30 May 2008


Separated at birth, reunited in death: the comic actor Harvey Korman and the distinguished historian Eugen Weber. And yet which is which?

If you ever watched Weber’s engrossing TV series, The Western Tradition, you will know that he not only looked like, he sounded like Harvey Korman, too. You have observed that, if only Tim Conway were around during tapings of Tradition, the sober analyses of history and culture would be interrupted frequently by hysterical fits of giggling. Indeed, that is about the only thing that Weber’s program lacked.

Let it be known that I admired both men (if indeed they were not the same person), and I shall miss them profoundly and equally, but for different reasons.

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28 May 2008

Memorial Days

My corner of my freshman dorm room, in Poland Hall,
As it looked on May 26, 2008.

“The past is another country; they do things differently there,” wrote L.P. Hartley, and since landing in New York a few days ago, I have been traveling without a Baedeker guide. (Or Rick Steves, or whatever.)

I began to write this note on the train as I returned from Providence, Rhode Island, and the twenty-fifth anniversary of my graduation from college. I have hardly set foot on the campus in all that time. Despite the presence of so many faces familiar to me from my youth, I didn’t recognize myself among the middle-aged. No, I was a student again, and because this was not my graduation ceremony, it must be assumed that I was at most a junior, like so many other undergraduates who linger for days after the final class has been dismissed. But then, from time to time and all too often, I caught a glimpse of my reflection in a windowpane as I passed. My hair is almost white now — by far the greyest of anybody in the Class of 1983. I am not the person I think I am.

The whole city seemed to be celebrating this weekend. The air in Providence was filled with the scent of flowers, and every garden on Prospect Street was in radiant bloom. I wonder whether I’d have been a better student — or a poet, instead — if Providence were always like this, if “youth’s fleeting golden hours” were always springtime.

Scooting along the Northeast Corridor on Amtrak, I look out at the Connecticut woodlands, and I remember the days when Alan Organschi introduced me to his homeland, around Litchfield, pulling back one curtain of green to reveal another and yet another curtain, always greener and more distant. For a long time, Litchfield seemed to me the most beautiful place on earth, and though the Amtrak line runs nowhere near the town, I’m closer now than I’ve been since the last time Madeline Gilford took me to Freedonia, her house in the country.

Soon I will be in New York City again, walking the hallways of the Gilfords’ apartment. The place will brim and burst with activity, and our voices will resound against the walls that are dense with memories and monuments. But Madeline won’t be with us — not physically, anyway — because the project that consumes us is not a play or a protest but her memorial service.

The hallway of the Gilford apartment, May 26, 2008.
Jack Gilford’s Oscar nomination can be seen at top left.

Since before the day I met her, my role in the Madeline Universe has been that of production assistant. If there is some small task to do, I do it. And this week I will be production assistant again, perhaps for the last time. It is my way of keeping my emotions in check. Madeline wouldn’t approve, but that is the way of my ancestors. I will be a shabbos goy — or a shiva goy — until my chores are done and it is time for me to grieve again.

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27 May 2008

The Meme Generation

You know that awkward moment in school, when the coolest girl in the senior class asked you to dance, and you realized that you had nothing to wear, no moves to bust, and only the minimum requisites for the task (namely, two feet)? But you went ahead and tried to dance anyway, because she was so cool?

I’m having that moment. Joyce DiDonato, the mezzo-soprano and authoress of Yankeediva, has tagged me in “Meme,” a kind of game among bloggers: as she explains it, one blogger asks another to answer a few questions about herself on her blog, and then she asks other bloggers to do the same. That last part will be tricky for me, since I know only four people who blog — and Joyce is one of them. I do read other blogs, but the authors don’t know me at all: I can’t very well tag Dan Froomkin, the political blogger of the Washington Post. (Can I?) On the other hand, my brother has multiple blogs, so perhaps he can write multiple responses. Much the way Sally Field might have done, in the movie Sybil.

The rules of the game get posted at the beginning. Each player answers the questions about himself or herself. At the end of the post, the player then tags five people and posts their names, then goes to their blogs and leaves them a comment, letting them know they’ve been tagged and asking them to read your blog.

Ten Years Ago
I was a producer at CBS News, attending the Affiliates Meeting in Los Angeles. (I had to look this up in the journal that, in those days, I kept faithfully — though soon I would become so depressed by my job that the journal fell by the wayside forevermore.) On our way to Los Angeles, my supervisor, who shall go nameless, threw a temper tantrum so colossal that I was still upset and writing about it on June 3, several days later. At the next Affiliates Meeting, one year later, he threw another, even bigger tantrum that resulted in the loss of my job. One wonders why I didn’t see the warning signs.

Also in May 1998, I was at work on my second novel, The Dark Is My Delight, which, in May 2000, I would accidentally erase with a single keystroke. Basically, the historical record shows that this is not a good time of year for me.


Five Things on Today’s “To Do” List
1. Attend a memorial service for Madeline Lee Gilford;
2. Commemorate the births of my household goddesses Beverly Sills (May 25), Teresa Stratas (May 26), my maternal grandmother (May 27), and Madeline Gilford (May 30);
3. Contact friends I encountered at the 25th reunion of my graduating class in Providence this weekend (and more about that subject will be written in this space soon);
4. Contact friends in New York to let them know that I’m in town this week;
5. If there’s time, try to work on an article for Opera News that was assigned two years ago and is due five minutes ago.

