30 June 2008

Edgar Vincent

Is Saigon burning? Sills’ Met debut, 1975

It’s one measure of how good Edgar Vincent was at his job that, when I did a Google search for pictures of him today, all I found were pictures of his clients. And I daresay that the veteran publicist, who died on June 26, would approve of the fact that I paid tribute to him by attending a performance by one of those clients, Plácido Domingo, now conducting the world premiere of Howard Shore’s The Fly here in Paris.

Without a photograph, then, you will have to imagine a slight, elderly, elegant man with a pencil moustache, an impeccable wardrobe, and a memorably soothing voice. An unlikely superhero, and yet he was one of mine, for he has been in no small way responsible for the survival of opera in America.

Other people in Opera World refer to him as “Edgar,” but I didn’t have that kind of relationship with him, and it would have been presumptuous to call him anything but “Mr. Vincent.” We were strictly professional, we knew each other only by telephone, and the one time I ventured a personal remark — wishing him a speedy recovery from surgery — he seemed frankly embarrassed. Only once or twice did he ever address me as “caro,” surely less by endearment than by expediency (he’d probably forgotten my name), but that was what he called the big shots in opera, and I felt validated.

Distinguished client: Domingo at the podium
(You know, he sings, too.)

For decades, Mr. Vincent represented many of the best-known names in opera, from Lily Pons and Ezio Pinza to Dolora Zajick and Cecilia Bartoli; and I’ve written about him here already, in connection with Beverly Sills, who became a household name in the United States not least because of Mr. Vincent’s canny persistence. On the one hand, these are artists who do not seek out press coverage; reporters seek them out.

But on the other hand, opera needs publicity. There’s a revolution going on in media and mass culture, and it’s bypassing opera. The art form becomes more foreign every day to the public at large, because we’re exposed to it less. Music-appreciation classes bit the dust in public schools more than a generation ago. That’s no loss to pop music, because we comprehend it instantly (and forget it just as quickly); opera takes more work. Most of us have to be guided into it, and most of us require an invitation first.

Those invitations are not forthcoming. Ed Sullivan used to feature a classical musician once a week on his variety show, one of the most popular on television, but it’s rare indeed for any opera singer (much less a symphony orchestra) to show up on, say, The Tonight Show or Oprah — and the majority of the audience wouldn’t have the background to appreciate the performance, even if it got programmed. A lot of the old avenues to the mainstream have been closed off.

There’s no telling how many people would be inspired to pursue opera if Bartoli or Natalie Dessay or Deborah Voigt were to appear, say, on The Muppet Show, as Sills did (at right, singing Pigoletto), or if Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet or Stephanie Blythe or Susan Graham were to appear on The Odd Couple, as Marilyn Horne did. These women are great entertainers (and they’re funny, too), and my mind reels at the possibilities. But those shows don’t exist anymore, and even if they did, it’s unlikely that these exciting artists would be hired for them.

Meanwhile, newspapers and magazines have cut back, or eliminated entirely, their arts coverage. TIME Magazine used to feature classical artists on its cover at a rate of about one per year; about the only way for that to happen today would be for Nathan Gunn to shoot the Pope. It ain’t gonna happen.

Programmers heed the growing majority of people who say, “Opera is boring,” yet never heard a note of it. Classical music on radio is best served now by satellite stations, books about classical music yield minuscule sales, and the classical recording industry is still trying to cope with changing technology. And the less that young people know about classical music, the fewer tickets they buy to concerts and opera. The perception that opera is a niche market at best, ratings- or box-office poison at worst, becomes more entrenched by the minute, and it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The singers I’ve mentioned thus far are established stars. What’s to become of younger artists, such as the soprano Jennifer Aylmer, who combines the looks of a fairy-tale princess, the voice of a Fourth of July fireworks display, and the sophisticated comic timing of of a second Carole Lombard? She’s a one-woman Ed Sullivan Show, with something for everybody (give or take Topo Gigio and Chinese acrobats). If only more people knew it.

Aylmer: Ready for prime time.
(Pictured here in recital with Kenneth Merrill on piano, 2001.
This was one of the most entertaining performances I’ve ever witnessed.)

I’m not sure that Mr. Vincent could have bucked the downward trend of opera single-handedly, but he held it at bay for a long, long time. As a friend recalled recently on her blog, I was already in a state of breathless, agitated anticipation even before I saw my second opera, The Siege of Corinth. That’s because the fame of the leading lady — Beverly Sills — preceded the performance, and Mr. Vincent was instrumental in making sure that kids like me in the heartland knew who she was.

