26 September 2010

Frances Arvold

Frances Arvold, in the anchor booth
at one of the 1984 nominating conventions.
Photograph of an original photograph by Terri Belli (I think).

Today marks the fiftieth anniversary of the first of the Kennedy–Nixon debates, a landmark that altered the American political landscape — and our understanding of the power of television. All manner of folks are weighing in on the subject this weekend, effectively launching a corollary debate: how much (if any) difference did the debates make in the outcome of the 1960 presidential election? It seems clear that, if it’s ever possible to make an objective judgment on this kind of question, the surviving data aren’t ideally conclusive. As a society, we hadn’t found the means to measure the impact of a television program, though surely the debates made us realize that we needed to find those means, and fast.

While I can’t monitor all the conversations this weekend, I hope that one of the principal myths about the debates isn’t being resurrected: namely, that a CBS News makeup artist somehow sabotaged Richard Nixon’s appearance, so that he’d suffer by comparison with tanned, handsome John Kennedy.* I knew that makeup artist, and I can vouch for her absolute integrity. So could Richard Nixon.

Franny at Work
A truly awful picture of the portrait that hung (or hangs) on the wall
of the Frances Arvold Room at CBS.

Among my colleagues, opinion was divided whether the man in the chair
was Douglas Edwards (probably) or Mike Wallace (possibly).

Frances Arvold subscribed wholeheartedly to the CBS News credo, “Every man a reporter.” She arrived at the network in the Old Days, when the word “man” was understood to apply also to the very, very few women in the newsroom, and her professional ethics were a match for, if not superior to, those of the on-air reporters she worked with and befriended: Murrow, Sevareid, Cronkite, and all the rest of the legends.

Though her name was seldom, if ever, attached to the rumor that Nixon’s makeup had been sabotaged, she took it personally. The very idea that she would use her professional skills to undercut anybody, for any reason, was morally reprehensible to her. It was almost beside the point that she’d never laid a finger on Nixon that night. And so at last she did something drastic and unexpected: she wrote to Richard Nixon himself.

He replied promptly. Not only had Franny been beyond reproach in the matter, he said, he had actually refused her assistance, and regretted it afterward.

This anecdote upends a couple of other myths, I’m happy to point out. One is that Richard Nixon was incapable of telling the truth (even when, as in this case, it would have been easy to blame someone else for his failure).

Another is that the “Mainstream Media,” in its heyday, promoted personal political agenda in covering the news. Though I worked closely with her for a number of years, I don’t honestly know what Franny’s politics were — and that’s the point. Such things weren’t discussed, much less acted upon.

Franny was a pro, and one of the dearest people I’ve ever known. Her gentle, loving presence could instantly calm even the most jittery anchor or interview subject, and she could make a turnip look good on camera. I don’t think I ever heard her say a bad word about any living creature, but I heard plenty of her stories and little jokes, delivered in a lilting North Dakota accent — and very often with a blush that only deepened when other people told jokes to her.**

Out of the newsroom, hers was a sometimes lonely life, I think. For a working woman of her generation in New York, personal sacrifices had to be made. She lived very far from her family but very near the Broadcast Center on 57th Street; most often she dined alone in a neighborhood coffee shop.

And yet she was loved. When she passed away in 1992, shortly after her retirement and just as another election campaign was heating up, we were devastated. Most of us, I suspect, wondered how we’d ever be able to do our jobs again. She had made up Dan Rather on his first day at the network, and until the end of her life she was still phoning him with advice (“Cover your beard-line” was her mantra) — and also with her tender, unswerving support.***

We dedicated the makeup room to her, with speeches and tears and music, and with a plaque that — I hope and pray — still hangs on the door, though only a few of those who remember her are still around the Broadcast Center.

Franny was more than professional, she was honorable. And if somehow it had ever occurred to her to make Richard Nixon look bad in those debates, I can guarantee you this: he’d have lost the election in 1960 by a margin so great that the pundits and talking heads a half-century later would have the hard data to prove it.

*NOTE: Having attended college with the President’s son, I can confirm from personal experience that it’s futile to compete with a Kennedy’s good looks and charisma. It didn’t matter who you were: if John was in the room, nobody was looking at you. That sort of power would turn the average mortal into a complete jerk, but the great miracle of John Kennedy, Jr., was that he was a nice guy.

**Franny’s own jokes were mild, innocent to the point of naïveté, but in her makeup chair, Mike Wallace used to torment her with bawdier material.

***Though Dan had been working in television for a few years by the time he came to the network, he was still very much a product of his Texan upbringing and therefore reluctant at first to submit to Franny’s makeup ministrations. (Because, you know, he-men aren’t supposed to wear makeup.) She informed him that, with a beard-line like his, he’d look like a gorilla on camera — and he relented, understanding that, in fact, he was so very manly that makeup would be a practical necessity. (And so you can see that, from the first day, Franny understood Dan’s psychology better than almost anyone else has ever done.)

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