20 January 2011

Elizabeth L. Dribben

Liz and Dan used to look just like this, honest.
I’m temporarily unable to post an excellent photograph of Liz in a Buffalo newsroom much like this one. Check back for updates, but in the meantime, Michelle Pfeiffer will serve our purposes. Liz always hoped that “Miss Pfeiffer” would portray her onscreen.

To hear Liz Dribben tell it, she was never anybody’s mentor. The record shows she was wrong, for not only did she foster and promote the careers of younger reporters both at CBS News and at Columbia’s School of Journalism, but she continued to do so even in retirement. I never came away from even the briefest conversation without a list of five or six contact names and numbers and Liz’s encouraging sign-off, “You never know.” Some thrilling project was always just around the corner for me, Liz was certain.

Still, when I told her that a couple of my female colleagues at CBS, in particular, considered her a mentor, she demurred. “No, no, no,” she said, “I never have had protégées. I’ve always looked out for myself.”

This was the only known instance of dishonesty in her long career, and yet it says something about Liz as a pioneer (which, as she would sometimes acknowledge, she indisputably was). When you’re blazing a trail, you don’t often look back to see who’s following you.

The Real Liz

Hired by CBS News in 1972 as part of a network-wide campaign to bring women into what had always been a male-dominated industry, Liz clashed often with her supervisors, who were, of course, men. She had been raised by a single working mother (an attorney, no less), and certain kinds of fights were in her nature: Liz wouldn’t back down on questions of fairness. She felt lonely and insecure sometimes, I know, but she seldom expressed those self-doubts outright; about other people’s prospects, her optimism was unshakable, and trumpeted from the rooftops.

This is a valuable quality in a producer of broadcast news, where the on-air talent may be privately anxious and publicly attacked. The reporters with whom Liz worked (including Charles Kuralt, Charles Osgood, Lesley Stahl, Ed Bradley, Douglas Edwards, and Dallas Townsend) always knew that she had their backs, and the two with whom she worked most closely, Mike Wallace and Dan Rather, never had a more loyal ally. Even when those two big tigers disagreed, Liz remained squarely in both men’s corners.

For his part, Dan recognized the depth and sincerity of Liz’s confidence in him, and he tried to respond in kind. Long after she’d left CBS, he continued to hire her to write radio scripts for him on a freelance basis, and because I’d inherited a lot of Liz’s former duties as writer–producer, she and I worked together and became friends during this time. The result was a kind of nuclear fallout of loyalty, and the feelings Liz had toward Dan extended to me, as well. (Thanks for that, boss.)

Born to wield a microphone.

Although she was initially turned down for on-air work at CBS (her speaking voice was too deep, the ostensible experts told her), she was a born radio star since her college days at the University of Buffalo. Sitting down to the microphone with greater frequency as time went by, she eventually hosted her own program, One on One, for several years. Here she was able to conduct in-depth interviews with newsmakers, especially actors, playwrights, and composers.

She approached her subjects with impeccable manners (“Mr. Sondheim,” “Miss Hayes”), thorough research, and matchless enthusiasm: the theater was her great passion, and she reveled in the opportunity to talk with artists she admired. (I’ve tried in some small way to follow her example in my own work.) She was one of the world’s great amateur authorities on Porgy and Bess, Irving Berlin, Paul Robeson, Elvis Presley, and her fellow Buffalo natives Katharine Cornell and Michael Bennett — but she never stopped asking questions, and she was always learning something new.

With some of her subjects, she also forged friendships, which is frowned upon in political reporting but permissible in arts coverage. One interview with French novelist Romain Gary turned into something very like a lengthy, unconsummated love affair. (She even took him home to meet her mother.)

Liz was a stickler for old-fashioned values:
Checked sources, good writing, nothing but the facts —
and flawless manners.

Once, when I was at Opera News, she interviewed me on WEVD radio, where she was a substitute anchor, about the upcoming Metropolitan Opera season. Afterward, she inquired knowingly whether I’d used talking points and note cards. No, I replied, I hadn’t.

I was startled by her vehemence. “Would you ever let Dan do a promotional interview without notes?” she demanded. “Why, with all his experience, would he need help that you didn’t?” She never interviewed me again.

Declining health meant that she couldn’t go to the theater anymore, but she insisted that I bring her the program for every play, opera, and concert I saw — and when possible, could I please bring a spare copy, for her personal collection? She told me plenty of stories about her family (including the legendary “Fighting Jew,” Sam Drebin, about whom she hoped to write a play), about her early days on local television in Buffalo, and about the people she’d worked with and interviewed at CBS. But mostly, she wanted to know what I was doing, and how she might help me to do it better. Years after blazing the trail, she was still clearing brush for those who came behind her.

The real Liz, seen here in an interview with Phyllis Diller in the late 1960s, is credited as the first female broadcaster in Buffalo.

She remained an obsessive clipper of newspaper articles, reading five papers per day and stubbornly squirreling away bundles and bags of print for future reference; when she was in form and still using the Internet, she’d send links to six or seven stories “of interest” every morning. Friends declared that she’d founded the Liz Dribben News Service, broadcasting around the world from the confines of her apartment, but the reality was that she never stopped planning for her next big story.

Toward the end, she slept a great deal and didn’t say much: when I observed that she’d been a more scintillating conversationalist in her time, she rolled her baby blues and gave me a rueful smile but didn’t snap my head off, as she might have done only a few weeks earlier. Then came days when I couldn’t wake her at all, but one morning, seeing her cell phone on the table beside her, I tried an experiment.

