Thursday, June 26, 2014

Eli Wallach: The Man with the Optical Grin

It took some delicious memories of the most endearingly impish man I've ever known to get me back to this blog.

Eli in 2007, the recipient (with Anne) of the Dutch Treat Club Gold Medal for Lifetime Achievement in the Arts. 

Thirty years ago, I spent seven unholy days and nights in Israel with Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson—a long week making a short film we knew none of us would ever deserve recognition for. 

On Day One, as we entered the Tel Aviv suk [bazaar], Eli dropped back several steps and said to me, in his inimitable heartfelt whine, “I don’t know what I’m doin’ here. Annie played Lou Kaddar, Golda Meir’s sidekick, in “A Woman Called Golda”… they’ll know her!  But no one will know who I am.”

Just then, from their stalls and from behind their counters, the market’s vendors, consecutively laying eyes on him, started leaning forward, cupping their hands… and singing the indelibly haunting theme from “The Magnificent Seven.” As Eli broke into a slow grin:  bumbum/bum/bum… bum/bum/bum/ bum/ bum/ bum....  

On Day Two, a shoot day, Eli, standing alone on a bare outdoor stage, asked me how to say a famous line of Shakespeare—in Hebrew. Cameras rolling, the dazzling Israeli noonday sun for a spotlight, he emoted: “lee-hee-yot o lo lee-hee-yot.”  To be or not to be.  Anne whispered, “Foxy, darling, does he know what he’s doing?” “That,” I failed to assure her, “is the question.”

Eli was mischievous. Anne could be… mercurial. Eli would misbehave, knowing full well his Annie would react. And every time she did, I would see this fleeting, impish, glint—a split second flicker of optical grin—flash in his eyes. Anne had to live with it; all I wanted was one shot of it, one photo.  

It cost me roll upon roll of film as I tried, unfailingly in vain, to capture this, the most classic, of their shenanigans. I fell into a pattern of standing around, camera in hand, trying not to be obvious, but perched at the ready for that glint, that unparalleled optical grin, determined to catch it, trying to anticipate it whenever I saw Eli peer anywhere but into Anne’s reproving eyes. Seeing it coming… and always missing it!  Peer Glynt, I began to call it under my breath in frustration. Click! I missed. There it is again! Click! Missed again. Click! Damn! I must have squandered four rolls of high-speed film on trying to capture Eli’s virtuoso “Peer Glynt.” Just once! I never did. I never wanted that shot as much as I do today. 

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

At Ease in the Fields of Sharon


No one is ambivalent about Ariel Sharon. Or ever hesitant to share strong sentiments. I’ll leave it to both admirers and detractors to give you earfuls of what they want you to know about him. Here’s what I know:

"Arik" Sharon knew his beloved country Israel by the inch, every inch, conceivably and convincingly better than the proverbial back of his hand. Once, to make a point to me, he reached into his back pocket, withdrew a map of Israel he evidently always carried with him, and spread it out over the front fender of a parked car. His index finger deftly indicating spot after spot of land, he said, "We can’t give this back to them because it’s high ground they can easily attack us from… can’t let them have this because it’s directly above a road we use for civilian and military transit… can’t vacate this because a rock thrown from here can stop or kill someone." A rock! He wasn’t nearly finished, but he’d made his point—life and death in the Middle East wasn’t, as commonly perceived, so much periodic and precariously seismic as it was day-to-day, hand-to-hand, inescapably rooted in biblical times.

He was an impassioned patriot and single-minded warrior. "A tank coming through," an early but former ally of his, Geulah Cohen, memorably characterized him for me during a late-evening reminiscence at Israel’s Knesset. "He’s here, and he sees there," she pointed, "and nothing in between. He would roll over anything—even his mother, I believe—that stood in his way." 

In June, 1982, in response to the PLO’s persistent missile attacks on northern Israeli towns and a Palestinian terrorist group’s attempted assassination of Israel's Ambassador to Great Britain, the Israel Defense Forces, under then defense minister Sharon’s leadership, stormed across Lebanon’s southern border, subsequently sweeping north through Lebanon in a stunning victory over PLO, Syrian and Muslim Lebanese forces. When I asked him about the "game plan" and the "wisdom" of the show of force, he told me with boyish candor that it was not part of any strategy he had in mind, but that his forces encountered so little effective resistance from the PLO, "We just kept going." With an expansive shrug and his irrepressible smile, he explained, "We couldn’t stop!"

