Saturday, February 28, 2009

Bernie’s Journey

In the past 24 hours alone, I’ve heard Bernard Madoff called “an economic terrorist,” “a monster,” and repeatedly—can it be anything other than affectionately?—“Bernie.” Bernie’s “a swindler,” Bernie’s “a shit.” Good old Bernie’s the local boy who made bad.

Headline Bernie is everybody’s Bernie! He’s the stuff of song: “Bernie and Ruthie were sweethearts.” “It Was Always a Very Good Year.” We Loved You Be-er-nie.” Conrad Birdie’s cloying fan clubs have become Con Man Bernie’s tsk-tsk-clucking claques.

Every day we don’t learn more about “Bernie”--we learn the same details again and again. From Queens to Wall Street and Palm Beach and Park Avenue. A killer trader, a family man. He was, paradoxically, friendly and aloof, casual and compulsive, enigmatic and without airs. He was true blue until he was a fraud.

So who was “Bernie” before he became Beelzebub? Until proven wrong, I have my own scenario. I believe he was an earnest, industrious, well-intentioned young broker who initially produced honest annual profits for others, perhaps beyond even his own expectations… until he had an “off” year. At which point his pride got the best of him. Rather than acknowledge poor performance, hence failure, he thought of making up some of the shortfall by taking money out of his own pocket to give to his clients (who had come to expect ready-Madoff profits)—and “borrowed” funds from additional clients. He would make up for it the next year and no one would be the worse for it.

Criminologists and psychoanalysts will tell you that once someone breaks the law, once he or she crosses that line, doing so the next time, and the next, gets easier and easier. Either “Bernie” failed to make up the discrepancy the next year (or two), or it became increasingly difficult and soon impossible to, or he grew to realize he didn’t have to. Never again had to!

And as he dug himself in deeper and deeper, he became delusional. Sociopathic. Criminal.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009


Hollywood knows no better scenario than “Cowboys and Indians.” This year, however, turned the tables on a scenario so old it seems biblical. The Indians won.

Slumdog Millionaire was chosen Best Picture not only on its own merit, but also because it is one of those rarities that comes down the pike—a production no one has anything against. Consider: Hollywood is a fiercely competitive town. Those most at home on the range root as much against the success of others as for them. No one will lose sleep over a “one-shot” film from India, with no stars, winning. No one against it = Oscar.

In a stunning upset, the odds-on favorite for Best Foreign Film, Israel’s Waltz With Bashir, lost to a memorable but unheralded film from Japan, Departures, in spite of “Waltz’s” creative uniqueness, democratic outspokenness and impressive box-office performance. Consider: both Jews and anti-Zionists would want Waltz With Bashir to win—Jews because it would have been Israel’s first Oscar, and anti-Zionists because it makes Israel look bad in the world’s eyes. But I believe the reverse became operative—Jews, a predominate number of members in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, voted against it because it makes Israel look bad in the world’s eyes, and there weren’t enough anti-Zionists and their sympathizers enrolled in the Academy to make it a winner—consequently a pariah—for Israel. Too many against it = no Oscar.

So, why did the favorite to win Best Actor, Mickey Rourke, lose—and how, under any circumstances, could Best Supporting Actor, Heath Ledger, not win? Consider: The only thing Hollywood loves (and rewards) more than a comeback is a postmortem. Where seldom is heard a discouraging word, the noble gesture must be the distinctive gesture, and the established script calls for only one. This year’s only do-right, feel-good (about ourselves) award went the only place it could go—not to the weathered comeback kid, but to the young actor who tragically couldn’t be present to accept it for a brilliant performance worthy of distinction amid any field of actors. Touchingly and appropriately, the Academy bestowed the honor posthumously on Heath Ledger. Oscar. Amen.

Friday, February 20, 2009


In 1981, I told Bashir Gemayel that he would be the next president of Lebanon. He shook his head and replied that his enemies would not forgive him so soon. We were both right. On August 23rd, 1982, he was elected. On September 14th, 1982, he was assassinated.

All the acclaim currently going to “Waltz with Bashir,” the frontrunner (from Israel) to win this year’s Oscar for Best Foreign Film, begs the question, “Who was Bashir Gemayel?” 

A voice-over in “Waltz with Bashir” tells us he was “a star, an idol, a prince…” Indisputable, but insufficient. An often literally nightmarish history of the 1982 Israeli-Palestinian conflict waged on the fields, streets and beaches of Lebanon, “Waltz with Bashir” is a hybrid animated documentary, a brilliant one. It is not a biography, and film has its limitations. Having known Bashir, having enjoyed an easy rapport with him and been stirred by him, I feel compelled to pick up where the film leaves off.

To meet Bashir was to be inspired by him. He was strong (to excess, according to his critics) when Lebanon, which had suffered from a history of "laissez faire-type" govern­ment, needed bold, determined leadership. He was committed: believing from the beginning of the Lebanese Civil War in 1975 that he and his people were re­sponsible not only for their own destinies, but also for the destiny of their country, Bashir gave up his law practice to become a soldier.

