Monday, 28 February 2011

Failed Friendships

In my last teaching job at what is now Arcadia University I used to try to amuse my colleagues by recounting how I turned the Horatio Alger myth upside down inside a decade, beginning as a high school teacher from E. Lansing, Michigan in 1954 winning a Ford grant in New York City to implement my ideas about controlling the new medium of television’s impact on public education.

My first national publication, “Everyman in Saddle Shoes,” was published in Scholastic Teacher in 1954. It was an essay on how I taught TV playwrights like Paddy Chayefsky to my 10th grades and televised “Macbeth” to my twelfth graders who also helped me broadcast a weekly “Everyman Is a Critic” on teenage leisure pursuits (including TV) over Michigan State’s new UHF TV station, WKAR.

That led to my being appointed radio-TV editor of Scholastic Teacher to compile a weekly “Look and Listen” feature, occasionally expanded to one page Teleguides on big shows like a play by Shakespeare. I kept that job until an appointment in Honolulu disallowed my useful subscription to “Variety” the Showbiz Bible. In the spring of my Ford year, I gave a talk, “Liberace and the Future of Cultural Criticism,” to the National Council of Teachers of English convention of Freshman English professors.

That prompted three Trenton State professors to offer me a job at their bluecollar commuter college outside Princeton. Decades later TSC was renamed The College of New Jersey in an upgrading maneuver so popular those day. A move that miffed the bigger puffed up P since that was their original name! I loved the freedom of pretense at Trenton State, where almost all the students were first family collegiates.

In the middle of the 1956-7 year I finished my Ph.D. dissertation and was awarded a two year Carnegie post doctoral grant at the University of Pennsylvania to create a new course in American Civilization on Mass Culture. My new and original “Major”. Wow! From plain old high school English teacher to cow college instructor to an Ivy League assistant professor of American Civilization in two years! What a dizzying ascent. There was more. In 1958 the billionaire publisher Walter Annenberg gave Penn two million bucks to found a graduate school of communication. (Our publicity touted us as the first such Ivy institution, but History had already given that nod to Columbia!)

Still, faute de mieux, I became the U’s gofer spreading the good (if still empty words) throughout the land. With the exception of Herbert J. Gans who joined the Urban Studies Institute (we were both born in 1927, me in February in Battle Creek, MI and he in Cologne, Germany in March)it’s amazing that so few there knew zilch about mass anything!

If Walter were not trying to polish his messy rep in Philly he might well have chosen a more appropriate U for his philanthropy. Lucky inexperienced Detroit prole, I had a free ticket to travel the States, from NBC and CBS in LA to the Aspen Institute in Colorado, to Midwestern J-Schools to the Advertising Council’s annual blabberfest in West Virginia to federal offices in D.C. I learned more than anyone I visited did. Talk about post-doctoral education. All the while plumping for my media mentor Gilbert Seldes as the first dean.

He got the job and became his gofer, teaching the History of Communication at the brand new Annenberg. Midway in my second year there, sociologist David Riesman touted me as the first director of the Institute of American Studies at the new East West Center of Cultural and Technical Exchange at the University of Hawaii. My unusual mix of American Studies and media moxie made them choose. Before you could say “Aloha” my wife Mary and I were doing a Sunday morning TV hour dubbed “Coffee Break” on how Hawaii differed from the other 49. And later we did a radio series called “Two Cents Worth: A Penny for her thoughts and a red cent for mine.”

I also did another FM stint called “Pacific Profile” on the endless lineup of interesting people passing through Honolulu. (To catch my enthusiasm read the book "The Dolphin’s Guide to Hawaii” I wrote for Doubleday.) Amazing our voyage on the U.S.S. Harrison from San Francisco! As it steamed into the port, the morning news on the radio was ME! The first time ever. An announcement that me and my family were on the ship. I wish I could say the post-reception news was so comforting.

First, the president announced that my promised salary of $13,500 had been reduced to $11,000. No questions asked, no answers allowed! If I hasn’t been so fiscally innocent, I shudda wudda taken him to court. Alas, we left our roomy new Louis Kahn house in Philly for a dinky pit stop of a “house” a sabbatical professor had to rent to someone! It furthered complicated my wife’s first job as a college professor with our squirmers (9,7 and 5!) To make our minor messes stickier, my second in command had spent his ten years since an Iowa Ph.D. in the CIA! His task was to see that there were no Reds among the Asian and American students. And intellectually, he was terminally dumb.

My dream was veering towards nightmare. And when Annenberg welched on its promise to let me return, there I was up a 8,000 mile creek without a piddle!

Luckily, Erwin Steinberg, a Carnegie Mellon professor who had collabed with me on NCTE matters, hyped me to the dean and president of Beaver College then making a move from Jenkintown to Glenside, a half hour drive from our Greenbelt Knoll estate. I hopped at the escape! From associate professor and institute director to chairman and full professor at a rinky dink girls college, my Horatio Alger bellyflop in a mere six years!

As for rinky dink I was kidding because in the 20 years I spent getting fed up with hired education I watched, impressed, as President Gates and Dean Leclair upped the heft with chair appointments like Bernard Mausner in Psychology and Norman Johnston in Sociology, not to forget me in English. Except it didn’t take 20 years to realize I was a Lone Eagle, unmotivated, perhaps unable to lead the troops democratically. It’s then that I began to understand my character defect and reflect on its etiology.

Sunday, 27 February 2011

Fighting Racism

When I first came to Philadelphia over 50 years ago (1957) I became curious about W.E.B. Dubois‘ "The Philadelphia Negro“ (1898). I wrongly believed that it was his Ph.D. dissertation as the first black doctoral candidate at Harvard. I discovered only last month in Michael B. Katz and Thomas Sugrue’s “W.E.B.Dubois” (Penn, 1998) that he wrote it on the Suppression of the black slave trade. Michael C. Long’s new book, "Marshalling Justice: The Early Civil Right Letters of Thurgood Marshall, 1936-57,” started me thinking. The first black Chief Justice spent considerable time puzzling over many letters from illiterate blacks with problems of justice. Dubois, the “Talented Tenth”thinker, was not nearly as demotic.

Indeed he often seemed more interested in the small black elite in Philly. Understandably enough his Harvard supervisor, a distinguished enough scholar, was no firebrand about black American liberation. And the new Wharton School(and recently moved from the poor black part of town) gave him no academic status as he began his two year sociological study with his newly married wife at his side. Strangely enough, a Sarah P. Wharton, member of the elite Philly family was considerately more helpful: she had organized a sort of Hull House for poor black aid with the help of Seven Sister college graduates decades before Dubois arrived on his scholarly mission. This irony puzzled me who had long regarded the founder of the NAACP and “Crisis” magazine as one of great American intellectual heroes. Perhaps his subsequent scholarly studies in Germany broadened his humanism. It began to explain to me his ultimate abandonment of America in his final Third World phase.

In any case, my moderate tactics of racial liberation began slowly, cautiously as I’m a timid agitator! I’ve never had a fist fight in my life. (A little enforced boxing in the U.S. Navy.) There were no blacks on Mendota Avenue on my first Detroit residence. Nor none during my ten year tenure as teacher’s pet at Holy Rosary Academy in Bay City, Michigan. (I must have seen my first blacks as porters for the Michigan Central RR that took me to boarding school.) No blacks at Sacred Heart Seminary for almost three years there. The rector kicked me out over Easter, allegedly for getting caught in the Gothic tower-- for smoking after midnight! Though my co-fag Jim van Slambrouck stayed put.