Things I’d Do If I Were a Billionaire
1. Buy a château — not too big, just something homey — Azay-le-Rideau, say, and not Chambord;
2. Produce all the movies that my friends want to make;
3. Publish all the books that my friends write (oh, and the books that I write, too);
4. Launch and/or bankroll an opera company;
5. Pay the college tuition of all my godchildren.

Three Bad Habits
Only three? I’ve got hundreds. Unfortunately, none of these are printable. But I’ll share this with you: I seize upon any opportunity to talk about myself.

Five Places I’ve Lived
The list in toto: San Antonio, Houston, Dallas, Providence, New York, Boston (for almost two months, while Rags was in tryouts), Paris and Beynes.

John B. Anderson, a boss I never met.

Five Jobs I’ve Had
Most of my jobs are listed in my profile, but I’ll try to make this more interesting.

1. While I was in college, I got the first and only paying acting gigs of my career thus far. As part of a training program for medical students, I pretended to be a patient. My portrayal of “Man with Hypertension” received rave reviews from all the doctors, but when I played “Man with Venereal Infection,” the critics were less than kind.

2. I was North Texas Area Campaign Manager for presidential candidate John B. Anderson, in 1980. I had no idea what I was doing, and I take full responsibility for his defeat at the polls.

3. I worked as an assistant to the production accountant for the TV show Dallas, on location, for three days in the summer of 1981. One of my duties was the shredding of scripts, so that secrets of the plot would not be divulged to the public. I wasn’t a fan of the show, and those scripts were unbelievably badly written: it’s a mark of Larry Hagman’s talent that people even watched the show. Seriously. Could Olivier have made that prose sing? I doubt it.

4. I was a go-go boy for one night, only a few years ago. I know that I’ve mentioned this already, but I just like saying it. I was a go-go boy. I was a go-go boy.

5. I taught freshman comp at Columbia University. I’ve mentioned this, too, but it’s on my mind, since this week I’m sleeping on the couch of Kara Lack, who was one of my students. In a perfect world, this would constitute extra credit, and I’d be obliged to raise her grade by two or three points for the semester.

And did I ever tell you about the time I was a go-go boy?
(Sadly, this is Matt Cavenaugh, co-star of the musical
Grey Gardens, and not yours truly.)

Five People I’m Tagging
1. The Girl from Texas
2. Chronic Pain Woman
3. My brother
4. My brother
5. My brother

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20 May 2008

On the Legality of Marriage

After all these years, she still warms to his bacon.

A friend’s marriage was breaking up a few years ago, when she observed that I was more upset about it than she was (to a point, anyway). “You romanticize marriage more than anyone I know,” she said. “Is it because you’ve never been married?”

Maybe. And I had the dubious advantage of growing up in a home that was not only unbroken but formed around a couple whose union has been a cosmic necessity: if my parents hadn’t found each other, married and stuck together, they’d probably have wound up as mad scientists, serial killers, Heaven knows what. We’d all have paid a price. They are not fit for anyone else but each other. Knowing them has no doubt colored my view of the institution.

On the subject of gay marriage, however, I’m considerably more ambivalent — primarily because it’s always struck me that the great advantage of — indeed, the definition of — homosexuality is not doing what heterosexuals do. Nevertheless, on a purely legal basis, it’s an open-and-shut question of civil rights, and I’m mystified as to why so few people in America (or, indeed, most countries) understand that. An editorial in today’s Washington Post, mulling over the recent California Supreme Court decision, so thoroughly misses that point, and so blindly accepts reactionary arguments, that I’m compelled to write now.

The Post takes the position that the California court should have left the matter in the hands of the legislature and the voters, instead of forging ahead. This is the same complaint of “activist judges” who “legislate from the bench” that we hear any time the privileges of white, heterosexual males are questioned in the United States. Granted, the Post editorial page is more conservative than that of, say, The New York Times, but the difference between the Post and The Wall Street Journal is that the Post doesn’t intend to be — doesn’t seem to know that it is — conservative. So it joins the chorus of Americans insisting that there’s plenty of time for homosexuals to get equal rights, that some things need to be done by “baby steps” and forgetting the answer to Langston Hughes’ question, “What happens to a dream deferred?”

What no one seems willing to admit is that the case against gay marriage is unconstitutional on its face, because the only arguments against homosexuality that haven’t been thoroughly debunked at this point are religious. And yet gays are still second-class citizens at best, because Americans believe homosexuality is “wrong,” because God told them so. Never mind that the Constitution requires the separation of church and state, never mind that I am not legally obliged to adhere to your faith, nor you to mine. (Never mind, for that matter, that most of the condemnations of homosexuality in the Bible are mistranslations; the rest are concerned with increasing the population of a small, vulnerable sect, whether the Jews or the early Christians.)