During the Christmas/Chanukah holidays of 1982, I accompanied Elizabeth Taylor to Israel. Prior to our departure from the United States, I promised I’d take her to Lebanon after the New Year, a prospect that particularly excited her. I would introduce her to the newly, democratically elected government officials of the country, she would be feted at the presidential palace, and, as the pièce de résistance, we would meet, possibly even ride with, Major Sa’ad Haddad, a hero of Lebanon’s Civil War and a friend.

On New Year’s Day, 1983, I was taking Elizabeth to the Sharon farm in southern Israel. We rode from Tel Aviv in the back seat of a limo, following another car while an uncustomarily hard rain continued to fall. When the lead car drove suddenly into a flooded road and slammed on its brakes, ours plowed into it. Elizabeth screamed, our bodies were thrown forward, and we wound up sprawled on the floor of the limo, her leg bleeding, a finger eerily bent, I barely able to breathe. Transferred to other cars, we arrived at the Sharons’ separately, rain-soaked and battered. He stood waiting outside under a carport for me, and lifted me out of the car as if I were weightless. "We can’t get a helicopter in the air in this weather, so a doctor is driving down from Tel Aviv," he told me. "He said to keep you warm, quiet and comfortable."

He did his best to. Blankets and brandy were administered, the fireplace stoked as ice compresses were applied. While Elizabeth, her injured leg up on an ottoman, was, by her own description, "chewing on brandy," Arik told us about the farm, i.e., we have so many acres and so many goats and so many sheep, and… and I wasn’t in any condition to pay attention. Quite soon, neither was Elizabeth. When the doctor arrived, we turned the Sharon house into a clinic. The doctor took turns examining us on the Sharon’s dining room table, concluding we had to go to the hospital—back in Tel Aviv!

Elizabeth was relegated to a neck brace, a finger cast—middle-finger upright, leg and back dressings, and a wheel chair. As Elizabeth’s landing field, I sustained a side of broken ribs. Nevertheless, we were hell-bound for Lebanon. I requested a helicopter from the general, who objected vehemently. "They will shoot the copter out of the air before it is two feet off the ground! They would love the publicity!" His "they" was the PLO. Our dialogue turned increasingly heated that evening as he, from a radio station following an interview, and I, from my hotel room preceding having to face Elizabeth, continued to debate the issue. To my astonishment, I won! Or so I believed—briefly. No sooner had I prevailed than his steadfast admonishment caught up with me. In retrospect, I think he banked on it. I informed Elizabeth that we were not going to Lebanon and braved seeing her on the brink of tears. (In due time, I will relate the droll details of most of those past 48 hours. For now, I’ll just say:) I felt caught between a rock and a hard place—and suspected that Arik represented both.

In 1983, Arik Sharon sued Time magazine for libel over a cover story alleging he had encouraged the revenge-taking that led to massacres at two Palestinian refugee camps, Sabra and Shatila, the previous year. In 1985, the day before the federal jury rendered its verdict after 11 days of deliberation, I visited his wife Lily and him in a US District Court in Manhattan as they waited in a small chamber with several others until given word there would be no decision that day. We descended the courthouse steps into nightfall to find the sidewalk and street devoid of life but for several taxis, which Arik began hailing and ushering the others into. Before he and Lily climbed into the last of them, he asked me how I was getting home. I cited subway or bus or the possibility of walking a little, but he said it was too dark and desolate, and not safe for me. I told him not to worry, "this is my city, I live here, I’m fine!" But he would have none of that. He practically shoe-horned me into a crowded taxi headed uptown.

The last time I saw him was in May, 2000, at a reception in Manhattan. I may have taken the only photo with him where he wasn’t smiling. Neither of us was. An opportunity to speak quietly together had given us time to commiserate with each other: Lily had died in March and I had just lost my mother. Our conversation was respectfully interrupted by a photographer I knew from these photo-op-filled occasions. Chatting earlier in the evening with him, I mentioned the irony of not having even one photo with the general. The conscientious fellow decided to amend that before he dashed to another assignment. It wasn’t an ideal time. I posted the photo above to illustrate that.