I think it was because I was bugging teachers, especially Latin teacher Father George. I was simultaneously his best student and worst pain in his Crucifix. (It was the beginning evidence of my bi-polar disorder.) Edwin Denby High was allegedly the whore house of Detroit high schools, but I never played in my semi-celibate innocence. No Niggers there, but stupidly racist palaver. I took the hard courses (graduated 2nd in a class of 432!) thus and became friends with the stars of the football team who all turned out to be distinguished professionals: doctors, lawyers, dentists, auto execs.

But one Gil Kamen merely aspired to become a jazz drummer so we cut school often to get the cheap afternoon seats at the Paradise Theatre, where after suffering through the longuers of vaudevillian Pegleg Bates and boring western movies we were treated to the likes of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Jimmy Lunceford, and Earl “Fatha” Hines.No less an ear than Pablo Casals claimed that Paradise had the best acoustics in America, an esthetic detail that did not yet interest me or Gil! The die was cast: Black was already Beautiful to me at 16. When I went back to Detroit to bury my mother in 1982, I was in a sentimental mood. So I visited the shutdown Paradise. (Rock music had killed it.) A historical plaque summed it up: The Paradise had been Symphony Hall, but blacks flooding “Paradise Valley” around Woodward Avenue to get World War II defense jobs prodded the Grosse Pointe elite to cut and run, to create a new Symphony Hall along the Detroit River.

My U.S. Navy experience in the American South upped my anti-racist ante: three months in Gulfport,Mississippi, six in Corpus Christi ,Texas and thirteen in Pensacola, Florida mixed me with crackers and blacks often enough to resent the unearned superiorities of the former. I even often got hassled for sitting in the back of the bus where I wasn’t supposed to be. (I saw more from there!) So when I entered the Jesuit University of Detroit in 1946, I was ready to rumble (quietly!) I joined the Catholic Interracial Council to palaver with Catholic high school students in integrating neighborhood.

And was I was lucky enough to take sociology from Father John Coogan, S.J. who was the anti-semite radio ranter, Father Coughlin’s greatest debater. I did a term paper for him on the newly published “Ebony”. I slyly observed the patent contradictions between its editorial policy of Black Pride and it advertisements for hair straighteners! He loved it, gave me an “A” and pleaded with me to become a sociological major. My American Lit professor, C. Carroll Hollis, had already persuaded me to take a Ph.D. in American Studies at Western Reserve in Cleveland.

But I did please Coogan by winning the 1949 Midwest Jesuit Province Essay First Prize with “Needed: More Red-Blooded American Catholics” by which I meant more who thought like Commies (and Pope Benedict XV) on matters of Social Justice. (I also integrated the Senior Prom for the first time by double-dating with a black couple. I’m ashamed to say I can’t remember their names. But then I’ve forgotten my date’s as well. She was a beautiful blonde I do recall. And I got a a lot of grumbles at the two-sided urinals at Eastwood Gardens, where my treachery was undertaken.)


Saturday, 26 February 2011

Terra Infirma

Frankly, it was the paintings not the patron, Daniel J. Terra, that prompted me to pitstop on Good Friday at his highly touted new museum on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile. It was not the $36 million recycling of three commercial buildings into the vertical Museum of American Art I was after, but one-of-a-kind American masterpieces. When in 1980, Terra opened a recycled florist’s shop in Evanston, I found the several small but luminous loan exhibitions there well worth the fourteen mile hike.
Alas, the new Terra (the old one remains a satellite) is a vanquishing of esthetics by philanthropy. If there weren’t the 60 PAFA golden oldies there, Terra’s debut exhibition would be farcically unworthy of viewing—with a whole room of Maurice Prendergast’s depressing the median excellence of true masterworks like those of Daniel Garber and Charles Demuth.
What is going on here? I think I know. The level of sycophancy approaches nausea for a Walt Whitman lover like myself. It’s Ambassador this, Ambassador that, even when this Reaganated, self-appointed Ambassador-at-Large for Culture is now present to blush at the fawnery. I was reminded of another self-made autodidact, the late “General” David Sarnoff, who picked up his one-star for about three weeks service during World War II in a very far behind the lines Quartermaster Corps, but woe to the rising RCA exec who forgot Sarnoff’s infatuation with rank; that was the end of that forgetful exec’s career.
If Terra’s dottiness about being a honorary Ambassador were only the dotage of a man with wit and energy enough to amass a $350 million fortune in the printing ink business, then I would tee hee to myself and send him an inscribed copy of Leaves of Grass so that he could begin to educate himself about the American spirit which he so vociferously presumes to embody. But there is a down side to Terra’s enthusiastic dispersal of his fortune before IRS and Illinois death duties relieve him of it. He hunts “masterpieces” like Attila the Hun, and his willingness to pay inflated prices for what I found to be a plethora of mediocre works is wreaking havoc on a museum community with fewer and fewer bucks to bang around with.
Even the anecdotes he tells so beguilingly (when he can charm an old leftie like me you can easily see how he raised $21 million for President Reagan’s 1980 campaign!) have a subtext he seems blissfully unaware of. He took me with an altar boy soft voice to his roomful of Prendergasts and bid me stand in front of his absolute favorite (whose title he couldn’t recall!). He told me how when he saw this painting in the possession of Paul Mellon, he just had to have it, even though the primary patron of the National Gallery of Art told him ever so gently and firmly he had already promised the canvas to NGA.
No matter. What Terra wants, Terra gets. He proposed that each get independent appraisals, after which Terra would offer NGA the option of the cash or the canvas. Dramatically the scene shifts to the board room of NGA, where Carter Brown asks Mellon and Terra to absent themselves so that the committee can choose between the cash and the canvas. “Forty-five seconds later,” Terra recalls with a cherubic smile, “Carter Brown was in the hall telling me they wanted the cash.” As well they might. $800,000 (he whispered radiantly that it was already worth twice that much already!) bucks-in-hand worth much more than a bush league of Maurice. Methinks Mr. Terra needs a nay-saying mentor to protect him against a gallery / museum world quite willing to exploit his innocence.
I would not be so certain of his vulnerability had I not visited the National Museum for Women in Art three days after pitstopping in Chicago. There, another enthusiastic amateur, Mrs. Wilhelmina Holladay and her developer / architect husband Wallace, have taken another route to fill a gap in our artistic consciousness. For one thing, they have ingeniously involved the community (in the form of corporations—United Technologies is the patron of their luminous inaugural exhibition, “American Women Artists, 1830—1930”; Phillip Morris is picking up the tab for the splendid catalog published by Harry N. Abrams, a keepsake bargain in paper at $19.95; Martin-Marietta has kicked in $1.5 million to restore the Great Hall of the 1907 Masonic Temple). And they already have $16 million in their kitty, with 380 founders having given at least $5,000. Terra’s checkbook seems to be the only visible means of his museum’s support because, according to Chicago media reports, “it’s an ego trip for Dan, so let him pay for it.” NMWA already has 55,000 members—in every state and 15 foreign countries.
Still I was leery about the separatism involved, especially when their advance press kit listed 187 artists, only 38 of whom I had ever heard of. (I’m willing to learn, but I could have added fifty women they didn’t have on their holding list.)
But Holladay didn’t do a Terra—displaying the few good, many bad and untold indifferent pieces he had amassed in his crash course in collecting. (He told me that he has 800 pieces if you include paper, at least 300 paintings.)
Holladay went to a distinguished art historian from Southern Methodist University, Dr. Eleanor M. Tufts, to curate the show. I can’t remember when I have seen so many new names and works that pleased me. A strange effect came over me to seriously devalue the old chestnuts of American Women’s Art. Mary Cassatt and Cecelia Beaux? Ho hum! Show me more Sarah Peale, and discoveries like Susan Eakin’s remarkable portrait of her husband Thomas.
I was getting writer’s cramp taking notes on my epiphanies. Dr. Tufts has covered every collection in the country to assemble this remarkable chrestomathy. If you can’t see it in D.C. (where it will be at 12th and K Street, N.W. until June 14) or at stops in Minneapolis (July 5—August 30), Hartford (September 19—November 15), San Diego (December 5—January 31, 1988), and Dallas (February 20—April 17, 1988), console yourself with the catalog (4590 MacArthur Boulevard, N.W. Washington, D.C. 20007 / 202-337-2615.
What this serendipitous juxtaposition of two different styles of pioneering museology proves to me is that money is not everything; in fact, it’s an impediment if bad ideas distort it. GIGO!
Southwell, who will discuss preparing a manuscript for publication, and Dr. Patrick Hazard, who will speak on a reviewer’s approach to public art. Both Southwell and Hazard are former college professors whose commentaries on visual arts have been published in ART MATTERS and numerous other publications.
The conference is open to all art writers who are currently in print, as well as novice and prospective writers. Fine arts and journalism students who are interested in learning about this discipline are especially encouraged to attend. There is no fee for participation in the Art Writers’ Conference, however, advance registration is required. The deadline for registering is June 12, and those interested can register or obtain further information by calling the ART MATTERS office at 564-2340.
Reprinted from Art Matters, Vol. 6-No. 9, June 1987

