30 July 2007

Pamela Harriman

Pamela Beryl Digby Churchill Heyward Harriman always made a point of recognizing Dan Rather, calling out to him and beckoning to him, and Dan was always willing to come over and greet her. Churchill’s sometime daughter-in-law, Brooke Heyward’s and Peter Duchin’s stepmother, Averell Harriman’s widow, America’s ambassador to France, Washington’s matchless hostess, and Edward R. Murrow’s (and God knows who else’s) lover: you can always spare a few minutes to say hello to a person like that.

If there is any other person like that.

I met her only briefly, a few times, outside political events. Dan would introduce me to her, and she would introduce Dan to John Carter Brown, her constant escort, whom Dan knew perfectly well already. And then we would all talk piffle.

Even at the time, far past the bloom of her fabled youth, she was very beautiful. She was also very dull.

Sometimes, standing there on the sidewalk outside the Democratic Convention or wherever, I'd hear my Inner Child whining, much as any kid does who's bored by the grownups' conversation: "Da-ad, let's go-o!" I was a political junkie and paid to follow these things; I'd have devoured any tidbit she offered about deal-making or debates. But she never said anything interesting. All I could do to keep myself from tugging at Dan's sleeve and dragging him away.

Yes, she was dull, but that’s not to say she was stupid. I don’t think she could have been: her career would not have taken its course if she weren’t possessed of at least a modicum of intelligence. She certainly knew how to ask enough questions to keep a conversation rolling, and she knew how to carry messages, keep secrets, arrange meetings, and (if you believe the stories) forge alliances. But there was no sign of wit, no sign of inquiry or probing, no sign of discernment, no sign of anything going on in her head at all. Instead there were superficial signs: she looked interested in what people, particularly men, were saying to her.

This at least gave her an advantage over other successful women of her generation. Once, Dan and I ran into Helen Gurley Brown, in the CBS studios on her way to tape an appearance on the old Jon Stewart show. Never as beautiful as Ambassador Harriman but manifestly smarter, she buttonholed Dan. Ms. Brown was desperate for material, she said, because even in those pre-Daily Show days, an appearance with Stewart was a demanding gantlet for any guest. Could Dan help her? Dan turned to me, and I gave her a few funny lines; I came up with a way to work in a pithy reference to her famous book, Sex and the Single Girl, too.

Eagerly, she wrote down a few notes — then thanked Dan and darted off. She never even acknowledged me. Even when Dan tried to introduce me, she didn’t look at me.

That’s a kind of discernment. It’s called snobbery. And Pamela Harriman didn’t possess it. She always, unfailingly acknowledged me. Maybe she’d been around long enough to know that lackeys sometimes grow up to be masters. Of the universe. And it cost her nothing to be gracious to me.

And maybe she saved the real charms for dinner parties and other, more propitious circumstances, when lackeys like me weren’t around, and she could concentrate on the masters. Naturally, I never got close enough to find out.

Nevertheless, I couldn’t imagine what had made her so appealing to so many famous and powerful men. I asked Dan once, and he said, “When you talk to her, she makes you feel that you’re the only man in the world.”

Was she the only one? Did Churchill and Murrow and William S. Paley and Aly Khan and Gianni Agnelli and Elie de Rothschild and Stavros Niarchos and Bill Clinton and Jacques Chirac — and Dan Rather, for that matter — really have any difficulty finding women who paid attention to their conversation?

By the time I met her, some of these guys may even have felt a macho pride, engaged in a kind of dick-measuring contest with the giants of history, as it were: I must be as big as Churchill, because the same woman is giving me the same kind of attention.

When she died, unexpectedly, in the swimming pool at the Ritz Hotel here in Paris, a newspaper writer observed that she was an exemplar of what the French used to call a grande horizontale, a woman who used sex to acquire power. The writer added with relief that Ambassador Harriman was one of the last of that breed, as well, because modern women didn’t need to sleep their way to the top. They could acquire power for themselves.

That’s a cheerful thought, but I wonder how far men have advanced along that evolutionary scale, and whether they are quite ready to bid farewell to the grande horizontale. When I recalled Ambassador Harriman in conversation with powerful men, even those a fraction of her age, when I remembered the eager expressions on their faces, I doubted. And I still do.

So long as men need women like her, there will be others like her. And one way or another, they will all get what they want.

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28 July 2007

From Paris to Springfield

I ate my red crayon.

The Simpsons Movie opened in Paris on Wednesday; it opened yesterday in the States. (Because France is cooler than America! Haw-haw!) Although I haven't seen the film yet, I did go to the Simpsons website to have my portrait made with all the gang down at Moe's. That's me — or rather, that's I — second from the left, between Barney Gumble and Homer. My chin looks a little weak in this picture, but maybe it's just the bad lighting. Reminds me of Tree's bar in New York.

I have been assured that my godchildren will approve of this picture.

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24 July 2007

There Goes the Neighborhood

You can't fight City Hall. In Beynes, you can hardly stand to look at it.

The old town of Beynes, the Bourg as it’s called, is a cluster of homes along the main street, the rue de la République, which crosses, then more or less follows the course of the tiny river Mauldre. Grey-stone houses, including the one in which I live, line the street, and for years, one of the more picturesque views in town has been afforded from my front door: the neo-classical city hall (now an elementary school); a fine old farmhouse, and its detached barn, a long, low two-story building.

I haven’t been here long enough to know where the farm itself was, whether it extended behind the farmhouse and barn or whether it was somewhere else altogether, outside the city limits, with all the other local farms. But until a few years ago, the farmer was still there. Around seven every morning he’d begin puttering around the grounds, and the rusty creak of his opening shutters was like an alarm clock. He lived alone, and he wasn’t talkative: I encountered him on the street a few times, and we exchanged no more than a few words.

Then one morning his shutters didn’t creak open. My next-door neighbor noticed, and she went to inquire. The old man was dead on the floor of his kitchen.

Since his death, the property across the street has been divided. The farmhouse is being neatly refurbished, but the old barn was marked for destruction. I’m still not sure which plan won out, but neither the proposed parking lot nor the proposed municipal building could possibly match the barn’s romantic charm. Folks seemed to be taking their time in tearing it down: the old clay tiles came off slowly, one by one, as if a stiff but leisurely windstorm were on the attack. This made the barn seem only more pittoresque, in the French sense, not only worthy of a picture but also falling apart. Since my friends Kara and Konrad gave me a digital camera not long ago, I resolved to shoot a few pictures for myself, and if I’d been quicker about it, I could have have posted them here. But this morning, a steam shovel pulled up, and by four o’clock, the barn was gone.

There’s a gaping hole in the farmyard now, with big white rocks piled high beside a stack of ancient timber. The builders hardly bothered to hew the tree trunks from which they constructed their pillars and beams: you can see the knobs where branches used to be.

The view out the back window of my house has changed, too. A line of poplars used to border the Mauldre, but two years ago I looked out the living-room window to see something startling: the tawny spine of the wheat-swept hillside across the river. The poplars had always blocked it from my view, but the city fathers decided the trees were sickly and had to be cut down. This was a lie. One had only to look at the fallen trunks to see that they were perfectly healthy.

When Bernard complained to city hall, a disdainful official told him that, really, he ought to trust the experts, and if the experts said the trees were dying, they were dying, and he ought not ask questions about subjects of which he was ignorant. I doubt many American officials would have dared to make such a response, but the French do trust experts, and their paternalistic government’s patronizing officials, much more than Americans would do. The loss of the poplars inspired no rebellion and only slight protest, apart from Bernard’s, which was too late in any case.

In a nation with nearly 10 percent unemployment, perhaps one shouldn’t begrudge the creation of a few jobs, and after all people did get paid to cut the old trees, to plant new ones, to install lamps, and to blaze a little jogging trail alongside the river. But the new trees are still saplings, and the riverbank is not so pleasant as it was. Maybe it’s a mercy that the summer has been so cold and rainy, because there’d be no refuge from the heat at the Mauldre’s edge.

Apart from a brief flurry in the sixteenth century, when Diane de Poitiers remodeled the Château and invited her friends to visit, Beynes was never destined to be a tourist destination. And judging from the way the townsfolk cannibalized the ruined Château, stealing stones for their homes (and, no doubt, for my neighbor’s barn), the concept of historical landmarks never did hold much weight in the local imagination. But the old town was pretty and quaint. It’s sad to lose any of that, and especially sad for an American. In the United States, there’s a rush to tear down and start fresh, and we define progress with a wrecking ball. Most structures never get the chance to grow old or to be appreciated by new generations of Americans. We lose the sense of continuity, the physical reminders that anything is older than we are.

