Thursday, March 08, 2018

From the archives:

Chapter One: “There was death afoot in the darkness.”—opening line of“The Man of Bronze” by Kenneth Robeson (Lester Dent).

Chapter One: “In which Benny Profane, a schlemiel and human yo-yo, gets to an apocheir.*”—opening line of “V.” by Thomas Pynchon.

In 1964, a clever editor at Bantam decided to republish the adventures of Doc Savage, stories that first appeared from 1933 to 1947 in the pulp magazine named, not surprisingly, “Doc Savage”. It took Bantam until the early 1990s to publish all 181 “novels.” James Bama, a legendary paperback cover artist, painted the first cover and 61 others that followed.

That same year, Bantam also assigned Bama to paint the cover of “V.”, the first novel by a promising writer named Thomas Pynchon, an assignment that showed the great versatility of James Bama, who painted more than 450 covers during his long and profitable commercial career. Bama, now 91, moved to Wyoming in the 1970s and established himself as a preeminent painter of the west.

As for me, I bought both books when I was thirteen. Can you guess which one I read right away and which one remains to be finished even after more than 53 years? I’ll get back to “V.” once I finish “Gravity’s Rainbow,” which has been on my bookshelf since the day it was published in 1973.

But what I think I’ll do now is make a cup of tea and reread “The Man of Bronze,” which as I recall was quite entertaining hokum. After all, death is afoot.
Apocheir appears to be a word made up by Pynchon, who offers this explanation in “V.”: “If you look from the side at a planet swinging in its orbit, split the sun with a mirror and imagine a string, it all looks like a yo-yo. The point furthest from the sun is called aphelion. The point furthest from the yo-yo hand is called, by analogy, apocheir . . . “ Got that, friends? There may be a surprise quiz any day now.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

From the
archives: Four novels written in '53 and '54, three credited to Edgar Box, the fourth to Cameron Kay, both pseudonyms for Gore Vidal, who needed some fast cash during a time when his early "serious" fiction failed to sell and he had yet to become an in-demand writer for live television drama. Notice that Vidal blurbed his own work on the cover of "Death In the Fifth Position." Cheeky.

 From the archives: Spacemen, June 1964. "The World's Only Space-Movie Magazine." It was rumored that William Shawn wanted to abandon The New Yorker and take over Spacemen, but the opportunity passed when he took three years to edit a 120,000-word-piece by John McPhee on the mating habits of the Tsetse-fly. A shame, for where else could you find Karloff, Bradbury and ads for surplus Air Force parachutes (only $2.95) and Venus Fly Traps ("Admired by Charles Darwin")? How could any 12-year-old resist such a magazine? This one couldn't.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Hugh Hefner, 1926-2017

I met Hugh Hefner once, maybe 16 or 17 years ago, when a colleague from TV Guide and I drove up to the mansion off Sunset Boulevard to have lunch. After a tour of the grounds (including the famous swimming pool/grotto, featured in various pictorials over the years), we had a nice meal, made small talk with publicists, and wondered if Hef surrounded by a bevy of beautiful women would ever appear. As dessert arrived, down the stairs came a solo Hef in his signature velvet robe, a bottle of Pepsi in one hand, an image he'd perfected to the point of resembling a figure in a waxworks. He was charming, particularly interested in TV Guide, since it and Playboy had launched close to the same time in the 1950s, TV Guide's target audience distinctly different from Playboy's, but both roaring successes by the 1960s and 1970s--and both beginning to struggle in the realities of shifting media pressures by the 21st century.

 At one point, I told him that I still remembered the first Playboy I'd ever summoned the courage to buy, that I'd walked out of my neighborhood and found a candy store where no one knew me (nonetheless, I feared a nun from my grammar school would miraculously appear, ruler in hand to mete out corporal punishment before condemning me to eternal perdition). With the candy store owner looking on, I hemmed and hawed before forking over my seventy-five cents for the July, 1965 issue. I was thirteen. I told Hef I still remembered the name of that month's Playmate: Gay Collier. Hefner laughed. "All you guys your age say the same thing. Only the model's name changes." That was somehow reassuring. We all got up, shook hands, Hef headed back up the stairs--for a nap or a tryst I'll never know--and my colleague and I returned to the real world.

I realize Hugh Hefner was a controversial figure, but for this particular adolescent with raging hormones, Playboy was a gift from the gods for a few years. And yes, I actually did read the articles, but in all honesty, that was not why I bought the magazine.

Happy trails, Hef.

Thursday, April 13, 2017


So I'm reading a review in the latest issue of Bookforum of a memoir that not even a Ginsu knife pressed against my throat by the author's agent could induce me to buy, when I come across the word "eclaircissement." I took five years of French in high school and college, a fact my wife claims can't be true

whenever I try to speak French, which is rare. Or as we say in French: rare. I should know this word. I recognize eclair. Who doesn't? I look at the sentence in question: "To the extent that the book has a eclaircissement, it's in the stunning details about her family." Does the book have an eclair-like tone to it, whatever that might be? Is it creamy and sweet and delicious when describing her family? Were her parents bakers? No, they were not. How stupide am I? (Spare me, dear friends, spare me.) I give up, look it up. What an anti-climax: eclaircissement is from the French eclairir: to clear up, a clarification, an enlightening explanation. Why the reviewer couldn't have written that in English I'd rather not consider, since I'd probably go on one of my rants, and there's too much truly rant-worthy material out there already. So some of you may have learned something: eclaircissement is a nice French word that really should never be used in book reviews published in English. I hope that was an enlightening explanation. Merci.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017


Fletcher Knebel, who co-authored “Seven Days in May” in 1962, followed that novel three years later with another best seller, “Night of Camp David,” a political thriller with an intriguing premise: what would you do if you believed that the President of the United States was losing his mind?
Since I’m convinced we now have a president who is so far off his rocker that that particular piece of furniture is on another planet, I just reread “Night of Camp David” to see how prescient Knebel was 52 years ago.
The protagonist is Jim MacVeagh, a young, junior senator from Iowa who has been tapped by President Mark Hollenbach to run as Hollenbach’s vice-president in the upcoming election, replacing the current, scandal-brushed vice-president. But in a long night of conversation with Hollenbach at Camp David, MacVeagh slowly begins to worry that Hollenbach is crazy. The reasons: Hollenbach plans to introduce legislation that would allow his government to tap anyone’s phone without a court warrant. Hollenbach also wants the United Sates to create a union with the Scandinavian nations, bypassing America’s European allies. If the Scandinavian countries balk, Hollenbach suggests force might be needed. Finally, Hollenbach refers to a cabal of beltway insiders out to betray him and thwart his reelection.
MacVeagh consults a book, “Psychology and Modern Life,” concluding that Hollenback is likely paranoid: “ The individual feels that he is being singled out and taken advantage of, plotted against . . . or otherwise mistreated by his ‘enemies’ . . .many paranoids develop delusions of grandeur in which they endow themselves with superior or unique ability.” Sound like anyone real  to you?
Over the next few days, MacVeagh uncovers more evidence questioning the president’s sanity, but when he shares his concerns with various Washington luminaries, they doubt MacVeagh, and decide the senator is the one who is losing his wits.
With the clock ticking towards a meeting between Hollenbach and the wily premier of the Soviet Union (will Hollenbach reveal state secrets? Or could he trigger World War lll?), MacVeagh finally finds an influential ally, the secretary of defense, who also has had doubts about the president’s mental state.
Knebel’s climax seems rushed and contrived: Hollenbach charms the majority of his cabinet and convinces them he is of sound mind. The president does agree to take an extended holiday, referring to a heart murmur. Then, inexplicably, the next day he announces he is resigning because of his coronary problems. Crisis neatly averted.
But credit Knebel with addressing a serious problem: how to replace an insane president. It’s not easy, as I think we may discover down the road. A scary thought.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Reading Richard Condon In the Reign of Donald Trump