Friday, 25 February 2011

America’s Whitman

The candy, not the poet, silly. It’s the diamond jubilee of that great breakthrough in chocolate munching, the “indexed” Whitman Sampler box that discouraged faint-palated scroungers from pinching candies to avoid a detested filling.
Civilization inches forward by just such tiny increments. So hooray (and slurp) for Walter P. Sharp, who got the bright idea (one year after he inaugurated his presidency of the company with “Fussy Package for Fastidious Folks”) of the sampler from a treasured family heirloom.
It was a savvy bit of marketing as well, for thus could chocoholics sample candies from all the firm’s lines. Another Sharp idea: protect the freshness with the new cellophane, making his company the largest single user of the stuff in the 1920s.
In 1939, those canny marketers appealed ever so delicately to the national lust with the notorious slogan: “A woman never forgets a man who remembers.” Then, not so delicately, they unleashed movie star testimonials through the Saturday Evening Post in the 1940s and ‘50s. But new ploys are needed today as women have displaced men as the primary Sampler samplers.
The lore unleashed by Pet, Inc. (St. Louis), which gobbled up our local sweet-talkers (54 new boxes are confected every 60 seconds at the ten-acre factory in Northeast Philly), is as tasty as a Hershey almond bar (whoops, sorry, Pets). Blame the Aztecs for your benign obsession, for they started concocting a cold, bitter drink from local cocoa beans a thousand years ago.
Since they regarded it as a special gift from their great god Quetzalcoatl, they dubbed it Xocolatl (choc-coat-el). Only the Aztec upper classes got to sip. It was regarded as aphrodisiacal, so much so that the priapic-hoping-Montezuma was alleged to imbibe 50 golden goblets a day of the stuff.
Lots of good it did him when Cortez showed up; that conquistador was always after things to get him on the good side of Carlos V, so before you could say “Xocolatl” three times, the Spaniards had added hot water and sugar to make Europe’s favorite new drink. Uppity aristoi opened chocolate houses across Europe to quaff the new craze.
But it remained for those mass-market-seeking Brits to invent the chocolate bar in 1847. The culprits were a firm called Fry and Sons. Cavity Emptor, they didn’t warn, and British teeth have been marginal ever since. In 1876, those mollifying Swiss added milk chocolate.
The caloric disasters could have been predicted: The U.S. Department of Commerce reports that last year Americans stuffed themselves with 2.3 billion pounds of the brown gold, for a rake of $4.8 billion. There’s even a “Chocolate of the Month” club for those whose tastes are more unappeasable than selective.
So much a memorial nougat for Stephen F. Whitman, whose patriotism prompted him in 1842 to open a confectionary and fruit shop on a Delaware River wharf to “compete with French candymakers.” Eat American during the jubilee, compatriots. Swiss bash. Boycott Cadbury’s, cads.
Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, February 10, 1988

Thursday, 24 February 2011


I missed this poet entirely! Another Emily for my senescence!

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Degas and Lichtenstein at the Morgan

Re Robert Zaller’s review of the Degas and Lichtenstein shows at the Morgan Library in New York:

A run of the mill review by Zaller is like a live lecture by Meyer Schapiro redivivus. Zounds!

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Far East Economy

Re “I have seen the future, and it’s in the Far East,” by Benjamin Olshin—

How did I ever miss this guy? He does what philosophers ought to but rarely do these days: clarify complex issues that are usually distorted ridiculously in the mainstream media.
Patrick D. Hazard
Weimar, Germany
January 7, 2011

Dear Dr. Olshin, Thanks for alerting me to your lively blog. We Americans need and deserve Advice from outside our smug Exceptionalist delusions. I've been living in Weimar, Germany for the last ten years and understand more and more fully why non-Americans are impatient at the frequent narrowness of our views. See my blog for examples: www.MyGlobal Eye.blö Sincerely, Patrick D. Hazatd.

Subject: Thank You - Letter to Broad Street Review
Date: Sun, 09 Jan 2011 02:26:03 +0100
From: "Olshin, Benjamin"
To: ""

Dear Dr. Hazard:

I hope you don't mind my writing to you; I just read your letter to Dan Rottenberg at the Broad Street Review, the one in response to my article "Economic Lessons from the Far East:
I have seen the future, and it’s in the Far East". I appreciate your kind words, and am happy that my work is being read!

You may be interested in my blog, which I set up some time ago to address general issues, both serious and no-so-serious, of globalization, cross-cultural communications, etc. You may find it at:

The blog is more cultural and less political, as culture is more my area of expertise. At times, though, I make political commentary, such as in my piece on Burma. And, being from Philadelphia, I had to, of course, include a piece on cheesesteaks overseas (I am living in Taiwan for the year...).

Hope you enjoy it, and thanks again...

Benjamin B. Olshin
Benjamin B. Olshin, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Philosophy, History and Philosophy of Science and Technology,
and Industrial Design
The University of the Arts
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 19102 U.S.A.

Monday, 21 February 2011

Eclipsing Cybertopias

We Americans are inveterate technopians who ignore at our risk Henry David Thoreau's sneer in 1857 at excessive enthusiasm  over the just laid Transatlantic Cable: "And what will be the first thing that greets the broad,flapping American ear? That the Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough?"

The Internet does such remarkable things our egghead’s first reactions was to describe electrified utopias. Sherry Turkle, M.I.T. sociologist led the parade in 1995 with a book about identity called “Life on the Screen”. She’s having second thoughts in “Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other, ”Basic Books,$28.95.)

The kind of things giving Cybertopias a bad rep was the recent suicide of Simone Back from Brighton who wrote a suicide note in her “Facebook” to which none of her 1,048 “friends” raised so much as a Mouse finger throughout her travail. And when Turkle recently made the Stephen Colbert comedy stint to tout her newest book, she groused that at a recent funeral, everyone there was busy using their iPhones, to which Colbert smirked,”We all say goodbye in our own way.” Alone Together indeed!