The French haven’t always defined progress with a wrecking ball. At the Louvre, for example, successive kings sought to impose their taste by adding to the palace, not tearing it down. But modern misadventures in architecture have resulted in the outsized awfulness of les Halles, the Mittérand Library, and the Bastille Opera, and you can’t help thinking that whatever used to be there couldn’t have been any worse than what’s they’ve got now. Even in little Beynes, the new structures that replace old don’t seem worth the bother to build them: the old city hall is a stately manse, the new one a monstrosity.

Fortunately the city managed to salvage the old city hall: it was more cost-effective to convert the building than to build a new school. And therein lies hope. It would take more money than the French have got to tear down all this country’s old buildings and put up new ones.

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23 July 2007

Susan Graham

Mon âme soeur

I’d been a great admirer of Susan Graham’s for several years before I finally got the chance to meet her. She was singing a recital to benefit Classical Action, at the home of Locke Whitney, and the Opera News staff was invited to attend. The idea of a recital in a private home struck me as something out of Proust, and a Whitney is about as close to a Guermantes as I’m ever likely to get. Thus I wasn’t entirely surprised when Susan’s first number turned out to be “A Chloris,” the stately, tender love song that’s one of the staples of her rep, and it just happens to be composed by Reynaldo Hahn, Proust’s sometime lover and the first person to read A la recherche de temps perdu. (Proust might have appreciated the fact that the pianist’s page-turner was a Juilliard student I’d hooked up with many times.)

But that’s one great thing about music: it connects us to other listeners, to the singer and the piano player, to the page turner and the composer, to the lyricist, to all the people who ever sang the song before, and to all the people who ever heard it.

And nobody sings “A Chloris” better than Susan Graham. Somehow she’s only improved her interpretation since she first recorded it, on an all-Hahn album, several years ago; in Locke’s apartment that evening, she spun out a warm, glowing line that ached with desire. She reached across the centuries, seizing the melody (which Hahn borrowed from Bach) and the text (by a Renaissance French nobleman who was executed for the crime of homosexuality) with one hand — and my heart with the other.

She followed up with two numbers from a role she was adding to her repertoire, the title part in Handel’s Ariodante. Right then, I made up my mind to fly to Houston to hear her sing the whole opera. (It was well worth the trip. She sang her big number, “Scherza, infida,” while lying on her back, sliding down a sort of dome. In time to the music. Unbelievable.)

After the recital, I was chatting with Susan’s publicist at the time, Sylvie Bigar, and mentioned that I started most mornings by playing Susan’s recording of “A Chloris.” “You’re like the twelfth person to tell me that tonight!” she exclaimed, then rounded up, no lie, a dozen guys, all of whom played “A Chloris” every morning.

Music connects.

At last Susan greeted the guests, and we met for the first time. During our brief conversation, she kissed me. Twice. I was hopelessly, permanently smitten.

It was a warm spring night, and the moon was full. Leaving the party, the page-turner invited me back to his place — and somewhat to our mutual astonishment, I declined the invitation. The evening had been perfect. To add anything else — even really, really good sex — would only spoil it.

The next day, Susan came to the Opera News offices, and she kissed me again. Rewarding my fidelity? Sealing my doom? All of the above?

We have a lot almost in common. We’re both Francophiles. We’re both raised Methodist. We’re both Texan — but she was born in New Mexico. We’re the same age — but she’s a year older. We’re the same height — but she’s an inch taller.

Yet those things don’t explain what happens when she sings: it’s as if there’s no stage, no audience, no other musicians, nobody else in the universe. She’s right in front of me, singing for no one but me, and nothing exists but the music and us. It’s uncanny. A few other singers are able to do this, sometimes, but Susan Graham does it for me every time.

After a performance at Carnegie Hall, I went backstage to congratulate her. She was wearing a feather boa that she’d artfully incorporated in her singing of some French numbers, and she was, of course, gorgeous. “You did it again,” I said.

“Did what?”

“That thing you do, where you make everybody else go away and sing only for me.”

“Oh,” said Susan, deadpan. “Did you notice it, too?”

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22 July 2007

There’s Glory for You!

With the passing of another birthday and an onslaught of deaths in Opera World come thoughts of my mortality. Sure, I’m Peter Pan, and everybody knows it: emotionally I’m about five years old, and I buy clothes in the boys' department. But the calendar tells me I’m 46, and the mirror tells me my hair is getting whiter by the minute.

“One can’t help getting older,” Alice tells Humpty-Dumpty, who replies, “One can’t, perhaps, but two can.” (This is an offer to murder her, which Alice, unlike most readers, instantly recognizes.)

It’s not for me to contest the greeting-card axiom that getting older beats the alternative, and it is surely ignoble to complain. But complain I must. For I have discovered a new mid-life crisis, to go along with all the other ones. (I’m working on a complete set.) Some recent trips to the gym have proved that I’m not a kid anymore.

Just before moving to France, I was (I now understand) in the best physical shape of my life. In New York, I went to the gym six times a week. My starting weight on the incline chest press was my body weight: 145 pounds. Without a spotter, I could progress to press 205 pounds for four to six repetitions. My abdominal definition drew envious praise from dance students at Juilliard, and it became difficult for even my closest friends and social advisers to prevent me from flashing my four-pack, or removing my shirt altogether. (Yes, it was only a four-pack, but I had a deposit on the other two.) My favorite stunt was to suspend myself from my knees to perform my crunches upside-down. This is easier than it looks — but it doesn’t look easy at all. Which was the point of doing it in front of other people.

In Paris, I still go to the gym, but not with the frequency or intensity of my Manhattan training. There is nothing from which to suspend myself to do my crunches. A recent return to New York gave me the opportunity to work out without metric conversion, and I confirmed that I’ve grown substantially weaker: now I’m lucky if my finishing weight on the incline press is 145 pounds. My own weight has dropped: I’m down to about 140, and the inescapable conclusion is that I’ve lost muscle mass and added fat. Although my abs are still plural — abdominals, not mere abdomen — they’re less what the French call en tablette de chocolat (like a chocolate bar), and they threaten to become what the French call chocolate mousse. It ain’t what it used to be.

The question is whether it will ever be again what it used to be. I could always redouble my efforts, hitting the gym with renewed passion — and indeed I just renewed my membership. Yet I’m not sure I’ll succeed. It’s not merely that Paris has so many distractions. It’s that it all seems too much bother.

I AM Old Father William.

The gradual loss of my "crazy ripped" physique (to cite the description of one young admirer) might not be so dismaying if it weren't the harbinger of further decay yet to come: even if I do hold back the tide today, there will be later, bigger waves, and at some point I will wash away completely.

Even beyond that, though, it's a bummer. After all, I worked damned hard to look this way. The way I used to look. For a while. And may look again.

I grew up a couch potato, through both natural disposition and geopolitical destiny. Nearsighted even as a child, I couldn't participate satisfactorily in the sports played by other kids in my neighborhood in suburban Texas. Everything in Texas requires hand-eye coordination, something I didn't possess and couldn't develop. And in Texas, if you don't play ball, you must be subversive. I was more likely to get beat up by both teams than to be picked to play on either side.

Though one reads all the time those heartwarming tales of shrimpy kids who defy the odds and grow up to be prize-winning athletes, I lacked the requisite fortitude to be one of them. I never had much affinity for sports, and I lost irretrievably whatever I once possessed. Instead of rising to the challenge, I developed body anxieties so extreme that I couldn't remove my shirt at the beach.

As I neared my thirtieth birthday, I resolved to be in better shape than I was at 20. This wasn't difficult, since I hadn't been in very good shape to begin with, but I threw myself at the new resolution with fervor. I found inspiration in my friend Feldstein, who'd managed, in what seemed very little time, to reshape himself entirely, becoming a barrel-chested, broad-shouldered tough guy.

Working out wasn't easy: it took a long time to overcome the instinctive fear of getting beat up whenever I set foot in the locker room, and longer still to overcome the fear that people were staring at me and laughing at my ineptitude. I had to learn that, in the grownup gym, if anybody looks at you — that is, if you distract a potential bully from the rapt contemplation of his own perfection — it's not because you're a doofus. It's because he wants to sleep with you.

But free weights have this advantage over footballs: you don't have to catch them. My nearsightedness seldom proved an obstacle to my training. And though I never quite came to resemble Feldstein, the results pleased me nevertheless.

And now it's all slipping, slipping, like so much else. Où sont les neiges d'Antinoüs? If I were a character out of Cheever, I'd start swimming in the neighbors' pools — but I'm not, and they don't have any. Merde, alors.

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19 July 2007

Parisian Postcards and Summer Souvenirs

She knows something you don't know.