Speaking of "an ideal time," Gilad Sharon said that his father "went when he decided to go." That was the Sharon I knew.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Originally published on The Huffington Post:

Affirming Altruism

Somewhere between high school and college we argued about selfish acts. Only, we didn't call the alternative to them unselfish, we called them altruistic. (It never occurred to a single one of us deep-thinkers to question whether calling them altruistic was pretentious; optimal words came naturally to us once upon a time.)

The question posed was, "Is there such a thing as a purely altruistic act?" I remember thinking that all young men and women somewhere between high school and college age must be having the same considered debate we were—and, with similarly facile logic, invariably reaching the same defining conclusion:
There is no such thing as a purely altruistic act.

Ours wasn't a happy pronouncement. What we agreed on by surprising consensus we agreed on reluctantly rather than cynically. If a plausible corollary was "blowin' in the wind," we didn't see it.

Several years after we earnest few moved on—from our lofty contemplations and from each other—I was nursing a cappuccino and gorging on the nuance du jour with friends at a Greenwich Village café when I heard a familiar voice and turned to see Bob Dylan, legs up, slouched down, amid a sprawled-out group of coffeehouse denizens in animated conversation at a nearby table. Seeing coffee and cigarettes, the prerequisites to good conversation, strewn on their table, it crossed my mind to muse: were they, by any chance, debating the same thing we had—the truly altruistic act—invariably coming to the same conclusion? many times can a man turn his head
Pretending he just doesn't see?

This was roughly a decade before the "me" generation was appropriately identified. What our generation wanted to be was unselfish: what we all in our starry-eyed idealism wanted to embody was altruism. What was "blowin' in the wind" was the dawn of an invigorating new era, and if the answer we wanted wasn't yet written on the wind, it was visible—if nowhere else, then on our earnestly unfurrowed brows. How did everyone, or anyone, fail to see it?

Yes, how many times must a man look up
Before he can see the sky?

Nothing, over the years, threatened to change my mind. Absolute selflessness, self-abnegation, self-sacrifice were mythological at best—the stuff of scriptures, literature and dreams. Clerics shock us, heroes disillusion, icons pale, leaders fail. Still, something in me clings to the utopian notion of that "purely altruistic act."

Yes, how many times must the cannon balls fly
Before they're forever banned?
The answer my friend is blowin' in the wind...

The question we should be pondering today is can we stand by and do nothing while innocent women and children are indiscriminately gassed and murdered. Not, first and foremost, should the United States intervene in yet another war on distant shores, risk American women's and men's lives to save others, although it's a valid question. Not, should we spend money in a foreign country while people are suffering in ours, an equally valid consideration. Not even, should we go to war and risk American lives to stem further terrorism and to protect ourselves and our children. There is but one paramount question, the purely altruistic one, the humane one, the morally right one, and the answer to it is being addressed by President Obama, who fathoms and feels we must do something!

Yes, how many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry?
Yes, how many deaths will it take till he knows
That too many people have died ?
The answer my friend is blowin' in the wind,
The answer is blowin' in the wind.

The president has nothing personal to gain from waging war in any manner on Syria. Someone should try to explain to Ted Cruz that Barack Obama is already the president and can't run for another term. Someone should explain to Newt Gingrich that he can never be president. Someone should explain to Fox News... no, forget it.

It's reasonable to criticize and differ with the president's handling of Syria, but irrational to attribute his motives to anything self-serving or sinister. This man who makes Republicans stark-raving venomous may be the least selfish of any president in recorded history. Absolutely, purely altruistic? History and historians will decide. What matters at the moment is ridding the world of Syria's arsenal of chemical weapons and arms expeditiously. If negotiation succeeds, the president's reticence to strike summarily is a signature triumph. If it fails, Congress and the American people must empower him to take action against the Assad government because, after all, there just may be such a thing as a purely altruistic act! Unless you consider saving the lives of untold numbers of men, women and children—and feeling good about it—a selfish act.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Trying Times in Florida's Courts

