26 April 2008

A Pledge

Twentieth-century icon: Madonna will not appear on this blog.
Excepting perhaps in an art-history context.

My brother is the technical wizard behind this blog. If your computer does not begin shooting sparks and emitting grinding yelps every time you drop by, you have him to thank. Left to my own technological devices, I would not have a blog at all. It is only recently that I learned to use a Post-It note. But only the yellow ones. I need more practice before I move on to other colors.

One of my brother’s recent “improvements” to this blog is a site counter. (There it is, over on your right, under my profile.) Thanks to him, it is now possible to tell how many people have visited. And that’s not all. My brother can tell where you are and how long you stay, and in some cases he can tell where you were browsing before you got here.

So I am now aware that this blog is being read (or briefly glanced at) by people I do not know, in places I have never been. I am now aware, too, that a great many of them have come looking for pictures of Robert Mugabe to download. I wouldn’t have thought the Zimbabwean dictator to be a pin-up on the scale of David Beckham, but the numbers don’t lie. They also don’t explain: for better or worse, the site counter doesn’t tell me why you want to download pictures of Robert Mugabe. Really, I’m not sure I want to know. I’m not sure I want any of this information.

Portrait of Mugabe: Back by popular demand?

The mere mention of Mr. Beckham prompts the realization that, by the ingenious and cynical use of celebrity photographs, I could increase traffic on this site. It makes no difference that I am largely ignorant of Mr. Beckham and have absolutely nothing of interest to say about him; in the rough-and-tumble world of blogging, one must engage in all sorts of nefarious shenanigans. Now that I know that I have readers I’ve never met, won’t the temptation become strong to acquire more — and more — and more of them?

I hereby pledge to resist that temptation. You will never see a photograph of David Beckham — not in street clothes, not in his sporting uniform, not in his underwear — on this site. You will find neither Britney Spears nor Justin Timberlake here, not because they stopped dating years ago, and not because I want to talk about fresher, trendier personalities instead — but because I am upholding a principle. A sacred, inviolable, unyielding, unwavering, steadfast principle.

Shirtless footballer Cristiano Ronaldo:
Another shirtless person I will not be writing about.
(Did you know “shirtless” is among the most frequently Googled words?)

Let me give you a few more examples. You’ll find neither Pamela Anderson and her extensive library of private sex tapes, nor Daniel Radcliffe and his photoshopped weenie, nor French pin-ups like M. Pokora, nor Maxim and Jenifer and their heart-breaking break-up, nor any of those people the mere mention of whose names result in a steady machine-gun fire of Google clicking, usually followed by dragging.

No! It is not for me, the trashy celebrity tattle, the panegyrics to the semi-talentless, the endless obsession with one-dimensional, mass-marketed pop-culture yahoos! (A word coined by Jonathan Swift, by the way.) My mind is on loftier subjects, such as Jonathan Swift, and so long as you’re on this blog, yours will be, too.

Singer Amy Winehouse: I have nothing to say about her.

You there — in Indiana! Yes, you. Don’t think I don’t see you. I know you came to this page only because you Googled the name of teen idol Zac Efron. Well, the joke is on you. There’s not another word about him on this site. Ha! Not even a single reference to his much-publicized addiction to bronzing creams or his much-photographed abdomen. Ha! Ha! The rest of us, those who came here for my estimable opinions on Classical music and nineteenth-century French literature, we’re laughing at you now. Ha, again, I say! (And by the way, you should be ashamed of yourself. Does your mother know what you were looking at, three minutes ago?)

And for those of you — in Saskatchewan, I believe, and in South Carolina — who are at this moment accusing me of including all these names in an experiment to see whether my site counter goes up as a result — well, I will not dignify your claims with a response. Except perhaps to quote the rising Brazilian fashion model Miro Moreira, who once observed of the late Anna Nicole Smith, or possibly of the not-late Eva Longoria: “Life is chunky.”

Model/philosopher Moreira: Shirtless

Read more!

24 April 2008

Update: Wharton Wins Reprieve

Look at that face. How could you possible refuse her anything?

According to this morning’s New York Times, the Edith Wharton Restoration has been granted an additional month to raise the funds to continue to maintain the author’s home in the Berkshires, The Mount. That means we have until May 24 to pledge our contributions.

This really is a Frank Capra situation here. Remember in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, when Jimmy Stewart proposes to fund a national summer camp with the pocket change of children? If we all chip in a little teeny bit, we can win. Please click on this link now.

I’ll bet you thought I was going to quote one of her books, in order to try to persuade you. But no, I rely instead on pop culture and the rhetoric of Capra. I’m tricky that way.

Read more!

23 April 2008

Edith Wharton and The Mount

Every now and then, I give myself a little treat. I read a novel by Edith Wharton. No one is fresher, no one is funnier, no one more moving. The clarity of her prose is an absolute marvel. At the moment, I’m reading Twilight Sleep, a social satire of New York in the Twenties, that reads as if she wrote it yesterday — instead of 1927, long after she left the city for the last time. She immigrated here to France, where she died in 1937.

A friend alerted me to the imminent foreclosure on Wharton’s home in the Berkshires, The Mount. The house and its gardens are not only a shrine to one of the most important writers America ever produced, they’re also a testimonial to her gifts as an interior designer, open to the public during the warmer months.

Although the pending foreclosure is catastrophic news, I basically shrugged, reminded myself that I have no income, and assured myself that other people would take care of the problem. But a quick visit to the Edith Wharton website informs me that the problem has not been resolved; the Edith Wharton Restoration, the organization that runs the place has until tomorrow to raise $3 million, and they’re still far short of that goal.

To hell with it — I made a pledge. Please click on this link and pledge a contribution, too. And it’s only a pledge. Matching funds have been promised, but if the Restoration can’t raise the money, we won’t be charged a thing. A little bit from a lot of people could make the difference, and preserve not only a living monument but the public’s access to it.

Because, after all, I’d like to visit the place some day. Thank you.

Read more!

22 April 2008

Billie Whitelaw

Billie Whitelaw is hot.

Sure, you may think of her as one of the United Kingdom’s most dis- tinguished actresses, the muse of Samuel Beckett, a gifted artist — and I’m getting to all that, I promise. You may think of her as Olivier’s Desde- mona. (Although Maggie Smith got the movie, the two ladies alternated in the role onstage.) You may think of her as an ardent champion of political virtues, or as an insightful chronicler of stage life, author of the memoir Who He? You may also think of her as the Nanny from (literal) Hell in The Omen, but I never saw that picture, so you will have to conjure up those associations on your own time.

But what struck me, the first time I saw her, was the same thing that struck me when I met her, after a Beckett evening in New York several years ago. The woman is hot.

I first saw her in Start the Revolution without Me, a zany movie in which she plays Marie Antoinette. As you’ll see from this clip, the bodice of her gown played up her frontal assets in what, I now realize, was a costumer’s surest way to arouse my prepubescent lust. A similar décolleté had me enthralled by Shani Wallis in Oliver!, a few years earlier.

When I began to study Beckett’s plays in college, mostly under the tutelage of my friends Andy Weems and Rick Moody, it took me a long while to grasp that the woman who played Marie Antoinette was the same woman who played so many of Beckett’s heroines. She was his actress of choice, whom he directed many times, and for whom he wrote pieces specially tailored to her abilities.

As you see, the contrast couldn’t be more pronounced.*

Studying Beckett was an indispensable intellectual credential: one couldn’t be taken seriously among my friends without a thorough grounding in his work. And I desperately wanted to be taken seriously. I turned to Beckett at first out of nothing more than peer pressure.

But it’s a curious thing about Beckett. The more one delves into his intellectual side, especially if one is an American academic, the more one loses the writer’s frequent humor and his constant humanity, the very things I admired most about him. Indeed, Americans who are serious about Beckett are the most serious people on earth. They refuse to admit his lighter qualities or to concede his complexities, the possibility that he might just be attempting to depict more than one thing. (This is one reason that university productions of his plays are so dull.) For them, it’s all about the despair.

Even if you’re not hardcore, his writing is potent. Once, I told Teresa Stratas that I was reading the Trilogy; she gasped, “Be careful, honey!” When she read the books, she told me, she’d fallen into such a funk that she walked off the film set where she was working and disappeared for a week. (It was as if Teresa herself didn’t know where she’d gone.)