Summer has arrived at last in Paris: temperatures over the weekend cleared 30 degrees, and it is now possible to wear shorts and a T-shirt without shivering. I’m a summer baby — my birthday was Tuesday — and I miss the heat and its evocations of youth and freedom. But the season is not without its risks and irritations. Yesterday on the Métro I saw a couple of tourists who were glowing like a Spencer Gifts poster under black-light; they’d attained a vivid shade of pink somewhere between that found in French toilet paper and that found in a bottle of Pepto-Bismol. An object lesson on the hazards of staying too long in the sun. My birthday generally coincides with the release of pollen from every acacia tree in Paris, and this year is no exception: every few hours I have an allergy attack.

The greatest irritation, though, is the tourists, and despite the weak dollar Paris is packed with hordes of shrieking American teenagers. Clogging the museums. Blocking the streets and subways. Buying idiotic trinkets. Eating at McDonald’s.

I used to be one of them. Thirty years ago I saw Paris for the first time, and I did all the things that these kids do today. But Paris began to work her magic on me, and soon I would be transformed, forevermore.

I came to Europe with my high-school French teacher, Carlene Klein, who’d enlisted me and five other pupils for a five-week study program. Joined by about a hundred kids from other parts of the United States, we set off first for Rome, then flew to Madrid, then drove to Saint-Jean-de-Luz for two weeks. After a weekend bus ride through the Loire Valley and its châteaux (which, miraculously, are still standing despite our visit), we arrived in the capital.

As a Texan I had studied French with only a dimly hopeful notion that anyone else spoke the language: I had to take it on faith that, if I said something in French, somebody else might answer. If a young Texan wants to communicate with other people, he studies Spanish. But I was an oddball. I didn’t want to talk to other people. I wanted to be special, different, and I now suspect that I sought out ways to set myself even further apart.

Suddenly I found myself in a country where speaking French was normal, where that language actually connected me to other people, and to a culture that I found glamorous and irresistible. I was so impressed by the great cathedrals that I wanted to be a part of the tradition that built them; at Chartres I genuflected and crossed myself and pretended to be a Catholic.

That was hardly the most extreme of my sentimental reactions to the French culture. At the Louvre, when I saw the Mona Lisa for the first time, I started to cry. Leonardo was already one of my great heroes, and seeing his most famous painting was, I realized, an achievement, one I couldn’t take for granted. There’s a story that when the French novelist Stendhal saw the Mona Lisa, he fainted, and ever since the “Stendhal Syndrome” has described an excessive emotional response to art: I didn’t know this, yet I experienced it. There she was. Not a dream, not a picture in a book, not a print or a copy, but the real lady herself. Our eyes met. I cried.

Nothing can prepare you, nobody can warn you of her quiet dignity. Her delicacy is revealed in striking contrast to the tourists who flock to her, babbling, laughing, taking flash pictures despite the signs telling them not to, and despite the presence of the hapless security guard who stands by, doing nothing at all. In those days the painting hung in the middle of a long wall, and it was difficult to get close to her; other paintings, including several by Leonardo, hung adjacent to her, but few people noticed them.

They come for the Mona Lisa, not because it is a good painting but because it is a famous painting. They will tell the neighbors they saw it, because they were supposed to see it, because they haven’t really been to Paris if they haven’t seen it. They won’t understand it, and you hear them exclaim: “It’s so small! It’s kinda dark! You can’t see anything because of the glass! What’s the big deal?” They will debate whether her eyes follow you around the room. They will make jokes about her eyebrows and her smile. They will — unconsciously — make it difficult for you to see the picture or to have any kind of dialogue with it. And then they will hurry off to see the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower next, because they are supposed to see them, too.

Already, at the tender age of 16, I began to understand that I didn’t want to be one of these awful tourists. Once again, I wanted to set myself apart, yet now I also wanted to bring myself closer to people who weren't like these tourists — namely the French themselves. Studying French would be less a means to isolate me than a means to usher me into another kind of life. A seed was planted, to bear flowers and fruit for many years to come.

That isn’t to say that I was transformed immediately. During that week in 1977, I did everything the awful American tourists always do.

My birthday was a Sunday, and although I was running a low-grade fever, I didn’t want to miss a thing. We went to high mass at Notre Dame. We went to the Hôtel des Invalides to contemplate Napoleon’s tomb. We went to the Arc de Triomphe, and we strolled the Champs-Elysées, where we ate.

It was the first and last time I ate at McDonald’s in this country. Although my refusal to return to the Golden Arches has become a principled stand, the meal gave me no reason to come back. Thirty years ago, the French still had a lot to learn about making hamburgers, even in an American chain store, and I realized that they’d cooked the lettuce with the meat. It took a lot of ketchup to make it go down. We recovered by going for ice cream at the Renault store, where you used to be able to sit in vintage cars while consuming your dessert.

The next night, a few of us who were opera buffs went to the Palais Garnier (there was no Bastille Opera in those days), where Rossini’s Cenerentola was playing. I was disappointed that we wouldn’t hear Frederica von Stade, whose reputation in the leading role was already so widespread that, a mere two years into my opera obsession, I’d heard of her. Instead, we heard somebody called Teresa Berganza.

I’d never heard of her. I wish I could tell you that my taste was so refined that I appreciated her, but it isn’t so. The great Spanish mezzo sang her heart out, and I thought she was pretty good, but I don’t recall any specifics of her performance. We had partial-view seats in the nosebleed balcony, up in the rafters, and the only thing that made much of an impression on me was the Montgolfier balloon in which Cinderella’s fairy godfather made his entrances and exits.

The next night was more memorable, though I can't defend that on aesthetic grounds. One of the teachers from a school somewhere in the Midwest volunteered to take a group of us to the Moulin Rouge. The venerable cabaret is one of the worst tourist traps in Paris, and it has maintained its racy reputation by evolving from bloomer-flashing to breast-baring. Though the girls still dance at least one can-can, in period dress, in every performance, now they spend most of the show in pasties and G-strings and ostrich plumes, parading Las Vegas-style. Particularly for a teenager from the sheltered suburbs of the Bible Belt, this was provocative.

The Temple of Vice

The teacher who guided us was a Roman Catholic priest, so it was presumed that our morals wouldn’t be corrupted that evening. Yes, in those simpler times, it used to be considered safe to hand over a bunch of horny teenagers to a priest in a red-light district. And so he led us through the wilds of Pigalle, past sex shops and strip bars and brothels. On the sidewalk I overheard a prostitute haggling with two johns over the price of her favors: they said 15 Francs and she said 17. At the time, this was the difference between $3 and $3.50, and even though I was naïf, I couldn’t imagine what services she could perform (for two customers) that would be worth so little money.

Outside a strip club, a barker was crying, “Venez, venez! Fucky business!” That struck me as funny, even though I was already aware of Universal English, that limited vocabulary understood by every person on the planet, and that this vocabulary begins with “Coca-Cola” and “okay” and proceeds to “dollar” and “rock and roll” before terminating at “fuck” and “shit.”

Yet Pigalle was terrifying. I wasn’t merely naïf, I was a virgin — about everything. Pigalle was dark and seedy and completely overflowing with sex, a process that was entirely mysterious and scary and weirdly compelling. Later I’d realize that Pigalle is to sex what McDonald’s is to food: it’s cheap and it’s fast and it’s got a lot to do with buns, but it’s not like having a real meal. But at the time I didn’t know anything.

I’d just passed up an opportunity to lose my virginity, in Saint-Jean-de-Luz. A couple of the guys from the Northeast, older and thoroughly indoctrinated in the mores of the 1970s, had met some local girls and were taking full advantage. They’d go out to bars, then go back to one of the girl’s apartment and have sex. Just like grownups. My virginity was obvious to everybody, and apparently I wasn’t the only one eager to see me lose it. A guy from New York handed me one of his designer condoms, some special material in a blue-plastic case that looked like a horse tranquilizer. He invited to come along one night.

But I choked. Falling back on the oldest, lamest excuse in the world, I whined, “I’m saving myself for my girlfriend.”

At the time, I hadn’t even told my girlfriend I was in love with her, that I’d been in love with her for three solid years already, that I considered her a girlfriend at all. At best, this was purely theoretical; at worst, it was cowardice. And the worst was the case.

But the New Yorker nodded and said, “I respect that.”

Even at the time, I thought, “Why?” I didn’t respect it, and I’m the one who said it.

Merely a week later, Pigalle was a nightmare carnival, and it was a relief to step into the safe haven of the Moulin Rouge. What could be threatening about the Moulin Rouge? My mother played the theme song from the John Huston movie on the piano! “Whenever we kiss, I worry and wonder / Your lips may be near, but darling where is your heart?” I don’t think I understood that the dancers wouldn’t be dressed like Jane Avril in the old Toulouse-Lautrec posters.