Unless you routinely watch MSNBC or read Huffington Post, it’s likely you’ve never heard of Marissa Alexander, a 31-year-old African-American mother of three who was sentenced to 20 years in jail for firing a single warning shot into a ceiling as her historically abusive husband, having already threatened to kill her, advanced toward her. Even if you have heard of Ms. Alexander, you may not know that the prosecutor in her case was Angela B. Corey, the same Florida State's Attorney whose office tried the George Zimmerman case; the same woman who was disconcertingly glib and composed, and too-readily reconciled, to the losing verdict her prosecution team received in that instance; the same woman who threw the book at Marissa Alexander, but never appeared before the court in the Zimmerman case—in spite of her team’s blatantly inadequate and inept prosecutorial performance.  

It’s unavoidable to point out here that Marissa Alexander, whose self-defense argument was rejected, and Trayon Martin, who didn’t live to defend himself, happened to be black, and Angela Corey and George Zimmerman are white. And that it took a jury twelve minutes to find Marissa Alexander guilty and all of a day to find George Zimmerman innocent of all criminal charges.
You’ll be hearing a lot more of Marissa Alexander, whose treatment at the hands of the law in the state of Florida won’t be excused by fair-minded people of all colors until the rank injustice to her is rectified. A few considerations are weightier than the short, if any, shrift given them by the prosecution, judge and jury. Ms. Alexander worked her way through school, earned a Master of Arts degree and had no criminal record prior to being convicted on three accounts of aggravated assault with a pistol—for shooting a ceiling! A woman with reputed experience handling firearms—target practice with her father—stands to spend two decades in jail for taking aim and hitting her target, and by so doing, injuring no one; you can’t draw blood from plaster. The mother of a three-year-old girl who was nine days old when the altercation that led to her mother’s incarceration occurred; who, as matters stand, will be 22 when her mother, a convicted felon, gets out of jail. The mother, as well, of two older children from an earlier marriage, twins who will be 31 by the time their mother has paid her debt—to society? Tell me what society three children rendered motherless by inequitably- and callously-applied law belong to.

I hope we’ll all be hearing a lot more of Angela Corey, as well. She’ll have her supporters, rabid ones: for the most of us, not people we know, or want to know. They, and she, will find ways to justify the callous and irrational as they sanctimoniously dispose of another and another inconsequential inconvenience in their daily affairs. Corey is already blaming the media: "I think social media is going to be the destruction of this country." And, get this!, the public and the Internet! "I want to run my office and I want to run my cases according to the law," she said. Florida "law," that is: law unto itself. "And there is nothing in the U.S. Constitution that says the public has a right to have a trial by internet."

The public—that nervily opinionated sector in Corey’s eyes—will be hearing also about Jordan Davis. Jordan, 17, was seated in the back seat of an SUV listening to music with three friends, all teens, "all well-raised," according to a report, when Michael David Dunn, a 46-year-old, 300- pound white man parked next to them, rolled down the window of his car and told the boys to turn down the music, starting an exchange of words that he ended by firing ten rounds into the boys’ SUV, two of which struck Jordan and resulted in his bleeding to death. Dunn, who fled the scene of the crime without ever reporting the incident to anyone, which might have saved Jordan’s life, is pleading self-defense!

Sometimes, words speak louder than actions. Lawmakers and jurors should heed them. Jordan Davis’s mother had the remarkable grace to say, "We are not looking at it as [a] hate crime because that's not going to honor Jordan." Marissa Alexander’s daughter, Havelin, at 11, questioned "how my mom could be beaten, but she's the one arrested." Trayvon Martin’s father counseled those gathered at a post-verdict vigil, "Senseless violence is a disease and we as a people have the cure, we just need to come together."

Compare those words with Michael Dunn’s 20-year-old daughter, Rebecca’s, "He just reacted." Marissa Alexander’s husband’s statements in a deposition, in which he admitted, "I got five baby mammas, and I put my hands on every last one of them except for one." [That’s] "the way I was with women… they had to walk on eggshells around me." Two of them "got hit in the mouth" because they "just wouldn’t shut up." George Zimmerman’s father’s warning in an e-book he wrote and released on Amazon, that "every American should be aware of … wholly unethical opportunists, including those in government, the legal profession, and the media"—it’s that damned irksome media again!—[who] "routinely utilize race to incite and agitate hatred and divisiveness for their own rewards."