When Sills made her Metropolitan Opera debut in Siege, Mr. Vincent got the story on the front page of The New York Times, even though Saigon was falling at the time. He facilitated preview stories, as well, in TIME and heaven knows what other publications. Thus primed, I went to the Dallas performance (on the Met tour, another vanished promotional venue), and became an opera fanatic on the spot. About 14 months later, when Sills returned to town, I landed an interview with her for my high-school newspaper. From that day forward, I have never written a word about music without the awareness (and the hope) that some other misfit kid in the middle of nowhere might discover that opera speaks directly to her soul or his, as it does to mine.

The subject is important to me; I’ve written about it before, and I daresay I’ll do it again. But for now, please join me in bidding farewell to Mr. Vincent. He will be missed.

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29 June 2008

Art 2D2

Let us consider today a fable, the Tale of the Artist Who Didn’t Know When to Stop.

There once was a humble artist who painted an altarpiece so magnificent that people came the world over to admire it. Each figure in the painting seemed to breathe and to speak to anyone who looked. The artist was much gratified with the people’s admiration, and he didn’t mind, either, that nearly every visitor to the chapel where it stood, took away a souvenir, some little copy of the painting or trinket to remind them of the wonderful painting they had seen.

And so it was for many years. The artist became very famous, and served as mentor to other artists, although he seldom painted anything himself anymore. One day, the urge came upon him to paint again, but instead of painting a new altarpiece, he returned to the chapel where the old one stood. “You know,” he said to himself, “there are really not enough angels in this picture. And for every figure I add to the painting, I may make more money, for the people are sure to want to buy more copies.”

He set about adding so many figures to his altarpiece that he had to add new panels, and it ceased to be a triptych. Soon there was no more light in the chapel, for the new panels rose high to the ceiling and blocked all the windows. But the artist could not stop himself.

One day he heard tell of a new kind of varnish, that would render his paintings more vivid. “I must try that!” he cried. But the varnish-vendor was an honest man. “To use my varnish on your altarpiece, you must first paint over every inch of what you painted before, and begin again.” “No matter!” cried the artist.

Soon every panel of his altarpiece was teeming with new figures. He worked in such a hurry that his compositions were sacrificed, and the figures no longer seemed human. In his frenzy, he painted a new Christ, and then another, and then another, until the altarpiece was crowded with Christs. There were 16 Saviors in the Crucifixion alone, with no room for the Magdalene.

There was no more room in the chapel gift shop for all the extra trinkets. In a fury, the artist destroyed all the copies of the painting as it used to be; only new copies could be sold.

In time, the people began to lose interest. “Why should I go to look at the altarpiece anymore?” they asked. “It no longer resembles the painting I loved. I must have been an idiot to think this man knew anything about art. And what am I to do with all these copies and trinkets?”

Not long after, the artist died, and only his children did mourn him.

MORAL: I gave up on the Star Wars franchise after George Lucas went back and added so many CGI bits to the trilogy that he spoiled all the jokes, slackened narrative tension, and sacrificed what little character development he had to begin with. When he announced “Episodes I, II, and III,” I stayed home; when he revised these new episodes for a television series, I turned off the set.

He continues to tinker with the same material — a piece in this morning’s New York Times discusses new forays into computer animation and video gaming, as if the series hadn’t become mechanical enough already. He seems incapable of coming up with any new ideas, any new stories, and many critics wonder openly whether he remembers how to direct a movie.

George Lucas created a wonderful piece of popular art — perhaps not as great as the Altarpiece of Issenheim, but beautiful and meaningful to many, many people. If he wants to destroy it, that’s his business. But he can’t force me to watch him do it.

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26 June 2008

Currant Events

I was a kid when I tasted the flavor of black currants for the first time — in tiny little candies offered to me by my godmother. I eyed them warily. They were purple, which was a good thing according to my boyhood aesthetic, but they were in disguise: the box didn’t even say black currant, it said cassis. My godmother tried to reassure me. “The taste is a bit like grape,” she explained, “only better.”

My faith in my godmother was as immense as it was justified. It was she who got me hooked on opera, for example, and why would she be wrong about these little candies? So I took one, and almost instantly, black currant became my favorite sweet. Happily, the flavor turned out to be as far from Welch’s as Paris is from Dallas. Black currant is the essential ingredient that turns white wine to a Kir, and if there is anything on earth better than the cassis sorbet at Berthillon in Paris, I am unaware of it. But in suburban Dallas in the 1970s, my opportunities to explore this curious fruit were scarce.

Flash forward to the present, and join me and about eight dozen flocks of songbirds in admiring the currant bushes in the garden here at Beynes. We have both black and red currants (groseilles), and from mid- to late June, they gleam like jewels. The birds enjoy our currants perhaps even more than I, and it’s a race to snap up the ripe berries before the birds eat them all. The trouble is that, once you’ve gathered the berries, you’ve got to do something with them.