The theme of the show that year was “Toutes les Couleurs du Brésil,” and the star was Lisette Malidor, a statuesque black woman with a shaved head and no clothing. Ever since Josephine Baker, the Parisians have liked to look at naked black ladies singing and dancing, and Mme Malidor enjoyed a long and distinguished career in Parisian revues. She’s from Martinique, not Brazil, but that didn’t seem to matter much to the Moulin Rouge crowd, and she sang persuasively about Brazil’s exotic pleasures. Whereas Baker wore a skirt made of bananas, Malidor sang about pineapples. Close enough. She was supported by an exuberant cast of scantily clad women and shirtless men, and a couple of girls who swam in a special tank.

Granted, not one of the women was completely naked. But the difference between a completely naked woman and a woman wearing pasties and a G-string isn’t much, no matter how many beads and feathers and sequins and strategically placed pineapples you add to the costume. I’d never seen a naked woman, and I’d never seen a black woman’s breast except in the pages of National Geographic.

We ordered a bottle of champagne for the table, and it was my first taste. It didn’t take much to get me buzzed in those days, and after a little while, the champagne began to feel really good, and the naked ladies seemed not intimidating but rather fun.

If this is what it means to get older, I thought, bring it on.

Now the wished-for oldness has been brought on, in increasingly large shipments of bulky packages over which I trip in the night. I am older, and I see women in advanced states of undress every time I forget which is the men's locker room at the gym, and I only vaguely recall what I am supposed to do with them anyway. I am seldom if ever mistaken for a tourist in Paris. I speak the French language, and people answer me. My apartment is down the street from the Moulin Rouge, and though the price of admission is too high to pay, I know where to get champagne whenever I please. I know what hours (and what months) are best to look at the Mona Lisa, the mezzos who sing at the Palais Garnier are my friends, and I know better than to play at being a Catholic.

But the magic of Paris still moves me the way it did 30 years ago, and in the heat of summer, I’m not so old after all.

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17 July 2007

Childlike Quality: A Birthday Vignette

There won’t be much about Teresa Stratas in these pages, despite the important role she’s played in my life. She’s said, again and again, that she’ll never tell her story, and I’m not about to presume to tell her story for her. I told her that once.

“Honey,” she replied, “some of those stories are yours. I just happen to be in them.”

What follows isn't even a story.

Not long ago, Teresa wrapped up one of our too-rare phone conversations with an exhortation to “hold onto that childlike quality of yours.” This was unexpected, not only because my forty-sixth birthday was looming like a gallows, but also because my mother had used precisely the same words in a phone conversation a few weeks earlier.

At various times in New York, Teresa served as a surrogate mother, picking me up after psychic dustups, kissing my spiritual boo-boos and making them better, in loco parentis. Apart from this, and the accident of history that separates their birthdays by a mere two years, she and my real mother resemble each other not at all. Yet the coincidence of the two women’s words suggested a truth I must not try to avoid. Between them, they know me pretty well.

While it’s true I still call myself a “boy,” the justifications for doing so have begun to elude me. I clung to the designation for a long time, not least because I arrived at it so late: in my cultural tastes, in my timorous behavior, in my prudish mores, I was a little old lady until well into my twenties. I had to work hard to become a boy, and I got to be rather good at it, and I’m reluctant to move onto the next phase. If both Teresa and my mother approve — so be it.

And soon enough I’ll be wearing diapers again, and my childlike quality will take care of itself.

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10 July 2007

Des nuits d'été

The Château of Beynes: un chouette tas de pierres

Thirty years ago today, I was running amok in the streets of Saint-Jean-de-Luz, near the Spanish border on the southwest coast of France. I want to apologize right now for my behavior. I was a tourist. I was only fifteen. It was my first trip to this country, my first glimpse of the Cathedral of Chartres and the châteaux of the Loire, my first champagne and my first real baguette, my first opportunity to speak the French language with people who might actually understand what I said. I was an excitable boy to begin with, and in these circumstances, it’s only natural that I was overexcited. But still. I’m sorry.

I have been trying ever since to be, if not French outright, at least French-like. French-esque. French-worthy. And today I celebrated the successful renewal of my residency permit by doing something I never do: eating lunch at the Brasserie du Château, overlooking the crumbling remains of the Château de Beynes, a few doors from my house.

There’s not much left of the old castle, it must be said, and in my more disrespectful moments I call it le tas de pierres (the pile of rocks). Construction began in the fourteenth century, and in its heyday the Château was the property of Diane de Poitiers, the celebrated beauty who was mistress of Henri II and one of the most powerful women in France. (It’s on her account that you see statues and paintings of the goddess Diana all over this country.) But since Diane’s day, nobody seems to have given much of a damn about the old place, and starting in the nineteenth century, my neighbors began picking away at the walls, using the stones to build their own homes. Perhaps even the one I live in: I can’t be sure. The pile of rocks is open to the public only one day a year; it’s surrounded by a grassy moat, long since drained, where a Battle of the Bands is another annual event, and where there’s a flea market sometimes.

The Château lies near the river Mauldre, in a valley where stands anything that passes for a landmark in these parts: the Church of St. Martin and the monument to the French war dead; the municipal playing fields, duckpond and tennis court; the ugly city hall and post office; the town market (Thursday and Sunday mornings), and the médiathèque, La Barbacane, which boasts a library, art classes, movie screenings, and touring theatrical productions. These are the images that are preserved on (rare) postcards and (rarer) websites, and they’re the heart of the Bourg, the old town — right behind my house.

Nestled among wheat fields and rolling hills, Beynes is less than an hour from Paris by commuter train. The town famous for nothing, and I wouldn’t live here, nor even have heard of the place, if it weren’t for my friend Bernard Boutrit. Bernard’s grandmother was a close friend of Juliette Chalat, the previous owner of this house, and Bernard’s mother used to come here on holiday as a little girl; later, she brought her own children to visit Juliette for vacations. In those days the place was linked to the house next-door, part of a complex of farmhouses, shared with Juliette’s half-witted half-brother, Marcel, who’s still remembered for his insistence on sitting behind the television set to listen as if it were a radio. Today, the house next-door is a dog-grooming salon, Tif’s Toilettage, and the home of the salon’s owners.

Juliette was a schoolteacher, slight of stature and remarkably plain of face. She never married, and when she died, she willed her house to Bernard’s mother, as near to a daughter as she’d ever known. The house still bears traces of the old woman. The kitchen sink is built to her requirements, meaning that I have to bend over to wash the dishes. Some of her papers and books still turn up in odd corners, and we lately discovered a little paperback entitled Dictateurs de nos jours, with pictures of Mussolini and Hitler on the cover, bought in the 1930s, that surely would have created trouble for her if the Nazis had ever searched this house during the Occupation.

I suspect that hers was a lonely life, although that’s perhaps a reflection of my own solitude in this town: apart from the owner of the Brasserie, a couple of merchants, and the folks in the houses next-door, nobody knows me here. Did Juliette have friends and a busy social life? I don’t know. I don’t even know how to find out. She has been gone a long time; she was dead already when I first set foot on French soil.

So many of the old buildings still stand: she might recognize Beynes, but there’s little left in Beynes that would recognize her. Her pupils have moved on, retired or dead. The view from her front window is changing, as new owners are tearing down the barn across the street. I think of her in the house, clumping down the narrow staircase or sleeping in the bed where I sleep now. I think of her in the garden, and I wonder why she dumped a truckload of gravel in the basse-cour, where my attempts to raise vegetables are thwarted annually by the narrow inch of topsoil that conceals a layer of fallow rocks. I think of her in the marketplace, and I wonder what she’d say, as she ran into neighbors in the street, about this town’s persistent inability to sustain a decent bakery.

(And a word on that: the French know their bread. As the Eskimos for snow, the French have a vast vocabulary for bread. Its shapes, its ingredients, its country of origin and its cooking time: all these things have informed the language. There are separate words for the outside and the inside of the bread. A bookload of laws defends the rights of bakers and protects the market for bread, which accounts not only for the rolling fields of wheat all over the country but also for the fact that France boasts more bakeries than any other country in Europe. Nevertheless, for more than a decade the bakers of Beynes have struggled to bake and sell a loaf worthy of the name. The croûte isn’t crusty, the mie lacks flavor. I keep thinking it’s inappropriate for an American to tell the French about bread: don’t my neighbors notice? Only a few years ago, the Beynois forced the town’s newest baker to close up shop, so inedible were her wares. But the folks who took her place represented only the slightest improvement, and today nobody does anything about it. Either they drive to some other town for bread, or they don’t care, and in either case, it’s a grim sign for the future survival of French culture.)

The walls of Juliette’s house are thick, keeping it cool in summer and almost intolerable in winter. This summer has been almost indistinguishable from winter, or autumn at least, with cold temperatures, grey skies, and frequent, pounding rains. It’s just as well I didn’t try to plant tomatoes this year.

