ll. Jennifer Jones excels as a suburban housewife whose world is shattered, and who subsequently grows. Peck’s final line to Jones “Did I ever tell you that I worship you?” is merited, and Lee J Cobb’s assertion that “God’s in His heaven and all’s well with the world” rings absolutely true.

One needn’t like a movie to love a moment in it. Although most of my readers rank To Kill A Mockingbird (1962) high on their lists, I’ve never liked that movie. Atticus Finch, ably played by Gregory Peck, is undoubtedly a hero for championing justice over bigotry in the South, but I find the production tedious and trite. My least favorite moments are the kids playing together at the beginning, which I would have given the director’s ax.

Surprisingly, then, Mockingbird contains one of my favorite moments in a movie. As defeated lawyer Peck wearily exits what he thinks is a deserted courthouse, the people in the “colored balcony” rise silently in respect. Finch’s puzzled daughter remains seated until she’s told, “Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passing.”

Could author Harper Lee or director Alan J. Pakula have devised a more inventive, moving tribute? For whom, dead or alive, fictitious or real, known to you personally or from afar, would you rise without their knowing so?

The other well-regarded movie I don’t enjoy is Billy Wilder’s classic Some Like It Hot (1958), starring Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis and Marilyn Monroe. Some lines are classics, though. Like when Lemmon, impersonating a woman, announces to an incredulous Curtis, “I’m engaged!” And how many of you remember the circumstances surrounding Joe E. Brown’s uttering “Well, nobody’s perfect,” the movie’s final line? The musical adaptation titled Sugar opened on Broadway in 1972 with Lloyd and me in the audience, and I liked it even less.

The Good Earth (1937) was based on Pearl Buck’s novel of life in rural China in the first years of the twentieth century. Paul Muni, a cousin of whose was our plumber in San Francisco, plays opposite Luise Rainer, still alive at 104. Life in China in that period wasn’t pretty if you weren’t wealthy and a man, but this story bursts with courage and devotion.

May I Please Have Your Autograph
Another Op’nin’ (Another Flop)

I had almost forgotten about Patti Duke until a reader informed me of something that the former child star has written about her challenged life, and not without some humor. When Duke was staying with the reader’s aunt, she decided she would give suicide a try. Before swallowing the contents of a bottle of tranquilizers she found in the aunt’s medicine chest, Duke had the presence of mind to leave one pill for when her hostess woke and found her dead. Fortunately, the reader’s aunt discovered Duke before it was too late and made the appropriate call- to Frank Sinatra!- who summoned medical assistance. Only in Hollywood.

In March, 1962 we attended the Broadway opening of Isle of Children starring then sixteen year old Duke, a play which ran a scant eleven performances. Duke had already made her mark in The Miracle Worker. Lloyd and I were three months away from becoming lovers, yet we continued to pretend that Boys in Show Biz was but a hobby. James Aubrey, who had played the lead in the movie Lord of the Flies, was the reason we saw the show.

In response to one of my famous letters, Patti Duke sent a lovely handwritten reply- probably written under pressure from her monster parents- and two autographed photos we still treasure.

The Broadway Identity Error of Them All

When I make a mistake, it’s a beaut. -Fiorello Laguardia, long-ago mayor of New York

Last edition I snitched on John for mistaking actress Katherine Hellmond for playwright Lillian Hellman, who by then was rather dead. Now it’s my turn to turn bright scarlet. First, the leading players.

Thomas Dewey was the Republican Governor of New York when Harry Truman beat him for the White House in 1948. An iconic image shows the triumphant president holding a “Dewey Defeats Truman” headline for the cameras. Truman had mocked the thinly mustached Dewey for looking like the “man atop a wedding cake.”

Few of us ever encountered Thomas Dewey. My father did, when Dewey was his customer at a Madison Ave. clothing store he managed before I was born. Dad’s antipathy for the then Manhattan D.A. reinforces the biographer’s observation that Dewey had that rarity, cold brown eyes.

I don’t remember the color of Arnold Weissberger’s eyes, but the memory of him haunts me to this day. In 1967, Lloyd and I took our traditional evening stroll from our home by Lincoln Center to Columbus Circle and vicinity. The current Museum of Arts and Design at Columbus Circle was then the Huntington Hartford Museum. A special exhibit of paintings by former President Eisenhower was opening that evening almost fifty years ago.

