28 June 2007

Jarmila Novotná

When I was working at the Weill Foundation, Lys Symonette asked my help in organizing some papers she’d inherited from a classmate of hers at the Curtis Institute, the tenor William Horne. There were only a couple of boxes, filled mainly with newspaper clippings and old theater programs; we piled them on the long conference table in the reading room, and sorted through them.

Each scrap was a cue to a memory, and among the anecdotes Lys told me that day, many concerned Bill Horne’s debut on Broadway, in an adaptation of Offenbach called Helen Goes to Troy. (Impossible to imagine an adaptation of Offenbach on Broadway today, when Aida is produced without Verdi’s score, but no matter.) Bill Horne’s costar was a wonderful Czech soprano named Jarmila Novotná. Lys told me how beautiful Novotná was, what a fine musician and actress, in several languages, how Novotná made movies, because she was (again) so beautiful and (also again) such a fine actress, including Montgomery Clift’s first picture, which wasn’t even a musical, and an adaptation of The Bartered Bride by Max Ophüls — “You know who he was?” — alongside the comedian Karl Valentin, one of Lys’ heroes — “You know who he was?”

“Yes, yes,” I said, but I wasn’t really paying attention, because all the while Lys was talking, I was staring at the pictures in Life Magazine, a whole article about Helen Goes to Troy. Many of the pictures showed Bill Horne (whom I recognized already from all the other pictures in the boxes) with a glamorous chorus girl, improbably prominent because she was in most of the pictures. She was tall, blonde, with long legs and high cheekbones, sultry eyes in an aristocratic face. Lys must have sensed my distraction, because she leaned over to see what I was looking at.

“That’s her. That’s Novotná.” She tapped one of the pictures with her finger, leaving no doubt.

That was no chorus girl. That was an opera singer.

I went out and tracked down the only album I could find. The voice was superb, cool and supple, surprisingly dark — though she started as a lyric coloratura, she played lyric mezzo roles on occasion, too, notably including Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier. A song I knew from Beverly Sills’ album of Viennese operetta, “Meine Lippen, sie küssen so heiss,” turned out to be written for Novotná, by Lehár himself, in a piece called Giuditta. For a long time, until she fled the Nazis, the orchestra in any restaurant in Vienna would play that song whenever she walked in. I found an interview with her in a book by Lanfranco Rasponi, illustrated with a photograph of her as Manon, easily one of the most beautiful photographs I’ve ever seen, of anyone.

Brother, I was smitten. I wrote her a fan letter, addressed (as I recall) to the stage door of the Metropolitan, because I knew that the staff there are heroic when it comes to getting mail to the right people, even people who haven’t sung with the company in thirty years. And a short time later, there was a reply in my mailbox. Novotná was delighted to hear from a new young admirer, but she moved quickly to other topics, what she’d been up to lately, how thrilled she was that Czechoslovakia was free again at last. With her wild handwriting and newsy, intimate tone, her letter reminded me of those I used to get from my great-great aunt, though Tisha never had the pleasure of reporting that Czech astronomers had just named a star after her.

Within a matter of weeks, my friend Catherine Karnow was engaged to provide the photographs for a guide to New York. She wanted to show something to indicate the cultural richness of the city and the stature of the artists who live there. From me, specifically, she wanted Teresa Stratas.

“There’s no chance of that,” I said. “She’s more reclusive than Garbo. There’s no way she’ll have her picture taken for a tourist guide.”

Nothing daunts Cathy. “Who else can we get, then? I want an opera singer.”

And I suggested Novotná. Cathy thought it was worth a shot, and I wrote to Novotná again, explaining the project. A few days later, I came home to find the great lady’s voice on my answering machine. I called back, and we set up an appointment.

I wanted to come bearing a gift. I wanted to come bearing something with lips on it, like an echo of the restaurant orchestras that used to play “Meine Lippen” for her, but the only items I could find were hopelessly tacky. I settled on a rose — just one — and prepared to apologize for the fact that it wasn’t silver, like Octavian’s.

I didn’t need to apologize, because Novotná got the reference the second she opened the door and saw me. “Ach!” she cried, “you are der Rrrrrrrrrosenkavalier!” With her Czech accent, she rolled the R until it became an elaborate confection, a delicious pastry: you could see that the word tasted good in her mouth.

She was wearing a suit, robin’s egg blue, that I later recognized as the one she’d worn in a photo session for a cover story in Opera News a few years before. She wanted to know whether Cathy’s family was Czech — “It’s sometimes a Czech name, you know, Karrrrrnow” — and fretted that my studies of language hadn’t yet extended to her native tongue. I explained that I’d flunked Russian at Brown. “Ach, Czech is much easier than Russian,” she assured me.

She loved her homeland, though she’d spent most of her life in exile. First the Nazis forced her out, then the Soviets. Her late husband, George Daubek, was a baron, and the patriotic martyr Tomas Masaryk had accompanied her on some recordings, and she’d done radio broadcasts and fundraising concerts in support of freedom in Czechoslovakia and in protest of massacres and repression. There was simply no way that a hostile occupying force, whether German or Russian, would ever let her go home. Then, almost without warning, the Velvet Revolution rose up, and Czechoslovakia — and Jarmila Novotná — were free. “And do you know, Vaclav Havel knows my work. Yes, he’s a fan!” She had been received with extravagant honors when she returned. But it was only a visit — not the last, surely the first. Home was now New York, near her daughter, Jarmelina.

As Cathy prepared her photo equipment, Novotná told us stories, all of which I recognized not only from the Rasponi book but also from that Opera News story. That might have been a clue to me. What made her so compelling to Lys Symonette (no pushover) and to me, decades later? She wasn’t going to say. Novotná had a repertoire of anecdotes, things that she would share with strangers. Any deeper insight into her artistry would not be permitted.

Perhaps, a friend later suggested, she simply isn’t very deep. He was a rehearsal pianist at the opera, and he wearily informed me of his opinion that quite a lot of singers aren’t smart; even the great artists, who use language brilliantly and who understand the human soul, are seldom intellectual or articulate, and sometimes they’re rather stupid. So he said. Finding somebody like Stratas, who could open up and talk to you (provided she knew you well enough) about life and art, was uncommon in the extreme, he told me.

This is not to say that Novotná’s anecdotes weren’t charming. There was the story of her debut, as the Queen of the Night, at the age of seventeen. Since the woman playing her daughter was in reality twice or three times her age, Novotná tried to look older; she padded her bosom, and was alarmed to discover, during “Der Hölle rache,” that the padding had slipped and was falling to her waist.

There was the story of a performance of Die Fledermaus, when a real bat started to fly around the stage. “It was in all the newspapers, very funny.” (Later, I learned that Novotná had played Orlovsky opposite Jack Gilford’s Frosch a few times at the Met. This is only natural, because while there may be six degrees of separation, there’s only one degree of Madeline Gilford. Did she have any insight into Novotná? “No,” said Madeline. “We never got to know her very well.”)

There was the story of the restaurant orchestras playing “Meine Lippen.” There was the story of her fleeing the Nazis — she was already in New York, singing with Toscanini, so she never had to face the Storm Troopers. There were stories about the glory days at the Met during the War, when all the greatest singers were like one big family and making such beautiful music. There were dozens of these stories. Maybe I did know them already, but it was not so great a disappointment to hear them now, in her own voice.