The Bible prohibits a lot of things (shaving one’s beard, touching pigskin, masturbation) that Americans endorse, and it endorses a lot of things (slavery, stoning) that Americans now prohibit. Is a Bible verse any reason to prohibit one partner from visiting another in the hospital (as happened with heartbreaking regularity during the height of the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, and as is still legal in some places today), or from bequeathing property to a loved one, or from building a stable home life for a child, or from enjoying the protections of the law? A staggering number of so-called compassionate Christians will answer with a hearty “Amen.”

You can’t run a country this way, unless you’re the Taliban. It’s precisely because of such religious prejudices that the Constitution was written to uphold reason over faith in matters of the law.

Gay marriage would weaken the institution of heterosexual marriage and the American family, say some people. Clearly, they have no faith in the strength of their own values. If they’re so worried about their own marriages, why are they meddling in other people’s?

Left to their own devices, American voters usually can be depended upon to do the right thing, give or take 75 to 150 years. If we’d relied on voter initiatives, not only would Jim Crow laws still be on the books in most states, African Americans might still be in chains. It wasn’t voters but activists, from William Lloyd Garrison to Martin Luther King, who forced society to change — and it was the court system, not the legislatures, that recognized the change. If we wait on voters to legalize gay marriage, they most certainly will, but that’s cold comfort to anybody who’s alive today.

The California court recognized, rightly, that civil unions are a form of Jim Crow law, a label of “separate but equal” pasted over something that is inherently unequal. That’s unconstitutional, period. The court may have gotten more provocative than it needed to in parsing the definition of marriage, essentially throwing in the face of heterosexuals the whole question of the government’s role in such private matters. (Though it’s a legitimate question. In France, religious and civil marriages are entirely separate.) But as an application of reason, the decision strikes me as sound.

The Post worries of a backlash. This thinking is typical — timid, even defeatist, and ultimately very harmful. One of my dearest friends speaks of “baby steps” all the time, with regard to gay rights; she worries that if her children were better enlightened, or spoke up in favor of gay rights, they’d get beat up at school. She knows her community better than I do. Maybe she’s right to protect her kids from certain truths. But I have to cringe when I hear them saying things like, “That is so gay.” Their mother would wash out their mouths with soap if ever they dared use the N-word, by the way.

It took more than Brown vs. The Board of Education to guarantee the equal rights of black Americans. Gays must remember that the legalization of marriage is only one part of a larger struggle. And just as blacks encounter prejudice every day, 40 years after the assassination of Dr. King, gays won’t find themselves loved, or even accepted, by American society overnight. It’s a long, slow process — and it’s a shame that well-meaning people like the Washington Post editorialists and my dear friend want to make that process even slower.

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19 May 2008

Prova d’Orchestra

The Bastille Opera, Paris

It is not enough to enjoy the beauty of a thing: to understand its beauty, one must take it apart. This was true for Leonardo da Vinci, whose perfectly modeled figures are the direct result of his anatomical studies. And this is true for me, too.

Which is why it was such a treat to sneak into an orchestra rehearsal today for Bellini’s opera, I Capuleti e i Montecchi, a Romeo-and-Juliet story based not on Shakespeare but on an earlier, Italian telling. Journalistic ethics prohibit me from revealing who, precisely, snuck me in, and in order to prevent her apprehension by the authorities, I wore dark clothing, made few movements, and generally went unnoticed in the auditorium of the Bastille Opera House. For me, this was a rare opportunity to see a work in progress, almost but not quite the finished product.

Dude looks like a lady: Joyce DiDonato sings Romeo

I’m spoiled, in a sense, because most of my experiences in opera have been with top-rank artists and thoroughly professional companies. This is exceptional good luck, but the trade-off is that I sometimes forget how incredibly difficult opera is, how much hard work and coordination go into an evening’s worth of: acting, singing, instrumental playing by a small army of musicians, plus costuming, makeup, lighting, set changes, choreography, stage management. Et cetera. Because opera is the coming together of all the arts at once, any one of them can go wrong, and bring down the whole enterprise. Easier to land a jumbo jet on the picnic table in your back yard. And yet I seldom see a performance that’s sloppy.

Fortunately, I’ve also been lucky enough to see some of the nuts and bolts, the coachings and stage rehearsals, and quite a number of final dress rehearsals, that last step before opening night — to remind me of what’s required to put on a show. You cannot take a song for granted if you’ve watched a singer repeat a single phrase 100 times to get it right.

Today was my first orchestra rehearsal, an intermediate step, in which the opera is enacted onstage and sung, but wigs and costumes aren’t worn, and the conductor may stop at any time to repeat a passage or to work out a problem with the singers or orchestra. Cap/Mont ran on-time and smoothly under expert conductor Evelino Pidò, with hardly an interruption, while an easy camaraderie prevailed. Everybody was still learning the finishing touches, still exploring the music and the stage. There was still time to make a few mistakes — and to pull a face after making a mistake. It’s pretty funny to see the glamorous Anna Netrebko (pictured here, she’s now a very pregnant Giulietta) stick out her tongue when she hits a note she doesn’t like.