Watching the insanity of this year’s presidential campaign and contemplating the approaching fascist reign of Donald Trump and his perverse cabinet choices, I wondered what the novelist Richard Condon would say of the absurd and frightening miasma soon to pollute our flawed but beloved country.
In most of his 26 novels churned out over a long, lucrative career, Condon (1915-1996) cast a gimlet eye on the United States and its ruling classes--in his vision, an intoxicating cabal of bankers, politicians, Mafia dons, clergy, corporate moguls, CIA agents and lots of scheming, forever frat boys licensed to sell out the country while hypocritically espousing good clean living and praising what Gore Vidal liked to describe as our Sky God.
In his best novels (“The Manchurian Candidate,” “An Infinity of Mirrors,” “Mile High,” “Winter Kills,” “Prizzi’s Honor”), Condon managed to pull off a dandy daily double by displaying the page-turning gift of the best thriller writer while broadly satirizing the twisted, often iconic idiocy of American society. Those talents are perhaps most on parade in “The Manchurian Candidate,” a brilliant amalgam of conspiracy and dark humor. Cold-war conservatives could take comfort that the novel describes a Communist plot to install a sleeper agent in the White House (remember the candidate in question is not the brainwashed assassin Raymond Shaw but his moronic stepfather and Joe McCarthy doppelganger, Senator John Yerkes Iselin. Sound familiar?). Liberals could find some ironic satisfaction that McCarthy/Yerkes was really a Red who had infiltrated the likes of the John Birch Society. As Condon once said: “Every book I’ve ever written has been about the abuse of power.”
Condon clearly had fun writing. He loved strained-yet-memorable similes, witness this opening line from 1974’s “Winter Kills”: “Nick Thirkield once told Keifetz that being in the same family with his father and brother Tim was like living in the back leg of an all-glass piano.”
Even his weaker novels had their moments. Given the right’s canonization of Ronald Reagan, I’m struck by Condon’s savaging of the Gipper in 1990’s “Emperor of America,” in which a character offers this estimate: ''Ronald Reagan was the greatest President this country has ever produced. He gave us the F.B.I. race wars, the Qaddafi bombings, the 'Star Wars' flapdoodle, the Grenada farce, the Bitburg shaming, the endless bank failures, the Lebanon disasters, the crumbling national airlines, the rape of HUD, the oligarchy of Big Oil, insured inflation and the shoring up of sinister Israeli politicians - all to keep our people diverted and entertained until the Royalty Party could consolidate its position.''
So what would Condon say, not just about the gross and unstable Trump but the whole contemporary, crazy caravan journeying across our media-saturated, febrile brains on a daily basis? What would he say if exposed to Fox News and Sean Hannity? Or Rush Limbaugh? Or Alex Jones, who claimed that Obama and Hillary Clinton were demons who smelled of sulphur? Or the predictable punditocracy of Sunday morning TV, analyzing American politics as if it were an endless football game refereed by the more congenial we’re-all-in-this-together characters from “Advise and Consent”? What would Condon make of Steve Bannon or Mitch McConnell or Paul Ryan or the Koch brothers or the gun lobby or whatever other nut jobs you can think of who are given a spotlight to perform their particular danse macabre?
I think Richard Condon would smile and say, “I told you so.”
Full disclosure: this is a revised and slightly edited update of a piece I posted here in 2011. Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Dream Fluff Donuts, Martin Scorsese and I

 This morning, Roxie the Lab and I—suffering from cabin-fever thanks to two rainy days in a row—went for our morning walk through the neighborhood, making a stop at Dream Fluff Donuts, a local landmark. Although there were only four people ahead of me, service was slow, and my mind wandered to a moment in the early 90s, a time when I was writing a nonfiction book and a screenplay based on the book, which was called “Tin For Sale,” about a crooked NYPD detective who went to work for the mob. Universal had bought the rights and assigned me to adapt the book, all because Martin Scorsese and Nick Pileggi were attached to the project (it was Nick who had brought me in as a writer, an act of kindness I will never forget).
When word got out that I was writing for Scorsese and Pileggi, two young, enterprising agents contacted Sterling Lord, my literary agent, and asked to represent me in Hollywood. One of them was Ari Emanuel (yes, the brother of Rahm and now the co-head of William Morris Endeavor). Meetings were set up with development executives all around town, including a producer who worked at Amblin Entertainment, Steven Spielberg’s company.
The producer ushered me into his office, dispensed with the usual formalities and got right to the point: “So what do you know about’ The Flintstones?’”
This was not a question I expected, since the screenplay I had written and the producer has presumably read—or at least a summary provided by a minion—was a dark, violent, curse-filled story with no redemption at the end. Reading it would not trigger the thought: we gotta get this guy to do a rewrite of a live-action version of “The Flintstones,” which at the point had gone through about a dozen frazzled writers.
I asked him if he had read my screenplay. He admitted he had not. I briefly told him what it was about. The producer feigned embarrassment, then asked me where I was from.
The producer’s face lit up. “I went to college there,” he said, meaning Cal. “Have you ever been to Dream Fluff Donuts?”
Another question I was not expecting. I told him I lived a mere two blocks away.
“I love that place,” he said. “I took LSD a lot when I was in college, and Dream Fluff donuts were the best donuts when you were coming down from a high.”
For one of the few times in my life, I had an epiphany: could I really put my future and that of my family in the hands of people like this guy? Could I pay the mortgage in the future, pitching movie ideas to a parade of silly asses? Get my daughter through college? Build a nest egg? I’m not saying every studio executive was like this guy, but enough were in different ways.
The producer and I parted. “The Flintstones” opened in 1994.
William Morrow published my book. Universal never made the movie. I made some money. But I never wrote another screenplay, and when the opportunity arose to get back into the world of a weekly paycheck, I took it. All because of Dream Fluff Donuts.
Which brings us back to the present. After fifteen minutes of waiting, I turned to the ladies behind me and said, “No donut is worth this, take my place, I’m leaving.”
Roxie and I made our slow way home. About ten minutes later, someone behind us said, “Mister!” I turned. It was the two women who had waited behind me, each with bags laden with donuts for their families.
“We want you to have a donut,” one of the women said. I thanked them but demurred. They insisted. So I reached into one of the bags and took a donut, thanking them again. We went our separate ways. It was a lovely, modest act of generosity that made me feel better than I had in a long time.
Rox and I got home. I made tea. The donut was delicious. And I was on my own kind of high.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Esquire 43 Years Ago

Esquire’s 40th anniversary edition, all 542 pages of it (yes, 542 pages), 43 years old come Saturday. What strikes me now, as opposed to the callow 22-year-old reader back then, is 1) at least 12 of the 39 writers on the cover were by then or were to become alcoholics, an occupational hazard back in the day, 2) James Baldwin is the only writer of color (there’s a Ralph Ellison piece on jazz inside), and race is pretty much ignored, 3) no Norman Mailer, who wrote more for Esquire than any other magazine, including his classic 1960 essay about JFK, “Superman Comes to the Supermart.” (Not surprisingly, Mailer was feuding with the magazine and appears to have been punished in absentia, a loss), 4) Nora Ephron and Dorothy Parker are the only woman writers represented (Sybille Bedford, Helen Lawrenson and Sally Kempton also have pieces in the issue). Granted that Esquire billed itself “The Magazine for Men,” it still published Martha Gelhorn, Elaine Dundy, Simone de Beauvoir and many other women. That said, here’s a sampling of the issue: Fitzgerald, “My Generation”; Hemingway, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro”; Talese, “New York”; Parker, “New York at 6:30 P.M.”; Baldwin, “Fifth Avenue, Uptown”; Rovere, “The Last Days of Joe McCarthy”; Wolfe (Tom); “The Last American Hero is Junior Johnson. Yes!”; Wolfe (Thomas), “The Hollow Men”; Vidal, “Tarzan Revisited”; Ephron, “A Few Words About Breasts”; Shaw, “The Eighty-Yard Run”; Bradbury, “The Illustrated Man”; Capote, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”