As Cathy began to take the pictures, Novotná snapped into action. She moved heavy furniture around the room, to give us more space. I expressed astonishment — she was, by my calculations, past eighty already. “Ach, it’s easy,” she said gaily. “When I was a girl, I was in the Sokol — you know, the Czech gymnastic society.”

Cathy said that it would be nice to get a few pictures of Novotná holding some sheet music. She trotted off to another room and emerged with “Voices of Springtime,” standing in the natural light of the window and glowing, with a natural light of her own, as she read the familiar notes.

And then she started to sing.

You couldn’t say the voice was lustrous or seamlessly produced, but it was pitch-perfect and it was lovely, unforced and flexible, faint but sweet and recognizably the voice I’d fallen in love with, on records made forty years before.

She sang the song twice over before we left, Cathy armed with a series of striking photographs that her editors opted never to use. Cathy did give me a couple of slides: Novotná before the window, mouth open, eyes sparkling, one hand holding the score outstretched, the other raised to heaven. Yes, we’d brought a camera, but we didn’t bring a tape recorder, so those pictures are the only record we have of Novotná’s song.

“Voices of Springtime”: a poignant choice of repertoire, though surely accidental. Little old men sometimes manage to find songs or roles to sing — Triquet in Eugene Onegin, for instance — but for little old ladies, there are no parts at all. It’s difficult to project, and likely we couldn’t hear them if they did sing in a concert hall or opera house. But we don’t hear them at all if they don’t sing, and as a result we miss the extra dimension that time and experience bring even to an instrument that’s cracked and stained with time; we can’t receive the messages they might convey.

Maybe it’s foolish of me to suggest that other elderly sopranos attempt such a thing, or greedy of me to want to recapture, in any form, the performance Novotná gave for Cathy and me. It was a once-in-a-lifetime recital, a unique glimpse of a great artist at work, and maybe I should leave it at that.

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Angela Lansbury & The Hollywood Blondes

Pie-eyed: As Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd

My former boss, Dan Rather, has been a proud supporter of the Museum of Television & Radio, and why not? It was founded by his former boss, William S. Paley, and it preserves for posterity Dan’s own best work. When the Los Angeles branch of the Museum invited Dan to be guest of honor at a fundraising dinner, Dan instantly accepted. Then he found out what they had in mind: a celebrity roast.

This is Hollywood, after all. This is what people do. The director of the Museum, Bob Batscha, assured us that he’d even be able to get joke writers to handle all the speeches. Since I was Dan’s primary (and usually sole) joke writer, that let me off the hook, but it didn’t do much for Dan.

Now, Dan has a pretty good sense of humor. Sure, he could take a few jokes at his expense, but an entire evening of them would be like riding a short horse through tall timber, as he might put it. I daresay most of us would find the experience stressful. But it was too late to back out.

Dr. Batscha asked for our input on the list of speakers, and I instantly suggested to Dan that Angela Lansbury act as mistress of ceremonies. Why, Dan wanted to know.

“Because she won’t beat up on you,” I said. “She’s the star of a CBS show and she won’t want you or the network to look bad. She can be funny, but she’s not an insult comedian. She’ll be elegant and polite. And she’ll accept the invitation because she’s a supporter of the Museum, too.”

Murder, She Wrote: Television, she conquered.

Dan liked this reasoning, and passed the suggestion along to Dr. Batscha. I gathered that our “suggestions” would be rubber-stamped by the Museum; indeed, everybody we named got an invitation, and most of them accepted. (My second-most brilliant suggestion was Harry Shearer, who is famously engrossed by the news media and who does a killer impersonation of Dan. Inviting him would show that Dan was willing to laugh at his own expense, and I hoped Shearer wouldn’t be too rough.)

At some point and for reasons unknown, Dr. Batscha decided the dinner would not be a celebrity roast, after all. Teasing jokes were to be set aside in favor of glowing testimonials. This news came as a relief to Dan, but I understand that it left Miss Lansbury even more confused as to why she’d been asked to appear. I tried to pass along assurances through the grapevine from our office to the Museum to her office, but I couldn’t tell her (or Dan, for that matter) the truth: she was invited primarily because I consider her one of the greatest artists in the history of musical theater, and I’d always wanted to meet her. Whatever her misgivings, she didn’t back out.

Creating the title role in Jerry Herman’s Mame

The event took place in early June, beginning with cocktails on the terrace of the Museum, a striking, white building in Beverly Hills. There were several TV stars who weren’t even on the speakers’ list, and at first the Rather staff hung back, intimidated by the celebrity. Then Kim Akhtar said, “There’s Barbara Eden — I’m going to introduce myself.”

Special Guest Star Barbara Eden

Moments later, Kim was telling Ms. Eden how much she loved I Dream of Jeannie, and how important it was to her as a girl to see a woman with so much power.

“I love hearing that!” Barbara Eden crowed. “I really did see a feminist side to Jeannie, and I love it when women tell me she’s a role model.”

Well, role model may be putting it strong, but as Kim went on, it never escaped her attention that, although Jeannie appears submissive and wears a skimpy outfit, she’s always got the real power and could blast her “Master” to oblivion at any moment. “She chooses to submit,” Kim said.

“Exactly!” said Barbara Eden. Clearly she’d given this matter a great deal of thought, and so had Kim.

Special Guest Star Jean Kasem

Their conversation broke the ice, and soon Dan’s little minions were all hobnobbing with the Hollywood hoi polloi. I introduced myself to the radio presenter Casey Kasem and his wife, Jean, an actress. Though Mr. Kasem is more famous than his Mrs., I talked mostly about her work. Casey beamed as I praised his wife — she was very funny on Cheers — and Jean seemed to like hearing it, too.

Special Guest Star Joan Van Ark

Joan Van Ark was there, confessing almost apologetically that she was an incurable news junkie, and it was touching, even a little baffling, to see how gratified she was when we told her that there were Knots Landing junkies in the CBS newsroom, too. (Didn’t she know her show was popular?)

We ate our dinners, and then it was time for the speeches. Miss Lansbury’s speech was constructed out of bits and pieces of the press bio Kim and I had written for Dan, which gave me the unexpected privilege of hearing this great actress read a script I’d written. The other speakers followed. Not one roasting insult was heard, and although Harry Shearer did his Dan imitation and poked a little fun at the expense of his “Ratherisms,” he concluded with an unexpectedly heartfelt tribute to Dan’s integrity. And then the evening was almost over.

“I still haven’t spoken to Angela Lansbury,” I said to my colleagues. “Now is the time.” I’d had one glass of white wine, and it gave me the courage I needed.

In The Manchurian Candidate, with Laurence Harvey

“Miss Lansbury,” I said, “I’m Dan’s assistant, and it’s such a treat to be here with you tonight. Sweeney Todd was the first show I saw on Broadway.”

“Oh, how marvelous,” Miss Lansbury replied, or something to that effect. I’m really not sure what she said, actually, because I kind of blacked out the next minute or two. (I swear, it was only one glass, and not even red wine.) The next thing I knew, I was well into singing Miss Lansbury’s part from one of her Sweeney Todd numbers, “Not While I’m Around.”

Suddenly conscious, I caught myself. “You really don’t need to hear me doing this, do you?” I said.