Her thesis is simple: technology is threatening to dominate our lives and make us less human. We have assumed new technology allows us to communicate better while in fact the new cyberworld often isolates us from each other. The solipsism of the “inventor” of “Facebook” astonishes us, as well it might. And his instant philanthropy of $100,000,000 in aid of the beleaguered Newark, New Jersey school system reeks of preemptive justice as his Harvard “friends” sue him for stealing “their” invention. Anti-social media?

And she is not by far the sole cyberskeptic. Kent State education specialist William Kist reports a backlash re the new modes of communication as scaring people. By far the most coherent and comprehensive criticism of cybertopias is in Nicholas Carr’s “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing To Our Brains” (W.W. Norton, 2010). He warms up to the subject with solid and literate commentaries on Marshall McLuhan’s theories of the New Media as well as his mentor Walter J. Ong, S.J.’s pioneer research on orality in medieval rhetoric, a long, shamefully absent prologue to his student McLuhan’s oracular aphorisms about the emerging complex. The Mediator was the noisy Massager!

But by far the most interesting episode to this new intellectual crisis is Friedrich Nietzsche’s experience with the new Danish made Malling-Hansen Writing Ball. The philosopher was sickly throughout his life, especially after he fell from a horse while serving with a mounted artillery unit in the Prussian Army. In 1879, aged 34, he had to resign his post as a professor of philology at the University of Basel. He went South in the winter to Genoa and returned North in the summer in Leipzig, all the while losing his vision. The new typewriter was delivered at the end of 1882. Mastering the 52 key typewriter (capital and lower case plus punctuation marks), he was no longer “silent”. With practice, you could type 800 characters a minute, making it the fastest that had ever been built. He was so charmed he typed an ode to his salvation

The writing ball is a thing like me: made of iron
Yet easily twisted on journeys
Patience and tact are required in abundance,
As well as fine fingers, to use us. (Carr, p.18.)

But the real story on Action News was that it changed the way he wrote—and thought. His close friend, the writer and composer Heinrich Köselitz, noticed that his prose had become tighter and more telegraphic. (“The medium is the message” makes its debut.) Carr notes “There was a new forcefulness to it, too, as though the machine’s power—its “iron”—was, through some mysterious metaphysical mechanism, being transferred into the words it pressed into the page.” Köselitz noted that thoughts in music and language “often depend on the quality of pen and paper.” (p.19). The philosopher concurred. “Our writing equipment takes part in the framing of our thoughts.”

After clearly summarizing the entire history of speaking, writing and printing—clearly and succinctly, Carr explores how the use of the computer has influenced his writing—not always for the better! It has reduced as well his capacity to read long, complex texts. Thus the grave risk that cyberthinking and writing will be shallower and less authoritative. No hysteria. Just the way it goes in the new cyber life. Carr’s book is the clearest guide I have read yet for preparing adults, especially teachers at all levels, for orienting the under-lettered for intellectual life in the future.

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Friday, 18 February 2011


Le Corbusier (Princeton University Press, $19.95), a collection of fifteen essays from the Le Corbusier Archive is not new (they appeared in less accessible form in 1982-85), it is too large in format to be a vade mecum like Deborah Gans’s book from the same publisher, and is widely inconsistent in tone and perspective (it runs from near hagiography of a faithful co-worker like Andre’ Wogenscky to the rueful scholarly post mortem of Vincent Scully). Nonetheless it is an asset for all attempts to comprehend the probably incomprehensible, Charles Eduoard Jeanneret, painter manqué, failed visionary.
There are useful takes on his beginnings in La Chaux-de-Fonds; his unachieved projects for the League of Nations, and the Palace of the Soviets; the Villa Savoye; his ideas about mass housing; their practical (sometimes) embodiment in the Unite’ at Marseilles; Ronchamp (the only building of his for which I have no quibbles); the monastery at La Tourette (which I failed to see because I went unwittingly to St. Etienne on Pentecost weekend and there was no room for me in any of their inns!’ but I Eurail backtracked and tasted the glories of Colmar the next morning, an experience which makes you want to demand less from Corbu); two essays on Chandigarh; and three speculative essays on his urban speculations.

Some of what I read astonished me: Scully discusses the physiological implications of his losing his left eye in 1918; if that doesn’t cast the white villas and beton brut in a bright and not wholly flattering light, then his definition of architecture as the “play of forms under light” is as defective as his adult vision.

I confess to being something of a crank about Corbu and his boo boo’s. My first experience of a Corbu building was the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts at Harvard shortly after it opened—at a film festival, where the clerestory he had devised made the viewing of the films miserable. Prattling about the program in modern architecture is rather hollow when a leading practitioner of our art fails so totally to take into account needs of the great twentieth century art of the cinema. Such insensitivity borders on hubris, which as the Greeks whose greatest buildings he so much admired, is a tragic flaw.

Last May I spent three weeks on a Eurail pass inspection of most of the 44 exhibitions in honor of his centennial, and most importantly, feeling the buildings around me rather than simply doing an Ezra Stoller on them. The Hayward Gallery exhibition in London which began my odyssey was the most illuminating—and its catalog is a much better investment of time and money than the book under review.

In it I learned of his youth in the Jura mountains and a visit to his home town persuaded me than, except for Ronchamp, he never created a more satisfying work of art than the Villa Fallet, done with the construction help of Rene’ Chapallaz (it stunned me to learn he knew nothing about building; his mentor Charles L’Eplattenier was satisfied that he was an exterior decorator). At Courseaux, outside Vevey, the procrustean bed of a home he made for his retired parents on Lac Le Man, the concrete cracked so soon he had to sheath it later in aluminum. At the Unite’, most of the inhabitants have eschewed his mezzanine concept, “prolonging” the second floor to the wall line, leaving the few unchanged suites with the curious architectural term, pas prolonge’!

In short, like the other pioneer modernists Mies and Gropius, who began their careers propagandizing for better housing for the European masses, Corbu ended up making grandiose gestures and, faute de mieux, mucking up our urban cores for the next century. When you pass a housing project in Philly, you usually don’t think Corbu—but you should. His political innocence (shared alas, by succeeding generations of architects throughout the industrialized world) led us down a cruel cul de sac. It was the measure of the Pittsburgh conference on “Remaking the Cities” (March 1988) that it took small but steady steps away from Corbusian mess.