Monday, February 29, 2016

A Letter In the March 28, 2016 Issue of The New Yorker

Scalia’s Catholicism

I’ve wondered for years how a devout Catholic like the Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia could support or write decisions so clearly harmful to average Americans (Comment, February 29th). Like Scalia, I grew up in Queens and attended a Catholic high school and a Jesuit university, though a few generations after the Justice. In trying to understand Scalia, it’s useful to remember that he grew up before the Second Vatican Council, the ecumenical meeting held between 1962 and 1965, which made the Church far more inclusive of the modern world—for example, by allowing Mass to be conducted in languages other than Latin. When I started high school, in 1965, the liberating effects of Vatican II were clear: no catechism, no fire and brimstone. Religion class centered on social issues, more Dorothy Day than Torquemada. Scalia despised Vatican II and lamented the loss of the Latin Mass. He never wavered from his loyalty to a darker, unquestioning, archaic vision of Catholicism. If he had embraced the new Church, he would perhaps have been a far different jurist.
Vince Cosgrove
Berkeley, Calif.

Tuesday, January 05, 2016

This is a bulb from the Times Square New Year's ball that ushered in 1978. The Daily News had assigned me to cover the festivities from a great perch: the roof of what back in the day was called the Allied Chemical Building or Times Building (now One Times Square). I had asked a woman I had met three weeks earlier if she'd like to accompany me, and she'd said yes. Her name was Chris. At the moment the ball dropped, we kissed for the first time. This bulb arrived at The News Building a few days later, a thanks from one of the people working on the ball drop. His watch had conked out, and I'd loaned him my $9.99 Timex. And Chris? New Year's Eve this year, Chris and I  yet again turned on the bulb and welcomed 2016.

A Happy New Year to you all, my friends.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

“Bridge of Spies,” the latest collaboration between Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, opens Friday, and advance reviews are strong. Hanks plays James B. Donovan, a distinguished New York attorney asked in 1957 by the Brooklyn Bar Association to represent Rudolf Abel, a Soviet spy caught red-handed (sorry ‘bout that) plying his trade (Abel, a colonel in the KGB, lived in Brooklyn when the FBI nabbed him). I’m looking forward to the film, not just because of Hanks and Spielberg, but because Jim Donovan was one of my uncle’s closest friends.
My uncle, Don Gormley, and Donovan met at Fordham, class of ’37, and remained friends until Donovan’s untimely death in 1970. The movie’s trailer shows Hanks stating that he’s an insurance attorney, which is true, but doesn’t quite explain why the Bar Association would ask him to accept the Abel case. After Fordham, Donovan went to Harvard Law School, then into the Navy when war broke out. As an officer and lawyer, Donovan was involved with the Manhattan Project, became counsel to the Office of Strategic Services (forerunner to the CIA), and associate counsel at the main trial of Nazis at Nuremberg.
I hope the film captures the relationship between Donovan, a devout Catholic, and Abel (Mark Rylance), a committed Communist; each had the highest respect for the other, and Donovan recounts the intrigue in his excellent 1964 book, “Strangers On a Bridge,” recently reissued by Scribner. The trailers declare that the movie is ‘inspired by a true story,” and a viewing of the trailers shows where the movie has been ginned up, which is fine—it’s a movie, not a documentary (one minor spoiler: the Donovans lived in a duplex apartment in an elegant, prewar Park Slope co-op building on Prospect Park West, not a house. If you see the film, you’ll understand what “inspired” means).
After representing Abel, then negotiating the famous swap of Abel for Francis Gary Powers, the pilot of our downed
U-2 spy plane, Donovan, working without portfolio but with the approval of then Attorney General Robert Kennedy, negotiated with Fidel Castro for the release of 9,700 Bay of Pigs prisoners in exchange for prescription drugs and baby food. He later served as president of the New York City Board of Education and president of Pratt Institute.
And by the way, he donated his $10,000 fee (about $80,000 today) for the Abel case to Fordham College and Harvard and Columbia Law Schools. Jim Donovan was an admirable person. We could use more these days.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Run Bernie, Run!

In expectation of Hillary Clinton's announcement tomorrow that she's leaving politics and embracing a quieter life by managing the gift shop at the Yakov Smirnoff Theatre in Branson, MO, I just cut a check for Bernie Sanders (I--VT), a quixotic gesture I confess, but one that made me happy. Should Bernie run, he will (I hope) force candidates from both parties to address issues they have been trained for decades to spin in any direction save the one leading to an honest answer, the spin creating verbal whirling dervishes spouting infantilizing bullshit that too many "news" outlets report with unquestioning reverence, the reverence depending on what side these outlets represent. What we don't need is one more political coronation courtesy of our true rulers, the Wall Street and corporate plutocrats who really decide who gets to play king or queen. Am now stepping off my creaky soapbox to prepare my taxes because it's never too late and I'm a good American even if I've been reading The Nation since college.

Sunday, April 05, 2015

The damndest things fall out of old books

Doing some casual research on a blog entry, I flipped through Jim Bouton’s classic “Ball Four” and this pass for Game Six of the 1977 World Series appeared: Dodgers vs. Yankees, the night of October 18—the game in which Reggie Jackson slammed three home runs to beat Los Angeles 8-4 and take the Series four games to two. I was there for the Daily News city desk to report events should the Yankees win—and what events there were. At the final out, chaos exploded as fans rushed out of their seats and stormed the field, hundreds of them, so many that most cops and Stadium security gave up. Bases, clumps of infield sod, even the rubber pitcher’s plate atop the mound disappeared in the avaricious hands of crazed fans. At least two guys had bloody scalps due to unfortunate encounters with NYPD billy clubs. I got to one of the bleeders who was so ecstatic over the Yankee victory and Jackson’s home runs that he cared nothing for his wound. Why would he? New York City in 1977 was a wild place, most notably for the homicidal stalkings of Son of Sam and July’s fiery, looting-plagued blackout. What did a few stitches mean after those dark days? History had been made that night at the Stadium, for Jackson had just tied Babe Ruth for most homers in a singe Series game, and as we all should know, Yankee Stadium was The House That Ruth Built. And being a reporter for a big city paper was damn fine, at least for me in 1977.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Will somebody please cut Maureen Dowd’s cable service . . . or, why Tom Wolfe got it right 41 years ago.