The cold front moved in on 5 May, the day before Nicolas Sarkozy’s election as President of the Republic. It was as if the weather gods were trying to cool us off, in advance of the car-burnings and riots that seemed certain to follow Sarkozy’s victory. Yet in the event, fewer than a thousand cars burned, and the worst protests came not from the banlieues but from Lyon, where the Socialist mayor, no fan of Sarkozy, had to remind the young protesters (mostly college students) that it was unseemly for people to react this way to the outcome of a democratic process.

Though friends here who are Socialists remain unenchanted, Sarkozy’s first weeks in office have received glowing notices from most foreign and many local journalists, and several of his ministerial choices do bespeak a real interest in inclusion. That’s significant in a country with so many important differences and barriers among its people. But it is still raining. Bastille Day is four days away. And I am still sleeping under not one but two quilts.

It is not like the summer of 1977, when the nights were so long and warm. The background music for those nights was the Beatles, whose songs I hardly knew at the time but whose Red and Blue albums were the constantly playing cassette tapes on the tour bus that carried us around the countryside. In later years, I came to know a better music for that backdrop, and it’s Berlioz, the “Villanelle” from his Les nuits d’été, as sung by Régine Crespin.

The soprano died last week, a few days after Beverly Sills, and much as Sills was all-American, Crespin was all-French: a Marseillaise by birth and in spirit. And her recording of the Nuits d’été, under Ernest Ansermet, from 1963, is a miracle of art, a shimmering lifetime of experience in six songs. Not until Susan Graham came along did I believe there was any point in permitting anybody else to sing this music: what would be the interest in any Mona Lisa but Leonardo’s? Yet concert music is by its nature interpretive, and it gains value when different musicians bring their art to the composer’s; Susan Graham’s recording reminded me of that truth. Nevertheless, on a summer evening in France, it’s Crespin’s voice I hear on the breeze.

I walk by her house sometimes in Paris. At the opera house, I heard her only once, at the end of her career, when she sang the Old Prioress in Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites at the Met. At the end of a harrowing death scene, the Old Prioress is, in John Dexter’s staging, carried offstage on her deathbed by four nuns. The night I heard her, Crespin sang the hell out of that scene, in English as the composer prescribed, collapsing on her little cot. Her voice was no longer the rich cream of her “Villanelle,” but it didn’t need to be: the Prioress dies shrieking and clawing at a sudden doubt in the promises of her faith. I’d never seen this opera before, and Crespin’s performance left me stunned and breathless. Then the attendant nuns silently picked up her cot and began to move — and dropped Crespin just before they got offstage. It was an inadvertent illustration of Sister Constance’s assertion that some people die deaths that are meant for others.

Better, then, to think of Crespin in the “Villanelle,” exhorting me to join her as she and her friends race off on a warm summer evening to gather wild strawberries. Because that, mes amis, is the sound of France, the country where I live.

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09 July 2007

Eric Sevareid

The Man Who Knew Too Much ... to be on television

Dan Rather is capable of great generosity, and one of the more notable instances of this, in my case, was his inviting me to spend a few minutes with Eric Sevareid. It was my first meeting with the sage of CBS News, and Dan’s last: a short time later, on July 9, 1992, just as the Democratic National Convention began, Sevareid died.

Though CBS showed him the door the minute he turned 65, Sevareid had come out of retirement, briefly, to assist in our coverage of the Democratic Convention four years earlier. I was already in awe of the guy, and I pressed myself against the back wall of the anchor booth, afraid to step forward. I had yet to read any of Sevareid’s books, which sealed my admiration for him, but I knew enough of his broadcast work to be intimidated. I knew, too, that Dan admired Sevareid as I admired Dan, and therefore Sevareid was too high above me to contemplate.

But Sevareid’s era was long past. If he ever had a broadcast sense of time, with its urgent need for concision, he’d lost it now. His observations were fascinating; his ability to relate the present Convention to those from decades before was unmatched. But he was old, slow, rambling. Already when he started in television, the hotheads behind the cameras complained that he was dull. In 1988, they were complaining again — quietly, behind his stooping back. "He's killing us," they whispered. Sevareid would hardly begin speaking, in informal interview segments opposite Dan at the anchor desk, before the whiz kids wanted to cut away to something quicker, brighter, shinier, sexier. But Dan wouldn’t let them. His loyalty was too fierce.

Theirs was a long and sometimes contentious friendship. They had both worked out of the Saigon bureau during the Vietnam War, and from some of Dan’s descriptions, it sounded much as if he’d been sent into a combat zone with his college history professor. Although Sevareid had plenty of experience as a war correspondent, during World War II, he was older by the time he got to Saigon, and his trademark dignity and intellectual seriousness were more deeply entrenched and out of place in that setting. Dan had anecdotes — snapshot images, more precisely — of Sevareid in his dressing gown, Sevareid reading books, Sevareid filing reports and drinking cocktails on the hotel rooftop, always incongruous to his surroundings, sometimes comically so. We never quite figured out a way to apply these images of the old man to any better purpose. When we incorporated one such image — which I found hilarious — in Dan’s funerary tribute, the reaction of the assembled was awkward and uncomprehending. What was Dan trying to do? Well, he was trying to help the rest of us see Sevareid as he did: human and lovable.

I believe that Dan wanted to inherit the mantle of Sevareid as ardently as he yearned for the mantle of Murrow. Dan wanted to bring gravitas, historical perspective and intellectual seriousness, to his broadcasts. That’s why he wanted me around: to help him find these qualities and translate them to the microphone. That’s also why Dan reads so much and so deeply.

He was always eager to improve himself, and when they were in Saigon, he made a point of reading everything Sevareid recommended. But Sevareid was uncomfortable with the role of mentor, and he lashed out at Dan — publicly, no less — when he thought Dan had gone too far in depicting them as pupil and teacher. He denied having recommended books to Dan; he disavowed his influence. I could see that Dan was wounded by this: he’d meant nothing more than a compliment. But many people at CBS had difficulty accepting Dan’s most gracious gestures in the sincere spirit intended. They mocked his courtly manners and questioned the motives behind his flowers and gifts and effusions.

Sevareid must not have understood Dan very well, I think. Perhaps he saw too many differences between Dan and himself to see the similarities — or to see Dan’s desire to become more like him. Perhaps, too, Sevareid was so ill at ease with himself that he couldn’t bear the younger man’s admiration, or anyone else’s. He had an ego, and a pretty big one, from what I can tell, but he was a very shy man, raised in the forbidding Norwegian immigrant communities of the north, and he’d sooner not talk at all than make small talk, sooner listen to silence than listen to praise.

They didn’t have many opportunities to make up, yet Dan invited me to tag along that spring afternoon in Georgetown. I was aware that the invitation was a precious gift to me, not merely because it meant meeting my hero, but because Dan might never have another opportunity to see Sevareid. My presence would prevent them both from speaking freely.

Maybe Dan wanted it that way. Maybe he thought Sevareid would be more comfortable if a stranger attended their conversation. They would both be on their best behavior.

Sevareid had bought a tidy townhouse from its previous owner: Dan Rather. We were greeted at the door by Sevareid’s third wife, a sometime CBS producer named Suzanne St Pierre, younger than her husband and strikingly handsome. While we waited for Eric, Dan pointed out the brick-lined patio behind the house. Jean Rather had done all the landscaping with her fair fine hands, he told me, setting every brick and planting every stem. “The summer she was reading Proust,” he remembered, “she sat out there all day. We weren’t allowed to go near her until she finished.”

At last Eric was ready to see us, and we went into the sunny front room. I was introduced to him as an admirer, and although I’d brought one of his books (In One Ear, a collection of the kind of radio essays I strove to match with my own), I didn’t ask him to sign it. I knew that he didn’t suffer praise lightly, and already I felt too much an intruder in what was supposed to be a reunion of old friends, and not an autograph session. I made the right decision, yet I’ve always regretted it.

The two men talked quietly, and I sat on the sofa opposite them and said not one word. Dan talked of the outside world, of politics and of people they knew, but Eric seemed a bit distant. Maybe he knew already that the outside world was shut off for him forever. Suzanne St Pierre served us iced tea, as I recall, but mostly she stayed discreetly out of sight. Now I wonder if she meant to set an example for me. Should I have excused myself, too? But there was no way to tear myself away from the presence of the master, and besides the conversation passed quickly.

Years later, the head of CBS would declare that the era of “the voice of God” anchor was over, and he meant the paternalistic, authoritative approach of people like Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather. But the nearest “voice of God” the news business ever knew was Eric Sevareid, reading his stern little essays to the camera.

Sevareid wasn’t always right — often enough, he was dead wrong, as he was about Vietnam. But he applied a formidable mind to the pronouncements he made. He eschewed the term “commentary,” because, as he said, “Anybody can comment. I analyze.” When some corporate suit or other, knuckling under to right-wing pressure, insisted that Dan describe his radio program, Dan Rather Reporting, as commentary, Dan remembered what Sevareid had said, and he resisted by elaborating: “News, commentary, and analysis.”