This is the longest role I’ve heard Netrebko perform live, and all the hype aside, she’s the real deal. Her soprano is surprisingly big and plangent, and her dark timbre melded beautifully with the golden mezzo of Joyce DiDonato’s heroic Romeo. I’ve never witnessed anyone managing to sing and fence so adroitly as Joyce does; she’s having a helluva time with that sword. In Robert Carsen’s clear-cut staging, I never wondered why tenor Matthew Polanzani, as Tebaldo (a cross between Tybalt and Paris), had made his latest entrance: in other productions, with other Tebaldos, the best excuse I ever came up with was, “I guess he’s here to sing something...?”

I came away as I’d hoped I would: with a greater appreciation of the effort that everybody puts into a performance.

The trouble with dissection is that the frog you took apart in biology class will not hop home from school afterward. Yet music is different. The spark it requires to live does not snuff out under the knife; it only kindles brighter — perhaps because more people are involved, perhaps because it’s not a question of life so much as a question of magic. For all the lack of costumes and opening-night polish, this was the best Cap/Mont I’ve heard, and arguably the best Romeo and Juliet I’ve seen. And thus, the more I learn about opera, the more I understand, and the more I want to hear.

Go figure.

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18 May 2008

James O. Barnhill

The story goes that Jim Barnhill came to Providence in pursuit of a pretty girl. He was fresh out of the Navy and ready to launch his future. In the meantime, he finagled a job at Brown University mostly as an excuse to continue the courtship. The girl got away, but Jim stayed. Some 30 years later, as I sat in his acting class, he explained that he was “brought up in the South but lived in the Northeast, and I’ve never felt quite at home in either place.”

My youthful ears caught only the romance, not the wistfulness, of his words. At the time, I understood that I, too, was a transplanted Southerner, but I didn’t understand that I, too, might some day feel the way Jim did. Like him, I’d reach a certain age, still a bachelor, still unsure what place to call home.

It’s in the nature of teaching to impart lessons, and yet very few of the lessons Jim taught me had anything at all to do with acting. This was in part due to my peculiar talent: I was awfully good at Molière, and not much else, while most of my energy was devoted to a kind of acting that had nothing to do with theater. Onstage or off, I was fully committed to the role of a person I was not, a character of my own invention, an erudite, preppy, liberal Democrat from Litchfield, Connecticut. I had nothing left to invest in the characters of Eugene O’Neill, or anyone else.

Jim was mostly gracious, if hardheaded, about my prospects in theater. Any conversation about my future invariably turned toward his urgent recommendation that I look into graduate programs in arts administration — not acting. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I had less talent for administration than I did for performing, and in time we both learned to talk of other things.

At the time we knew each other best, Jim was in his 60s and the oldest man I knew. Somehow we settled into a pattern that has held with every subsequent friendship I’ve enjoyed with an older man: Burgess Meredith, Dan Rather, Henri Boutrit, even my father. There’s a bit of Quixote and Sancho, a bit of Hamm and Clov, a bit of Gloucester and Edgar (or Lear and the Fool) to each of these relationships, and sometimes I wonder: Would I have behaved the same way with these men, if I hadn’t known Jim Barnhill?

One sample of our interaction: Jim was a prodigious storyteller, but not endowed with the world’s most retentive memory.* Over time, I came to hear enough of his stories that on some occasions I became his prompter.

JOB: “I was in summer stock, performing in a play — er — ah — ”

WVM: “The Solid Gold Cadillac?”

JOB: “The Solid Gold Cadillac. And the star was a marvelous actress, named — er — ah — ”

WVM: “Josephine Hull?”

JOB: “Josephine Hull, who was so marvelous in the movie, Harvey, with Jimmy Stewart. But in the play, she couldn’t remember her — er — ah — ”

WVM: “Lines?”

JOB: “Lines. So she wrote her lines all over the stage — on the blotter on her desk — even on the inside of her — er — ah — ”

WVM: “Brassiere?”

JOB: “Brassiere! Heh-heh-heh.”

I may exaggerate a bit — though not much, and that is precisely one of the stories in question. Later, with other friends, particularly with Dan Rather, this model of reciter and prompter was adhered to slavishly. Jim trained me well.

Good-looking as a young man, he grew into a face that was meant to be caricatured, with a creased nose, a curling lower lip, and a brooding brow. The artist best able to do him justice, I think, was Sir John Tenniel, and flipping through the Alice books, you will see bits of him in the Carpenter’s face and in the White Knight’s hair, and sometimes even in the Duchess’ scowl. He had a richly resonant voice, with impeccably precise diction; and memorably eccentric gestures that could be Buddhic (“And buh-ghee, and buh-goo,” as Tom Dunlop translated it) or benedictory (“Press on!”) or both, palms upraised to his destiny.

This made him an irresistible target for mimics — and in acting class, each and every student is by nature and design a mimic. Literally hundreds, probably thousands of Brunonians can “do” Jim Barnhill, and the secret to our success lies most especially in our utter conviction that, when we imitate him, we look like him, too.

And we may be right. Years after leaving Brown, I discovered that a colleague at CBS News had studied with Jim. Instantly, she and I began to perform “Duelling Barnhills” — until somebody called security. What was charming in Jim could be alarming in others.**

Jim was a pretty good mimic himself, and one of his favorite subjects was Ben Brown, who launched the acting program at Brown (yes, there’s a relation) and divorced it from the English Department. Jim’s favorite story was of the time a Providence doyenne crossed swords with Ben. “Who does Laura Sharp think she is?” Jim/Ben roared in orotund indignation. “Everyone knows the Sharps were the Browns’ indentured servants!”