If you are an American expatriate who lives in the north of France, and not an industrious native in the south, then you do not know how to make liqueur out of your cassis. At least, I don’t. I looked up a couple of recipes, and they seemed entirely too easy. Instead, I resorted to the northern alternative: I made jam.

This is a difficult process, requiring the delicate picking of berries, followed by the tedious examination and cleansing of every goddam berry, one by one, followed by the precise measurement by weight of the fruits and the confectioner’s sugar (at a ratio of 5 to 4 parts, using a rusty 19th-century balance scale missing several of its metric weights), followed by the watchful stirring of the pot and skimming of the froth, followed by the ungainly transfer of the boiling hot jam from the pot to little jars, which must be sealed and upturned immediately in order to sterilize the contents.

Pre-jam Session:
Waiting to put the
shmuck into Smucker’s

While waiting for the jars to cool, you clean up the catastrophic mess you have made of the countertops, your clothing, and the floor. Open every window in the house to release the heat into the heavy summer sky. Afterward, put the jars in a cupboard and stare at them. All five of them. Five.

If you are lucky, you will have used only the ripest berries, which are already bursting with their sweet juice. Less ripe berries aren’t as juicy, and the juice they do contain is more bitter.

I am not lucky. The birds got all the ripe ones.

If you are conscientious, you already own a centrifuge, and you even know how to use it to extract the stem, seeds and skin, which is often quite tough and moreover attached to what’s left of the currant blossom, which is even tougher. With processed juice, you can make jelly, instead of jam.

I am not conscientious.

If you err in any step of this process, your jam will taste like crap. French people will laugh at you.

All of this, simply to have a shmeer on your toast in the morning, a few months from now. It is enough to make you want to rip up the bushes by the root.

The next time someone offers you a pot of jam — or even a little cassis-flavored candy — be sure to thank them.

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24 June 2008

Mbeki Rejects Gravity

South African president Thabo Mbeki today shocked international observers when he announced an immediate suspension of the law of gravity in his nation. He urged other Southern African leaders to do the same.

“This pressure represents the kind of outside interference that all Africans must oppose,” he said.

“It has come to our attention that the so-called law of gravity was devised by an Englishman,” Mbeki said at a government-sponsored conference on gravity in Johannesburg. “No one who is familiar with the foul history of British colonialism in Southern Africa can expect us to abide by this arbitrary, capricious power for another minute.”

A government spokesman later claimed that Mbeki’s speech had been taken out of context. “The president meant merely to suggest that we must remain open to other theories,” said the spokesman. “There may be many reasons that objects fall from the sky, and Africa must find its own answers, soberly and critically, without reliance on European theory. It is typical of the Western press to distort the president’s message. Are you with the CIA?”

Nevertheless, independent news agencies confirm that Mbeki disputed several chapters of Isaac Newton’s Principia. “What evidence exists that these so-called ‘laws’ are more than theories?” Mbeki said. “I ask you, are Newton’s laws observed in Great Britain? Do British children sit around all day with apples falling on their heads? Why should Africans be expected to submit to these British laws, if the British themselves do not?

“The British must be crazy,” Mbeki said. “The next time a colonial imperialist European seeks to throw a Coca-Cola bottle out of an airplane, he had better not do it in Africa.” Mbeki then led the audience in cheers of “Down with gravity!”

Mbeki has drawn global criticism for his resistance to the widespread medical belief that the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) causes Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), despite the significant public-health crisis posed by the disease throughout sub-Saharan Africa; and for his continuing support of Robert Mugabe, the increasingly despotic leader of neighboring Zimbabwe, despite a tide of refugees crossing the border into South Africa and their violent rejection by South Africans.

“What do you want me to do about it?” asked former South African president Nelson Mandela. “He stopped listening to me years ago.”

CORRECTION: The above photograph does not depict a gay wedding in California. It shows Thabo Mbeki, left, with Robert Mugabe, last spring, following the latter's defeat in national elections.

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22 June 2008

Jack Gilford

Portrait of the tummler as a young man,
from the Gilfords’ living room

Thanks to his younger son, Sam Gilford, I have spent a happy evening watching Jack Gilford at work. Sam put together a little DVD of his father’s favorite performances, starting with a clip from an old Hollywood movie, in which a very young Jack does a few bits from his nightclub act. And so at last I have seen Jack’s famous impression of John D. Rockefeller impersonating Jimmy Durante. There’s no describing it.

Jack was a link to things that I never knew about, whether because I was too young or too suburban or too goyish or quite simply too naïf. Born a century ago in Brooklyn, Jack spoke Yiddish before he spoke English. His mother was a bootlegger. He was blacklisted. He starred on Broadway, in shows I never saw. He didn’t tell me about these things; I learned them from his widow, Madeline. But I knew the man, a little, and I owe him a lot.