Billie Whitelaw had her own experience of that sort, while preparing Not I, a kind of nervous breakdown brought on as she was reduced to nothing more than a long, difficult text and her own mouth, the only visible element on a blackened stage. Yet such was her charisma that she could bring audiences along for a ride they might otherwise have resisted: I suspect this is one reason Beckett admired her.

As Winnie in Beckett’s Happy Days.
Without Whitelaw, Andy Weems directed this play in college.

When Whitelaw brought her Beckett evening to New York, Andy Weems and I were at a pretty low ebb. Money was tight. It was a three-bedroom apartment, and our previous roommate had left, taking all the dishes with her — they were hers, after all. One night we found ourselves eating Chinese food with the one fork and single chopstick we owned between us. In lieu of a plate, one of us ate off the lid of a fruitcake tin, while the other ate directly from the take-out carton. I vowed that, at the earliest opportunity, I was going to buy a dish. Maybe two. Since neither of us cooked, there wasn’t much call for pots, of which we had none, either. We lived off of coffee and cigarettes, and apart from my opera records and some books, we had few possessions of any kind. A malfunctioning radiator had turned Andy’s bedroom into a blasted wasteland, empty of any belongings but a beat-up mattress, a book, and his only pair of shoes.

In short, the severest Beckett scholars would have endorsed our real-life interpretations of Vladimir and Estragon, or Hamm and Clov — but those same scholars would’ve been aghast when they saw us dancing with glee at the news that Whitelaw was coming to town. The plate would have to wait.

We pooled our resources and bought our tickets. We sat eagerly, and we watched with reverent absorption as she read a short story, “Enough,” and performed two plays, Footfalls (pictured at the top of this essay) and Rockabye. Whitelaw alone onstage, no props at all save a rocking chair (for Rockabye, with the hypnotic incantation “Time she stopped” rocking in time with the chair), her every gesture and inflection distilled to its most precise essence: I will never see a more disciplined performance, and for that reason, I will never see a more expressive one in the spoken theater. As Whitelaw spoke of death and decay and isolation, she summoned up images and emotions that anyone could identify with. Not for her the alternate reality of detached ideas and conceptual fragments. Whitelaw permitted absolutely no barrier at all between us and the playwright’s genius for humanity. No matter how odd, how stylized, this was real.

So, naturally, we went backstage to shake her by the hand.

She’d scrubbed the black circles from her eyes, and the cracks and wrinkles from her face; she’d freed her hair from the stark white wig of performance, and she’d shed the tatters of her costume. We gushed over her with a carefree loquacity that Beckett probably would have disdained, though Whitelaw seemed to like it.

Whitelaw in rehearsal with Beckett

She chatted easily with us, like a neighbor, and yes, she said, she was pleased to hear a friendly word or two, because when she returned to her dressing room after this evening’s performance, all her jewelry was gone. 42nd Street was especially dangerous in those days, and she’d been robbed.

That news made us pause to look at her. And indeed, she wasn’t wearing jewelry. She hardly needed it. Her blond hair tumbled around her shoulders, and she wore a sleek, olive-grey jumpsuit, open at the throat. And, as I looked lower, I heard myself saying, “I’ve been a fan ever since I saw you in Start the Revolution,” I heard myself saying. “That costume — your breasts.”

At least, I think I used the word “breasts.”

And at that moment, thoughtlessly, I forever resigned from the hardcore brotherhood of Beckett. Set aside that I just made a remark about a woman’s tits; a number of Beckett characters do that, albeit seldom to the face of the woman who owns the tits in question. However — and I cannot emphasize this strongly enough — one does not describe oneself as a “fan” of anyone having anything to do with Samuel Beckett’s work.

In the world of Beckett, we have “students.” We have “scholars.” We have “authorities.” In a few, dire cases, we have “admirers.” We do not have “enthusiasts,” and we most certainly do not have “fans.”

I was already on probation, for having ad-libbed during the unauthorized world premiere of Beckett’s Catastrophe, but this really sealed my doom.

Whitelaw burst out laughing. “It was a good dress, wasn’t it?” she said. (Very gracious — as if she had nothing to do with the impression she made.)

I don’t remember much after that — I was too embarrassed. I think she begged off on the grounds that she had to go file a police report. (Not on us, presumably, but on the thieves.) Andy escaped with his dignity and his Beckett credentials intact, I’m certain. And yet, as we made our way through the cold, dark night to our blasted, potless, plateless apartment, he lit a cigarette and mused.

“Man!” he said. “Is she hot!”

*UPDATE: Checking back on this entry, I see that the YouTube clip of Whitelaw’s Beckett performance no longer works. Copyright issues, or somesuch. Of course, if you were serious about your Beckett, you’d already know the performance in question, and you’d have memorized the speech, too, while you were at it.

Read more!

21 April 2008

An Explanation

Stop picking at your food!
Pennsylvania-style snout, photo by Kara Lack

You may have noticed that I have posted illustrations of truly disgusting pork products (Spam, scrapple, etc.), just as the Passover season begins.

This is intentional. It is my purpose to make it as easy as possible for my readers to keep Kosher.

Breaded trotters, also known as pig’s feet:
When served with cream sauce, these are quite good, actually.

Regrettably, I don’t have any pictures of the cheeseburgers at Loui’s Family Restaurant on Thayer Street, in Providence. Arguably, they were made of beef, not pork, but they might have served my purpose. For Loui’s cheeseburgers would have inspired Adolph Hitler (whose birthday coincided with Passover this year) to keep meat and dairy separate.

However, it has been brought to my attention that, since no actual milk products were used in the “cheese”, Loui’s cheeseburgers were not technically trayf. Nevertheless, as the late Brian Greenbaum once observed, “Once you’ve eaten at Loui’s, the food everywhere else seems so dry.”

Happy holidays.

Read more!

The Politics of Scrapple

As the Pennsylvania primaries draw near (finally!), let us consider that the fate of the Democratic Party, and possibly the nation, lies in the hands of people who eat scrapple.

As seen in the photograph above, it is innocent-looking stuff, although I hasten to point out that the parsley garnish is not only optional but freakishly rare. I believe that the specimen depicted here is now part of the permanent collection of the Smithsonian Institution, where it is kept in a vault, and displayed only to accredited scholars.

According to these experts, or scrappologists, scrapple is made of all the bits of a pig that aren’t fit for any other purpose, including the manufacture of shaving brushes, dog food, footballs, and fertilizer. Scrapple was invented in Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Lard, and it remains a popular breakfast treat throughout Pennsylvania, especially in the Amish Country, where it is used to scare off (or kill) tourists.

Gourmet that I am, I have sampled scrapple. I considered it my duty to try it. Exactly once, in Lancaster County, where I have a few relatives among the Pennsylvania Dutch. It was a memorable experience, for as I ate, savoring the rich, smoky warmth that so many generations of my family enjoyed each morning, it was as if I could see my ancestors, dancing before me. Then I helped them to build a barn. The rest is a blank.

Of course, you don’t have to travel to enjoy scrapple. Why not make it yourself, English?

Traditional recipe: Take the aforementioned bits, including the head but setting aside the ears and snout, which are eaten separately in many parts of Pennsylvania. (And in France, by the way.) Throw these pieces into a pot. Boil until the meat falls off the bone, or until the head stops squealing. Next, remove the bones and shred the meat, or just poke at it with a sharp stick. Throw the meat back into the broth, until it is tough and inedible. Add three pounds salt, three pounds corn-like hydrogenated meal-product, plus Scrap-All© instant herbs and spices, including Quik-Thyme©, Basil-Like©, Partially©, Sorta-Soda©, Papri-kinda©, Cumin-oid©, and Verisi-MSG©. Stir vigorously.

Reduce, drain the remaining broth, and fashion a meat loaf with whatever is left. Set aside. Two to six years later, slice the meat loaf. Throw individual slices onto a griddle or into a frying pan coated with suet, preferably rancid. After about three hours, or when the slices become brown and crispy, serve with a big pat of melting creamery butter. Eat, belch, and call your heart specialist.

Important! Many scrapple chefs will deny using bits of hair in the cooking process. They are lying to you, however, in the belief that you’re a wimp. For true scrappologists agree that it is only the hair — that sweet, sweet hair — that gives scrapple its distinctive, felt-like texture. Quite a number of hairs were clearly visible in the scrapple I ate in Lancaster County. If you’re making scrapple at home, remember to set aside the larger bristles: they can be used in brush-making.