Being a pioneer ain’t easy.
In 1969, Liz was co-host of Buffalo’s top-rated local news program, host of her own interview show (Conversation with…), and a local celebrity. But when she asked for equal pay for equal work —
she was told to leave the station.

I dialed her number, and true to form, the hardnosed reporter couldn’t let a telephone ring unanswered.

“Sweetheart pussycat darling!” she said, a bit groggily but no less enthusiastically. “What’s the latest news? Are you in Paris?”

“I’m standing right in front of you. I’m going to hang up now so that we can talk.”

“Okay, sweetie. Keep me posted.”

Yesterday morning, when I saw her for the last time, she was sound asleep: dreaming, gesturing and murmuring, with long pauses while she seemed to hear an answering voice. I’d like to think it may have been the start of a new chapter in her career.

After all, she has waited a long time to ask George Gershwin about Porgy and Bess, and now at last she can.

And yeah, it’s true:
She looked just like this when she smiled.

“To be continued!”

-- Liz, at the end of almost every conversation
I ever had with her.


Anne said...

Such a beautiful appreciation. Thank you, Bill...and thank you, Miss Dribben.

ekarmer said...

Thank you so, so, so much for this. Since seeing Liz on my trip to New York in October, I hadn't spoken to her, but later learned she had moved several times. I am so sad to hear this news. She was always so supportive of everything I was doing. And she was funny. I will miss her and her stories about her ancestors in Henderson, Ky. I will miss saying "Hello, Elizabeth Dribben. It's Elizabeth Kramer." And I would love, love, love to be eavesdropping on her conversation with Gershwin.

Anonymous said...

Liz was a colleague of mine in the old days at CBS Radio News, I producing "World of Religion," she "Mike Wallace at Large." I'm fascinated to learn of her Buffalo background, of which I knew little. I can't honestly say we were close, but I can say Liz was always fun to be around. I'm sorry to hear of her passing.
Hugh Heckman

Unknown said...

Wonderful post. I would have loved to hear her stories of "The Fighting Jew".

Anthony Dribben

William V. Madison said...

Thanks, one and all.

Anthony, you're right: it was always better to hear Liz herself tell any story, but I hope that, as a member of the family (which I'm guessing you are), you've got access to other sources.

Any readers may want to check out this account of Sam Drebin's career conforms in its particulars to the tale that Liz spun:


Special attention is directed to Damon Runyon's poem, at the bottom of the page.

Drebin is portrayed (as Sam Drebben) by Alan Arkin in the 2003 movie, And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself. In the film, my beloved Madeline Lee Gilford plays Drebin's mother (in one of her last screen appearances); around the time of the movie's release, Liz interviewed Madeline on WEVD.


Drebin's story was recounted in several books about "American Jews in Wartime" and about the campaign against Pancho Villa; to judge by the condition of the copies Liz owned, these books are out of print now. (The many variant spellings of the family name do make research a bit more challenging!)

According to Liz, Sam Drebin was included in the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum in Waco, Texas, though neither she nor I confirmed this.


Ari Goldman said...

Toodle-loo, Liz. I hope that bit of slang doesn't appear to be insincere or irreverent. That is just how Liz used to sign off after one our epic phone conversations. "Toodle-loo," she'd say as if she were wrapped in furs and about to go out for a night on the town. Liz said it with love and I return the sentiment to her now that she is gone.
Liz and I were colleagues for several years at Columbia Journalism where Liz taught radio as an adjunct professor in the late 1990's. Liz was an incredibly generous teacher and colleague. When I told her one day that my teenage son Adam loved the Broadway theater, she offered to take him. At that time she was still filling in for radio talk show hosts like John Gambling and used to get comped all over town. She took Adam to plays by Neil Simon and Arthur Miller. Then she began to spread the wealth around. She took me to a David Mamet play and my wife and daughter to Broadway musicals. In a memoir I wrote several years ago I deemed Liz our family's "Theater Godmother."
We stayed in touch with Liz even after she left Columbia and stopped the radio work that made possible the free tickets. She would call me in the office and always begin the same way: "Ari Goldman, pussycat!" I was often busy but how could I say no to a woman who called me pussycat? We'd talk but it was almost never about her. She'd just want to hear about me and school and my family. It was always hard for Liz to say good bye but when I told her I had to go she'd give me a "toodle-loo" and be off.
My wife Shira and I visited Liz several times when she was taken to the hospital or a nursing home. She was very ecumenical in her nursing home tastes. One week she was at the Hebrew Home and the next at Katerie, a Catholic facility. The last time I saw her she was at Roosevelt Hospital. I called before going and she asked if I could bring a prayer book. I took a siddur, a Jewish prayer book, off my shelf and presented it to her at the hospital. She was weak but ever playful. "Pussycat, say a prayer for me." I recited the "refa-aynu" prayer, in which Jews ask for God's healing power, and, as is the tradition, I inserted her name and the name of her mother. "Liz bat Clara," I said. "I am going to leave this siddur with you," I told Liz. Ever the autograph hound, she asked: "Can you sign it?" "I didn't write it, but I sure can autograph it for you." I signed it and then said good bye for the final time. "Toodle-loo," she said. Toodle-loo, my friend.

Unknown said...

"Elizabeth Dribben speaking",

It saddens me to know she has passed, she was an amazing woman, funny, articulate and always told it like it is. She stuck to her guns, she was an example. I wish I could have said goodbye - and gotten the rest of her candlesticks story.


Ange Coniglio said...

See a memorial to Liz, with photos and memorabilia from her life, at http://www.conigliofamily.com/LizDribben.htm