He was, I admit, a bit of a ham. I’ve never seen anyone happier to be onstage than Jim, singing Bunthorne’s song from Patience at the end of a rehearsal, his little gift to the rest of us. I’d come to realize, years earlier, that theater was a form of worship, from its origins as a religious rite. Bruce Donovan stressed that the Ancient Greeks sang their tragedies, and I instantly recognized that opera must therefore be the truest form of theater, and the holiest ritual. But Jim Barnhill showed me that even spoken theater offers ecstasies and epiphanies.

His frequent exhortations, “More! Bigger!” were not, as I came to understand, merely stage directions. They were exultations and prayers, expressions of Jim’s philosophy, the best advice he could give us for leading happy lives.

He could be a wonderful mentor, and when it was announced that he would direct a mainstage production of Bernstein’s Candide, I went to him immediately, months in advance. I told him I wanted to be involved, but that I knew I’d never be cast in the show.

“What makes you say that?” he asked.

“It’s an operetta. And I can’t sing.”

“Oh,” said Jim thoughtfully. “Well, you never know. There might be a part for you — ”

I cut him off. “I’d like to be your stage manager,” I said.

And Jim’s face was instantly transformed. He’d been struggling to be polite, but this idea made perfect sense. I was hired on the spot, and the skills I acquired backstage during Candide gave me the skills I needed — not so much technical as interpersonal — when I worked on Rags and even today, when I hang out with actors and singers. Stage management wasn’t a career path, but it led to a consistently rewarding part of my life, and largely because Jim Barnhill gave me a chance.

It must be said that not all of Jim’s qualities were sterling, though one could sometimes defend them. He was exceedingly impressed by students who already had connections in Hollywood and on Broadway. This was insulting to the rest of us, and yet it was only right, because those kids had an undeniable advantage.

Life is not fair — why should acting class be fair?

Jim let us savage each other after scene work, offering “criticism” that cut deep. He’d let us go on wounding each other for brutal quarter-hours before stopping us. (In one of the mildest of these episodes, Sasha Zieff complained of my monologue, “It’s like you’re masturbating up there.” Regrettably, though I had the rejoinder at the ready, I didn’t answer, “Better with myself than with you.” Jim didn’t intervene.)

And yet a working actor has to endure far worse.

Sometimes his suggestions for scene work were impenetrable. After two students performed an impressionistic scene of writhing and wordless groaning and shrieking, ostensibly derived from Dante’s Inferno, Jim questioned the choices. “There was lots of ‘Eeeeeee’ and ‘Aaaaaaaarrggh,’” he conceded, “but where was this sound: K-k-k-k-k-k-k?”

Why would a tormented soul in Hell say “K-k-k-k-k-k-k”? No idea. But in preparing a scene, shouldn’t an actor be open to any and all suggestions?

And he was an excellent dancer, which was not objectionable in itself except one night at a party, when he began to jitterbug with my girlfriend. Not jitterbugging in quotation marks, not a simulacrum of the form or an imitation, but the real deal: they knew what they were doing. Melia is an infinitely better dancer than I, but she had the courtesy to restrain herself when we danced together, so that I didn’t look like an idiot. With Jim, she could really cut loose.

They were gorgeous together. Their bodies understood each other, and time stopped. Jim was young and handsome, and Melia the child of art and history. Meanwhile, totally emasculated, I could only watch the son of a bitch do with my girlfriend what I could never do.

The lesson here? Well, without an audience, there is no theater.

And thus, in a roundabout way, Jim’s class and Jim himself taught us plenty. Sometimes practical skills, sometimes professional. Most, though, were life lessons, drawn from the dramatic conflict of a play, or from an anecdote he told, or from a newspaper article he shared with me over coffee in the Blue Room, or from the infuriating way he made it perfectly clear that, in 25 years, he would recognize Jared Seide but not me. If I see Jim in Providence at Reunion this week, I’m confident he will not remember anything about me.*

But it doesn’t matter, really. Jim did his job already.

One night in the lobby at Faunce House, someone pointed out to me the woman whom Jim had followed to Providence. At least, that’s who we believed her to be. She seemed pretty enough, yet rather dull. Perhaps all those years of marriage to another man had sapped her of her more seductive qualities. Perhaps Jim saw in her that which we could not see. Or perhaps no one on earth could embody, to our satisfaction, the irresistible force that had driven Jim Barnhill to change so many lives — beginning with his own.

*UPDATE: Either I have done Jim an intolerable injustice, or his memory has improved immeasurably during the intervening 25 years. I discovered him this weekend at Brown, and although he has taught generations of actors, he did indeed remember little ol’ me. He is fit and active, and already quite fully aware of any bit of news I tried to share with him: he was fully up-to-date on the current activities of Andy Weems, Melia Bensussen, and Merrill Gruver, for example. I was reminded of Sillery, the Oxford professor in Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, whose intelligence (in the espionage sense of the word) is flawless, and whose influence extends far beyond the classroom and into every level of English society and politics. We are all Jim Barnhill’s students — we are all taking his direction — whether or not you knew it before now.