Alternative recipe, for those who don’t have all the necessary ingredients: Take one old piece of carpet padding. Dip it in motor oil, add herbs (lawn clippings, cigarette butts) and seasonings (rat poison). Fry until thick clouds of acrid smoke begin to fill your kitchen. Serve, and eat, preferably while watching Babe. Then, and only then, call your heart specialist.

Commercial varieties, particularly including Scrapple Pockets™, Scrapple Whiz™, McScrapple A.M.! Morning Breakfast Loaf™, and Painfully Protracted Death on a Bun™ are to be avoided, as reportedly they use additives.

Clearly, Pennsylvanians are not like the rest of us. Remember that, when the election returns start to come in.

Read more!

20 April 2008

All-Purpose Spam

I typically receive so many spam messages on so many subjects that I’ve often thought it a great shame that the senders can’t manage to cover more than one subject at a time: a little imagination on the authors’ part might lead to streamlined communication. You can imagine my delight, then, when I received the following message. This is a step in the right direction!

Dear Mr. or Mrs. wvm@wvm.net:

Permit me to introduce myself. I am Adelaide wvm, and I believe we may be related to one another through the family of my late husband, the Rev. Dr. Lucius wvm, rector of Our Lady of the Savannah Veldt Anglican Church and personal chaplain to our country’s very ruthless dictator, Eric Ungabunga Katunga, here in the well-known celebrated African nation of Republic of Poontango.

As you know, President Katunga was overthrown in a violent coup three weeks ago. I am sure it is reported in all the headlines of your North American newspapers and the CNN. For many years President Katunga had pilfered the coffers of the Poontango citizenship, amassing a great personal fortune. The Poontango citizenship, knowing of close bounds between the bloodthirsty dictator and his chaplain, wrongly believed that my husband had gained possession of the President’s bank-account information in a secret location in a neutral allied European nation of Switzerland. I regret to inform you that your cousin, Dr. Lucius wvm was therefore seized and innocently executed.

Your cousin’s last words to me before his shocking untimely death were, “Find my relatives in North America. Contact my cousin, wvm@wvm.net, and enlist his aid in transferring my private funds out of their secret location in the Switzerland, so that you will be able to flee Poontango with our thirteen children, all of whom are named after wvm personally as you know. Be sure to offer him a full 20 percent of the estimated 5 billions dollars value of my personal fortune, which as you know was obtained legally through the sale of top-quality pharmaceuticals by mail from the Canada. And be sure tell him that if he acts now, you will offer, at no further obligation, the secret to penis enhancement without plastic surgery.” Then, with the sigh, he dead in my arms.

At first I did not know how to find you, but when I read in the Poontangoville Times-Herald that you are the winner by forfeit of the national Netherlands Lottery in the amount of over 2.2 Million Euros, I contact you immediately. As a widow still in her prime of the life, and considered nubile and Eastern European by her many admirers, I find it instinctive to reach out to you, and I remind you that we are cousins only by marriage.

I have spoken with our family solicitor and dogsbody in London, who informs me that transfer of funds cannot be made to me directly, because the Revolutionary People’s Guard Army of Poontango is watching my every move. Although like all nubile Eastern European girls, I do like to be watched and I do have the special webcam set up for this purpose, this is different kind of watching. My life is in the jeopardy.

However, if you will simply relay to me the necessary information for your bank account, including your Social Security Number, date of the birth, and mother’s maiden name, then my late husband’s moneys, as well as your full and complete Internal Revenue Service refund of 2006 can be wired electronically to the deposit in your account, at the famous and respected First Bank of Oregon Credit Union. I would be most pleased for then to come to America, where, you give me the remaining moneys, after first deducing the aforementioned 20 percent as compensation for your travail.

There is no risk whatever to you in the legality of this perfectly transaction, that goes on of this type everyday. I, Adelaide wvm, give you my assurances as well that your personal account data will not be tampered, neither will I refinance the mortgage on your second home at low, low rates without your express permission by the e-mail, which as you know is completely secure and cannot be viewed by strangers without your knowledge, no matter how often they attempt to input fraudulent login from abroad to your respectable MasterCard account.

Please do not delay. Time is of essence, and every minutes count. Besides the jeopardy I have stated previously above, I am without a man for many weeks now. As a result, I am extremely horny but I refuse to engage even in the girl-on-girl action under my celebrated stage name of Milfa Sluttski until such time as I am relocated to North America and can begin to seek a trustworthy husband who will pleasure me all night with non-surgically enhanced girth and longueur, which will be necessary because as stated above my late husband your cousin Lucius wvm was a black man of the African varieties.

So please hurry. I am waiting to hear from you NOW.

ADELAIDE wvm, MRS. LUCIUS (deceased)

Read more!

The Foster Children of Whósits

The recent publication in France of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Children of Húrin leads me to consider the possibility that this beloved author is more productive in death than he was in life.

When I was a boy, I dawdled over the first several pages of The Hobbit until — I’m not sure what chapter marked the turning point — I began to read like a child possessed. Hobbits, wizards, dwarves, dragons: suddenly, I had an entirely new cosmology, a framework for my dreams, vivid and exciting. I couldn’t wait to read more. I blasted through The Lord of the Rings, pausing only to cry over the fight with the Balrog. I devoured the minor works that were then available, Farmer Giles of Ham and Smith of Wootton Major, and just as I was finishing up, Tolkien died, in 1973. I was disconsolate, because that meant there would be no more stories.

Oh, me of little faith! For Tolkien’s son Christopher leapt into the fray, gathering up unpublished writings, editing them, and publishing them. Most appear to be exceedingly dull, I must say, every bit as much as any “real world” lexicon and many a pre-medieval history would be, and none sparked my interest. I realize that this is seditious talk in many places on the Internet, and punishable by death — but my intellectual admiration for Tolkien père’s posthumously released linguistic scholarship and imaginative synthesis of mythologies does not require me to profess enjoyment of his prose style (or somebody’s) or even of his borrowed plots. Put the blame on me, if you like, but the magic was gone, the bond between author and reader broken, and I moved on.

Christopher Tolkien, bless him, did not. Every few years, he binds together some more scraps of his father’s writing, and out comes a new book. Did J.R.R. Tolkien actually intend for other people to see this stuff? The question is moot, since we’re seeing it now, wherever we look. We can find more material on Middle Earth at the bookstore than on most African nations, and just when we think Christopher has published every single word his father ever committed to paper, and the stories all are ended, we find that we were wrong.

That’s why I’m proud to announce that, after great effort, and by means I cannot possibly divulge, I have obtained the manuscript of a forthcoming Tolkien book, The Foster Children of Whósits, and I provide a truly tantalizing excerpt here.




In the days of Benadril the Grey-Coloured did the mighty hero Dristan Postnasal, son of Whósits, ride forth in search of Clåritín the Fair. Long did he ride his bright-maned steed Excedrin, out westwards from the east, never turning northwards, never turning southwards, towards the Bridge at Runnynose, over the Gorge of Sinús-on-Fection, where Daquil, called Nyquilsbane, did vanquish the giants Süfedrin and Südafed in arméd combat lasting forty years and three nights and ten minutes, as the poets do tell to those with time to listen.

Having crossed that bridge, did Dristan smite it in twain, then burn it, vowing never to return until he come back with Clåritín. Many nights then did Dristan wander in the Forest of Mucus Clogging, which the Hobbits do call Snotgurgle, and the Dwarves do call Kleenek’s Katárr. [1]

At last came he to the Mountains of Zxwëriuófvsfsdh, in the Kingdom of Gfsdijøïér, where Lord Gibberic ruled in his Court at Ufgiufodsf, or, as the Old Ones called it, Ydfuiosefouiog, or possibly Yssdfdfiuiuofdfgg, as in some variant editions, though some scholars did debate this muchly, on long, dark nights in the Third Age, when there was nothing better to do. [2] And since Dristan could not pronounce the freaking names to begin with, he suffered much to ask his way of strangers, who lived in that land.