Jack, with his mother the bootlegger, and his brother.
This picture hangs in Madeline Gilford’s bedroom.

I’ve been a fan of his since I was in grade school, although the day we met, I didn’t tell him this. Instead, I said, “My father is your biggest fan.” Later, Madeline told me that Jack hated it when people said that. A shy, melancholy man, he’d usually snap in reply, “Oh, really? How big?”

But Jack was in a charitable mood that day, and to me he simply said, “Your father has excellent taste.”

And it’s true, at least where Jack is concerned. Sam’s DVD confirms that. Jack brought a sweetness and simple grace to all his performances, even when the material wasn’t very good. He manages to unite the hokey shtick of vaudeville and the Borscht Belt, the lacerating precision of contemporary screen naturalism, and the poetry of silent comedy. He actually taught Buster Keaton a pantomime, when the great comic replaced him in Once Upon a Mattress on Broadway.

Photos of Jack with Zero Mostel and Buster Keaton hang in the hallway of the Gilfords’ apartment.

That’s a concept too big for me to get my head around. If I’d remembered it, during the time I knew Jack, I’d probably have collapsed from shock. In social settings, after all, some things are better left unknown, or unconsidered. If I’d known, for example, that William S. Paley had an affair with Louise Brooks, Lulu in Pandora’s Box, it would have been difficult to retain my composure on the one occasion I met him. And that would have been awkward. The founder of CBS was my boss at the time.

Jack wasn’t my boss — but Madeline was, as associate producer of the Broadway musical Rags, and I didn’t need for either of them to start thinking that the little production assistant was an idiot. Fortunately, the subject of Buster Keaton never came up. Neither did the subject of Milton Berle (who changed Jack’s name, from Jacob Gelman), nor that of Jack Lemmon (opposite whom Jack was nominated for an Oscar), nor that of Billie Holiday (with whom Jack once shared a dressing room), nor — well, you get the idea.

Most often, the two of us sat peaceably in a hallway, waiting for Madeline to emerge from endless production meetings at the rehearsal studio. I say “the two of us,” but on those afternoons we were always a crowd, because Jack passed the time by improvising, riffing on characters. He wasn’t one of those tiresome comics who are always “on”; he improvised the way a boy plays with a tennis ball, tossing it around, keeping his reflexes sharp for the Big Game ahead, staving off boredom. (Dan Rather does something similar. Even a friendly conversation over dinner can turn into an interview.) I can’t remember all the material Jack bounced off of me, although I recall very clearly an English vicar and, best of all, an elderly Jewish man with a heavy Yiddish accent.

If you know any of the Gilfords for very long, you will hear the story of Grandpa Max. When the Gilford children were growing up, Jack realized that the kids’ grandfathers were dead, and thus that they were missing out on an important part of childhood. He resolved to do something about this. And so one Saturday came a knock at the door. The kids answered, and there was Jack, fully in character and costume as a little old man.

“Hello,” said Jack. “I’m your Grandpa Max. I’m taking you to the park.”

Another trip to the park, with the help of cartoonist Mort Drucker.
Pardon Me, Sir, But Is My Eye Hurting Your Elbow?,
a picture book intended as a movie script)

And for years, Grandpa Max made regular visits, taking the kids on excursions, telling them stories — being the grandfather they never had. The kids loved him deeply — and separately from the love they felt for Jack. Later, Lisa Gilford named her son after Grandpa Max; Joe Gilford made a short film about a stage doorman, starring his father as Max.

I’d heard stories about Grandpa Max, but it wasn’t until Joe showed a clip from that film at his father’s memorial service that I realized I’d met the old guy. In fact, the little old Jewish man Jack used to become during our conversations was unmistakably Grandpa Max. It was as if Jack had given me a wonderful present that I’d been unable to unwrap at first. I felt special, like part of Jack’s family. And now, 17 years later, I pretty much am part of his family.


I grew up watching Jack on TV — first in his Cracker Jack commercials, of course, and then in his innumerable guest-starring roles on Rhoda, M*A*S*H, Golden Girls, thirtysomething, and dozens of others. Gradually, I caught up on his film work, though two of his best performances are ones I can no longer watch. When he sings “Lovely” in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, disguising himself as a vestal virgin in a diaphanous gown and blond wig, he is quite simply too lovely to bear. And I can’t even think about his big scene in Cocoon, standing in a swimming pool and cradling his wife’s body.

The view I’ve had of Jack as a performer isn’t really representative. Because he was blacklisted, he couldn’t work on television and film for many years, and a huge chunk of his career was spent on Broadway and at the Metropolitan Opera (playing Frosch the jailer in Die Fledermaus). I can only piece together a few clues to imagine him in Cabaret, opposite Lotte Lenya, or in The Diary of Anne Frank, as Mr. Dussel.