**We were even more alarmed when we realized that others might be imitating us. The best Barnhill imitator, hands-down, was Andy Weems. While in graduate school at the University of California at San Diego, Andy taught acting; he’s pretty certain that among his students was Andrew Cunanan, soon to gain fame as a serial killer. We realized with a shock that as an acting student, Cunanan must unquestionably have done an Andy Weems imitation. What is not known is whether Cunanan imitated Andy Weems imitating Jim Barnhill.

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Zola® Brand Fiction: Freshness Guaranteed!

What a great idea for a book!

My continuing traversal of Emile Zola’s Rougon-Macquart cycle, the 20-volume “natural history of a family under the Second Empire,” was briefly derailed, not long ago, by the 15th novel in the series, Le Rêve. For weeks, I dawdled over the book’s opening scene, in which an angelic, blonde orphan girl seeks shelter in the doorway of a church, in the middle of a fierce snowstorm; a kindly, childless couple take her in.

To put it bluntly, this is not what we come to Zola for. If we want sentimental crap like that, we will turn to the Victorian English novelists (and not a few Americans). We come to Zola for un- blinking depictions of the human condition. His coolly detached analyses are not lurid but scientific; it’s not for nothing that he calls the series a “natural history,” and Zola is especially drawn to sex as a motivation for his characters, much as Balzac blamed money as the root of all evil. Although in their own time they were considered scandalous, nowadays, with armies of Marxists and Freudians to back them up, Zola and Balzac seem like our contemporaries.

I couldn’t get into Le Rêve. Not quite three weeks ago, I resolved to skip it, for now, and to dive into the 16th Rougon-Macquart novel, La Bête Humaine. Fie on pitiful orphans! True to his old form, Zola begins La Bête Humaine with a confession of sexual abuse greeted by one of the most harrowing scenes of wife-beating ever written, culminating in a murder plot. “Ah,” I said, “it feels good to be home.”

I’m pleased to announce that I’ve finished the book, breaking my speed record for a French novel this length, and wholly appropriate for a novel that’s set in railyards and locomotives. By weird coincidence, I was riding from Beynes to Paris when I read the terrifying train-wreck scene; I can tell you that it requires a good deal of fortitude not to jump off the train after a scene like that.

Yet as I read, I was troubled by questions. How could Zola understand his own work so poorly, that he’d throw in a cheesy heart-warmer in the middle of the rutting passions of the Rougons and the Macquarts? How could he be persuaded that angelic orphans are what we want from him? How could he fail to recognize that he had become a brand name?

Lurking in the heart of each of these men is a cold-blooded killer.

The answer turns out to be that the critical reaction to his previous novel wounded Zola. La Terre (The Earth) is, even by his standards, extreme, perhaps best summed up in the scene in which an 80-year-old woman kills her mentally deficient grandson with an axe when he rapes her in a barn. As I noted in an earlier posting, the common complaint is that Zola’s characters behave like animals, but in La Terre, the animals are better-behaved than the people. With Le Rêve, Zola set out to prove that he was capable of writing a story in which people are motivated by altruistic love.

Well, good for him. That even he wasn’t entirely persuaded by the demonstration may be seen in the title: The Dream. As in, “You think people aren’t motivated by lust and greed? Dream on.” I’m sure I’ll get to it, one of these days.

La Bête Humaine, on the other hand, is a passionate defense of the things Zola really believed in, as well as a monument to modernity. Choo-choo trains may be old-fashioned to us, but to Zola, they were the latest word in technology. When I visited his country house, in Médan, I was surprised to see a train track running along the bottom of his garden. “That must have cut into property values,” I said, but the guide told me that Zola loved to watch the trains passing.

Jean Renoir, son of the Impressionist painter,
La Bête Humaine for the cinema.

The Impressionist painters, working at the same time, were controversial because they elevated trains (and other mundane and working-class subjects) by making art of them; Zola was doing the same thing. As a sometime art critic, he was a champion of the Impressionists (and a schoolmate of Cézanne), and in his fiction he strove to promote the same ideals and to achieve many of the same goals.

In each Rougon-Macquart novel, he is liable to describe sunlight precisely the same way, at least a few times: as “une poussière d’or,” a dusting of gold. The description makes little sense until one recalls the lighting effects in the paintings of his contemporaries. La Bête Humaine is crammed with painterly wordplay, describing the play of light, breaking down colors, detailing the shifting skies.

And there’s plenty of base behavior, too, rough sex and rougher politics: one has no difficulty identifying this novel as Zola Brand Fiction.

As a writer, I may find this more intriguing than you do. But as I chug away at my career, questions of through-line emerge already in conversations with my agent: will a projected book make sense in the context of other things I’ve written? So far, the answer apparently is yes. Whether this is the result of an accident or of an obsessive temperament, I can’t say, but I can assure you it wasn’t intentional.

In general, I don’t turn to classic literature for career advice, though I do seek other kinds of wisdom among the pages. In La Bête Humaine, I got all that, plus a thrilling story — that reads like a runaway train.