In today’s truly terrible Times column (on the front page of the Sunday Review, no less), Maureen Dowd informs us that she went to a screening of the first episode of the new season of Showtime’s “Homeland,” a series Dowd clearly fancies. This consumes several grafs, followed by more grafs quoting Terry McCarthy, president of the Los Angeles World Affairs Council (a new one on me), then Richard Haass, prez of the Council on Foreign Affairs (heard of that), then Margaret MacMillan, an Oxford historian. The more people a columnist quotes, the less actual writing said columnist has to do, particularly when the quoted kind of seem to support in various ways what is Dowd’s trite and oft-repeated rap against Obama: that the man is just too cerebral, that he suffers from an “air of disconnection,” that we need to do something—or at least get blustery (a la Joe Biden!) to show the world that you don’t mess with the USA. Take that ISIS. You too, Putin. As always, Dowd never offers concrete solutions to these issues.
Has she forgotten Teddy Roosevelt’s observation about how to speak and what to carry?
Then there’s this howler: “In some situations, panic is a sign of clear thinking.” Did Dowd write this in her own panic room?
For Dowd to trigger a column on a viewing of “Homeland” is ludicrous, but Dowd thrives on pop culture wisdom.
Which brings us to Tom Wolfe and his introduction to 1973’s classic “The New Journalism.” Writing about what happens to most columnists after their initial efforts, Wolfe nailed it: “You can see the poor bastards floundering and gasping. They’re dying of thirst. They’re out of material. They start writing about . . . [ellipsis mine] something they saw on the TV. Thank God for the TV! Without television shows to cannibalize, half of these people [columnists] would be lost, absolutely catatonic. Pretty soon you can almost see it, the tubercular blue on the 23-in screen, radiating from their prose.”
And Wolfe was writing about columnists who wash out after a mere eight or ten weeks. Dowd has been chugging along as a columnist for nearly 20 years.
Enough already!

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Drinking With Irwin Shaw

Fade In:
A balmy evening in Manhattan, mid-May, 1979: my girlfriend, Chris Keller, and I kill time before a jazz show by strolling along E. 57th Street. An older man approaches slowly. In one hand he holds a small, netted fisherman’s bag, empty. As we get closer, I realize who he is.
“That’s Irwin Shaw,” I say, watching the famous writer disappear into the Dover Delicatessen, a fancy grocery where Greta Garbo could be seen from time to time.
There was no mistaking Shaw’s face with its large nose, florid complexion, shrewd, observant eyes and somewhat wild salt-and-pepper hair (mostly salt). A face of a man who’d done some living. Anyone who ever bought an Irwin Shaw novel in hardback—say “The Young Lions” or “Rich Man, Poor Man” or “Nightwork”—would spot him from the author’s photo. “Let’s go in.”
For a few minutes, we stalk Shaw from narrow aisle to narrow aisle. Chris and I look at each—what are we doing?—and walk out of the store, only to stop a few yards up the sidewalk. I know if I don’t speak to him, I’ll regret my timidity for the rest of my life.
So we wait.
Soon he emerges, his bag weighted by a few purchases.
“Excuse me, are you Irwin Shaw?”
“I am--and you are . . .?”
We introduce ourselves. During a minute or so of small talk, Shaw learns we are reporters: Chris from UPI, I from the Daily News.
He smiles when he hears this. Fellow writers, kind of.
“Fine,” he says. “Let’s go have a drink.”
And so begins our long night of drinking (and drinking and drinking) with one of America’s most famous—and charming—writers of his time. We never made the jazz show.
We end up a half-block west at the Irish Pavilion. Shaw orders Scotch. We follow. Shaw is a veteran Scotch drinker. We are not. It doesn’t matter. Within minutes, you’d think that Chris and I had known Irwin (as he insisted on being called) all our lives. He was sixty-six that year, in Manhattan to consult doctors for an ailing hip, hence his slow gait. An avid athlete, he’d played football for Brooklyn College before embracing skiing, a sport he could indulge regularly since he lived half the year in Klosters, a village in the Swiss Alps. Summers were spent at his recently purchased home in Southampton (the picture above shows Irwin a month or two later at the house).
Shaw spoke proudly of his son, Adam, a former Washington Post reporter who’d recently published a well-received book about an airplane disaster. He spoke of his own travels, places he’d lived, a bit about his war experiences. Hemingway was mentioned. Shaw had introduced Mary Welch to Hemingway, and she became his fourth and final wife (Irwin didn’t talk of this, but Hemingway knew that Welch and Irwin had had a fling during the war, and Papa didn’t like it, but Papa didn’t like a lot of things). I told him that as a kid, I’d skimmed “The Young Lions” for dirty parts, never found. I praised his classic short stories, among then “The Girls in Their Summer Dresses,” “Sailor off the Bremen” and “The Eighty-Yard Run.”
Mostly though, he asked questions, listening with genuine interest. Chris by far was the more fascinating of his two new friends. She already had lived in Berkeley, Kenya, Paris, Carmel, Avignon, and the French Alps, while the most I’d managed was to escape from Queens (we were living in a great corner apartment in Park Slope before Park Slope morphed into what it is today). It didn’t hurt that Chris was a tall, smart, good-looking young woman. Irwin definitely liked women.
The hours passed quickly. The drinks kept coming. Finally, Irwin paid the bill, insisted on buying Chris a charming Irish wool cap, and invited us to his room at the nearby Ritz Tower for a nightcap.
As we sat in his room, the phone rang. The man on the other end was screaming. It turned out that Irwin was quite late for a dinner with his legendary agent, Irving “Swifty” Lazar, the screamer.
“What do you mean ‘where have I been?’” Shaw replied to Lazar. “I’ve been with Chris Keller and Vince Cosgrove.” We cracked up. Lazar had no clue who we were.
We finished the nightcap and accompanied Shaw downstairs, where he commandeered a limo to take him to Elaine’s and the steaming Swifty. Before getting in the car, he offered some advice. “I think you two should get married—and you can have the ceremony and reception at my place on the Island.” He absolutely meant what he was saying. I shook his hand, Chris kissed his cheek and off he went uptown to drink more Scotch and exert more warmth to more friends. Somehow, we drove back to Brooklyn without incident.
Four months later we did get married, not on Long Island but in Chris’s native California.
I recently finished rereading Shaw’s 1975 best-seller, “Nightwork,” a great summer entertainment, a book as charming and knowing as its author, filled with colorful characters who cavort in glamorous places (St. Moritz, Florence, Davos, Paris, Rome, Nice). Shaw describes his hero’s travels with such precision and feeling that you can almost smell the Mediterranean or savor a brandy après ski.
The book starts as a bit of a thriller, but that’s not Shaw’s ultimate intent. What we get is a young American, Jamesian in his innocence, who learns about the world from more experienced types, notably Miles Fabian, a witty, affable scam-artist. Remember as you read “Nightwork’ that it was published thirty-eight years ago, and that $100,000 doesn’t get you as far as it did back then; that there are strong female characters, and some who are more pliant. Oh, the hell with this … just read the book and make up your own mind. Go online, a copy will cost you less than the postage.
If you’ve never read Shaw, another good place to start is “Short Stories: Five Decades,” published in 1978. There are sixty-three stories collected, some unforgettable, some perhaps too slick, too glib, too commercial, criticisms that haunted Shaw after the 1948 success of “The Young Lions.” William Goldman, an admirer, has observed that Shaw had “the ability to write with an ease and a clarity that only Fitzgerald had. There is never a wrong word, a phrase that makes you stop, reread, make sure you’ve gotten the sense right . . . Do not look for symbolism in Irwin Shaw . . . He is not interested in that. He wants only to get us safely through the terrors of the night.”
This year marks Shaw’s centenary (he died in 1984), yet I’ve seen no events, no essays to mark the milestone. Michael Shnayerson wrote an excellent biography in 1989, and that same year Esquire ran a superb piece by James Salter, a close friend of Shaw’s. The University of Chicago Press has kept both “The Young Lions” and “Short Stories: Five Decades” in print, and quite a few of Shaw’s other novels (including “Nightwork”) are available via Kindle.
So here’s a suggestion: the best way to honor Shaw’s centenary is to read him, and appreciate the work of a gifted, popular professional.
Here's to you, Irwin.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