But one of Jack’s most important theater roles was preserved for television, and Sam was able to get his hands on the video for his DVD. In The World of Sholem Aleichem, Jack played Bontche Schweig, who leads a miserable life, enduring every kind of hardship. Yet he never complains. (“Schweig” means “silent.”) At last, he dies and goes to Heaven, where he is told that, as a reward for his suffering, he may have anything he wants.

“If that is so,” says Bontche in a voice he’s never used, “if what you say is true, may I please have then, every day, a hot roll with butter?”

Jack as a Sholem Aleichem character, right.
A self-portrait by Zero Mostel hangs at left.

For years after the play had closed, the Gilfords used to be interrupted over dinner at a restaurant: someone at another table would have asked the waiter to send over a hot roll with butter.

He was taller than I’d expected, maybe because I’d been influenced by his appearances on Taxi, as Alex Rieger’s father, who explains his infuriating success with women: “I’m cute!” His little eyes, in that long, rubbery face, came to resemble the raisins on a gingerbread man. You don’t expect somebody so cute to be so tall — but there it is. Pushing 80, he was trim, agile, and extraordinarily dapper, and the attraction between him and Madeline was palpable and somewhat unnerving. Weren’t they too old to be so passionate? They adored each other, and I’ve never kidded myself: Jack put up with me because Madeline liked me.

As he looked when I knew him.
Photo courtesy of Sam Gilford

Just before Rags opened, Jack came to the stage manager’s office to see me. He’d heard I was a cartoonist — I’d drawn caricatures of every member of the cast, and of Madeline, too. Now he wanted my help. He’d written a song, and he wanted me to write out the lyrics on a piece of poster board to be hung on the call board, as a kind of opening-night greeting to the company.

“And can you draw a little picture of Madeline and me?” he asked earnestly, as if there were some chance I’d refuse. My reward was that Jack sang the song for me, start to finish: “Give my regards to Stratas / Remember me to Larry Kert….”

And that’s how I managed to see the great Jack Gilford in performance on Broadway — for me alone. Sometimes you don’t have to wait to go to Heaven to get your hot roll with butter.

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21 June 2008

Song of Bernadette?

And for an encore, “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?”

Hot on the heels of a new album by Carla Bruni, the pop singer and first lady of France, Bernadette Chirac today announced that she, too, is releasing an album. The wife of former French President Jacques Chirac revealed the details in an exclusive, English-language interview with this blogger.

“I am someone who is very, very musical,” the former first lady said, “and since many years people have said to me, ‘Bernadette, you sing so beautiful! Why do you not cut the record album?’ Now it is, the time to show the world that of which I am capable.”

The result, Les Pièces Jaunes (Small Change), is certain to surprise even those who have followed Mme Chirac, who has thus far never shown any hint of a performing career, though she served many years as wife to the mayor of Paris, the minister of agriculture, the minister of the interior, the prime minister, and the leaders of two conservative political parties, the Union for a Popular Movement and the Rally for the Republic. (“I guess you could say I am a man-eater!” Mme Chirac giggles. “I have a — how you say — penchant for the powerful men.”)

We have been privileged to hear excerpts from the album, including covers of Serge Gainsbourg’s “Je t’aime / Moi non plus” and Kelis’ “Milkshake.”

Yet most attention is likely to focus on the songs Mme Chirac penned herself, including “O, mon beau sac à main” (Oh, my beautiful handbag), “La Bagatelle à 14 millions par jour” (A trifle for 14 million francs a day), “T’as pas l’air un peu juif?” (Don’t you look a little bit Jewish?), and “Il fait doux aux banlieues de Paris” (It’s a nice day in the strife-torn suburbs of Paris).

“The rap, it comes very natural to me,” Mme Chirac explained. “When you have the rage of the underprivileged existence, as I have, growing up the second-class citizen in my own country, with only one particule to her name — the words, they just explode.”

The former Bernadette Chodron de Courcel denies that her singing career owes any debt of inspiration to Carla Bruni. “Au contraire,” she insists. “It was Susan Graham who inspires me. When I see her in the Warlikowski staging of Gluck’s the Iphigenia in Tauride, and I see that she is dressed exactly like me, I say, ‘Well, I could do that.’ And now I do!”

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Keep Saving The Mount!

This spring, I wrote in a state of anxiety about the campaign to save The Mount, the home of the American author Edith Wharton, in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts. Although the Edith Wharton Restoration, the organization that maintains the house and garden and opens them to the public each summer, has been granted a six-month extension, the danger of foreclosure remains high. Only a little less than a third has been raised of the $3 million needed by October 31. Some of the money raised is, yes, mine. If I, an unemployed artist, can make a donation, so can you. Please click on this link to learn more and to make a contribution.