“Darling,” said Miss Lansbury, “it’s meat and potatoes to me!”

If it were possible to admire her even more, I did, right then.

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Peter Jennings

The ABC anchor, New Year's Eve 1999

Like many Canadians, Peter liked to pretend that he was Scots. It’s possible that, like many Canadians, Peter really did have Scots ancestry; I never bothered to find out. (No fact-checking? He’d have disdained my sloppy reporting.) But for whatever reason, beneath that suave, sophisticated exterior beat the heart of a man who was perfectly happy to wear a kilt.

Peter never graduated high school, and although this gave him a jumpstart on his career (he was a CBC star while still in his teens, and ABC’s anchor at the age of twenty-six), it also gave him a monumental chip on his shoulder. You didn’t need an advanced degree in psychology to see that his erudition was a defense mechanism. And around the studio, he found it absolutely necessary at all times to demonstrate that he was the smartest, best-informed, best-read person in the room, possibly the smartest, best-informed, best-read person alive.

On the air, this led to his ambushing correspondents with questions they couldn’t answer, leaving them speechless and humiliated, while Peter most often supplied the correct answer, and sometimes a smirk. (At CBS, it was protocol to warn the correspondent what the anchor would ask, or to let the correspondent’s producer propose the questions, ensuring that the correspondent wouldn’t be caught off guard.)

Peter treated his rivals much the same way. All three of the anchors liked to one-up each other, each according to his idiom. Brokaw’s favorite ploy (I was told) was to pretend to pick a hair or a thread off the lapel of Dan’s jacket, while they were talking. Dan, as clothes-proud as Peter was brain-proud, never had a single hair or thread on his lapel, and the gesture invariably threw him off. But Peter clearly relished his opportunities to show Dan and Tom that he was more polished than they, more knowledgeable, more urbane. Peter could pronounce long foreign words. Peter was not a cowboy. Peter was James Bond.

Dan and Tom naturally resented this. Dan liked to tell a story of the three anchors’ going to a restaurant — French, Italian, Chinese, it varied in the telling — where Peter insisted on ordering in the native tongue. The waiter politely replied that he didn’t think that was what Peter wanted. Peter got testy: “Don’t tell me what to order, just bring it.” The waiter returned with a bar of soap on a plate.

One of Dan’s tall tales, it probably never happened, but it’s an illustration: Peter’s defense mechanism could trigger other people’s defenses, too.

Woe to the ABC staffer who rebelled, however. They were expected to take Peter’s quizzes and lectures obediently, even gratefully. I had an opportunity to attend one of these sessions, when I was at ABC to help Connie Chung prepare her contributions to the coverage of New Year’s Eve, 1999.

Peter decreed that this was the turn of the millennium, and as a result no one dared mention again that, mathematically, the turn of the millennium would not occur until New Year’s, 2000. Peter preemptively dismissed such quibbles as elitist sophistry. Most people were treating this as the turn of the millennium, and so would ABC News. Never mind that news programs are supposed to have some basis in provable fact. Granted, not calling it the turn of the millennium wouldn’t have been much of an excuse for a show, and ABC’s plan was spectacular, twenty-four-hour coverage, with top-name correspondents filing reports on celebrations all over the world.

Everybody wanted Paris, but Barbara Walters got first pick. Be careful what you wish for: Barbara was in the thick of historically bad storms that closed airports and roads and uprooted trees all over the country. As part of the program’s cooperative union of the news and entertainment divisions, Dick Clark retained possession of New York City. Connie wound up with Las Vegas.

Her producer, a Texan named Teri Whitcraft, came up with a series of wonderful packages to offer, giving a real sense of the town. As I followed in her wake, I began for the first time to admire Las Vegas, to enjoy the quirks that once struck me as disorienting or annoying. I even began to understand the place — a little.

Teri prepared stories on history, economy, crime, tourism, gambling, quickie weddings, and show business. Las Vegas continually reinvents itself, as local historian Hal Rothman told us, and at the time the town was at the height of reinventing itself as … everything. “Faux” Las Vegas boasted replicas of Venice, Paris, New York, and the Starship Enterprise, and Teri diligently researched it all. Las Vegas was reinventing its entertainment, with spectacular new stage shows and hardly a pasty or ostrich feather left in sight. Las Vegas was reinventing its cuisine and shopping, with five-star restaurants and legendary chefs, with liquor so expensive that Nicolas Cage couldn’t afford to drink himself to death anymore, and with boutiques that sold not plastic souvenirs but sables and sapphires. Teri conducted countless background interviews; she got fantastic footage of the Cirque du Soleil and of flying wine stewards, of Connie in a gondola and of the artisans who created all those faux sculptures, paintings, and ornaments. With so much material, Teri and Connie could probably have filled all twenty-four hours by themselves.

But first we had to run it past Peter.

The three of us were summoned to Peter’s office, just off the set of World News Tonight. As Peter peppered us with questions, it was something like being called to the principal’s office, and something like taking one’s oral exams. Why Peter should have been an expert on Las Vegas is anybody’s guess, but he was no slouch. Without consulting notes, he quizzed us on the people, events, and books that he considered not merely germane but essential to our work. Mercifully, we had an answer for everything he asked (although we did use notes). Connie had been preoccupied with her duties for “20/20,” and had less time than Teri and I to research, but we’d shared with her the fruits of our efforts, and she’s a quick study. She fielded the bulk of Peter’s questions, and Teri took most of the rest; I stepped in only once, when Peter referred to a book the others hadn’t read. Though he remained perfectly cordial, we were all nervous as hell. Then he indicated his approval, and we fled.

Later, Connie got a note from Peter, complimenting her on the “presentation.” We hadn’t merely passed the exam, we’d gotten a gold star from the teacher. Connie’s relief was palpable.

Our little team proceeded to Las Vegas, where we taped more reports, and lined up some live interviews. The interviews required a high degree of diplomacy, because we had no idea when New York would call us: our subjects had to be on standby for several hours, on New Year’s Eve, with the Strip and much of the rest of the town virtually shut down to any vehicular traffic. Appearing on ABC risked ruining a great evening.

Most of our interviews obliged us with good grace. Mayor Oscar Goodman had no worries about the traffic, since a police escort would take him wherever he wanted to go. Paul Anka even seemed to enjoy hanging out with us. One fellow was sweating, however.

Of all the Elvis impersonators in Las Vegas, only one was licensed to perform wedding ceremonies. We’d invited him, and he’d accepted. But he’d been booked months in advance by couples wanting to tie the knot on Millennium Eve, and every minute we waited meant he might get caught in traffic and disappoint his customers on the most important night of their lives. In full Elvis regalia (thin Elvis, by the way), he paced the trailer, grumbling and constantly checking the clock. He was not happy when word came from New York that Peter didn’t want the interview after all.

As the evening wore on, it became clear that Peter’s vision for the broadcast had evolved. He was taking fewer and fewer taped packages, favoring live reports instead. Indeed, he’d barely taken any taped packages before he stopped using them altogether. Everything had to be live, immediate, exciting. I don’t say he was wrong, but I do say he was a little late coming to the decision, after we, and so many teams like us, had done so much work.