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12 May 2008

My First Crush(es)

Let’s face it: I was a weird kid. And few things demonstrate the fact better than a quick survey of my first crushes. The real-life ones were very nice girls (witness the lovely Anna Knott, my girlfriend in second grade), but my choices among crushes in the media were … well … see for yourself.

First and foremost was Julie Andrews. This is a bit predictable. Conversations with other friends who wound up working in music reveal that we WASPs invariably wound up with crushes on Julie Andrews. My Jewish friends fell for Barbra Streisand. Go figure.

But what was not to love about Julie Andrews? She was English, she was pretty, she sang like a bell, and she performed magic. Thus I developed crushes on Petula Clark (Irish, pretty, singer) and Elizabeth Montgomery (pretty, magical), because the force of my passion was too much for Julie Andrews to bear alone.

Every little thing she did was magic.

Suddenly, going Downtown became my life’s ambition.

These thoughts are inspired by the discovery of a long-lost love: Kitirik, the black-cat mascot of Channel 13 in Houston. Her name derived by adding the letter I to the station’s call letters, KTRK, Kitirik hosted a children’s program every afternoon. Like every other kid in Houston, I worshipped her, planned my days around her, and never forgot her. Wouldn’t you know, I found her picture on the Internet. Her real name is Bunny Orsak, and she's still living in Houston. This was the first glimpse I had of her in — well, never mind how many years.

The Divine Kitirik

We must now concede that hers was a daring outfit in Texas, in 1964. From Bunny Orsak to Julie Newmar would be a short step for me. And Eartha Kitt, too. For a long time, it was all about the Catwomen.

What follows is a gallery of my earliest divas, roadmarkers of a sort along the circuitous route of my boyhood heart.

When you’re a very young kid, it’s not uncommon to fall madly in love with the baby-sitter, which is to say a neighbor who’s not quite grownup, but enough older than you to be fascinating. I adored several women who fit that profile.

Ideal Baby-Sitter I: Lady Betty Aberlin

Betty Aberlin pretty much grew up on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, but from adolescence through thirtysomethingness, she was always charming. Simple, direct, unaffected: she made talking to handpuppets seem natural. She got to sing one of the show’s best songs, “Just for Once,” ostensibly about a child wanting a parent’s attention, but really a poignant love song:

Just for once, just for once,
I want you all to myself
Just for once, let’s be alone...

Absolutely slays me. Years later, Betty Aberlin was nearly cast in Rags, which would have meant my getting to work with her. One more thing to regret about that ill-fated show.

[UPDATE: Not long after I originally posted this, I discovered that Aberlin was Madeline Kahn’s co-star in a satirical revue in the mid-1960s. It’s a measure of her skill and conviction as an actress that I thought she was a kid from Pittsburgh, when in fact she was a Manhattan sophisticate. My interview with Betty Aberlin appears here.]

I also had a serious thing for Judy Graubart, who played Jennifer of the Jungle and other roles on The Electric Company, but I couldn’t find any good pictures of her.

Ideal Baby-Sitter II: Patty Duke as Patty.
A hot dog made her lose control, you know.
(I was also fond of the girl who played Cathy.)

Ideal Baby-Sitter III: Sally Field as Gidget
Already, I really, really liked her.

Ideal Baby-Sitter IV: Oh, come on.
Who didn’t love Hayley Mills?

A kind of transitional figure between baby-sitters and grownups was Marlo Thomas. On That Girl, she played a young woman living on her own — yet under the thumb of her meddling father. I could sympathize with her desire to live independently — even though I had no idea what that entailed. I just wanted to be somebody’s Donald Hollinger.

Diamonds, daisies, snowflakes, etc.
Is this the reason I moved to New York?

Then you come to the real grownups, women who are so outright sexy that you have to wonder if Freud was right when he mentions a latency period. Because I wasn’t merely crazy about them. I desired them.

Although for what purpose, I could not have told you.

For example, Shani Wallis, and her cleavage, in Oliver!

Television in the 1960s being what it was, quite a lot of the grownup ladies I craved were the stars of programs that had nothing to do with reality. Besides the aforementioned Julie Newmar, the fantasy realm naturally included Barbara Eden, as well. Somebody once wrote that all history might have changed if Cleopatra’s nose were shorter. I’ve often wondered how history might have changed if we’d ever seen Jeannie’s navel.

Years later, I met Barbara Eden, who talked about Jeannie as a symbol of women’s power, and how it pleased her to hear young women look past the harem pants and see Jeannie as a role-model. All that was beyond me, at the age of seven. The real question was how soon I could visit Cocoa Beach. It was really, really important.

There were some very smart, serious grownup women on TV, too, and I had crushes on several of them.

But what were they telling me? That incredibly beautiful, intelligent women like Barbara Feldon would put up with idiots like Maxwell Smart? I regret to say that very few women possess the infinite patience of Agent 99, and a man can be only a fraction as foolish as Max, before a woman will dump him.

At least I got the message, courtesy of Carolyn Jones as Morticia Addams, that a woman will put up with a great deal of foolishness from a man, so long as he speaks French to her occasionally. It is a message I took to heart, bien évidemment.