More Profumo, Less Weiner—or “Ven der putz shteht, ligt der sechel in drerd.”*

The April 14th issue of The New York Times Magazine featured a cover story on former representative Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) and his wife Huma Abedin, a top aide to Hillary Clinton. Weiner is inevitably described as “the disgraced ex-congressman” who tweeted a photo of his erection (covered by his briefs). Weiner thought he was sending the image to a 21-year-old Seattle college student (female). Instead, he accidentally sent the photo to his 45,000 Twitter followers. As Dr. Spielvogel, Alexander Portnoy’s shrink, says at the end of Philip Roth’s great novel, “Now vee may perhaps to begin. Yes?”
All this silliness occurred in 2011, and after some days of prevarications, Weiner resigned.
Now he wants to be mayor of New York City, and he’s polling second (with other contenders) to City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, according to a Times story last week.
Nowhere in the magazine piece does Weiner state why he wants to be mayor, or what his priorities might be should he be elected (an unlikely event, I believe). Weiner talks endlessly in the article, to the point where writer Jonathan Van Meter says that “never has an interview felt so much like a therapy session.”
Apparently, Weiner is looking for redemption, that three-hanky staple favored by asinine daytime talk-show hosts who resort to the confessional when they’ve run out of people who hope to shed 200 pounds or need to find out who exactly the daddy is of that kid born a while back.
Weiner is not the only tarnished former public servant seeking office. There’s Mark Sanford, the two-term South Carolina governor who claimed to be hiking the Appalachian Trail when he was actually doing the tango with his Argentinean girlfriend. Sanford, married at the time, declined to resign his governorship. Now he’d like to go to Congress, although even the GOP has ostracized him after his ex-wife sicced a restraining order on him for his habit of showing up uninvited at her house. His Democratic opponent is Elizabeth Colbert Busch, Stephen Colbert’s sister, so this particular election should provide some laughs.
Weiner and Sanford and their quests for redemption raise a question: is inflicting yourselves on the public yet again really the right thing to do?
Which brings us to John Profumo. If you’re of a certain age or have seen the 1989 movie “Scandal,” you may be familiar with Profumo and England’s great Cold War sex-scandal of the early 60s. If not, here’s a primer: Profumo (1915-2006) was an Oxford-educated son of a baron, fought in World War ll with distinction, rose through the political ranks and married actress Valerie Hobson (she played the adult Estella in David Lean’s 1946 adaptation of “Great Expectations”). In 1960, Prime Minister Harold Macmillan appointed Profumo a Secretary of State for War. In the summer of 1961, Profumo met Christine Keeler, a young model and dancer. Their affair lasted only weeks, but Keeler also was sleeping with Yevgeni Ivanov, a senior naval attaché at the Soviet Embassy in London. If you’ve read your le Carré, “senior naval attaché" means spy, although no state secrets were revealed in the Profumo Affair, as the press soon dubbed the sexy shenanigans.
Profumo—like Weiner, Sanford and so many other politicians through the decades—lied initially (in the House of Commons, no less), claiming he knew Keeler but denying any impropriety in the relationship. Eventually, Profumo was forced to admit his lie, and he resigned. The scandal may have contributed to the 1964 collapse of the Macmillan government.
But here’s where the story really gets interesting: Profumo never attempted a political comeback (probably impossible in that era, anyway). He didn’t write a book, didn’t go on radio or TV. He never spoke of the affair in public for the rest of his long life.
But he didn’t flee to his estate, either. Instead, he volunteered to clean toilets at Toynbee Hall, an East End charity. He worked there for the rest of his life. Eventually, he became Toynbee Hill’s chief fundraiser, and proved very good at his job. His wife also worked for charities until her death in 1998.
In 1975, he was named a Commander of the Order of the British Empire. Queen Elizabeth honored him at a Buckingham Palace ceremony. One contemporary said he “felt more admiration [for Profumo] than all the men I’ve known in my lifetime.”
I’m not suggesting that Weiner, Sanford and their ilk clean toilets—although it couldn’t hurt. But I think these men (and it’s always men) should have the common sense and the good taste to waltz out of the limelight. They lied to the people they claim they wish to serve. Maybe they could follow John Profumo’s sterling example, accomplish something that helps people, not something that feeds the ego and masquerades as the means to redemption.
F. Scott Fitzgerald once said “there are no second acts in American lives.”
If only.
*This is a Yiddish aphorism Portnoy mentions to Dr. Spielvogel: “When the penis stands, the brains get buried in the ground.”

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

“Selected Letters of William Styron”—Plus Blake Bailey News

In the January 24 issue of the London Review of Books, James Wolcott has a long, perceptive review not just of William Styron’s letters but the whole post-World War ll sweepstakes to write the Great American Novel, a Cracker Jacks prize lusted after by the likes of Styron, Norman Mailer, James Jones, Irwin Shaw and, a bit later, John Updike, Philip Roth and a score of lesser-known writers left panting by the side of the literary road not quite taken.
Like Wolcott, I’ve never been a Styron fan, having started—and failed to finish—“Lie Down in Darkness,” "Set This House on Fire,” and “The Confessions of Nat Turner.” I did read “Sophie’s Choice,” particularly enjoying the narrator’s remembrances of coming to New York after the war, living in Brooklyn and working at a big publishing company, where he rejects what would become the best-selling “Kon-Tiki.” Having read “Kon-Tiki,” I believe Stingo, Styron’s alter ego, made the right call.
Wolcott’s problems with Styron are similar to mine. Here’s Wolcott: “I was never a fan of Styron’s fiction or his well-oiled, august persona. Each attempt at fording his fiction left me stranded somewhere in the marshy thickets, pushing the canoe, up to my armpits in sonorities.”
Mailer may have been nuts much of the time, but his prose—even at its worst, and in the embrace of lunacy—had a snap, crackle and pop I never encountered in Styron.
But Styron’s letters are another story. Styron had a Zelig-like ability to meet everyone, and the book’s index lights up with famous names: the Kennedys, Mailer (with whom he had a feud, but everyone had a feud with Mailer), Roth, Jones, Shaw, Updike, Lillian Hellman, Gore Vidal (Styron despised Vidal), Mike Nichols, George Plimpton (I guess everybody in the GAN Olympics knew Plimpton), Gay Talese, Frank Sinatra—the names go on and on, and Styron has funny, insightful comments on people, their character (or lack thereof), and their work.
Styron suffered from depression, and he chronicled his battle with the disease in his book in 1990’s “Darkness Visible,” but very few letters deal with this dark struggle. Styron initially beat his depression, but then fell into a final, debilitating spiral. He died in 2006, age 81.
Blake Bailey reviewed Styron’s letters in the January 13 issue of The Times Book Review. Bailey’s tone is respectful, and I bought the book based on his review. But the big news for me is the disclosure that Bailey’s next literary biography, “Farther & Wilder: The Lost Weekends and Literary Dreams of Charles Jackson,” will appear in March.
Charles Jackson? Who?
Well, the clue is in the title: Wilder is a pun referring to Jackson’s life and the fact that Billy Wilder turned Jackson’s best-known novel, “The Lost Weekend,” into a classic, harrowing movie in 1945 (that’s the cover from the 1948 Signet paperback—if the artist made Ray Milland any greener he could pass for a Martian from some pulpy post-war science fiction).
Bailey is a superb biographer, and if you care about 20th century American fiction, you should read his two previous books: “A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates” and “Cheever: A Life.” What Yates, Cheever and Jackson share, besides their profession, is their alcoholism. Yates was mentally frail, and both Cheever and Jackson led closeted sex lives. All wounded human beings who at various times lived in that post-war, martini-soaked Manhattan cauldron of literary ambition. I can’t wait for Bailey’s new book.
Bailey mentions in his review that Styron was an admirer of Yates’s work, and helped get Yates a gig writing the screenplay of Styron’s “Lie Down in Darkness” for director John Frankenheimer. The movie has yet to be produced, but Yates’s script has been published; Yates wrote a fine short story, “Saying Goodbye to Sally,” based on his Hollywood experience; his take on Frankenheimer is none-too flattering. Ironically, Frankenheimer battled his own alcoholic demons (successfully) during an accomplished career that included “The Manchurian Candidate,” “Seven Days in May,” and one of the best sequels ever made, “French Connection ll.”
So read Bailey’s books, and then reacquaint yourself with the work of his gifted subjects. After posting this, I’m going to start reading “The Lost Weekend” for the second time. Unlike the movie’s ending, the novel closes on a darker note, making Don Birnam’s five-day bender all the sadder.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