So as churlish as it must sound to hiss at a centennial celebration, hiss I must, agreeing with Vincent Scully, that Corbu’s urbanism “cannot help but be judged as faulty in conception and highly destructive in practice, especially as we have seen it more or less universally carried out in American redevelopment and the French ‘New Towns,’ not to mention at Chandigarh itself, at Brasilia, and elsewhere.” (p. 47)

An honest empiricism demands that we call a footing a footing, and a failure a failure. His zeal and energy were admirable, but in the service of defective ideas. May God help us do better in the post-modern world.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Spending Media Time

The “Ollie North for President” T-shirts on South 17th Street this summer were the last straw. When are Americans going to grow up, learn a bare minimum about their own national history and stop being the Alfred E. Neuman grinning loose cannons on the spaceship Earth? Not soon, to judge by the way we seem to be substituting rule by terror for constitutionally mandated government.
I boycotted the Senate’s Iran-Contra hearings this summer (although I did sneak a tedious summary every day or so on NPR’s All Things Considered and Morning Edition—but even these formerly estimable news services were dribbling away into drive-time repeats and pre-promoting what’s coming up as repetitiously as our commercial competitors.
Know what I was doing while you all hung in front of your teevees mesmerized to the brink of drool? I read two new books that tell me more about our present condition than a week of detergent drama “investigations.”
One is a memoir of a journalist who had done it his way for 70 years. George Seldes is now 97, and Witness to a Century (Simon and Schuster, $19.95) is just as fresh a look at the first three quarters of our troubled century as ever you’ll find anywhere. And although he’s a leftie, he’s a damned independent one, having been booted by no less terrible a trinity than Lenin, Mussolini and Franco.
But what I found especially germane in the era of Ollie North T-shirts was his report on Teddy Roosevelt’s vaunted charge up San Juan Hill. Seldes reports that the horses hadn’t arrived yet, that the terrain was too flat to be honored as a hill, and that, anyway, a company of “colored” soldiers was already there! They myth was fashioned by William Randolph Hearst, who also chided Frederick Remington when the illustrator called that there wasn’t any war to report, that he should supply the pictures and Hearst would supply the war.
The other alternative media experience I enjoyed that corroborates Seldes like a glove is Gore Vidal’s Empire (Random House, $22.50). The tackiness of our “liberation” of Cuba from Spain to protect our sugar investments is there in gory detail, as in our turning on the Filipino liberator Aguinaldo so that we could give our “little brown brothers” (in the phrase of William Howard Taft, the military governor) a taste of white Christian civilization.
Vidal makes the “fictions” of yellow journalism the leitmotif of his gloss on the shabby way America entered the stage of World Empire, full of self-righteousness about the while man’s burden and self-delusions about our moral superiority. Vidal garnishes this repast with saucy asides from the forlorn heirs of the original Republic—Henry Adams, Henry James and Lincoln’s private secretary, John Hay.
It’s not as nutritious as his Lincoln, but given the pablum of the hearings, it’s a much better investment of media time. And the half hour I spent seeing Vacation Nicaragua at PhilaFilm makes me positive we’re 180 degrees from reality down there.
Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, November 18, 1987

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

The First Family of American Culture

Raphaelle Peale, Painter

To put it plainly, the Peale family of Philadelphia is very appealing. When I first learned that the Patriarch Charles Willson, the founding promoter PAFA, hesitated not to stoop to conquer his fellow compatriots culturally, I was whelmed. His first museum stacked curiosities (like recently exhumed mastodon bones) near the front door to tease artistically uninterested Philadelphians into his esthetic lair--the better to see his own paintings, hanging grandly in the rear of his all-purpose museum.

This tactic seemed perfectly to embody the vision of another optimistic Early American, John Adams. When he was our ambassador to France in the 1780s, he wrote to Abigail back in Boston about how he was dealing with the embarrassing discrepancies between Beantown culture and artistic life in the City of Light. Was he discouraged that Paris made Boston look like a hick town by comparison?

Our generation, he reasoned to his equally thoughtful wife, must lay a solid political foundation so that their sons could develop the country economically, making it possible for culture to flower in the third generation. A trice over-optimistic, perhaps. But his grandson did found the Erie Railroad and his son, Henry Adams, wrote some solid books in the process of becoming the country's first archetypically alienated intellectual.

But Peales were made of sterner stuffings. To deal with the systematic Expectations Gap in the United States between our Highest Aspirations and our all too frequent Lowest Impulses, Charles Willson took out an onomastic insurance policy on America's cultural future. He named sons Raphaelle, Rubens, Rembrandt, and Titian. (Mysteriously, a plain James crept into this lineup of heavy hitters!) But the real marvel is how highly his sons lived up to their toney monickers, given the stoney soil that was their fate in the pre-NEA, oh-if-only-had-a-patron early 18th century America.

And of these sons, my favorite is Raphaelle, whose work we are privileged to savour at PAFA Feb. 17 through April 16. When I took a sneak peek at the show when it premiered at the National Gallery (I had trekked to D.C. to review the "serious" show on the Japanese daimyo), I was astonished by the gap between my middling expectations of his work and the stunning oeuvre on display.

For a start, the still life old chestnuts were thrillingly alive. I had shot a look at one here, made a mental note of another illustration in an art history book, and too precipitously concluded that he was a johnny-one-note surprisingly good for such mediocre times. Boy, was I ever wrong. He is a minor master in the genre, exploring mutability and vanitas with brilliant panache. He was no fruit and veggie "fool the eye" boy. He's a visual metaphysician, commenting on the discrete and multifarious ways different fleshes die, rot, and turn to seed, promising yet another cycle of birth-decay-death. And he's witty visually.

You can almost see the hand that just set down that half-consumed glass of wine. In short, look at this angel of a painter with open eyes and you will be absolutely delighted. Charles, First Father of American Painting, you can be mightily pleased with how the work of the First Son is tantalizing Philadelphians going on two centuries later. You don't have to tease us into the store at Broad and Cherry. Raphaelle is singing a divine chorus for our now awakened ears.

Hazard started asking for whom the Peales tolled in graduate school in the early 1950's. Oliver Larkin's Art & Life in America was hid vade mecum getting prepped for a Ph.D prelim in American Art and Architecture. With apologies to Will Rogers, Hazard has never seen a Peale he didn't like.

Reprinted from Art Matters, February 1989

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

A Gofer's Belated Recollections

What’s the antonym of “serendipity”? That’s what I felt when I finally fell upon Cornell savant Michael Kammen’s biography of my Annenberg mentor, ”The Lively Arts: Gilbert Seldes and the Transformation of Cultural Criticism in the United States”Oxford, 1996) $60.00. I was more than lucky to be his gofer in the late 1950’s and his friend until he died at 77 in 1970. His masterpiece, “The Seven Lively Arts” (1924) literally converted me from a fallen away Marxist Catholic to an idealist about the possibilities of Mass Culture. (My “conversion” is described in my chapter “The Public Arts and Private Sensibility” in Lewis Leary’s “Contemporary Literary Scholarship” (1961).

Thirty years of stuffy classroom maneuvering peaked for me in 1982 when I chose the fresh air of roaming the world as a global critic. (A family inheritance eased the transition.) On my heady hegira to become a Euromensch in Weimar in 1999 (when Helmut Kohl tried to heal German wounds by making my new home the Cultural Capital of Europe) Kammen had been busy examining Gilbert’s brilliantly idiosyncratic life, from his youth in a New Jersey utopia of Russian Jewish immigrants founded by his father, Philadelphia Boys Central(1906-10) to a Harvard scholarship (1910-1914), to editing “The Dial” where he published T.S.Eliot’s “The Waste Land”, and was the first in America to review Joyce’s “Ulysses”.

He married Amanda Hall in Paris in 1924, and Picasso no less blessed them with a drawing. He partied with Dos Passos and e.e.cummings and the lower case poet got arrested for pissing in the Paris street. And he played with the likes of the Fitzgeralds and Stravinsky and Gertrude Stein. But he had a mean streak against exPats like Hemingway and Mencken who mocked America. What’s enticing about Kammen’s narrative is how he follows Gilbert the Harvard snob through several phases of domestication until he ends his career as the first dean of the Annenberg School in 1959-63.

That was when I was his gofer even before he arrived--as I publicized the school’s ideals before they even opened. I visited J schools where I met with scorn for waggling Walter’s dough at them. The brass there were usually burnt out editors who reminded me brutally that Hearst tried the same buck washing maneuver which they curtly rejected. (Except for that brand new brand of social scientist, who sneakily inquired about faculty salary levels.) It was my first disillusion with social science!