There. Now don’t you feel better?

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20 June 2008

Un véritable Woodstock

The citizens of Beynes love music, but they do not often demonstrate that love. The village stores up its affection, then unleashes it in isolated bursts. Of course it’s dangerous to bottle up one’s passion, but we scoff at the risk. This afternoon, the annual summer music festival, Les Fêtes Beynoises, began. For the rest of the weekend, we will prove how very, very much we love music. No matter who gets hurt.

Each June, the town erects two soundstages in the moat around our celebrated Pile of Rocks (which, local historians insist, is the ruin of a fifteenth-century château formerly owned by Diane de Poitiers). A third, smaller soundstage is erected nearby, behind the Barbacane, the town’s library and theater. Once all three soundstages are up, the amps plugged in and the lights turned on, the music begins.


Like most public events in Beynes, the Fêtes take place in the Bourg, the old part of town, where I live, on the green floodplain that borders the little River Mauldre. Only the garden wall separates my home from the Fêtes, and since the weather is warmish, I’ve got the windows open. It’s tempting therefore to give you a running account of the musical performances, which can be heard as loud and clearly as if I had turned on the radio in this very room.

Or, more precisely, three radios. To different stations: jazz fusion, hard rock, harder rock, punk rock, reggae, rappers, from any of the many bands playing this weekend. There’s also a smartly uniformed choir running around the Barbacane; they may be performing indoors tonight, though I’d personally welcome them to any of the three outdoor stages, or to my living room, if only they’d promise to sing on pitch.

Indeed, whatever criteria are used to select the bands, a good ear and a pleasing voice don’t seem to be high on the list, though intelligible English is an absolute requirement. Why my neighbors would care about diction in a language few of them speak, I don’t know. But this is what has become of the world’s cultures: now, anybody who can pronounce the word “baby” is a potential rock star.

The rappers are permitted to speak French, though I can’t make out much of it. Something about “Death to America.” I don’t know. The crowd seems to like it.

This will go on late into the evening, to the accompaniment of firecrackers, and it will begin again tomorrow afternoon. I shouldn’t complain. The music could be louder, I suppose, and it’s only for a couple of days. As Feldstein reminds me, this is a picnic compared with the Festa del Giglio I had to endure for two weeks every July in Williamsburg. Even the worst band is preferable to the racket the Parisians are making, tearing up every sidewalk around my apartment this week: I fled to the countryside on Wednesday for the peace and quiet.

But I confess I’ll be glad when my neighbors bottle up their musical passion once more.

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14 June 2008

Tim Russert

Perhaps the only thing about Tim Russert’s death more shocking than its suddenness is the chorus of tributes being sung by one and all. The newspapers are full of hagiography, and so, I gather, is American television at the moment. Even networks other than his own have devoted to their competitor the kind of air time ordinarily reserved for the deaths of heads of state, and the Tim Russert they depict is a paragon, whose like we shall not soon see again.

This generous, uncritical coverage is courteous and quite possibly based in truth. My meetings with Russert never went farther than a handshake, and so for testimonials to his kindness, his professionalism, and his exuberance, you must turn to his former colleagues; for assessments of his influence, look to the critics who are reaching for superlatives, and listen to the teary statements now being released by every politician in America. The most powerful men and women in the country want to stay on Russert’s good side, even in death, and that says something.

But something is missing from all the portraits I’ve seen of Russert, to such a degree that I don’t quite recognize him this morning. And so it falls to me to tell you something of what he was like as a competitor.

Russert came to journalism from politics, and although he may have been born with his competitive streak, he surely broadened and refined it while campaigning. When he arrived in television, he understood that competition among newsrooms was also a race, that in this environment ratings were the same as votes, and that the fight for them could not ever stop. So fight he did. And he was a bare-knuckled, gut-kicking, pipe-wielding street brawler.

Long before Karl Rove got credit for it, Russert perfected the “permanent campaign mode,” and his specialty was spin. Not least because they admired his work on Meet the Press, Russert had the ear of the journalists who report on television. They liked him. They watched his show faithfully, and they enjoyed talking to him. That gave him the opportunity to drop hints, to skew interpretations, to leak or to plant stories, to badmouth the other networks. And this he did, avidly. It got to be that we at CBS News could recognize even blind quotes in an article, because Russert’s language was distinctive. And his themes were persistent: if he saw a vulnerability in a competitor, he’d keep hammering at it for years.