So who, and what’s, ultimately being tried in these Florida court cases? Flagrantly, blatantly, egregiously on trial was the defenseless Trayvon Martin, and not the stalking vigilante whose predisposition to seeing a black youth as "trouble" and whose over-eagerness to take the law into his own hands triggered the entirely avoidable tragedy. Moreover, since Trayvon Martin was, even in absentia, put on trial, wasn’t he, even in death, entitled to the primary stand-your-ground claim of self-defense?

On trial was civil law: man-made, consequently manhandledand common law: the confluence of the wisdom of centuries of jurisprudential precedents arrogantly shunted aside by largely negligible lawmakers who think they know better. Inescapably on trial was the Second Amendment ("the right to bear arms" notably emanating from English common law) and "Stand Your Ground" law (a perversion of our Founding Founders’ intentions and the common law). Still to be reckoned with: the NRA; the presumable behind-the-scenes shenanigans unsurprising to Florida; and Florida law.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Books: A Love Story, Part Two

Ernest Hemingway always left an unfinished sentence in his typewriter so he didn’t have to face a blank page the next day.  As I reluctantly let go of the first installment of my tell-all, between-the-pages love story, I left a two-word sentence in my WORD file—in Hemingway fashion, a terse one.  Why fiction? 

Perhaps it was also the influence of Joseph Heller, whose personal Catch-22 was that he needed a first sentence to get rolling—seldom, if ever, the sentence that would ultimately begin the book, or even lead to a second sentence, but, to the contrary, to countless paragraphs and pages that more often than not led to nothing.

Re-sorting my unboxed books, separating Hemingway’s novels from his non-fiction, I mull over the credit he gave the style guide of The Kansas City Star, where he was a cub reporter all of half-a-year, for giving him “the best rules I ever learned for the business of writing,” a list that began with, “Use short sentences. Use short first paragraphs. Use vigorous English”—and I muse that “The Star Copy Style,” as the guide was known, eventually became a companion to the aforementioned Associated Press Stylebook.  So I have it in my library, as well!  (And I check above to see if my first paragraphs are “short.”  My sentences often are not; Hemingway and I disagree on that point.)

And as I write, I’m discovering a la Joe Heller—but a lot faster—that I’m not going to stay with my initial sentence.  “Why fiction?” will have to wait, because at the moment I can’t wait to cross the room to Non-fiction again! 

Under Biography: In A Writer’s Life, Gay Talese tells of having been rejected by colleges based on his writing!  In a class by itself: tucked inside the front cover of Mila 18, a letter from Leon Uris that accompanied a transcript of a speech he’d given divulging that he’d failed English in high school!

On a whim, I scan my shelves for various accounts of writers losing manuscripts and, sometimes, writing them again.  T.E. Lawrence, the one and only “Lawrence of Arabia,” lost his one and only 50,000-word first draft of “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” either by leaving the briefcase bearing it on the seat next to him on a train or while changing trains at Reading Station—and, having burned his extensive historical notes, subsequently rewrote it from memory, in my eyes more heroic than his heroics during the 1916-1918 Arab Revolt.  You’ve seen the movie.

It opens up a wholly new category:  lost suitcases, valuable manuscripts and train stations.   Hemingway again!  (How does one contemporary writer generate so much “ink”?)  His first wife, Hadley, had dutifully packed all of young Earnest’s unpublished original manuscripts—he had no published fiction at the time—and all his existing carbon copies in a suitcase she intended to shepherd (all right, schlep) from their residence in Paris to Switzerland, where opportunity had presented itself to the aspiring author in the person of the influential Lincoln Steffens.  But Hadley’s thirst fatefully trumped her husband’s hunger that day!  She left the suitcase on the idle train while she went to buy a bottle of water for her trip, and when she returned, the train was still there… but the suitcase wasn’t!  Hemingway went on to have great success, and three more wives.