My New Year's Resolutions

• Stop walking into people’s houses and gauging how safe they would be in the event of a zombie attack.
• Stop listening to the 60s channel on Sirius-XM Radio until the programmers agree to never ever play any more records by Gary Puckett or Tommy James.
• Stop cursing loudly every time the person in the car in front of you fails to signal.
• In a similar vein, give up hoping that bikers will brake at that stop sign or red light, because most won’t, and if you scream at them they will either a) give you the finger or b) flash a smug look because they’re more virtuous than you in your car, or c) totally ignore you because you’re old and look like you are only two years away from Del Boca Vista.
• Stop telling your wife you’d rather watch that silent Lon Chaney movie on TCM than attend another Bay Area dinner party where you have to direct a million questions to the genius next to you—but said genius never has to show any interest in you, including asking your name.
• Never promise to read any book someone’s book club thought was “awesome” (and here I must plug Joe Queenan’s excellent “One for the Books,” a must for serious readers).
• Stop looking at The New York Times Sunday Book Review bestseller pages, and just accept the fact that many people enjoy reading about shape-shifting vampires who’ve gone to heaven during tonsillectomies and have chatted with God, Jesus, and the Holy Ghost—and said Trinity looks and talks exactly like the figures touted by Christian snake-oil salesmen for hundreds of years.
• Stop buying books. You have more than 2,500—and at least 30 percent of those remain unread; given an average reading-rate of 40 a year . . . well, do the math . . . better yet, don’t . . . too depressing given the actuarial odds.
• Keep rooting that Philip Roth will win the Nobel Prize. He’s way overdue.
• Give up on all cable news channels because you’ve never heard of most of their pundits and experts--and ask yourself why they’re on TV and not the tall, scraggly man who’s walked around Berkeley for years, chatting with himself; these so-called experts rarely have anything new or insightful to say, having read the same newspapers and web sites as you.
• Accept the fact that frozen White Castles don’t even come close to the real item, which unfortunately is not available west of the Mississippi.
• Never again stop for a fish dinner in a joint with the word “GROTTO” in its name.
• If in the coming year the word “brilliant’ pops up in an article or on TV describing a politician or actor or moviemaker or financier or novelist or really anybody, remember this: Albert Einstein was brilliant. Lloyd Blankfein not so much, no matter what his childhood rabbi might think.
• Appreciate family, friends and all dogs—just don’t get sappy about it.
• Never forget what you learned as a newly minted reporter: question everything, assume nothing. That includes what people write for their New Year’s resolutions.
• Bonne année.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Repeal the Second Amendment

Two-hundred-and–twenty-one years ago today, on December 15, 1791, the Bill of Rights—the first ten amendments to the United States Constitution—was ratified by three-fourths of the states.
It’s now time to start a movement to repeal the second of those amendments. There’s no reason to list the recent mass shootings—or the daily, singular killings that so often go unreported. Most of us, I hope, remember at least the more horrific. There’s no reason to detail the culpability of the NRA and other lobbyists, or Congress or, yes, the President—these people should be ashamed of themselves and should need no reminders.
The Second Amendment can be replaced by a Twenty-eighth Amendment that would more stringently regulate the sale and possession of guns. Semi-automatic weapons should be banned, limited to people in law enforcement and the military. Someone who wants to buy a gun should be investigated—thoroughly. Gun stores and Internet providers should be scrutinized each year, again thoroughly. Illegal possession of such weapons should be punished with serious sentences.
Do I think this will put an end to these obscene attacks? Unlikely. But a new amendment might just make it harder for these weapons to fall into the wrong hands, might decrease the number of these tragedies. Do nothing and nothing will change.
We have an obvious precedent for repealing a Constitutional amendment. Just think of Prohibition, begun with the Eighteenth Amendment in 1920, repealed in 1933 by the Twenty-first. It took thirteen years. Repealing the Second would take decades.
But how many more people, how many more children, will die by guns before this country comes to its senses?

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Dave Brubeck, 1920-2012

Two years ago shy a day, I wrote a short appreciation of Dave Brubeck, the great jazz pianist and composer--and, by all accounts, a wonderful man. I've shed more than a few tears this morning, but there's comfort knowing there are all those wonderful albums; right now I'm listening to "Blue Rondo A La Turk," the Quartet's great version recorded at Carnegie Hall on February 22, 1963--in the middle of a long newspaper strike. At concert's end, Brubeck graciously thanks the sold-out audience and confesses he worried no one would show up. A fan yells "NEVER!"
For the next five decades, the audience was always there. Here's what I wrote in 2010:
Today is Dave Brubeck’s 90th birthday, and if that means nothing to you, may I suggest you settle in front of the TV and hope there’s a repeat of Bristol Palin attempting to trip the light fantastic on “Dancing With the (Third-Rate) Stars.”
When I graduated from grammar school in 1965, my parents gave me my own record-player, a Westinghouse portable about the size of a large briefcase. Immediately, I filled out a coupon in a magazine and joined the Columbia Record Club, meaning you got four albums for the price of shipping and handling (what the hell was a handling charge, anyway, other than a rip-off—even Amazon has the good sense not to charge for handling). One of the four albums was “The Dave Brubeck Quartet At Carnegie Hall,” a legendary jazz recording of the group’s incredible—and unedited-- 1963 concert to a sold-out audience who appeared as if by magic in the middle of one of the longest newspaper strikes in New York history (farewell New York Mirror, hello New York Review of Books).
I listened to that two-disc album so much during high school that by my senior year the records were so scratched you could only listen to them by sitting nearby and moving the needle whenever it got stuck in a battered groove. At some point, I bought a replacement, but ten minutes ago I put the original on the turntable (yep, still have one), hoping for a miracle. Alas, it sounded like an early experiment by Thomas Edison. Now, of course, I can listen to the concert via my iPod—no scratches, but no memories, either.
I was a huge fan of the quartet: Brubeck on piano, the witty Paul Desmond on alto sax (he once said he wanted to sound like a dry martini--and he did) Eugene Wright on bass, and Joe Morello on drums.
When some friends and I were old enough to travel by ourselves on the subway, I saw the quartet perform at Carnegie Hall, Lewisohn Stadium on the CCNY campus (where Duke Ellington appeared on the same bill), and the Singer Bowl in Queens (the same concert where I heard Louis Armstrong). The music has meant so much to me over these many years that I was really pleased when TCM aired a lovely new documentary this evening about Dave, his family, and the quartet. He may be 90, but he’s still touring.
Happy Birthday, Dave—may you play many, many more sweet notes in whatever time signature you choose.