In time did Dristan come to Gibberic’s Helm (or Heim). [3] And long did he stop there. For each morn did Gibberic the King clasp him to his arms, whilst he did scrape him from his boot, and flick him from his fingernail, and seek out the favour of his boon jollity muchly and greatly. And each night by the great fire in the Great Hall, next to the other hall, by the Great Kitchen, but far from the Great Stables, Great Gibberic served up a bounteous feast of victuals and of viands, and the mead did flow like wine, whilst he did speak in the tongue of the North People, who dwelt in the Lands to the East, for they were much confused. [4]

‘My son,’ quoth Gibberic, ‘thou art not my son, but the son of Whósits, son of Whåtsits, slayer of Thingamajim, that was no stranger and yet no friend to this realm, and that was a cousin on my mother’s side, as well. But back to you, for still thou art like unto a son unto me. Son and no son art thou, yet more son than some sons, whom I could name, who are less son than thou art son to me, and who never write.


‘Many moons hast thou ridden through this land, riding and riding in search of Clåritín the Fair, for far is Fair Clåritín, full far. Yea, likewise, oft have I heard that Clåritín be full and furry, and yet be she far fairer than those who are not fair at all, and yet still somewhat fairer than those who are a little bit fair, or far fuller, or very furry. That be not so great a thing as to be truly pretty, but better far than to be unfair, or even outright homely, or heimly, as the case may be.’ [5]

And now the quothing of King Gibberic did rend the rafters and flood the flooring of the Great Hall of this, his Court at Ufgiufodsf (or possibly Yssdfdfiuiuofdfgg); and a mysterious shade did seem to fall across his aged eyes as he did shout: ‘Therefore, heedest thou this my warning, my son who art not my son!’

And Dristan, who had been dozing all the whilst, now did look up into the aged and mysteriously shaded eyes of Lord Gibberic; and the old man’s words did seem to rise towards the sky as in runes of purest flame yet obscurest dialect and rather poor handwriting.

Quoth Gibberic: ‘Take two at bedtime, get rest, and drink plenty of fluids!’ Then did Gibberic clutch at Dristan’s kirtle, and jerk at his jerkin, and beat at his boot, whilst he did fall downwardsly, and speak did he these fatal words, also, as well. ‘Mark thee this! If thou dost drink solids, sorry wilt thou be.’ [6]


And then did Gibberic fall still, until there was no life left in him, and the bucket did he kick, whilst it seemed to some who saw him that a ghost did he give upwards, and the tale is told in many lands and throughout many ages that the farm bought he, and there Lord Gibberic to this very day doth push the daisies, in a verily upwards direction.

And so Dristan rode he on. [7] The road went ever on and on and on, [8] yet light was Dristan’s heart as he rode and rode, and he sang and sang.

O, these are the things to do today!
Pick up at cleaner’s, High Street,
One grey suit, one blue suit,
Five shirts bravely folded,
And Mummy’s bluest gown!
Hey, nonny-nonny! Ho!

Then on to market!
Two dozen eggs and one pound butter,
Sacks of sugar, five pounds flour,
And twenty-score men at arms and ten-score Elvish archers,
With catapults and flame-throwers and gigantic elephants!
Heigh-ho, nonny!

For I am the Son of Whósits,
Son of Whåtsits,
Slayer of Thingamajim, or -jame,
And all do know my fame!
Ho! Derry-nonny!
Do not forget the Cleaning!



[1] This tale is recounted in The Season of Colden Floo, very similar to the account of The Sons of Kontak Kapsul of Tyme Release, recounted in The Elder Edda, based on a tale in The Much Elder Edda, based in turn on an idea by Richard Wagner, whoever he was.

[2] The Elvenfolk spoke too of another realm, called in Quenya Yddfasillillil, or in Sindarin Ydssillig, but it is probably not where Gibberic dwelt. I mention it just to be on the safe side. Which is near Cheapside, past Bayside and to the west side of Woodside, beyond the Golden Land of the — oh, never mind.

[3] Or possibly Herm, or maybe even Haym. “Home” is right out.

[4] See The Rigamarolion.

[5] Those critics who fault my father for the paucity of female characters in his work must surely be blushing for shame right about now, even if Clåritín never makes an appearance in the present narrative.

[6] He’s right, you know. See Beadle Bakshi of Rankinbass.

[7] On a horse, I mean, for the bicycle invented was not until the Fifth Age, at least. See Part LXVIX of Farmer Ham of Rye, and its sequel, The Battle for Mustered’s Hold.

[8] And on and on and on and on, according to Cartrey Humpington’s A Concise Concordance to The Chronicle of the Road That Went Ever On and On and On (and On), available for £32.50 in a plain brown wrapper at reputable bookmongers.

[9] The handwriting isn’t terribly clear at this point, but I was sure there was a battle in here, somewhere. An additional verse, to be published next year in a separate volume, speaks of the Chemist’s Shop, and the need for Ointment. This is typical of manuscripts of the Second Age.

[10] The Lay of Sir Dristan ends here. No one knows why, nor know they wherefore, nor for what cause or reason do they know. I promise, I looked all through my father’s desk, and there’s really nothing left but a postcard I sent him once from Brighton on holiday.


The following, very similar tale, though manifestly much shorter, was greatly revered by the Children of Qwertyuiop, in the Third-and-Three-Quarters Age. It is appended here in its original, untranslated Qwertyuiopish dialect (similar in certain respects to that spoken by Gibberic), for its intrinsic scholarly value, although possibly my father was simply trying to replace his typewriter ribbon.

Ffksjdfi ousdf dsfsdfoi. Dfgks dafoi sdg dfsd fiousddf werio uer qwerty. This is a sample of the work of this machine. Frfwfgdfjk weror twuerk jljfd ewiow er iogjklkl gdas fdouifio uwt wereiow! Euewtu dfkdf ewro riue w ruio. Dffdkjl weriuoe wruio wer wer iro er tytyew rtuio lkjljlkj cmsvm vcxn. Thd qauick borwn fox jmps over the lazy orcs. Fjk jdsfjk xcvm, jdsfiof! Oe rwu oierw io! Ggkgk jfgdjkl %%%## diofsdi! Z!

Read more!

19 April 2008

Barbara Monahan

These people are not reading Lermontov.

The sign on Barbara Monahan’s office door read: “I can teach you to speak Russian in 37,000 easy lessons. If that fails, I can teach you to speak English with a heavy accent.”

Alas, despite her best efforts, I am better at English with a heavy accent.

And yet there are moments, primarily when I am jet-lagged, inside Russia, and drinking vodka, when I can speak Russian rather well, spasibo. The trouble is that, although I know what I’m saying, actual Russian people have considerably larger vocabularies than mine, and I seldom know what they’re saying. Nevertheless, it’s a happy ending to a story that must have disappointed both me and Barbara Monahan.

I was, after all, a promising debutant. The first day of Russian class, my freshman year at Brown, Professor Monahan announced that we were to call her “Babushka.” The word means “grandmother,” I knew that much. The good lady was no more a grandmother than she was mayor of Moscow — and I drew inspiration from her example. She went around the room, asking each student, “Kak vas zavut?” as we figured out that she meant, “What do they call you?” When she came to me, I proudly answered, in English, “Eugene Onegin.”

“Pravda?” said Babushka. “Gdye Tat´yana?” (“Where is Tatyana” — the heroine of Onegin’s tale?)

It took her a minute to persuade me that there is no such character as “Eugene Onegin,” that the hero of Pushkin’s poem and Tchaikovsky’s opera is really called “Yevgenii Onyegin.” But once informed, I took the news to heart, and became, in my own mind at least, an ironic Romantic anti-hero.

Yeah, yeah — whatever.

Never mind that the Russian language was at the time far more concerned with increased tractor production than with poetry, or with any other literature more exalted than the minutes of Supreme Central Committee Meetings (a disappointment that doomed my studies and from which I still haven’t recovered): I was determined to be Yegenii, or what Yevegnii ought to be. I even borrowed my roommate’s fencing foil and the shirt he wore to play Hamlet in prep school, and made my entrance in costume one morning — through the classroom window.

Now that I’ve been a teacher, I’d probably throw the knigo at any student who attempted a similar stunt, but Babushka took it in stride. The real Yevgenii used a pistol, not a sword, and he was a dandy who wouldn’t have worn Paul’s Hamlet shirt for all the kopeks in the world, but I didn’t read the book for a few more years. (And then, need I say so, in translation.) Nichevo.