We all tried to be good sports, but you could see Teri was taken aback. She’d spent sleepless nights on those packages, and she’d had to listen to Wayne Newton sing “Macarthur Park” about eight million times in the editing room, which nobody should have to go through even once. And now her sacrifice was being brushed aside. Her sweet smiling face was starting to look like a cake left out in the rain.

It further became clear that Peter didn’t think Las Vegas was the most compelling dateline on his menu. Maybe he’d done so much research of his own that he’d grown bored by the subject; who knows? Meanwhile, perched on a little wharf that was built over the lake at the hotel Belaggio, with its dancing fountains in the background, Connie waited patiently, and responded with her customary sparkle whenever Peter called on her. There had been fears in Las Vegas (as elsewhere) of a terrorist attack or unruly crowds, but the Strip was jolly, not rowdy. The one bit of honest-to-goodness news happened right under our noses — a fellow tried to climb a lamppost and fell to his death — but we didn’t find out until after we’d gone off the air. Connie even heard a pop, which she first assumed to be a firecracker but which she now realized must have been the poor guy’s skull hitting the pavement. But no, Peter didn’t want to throw it back to us.

The correspondent teams were allowed to sign off at one o’clock, in whatever time zone they happened to be in, but Peter remained in the studio for the full twenty-four hours, never relaxing except after many hours on the air, when he changed out of his regulation 007 tuxedo and into a sport shirt and sweater. His voice was a bit ragged by the end, and he was visibly weary, but he soldiered on, in a superhuman display of physical prowess, of professional dedication, and of massive ego. Yet among those of us who didn’t believe this was the turn of the millennium at all, the question arose: why? This was a non-event. (A similar display from Peter the next year, when the results of the presidential election hung in the air, made more sense, especially after Dan went home to bed.)

During my brief stay at ABC, I didn’t see much of Peter, apart from the oral exam in his office. He didn’t appear to recognize me, and Teri suggested that it would be wiser not to remind him that I was the erstwhile right hand of his rival; even though Connie didn’t mind that dubious blot on my résumé, Peter might. Still, the lack of recognition struck me as curious, because Peter and I had met several times, and socialized together at private parties when I was still at CBS.

One of those parties was a black-tie Christmas celebration at the home of Kim Akhtar, Dan’s publicist, whose friendship with Peter’s publicist, Arnot Walker, had led to a historic cordial entente between the two anchors. On this occasion, Kim had invited both Dan and Peter, a number of people from CBS and ABC, as well as some of the print reporters who cover TV news. But imagination is the key to Kim’s phenomenal success as a hostess, and since Absolutely Fabulous had just become a big hit on American television that year, she invited the two men who’d won a Patsy and Edina look-alike contest, sponsored by the show’s American network.

The Patsy look-alike was Candis Cayne, who was just at the start of a brilliant career as a downtown celebrity. (Her new movie, Starrbooty, opens soon.) Clad in stiletto heels and a Chanel suit that was actually a little nicer than anything Patsy might wear, Candis was great company, very funny and sharp, and I was enjoying our conversation.

Then Peter walked in. Wearing a kilt.

Granted, Kim’s husband, Duncan, is Scots, and if you’re going to wear a kilt, you may as well do it in a Scotsman’s home. And, with Candis and her colleague present, Peter wasn’t the only man wearing a skirt. But still.

“Christ,” I muttered. “What kind of personality feels it necessary to come to a party and upstage the drag queens?”

“Gender illusionists,” said Candis, “please.”

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The Cheating Husband Cure, or Some Notes on Re-reading Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle

Morning was always Marge Drosselbart’s favorite time of day. She loved the first rays of sunshine through the kitchen window and the last moments of quiet before the house woke up. She began each day by sweeping, mopping, dusting, scrubbing, and scouring the entire house. She did the mending, and the baking, and the canning, and the washing, and the gardening. Noisier chores, such as running the vacuum cleaner and chopping firewood, could wait until later in the day. Then she sat down to churn the butter.

This was the time she could linger over a cup of coffee, listen to her favorite radio program, One Gal’s Backstage, and read the newspaper before George and their children Roscoe, Myrtle, and Phoebus got their hands on it. She had never imagined that four people could take so little time to destroy an entire newspaper. Sometimes she could only stand back and marvel. Her mother had never warned her that married life could be quite like this.

This morning, however, Mrs. Drosselbart sensed that something was different. She hadn’t heard George’s gentle snoring in the bed beside hers when she woke up this morning. She didn’t want to turn on the lights, for fear of disturbing him, but even in the dark she could see that his bed looked remarkably empty. This was curious. George was as reliable as the rain, she thought; surely he was in the bed, somewhere, because in bed was where he was supposed to be at 6:30 in the morning, every morning.

It was a relief to hear the door slam. "Is that you, George, dear?" she asked in a whisper just loud enough to be heard over her butter churn. It was still a few minutes before Roscoe, Myrtle, and Phoebus were due to wake up.

"Me, dear," George mumbled. "Sorry. Late night at the office. Big client. Going to catch a couple hours sleep before work. Kiss-kiss. Love you. Have you put on weight? Good-night."

He made an unsteady march from the front door to the bedroom, calling to her over his shoulder as he passed by, and slamming the bedroom door just as the alarm clocks went off in the children’s rooms.

"How strange George looks!" thought Mrs. Drosselbart. "But the kids will be late for school if I don’t start making breakfast."

"MOTHER!" shouted Myrtle, "Roscoe stole my backpack!"

"Did NOT!" shouted Roscoe. "She stole my pencil box!"

"Did NOT!" shouted Myrtle. "It was MY pencil box in the first place! YOU stole it from ME!"

"Children, children," called Mrs. Drosselbart. "Please keep your voices down. Your father is trying to sleep. Where’s Phoebus?"

"Oh, he’s locked himself in the bathroom AGAIN," said Myrtle at the top of her lungs. She clattered into the kitchen and sat down at the breakfast table.

"Yeah, AND he’s wearing Myrtle’s underwear," shouted Roscoe, taking his place at the table.

"On his HEAD," yelped Myrtle.

"Yeah, on his HEAD," crowed Roscoe. "He sure is WEIRD."

"Hush, hush," said Mrs. Drosselbart. "Have some bacon with your sausage." She placed seven strips on each plate. "How would you like your eggs?"

"Can I have extra gravy with my hash-browns this morning, Mother?" asked Myrtle.

"Where’s the cream? I can’t drink cocoa without cream," said Roscoe.

Little Phoebus shuffled into the kitchen. He was still wearing his footie-pajamas, and Myrtle’s panties were still over his head. "Phoebus!" said Mrs. Drosselbart. "You must hurry, or you’ll miss breakfast and be late for school. It’s important to eat a good breakfast."

She didn’t really expect him to answer. Phoebus had quit speaking at the age of five, ever since George had lost his job at the chemical-processing plant. Phoebus merely cast one baleful eye at Mrs. Drosselbart through one of the leg openings of Myrtle’s panties, and shuffled back to his bedroom.

By the time the children were fed and on their way to school, Mrs. Drosselbart had almost forgotten about her husband’s strange behavior. But now, as she washed the dishes and tidied the kitchen, she began to worry. For, now that she remembered it, George hadn’t had a job of any kind since he’d left the chemical-processing plant. So how could he possibly have been working late? How could he meet a client?