Recalling these literary calamities has me searching for a book with the cautionary tale of an unknown writer who, while loading his car, put his manuscript on the car’s roof and absent-mindedly pulled away, unaware he was scattering his prose and years of arduous work to the four winds—hence, remaining unknown.

I am reminded of a John Fowles’ short story from The Ebony Tower, “Poor Koko,” a haunting, disturbing tale about a writer whose house on a remote island is invaded by a burglar who, among other thefts and transgressions, commits the most painful of them all—agonizing for a writer to read—burning four years of writing and research practically page by page while the bound and gagged writer watches helplessly and wordlessly.  Unable to recall the details, but mindful of Fowles’ eloquence, I have to reread it now despite my discomfort with it.     

When I finished writing my first (and last) book, Angela Ambrosia, I eased the manuscript into a 9x12 manila envelope and laid it neatly on top of my typewriter (a machine with a black ribbon and a moving carriage) for delivery to my publisher the next morning.  Jean and I were on our way out of the apartment that evening when I doubled back to speak with our babysitter.  “Lindy,” I told her, somewhat embarrassed, “you may not understand this, but just follow what I say.  If, by any chance, there is a fire in the apartment or the building tonight… after you get my two daughters safely out… and yourself, of course…  there’s an envelope on my typewriter…”

Samuel Johnson said, “The greatest part of a writer's time is spent in reading in order to write. A man will turn over half a library to make a book.”  I guess I did that.  And if I “turn over” another “half a library,” as I intend to do, who knows what I might produce?

What is this writers’ obsession with collecting books we’ve read and may never open again?  And collecting more?  Days before starting a renovation, my downstairs neighbor, also a writer and as painfully reconciled as I’d grudgingly become to having to part with scores of books, glibly asked me if I wanted some of his.  My response was, “Why don’t we trade books?  It’ll be easier for you to give away mine and for me to give away yours.”  Neither of us was consoled.

“An ordinary man can surround himself with two thousand books and thenceforward have at least one place in the world in which it is possible to be happy.” (Augustine Birrell)

I have finally managed to fill every available inch of shelf space with a book.  That done, I am left with several dozen cartons of splendid books to find a loving home for.  And I will always have many new ones to read.  I could download them... but I like to hold a book when I read it!  So it comes down to this: every time I acquire a book I have to get rid of one.

Or… do I succumb to the music-to-my-ears of the quotable Birrell?  I do.  “Libraries are not made; they grow. Good as it is to inherit a library, it is better to collect one.”  I will wedge and stack and store when I feel I must, and leave my library to my grandson Maddan, already a voracious reader and an expressive, imaginative writer.  Turning ten this Thursday, he’s way ahead of Hemingway’s pace—and his mother would never lose his suitcase!  Maddan’s birthday present is in my safekeeping.  I bequeath him “at least one place in the world in which it is possible to be happy” amid the novels and biographies, the plays and screenplays, the volumes of humor and art and philosophy, the collections of show scores and music anthologies, the venerable sets of H.G. Wells’ Outline of History and the Great Events By Famous Historians, the 40-volume Yale Shakespeare and the 17,000 page, 107 pound Encylopedia Judaica.  And an  invaluable reference library!

On entering the newly-completed library, my friend Mark pronounced: “Now it’s a Ray Fox room!”  So it is.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Books: A Love Story

Accounting for time is futile.  Where did the day go? The month? The last decade!—did I fill it well… or leave gaping holes in my kaleidoscopic universe?  These are  ponderables you can’t google.

Where have I been lately?  In my head, but not at my writing desk.  Take last Friday for example.  A day at the hospital: reported at 6:30 a.m., in deeply drug-induced dreamland (kinda like Hollywood, only the scalpels aren’t out for your back) by 7, in surgery I’ll fortunately never remember some four and a half hours following.  

Released, at last, at 4 in the afternoon, my doting wife and I step gingerly into a serendipitously pleasant day-after-Spring day.  “Let’s walk,” I say.  Jean asks if I’m sure.  We’re in midtown Manhattan—I don’t need Affordable Health Care to field this one:  “If it’s too much, we’ll grab a taxi.”  Done.