In beige business suit, dress shirt and tie when not in military fatigues, with boyish voice and cultured candor, he looked and sounded more like the best man at a wedding than the Commander-in-Chief of the 25,000-strong coalition Lebanese Forces and the emerging charismatic political leader on whose shoulders the future of Lebanon would barely have time to perch, much less rest.

Before he paid for his aspirations for his country with his own life, he paid a price even dearer—a car bomb intended for him took the life of his eighteen-month-old daughter, Maya. He stoically told me it was a "tribute" he was forced to pay, "the same as many Lebanese." 

A Christian Maronite who sought to be president to Christians and Moslems alike, Bashir was staunchly pro-Western, unfettered by Pan-Arabism, friendly to Israel and hostile to the Syrians and to the Palestine Liberation Organization. With his combination of intel­ligence, courage and confidence, he impressed me as having the potential to emerge not only as the leader the Arab world lacked and needed so badly, but also as a pivotal leader on the world stage. He was the only principal player in the Arab world with the imagina­tion and the courage to fill the void left by Sadat. No one since has surfaced to change that.

The details of Bashir’s death are lurid and heartbreaking. Chief of his nationalist Kataeb party, he routinely attended a weekly Tuesday afternoon meeting at a party headquarters in Beirut’s Ashrafieh neighborhood. As president-elect of Lebanon, he insisted on going “for the last time” before resigning his post. Habib Chartouni, an assassin in the employ of Syria, had family—by varying accounts, grandparents and/or a sister—living in the office’s building, where he had planted a mammoth TNT bomb. His urgent phone calls to them giving various excuses to leave the building failed—they lingered to get yet another glimpse of the beloved Bashir. Reports say the explosion lifted the building into the air before it collapsed into rubble.

No one would believe Bashir had met ill. Word spread that his attempted assassination had failed; their hero lived! Church bells pealed in celebration and soldiers fired into the air. His corpse, unearthed with many other victims, lay unidentified initially because his face was so badly crushed he was unrecognizable—until identity was established by the discovery of a nun’s letter to him in his pocket and a distinguishing finger ring. “They didn’t kill a man,” a woman is said to have screamed, “they killed a country.”

His disciples—for that in effect is what they were—were in shock and inconsolable. The voice-over of a former Israeli soldier in “Waltz with Bashir” coolly expresses, “I think they even felt an eroticism for him…. It was as if their wife had been murdered.” They took their revenge within days in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps by massacring hundreds of Palestinian men, women and children. The Israel Defense Forces, ringing the outskirts of the camps, were accused not so much of complicity as of callous indifference. “It was obvious they’d avenge his death in some perverse way,” says the voice-over. In the waves of world-wide shock and revulsion that followed the exposure of the massacres, the think­ing world, which had barely a chance to consider Bashir when he was alive, lost sight of Bashir and never got to consider what it lost. The magnitude of his death was dismissed as quickly as his body was interred.

Lebanon is still in the hands of ill-intentioned intruders—Syria, Hezbollah and other surrogates for Iran—not the Lebanese people. Two Arab countries flanking Israel, Egypt and Jordan, enjoy peace with her—but not Lebanon. As more Arab countries recognize Israel, more Arab countries will be forced to recognize Israel—and as a consequence, be uncustomarily faced with peace. The waltz, a mournful one, continues; the band plays on.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Genesis of the Blog’s Title

My father was the largest distributor of cucumbers in the United States, possibly the world. That made him The Cucumber King. Truly! When I was young, I thought it was funny, too. If I mentioned it at all, a rarity, I joked about it. When I got older, I realized that to be a king of anything was to be a King. And that it made me the Son of the Cucumber King.

In response to the legendary Agnes DeMille’s insistence that I must write my stories, I told her that someday I would write a book called… my hands sweeping away from each other indicating a headline… “The Son of the Cucumber King”… and, hands narrowing to indicate a subtitle… “Is a Real Pickle.” Delighting in the title, she made me promise I’d write the book--but being a woman who never lacked an adamant opinion, she exhorted me to get rid of the subtitle.

My father, who sported a star sapphire ring and a sterling silver cigarette holder, was obviously somewhat of a showman. By placing his middle initial in front of his name, he was D. Louis Fox. That name was his bond. He could walk into a bank anywhere in Florida, his base of operations, and borrow a million dollars (in the 40s) solely on his signature. But my father would never do anything like that. To the contrary, he always overpaid his income taxes “a little”--for fear of cheating the government. This is real. So is it that he bought land in Florida for farmers who had no money, and operating solely on verbal agreements, went partners with them on the crops.

A product of his generation, which went head-on with the Depression, he was a driven man, relaxed only when he was with his family, which was too infrequent. Forced to slow down—to a stop—by an early “warning” heart attack at forty-six that had him bed-ridden and suffering his own depression, he insisted on going back to work. The doctor said it would kill him if he did; he said it would kill him if he didn’t. He was dead at forty-seven. I was fatherless just days before my eighth birthday.