A small crowd had assembled by the time we had arrived. All were curious about the U.S. Marine Band’s presence and why the Circle had been cleared of traffic. Moments later a black limousine accompanied by motorcycle cops pulled up to the curb; the color guard snapped to attention, and the band played Ruffles and Flourishes for Mamie Eisenhower, who was representing her hospitalized husband, and New York Mayor John Lindsay and his wife. Another couple you may remember, former Vice President Richard and Pat Nixon, greeted them, then stood at attention for the playing of the national anthem. Mrs. Eisenhower, wearing a pink floor length gown and a mink stole, kept her eyes upon the flag throughout the playing. How extraordinary, from today’s perspective, to think that all that separated these dignitaries from the crowd was Manhattan’s polluted air.

The excitement had but begun. Subsequent celebrity arrivals included the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, the former wearing dark glasses due to an eye disease, and butterball, homophobic, Commie-phobic Cardinal Francis Spellman, better known to gays as Auntie Fran. But why was Thomas Dewey ignoring the heavily Republican event and proceeding to walk down Broadway? How unusual that the conservatively dressed politician wore a stylish fur trimmed overcoat, I remember thinking, however thinking wasn’t really going on.

The following night we walked by a Broadway theater as the opening night audience was filing out. There, stylish overcoat and all, was “Thomas Dewey.” Scooping up a discarded program I simpered, “Governor, may I have your autograph?” The man stared as if in shock. “Governor,” I repeated, “May I.....” “Who do you think I am?” the gentleman interrupted. By then Lloyd had realized my mistake, but it was far too late. “Let me see,” I teased, “You’re Richard Nixon. Governor Dewey, I’d be proud to have your autograph.

“Perhaps you’d rather have my companion’s,” the “Governor” replied with more than some disdain. His readily recognizable friend was Anita Loos, who had written Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and the screenplay for San Francisco and Gigi, among many, many others, and who was one of the most colorful entertainment figures of her time. Resplendent in a mink coat and forbidding in her frown, Anita Loos just edged away from me.

The following day we saw Arnold Weissberger’s picture in the newspaper. He was the thinly mustached man I had mistaken for the five year older Thomas Dewey, no complement in and of itself. Weissberger was a theatrical lawyer, as entertainment lawyers were known back then, who represented the most well-known actors in the world and whose photographs of his clients were legendary. I toyed with the idea of writing an apology, but decided that feeling humiliated was infinitely more appropriate.

Mr. Weissberger survived my onslaught and lived another fourteen years. Orson Welles delivered the eulogy at his funeral. How many of us can boast of that?

Send In The Sondheim Era

That the 1970s musical theater belonged to Stephen Sondheim is hardly an exaggeration. We caught Company in its Boston try-out, and I’m sorry to report I’ve never liked a production of or a number from that show. Few know that Anthony Perkins was selected for the lead but soon left to direct. He was replaced by Disney actor Dean Jones, whom we saw in Boston. (Larry Kert replaced Jones soon after the show opened in New York.)

The lady who lunched was, of course, Elaine Stritch, another star who died this summer. After getting Dean Jones’s autograph, we waited another chilly half hour until Stritch left the stage door droning an isolated lyric, surely not from Company, which consisted of “Love you.” And those two words preceded her autograph in Lloyd’s book.

The Saturday night before Follies opened on Broadway in 1971, we joined theater folk in the Wintergarden Theater audience. After each number I remember thinking, “I must be dreaming. Everyone and everything is far too good.” One has to be older to recognize the names of people in the cast. Female leads: Alexis Smith and Dorothy Collins. Male leads: John McMartin and Gene Nelson. Featured female players: Fifi D’Orsay, Ethel Shutta (pronounced Shoetay), Yvonne de Carlo. We have all of their autographs.

I won’t lend anyone my copy of The Making of Follies, written by Ted Chapin with whom I’ve corresponded, but it tells how Broadway’s sausages are made. One ingredient is the story of French chanteuse Fifi Dorsay’s making a fuss about where she sat a the initial reading of the script known as the table reading. Crusty cast member Ethel Shutta, who belts out “Broadway Baby,” pointed to the empty seat beside her and commanded, “Put-ez vous your ass down over there.”

We had to wait two more years for Sondheim’s A Little Night Music , a gem of a musical, based on a Swedish film, which the Berkshire Theater Group did to perfection this past summer. Readers will be familiar with the show’s hit, “Send in The Clowns.” Nonagenarians Dina Merrill and Gloria Vanderbuilt move over, for you have company. Glynis Johns, Night Music’s female lead, is as alive and old as you are. Hermine Gingold, who played Johns’s mother, also made ninety before she died. We got both women’s autographs after seeing the show and were struck that each came out wearing very high heels.

More 1970s opening nights and autograph stories are yet to come.

Joel: Letters