But, although I disdain some of the tactics contemplated (including — perhaps even seriously — nude anchors and an emphasis on “happy” news) by people like Les Moonves, he’s not wrong when he says that electronic journalism has moved on. If you want commentary, and even analysis, you have only to log onto the Internet and find hundreds of would-be Rathers and Sevareids, representing every possible perspective. My brother is one such.

Few of these people, however, will bring the credentials of a Dan Rather to their work: they won’t have rolled up their sleeves and dug deeply into the mess of the world, year after year, for a lifetime. And they won’t think or write as well as Eric Sevareid. Their words may have democratic value, but little else.

Sevareid wrote with precision and balance, clean rhetoric and cool detachment. It was a generation of good writers, weaned both on Hemingway and on Henry James, and Sevareid’s prose stands comfortably beside that of his contemporaries on the staff of The New Yorker, for instance. The difference is that he wasn’t writing for the page.

Writing for the ear is a tricky assignment, and often what reads well sounds terrible. The opposite is also true: Charles Kuralt used to deliver what sounded like poetry on the air, but what looked flat and pedestrian on the page. (This didn’t hurt his book sales in the slightest, but I think by then people were so accustomed to the sound of Kuralt that they filled it in for themselves when they read.) Not least with the use of his somber, quiet voice, Sevareid managed to write for both the ear and the eye, and to pick up one of his books — especially his early memoir, Not So Wild a Dream — is to be caught and held by the English language.

I kept his picture in a silver frame on the wall in my office at CBS, to remind us to write better. Although I’m certain that Sevareid would have approved of the goal, I’m also certain that he’d have squirmed to see that picture there.

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08 July 2007

Cathy Moriarty

A scene from Soap Dish: "I was in that picture!"

At a CBS dinner for affiliates in Los Angeles, many years ago, I met the actress Cathy Moriarty. I was there with Dan; she was there with Andrew “Dice” Clay. She was his partner on a new sitcom that was supposed to resurrect his career. The show didn’t last long, but the dinner threatened to last forever.

An affiliate dinner is the culmination of a week of glad-handing and back-stabbing, and it’s an unnerving undertaking at best. The network hosts resent their affiliate guests, the affiliate guests despise their network hosts, and everybody is kissing up to the TV stars, all of whom, without exception, sit with waxwork grins and road-kill eyes while they wait, silently but desperately pleading with God to let them get the hell out of the ballroom and go home. But alas, the TV stars are contractually obligated to see the dinner through, acting sociable from the “Parade of Stars” that starts the evening (in alphabetical order, so that Dan entered just after Rhea Perlman and just before Della Reese) right to the increasingly bitter, wine-drenched end.

So there was Cathy Moriarty, and there was I. Both of us were bored by the dinner, and each of us had stolen out to the lobby. She mistook me for a waiter and asked if I would get her a glass of wine. Already, romance must have been in the air: I didn’t tell her right away who I really was; I wanted to play chivalrous knight to this fair dame. I told her I’d be glad to help, and when I came back with her drink, we sat and talked a good long while.

She may still be as beautiful as she was that night, as beautiful as she was in Raging Bull, and the contrast between her blonde radiance and her raucous, street-tough voice was even more startling and seductive in person than it was onscreen. She was not a TV star, she was a movie star, the genuine article. Though she’s made relatively few films, she’s got the charisma, the allure, the mystery. TV is too small a screen for her, and maybe the movie screen was too small, as well, because only in person could she demonstrate that all those magical qualities were hers by right, and not tricks of the camera. Suddenly I was kin to Fitzgerald and Faulkner, to every writer who’d come to Hollywood and knocked back a drink, and run smack into purely mortal divinity.

We had a marvelous time, and there was something fluid and dream-like about it, not only because it wasn’t the first glass of wine for either of us. We were sexy and flirtatious, and there was absolutely no chance of our having sex; we laughed and we mouthed off about everything and everybody, and although I don’t remember much of what we said, we were in complete agreement about all of it. It was a true meeting of minds between two people who'd never met and who would never meet again, a perfect romance between strangers, and exactly what you want a conversation with a screen goddess to be.

At one point I mentioned the movie Soap Dish, because my friend Nate Goodman worked on it. “I was in that movie!” Cathy Moriarty exclaimed, almost triumphantly.

“I know,” I replied. “You’d be surprised to know how seldom that picture comes up in conversation, except among people who worked on it.”

At last she was summoned back to the ballroom; the dinner was nearing its end. There was a fleeting hesitation on her part. I suspect she was debating whether to give me her phone number. But what good would it do? It wasn’t as though we could call each other up for a cup of coffee or a movie date. We lived on different coasts, and though I was Dan Rather’s assistant, I might be a psychopath anyway. (Plenty of people thought Dan was nuts; why not his staff, too?) She did suggest that I drop by the pizza restaurant she and her husband ran, because she spent a lot of time there, and I urged her to call Dan’s office the next time she was in New York. But, with a handshake, the spell was broken, and she was gone.

I’ve never seen her again, onscreen or off, since then. It’s not for lack of interest in her work, so much as it’s a desire to preserve for as long as possible the delicate perfection of the moment we shared.

She forgot all about it the next day.

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Nelson Mandela

The former yearbook staffer (can you tell?) with Mandela,
Dan Rather, producer George Osterkamp (far right),
and our CBS News crew in Cape Town, 1994.

My meeting with Nelson Mandela, one grey morning in Cape Town, consisted of little more than a handshake, after which I fell back to the shadows, listening to his interview with Dan Rather. We’d come to South Africa to cover the first multiracial presidential elections in South Africa’s history, in 1994, and Mandela was the last of our interviews with each major candidate. His rivals included F. W. De Klerk, the man who’d freed him from prison, four years earlier, and a few others who’d be delighted to see him return to Robben Island.

Surrounded by staff people and a security team, Mandela entered the room with something like the burst of excitement that accompanies the arrival of any big-shot politician for an interview with an American television crew. But the resemblance between Mandela and any other politician ended right there. The excitement didn’t come from him, it came from the rest of us. I’ve seldom met anybody less prepossessing, and apart from his height and his good looks, he might have walked into any room and never have been noticed.

Excepting that he was already a legend. By the time I was in college, his myth was fully developed and ardently subscribed to by everyone I knew: there were boycotts and rallies in his name on campus, his picture hung on dorm walls, his imprisonment (which was to last 28 years) understood as a universal symbol of injustice.

The son of a tribal chief, Mandela had a distinguished career as an attorney and activist. Given that background, it’s only reasonable to assume that he must have possessed some facility, at some time, for glad-handing and grandstanding. But during his captivity, he’d lost the politico’s art, or else he realized that he didn’t need it. Indeed, he had a kind of reverse charisma.

Most charisma emanates outward. It’s an energy that comes from a person who wants to be liked, that draws you in. Yet you were drawn to Mandela not because of anything he put out, but because of what you brought to him, your own awareness of his history and his beliefs. You liked him already; he didn’t have to win you over. He spoke softly, thoughtfully, and if he’d been anybody other than Nelson Mandela, you might not have listened. However, because you knew he was Nelson Mandela, you hung on his every word.

Other politicians don’t trust themselves, or their listeners: they turn on the charm. I thought about this a few years later, when I met Fidel Castro and spent a week with him in Cuba. Castro was the opposite of Mandela, with an electrifying, actorish presence and a mesmerizing rhetorical style. His charisma was more powerful than any other I’ve experienced — and it needs to be, because he can’t afford to let you remember what a bad character he is, how many people have died and suffered because of him, how far he’s strayed from his ideals, or why he needs the AK-47 strapped to the back of the driver’s seat in his limo. When Castro walks into a room, you don’t think about any of that. Instantly he becomes every man’s beloved brother, father, grandfather, and every woman’s next lay. Castro’s charisma doesn’t seem forced or studied (unlike that of Bill Clinton, for example, who seems to have read a book on How to Win Friends at an early age and taken it a bit too much to heart): Castro’s charisma is a natural force, and it brings to mind Bertrand Russell’s observation that bad philosophy should be accorded the same negative respect we grant to tigers and lightning storms.

By the time we met, Mandela was a man of peace, with a Nobel Prize to prove it (shared with De Klerk), and he went on to preside over South Africa not as a dictator, not even as a philosopher king, but as a statesman. In his younger days he’d been accused and convicted of violence and terrorism; given the circumstances, those charges can’t be accepted at face value, though it’s true that plenty of his associates, including his ex-wife, Winnie, were tempted to use violent means to achieve their goals. Maybe if Mandela hadn’t been in prison all those years, he might have resorted to violence, too: he wouldn’t be the first revolutionary to do so. Even George Washington did it. But by now his gentleness and wisdom prevailed, and he spoke convincingly (and later acted accordingly) of his desire to make of South Africa a place where blacks and whites could live in harmony. Not for him the punitive, vengeful politics that others promoted, and unlike Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe (whom we also interviewed, on that same trip), the power of the presidency didn’t corrupt Mandela.