Fortunately, Suzanne Pleshette was waiting in the wings, ready to show me that some women won’t put up with any foolishness from a man. Ditto Nichelle Nichols, as Lieutenant Uhura. Why didn’t Uhura ever get to command the Enterprise? Because Captain Kirk was afraid of what she might do to him with a fully loaded phaser bank.

But okay, these are pretty conventional crushes. And I did warn you that I was a weird kid. How weird?

I wanted Veruca Salt NOW!!!

Marcia and Jan Brady? They bored me.
I hungered for Alice.

Whom would you pick, Ginger or Mary Ann?
Mrs. Howell is the one who really sent me.

You can keep Laurie Partridge. I craved Shirley.
(Besides, she did her own singing.)

Watching The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, you pined for Thalia Menninger (Tuesday Weld). I idolized Zelda.

Sheila James Kuehl, the actress who played Zelda, grew up to be a lawyer and California state senator. And a lesbian. And I still think she’s sexier.

Let’s not even start on Mildred Natwick, Mary Martin, Dame Edith Evans, Ruth McDevitt, Reta Shaw....

Those are better left for another discussion.

With my psychotherapist.

And gosh, I hope my next therapist is as hot as Frances Bavier!

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11 May 2008

Happy Smothers Day

The original plan was to honor only Dick Smothers,
because Mother liked him best.
But Tommy was included at the last minute.

Today marks one of the most meaningful of all holidays, a celebration of people to whom we owe a great, great deal. Indeed, we couldn’t have made it without them. You know who I’m talking about.

When I was a kid, you couldn’t have an Elementary School Talent Show without seeing at least two or three sets of brothers hop up onstage, strum a couple of tennis rackets, and lip-synch to a Smothers Brothers album. Kids who had no brothers frequently tried to imitate the Yo-Yo Man. Backstage, you had to hold a tennis racket up to your face, just to keep from getting hit in the eye with a yo-yo. If you got stuck on the bill between two only-children, chances were that you’d wind up with a double concussion, caught in the yo-yo crossfire.

So just imagine: If there were no Smothers Brothers, there would be no Smothers Brothers albums. And all those kids who had no talent would have been forced to stay out of the Talent Show. And I would not have learned the true meaning of show business.

We owe them more than that, of course. Through the Smothers Brothers, Middle America began to realize that the times were a-changin’, and that even polite, well-groomed young people might oppose the war in Vietnam (for example). The Brothers let it be known, far and wide, that political opinions and social relevance were no longer the exclusive province of the rude and unkempt youth of America. The Smothers’ rebellion was less dramatic, perhaps, than the roughly simultaneous May 1968 student uprisings here in France (which we cannot take two breaths without being reminded of). Yet its impact was lasting.

The Smothers were suppressed by CBS. Thirty years later, so was I. I was a fool to think any other outcome was possible. I should never have gone to work there. The Brothers tried to warn me. They tried to warn us all. Isn’t it time for us to look back on their lessons, and to move forward into the future by accepting the philosophy of Yo?

Yes, the Smothers deserve our respect, our gratitude, and a holiday to themselves.

What do you mean? It’s not Smothers Day? It’s — oh, no. Have I missed it again?

In France, Mother’s Day is celebrated on a different Sunday — impossible to predict. I am sure they do this for a very well-grounded philosophical reason. As indeed they do everything. They are a reasonable people. They invented reason. They also invented Motherhood. If they celebrate Mother’s Day on a day other than that on which Americans celebrate, it is most assuredly not done to confuse American refugees like me.

So let me take this opportunity to wish all the best not only to Yo-Yo Man, but to My Mama — and to Your Mama — and, while I’m at it, to this guy, too.

Happy Mother’s Day, Yo Yo Ma

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02 May 2008

Faster Food

We have ways of letting you have it your way.

The trouble with hiking, or indeed any outdoor activity, is, as everyone knows, that there are so few McDonald’s in the wild. For who among us does not yearn to sit down with a tasty cheeseburger after tramping about the hills, skipping over streams, and wandering in the woods?

At last, a German company, Trekking Mahlzeiten, has come up with a solution. The cheeseburger in a can.

Clearly, this is an idea whose time has come. So much of modern cooking is simply not convenient enough — but happily, we live in an age of miracles, and innovations never cease. Witness the Campbell’s Soup company’s recent development, soups that come in plastic jugs. Because obviously, it was just too much trouble to add water, now we can squirt, heat, and serve. The excuse behind the Trekking Mahlzeiten Burger in a Can is indeed that hikers might like a burger, but I’m confident that folks at home will be serving them soon.

Apparently one does have to go to the trouble of boiling a pot of water, and throwing the can into the pot — and if one is hiking, one therefore has to start a campfire. But it’s hard to see how the hamburger could be made more accessible. And I can easily imagine hung-over college students eating them cold.

I haven’t sampled the burger in question, although I’m told the bun is pretty scary. (It looks good in the picture — but what doesn’t?)

As a sometime student of German culture, I’m delighted to see that the home of the hamburger — named after one of Germany’s most important cities, lest we forget — is reclaiming its prize and wresting the crown of dominance away from the Americans.

And above all, remember this: if Lost in Space taught us anything, it is that we are what we eat.

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