Since George was still sleeping, she couldn’t run the vacuum cleaner or chop the firewood yet. So she went to the telephone to call her friend, Mrs. Crippen.

"Cupola?" said Mrs. Drosselbart. "I’m worried about George."

"What’s he done?"

"Oh, it’s nothing, really. It’s just that he came home very late last night. In fact, it wasn’t last night at all-- it was this morning. He seemed disoriented, said he’d been working late, and went straight to bed. He had strange, lip-shaped red marks on his cheek and neck, and around his collar. Do you suppose he could have sustained a head injury?" Mrs. Drosselbart had read an article on head injuries in one of her women’s magazines, and it seemed a really severe head injury could be the cause of almost any ailment you cared to name.

"For goodness sake, Marge, don’t be a sap," said Mrs. Crippen. No one called Mrs. Drosselbart "Marge," and for a moment she didn’t realize that Mrs. Crippen was talking to her.

"What do you mean, Cupola?"

"I mean that George hasn’t sustained any head injury." Mrs. Crippen paused dramatically and then said, "Marge, what you have is a Cheating-Husband."

"Oh, no, my goodness me," said Mrs. Drosselbart. "What do I do?"

"Well, you have called the right person, dear," said Mrs. Crippen. "I remember when my husband Winthrop-- rest his soul-- had Cheateritis a few years ago. I gave him the Cheating-Husband Cure."

"What’s that?" asked Mrs. Drosselbart. "Is it painful?"

"Oh, not at all," said Mrs. Crippen. "It’s a special powder given to me by an old friend from obedience school. It’s white and very innocent-looking."

"Oh, yes," murmured Mrs. Drosselbart, "like everything white."

"Tell him it’s a sugar-substitute. You just pour a little in his coffee every morning, and within a few days," said Mrs. Crippen, "I guarantee you will notice the difference. He’ll never cheat again."

"How wonderful!" said Mrs. Drosselbart. "It sounds like one of the magical cures for misbehaving children in the wonderful Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books by Betty MacDonald! How I used to love those stories: ‘The Crybaby Cure,’ ‘The Answer-Backer Cure,’ ‘The Never-Want-to-Go-to-Bedders Cure,’ ‘The Thought-You-Saiders Cure.’ What a comfort to know that there really are such magical solutions to adult problems in real life!"

"Er... yes," said Mrs. Crippen. "Luckily I happen to have just enough of this... magic powder left over. Shall I send over little Arugula with a packet after school?"

"Oh, yes, please," said Mrs. Drosselbart. She was so relieved that she could hardly keep her mind on her chores, and she barely noticed when George left to go to his office around noon.

"Can’t be late," said George. "Big client. That dress looks awful. Closing a very big deal. Can’t you do anything about your hair? Must go. Love you. Kiss-kiss. Good-bye."

The children came home from school at four o’clock, with little Arugula Crippen in tow. "Hey, Mother! Arugula’s selling DRUGS!" shouted Roscoe, grabbing the packet of Cheating-Husband Cure out of Arugula’s hand and waving it in the air.

"Am NOT a drug-dealer!" said Arugula. "YOU are!"

"Okay, so I’m a dealer, so SUE me," said Roscoe. "You’re nothing but an addict."

"METHADONE!" shouted Arugula. "It doesn’t count."

"Mother, I think I’m pregnant," said Myrtle, while little Phoebus sat on the kitchen floor and picked his teeth with a switchblade. But Mrs. Drosselbart hardly heard them. She snatched the packet of Cheating-Husband Cure away from Roscoe, and served each of the children a big slice of fresh chocolate cake with triple-fudge frosting. She cut an extra slice for George, and sat down to wait for him.

She was still waiting at ten o’clock that night when George walked through the front door: "Sorry, dear. Late night. Big client. You look like a horse. Shouldn’t you be on a diet? Off to bed. Love you. Kiss-kiss. God, am I tired. Good night."

"Dear," said Mrs. Drosselbart, "couldn’t I tempt you with a slice of chocolate cake?"

"You couldn’t tempt me with a cattle prod," said George sleepily. "Oh, you mean just to eat. Sure, I guess."

"And how about a nice cup of coffee?"

"At this hour? Are you nuts, on top of ugly?"

"It’s decaffeinated, dear," said Mrs. Drosselbart.

George sat down at the kitchen table and began to eat. Between mouthfuls, he made conversation: "Could’ve married a dozen other girls if I’d wanted. Only married you because we had to. Never thought Phoebus looked anything like me. Moving to Tahiti next week, leaving you behind. Whyn’tcha put a bag over your head, do us all a favor?"

Mrs. Drosselbart was used to his saying such things. What worried her was that he wasn’t drinking his coffee.

"That cake must be awfully dry going down," she said helpfully.

"It’s all right," said George. "You’re ugly and stupid, and you’re a bigger disaster in the kitchen than you are in the bedroom, but at least your cooking tastes better than your coffee. Maybe a glass of buttermilk."

Mrs. Drosselbart had never disobeyed her husband before, so she went to the refrigerator and poured a glass of buttermilk. Still, she didn’t know how to get George to take his Cheating-Husband Cure. She could always stir some into his buttermilk, but Mrs. Crippen had specifically said to put it into his coffee. What if buttermilk spoiled the Cure?

Mrs. Drosselbart shrugged her shoulders and poured the entire packet into the glass when George wasn’t looking. If it didn’t work, she could always ask Mrs. Crippen for more, and try again tomorrow. She stirred the Cure into the buttermilk and set the glass before her husband.

"Here you are, dear," said Mrs. Drosselbart.

"God, I can’t stand the sight of you any longer," said George. "Did your mother mate with a warthog, or what?"

He took a long sip of his buttermilk, then turned bright red, began to splutter, and fell over backward in his chair. Mrs. Drosselbart knelt beside him and looked carefully.

What wonderful magic! The Cure had worked perfectly! George had no pulse, he wasn’t breathing, and there was a glassy expression in his eyes and blue foam around his lips.

Mrs. Drosselbart smiled. George would never cheat again. She would have to call Mrs. Crippen in the morning, to thank her. She would have thanked Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, too, if only there really were such a person.

She went to the cupboard to get the little hatchet she used to chop firewood. The weather report predicted snow, and she thought a big pot of stew would be just the thing in cold weather. George might be a little tough, she thought as she chopped, but slow cooking would take care of that.

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Charles Trenet

“The French, they are a funny race,” we’re told, but chances are, as an American studying French and (horreur!) living among French people, you don’t have much proof.

It’s not that the French are devoid of humor. Far from it. Most French people you ever meet, including your in-laws, are eager to laugh at you — or any other Americans. Your cultural imperialism, so inferior to their cultural imperialism. Your table manners. Your quaint notions about hygiene, politics, and whether to eat offal. Above all, your attempts to speak their language. These are the foundations of comedy in France today.

But when it comes to making others laugh, the French simply can’t be bothered. Their stand-up comics are chainsmoking misanthropes who speak a slang so dense, I’m sure other French people don’t understand it, and only laugh for fear that someone will mistake them for Americans. En bref, whether they are sneering at you or seducing you, the French are deadly serious.