We coast up Broadway.  Six blocks from home, we pass… almost… several tables laden with used books for sale.  My eye catches one, The Chicago Manual of Style!  I’ve always wanted it to go with my style bible, The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage, plus The Associated Press Stylebook and the classic little gem, Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style.  But having a profusion of stylebooks already, I couldn’t justify spending the hefty $55 list price for a hefty, near-1,000-page tome I no longer have shelf-space for.  The effects of my surgery must have been showing: I didn’t have to bargain for it.  Marked for $12, which I would have paid, the vendor made it $10 “for you.” 

Do you see where I’m going with all this?  Not that it made my day.  Not, were it not for the surgery, I wouldn’t have acquired a book I wanted so much that only a week before,  way in advance of any gift-giving occasions, it occurred to me that this year, unlike others, I had an answer for my family to “What do you want?” The Chicago Manual of Style.  Yes,  The Chicago Manual of Style, please.  Not even to crow yet again about the wonder of The Sidewalks of New York and how wondrous I find them.  No, it’s bigger than any one book.  It’s BOOKS as a way of life.

Prior to moving to a smaller apartment a few years ago, I parted—painfully, this being a love story—with one third of what was a truly special library.  I had had everything I needed at my fingertips.  In need of a fact or a quote in the wee hours of writing, I’d go to my shelves, categorized and alphabetized, confident I’d locate the sought-after book in seconds, place my extended right index finger on top of its spine and tilt it toward me.  I suspected if Google and Yahoo! got wind of it, they’d come to me.  

Adjusting to our new home, I stood dismayed many an evening faced with the 130 cartons of remaining books taking up the floor—and air—space of my designated library.  Although every carton was methodically labeled by category and numbered, e.g. “Fiction 29 (Wilder to Zola)” or “Theater 14 (M. Hart to Kerr),” I knew I would have to check and then dust  the spine, front and back cover, top and bottom, of every book I reverentially unpacked—in light of my lifelong romance, anything but a brush off—before setting it in its proper place on the shelf. 

It was predictable that I would impede my own progress.  Ah, here’s Moss Hart’s Act One!  The best show business autobiography ever written!  Now what was Hart’s memorable observation about it not being enough to be successful, you must also have the failure of your friends?   Jean regales our friends with my distractions: “He’ll take a book from a carton… examine it… slowly drift to the nearest chair… and start reading it!”  I know just where to find my rebuttal—via Ann Landers, in the “Quotations” section of one of my over-laden “Reference” shelves.  “No person who can read is ever successful at cleaning out an attic.”  That said, now I’m reading a book of quotations!  Truth to tell, mea culpa: perusing a few lines, letting a phrase catch my eye, I get lost in one book after another.  [NB (nota bene) re mea culpa: The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage has much to say about when it’s proper to use italics for foreign words or phrases.]

I came across books, pages parched and cracking, I still have from childhood.  Perused lines and passages I commented on, lightly, in the margins—didn’t we all?—relieved to find I never noted, “How true!

My timeworn copy of War and Peace!  Twice read, twice annotated, the first time, as a child under the covers, flashlight in hand, so my mother would rest assured I’d be rested for school in the morning.  A book I hope to read once more in my time.  Back to the shelves for a quote from Clifton Fadiman, “When you reread a classic you do not see more in the book than you did before; you see more in you than was there before.”  As an adult reading “over” the covers, the child still within me hungrily anticipates seeing more in me!

In my teens, I began reading authors, not stopping until I had read every book by many of them.  Dostoyevsky, Dickens and Mann.  Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Steinbeck.  Eventually, Camus and Kafka. Burgess, Borges and Bellow.  Malamud and Roth.  Davies and Doctorow, Mailer and Morrison, Updike and le Carré, both Thomas and Tom Wolfe.  Still others.

“The Medicine Chest of the Soul” was the inscription over the door of the ancient, vanished Library at Thebes.  Coming from eight days in the hospital almost as many years ago, I craved—needed a fix of—fiction.  My prescription was Philip Roth, followed by more Roth.

Why fiction in such large doses?  And what about non-fiction?  I’ve barely scratched the surface, or, perhaps more appropriately in this instance, cracked the spine.