During the week before the interview, I’d already experienced the unnerving contrasts of South Africa. The white population lived as if in Southern California, with glittering shopping malls and gated homes. The black population, for the most part, lived in shantytowns, and there was no way to mistake these for anything other than Africa — especially when I attended, shortly after my arrival, a pro-Mandela rally in the form of a toy-toy, a kind of dancing march by thousands of supporters brandishing sticks. (Maybe guns, too: we were advised to wear bullet-proof vests, though we did without them, and in fact we encountered no violence at all.) I’d heard and read about the disparities, I’d seen movies and television reports, but I was unprepared, emotionally as well as intellectually, for what I found when we went into one of the villages and met the beautiful, friendly, thoroughly impoverished children there. I treasure a photo, taken by the great Louise Gubb, of our crew surrounded by these kids. They were too young to vote, of course, but they’d made their choice. Nelson Mandela was a hero to them, and he was bringing them hope.

It takes more than hope, or one man of peace, to change the world. Within a few years of that trip, our local “fixer,” a white man of insightful intelligence and love for the new South Africa, was murdered by a carjacker.

At the end of the interview, Mandela asked for Dan’s business card. A common enough exchange, except that Dan didn’t have any, and CBS management had refused to give me any of my own. (Indeed, Eric Ober, then-president of the News Division, threatened to fire me when I asked for cards.) I had to scribble out our office address and phone number on a piece of spiral-notebook paper, which Mandela accepted with amused graciousness.

Within a few more hours, we were on our way back to the United States. The direct flight seemed even longer because the food was so bad on the South African airliner: inert, greasy masses of ground beef, cheese and potato made one appreciate just how much Julia Child did for American cooking, because it was the sort of meal one might have expected to eat in the 1950s. But soon enough I was in Manhattan, where penthouses abut housing projects, where the disparities between black and white (and brown and…) seemed only slightly less pronounced than those I’d just seen in South Africa. How long before America produces a Mandela of its own? And will he be able to do any good?

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Lady Bird Johnson

I couldn’t wait to call my parents to tell them about my visit to the Johnson Ranch, in the spring of 1999, shortly before I left CBS News. Mom seemed to enjoy the story, but Dad was silent. I couldn’t be sure if silence didn’t signify disapproval — of Democratic idolatry or somesuch. I’ve been given to understand that nobody in the family was particularly enamored of LBJ or his politics, yet the sense of kinship was inescapable.

The whole time I was on the Ranch, I kept thinking of my maternal grandfather: how tickled he would be to see me there, how gratified to learn that the Johnsons’ private library included so many of the books he collected, too. Really the place was much like Goliad, and going to visit Lady Bird was like going to visit Louise Donoghue or some other Goliad doyenne who isn’t my kin but to whom my family has old connections and who conducts her life in similar ways.

We were escorted into the dining room, with its tranquil view of the Johnson Ranch, and served lunch, a hospitable gesture that I surely didn’t expect: home-made tamales and King Ranch chicken (“We just had King Ranch chicken for supper!” my mother cried excitedly), and herbal iced tea and cookies, the handiwork of a strikingly bohemian housekeeper/cook named (I think) Susan.

Two Mexican-American servants assisted her, and we all sat at a long dining table where Liz Carpenter commanded the conversation. Liz was Lady Bird’s press secretary during the Johnson Administration; she wrote a bestselling memoir of her years at the White House (Ruffles and Flourishes), and she continues to take a lively interest in the First Lady’s public image and personal welfare. And Liz is a whirlwind, from whom every other press rep ought to take notes.

Liz might have consulted her notes before she spoke to me, or she might not, but somehow she remembered my name and my (inherited) small-town Texan background, and she made sure she included me in every part of the discussion. (Since in so many other interview situations I never emerged from Dan Rather's shadow, this was gratifying.) When she introduced me to Lady Bird, it was as “Bill Madison from Goliad,” giving me the perfect opening for a line I’d prepared: “My grandfather was chairman of the Democratic Party in Goliad, and wherever he is right now, I’m sure he’s just bustin’.”

“Good, you can stay,” said Liz.

Throughout the interview, Liz must have been a bundle of nerves, worried about what kind of impression Lady Bird was making, generally fretting the way a press secretary does (or I do), although Lady Bird hasn’t officially been her charge for something near 30 years. She took me aside and asked if Lady Bird’s vision trouble were too obvious, and appeared relieved when I said I’d never have guessed. It seems Lady Bird is legally blind, and I guess they were all fearful she’d look pathetic.

In the event, however, Lady Bird looked pretty, lively, and always charming. Hers is a wonderful sort of charm because she seems only to be herself, and by happy accident that self is what other people consider charming. She seems so natural and unaffected, like one of her wildflowers, simple and genuine. And yet because she is a Southern lady and because she is a political wife, you are suspicious — because very few of either breed are ever genuine.

Her accent is of a thick, Deep-South strain, the way Texan accents aren’t supposed to be, and although I grew up hearing such accents, I seldom do anymore. (Few among the newer generations of Texans speak that way at all.) It was good to hear the music of that accent again, and it helped to make me feel I was listening to someone I’d known all my life. She can be quite eloquent, with a gift for word choice; she got a journalism degree at the University of Texas, and she’s among the best-educated First Ladies. (The history of women’s education being what it is, she didn’t have much competition until recently.) And it is striking to realize that so many of my first ideas of what a First Lady was, must have been formed around my impressions of Lady Bird, the first First Lady of whom I was conscious.

She was never a beauty, but hers is a good, strong, handsome face, with a radiant sweetness and a lingering sparkle in her failing eyes; she’d had her hair done for this occasion, and she submitted gently to the attentions of the makeup artist and camera crew. She sat on a big, comfortable sofa in the library, which, but for its Texana collection, would be among the least intimidating rooms in the house, filled with papers, files, and books; venetian blinds kept the room dark, not least to avoid straining Lady Bird’s eyes.

It’s a big house, yet beyond its size it doesn’t boast its wealth. The furniture is simple, the rooms very much lived-in. It’s a peaceful place, a refuge, and you can’t help wondering: would history have been different if this house were less comfortable, less gracious and forgiving? Would Lyndon Johnson have behaved differently if Lady Bird been less patient and enabling?

Dan had visited the Ranch before, long before LBJ was vice-president. He tells a story of being summoned to the Ranch for a press conference, only to learn that LBJ had decided to say nothing after all. Dan needed to phone his bosses in Houston, to warn them there’d be no scoop that day, and before it became the Texas White House, the only phones on the Ranch were private, family lines. Dan managed to find a phone — and within seconds LBJ burst into the room, furious to find a reporter taking such liberties. He threw Dan out of the house, and Dan hightailed it for the highway. But he hadn’t reached the front gate before Lady Bird pulled up in her own car and asked him gently to return. “Don’t mind Lyndon,” she said, and brought him back. This afternoon, Lady Bird claimed to remember the incident: but was this because Dan had written about it (in The Camera Never Blinks), because it was memorable in itself, or because it was one among many similar incidents?

A lot of couples have a Johnsonian dynamic, if on a smaller scale: one spouse provokes, the other placates and mediates. By the time Dan met the Johnsons, their “good cop, bad cop” act must have been practiced, refined, and routine. But I don’t think it was entirely an act, and in this house especially, with LBJ’s larger-than-life personality long gone but never forgotten, their relationship lingers in the rooms. You can almost hear him. Yet though she’s sitting in front of you, you can’t hear her reply to him.

Sure, she was an ideal political wife, but she was smart and restless, eager to find useful work in an era when political wives weren’t supposed to do much of anything. How did she endure LBJ’s epic temper tantrums, strategic vulgarity, and skirt-chasing? How did she respond to the grandiosity of his ambitions? How did she reconcile the good (his efforts to combat poverty and racism) with the bad (Vietnam)? How did she console him when he failed? What did she say to him? In a sense, every American has to come to grips with the slippery riddle of LBJ, to find some balance between his extremes, exactly the way Lady Bird must have done on a daily basis. But we don’t know how she did it, and the discretion that made her so useful in politics then, now frustrates our understanding of them both.

She lived with him so long. She has lived so long without him.

It seems that, early in their marriage, Lyndon gave her a little movie camera, and she took home movies throughout their life together; now she was willing to share them with us, and officially that was the excuse for this interview. Mary Mapes was producing the segment, and she prepared a list of questions, mostly trying to get Lady Bird to tell stories pertaining to specific films.