My second followed when Gilbert made me sub for him at a 1961 FCC conference on license renewals. Newton “Vast Wasteland” Minow had just upbraided smug NAB members, so he convened three Big Leaguers (M.I.T. Ithiel de sola Pool, Columbia’s Bernard Berelson, and Chicago’s Gary Becker--and me, to spend the day figuring out what to do to with these recalcitrant CEO’s. As the day progressed it became evident these heavy hitters were innocent as angels about how applicants would promise the moon, but deliver nothing until they repeated their false promises at their next renewals. I had been shooting and editing cultural essays for John Roberts’ weekend news programs at Annenberg’s WFIL-TV, where Tom Jones taught me how stations were run.

At the end of the day, FCC chief Newton popped his empty head in to thank us, and I had to scrunch up to keep from laughing hysterically! And Kammen gets it wrong when he said Gilbert met me at the Tamiment Conference in 1959 when Daedalus magazine sponsored the meeting. I was subbing for Gilbert at that conference filled with upper West End Manhattan snobs.

That’s the time when the poet Randall Jarrell literally ended the conference by shouting “You’re the man of the future, Mr. Hazard, and I’m glad I’m not going to be there!” Alas he committed suicide not too long after, saving himself the pain of fifty years of my ranting! I regretted his early death because I taught his poetry with great pleasure. Heh, I was more than pleased to make MK’s index! He even had good things to say about the book of lectures from an NCTE conference I organized on “TV as Art” (1966).

But the biggest ASC disappointment I ever had was the way Vice Dean Charles Lee neutered my idea of a weekly lecture by a media Biggie to be followed by a Faculty dinner where desert was having the students grill the visitor. Lee was an amiably smiling oaf who never asked a question his CBS exec twin brother David Levy would ever have to answer! My final frustration was having the students drop by my office in Blanchard Hall at job seeking time and ask me how come Annenberg ran the lousiest TV station in town. The answer is in my blog! (Hint: How come he also ran the lousiest paper!)

I lived happily in my Louie Kahn house in Greenbelt Knoll, Morris Milgrim’s experiment in integrated housing in Northeast Philly. (Alas, I just sold it to buy a flat in a 1874 villa in Weimar.) One Saturday in ASC’s first year, Baptist preacher Leon (The Lion from Zion)Sullivan cornered me by the swimming pool and mocked Walter’s fillanthropic hypocrisy of blocking all coverage of his Tasteekake Boycott (You hire us, we’ll eat your Kakes) while simultaneously talking about raising standards in media! Bright and early Monday I was at the Inky (getting frisked for weapons in the elevator!) puzzled until I saw this placard on his desk: I WILL SO LIVE MY LIFE AS TO HONOR THE MEMORY OF MY FATHER. Yuck!

Walter was dumbstruck that one of his beneficiaries could ask him a tough question. Finally, he called in his executive editor, E.Z. Dimittman who “argued”, “We hired a colored copyboy last summer, but he didn’t cut the mustard.” Huh? Ironically, on my last visit to Annenberg as they were preparing for their Golden Anniversary, I happened on an open lecture by a young black sociologist who was touting his new book on similar issues. I thought they’d be pleased to hear that story. Midway through I felt a man grabbing my shoulder in an unfriendly way. Migod. I sneaked a look. It was the current Dean, telling me to button up. I sadly trekked back to Greenbelt Knoll. Not much progress there, Leon!

I only add these tidbits because I know Kammen would have included them in his book if I hadn’t been roaming around, globishly. I learned almost as much from his careful delineation of the media’s history in the twentieth century as I did from Gilbert’s tutelage. While there was a little tension between us when I returned from Hawaii in 1962—at his collusion with Lee and Annenberg in denying their promise of my right to return if Hawaii didn’t work out! (My number 2 had spent the ten years since his Iowa PH.D. in the CIA! They’d keep the East-West Center “clean”.)

By the way I had a great time with media in Honolulu, a weekly interview with important visitors on KAIM-FM, and a weekly palaver with my wife Mary called “Two Cents Worth. . .A penny for her thoughts. . .and a”. Until I did a piece on Saul Bass, saying how wasteful it was to use his brilliance only on a plug for “The Man with Golden Arm”. Alas, Saul was on his honeymoon and was duly pissed at what he thought was a slur! Geesh.

Gilbert and I made up by my going into New York Saturdays to share our glee with Goldie Hawn. There are somethings inherently more important than intellectual history. He taught me that!

Monday, 14 February 2011

Re: Discovering Myself in Lapland

Beguiled by Thom Nickels frozen idyll in Lapland, I remembered how I turned Finnish at 18. It was from visiting Cranbrook just outside Detroit where architects Eliel and Eero Saarinen actually did for design what the German Bauhaus only tried to do. George Booth, idealistic publisher of the Detroit News, designed it to combat the Nouveau Ritziness of the innocently ignorant new automotive elite.

And, Thom, the Finns were not taciturn--they were frozen silent! In the summer of 1970 I took my son Tim there to celebrate his 16th birthday at a Leeds masseuse's family farm outside Helsinki. (She had taught me for the first--and, alas, last time! how a fuckless rubdown is one of the deep joys of life.) And she babbled nonstop. Since I was flying Time-Life's colors to film how Marimekko fabrics were made, there was no dearth of invitations full of chatter, as at Ms. Marimekko's Gulf of Finland sauna for the weekend. She even mailed a sheaf of my favorite fabrics, gratis, to Philly.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Repressed Black Hatred