To be continued…

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Hizzoner, The Honorable Ed Koch

Has anyone ever passed from this world under the weight of so many adjectives?  Brash, shrewd,  relentless, smart, tenacious, combative, ebullient, flitting, charismatic, feisty, slippery, egotistical, opinionated, pugnacious, colorful, self-promoting, private, combustible, witty, argumentative, gregarious, callous, loquacious, irrepressible, tireless, fearless, guileless, tough, determined, self-righteous, mischievous,  confrontational, funny, petty…  On and on it continues,  the endless profusion of descriptions!  But I’d add two I have seen nowhere.  I saw him as kind.  He was kind to me.  And generous.

I knew Ed Koch through at least five different channels, so our paths inevitably crossed from time to time.  In 1986, I produced a show for a gala dinner in L.A. saluting three premier mayors: L.A.’s Tom Bradley, Tel Aviv’s Shlomo “Chich” Lahat and Hizzoner, New York’s Ed Koch, but designed as a roast of the evening’s star, Mayor Koch.  Laden with comic talent, the program  featured Joan Rivers as the M.C., plus top-flight comedians Jan Murray, Dick Shawn and Slappy White.  Wanting a little more New York on the bill, I “imported” Dr. Ruth Westheimer, singing poet Steve DePass and the cast of “Mayor,” an Off-Broadway musical portraying one day in the life of Ed Koch. 

A Yiddish expression claims, "Man plans, God laughs.”  Shortly after waking on Tuesday, January 26, 1986, the day of the event, our weary group working on the show stumbled into the lounge serving as our production office to learn from a harsh TV bulletin that the space shuttle Challenger had “broken apart” over the Atlantic Ocean 73 seconds into its flight, likely taking the lives of all seven people on board.  No one and certainly not God could find a laugh in this unexpected turn of events.  Could we cancel the dinner gala?  Its planners decided to go through with it, but, we agreed, cancel the planned program—“the Koch roast.”  

Joan Rivers had made a point of telling me she doesn’t like last-minute changes.  That evening, she had to live with me whispering what came next… and next… in her right ear, as our bevy of stand-up old pros did their stock routines and shtick.  When Mayor Koch’s turn to speak came, it was impossible to tell whether he was retaliating for a roast that never was or speaking off the cuff: either way, he just sounded like Ed Koch.  Privately, the event concluded, the ballroom emptied, the New York-tongued mayor warmly expressed his gratitude and his “admiration” to us.

In the early ‘90s, I made a 60-minute documentary about a life-threatening  new wave of anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union.  When I described it to the mayor, he asked for a copy.  In time, I received a letter from him, excerpts from which follow: 
Dear Ray,
I finally got to watch your video “Freedom To Hate.”  It’s superb. …
Why WNET hasn’t shown it is a mystery to me. …
If you need a recommendation, you can always use my name as someone who saw it and thought it was superb. 
He told me I could use it any way I wanted.  PBS ran the documentary.

Last Thursday morning, I donned an uncustomary tee-shirt sporting a photo of the Mayor promoting—what else?—New York!  In a near déjà vu of the L.A. morning described above, as I walked into the next room the TV gave me the news of Ed Koch’s death.  My daughter Haley, who had given me the tee-shirt, called to ask if I would be writing about him. 

I went to my “Ed Koch” file for an answer.  I found in my notes of long ago that the proper way to address him formally was “The Honorable Edward I. Koch.”  Now there’s an adjective for him we all almost overlooked!  Honorable. 

At one time or another, I suspect all of the above-listed adjectives, and so many more, applied to him.  And I expect I and others will think of still more. Nevertheless, I believe he and his legacy all add up to one all-encompassing noun: Hizzoner
Ed Koch wasn’t the only mayor ever to be called Hizzoner, but to my mind and my certainty, he is the last one—he owns it.

How’d he do it?  As easily as rainfall.  Broadway producer Howard Erskine told me he got on an elevator delighted to find the mayor on it.  Having never met him and with only his trademark “How’m I  doin’?” in mind, Howard’s first words to him were, “Mayor Koch, I think you’re doing a great job!”  The mayor’s response?  “You bet your ass!”