Charles Trenet was the exception. When the chansonneur died a few years ago, everybody talked about the poetic romance of such hits as “Beyond the Sea” (“La Mer’) and “I Wish You Love” (even more poetic — and melancholy — in the original, “Que reste-t-il de nos amours?”). Oui, oui, oui, he was the first poet of the music-hall, writing his own material long before Brel and Gainsbourg. But the essential Trenet has been overlooked.

They called him “Le Fou Chantant,” the singing madman. He combined elements of Allan Jones (looks), Danny Kaye (style) and Irving Berlin (music). Pushing a porkpie hat back on his strawberry-blond head, he hopped around the stage, rolling his eyes, shimmying his shoulders, emitting noises no Frenchman ever made in public before. In “Boum!”, by far his greatest song, he explains that, while clocks go “tick-tock” and turkeys go “gloo-gloo-gloo,” our hearts go “boom” when we’re in love. “Even God says ‘boom’ in His armchair of clouds,” Trenet informs us. But he’s so overwhelmed by his “boom” that, by the end of the song, he’s just babbling: “Boom-boom-boom-b-b-b-b-b-b-bbb!” In “Il pleut dans ma chambre” (It’s raining in my bedroom), he goes completely unhinged as he imitates raindrops, wet cats, and a deluge of post-Louis XV proportions.

Even if your French isn’t good enough to get the full effect of his wordplay, you can have fun with these lyrics. It took a singing madman to understand what generations of first-year French students always knew: simple phrases in French sound hilarious.

“Tout est au duc” (Everything belongs to the duke) and “Débit de l’eau, débit du lait” (Public house for water, milk) become rhythmic and comic launch pads. “Fleur bleue” (Blue flower) becomes a love-madness which makes “words difficult to pronounce.” Young lovers’ clothes fly off faster than pigeons. The moon and the sun have a date, but can’t get together. A young poet, in love with the frosty Englishwoman “Miss Emily,” weeps “des larmes comme du beurre” (tears like butter — melted, presumably). And who can forget the immortal words of Trenet’s hatcheck girl: “Monsieur, monsieur, vous oubliez votre cheval”(Sir, you’re forgetting your horse)?

Surrealism, absurdism: these are just college-level substitutes for Trenet songs, and much less fun.

Even in his mellower moods, he is the rare French singer whose music never drove anyone to suicide. On the contrary, I suspect he’s saved lives. Trenet was fundamentally optimistic, and found in American swing the perfect vehicle for his sunny philosophies. His instinctive understanding of jazz, his impeccable use of Big Band orchestrations, didn’t contaminate his art or condemn his music to the cultural Chernobyl of Disney-McDonald’s globalization. Rather, they elevated novelty numbers and pop songs to enduring classics. He outlasted everybody from Chevalier to 2Be3.

Thanks to Trenet, the French were indeed a funny race. They’d have preferred to keep this secret. But I love the French better, knowing Trenet was one of them.

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23 June 2007

David Leavitt

For the first two years I lived in New York, I had a duplex apartment on West End Avenue, in practice if not in fact. My best friend from high school, Kevin Pask, lived on the fifth floor, and I lived on the sixth. Three bedrooms in each apartment. The building had a name — Latona Hall — but no elevator. The residents of the two apartments scurried up and downstairs day and night, eating and arguing and playing music and throwing parties with each other. Only at bedtime did we retire to individual spaces, closed doors, privacy and solitude: there was not a single instance, to my knowledge, of one roommate sleeping with another. We were as chaste as the Walton siblings, and nearly as numerous. Over two years, Kevin had four or five roommates, and I had nine. The one roommate we had in common, who lived principally in Kevin’s apartment and only briefly in mine, was David Leavitt.

David was already a known author, the youngest writer ever published in The New Yorker to that time, at work on his first collection of short stories, Family Dancing, which was dedicated to Kevin’s girlfriend, Debbie Keates, and released while he was still under our roof. In fact, his tenure in my apartment was due to that publication: he’d sublet his room to spend a summer traveling, but returned early in order to supervise the book. These preliminaries included approving galley proofs and getting his picture taken for an article in Interview. The juggernaut of his fame had been launched. Soon, it would be possible to speak of “a David Leavitt kind of story,” and everyone would know what you meant.

Getting published in The New Yorker was something all my classmates at Brown, and nearly everyone I knew at Yale (alma mater of Kevin, Debbie, and David) desired devoutly. Even those of us who never dreamed of writing, dreamed of The New Yorker. The early achievement of that goal had turned David’s head only a little. He was known, on occasion, to preface a sentence with a remark such as, “We New Yorker writers,” which was awfully hard to take, even if it was earned. But it was hard to dislike David for a remark like that. He often spoke thoughtlessly, about any number of subjects; he once got in trouble for announcing, to a French newspaper, that “l’âge de Updike est fini,” but he regretted it bitterly, insisted it wasn’t really what he meant, certainly not the way the headline made it appear, and he looked so darn helpless when he told you about it. David wanted to be loved. Even John Updike would forgive him a slip of the tongue.

He was tall, watery-eyed and near-sighted, neither handsome nor fit, with a hunch and a slouch, already losing his hair, yet not unpleasant to look at. He was an outsized, big-boned puppy, straining at any leash.

David’s early work in The New Yorker was among the most explicitly gay material the magazine had yet published, which reportedly occasioned some snide remarks from the legendary editor, Mr. Shawn. One of David’s stories concerns a young man who realizes he’s gay and wants to run up and down his college campus, announcing to the world, “I’m gay!” David may never have done that at Yale, but his gayness was trumpeted in New York; it was central to most of his conversation, and it, coupled with his seething twenty-two-year-old horniness, made me uncomfortable.

The reason, need you really ask, was that I hadn’t yet come to terms with the fact that I was gay, too. Would our friendship have endured if I’d been as open and self-aware as he? Or would my professional jealousy have intruded, as it did in any case?

For I, too, wanted to be a writer.

Wait, that isn’t accurate. True, I did want to be a writer. But David didn’t want, he was a writer, accepted as such by The New Yorker and by the world at large. I wanted to be published. David was published. The fact that David’s early work was unimaginative (entirely focused on the only three dramas he’d ever known in life: his coming-out, his mother’s bout with cancer, and his parents’ divorce), the fact that his style was dishonest (as lapidary and detached as David himself was gooey and tender), the fact that he was clearly writing to please somebody else (Mr. Shawn?) and not himself — these were not facts at all but my opinions, and none of them really amounted to much. Because the real and only significant fact was that David sat down and put his pencil to the paper and wrote. Copiously. Often. And, dammit, well.

I was still bitching about other people’s writing, and not writing anything myself. Before long, though, I did begin my first novel, typed late at night in my office at the Weill Foundation. It pains me to say so, but many of the qualities I admired in David’s first novel, The Lost Language of Cranes, were entirely lacking in mine. The control, the authority, the cohesion of theme and fluidity of plot were far beyond anything I was capable of. It took me years and years to learn to do that — I have a long learning curve — and it’s still to be debated whether I’ve mastered any of those fundamental skills. I had a better ear than David for dialogue and comedy, and I was better at describing things that hadn’t actually happened to me. But who cared? I still couldn’t craft a shapely story that anybody was interested in buying. Moreover, my first novel was (and would remain) painfully pretentious, crammed with pointless, obscure literary and musical references, and lacking in action — and interest. And as for honesty, David was light years ahead of me, both in his writing and in his private life.