Monday, November 12, 2012


Thanks to serendipity and Netflix downloads, we chanced upon this terrific French crime drama that centers on a squad of cops and the lawyers—prosecutors and defenders-- the cops encounter. This is not a Gallic version of “Law & Order.” Unlike “Law & Order,” episodes are not self-contained, but comprise a season-long story arc.
Corruption, central to all great crime novels, movies and series, appears here in its traditional guises (money, power, sex). But what makes “Spiral” particularly absorbing is that the characters find their humanity corrupted to different degrees the longer they are exposed to the seedy world in which they toil. The acting is first-rate. And everyone speaks French (there are subtitles). What more could you want?
Oh, yes, it’s all set in Paris, but not the Paris of Rick Steves. I doubt even most Parisians are familiar with all the locations. My wife, who lived there off-and-on post-college, couldn’t identify more than one or two spots. The series also shares a documentary feel similar to the gritty American crime movies of the seventies (both “French Connections”—the second set in Marseille, “Serpico,” “Taxi Driver,” “Across 110th Street”). Oddly, it also shares much with William Friedkin’s underappreciated 1985 “To Live and Die in L.A.,” a film reeking of corruption, and one where nearly all locations are unfamiliar even to the natives.
At “Spiral’s” heart is Laure Berthaud (Caroline Proust), a police captain who heads a squad of all-male investigators. Unlike “Prime Suspect,” the captain’s sex is not a major issue (times gratefully change, at least a bit). The squad is Berthaud’s family, and like Helen Mirren’s Jane Tennyson, Berthaud has a limited social life. Berthaud is driven, competitive, too headstrong at times, capable of misjudgments, but right in the moments that count.
Her opposite is Josephine Karlsson (Audrey Fleurot), an amoral, chance-taking, often brilliant and always strikingly attractive criminal defense attorney.
Philippe Duclos plays a veteran prosecutor (they’re called “juges” in France), and Gregory Fitoussi a newly minted
prosecutor whose naiveté quickly turns to outage over the compromises the criminal justice system demands.
One warning: the violence is realistically rendered, particularly the gruesome results of killing. I’ve looked away more than once.
The show’s title in France, where it’s a major hit, is “Engrenages,” which means gears or cogs (confession: despite five years of high school and college French, I had to look it up). Whether called “Spiral” or “Engrenages” the series is addictive.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Brilliant Lunacy of “Green Wing”

First, some caveat emptoring: “Green Wing,” a spectacularly inventive British comedy that ran for 18 episodes between ‘04 and ’06, is not everyone’s cup of Earl Grey. It’s so rude, crude, and sexually incorrect that some viewers will turn it off within 20 minutes, maybe less.
All I ask is that you watch two full episodes to get used to the quick cutting, ridiculous characters and often mystifying journey into absurdity. If you don’t dig the show by then, chalk it up to my bum critical skills.
Set in a hospital and focusing on doctors and staff, “Green Wing” thankfully eschews one of the staples of medical series: patients play no part in the proceedings. They’re rarely viewed, have no lines. There are no life lessons, no at-the-end-we’re-all-in-this-together shtick. It’s not “M*A*S*H” or “Scrubs” (thank the gods it’s not “Scrubs”).
“Green Wing” is a deft combo of sketch comedy and sit-com with elements of “Monty Python,” “Benny Hill,” Fry and Laurie, the usual gang of idiots from Mad’s glory days, Lewis Carroll and “Fawlty Towers” (one character, Dr. Alan Statham (Mark Heap) could be Basil Fawlty’s bastard son).
The sole traditional narrative thread revolves around Dr. Caroline Todd (Tamsin Greig) and her evolving relationship with star surgeon Dr. Macartney (Julian Rhind-Tutt), the physician many of the more insane and funny characters desire, including Sue White (Michelle Gomez), a staff liaison administrator who may or may not have magical powers (several times she’s seen leading a camel through the hospital hallways—no explanation given).
The cast is game for anything. Gomez and Heap are particularly gifted physical actors, as is Pippa Haywood as Joanna Clore, the world’s horniest and nastiest human resources chief.
Start with episode one and work your way forward. The not-entirely successful 90-minute finale wraps up the series in its own strange way, consistent with what has preceded.
Give “Green Wing” a shot. If you hate it, you’re forgiven. If you love it, I’ll feel really good to know there are simpatico, perverse souls out there who embrace more anarchic forms of TV viewing.

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Gore Vidal, 1925-2012

This ran in 2006, but I thought it appropriate today to run it one more time:
The first book I read by Gore Vidal was “Washington, D.C.” I still have the 95-cent Signet paperback published in April 1968 (I pretty much have every book I ever bought—the Berkeley house is groaning under their weight). I was a junior in high school, a reader who always leaned toward books unsanctioned by English class. Okay, “A Tale of Two Cities” is a great novel (great Cliffs Notes, too, as I recall), but how could it compare with “You Only Live Twice” or “Farewell, My Lovely” or “Red Harvest” or “The Martian Chronicles”?
“Washington, D.C.” had been a bestseller in hardcover, and I was anxious to read it. So there I was in April 1968, enthralled by Vidal when I should have been studying Latin or trig (I still get chills thinking about trig). I loved Vidal’s novel, in part because one of the major characters was close to my age in the opening chapters.
I became a major Vidal fan, and next read “Julian,” another terrific novel, this one about a Roman emperor who had the excellent idea of returning Rome to a polytheistic society. In other words, Julian wanted to get rid of Christianity, or at least give people some options. Think how interesting the world would be if there were hundreds, perhaps thousands of gods to choose from, kind of like all those choices on cable TV today.
Over the years, I read lots and lots of Vidal: novels, plays, essays, and criticism. His versatility is impressive (among Vidal’s American contemporaries, few can approach this output. Mailer and Updike come to mind, and it’s probably no surprise that Vidal has had disagreements with each). The popular wisdom is that his criticism surpasses his novels, which is an insult to some very good novels. “Myra Breckinridge” is one of the great novels of the 20th Century. Naturally, I still have my paperback of that, published in September 1968, meaning I read it as I started my senior year at Bishop Reilly High School in Queens. “Myra,” which is about a transgender person (a term not in use in 1968) who takes on Hollywood and other American lunacy, was not required reading at BRHS. Is it any wonder that to this day I refuse to divulge my awful math SAT scores? While I should have been cramming for the college boards, I was reading “Myra Breckinridge.” I like to think I’m a better person for so doing. Vidal’s book is funny, cruel and packed with lots of truths about the USA. If you’ve never read it, do so.
Which brings us to “Point to Point Navigation.” By my count, this is Vidal’s 46th book (he published his first novel, “Williwaw” when he was about 20), excluding several pseudonymous efforts. He’s now 81. This latest book is a sequel to his 1995 memoir “Palimpsest” and picks up where that book ended, around 1964. Sadly, this one has little of the verve of the earlier memoir. Repetitive in spots, Vidal seems somewhat uninterested in his own life, or later life. He still has interesting stories to tell, for Vidal met every famous person of the last century (a critic for the San Francisco Chronicle refers to him as Zelig-like). By far the best parts of the book are his moving descriptions of the death of his best friend and companion, Howard Austen.
But if you’ve never read Vidal, pick up “Burr” or “Julian” or “Washington, D.C.” or “Messiah” or “United States” or “Myra.” And there's plenty more.
The man’s a hell of a writer.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Disposing of a Dead Elephant

In 1949, Joan Crawford reunited with "Mildred Pierce" director Michael Curtiz and actor Zachary Scott to make the melodrama "Flamingo Road," in which she plays a onetime carnival hootchy-coothcy dancer who runs afoul of a corrupt sherrff, played by the great and portly Sydney Greenstreet, all set in a steaming, small Florida town. It's a classic Crawford setup (the tagline for the film: "A wrong girl for the right side of the tracks."). Although 20 years too old for the part, Crawford the trouper pulls it off, and she looks great. Pauline Kael called the film "garishly overwrought," but what's wrong with that now and then? Kael does admit that Greenstreet "gives the picture a campy charm," which indeed he does.
The film, written by Robert Wilder (based on his play) and Edmund North, boasts some first-rate dialogue. Here's my favorite exchange:
Sheriff Titus Semple (Greenstreet): "Now me, I never forget anything."
Lane Bellamy (Crawford): "You know sheriff, we had an elephant in our carnival with a memory like that. He went after a keeper that he'd held a grudge against for almost 15 years. Had to be shot. You just wouldn't believe how much trouble it is to dispose of a dead elephant."
If you hear a better conversation in any of this summer's upcoming "blockbusters," please let me know.