Babushka’s own classroom style was physical — dramatic — startling. Years later, when I was at CBS News, I told one of our Russian consultants I’d studied with Barbara Monahan. “She’s the recognized authority on Russian gesture!” the consultant exclaimed. I hadn’t known this, but I wasn’t surprised. Babushka was constantly in motion, not merely gesturing but acting out concepts with her whole body. She’d grab us out of our desks and throw us around the room if it meant the chance of teaching us the position of a single myak iznak.

Perhaps as a result, she had back trouble. Friday mornings were more sedate — and sedated — than lesson days. She led conversation hours, liberally sprinkled with Stolichnaya, which she’d smuggled back from the Soviet Union. (And that, children, was the only way you could get the stuff in those days.) She doled out the vodka in little styrofoam cups, and when we had colds, she’d make poultices of it on paper towels. In further deference to her back, she spent her office hours reclining flat on a sofa.

Do svedanya, Sasha: A portrait of Pushkin

She was reclining just that way when she summoned me to discuss, second semester, the fact that I was in immediate danger of flunking her course. Was I aware of my predicament? Konechno, I was.

She smiled and said, “Love problems?” — in Russian, which I understood primarily because the Recognized Authority on Gesture tapped her heart as she spoke. (Yet when I recollect the scene, I hear her saying it in English — with a heavy accent.) I marveled at her perception, although in hindsight I realize that a freshman with “luff prrroblem” was a phenomenon she’d encountered many times before. Probably we lovelorn lads were no rarer than ivy on campus, and she knew what needed to be done with me. Before the interview was out, she’d granted me an extension. I took the final exam in October, and passed by the skin of my zubi. I didn’t push my luck, and thus ended my study of the Russian language.

My accent was good, however. At least, I thought so. One of Babushka’s teaching assistants, a redoubtable Leningrader named Ina, despaired of me, because “You sound like you are from Novgorod!” Apparently, Novgorod is the equivalent of Hickory Holler, but hell, it’s within the border. I exulted.

The downside, however, is that when I do try to speak Russian, people think I know more than I do. I get in the worst trouble, and lately I try simply to observe the advice Babushka often gave me: “Luchshe malchit´” — “It’s better to keep quiet.”

She’s still at Brown, or back again, and I calculate therefore that she can’t have been much older than I am now when she declared herself to be my “staraya Babushka.” I’m hoping to track her down over Reunion Weekend. I’d like to tell her — in English — that some of her lessons stuck. There are even days when, here in Paris and without the influence of vodka, I eavesdrop on the Russian tourists. So far, they haven’t said anything worth hearing. But you never know.

Read more!

Bruce E. Donovan

Before Sayles Hall, May 25, 2008
Photograph by Catherine Karnow. Used with permission.

In times of sorrow, it is only natural, I think, to reflect upon the lessons we’ve been taught, and to try to draw some measure of strength and solace from them. And that is perhaps why, as I mourn the passing of Madeline Gilford, my thoughts return again and again to someone who did not in any way resemble her, a professor at Brown, Bruce E. Donovan.

And I’ll cut to the chase: the lesson that’s resonating loudest for me right now is drawn from the Antigone of Sophocles. In recalling Madeline’s life, and in being reminded that, as recently as 1999, she was arrested in a protest demonstration in New York, I wondered whether perhaps her death might spur me to a hitherto uncharacteristic political activism. But something Dean Bruce said returns to me now. “In life,” he said, “there are Antigones and there are Ismenes.”

Ismene is Antigone’s sister, a sweet kid who hasn’t the guts to bury their brothers and incur the wrath of their uncle, Creon the King. She pleads with Antigone to play it safe, and when Antigone refuses, Ismene makes her exit. Although, a few weeks after I left Dean Bruce’s classroom for the last time, I took up politics and joined John B. Anderson’s quixotic campaign for the Presidency, I must have known already that I was an Ismene. Whereas Madeline was the most Antigone of anyone I’ve ever known. Sophocles might have needed another play to describe her.

It is no doubt useful, as a professor, to be able to fall back on the wisdom of the Greeks. Your students will think you are the wise one, when all you are doing is quoting a 2,500-year-old piece of parchment. Yet I was (and remain) utterly persuaded of Dean Bruce’s wisdom, and during my freshman year of college I latched myself onto him, absorbing his every word in English and alarmingly few in Ancient Greek.

He taught a survey of Ancient Greek drama, and this subject I aced. I galloped through the plays, in the clear-cut University of Chicago translations. Another fine teacher, Zona Ray, had directed me in Jean Anouilh’s adaptation of Antigone in high school, and for many years that play would remain a touchstone for me, my most impressive reference, the Supercalifragilistic topic I raised when I knew nothing else to say. (In philosophy class, for example, I was totally at sea, but I wrote an essay applying Kantian ethics to an analysis of Antigone and Creon, and I passed the course — albeit much in the way one passes a kidney stone.) Dean Bruce introduced me to all the rest of the tragedies, as if standing atop the Acropolis and offering me all the surrounding landscape, or at least the amphitheater below.

If you know only one Greek tragedy, as I did, you will be astonished to learn that there are others, as good (in many cases) and better (in some) than the Antigone. But your happiness will be short-lived when you learn that only 32 of those plays survive.

Well, it was only a semester course, and we had time for only about 20 plays, at most. Dean Bruce is an alumnus of Brown (Class of ’54, as I recall), and the survey was one of the most popular offerings on campus. He stood before the crowded lecture hall and held forth, enraptured with his material. He could have been an actor, and I can still hear him intoning Clytemnestra’s chilling command — when she learns that her son has come home — “Go, and get me an axe to kill a man.”

He was preppier than preppy, just at the moment that another Brown alum, Lisa Birnbach, was codifying the style with her Preppy Handbook, and as he lectured, he often slipped off one penny loafer and spun it around the floor with his big toe. It wasn’t uncommon to see him in a bowtie, or wearing a blazer with leather patches at the elbows. He looked the way a professor ought to look. He gestured brilliantly, and within a week I’d adopted all but the single most distinctive of these, the elegant way he used to wipe the corners of his mouth while he spoke.

Almost as rapidly, I began to talk like him, too, and the lingering traces of my Texas accent (never strong) were gone for good. I used to have to present my drivers license in order to convince people I wasn’t from Connecticut. That was as I wanted it. I didn’t want to be Texan anymore. I wanted to be Bruce Donovan.

I first encountered him during Orientation Week, warning us against the perils of alcohol, with which he’d fought his own battles. Now he was fighting those of others: in addition to his duties in the Classics Department, he was the Dean of Alcohol and Chemical Dependency. Eager to know anything he could tell me, I joined the Brown Group on Alcohol, where my consciousness was raised over weekly brown-bag lunches in Pembroke Hall (although I was to remain blind to the warning signs when they arose among a few of my friends). Though he informed us that it is Brown tradition (and he would know) to address professors as “Mr.” or “Ms.,” to the campus at large he was simply “Dean Bruce.”

For the second semester, I followed him happily to his intensive course in Ancient Greek, designed to give the student sufficient tools to take literature courses in the original language the next fall. At first, I flourished, and Ancient Greek is to this day the only language in which I have nice handwriting.

But I was also taking Intensive Russian, and just as we were hitting declensions in both languages, I had a romantic upset. My high-school girlfriend, back home in Texas, informed me that she Just Wasn’t That Into Me. I fell into a deep depression, went to one or two or three movies every day for the month of February, but seldom any classes, and I never fulfilled my early promise in Ancient Greek. I was crashing and burning, and I knew it. Dean Bruce must have known it, too, but when it came time to drop the course, he didn’t forcibly eject me from the room, and I stayed.

I was applying the lessons of my master, after all. His reading of the Ajax of Sophocles still haunts me. The very name is a cry of pain, Dean Bruce said: “Aios!” If Ajax fell upon his sword, so would I. I took the final exam, and flunked the course.

It was an idiotic thing to do, but it was part of growing up. Quite a lot of “the Brown experience” for me was doing idiotic things, a wrenching exposure of what was not merely naïveté, but my humiliatingly inadequate preparation for the hard realities of life. This would be followed, each time, by the painful gain of adult perspective. I’d like to say that I was a grownup when I graduated, but the truth is that it took many more years than four, and the process isn’t wholly completed yet.