David wanted to go out to the bars, and he wanted a wingman. Grudgingly, I’d accept. Was I looking for some excuse to go to a gay bar? Probably. They were far too intimidating for me to go there alone, full of noise and boys. Hanging in the smoky air was the possibility of sordid shameful sex my parents would never approve of. David provided cover. But the minute we got to the bar — usually the Boy Bar, on St. Mark’s Place — he’d abandon me, fly off into the crowd, latch onto some attractive man or other, and leave me standing alone in a corner with my vodka-tonic. I never dared speak to anybody; nobody ever spoke to me. I couldn’t have been more uncomfortable. I hated the music, which was always too loud and too modern, and the porn on the video screens was scarier than any nightmare. (Happily, perhaps, it turns out that real sex is always more banal than what we imagine.) I have vivid recollections of a clip in which some fellow drove a nail through his foreskin into a two-by-four. Though circumcised, I winced. Was this what it meant to be gay? It certainly wasn’t anything like the earnest couplings David described in his stories.

After a while, never more than an hour or so, David would give up, seek me out, tell me it was time to go home. I don’t think he ever got lucky when he went out cruising with me.

In reality, we may not have done this more than a few times. In retrospect, it seems like a thousand times, empty evenings spent alone and confused. Waiting for David to fail, so that I could return to the safe familiarity of the lies of my bed.

After Family Dancing was released, David moved to an apartment he purchased in the Vermeer, on Seventh Avenue. “The Veneer,” he called it, but he was house-proud, and rightly so. He didn’t visit the apartments on West End very often, and he and I saw each other infrequently. When Lost Language of Cranes came out, I phoned him and told him, in a roundabout yet easily decipherable way, that I didn’t like it: that put a predictable damper on our relationship, and we never really recovered from it. My principal effort at reconciliation, a hurried word of praise after a reading at the 92nd Street Y, was far too little, years too late. I’ve never seen him since.

As a result, I missed out on a lot of things. Not just the camaraderie of a fellow writer, which after all he did offer. He’d been a slush reader, and now he teaches fiction writing; mightn’t his advice have helped me grow as a novelist, at a time when I sorely needed assistance? Mightn’t his contacts have eased my search for an agent, or a publisher?

And I didn’t miss out merely on the sympathy of a gay man whose writings both provoked and consoled the coming-out of hundreds, perhaps thousands of gay men around the world. He might have provoked and consoled my coming-out, too, and I daresay I’d be a happier, better-adjusted person for it. As it was, I wound up sleeping repeatedly with a guy who found me repellent, and vice-versa: that was my first gay relationship, and I never told David about it. Probably I’d have been better off sleeping with David himself, though that wasn’t in the cards. We weren’t each other’s physical type, I was too timid to approach anyone I knew and might actually see with any frequency, and David was too nice, too kind, and insufficiently abusive to suit me at the time.

No, there were other things I missed, and do miss. David had read every book ever written, and he was especially strong on living authors, whom I, through jealousy, have avoided to this day. David was hardly hip, but he brought the first Madonna album into our apartment, and (I believe) the first Cyndi Lauper album, too. He could have helped me to hear a different music, though I might have asked him to turn down the volume.

At Yale, David had made a study of European gardens, finding sense and significance in the rigid geometry of the French and the careful wildness of the English, and something else in the Italian that I still don’t know well enough even to characterize: sometimes, now that I live in France, I look at the garden of some château and wonder what David would have to tell me about it. Me, I still curse myself for not knowing the names of the flowers; I can barely see the gardens at all.

Now that my father is an invalid, I wonder what David would have to tell me about a dying parent, about this strange last chapter of a man’s life, when his survivors have to accept that any outstanding business will remain unfinished, eternally.

David could be self-involved as hell, but he managed somehow to be a good listener, too, and he was always sympathetic to his friends. He wore his heart on his sleeve, and when the people he cared about were hurt or needy, you saw that he felt it, too. Was it fair to ask that he wear his heart on the sleeve of his fiction, too, that he make himself as vulnerable in print as he was in life?

There are many relationships I regret in my life, many I regret far more than I regret David. But, yeah, I regret him, too. I built up walls, then blamed him for not tearing them down. My loss.

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04 June 2007

Paul Anka

Singer, songwriter, master craftsman

While preparing material for ABC’s coverage of New Year’s Eve 1999, I wound up learning a lot about Las Vegas and some of the people who have made that town so weird and wonderful. Some of the biggest surprises came from Paul Anka, whom I knew only as a singer, and whose singing I knew but little — and took for granted. But Anka is not only a singer but songwriter, a true craftsman of pop music, and many of his songs are anything but forgettable. He’s also a remarkably nice, unaffected guy. Kinda makes you wonder how he managed to get along with Frank Sinatra.

When Anka showed up at the ABC trailer, on the banks of the lake at the Belaggio hotel, I introduced myself and told him (not too left-handedly, I hope) that the more I learned about him, the more I admired him. “So many songs I know turn out to be by you!” I said, unable to disguise the excitement of my discovery. “I mean, you wrote ‘Put Your Head on My Shoulder’! For Annette Funicello!”*

“‘Puppy Love,’ too,” Anka said. “I wrote that one for Annette, too.”

The two dated when they were young, but it was no publicity-stunt match-up between teen idols. Theirs was an enduring bond. Anka told me that Funicello, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis many years ago, lives in relative seclusion now. “I still call her every week,” he said, without wistfulness or pity, or pride in his generosity, or any of those things that might have colored his tone. Their friendship is so much a part of him that it didn’t require embellishment. “She’s just great.”

Maybe they did call it “Puppy Love,” but it sure has lasted.

And when I got back to New York, I made a fresh discovery. As a girl growing up in Toronto, Teresa Stratas was at exactly the right age and exactly the right place to be a serious Paul Anka fan — even though his family is Turkish and her family is Greek. I think she had a little bit of a crush on him, too.
* I can’t get rid of this mental image of Annette’s trying to put her head on Paul’s shoulder — but those darned Mouse ears keep getting in the way.

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H. Norman Schwarzkopf

Answer in the form of a question:
Who is a helluva nice guy?

I was fully prepared to dislike Norman Schwarzkopf. He was the highest-ranking American military officer I’d ever spent time with, the hero of a war I didn’t think much of, and the living embodiment of a culture with which I am, at best, uncomfortable. I expected a pompous ass, infatuated with his own rank and glory, unable and unwilling to bother with the enlisted men.

That expectation was probably colored not only by ignorance (I’ve never served in the military) but by a cousin whose husband had been a high-ranking Army officer, and who was herself the biggest military snob imaginable. Schwarzkopf outranked my cousin’s husband, and he was famous besides. Surely he’d be a jerk.

But Schwarzkopf turned out to be a great guy. Sure, since the Gulf War and the success of his best-selling memoir, It Doesn't Take a Hero, he had developed a taste for single-malt scotch, and he enjoyed a fine meal in a five-star restaurant with influential people like Dan Rather, but he was genuinely, transparently and unabashedly happy to put back a couple of beers and swap stories with the enlistees (in our case, the camera crew) and with raw recruits like me. He didn’t pull rank on anybody, didn’t give himself airs, and didn’t have to. He’s a big man, with a physical presence that commands attention, and a quiet confidence that commands respect. He didn’t have to remind you to follow his lead, he didn’t have to bark his orders — in short, he didn’t have to behave like a general. (Or what I thought a general behaved like.) He was thoughtful, observant, polite, one of the most decent people I met during my time at CBS.