Network anchors were (and may still be) wary of each other. You never knew when the corporate suits were going to replace you with the guy who was bringing in better ratings on another channel. There was always somebody younger, and usually somebody smarter, bearing down on you, even inside your own team. You couldn’t let down your guard. You had to keep looking over your shoulder — even, perhaps especially, when you were in the lead, as Russert was.

And yet most of the big boys used to put on a pretty good show of getting along. Dan Rather and Peter Jennings even got downright friendly during the 1990s, thanks to their publicists, who were themselves friends and who threw the two men together, again and again. Though Dan and Peter probably never forgot their rivalry for a second, they enjoyed each other’s company. That was rare, and yet it wasn’t uncommon for other network stars to drop each other congratulatory notes after a good broadcast, to attend each other’s book parties, to praise each other in print, and to make polite conversation whenever they ran into each other. But so far as I ever knew, Russert wasn’t playing that game. He held a low opinion of other newsrooms, and of the people in them. He didn’t try to hide the fact.

His loyalty to his own team explains in part the reactions from the folks at NBC News to his untimely passing. They make him sound like a great guy, and I’m sorry I never worked with him. But as for his competitive streak — his determination to do anything at all to make his opponents look bad — let’s just say I’m glad I worked with Bob Schieffer instead.

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07 June 2008

Stiller & Meara

At the memorial service for Madeline Gilford a few days ago, I made a resolution: I want to die before Stiller and Meara do. So do you. You want these people to speak at your memorial.

Like approximately 80 percent of people in show business today, Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara got an early and important break from Madeline. That was more than 40 years ago, and by now their repartee is so polished that their loving recollections of Madeline had the crowd at Sardi’s in stitches. She dithers, he blusters; she needles, he nags. There’s a great deal of recognizable psychology in their routines, and in their personae you see other couples you know, perhaps even the couple you’re in. They’ve watched and listened to the human dynamic in quadrophonic stereo for many years. They’ve done their homework, although you’re certain they haven’t done it at home: it’s by observing others, and not by portraying themselves, that they’ve found their material.

How do I know this? Well, they’re still together, aren’t they?

It can’t be said that I know Stiller and Meara personally, although as an Upper West Sider I saw them around often enough, as one sees any of one’s neighbors. And that’s telling. They don’t behave like celebrities, even though most of our neighborhood encounters coincided with the period of Jerry Stiller’s greatest fame, the years when he played George’s father on Seinfeld. To run into them on the street, one might think they were schoolteachers, or accountants, or insurance executives, and the fact that they cut loose with the random funny remark seems a function less of their being comedians than of their being New Yorkers.

Take for example the time I ran into them at Filene’s Basement. George Pataki was still Governor of New York, and the Stillers and I were taking advantage of one of his periodic waivings of the state sales tax. None of us really understood the thinking behind this — something about stimulating the economy in the aftermath of 9/11 — and while we waited for a cashier, Anne Meara and I talked for a few minutes about all the other, more urgent problems in the state, that couldn’t be addressed by shopping but might be addressed by taxation.

Our strongly held political opinions didn’t prevent us from buying low-priced socks, but there you have it.

So if you run into them at the corner deli, don’t quote his lines from Seinfeld or rhapsodize over her contributions to Archie Bunker’s Place and Rhoda. Don’t fawn, flatter, or ask for autographs. Just ask whether the pastrami is any good today.

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05 June 2008

Notes from Underground

New Yorkers are famous the world over for (no way to put this more politely) refusing to take bullshit from anyone. We are a tough people, hardened by years of living next to, under and on top of one another, and even the most genteel Manhattan society matron can and will cuss like a Brooklyn longshoreman when the advertised item is not in stock, when another New Yorker has the effrontery to seize the taxicab she was hailing, or when she’s cut off while crossing the street (“I’m walkin’ here, asshole!”). We put up with too much in life already, and you, poor outlander, could not survive a single day in our shoes. We will not tolerate any further disrespect, inconvenience, or discomfort.

That, at least, is the reputation. We are proud of it. Not content to let others spread our fame, we are first to brag of it. O, woe! Woe to ye who come to New York with hearts full of guff, attitude, lip, disrespect, malarkey, garbage, baloney, bunkum, sass or crap! We do not take any of it. We will have none of it. And, by the way, we don’t make change.

In my heart, I am still a New Yorker. But I cannot uphold this preposterous fiction any longer. Contrary to our reputation, New Yorkers take plenty of bullshit. We take it slavishly, masochistically, without complaining. We take the worst of it — the most unendurable construct known to the mind of man. We take it without complaining. We take it forth, and we take it back. And we take it every day.

It is our subway.