And that is why I believe I may have solved at last a riddle that stumped even Dean Bruce.

Years ago, one of his former students, by then a television reporter in Providence, asked to interview him. Dean Bruce agreed. Over the course of the conversation, the young woman said, “You know, you once said something in class that has stayed with me ever since.”

“Really?” replied Dean Bruce, hoping to hear some prize bit of wisdom, whether his own or a Greek philosopher’s.

“Yes,” the young woman said. She took a deep, almost reverent breath and quoted: “Life is chunky.”

Dean Bruce didn’t remember saying it. He didn’t know what it meant. He was too embarrassed to ask her. And he still didn’t know, when he told us, a few years afterward. He was trying to puzzle it out. Was it perhaps a reference to peanut butter?

I think not, these 25 years later. He meant what he said, Dean Bruce did, as he looked upon life, the tragedies of ancient heroes and the foibles of Classics professors and the woeful travails of ignorant freshmen. And although I am an Ismene, I’ve seen it myself.

Life is chunky.

(I would tell you how to say that in Greek — but you know how that turned out.)

Read more!

16 April 2008

More Memories of Madeline

Joe Allen’s, Paris: Madeline’s headshot is roughly at center.

Today for lunch, I went to the Parisian branch of Joe Allen’s. A few years ago, I made my first visit there, and I was struck by Madeline Gilford’s picture. It hangs on the far wall, directly ahead as one enters. Madeline was surprised, too, when I told her, because the picture is one of her most recent headshots. And though she frequently dined at Joe Allen’s in New York’s Theater District, and though her annual visits to the Joe Allen’s in London were a state occasion, she hadn’t been to Paris a single time since the picture was taken.

How did it get there? Well, that’s show biz.

It seemed a fitting place to remember her, and so I’d like to share a few more of my stories of her.

One of the things that made Madeline so much fun was that she enjoyed other people so much. This is surely what made her such a great audience, but it also made her a perfect match for her late husband, Jack. It took me a little while to recognize the signs she used to cue him, but in a manner far more discreet than that of most spouses (“Honey, tell that one about the time when you…”), cue him she did. She gave him subtle Pavlovian triggers and expert setups for all his best stories and shtick and routines. She loved it when he went off on a riff — which is to say that she loved his performance, loved the pleasure it gave him, loved the pleasure it gave to us.

She didn’t particularly need the spotlight. And so in most of her best stories, it’s Jack who is the star, or Zero Mostel or Ruby Dee or some other wonderful friend. She was never happier than when one of her friends succeeded at any endeavor, and she couldn’t stop bragging about the accomplishments of younger friends like Amanda Butterbaugh and Scott Frankel and Mary Cleere Haran, her daughter-in-law. Because her friend Andy Gale works with Audra McDonald, it stood to Madeline’s reason that Audra must therefore be one of the top talents of our time. (Everybody agreed with Madeline on that point, but she’d made up her mind already and didn’t need the consensus.) And need you really ask what the best show in town may be, at any given moment? Why, naturally, it’s the one written or produced or directed by, or starring one or more of her friends.

She enjoyed throwing people together, especially when the meeting might result in work for somebody. One day a young actress came to her, referred by a mutual friend. Madeline picked up the phone and recommended the actress to another friend, a producer, who was casting a show. The young actress got the part.

The next day, the producer telephoned again. “She’s wonderful,” he said. “When did you see her perform?”

“I didn’t,” Madeline replied.

“You mean you referred an actress to me, sight unseen?”

“That’s right.”

“Well, my God, Madeline, what if the girl was terrible?”

“What if she was?” Madeline answered.

Two members of my extended family, Jack and Lenya,
with director Harold Prince

But she was a performer, too, and she could elicit laughter and dread just by riding a bicycle (as she does in Yiddish), or play drama so straight that, in Save the Tiger, most people assume that the woman who plays the receptionist really is a receptionist, a non-actor who perhaps worked at the factory where the scene was filmed. Nope, it’s Madeline.

(Her purse also makes a prominent featured appearance later in that film — for which Jack got an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor, and for which their friend Jack Lemmon won Best Actor. Why, Madeline would ask, years later, is there no award for Best Supporting Purse?)

One of my happiest memories of Madeline is a dance routine she must have perfected when she was still a schoolgirl. She was blonde, and her bright blue eyes often drew comparisons with those of Ginger Rogers — and Madeline was movie-mad as a kid. So one afternoon she demonstrated for me the Ginger Rogers Style, with the simplest means: a tilt of the head, a set of the shoulders, and about three steps of her tapping feet. And there she was, instantly: Ginger Rogers to the life. Madeline had reduced her to her purest essence. Only funnier.

That routine would have been exceptional in itself, but Madeline then announced, “Ruby Keeler!” Different tilt of head, different set of shoulders, different tapping for feet — and there she was, Miss Ruby Keeler. And then, “Gwen Verdon!” Madeline cried, adopting a big, toothy grin. And, every bit as economically, she began to dance exactly like Gwen Verdon. In less than two minutes, I was breathless with laughter — and admiration. Because Madeline was by this point a little old lady, not as spry as she used to be and a good deal plumper. But she was a creature of show business. Some things, you just do, and you don’t stop doing them just because you’re 80 years old.

Besides, Madeline may have gotten old, but she never did get sick. Or so she said. “I’m a Jewish Scientist,” she told me. (It took me a minute to understand that one.)

She couldn’t stand people who complained, and I daresay that’s one reason she “didn’t get sick”: she refused to be one of the complainers. She wasn’t going to spend hours telling you about her Condition. If you asked, she’d respond matter-of-factly. But even in the last several months, when she was pretty much confined to her bed and her sofa, denied the superactive lifestyle to which she was accustomed, she would not complain. “I’m comfortable,” she’d say.

Madeline liked to be sure that her friends appreciated each other as much as she appreciated them. Once Madeline enlisted my help on a benefit show, which starred Shirley MacLaine. MacLaine didn’t exactly high-hat me, but her businesslike brusqueness was teetering on the fine line of politeness, and Madeline didn’t like that. “Shirley!” Madeline cried out. “Have you met Bill Madison? He worked with us on Rags.”

This didn’t entirely impress MacLaine, but Madeline wasn’t finished. “Teresa Stratas brought him to us,” she went on — definitely piquing MacLaine’s interest. Then Madeline added the coup de grâce. “And he works with Dan Rather.”

From that moment forward, MacLaine was positively adorable to me, a kind of instant mentor who began to ask about my background and plans for the future. We even talked a little about her, her performances and support for causes I admire. She’s pretty cool, actually, but it took the intervention of Madeline to help us discover that.

Another afternoon, not long after Jack died, Madeline asked me to come to her apartment to help with some paperwork. Her accountant, Gerry Kabat, was there. And Madeline couldn’t find one of the documents they needed. For several minutes, she wandered around the apartment as she murmured, “Where did I put that affidavit? Where did I put that affidavit?”

At last, I said, “It’s not Passover, is it?”

Madeline and Gerry stared at me.

“Well, isn’t that when you hide the affi-davit?”

Gerry gasped. “This boy is Jewish?”

With one quick word and one quicker gesture, Madeline settled the matter forevermore. “Honorary,” she said.

At the end of the day, she caught me admiring a photograph in the hallway: it shows Jack with Zero Mostel and Buster Keaton during the filming of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. It’s an amazing image, I said, because it hardly seems possible that the universe can contain so much genius, and here they are in a single frame.

She nodded and beckoned to me to follow her into the study, where she dug around in a cabinet and fished out an identical print of that photo. “Jack had a lot of these made up for special friends,” she said. “And you are a special friend.”

Because Madeline made me an Honorary Jew, and because she bestowed on me her very special friendship for 22 years, I know that I am truly one of the Chosen People.

Read more!

Madeline Lee Gilford

The only known photo of Madeline and me.
Dining in Connecticut with a friend, years ago.

When Madeline Gilford turned 80, a few years ago, the crowd in the living-room of her Greenwich Village apartment was standing-room-only while friends and family traded testimonials. This one owed his job to her, that one met her husband in this very room. Over the years, Madeline had lent her money (though where she got it was a mystery even to her), she’d offered her advice, she’d thrown herself bodily into protest marches and letter-writing campaigns and boycotts and strikes. Story piled upon story of Madeline’s fearless struggle to make the world a better place, one person at a time. Or, if possible, collectively.