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Bradbury Summers

The great Ray Bradbury died yesterday at age 91, and there’s little I can add to the lovely obits in the papers and homages everywhere on the web, praising his imagination, his wonderful short stories and novels, and his decency as a man.
But I do have memories, wonderful memories.
Looking at the Bradbury paperbacks I’ve kept all these years, it appears I started reading him in 1964, when I was 12 going on 13. In my mind, it’s summertime and many of my pals have deserted the neighborhood, some to camp, others on vacation with their parents. The days are long, hot and humid, and with no one around to play baseball I read and read and read, usually sitting under a backyard tree, nursing a Coke and a bag of Pretzel Nuggets, racing through paperbacks, mostly bought at Jack’s Candy Store in the shadows of the Auburndale Long Island Rail Road station.
I first read “The Martian Chronicles,” a terrific introduction to Bradbury’s work. I obviously liked the book, because the adolescent critic in me wrote “Great” on the back cover. I bought whatever other Bradburys Jack carried, then prevailed upon my mom to get me more at a bookstore in one the arcades at Grand Central Terminal. I think it was called The Open Book, and it sold only paperbacks. So more Bradburys arrived, not just the ones pictured here but others I loaned to friends, never to see the books again: “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” “The Golden Apples of the Sun,” “Dark Carnival,” “Dandelion Wine."
Children play an important role in Bradbury’s work, and that recognition certainly proved an alluring introduction. Really, though, it was Bradbury’s imagination coupled with his realistic take on humanity that got to me. Some critics—notably Thomas Disch—criticized Bradbury for a sentimental streak. Sentiment, certainly, but a Bradbury story or novel is no guarantee of happiness and joy brought on by easy sentimentality. Why else would the word “dystopian” appear in so many of today’s descriptions of his work?
None of the obits I’ve read has made mention of a 1965 off-Broadway production called “The World of Ray Bradbury,” starring the gifted George Voskovic. Three one-act plays based on “The Pedestrian,” “The Veldt,” and “To the Chicago Abyss” comprised the work, performed at the Orpheum Theater on Second Avenue in the East Village. Luckily, I got to attend a Saturday matinee. “The World of Ray Bradbury” used sound effects and lighting to simulate the future Bradbury created. I’ve never forgotten the staging of “The Veldt,” based on one of his finest short stories.
Looking at these paperbacks makes me want to find a tree, a Coke and a bag of Pretzel Nuggets, then dive into “The Martian Chronicles.” Maybe I’ll be transported to those hot, humid summer days, a 12-year-old once more.
Now that would be worthy of a Ray Bradbury story.

The Art of Bondage: The great book covers of Richard Chopping*

With Daniel Craig returning this fall as James Bond in “Skyfall” just a few weeks after the 50th anniversary of 007’s UK movie debut in “Dr. No,” and William Boyd agreeing to write a new Bond novel for publication 60 years after Ian Fleming’s “Casino Royale” appeared in 1953, let’s celebrate some of the finest book covers ever created--covers Fleming commissioned Richard Chopping to paint for Bond’s adventures.
Ian’s wife Ann came across Chopping’s work in 1956 while attending an exhibition of several painters, including her friend Francis Bacon, who urged her to take a look at Chopping’s flower paintings and trompe-l’oeil works. Impressed, she suggested to her husband that Chopping (1917-2008) might make the perfect artist for the covers of the Bond novels.
Fleming (1908-1964) liked what he saw, declaring Chopping “the only English master” in the art of trompe-l’oeil. Splitting the cost with his English publisher, Jonathan Cape, Fleming paid Chopping 50 guineas (about $147 in 1957), insisting that the cover of “From Russia, With Love,” show both a Smith & Wesson .38 with a modified trigger guard for faster firing and a rose with a drop of dew. Despite such specifics, Chopping always insisted that he and not Fleming ultimately designed the covers.
Eight more covers followed. Another artist worked on “Dr. No,” an unfortunate decision; Chopping, with his breadth of knowledge of flora and fauna, undoubtedly would have produced a memorable cover for a tale centered in the Caribbean, rather than the dark, dreary one Cape published in 1958.
But from “Goldfinger” on, Chopping’s distinctive covers—united by artistically rendered wooden backgrounds--dealt the Bond novels a consistent, distinctive look that Fleming appreciated for their beauty, sense of danger and commercial appeal. Chopping thought “Goldfinger,” with a cover showing a skull clutching a rose and gold coins filling its eye sockets, his finest work in the series.
The gifted Chopping could even make a toad with a captured dragonfly seem menacing as he did for “You Only Live Twice.” He writes amusingly to an editor at Cape about his adventures capturing a toad of “extraordinary malevolent appearance” to pose for the cover. The considerable correspondence among Fleming, Chopping and others concerning the covers sold at auction for $57,600 in 2010.
Writing to Chopping about ideas for the cover of “Thunderball,” Fleming said that the covers were “marvelous” and offered to increase Chopping’s fee, perhaps to 100 guineas. Chopping asked for 200, and Fleming agreed “on condition that you do my jackets every year,” according to Andrew Lycett’s excellent 1995 Fleming biography.
Fleming then suggested the look of “Thunderball’s” cover: “the skeleton of a man’s hand with the fingers resting on the Queen of Hearts. Through the back of the hand a dagger is plunged into the table top.” Chopping showed his independence by adding the Ace of Spades and changing the Queen of Hearts to the Queen of Diamonds. Of course, the Ace and Queen make blackjack, but that game is not played in the novel (there is a scene of Bond besting the villainous Emilio Largo at chemin de fer). Whatever the cards, “Thunderball” remains a great cover.
As is the cover for “For Your Eyes Only,” a collection of five Bond stories In the November 1998 edition of Firsts magazine, Lee Biondi and James M. Pickard wrote, “Fleming made Chopping paint it many times, until he was satisfied with the shape [of the eye] and the color.”
Chopping himself published a novel in 1965 called “The Fly” (not related to any movies with the same title). One editor at Secker & Warburg deemed the novel “a perfectly disgusting concoction” before passing it on to a younger editor named Giles Gordon who concluded the book was “sufficiently sordid to appeal to voyeurs, and if Chopping were to adorn it with one of his famous dust-jackets it could be a succès de scandale; and so it proved.” Utilizing his talents for depicting insects, Chopping painted a memorable cover of a fly—in close-up-that has landed on a human eye. No words appear. Flies also buzz about the covers of “The Man With The Golden Gun” and “Octopussy.”
When the Fleming estate decided to resurrect Bond in 1981 with a new series of novels, Chopping was commissioned to paint the cover for British thriller writer John Gardner’s “Licence Renewed.” Chopping’s cover of a Browning 9 mm automatic, with pearls, flowers and—yes—a fly evokes several Fleming covers, most notably “From Russia, With Love.” Artists paying homage to Chopping’s style painted the covers for the next four Gardner books.
Here’s a suggestion to the good editors at Jonathan Cape: commission an artist to paint the cover in the Chopping manner for William Boyd’s Bond novel due in 2013.
As for “From Russia, With Love,” a fine first UK edition with fine dust jacket can fetch as much as $11,000 these days. Perhaps Auric Goldfinger’s heirs can afford that, but the rest of us will have to play the lottery—or maybe master chemin de fer.
Bonne chance.
*This originally appeared in the New York Daily News book blog, Page Views.