Serendipity is the mother of insight. Saturday night, my son took me to see the new Pulitzer Prize playwright August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom at St. Paul’s Penumbra Theater in the Martin Luther King Cultural Center. I had already planned to view, the next night, Charles Fuller’s TV version of Ernest Gaines’ A Gathering of Old Men on CBS-TV.
(Fuller lives across the street from me in Philadelphia, and I’ve been an eager student of his work ever since he taught his PBS video of Gaines’ story The Sky Is Gray, in my college class.)
To see Wilson on Saturday and Fuller on Sunday provided me with a tremendous surge of insight into the greatest “secret” of the blacks in America: The terrible repressed burden of hatred blacks have for whites because of the strategic yet gratuitous violence inflicted by a ruling class still obtuse about the continuing damage they do American blacks.
There are two set pieces in Wilson’s Ma Rainey that are meant to terrify the largely white audience—seven blacks in and audience of almost 200; there were more blacks on the stage than there were on the other side of the footlights. The first is by Levee, the young, liberated black who aspires to compose and arrange music as an artist—to be more than a “jug band” backup performer.
His hatred of the white man’s God stems from his experience as an eight-year-old in a Mississippi cracker-dominated town, defending his mother form a white rapist by slashing himself with a knife as his mother is being assaulted. His honor is prematurely intact, and he despises a divine authority who would permit such abominations with impunity.
Levee screams at God, with foul-mouthed invective, to strike him head if he is wrong to refuse to kowtow to a deity who lets white racism not only endure but prevail, to twist Faulkner’s famous Nobel formulation.
Cutler, the typical “good” colored man who’s obsessively passive Christianity has enabled him to survive the pre Civil Rights era, is moved to violence against Levee for his confrontational desecration of his God. As in Fuller’s A Soldier’s Play, the ultimate black tragedy in America is that endemic plague of black-on-black violence.
Sergeant Waters harasses the guitar-picking Southern nigger, because his easygoing ways tend to confirm the white establishment’s putdown of Waters’ own career ploy of being whiter than a white man. The pathos is more than painful: Colored folks pick on each other because it is so dangerous to threaten their real enemy together.
And the most harrowing point in Wilson’s play is when Levee’s courageous anger aimed at the white God liberates Cutler’s long-suppressed nightmare: His preacher, having missed a train connection to a funeral, is trapped in town where the local toughs harass him without provocation—simply for kicks. Cutler has been unwilling, probably unable, to face their terrorizing of a black man of God—until Levee’s anger frees him, too. He then screams as well at the audience about the perfidy of a dominant majority that abuses even a black preacher.
All of this goes on as the side-play of a recording session where Ma continuously asserts her dignity by demanding that the white producer, who is interested in her sales curves, and her white agent, who is wholly insensitive to her creative needs, do it her way—by going out and getting her the coke she dotes on during sessions; by insisting that her stuttering nephew introduce her, no matter how many takes are involved.
Ma doesn’t hassle the Almighty like Levee. As an autonomous artist, she is already liberated. Ma’s integrity is literally an inspiration to all who come under her field of force. Charlie doesn’t master her. She goes her own way, the grace of the blues being for her a crucial religious (if not theological) experience.
It is thrilling to realize, in the afterglow of the luminous performance, that Wilson sees himself in the same light. His bluesy drama engenders the same epiphanies in the white audience that Ma triggered among the blacks who bought her race records from Birmingham to Brooklyn in the 1920s.
Art at its best exorcized evil. There has been a long and painful—but ultimately positive—journey from 1927, when the Chicago recording session took place, to 1987 in St. Paul, when the ofays filed into the black leather to be educated out of their sins of omission and commission.
Fuller’s teleplay of Gaines’ novel, on the other hand, takes place in the post-Civil Rights era—only yesterday so to speak. And it’s set on the kind of southwestern Louisiana sugar plantation that the 54-year-old novelist left as a 15-year-old outmigrant to Oakland, California, in the early 1950s—before things really heated up North or South.
A young, liberated black has killed the notorious racist bully Beau Bouton with a shotgun after being harassed. Mathu, a 70-year-old black man who has been passed over by the Civil Rights revolution, decides to justify his uncommitted life by pretending he killed Bouton.
The plantation heiress, Candy Marshall, is horrified that “her charge” will be arrested. She rounds up all the other old men who have never made a stand against the white barbarians and has them gather en masse with freshly discharged 12-gauge shotguns. It’s a kind of parody of a civil rights jail-filling tactic. Sheriff Mapes is understandably puzzled by this unorthodox “stand-in” for justice. The longer he delays incarcerating Mathu, the angrier Beau’s friends become in threatening to take the law into their own hands.
First the old men dismiss the presumptuous Candy and take their fate into their own hands. As Gaines told a St. Paul Pioneer Press Dispatch interviewer, he was going to call his novel A Dream of Old Men. “They feel, ‘I failed one day in my life. I didn’t do something right, and I would just hope that I could redo it’.” All these old men didn’t do right, submitting to the power of the white man. “Maybe God won’t give them another chance,” Gaines concludes, “but I will.”
Like Ma Rainey and August Wilson, Gaines and Fuller are using the secular church of the theater to bestow amazing graces. Art will heal what man has put asunder. To see two such plays in quick succession is to be doubly aware of how blessed we are to have black writers explain our common malaise so clearly and eloquently.
Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large.

Saturday, 12 February 2011

Revisiting the Mississippi—Flowing Eden of His Youth

Mighty Mississippi: Biography of a River
by Marquis Childs; Ticknor & Fields; $12.95

Marquis Childs, who won the first Pulitzer ever for commentary (1969) working upriver at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, has pulled a Mark Twain trick, revisiting the flowing Eden of his youth (he’ll be 80 next year).
Childs started the book in 1934, but put it down almost immediately to become the PD’s man in Washington, D.C. In a somewhat bizarre fashion, Chapter 15, “Down Government River,” a first person account of his trip down the river in 1934 to report on New Deal initiatives, is written in the present tense, late-filed copy that brilliantly illumines his later historical essay on the economic development of the mighty waterway. In this decade of instant books, it shows that it pays to let an idea simmer.
Childs was born to his task—in Clinton, Iowa, a bend in the river between Dubuque and Davenport. And the most lyric chapter, “The Lost River”—rivaling Nigger Jim and Huck’s lazy idylls—describes with deepest feeling Mississippi fishing trips and summer cabins along Deer River and winter skating days.
“The night casts a spell, too,” he writes, “a spell that one never knew in town. There was a quality of stillness accentuated by mysterious sounds that came from over the dark water—the splash of a fish, a far-off voice.
“From the verandah of the Jamieson cabin there was barely visible, through Hole-in-the-Wall (a narrow inlet), a government channel light burning very small and faint, like a minor star against the horizon. And behind you as you stood staring out into the night were the friendly reassuring voices that came from the cabin, the window that was a mellow square of light.”
But just as Huck from Hannibal ended up deeply misanthropic about the rape of his childhood Eden, so does Childs see with bitterness and rue what the American Adam has wrought in his 400-year rampage upon this once-in-the-history-of-the-universe Natural Paradise. Not that Childs wallows in the loss. But there is no mistaking him: The Original Sin in this New Eden was greed unrestrained.
Yet the larger than life figures who peopled this Unsettling command Childs’ respect, and ours. The hapless DeSoto, dead of fever after failing with a deeper feverishness to find gold, was blind to the bounty that surrounded him. Jean Nicolet carried a Chinese gown of damask “all strewn with flowers and birds of many colors,” the better to make an impression on the Orientals he expected to find through the Northwest Passage, just beyond Green Bay, Wisconsin.
And Father Marquette, who actually reached the Father of the Waters (17 June 1673), but who floated scared, until increasing signs of Spanish hegemony turned him back, just south of the Arkansas River: “We met from time to time monstrous fish, which struck so violently against our canoes that at first we took them to be large trees which threatened to upset us. We saw also a hideous monster; his head was like that of a tiger, his nose was sharp, and somewhat resembled a wildcat; his beard was long, his ears stood upright, the color of his head was gray, and his neck black. He looked upon us for some time, but as we came near him our oars frightened him away.” Demonology indeed. The river must be the longest floating Rorschach blot on the globe!
But to a generation locked in the economic cold war of Sunbelt / Frostbelt, a great benefit of Childs’ book is the light it casts on regional jockeying for power. How interesting to discover that the Robert Livingston who negotiated the Louisiana Purchase in France for Jefferson was the same RL pushing for a steamboat monopoly on the Mississippi and its tributaries. And that Captain Henry M. Shreve not only helped Andy Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans but devised the two technologies that opened the river to trade—a low draft, flat bottom steamboat, and a snag-cutting device that reduced the perils of the erratic river.
The tempo of development speeds up considerably after the Civil War, when Jay Gould hedges his railroad bets by pushing for a monopoly of river barge traffic. (He wins—and blips the barges.) According to Childs, the fracases that ensued when railroad promoters began to jump the Mississippi with bridges (the first was from Rock Island, Illinois to Davenport, Iowa in 1856) were bitter beyond belief.
The competitors’ lower rates (and 12-month schedules) made river men paranoid. They seriously argued that railroad bridge engineers should position their piers to make passage even more difficult for boats. When the Effie Afton crashed and burned against the Rock Island bridge, fire finally toppled the span, her sister ship Hamburg flew a flag upstream that said, “Mississippi Bridge Destroyed: Let All Rejoice.”
With a seasoned journalist’s eye for color, Childs picks up a sidebar story about one of the railroad attorneys. A. Lincoln of Springfield, and his last chapter is a stirring “bluff-hanger,” on getting a use-tax through Congress in 1978. A great book on the Old Mississippi.
Patrick D. Hazard is a former book reviewer for the Philadelphia Inquirer currently living near Santa Rosa.