The network had hired him as a consultant on military affairs, and in real terms this meant making him a kind of co-anchor with Dan on a few documentaries. Their first collaboration was called Return to Vietnam, and from what Dan wrote about it in The Camera Never Blinks Twice, neither one looked forward to the project. The men barely knew each other, each held certain (inaccurate) preconceptions about the other’s politics and wartime activities, and both were making their first trip back to an emotionally charged landscape of bad, bloody memories.

I didn’t get to go. I came thisclose, but in the end, the network wanted to save the money, to keep the crew sleek and swift, and to avoid pissing off the Vietnamese by inundating them with visa requests. So I wasn’t there when Dan and the General made their peace — though I did take Dan’s notes and the transcripts of their interview footage in order to craft that chapter in Dan’s book (one of the best editing jobs I ever did, by the way). The reporter and the soldier came to a meeting of minds, and it was pretty terrific.

Still, it might have been an act. People will say things when they know they’re on camera, things they think they’re supposed to say, things they think the public will like. They try to present a desired image. I’d seen plenty of interview subjects do this — hell, I saw Dan do it almost every day for years. Schwarzkopf had displayed abundant proof of his media savvy during the first Gulf War, and now he was getting paid by the same network that paid Dan to command its news division. He’d have to be an idiot to do anything that would make either of them look bad. And Norman Schwarzkopf was no idiot.

So I was still skeptical when I joined Dan and the General to shoot a documentary on the fiftieth anniversary of D-Day and the end of World War II in Europe. Since we were shooting in France, my potential utility was clearer to the bean-counters, and nobody objected to my coming along. It was a great trip. Jean Rather, who’s also a Francophile, joined us, and she engineered the highlight of our stay: a seven-course gourmet meal in the Relais-Château where we stayed in Normandy. The best meal I ever ate — though I was sick as a dog afterward. (I blame the kippers I ate in London a few days earlier.)

As we tramped around the beaches and countryside, I got a chance to watch Schwarzkopf, his interactions with the rest of the crew, his lack of pretension. I got to shmooze with him, too, and the result was the overwhelmingly favorable impression I carry today. If there must be wars, then there must be generals, and if there must be generals, let ‘em be guys like him.

A year later, we chartered a jet and went island-hopping through the Pacific, preparing a documentary on the end of the war with Japan. At the time, the General held the title of top money-winner on the game show Jeopardy!, and that, more than his gold stars or record-breaking book sales, was a distinction he bore with pride. Somebody had brought Trivial Pursuit aboard the jet, and neither the crew nor the General could resist the opportunity to match wits. Several players clustered around the little table on board, and the rest of us hovered around, watching.

Dan was sitting at the front of the jet, reading a book of Mark Twain essays I’d lent him. He looked up, saw the game getting underway, and beckoned to me.

“I have never said anything like this to you before,” he said in a low voice. “But the General’s contract is up for renewal. And this is not a request. You will not play against him. Do I make myself clear?”

He did indeed. So I returned to watch the game. The General wiped up the table, winning game after game, meeting no serious competition among the crew, in any subject category. Finally, he decided to sit out a round, and the crew invited me to take his place.

It was my turn to wipe up the table.

This did not escape the General’s notice. He wandered back toward the table and watched the game. Intently. And after I’d won, he put a hand on my shoulder and said, “You know, you really ought to think about going on Jeopardy.

Understanding this as a great compliment, I thanked him.

When the time came to renew his contract, the General went to NBC, who offered him more on-air time. But I had the satisfaction of knowing that CBS’s loss was in no way due to my skill at Trivial Pursuit.

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Miss Manners

Painfully correct: Judith Martin today

These days there are very few great prose stylists whose work can be found in the pages of any daily newspaper. Perhaps there never were many. Yet today one hardy soul graces the Washington Post with carefully crafted, delicately balanced sentences, precise vocabulary, and incisive wit, in two columns per week. Her name, Dear Reader, is Judith Martin.

In the guise of Miss Manners (usually depicted, whether in line drawing or in photograph, in a high lace collar, upswept Edwardian hair, and a tasteful cameo brooch), she dispenses advice on etiquette, answering readers’ letters (in black or blue-black ink, on unlined stationery, please, although of late she’s deigned to read e-mails, too) on such engrossing topics as acknowledgment of wedding presents, correct placement of cutlery, formal greetings at embassy luncheons, and how (not whether) to address unmarried partners of one’s in-laws’ children. Her columns are resolutely up-to-date, often hilarious, never snobbish or starchy, and they provide her with a platform to touch on many other subjects of perhaps loftier substance, as well as one firmly held ideal. For good manners, Judith Martin argues (politely), are a demonstration of consideration and respect for other people, and the rules of polite society are to be applied democratically: treat everyone with good manners, and you treat everyone as equal. (If not equal to you, then at least equal to everybody else.)

Shortly after our graduation, my friend Andy Weems, the finest actor at Brown, got a job at what was then called the Folger Shakespeare Theater in Washington. He began with spear-carrying parts but rose to Equity eligibility in the role of Ajax, in Troilus and Cressida, a rare, curious little play I have now seen performed more times than seems statistically probable. (I saw it yet again when Andy took the role of Thersites, in an off-Broadway production in New York, many years later.) The director of the Folger production book-ended the play with a dumb show, in which two innocent-looking, non-Equity-eligible children played war games with wooden swords and a toy horse (Trojan, of course). One of these children was Judith Martin’s daughter, the too-aptly named Jacobena.

I’d come to Washington to see the play, first when Andy was a spear-carrier, and yet again, when he took over the role of Ajax from another actor. Calculate that I saw the show twice each visit, and I was already up to a tally of four, for those who are counting. One evening, I didn’t watch the show, but went to dinner with another Brown friend, the photographer Catherine Karnow. We went to pick Andy up at the theater, but we arrived well before the end of the play. In the lobby there were a few other people waiting for the actors to emerge, and among these was Judith Martin herself.

Knowing that I admired her, Andy had told me that she was the mother of young Jacobena and that she’d been around the theater quite a bit during the run of the show. He claimed she’d been spotted at the opening-night party, clutching a glass of scotch and a cigarette in the same hand and laughing like a horse, but this must be attributed to Andy’s keen sense of satire and a desire to tease me, rather than to anything he actually witnessed. The real Miss Manners would never behave in such a way.

Now she and I were together in the lobby, she speaking with her friend and I speaking with mine. But we had plenty of time to kill, and I decided to introduce myself. I approached her.

“Excuse me, Mrs. Martin, but I’m a great admirer of your writing,” I said. I praised her style and wit, and told her that, although I found it difficult to live up to her standards of etiquette, it was great fun trying.

She thanked me — politely, of course. I had come to the end of my piece, and with a few murmured “wells” and “ahems,” I began to back away.

Yet I realized that simply to do so would be to miss a great opportunity. I approached her again. “Excuse me,” I said again. “How does one get out of these conversations where one has nothing left to say?”

“You’re doing fine,” said Miss Manners. “Just keep backing away, and soon you’ll be gone.”

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