Madeline listened to all this politely, nodding her head and batting the baby-blue eyes that, in her youth, made her a ringer for Ginger Rogers. We, her friends, went on and on. Then at last it was her turn to speak. “This is all very interesting,” she said, “and I thank you. But there’s one thing you should know. It’s OVER!” She was 80 now, and we would have to learn to fend for ourselves.

She was kidding. When I last saw her, in November, she was still reaching for her books (check, address), ready to slay another dragon, and telling me how to get ahead in life.

She was a singer and actress, a casting director, a teacher, the associate producer of the Broadway musical Rags, the widow of the great actor Jack Gilford, a hardy survivor of the Witch Hunts and the Black List, and the only mother I had in New York City. She fed me, told me stories, and picked me up and dusted me off every single time I fell. She died early yesterday, at the age of 84.

Though we met formally early during the rehearsals for Rags, I had already read her memoir, with Kate Mostel, 170 Years in Show Business. And it wasn’t until we were in Boston, in tryouts at the Shubert Theater, that the bond was really set, and I became what I shall always remain: Madeline’s willing slave.

I turned 25 on a show night, and before the curtain went up, the cast and crew assembled backstage to sing “Happy Birthday” to me. Such a thundering assembly of song, by so many gifted artists, was ’way more than the lone production assistant deserved, with Teresa Stratas sailing high above the rest, and ensemble member Joanna Glushak giving her a run for the money.

But then the show started, and I was alone in the wings. Madeline appeared. “Come on, kid,” she said. “I’ll take you to dinner.”

We went to Chinatown, where we shared the first of innumerable Chinese meals, and she told me the first of her stories. Some of these I had read before, in 170 Years, but there was no substitute for hearing them from her own mouth. And Madeline was a prodigious storyteller. Not just story trees, but story cycles. Only Italo Calvino could match her ability to begin Story A, link it to Story B, link that to Story C, then finish off Story B, then finish off Story A. She could tailor this ability to the amount of time on hand. If she had 15 minutes, then three stories might indeed suffice. If she had 8 hours, she could tell 300 stories, never losing the thread, seldom forgetting a name or date.

Her principal fields of interest were theater and politics, and mine was the happy lot to be interested in those topics, too, and to know the names of many of the players in her stories. I knew few of them personally, but Madeline knew everybody. Literally.

She made her film debut as a toddler in the Our Gang comedies. Her final Broadway appearance was opposite Ethel Barrymore. Harpo Marx flirted with her. So did Peter Ustinov. Beverly Sills sang for her. So did Lotte Lenya. When Martin Luther King spoke on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Ossie Davis reached into the crowd to pull Madeline and her daughter, Lisa, onto the platform. When Dorothy Parker’s dog threw up on Madeline’s carpet, Madeline protested.

“Oh, that’s all right,” said Parker. “If he hadn’t done it, I would have.”

She used to sit with other mothers and their children in the park. Then one day, one of the women announced that she’d just published a short story. “We didn’t know Grace could read, much less write,” Madeline said. That would be Grace Paley, by the way.

The choreographer Jerome Robbins, under threat of blackmail but a foul character to begin with, named Madeline’s name during the Witch Hunts. Her principal associate in subversive activities, Robbins said, was a man Madeline never heard of. One night, in a restaurant, someone pointed out the man in question, and Madeline went over to him. “Jerry Robbins thinks you and I ought to know each other,” she said.

Jack’s adventures are another story entirely, but let it be noted that he shared a dressing room with Billie Holiday, and once taught a pantomime to Buster Keaton. And lest you think the Gilfords knew only Left-wingers, be it known that Elliott Abrams was Lisa Gilford’s prom date.

Madeline was wonderful about introducing me to her friends: Bella Abzug, Chita Rivera, Jule Styne, Shirley MacLaine, Renée Taylor and Joseph Bologna (a Brown alumnus), Anne Jackson and Eli Wallach, Richard Dreyfuss, Christine Baranski, Blythe Danner — I can’t even remember all the famous names. Over dinner one night, Madeline’s friend Rosetta LeNoire, the actress and producer, told me about her godfather, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson; her one-time boss, Orson Welles; the kid she used to babysit, James Earl Jones; and her costar, Urkel. Sometimes, Madeline would take me out to Sardi’s, where her caricature hangs on the wall, and where she was greeted much like Dolly Levi at the Harmonia Gardens. For those few hours, I felt like a Broadway legend, too.

The less well-known were a spectacular bunch, too, and I got to know Gerry Kabat, Merle Debuskey, Frank Evans, the feisty Goldie Kiner, my beloved Becky Stein, and the irrepressible Roz Braverman, who accosted me at Jack Gilford’s memorial: “Young man! You are much too nice-looking to be standing there by yourself! Go talk to somebody!” But evidently I wasn’t nice-looking enough to talk to her, because without another word Roz marched away.

Madeline introduced me to her family, to the point that Lisa and her brothers Joe and Sam seem like my cousins, and Lisa’s daughter, Molly, will forever be the Girl Who Got Away. Madeline introduced me to Jack, too, who used to improvise little character riffs to entertain us both while we were waiting for Madeline to emerge from a production meeting, and who once sang “Give My Regards to Broadway” for me alone.

“Oh, Jack loved you,” Madeline said.

“If he did, it’s only because you gave him a good report of me,” I replied. “The reality is that Jack and I didn’t spend much time alone together: we usually had you as an interlocutor.” But Madeline gave me a knowing look. Wasn’t that enough? she seemed to say.

Madeline was married to another man when she met Jack, but their attraction proved unstoppable. By the time I met them, they were a cute old couple, and thinking of them as the players in a sweeping tale of epic passion could be downright weird, like contemplating the inescapable truth that, yes, your grandparents did have sex. Yet they were still pretty passionate, right up to the end, and Madeline took Jack’s death, in 1990, very hard. If there’s a bright side to her passing now, it’s that she and Jack will be together again.

“Sometimes I see these old farts walking around the Village,” she said once. “Ninety years old! And I just think, ‘Goddammit, Jack, couldn’t you have held on for a few more years?’” She’d have given anything for another day with him.

Together they’d been blacklisted, and together they’d endured. Because Madeline acted on the radio, where faces couldn’t be matched to Names, her lot was a little easier than Jack’s; she played Mrs. Peachum, too, in the legendary Theatre de Lys production of Threepenny Opera, opposite Ed Asner. But things were tough for a very long time. When Jack got cast in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, it looked as if things were beginning to turn around. But the show was in trouble, and the producers announced that they were calling in a new director. Jerry Robbins.

Zero Mostel was magnanimous. “We of the Left do not blacklist,” he declared.

Jack, on the other hand, was ready to hand in his notice. How could he work with the man who ratted out his wife? He phoned Madeline in New York — and she read him the riot act. Of course he was going to stay in the show! He needed that job. And moreover, Madeline wasn’t about to let that S.O.B. have the satisfaction of seeing Jack effectively blacklist himself.

Once, I asked Madeline whether she ever got scared, during the Black List. Not just scared — but intimidated.

“No,” she said, as if the question never occurred to her. She thought for a moment and said, “If anything, it made me more outspoken.”

Speaking out — as usual

She started organizing when she was still in high school. As a young mother, she was pushing Sam in a baby carriage during a protest demonstration, when someone from a window overhead threw an apple at them — with an icepick through it. Into the same carriage was thrown the subpoena calling her to testify before the Committee on Un-American Activities. She had to scrape and claw for every bit of work she got, for years. But intimidated? Never.

Jack was blacklisted, too, and when he testified, he was asked whether he wanted to overthrow the government of the United States by violence. “No,” he replied. “Just gently.”

It always struck me as indiscreet to ask precisely what had been the political affiliations of the Gilfords, but I am utterly convinced of this: if the country had ever been overtaken by an authoritarian, Stalinist regime, Jack and Madeline would have joined the resistance the next morning.

While Jack was in his last illness, Madeline and I didn’t see much of each other. When a friend ran into her at a party and told her I’d gone to work for CBS News, Madeline said, “Oh! And I always thought we would make Bill a star — but I guess it’s up to Dan Rather now!”