But in such cases Lady Bird struggled so hard to be precise, fought so bravely against a balky memory in pauses so long, that I realized she needed to be turned away from dates and names and toward more general impressions, emotional memories. If Lady Bird couldn’t see anymore, it stood to reason that she hadn’t seen these old movies in many years. And so I began searching my pockets for scraps of paper to write other questions, which I handed to Dan during the breaks. I was delighted with the results — Lady Bird responded with energy and pleasure to such questions.

The only failure can be blamed on context: “What would you say to the young couple in those old movies?” I asked, meaning her and LBJ, but in the context of the conversation she must have thought Dan meant Nellie Connally and John, or Nellie and herself — it was confusing to her and she never gave the answer I expected, despite Dan’s attempts to steer her.

Surprisingly, Mary had asked no question about the “beautification” campaign, but that is still a subject to which Lady Bird warms, so I proposed a couple. Lady Bird never did like the word “beautification,” and is quick to point out that hers was one of the first successful ecological conservation programs in the country.

Well, I am bound to like my own questions and Lady Bird’s answers to them, but with whatever objectivity I can muster I do believe my efforts made some difference.

After the interview Liz Carpenter and I chatted in a living room — there are at least two such rooms on the ground floor — and Dan and Lady Bird joined us after they’d finished a little “walk and talk” segment (during which of course I must hide out of camera range). Then Liz’s sister-in-law, Mrs. Sutherland, joined us, too. Liz was preparing for a talk at UT, her alma mater, too (and my parents', too), where she and David Broder would discuss the press, and so she wanted to pick our brains — mine as well as Dan’s, thank you. Lady Bird listened with great interest to this, and to Dan’s assessment of Dan Quayle (she seemed surprised and revolted that he could have any chance at the Republican nomination in 2000), and to our tales of our trip to China.

While Wayne Nelson and Mary Mapes helped the crew strike, LuAnn Mancini, the makeup artist, had been appointed our official CBS photographer for the day, and when it was time to go she nudged me and I asked Lady Bird to pose with us — “something we never ask, but it’s important because you’re a Texan.”

Somehow, LuAnn misplaced the roll of film those pictures were taken on, and I never got a copy.

It was a perfectly lovely day, and when Lady Bird said she hoped she’d see me again very soon, as if I might simply drop by some other afternoon, I found myself hoping the same thing. Yet I hardly know how this afternoon could be improved upon, and I’m sure I wouldn’t have the presumption to approach her except in exactly this fashion.

A few days after I posted this Portrait, Mrs. Johnson passed away, at the age of 94. I hope I do see her again, just as she said, and though I don't know where we'll be when the day arrives, I do know there will be wildflowers, and maybe some home-made tamales, too.

Photo credit: LBJ Library Photo by Frank Wolfe

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07 July 2007

Urban Planning 2007: Remaking les Halles

No, seriously: This is the real design approved by the city of Paris.
(Image from the Mayor's Office)

The newly-approved proposal for the eastern edge of the Halles is so monumentally ugly and badly thought-out, that it makes you wonder what proposals got rejected. I made it my business to find out.

In the mid-nineteenth century, Emile Zola wrote a novel, Le ventre de Paris (The Belly of Paris), about the city’s central marketplace, les Halles. Le ventre's protagonist is a revolutionary, leading an insurrection against Napoléon III, and in its day, les Halles were revolutionary, too. Contemplating its lofty, graceful pavilions of steel and glass, and its tiled stalls burgeoning with colorful fruits and vegetables, gleaming fish and squawking poultry, Zola declared les Halles the equivalent of a Gothic cathedral, so inspiring was the ultra-modern marriage of technology and art. (There happens to be an unfinished cathedral, Saint-Eustache, just to the northwest of the old market.) Roughly a century later, most of those pavilions had decayed, and the city’s wholesale food business decamped to the town of Rungis. The city fathers opted to scrap the market entirely, salvaging only a couple of pavilions to be resurrected at Rungis, and in its place they put up … an eyesore.

Today the Forum des Halles is dominated by an ugly, mirrored-glass shopping mall and a tatty, mostly inaccessible park above ground, with an even bigger shopping mall and bustling rail and Métro station plunging several stories below. It’s the worst kind of soulless, graceless, committee-approved 1970s architecture. It started falling apart almost as soon as then-Mayor Jacques Chirac cut the ribbon on opening day, in 1981. One of the city’s red-light districts extends along the eastern boundary of les Halles, dotting the Rue Saint-Denis with sex shops, hip-hop stores, mendicancy, public drunkenness and urine-drenched pavement. Nearly a million commuters, pimps, mall rats and real rats swarm and pass through here every day. But why would you want to be one of them?

I never go there if I can help it, and I’m not alone in this aversion: mention the place to a Parisian, even one who traverses it daily, and he’ll start complaining. For years the city government has kicked around ideas to renovate les Halles, though the best possible solution — tearing the whole thing down and starting over from scratch, maybe even rebuilding the old pavilions and pretending nothing happened — has been rejected as impractical.

A proposal to remake the park was approved in 2004, and it’s bound to be an improvement. At least this time trees are part of the plan. Most of the underground mall and station won’t be touched, but the rest of the above-ground structures face (at last) the wrecking ball. Hopeful though this may sound, the newly-approved proposal for the eastern edge of the Halles is monumentally ugly and badly thought-out.

Though the canopy is transparent, and presumably will protect Parisians from the rain (and snow, if we ever have any again), it will permanently deprive us of the one thing that makes a pleasure of sitting in a sidewalk café or park in this city: direct sunlight. It's a beautiful thing, when it happens. But the canopy will leave us mercilessly exposed to another of Paris' elemental trademarks, the frigid winds of autumn, winter, spring, and (this year, at least) summer. The canopy promises to be a kind of roach motel for pigeons: they’ll fly in, but will they fly out? Sure, the sight lines will be excellent for targeting suspected hoodlums, a consideration similar to that which led to Baron Haussmann's sweeping redesign of Paris under Napoléon III, but law-enforcement in this neighborhood already has a well-documented reputation for harassment and excessive force. The fact that they dress like Imperial Storm Troopers out of Star Wars doesn't help matters.

Moreover, on a purely aesthetic level, did I mention that it’s ugly? Set aside its shape, like the tent of a traveling circus too poor to afford poles. Because, as if there weren’t enough people pissing all over the neighborhood (and there are, there are), the damn thing is piss-yellow. Which of course will make us all look so healthy. I mean, did the glass factory run out of blue?

It’s all so badly conceived that it makes you wonder what proposals got rejected. I made it my business to find out. Here are a few of the other candidates:

1. Architect: Noé Zéabond, Paris

Recalling the enormous quantities of waste formerly generated by the city’s central market, the new design calls for the dumping of several tons of garbage all over the neighborhood each day. And in a nod to the area's more recent past, a central alley will feature a gigantic trough, some 500 meters long, 200 meters wide, and 3 meters deep, into which Parisians can urinate.
The neighborhood is already full of garbage. The pissoir, however, has potential.

2. Architect: Rémy A. L’Expéditeur, Paris
The old pavilions of Les Halles were known for their grace. Since the word grâce is so close to the word graisse, the architect proposes wrecking all existing above-ground structures and installing a gigantic grease pit covering several city blocks. Visitors will be able to congregate around the pit, smell it, and dip things into it. And since “grace” and “grease” are so close in English, even tourists will understand! How cool is that?
The neighborhood is already a grease pit.

3. Architect: Consolidated American Amalgamations, Inc., Los Angeles, CA

Since les Halles already boast an American-style shopping center, why not add the next-best thing — an American-style amusement park? EuroParis™ proposes fake medieval castles, fake Baroque palaces, and fake little half-timbered cottages. Colorfully costumed characters from favorite fairy tales scamper about the cobbled streets, greeting tourists and selling overpriced snacks and trinkets. Among the featured rides and attractions, “Monsieur le Taxi’s Wild Ride” takes visitors on a harum-scarum spin through urban congestion, reaching a top speed of 1 kilometer per hour while the meter continues to run. "Snow White's Adventure" takes visitors through a Parisian banlieue; at the end of the ride, each gondola is turned on its side and burned.
You see, we’ve already got one.

4. Architect: Mr. Wiggins, of Ironside & Malone, London

A twelve-storey block combining classical neo-Georgian features with the efficiency of modern techniques. The tenants arrive in the entrance hall here, and are carried along the corridor on a conveyor belt in extreme comfort and past murals depicting Mediterranean scenes, towards the rotating knives. The last twenty feet of the corridor are heavily soundproofed. The blood pours down these chutes and the mangled flesh slurps into these….
Very seriously considered, with many ardent defenders, this proposal was rejected at the last minute. An abbatoir wasn’t really what we had in mind. Nice though the abbatoir is.

Footnote for students of French: The h in Halles is aspirated, meaning there's no liaison: one doesn't say "Lay Zall," one says "Lay All." Make a mistake here, and the French will take you for a tourist. Which is the last thing you want.

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