I forget just how bad the New York City subway system is, until I return to it. I am hard-pressed to understand how I survived it for 21 years. Surely it was not always this bad. And by “bad,” I mean: noisy, dank, murky, malodorous, crowded, sticky, malfunctioning, and dangerous. It is in bad repair at all times, and it is famously prone to inexplicable delays. Even if explanations were offered, you could not understand them, because they would be pronounced by a conductor who speaks no known language, over a public-address system that garbles the voice and cannot be heard over the ambient din.

That the subway remains the best way to get around town is a cruel accident of fate, and a reminder of just how bad things are above ground.

Take as an example the case of the station at Columbus Circle. When I moved to France, nearly four years ago, a major reconstruction was underway. It has not been completed. To describe the process is to exhaust one’s supply of literary references: the circles of Dante’s Hell, the diabolic ritual of Goethe’s Walpurgisnacht, the tortures of Torquemada cannot do justice to the Columbus Circle station. The platforms were torn up, in an exercise requiring that almost every light bulb be removed; welding machines went into operation that smelled even worse than the pervasive aroma of human excrement. You could not breathe there. You did not want to. Passengers awaiting trains were shoved and squeezed onto narrow shelves, and then channeled into even narrower corridors toward exits that are, for the most part, blocked off. You told yourself to be patient, that eventually the work would be finished — hell, even the remodeling of the 72nd Street station was finished, eventually.

And yet, to my astonishment, the Columbus Circle station is still under construction. I could find no indication that the project was any nearer to completion, although its scope has expanded, and now the platforms for the 1 train are as badly torn up as those for the A, B, C, and D trains.

I’d have taken a picture to show you, but these days anyone taking a photograph in the subway is automatically presumed to be a terrorist.

And let us not talk about the “service changes” that used to be justified as urgent and temporary (often in response to the damages incurred during the 9/11 attack), but are now a regular fact of life. They mean that the train you want will not be running on the track where you expect it, will not stop at the station where you need it, and will be running at intervals much longer than you can afford. In short, on weekends it is impossible to get from one place to another.

New Yorkers may grouse from time to time about the subway, yet they do not ever take action, the way people would do in any other city on earth. In France, entire governments have been toppled with less provocation, and yet New Yorkers do not march on the offices of the Metropolitan Transit Authority to demand better service and improved conditions.

Of course, one reason the Paris Métro is nicer than the New York subway is that the Parisians close down the Métro between 1:00 and 5:00 in the morning, the better to clean, repair, and maintain cars, tracks, and stations. No such option is possible in New York, because New Yorkers work and play at all hours and require 24-hour service. Paris is not “the city that never sleeps,” and it does not pretend to be. But Parisian Métro cars run quietly, and Métro stations are brighter, more spacious, and better designed, with separate corridors for passengers going toward the platform and passengers going toward the exit. (In New York, passengers must constantly waltz or fight, rumba or rumble, with passengers going another direction.)

Even in the United States, it’s easy to find better subway service. Andy Weems used to act out the differences between the New York subway (in which the dialogue was unprintable) and the gorgeous Washington Metro (“Is this seat taken?” “Are you through with the sports section?”) — even Boston’s “T” is more efficient and attractive.

And yet New Yorkers slog on, taking the worst kind of bullshit, without any demand, nor even any hope of change.

UPDATE: The intrepid Feldstein sends the above photo of a New York subway station. Of course no trip to the subway could be complete without spotting a few dozen rats, and Feldstein found the ones scurrying there along the wall to be a particularly worthwhile subject for his camera.

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04 June 2008

Digested Contents

Reflections upon discovering back issues of Reader’s Digest in my parents’ home in Texas.

The ‘Hang In There!’ Kitten:

The True Story behind One of America’s Most Beloved Inspirational Posters …………………43

Special Diet Report:
Are You Eating Enough Rutabaga?

Predestined Pleasure: Sex Tips from Presbyterians
Now You Can Have Multiple Catechisms …………………69

Save Money by Recycling This Magazine! …………………76

What Is Rock and Roll, Actually, and What Can Be Done About It? …………………83

Humor in Cuneiform: Our Best Archaeology Jokes Ever! …………………87

‘I Still Love That Bob’:
A Heartwarming Personal Memoir by Ann B. Davis, TV’s ‘Schultzie’ ……………89

Is There Such a Thing as Too Much Laughter?
‘My Husband Died Laughing,’ Warns One Harvard Medical Professor, ‘And So Could You!’…………………………124

The Timeless Wit and Eternal Wisdom of John Foster Dulles…………141

McLean Stevenson: Hollywood’s Favorite Family Man…………………143

Could Excess Dryer Lint Be Shortening Your Love Life?…………………151

Reese Witherspoon Is Much Younger Than Anyone You Will Ever Know Personally!…………………158

America’s Top 100 Baked Goods…………………160

Bonnie Franklin’s Unforgettable Night of Torment …………………170

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