But after Jack died, I saw more and more of Madeline, and when I left CBS News, she grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and whisked me off to her country house, Freedonia (after Groucho’s homeland in Duck Soup). She plied me with food and stories and gorgeous Connecticut countryside — and plenty of chores. There was no question, so long as she was on duty, of my slipping into self-pity.

As she got older, squiring her around was no longer effortless. Going to the country meant that I would drive, rather than be driven, and the list of chores awaiting me got a little longer. She took a couple of falls (once while she was at dinner with me), and she never got far into a play before she began to nod off. I’d discreetly shift in my seat, so that my elbow might jog hers, and her head would pop up and she’d watch intently for a few minutes, before falling asleep again.

What I’ll never understand is how she managed to see more of the play than anyone else. After spending her entire life in the theater, perhaps her perceptions functioned automatically — and accurately. I did understand that she was a truly gifted audience. When she was awake, and always during the applause at the end of an act, she’d murmur, “Charming! Wonderful! Charming!” This was especially true of shows in which she’d invested. And why not? A little praise never hurt anybody, and who but me knew that she was praising her own show?

She made annual trips to London, where she saw twelve plays in eight days, every January, and held court at Joe Allen’s. Simon Russell Beale, a protégé, often attended. Two years ago, I got the prize seat, next to her — until another, more distinguished protégé, Richard Dreyfuss, showed up. It was a tremendous disappointment to her when she couldn’t make the trip, last year; this year, it wasn’t even a question. She stayed home.

Madeline loved to work, and she got some plum acting gigs, too, in her later years. She was a vicious resident of a retirement community in a TV film called Yiddish, opposite Harold Gould, and the unfazed audience for Nathan Lane’s macho posturing in the brunch scene in The Bird Cage. She walked on Mad About You and took juicy supporting roles on Law & Order and its spinoff, The Beat. She played Alan Arkin’s mother in And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself, and she was still auditioning the last time I saw her. I’m told to look for her in the upcoming Sex & the City film, too.

But the last couple of years, she stayed more and more at home. “One event per day is about all I can take,” she said. “Dinner or a show, not both.” She had some very mild strokes, but it was impossible to tell — except that her memory was a little less sharp, and stories no longer came in trees and cycles, but in discrete anecdotes, and sometimes she couldn’t remember a name or two. Her energy continued to wane, and her primary occupations were sleeping and eating. But she read the newspapers and watched CNN, and telephoned the world over (“The Sweetheart of AT&T,” her friend Yip Harburg once named her), and took a vivid interest in gossip and politics. Whenever I went to New York, I’d visit her every other day or so, and she was full of curiosity and advice.

Yesterday, I got word that she had passed away, and a little later I got a message from her older son, Joe, confirming that she’d died peacefully in her sleep, at home.

She opposed my move to France, with a vehemence that surprised me, not least because she had plenty of other friends who could look after her. But last night, I understood. She wasn’t worried about herself — she was worried about me. She knew, I think, how much it would hurt me to be so far from her when she left.

And now I will have to read her book again. There will be no other way to enjoy her stories.

At her command post, November 2007

Read more!

12 April 2008

An Open Letter to Laura Bush

Dear Mrs. Bush:

You are, by all accounts and the evidence of my own experience, a kind, thoughtful woman. Your husband, meanwhile, is on the verge of opening a third front in his so-called War on Terror. Almost everything he does these days (apart from the song-and-dance routines) signals that he is getting ready to attack Iran, though as you must realize, he hasn’t finished the job in Afghanistan or in Iraq.

It’s a distressing possibility, and most of us feel like helpless bystanders (because we are), while the President plows relentlessly into another open-ended military conflict. You’re in a different position, however. You can help, perhaps even stop him. The fate of the United States is within your grasp, if you’ll just do one thing.

Mrs. Bush, please stop making fun of your husband’s penis.

You are, as I say, a very nice lady. You probably don’t even realize what you’re doing. Maybe you’ve given your husband’s penis a pet name. To you, it’s cute. To him, it’s belittling. Therefore, he’s got to go out and prove his manhood, again and again and again.

There’s really no other plausible explanation for his behavior. According to psychologists, most little boys experience significant trauma when they see their fathers naked. “His is so much bigger — why is mine so little?” Although most men outgrow the trauma, and although by now your husband’s penis is probably as big as his father’s (ask Condi), perhaps even as big as his mother’s, it seems certain that your husband never got over the early-childhood shock. He continues to need significant reassurance in this regard. Reassurance that you can provide — and clearly don’t.

Please begin immediately to practice saying things like, “Oh, Daddy!” “It’s so big! I can’t take any more!” and “Are you sure you’re not Italian?” Try out these phrases when you’re alone with your husband — or better yet, try them out when you’re in public. Tell the world what a stud he is. He may blush and appear uncomfortable, but deep down, he’s loving every minute.

Angela Merkel shows you how it’s done.

I realize that you like to keep your private life private, that you’re polite, that you don’t like to lie. But there’s so much at stake here.

Because once you’ve reassured your husband that he’s man enough, you’ll be able to move on to the next phase: persuading him that, sometimes, it’s a good idea to pull out.

Thank you for your time.

Read more!

09 April 2008


Parisians rally in support of Tibet.

Sometimes you can learn a lot about a place just by its atmosphere. When I first visited Amsterdam, and saw the light at play with the water in the canals, I understood at once why the Dutch excelled at landscape painting. There’s something brilliant yet humid in the air, as if the whole town were a canvas still drying. In Israel, the light catches the dust in the air and turns everything to gold. No wonder the ancient Hebrews believed that God lived in the sky, yet was everywhere; no wonder they believed no other god could compete with him.

By contrast with those places, the air in Beijing taught me something about politics.

On my first trip to China, a whirlwind 20 hours in Shanghai in 1993, the government had already begun its campaign to host the Olympic Games. Everywhere one looked were posters and billboards with the official mascot, a creepily megacephalic, featherless, almost embryonic rooster, proclaiming, “Let us carry forward the glorious Olympic spirit!” Or something like that.

The bid failed. But the world had been served warning. China wanted to be taken seriously. And China wanted the Games. Not just anywhere — but in Beijing.

A few years later, in June 1997, I visited Beijing. And the very idea of pursuing any athletic activity in that atmosphere struck me as the height of folly. The city’s air would be polluted naturally by dust (rolling in from the Gobi Desert), even were there no automobiles, factory smokestacks, and outdoor barbecues. But there are — and they choke the air. It’s worse in hot weather. Which is, of course, the weather one expects for the Summer Games.

I’m not kidding about the barbecues, by the way. A short time after I left town, the government cracked down on folks who like to cook lamb — fatty, greasy, smoky lamb — in their yards. The result was a noticeable reduction in air pollution. Since fewer Beijingers bicycle nowadays, and more of them drive, the reduction made less difference than it might have.

Not to mention the coal that fuels so much of China’s industry. Western environmentalists already had begun to complain to the Chinese — whose response amounted to, “We have a right to make the same mistakes you did, when you industrialized, a century ago.”

The air is poisonous. But if anyone ever doubted that politics play a role in the decisions of the Olympic Committee, the choice of Beijing for the 2008 Summer Games should settle the matter for good. China, only lightly experimenting with capitalism in 1993, had become an economic powerhouse, the Clinton Administration’s policy of “constructive engagement” with the Communist government had taken root, and few if any nations wanted to piss off the Chinese. Even if it meant health risks to athletes. What’s a little asthma, when there’s so much money and prestige at stake?

The torch takes a ride through Paris.

Nobody should be surprised now that political protests have erupted in response to the passing of the Olympic torch through Western capitals. The 2008 Games were politicized to start with, and politicized they will remain. The Chinese government, not accustomed to spontaneous free expression, suspects the complicity of hostile foreign agencies — as if people would protest the oppression of Tibet only if they were paid to do so.

Paris offered the perfect rebuttal to such thinking. During the disastrous, aborted circuit of the torch through town, there were plenty of two-legged protesters, yes, who despite extraordinary security measures and the cynical use of a woman in a wheelchair to carry the torch past the nation’s principal television studios, pretty much obliged the torchbearers to remain inside a bus for most of the route. But there was another kind of protester.

The skies of Paris opened up, with rain, hail and unseasonable sleet and snow on Monday, making it impossible to keep the torch lit. For you see, our air can teach lessons, too — to those who are willing to learn.

Read more!