Review, September 19, 1982

Friday, 11 February 2011

Terra Firma in Chicago

John Vanderlyn's Ariadne at Naxos

What a boon that former Philadelphian Daniel J. Terra is moving his Museum of American Art smack down onto Chicago's Miracle Mile. And what a blessing, that the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, America's oldest museum (1805), is paying tribute to the newest such institution by sending 60 of its prime canvases to the Chicago inaugural. Until March 15th you can see two-thirds of these exiles from the PAFA basement here. You shouldn't miss the treat.

In passing, I hope I won't be misunderstood (or maybe it's just that I really want to be understood) when I say what a pity we don't see more of such "old chestnuts." Every up-do-date museum these days has got to prove it's hip--a special challenge to PAFA whose riches are so often historical.

Frankly, I hope (and predict) that Frank Stella's fatal crash collage--on which PAFA spent umpteen thousands--will take up the room in the basement in place of some of those old chestnuts before we're too deep into the 1990s.

Walk around PAFA with me for a few minutes and tell me whether you'd rather stare at Stella by starlight or relish these buried legacies. Start with Thomas Sully's radiant portrait of the actress Fanny Kemble. Her eyes are so full of lively joi I wanted to applaud his performance right on the spot.

It's cheek (if you'll forgive my grossness) by jowl with John Vanderlyn's "Ariadne at Naxos," a canvas that is (in)famous for having broken the bare-boob barrier in American art. Funny how much sexier I find Fanny's eyes than eyeing Ariadne's fanny. Kemble's portrait is alive: Vanderlyn's, a slab of cultural flab.

I really also responded to John Sloan's "Jefferson Market," so unAshcanny in the late afternoon sun bathing that quirky High Vic edifice from a high, high perspective--so far up that the El customers are tiny blobs. It's a kick, when the museum basement is given an airing, to see a familiar painter in an unfamiliar guise.

It is also a special treat to come across someone you've never even seen before. John White Alexander is new to me, and "A Quiet Hour" (1904) is a fresh pleasure--a young woman in a sensational pea-green brocaded gown reading as she leans against a bed covered in the same color, the richness of which ground color is set off marvelously by the lustrous black of her hair and the whiteness of her complexion.

I get the same kick of jamais vu from Daniel Ridgeway Knight, whose "Hailing the Ferry" (1888) is a fine genre piece, the two young women doing the hailing on the near bank in almost photorealist focus while the object of their solicitation comes arunning, in softest focus, on the far bank.

Such temporary house gleanings also fill in gaps in your local color. Having arrived in the Del Val only in 1956, I've only heard of the Chinese Wall connecting 30th Street Station with the old Broad Street Station. So Morris Hall Pancoast's "The Penny Pack Shed" (1918) was both extrinsically and intrinsically interesting. He had obviously pored over the many canvases of the Gare St. Lazarre by French Impressionist masters.

Some old chestnuts don't hold up, alas. Thomas Eakins' "Whitman" (1887) is a smarmy avuncular poet long past his prime at age 68--unless, of course, it was 43-year-old truthteller Tom telling us about a Walt who had dwindled badly after the stroke which brought him to Camden in 1873.

Bass Otis (1784-1861) was, on the other hand, new and delightfully fresh to me, his "Interior of a Smithy" (1815) crying out for explication. How old was that semi-automated anvil and what was it used to make? And who are the Beau Brummel types lolling in the right foreground? They seem out of place in their frippery in a mean smithy.

Otis's portrait of Alexander Lawson (1808) had just enough data in the captions to whet my appetite for more. It said he was the engraver, who brought Wilson's American Ornithology to press, and the first lithographer in the U.S. (1819). He is also characterized as the inventor of the perspective protractor in 1815. The what?

Finally, there's my favorite cultural hero, Charles Willson Peale, PAFA founder, who bet on the vitality of our country by naming his sons Rembrandt, Raphael and James (how did he make the cut?!) And to think that they actually ended up being entirely creditable artists. But what I really love was the way Peale appealed to the great unwashed American audience--using exhumed mastodons and live animals to tease his timid crowds into this museum so that they would end up being exposed to the Culture--with a capital C--he wanted them to savour.

How much better than that Jacksonian conman Phineas T. Barnum with his "To the Egret" signs that led his paying customers out onto the street, where they would have to pay another admission to drool again over his collection of oddities.

On Chicago's Miracle Mile, half way between the svelte Miesian Institute of Contemporary Art and the Peace Museum eking out a hand-to-mouth existence in an old loft, Daniel Terra may learn from PAFA that there is no substitute for solid scholarship doled out in strategically deployed captions. Terra firma!

Reprinted from Welcomat: Hazard-at-Large

Thursday, 10 February 2011

A Half Century of Humanism: Jacob Lawrence

For over a half century, Jacob Lawrence has stuck to his last: the careful and continuous delineation of the experience of being black in America. Yet he has always flinched at the category, black American painter. He has always aspired to picture universal human truths by attending carefully to the details of his own experiences.

When I asked him in Seattle if he still bristles at being so dubbed, he was philosophical: “If people want to call me a black American painter, it’s OK with me, so long as they don’t miss what I’m up to; pursuing a universal humanism from within the experiences life has given me.”

When I think of his remarkable achievement, two things always come to mind: character and endurance. There is a strength in the way, to paraphrase William Faulkner’s Nobel acceptance speech, he has not only endured, he has prevailed.

Think of his unpromising start—born in Atlantic City on September 7th, 1917, son of a railroad cook, he never really knew a stable family experience. When his father abandoned his mother in 1924, Jacob and his two siblings were placed in a Philadelphia settlement house for three years and for another three years in a foster home.

His mother sought work as a domestic in Harlem and in 1930 moved the family to New York City where she was off and on welfare during the grim Depression years. She enrolled Jacob in the arts and crafts program at the Utopia Children’s Center—fearful of what could happen to him on the streets.

Jacob was not much given to the rough-and-tumble of street games, and soon found the treasure house of the Countee Cullen Branch of the New York Public Library—what is now the Schomburg Center for the Study of Black Culture, the most important collection of black study materials in the world.

In the afterglow of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, he discovered that his abused people had a proud history. He was thrilled to overhear writers like Langston Hughes and Claude McKay talk about that amazing efflorescence of self-awareness. But he was not provincial in his interests.

There is something epic in his walking the 60 blocks between his Harlem home and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where he studied medieval painters like Giotto, eager to do for the life around him what the Italian medieval painter had achieved for his times.

His first significant achievement—a suite of portraits of everyday life in Harlem—appeared when he wasn’t yet 20. Flat forms, pure colors and reduced details prefigured his mature style. He exhibited under the auspices of the James Weldon Johnson Literary Guild at the Harlem YMCA. Although he took classes at the federally-supported Harlem Arts Workshop, he couldn’t join the WPA artist support program until he turned 21.

He had already conceived and started work on his first narrative suits, a 41-panel exploration of Toussaint L’Ouverture, the man who organized the first successful black revolution in the Western Hemisphere, the overthrowing of French colonialism in Haiti. He had seen W.E.B. Dubois’ play Haiti at the Lafayette Theater in Harlem, and he researched the subject further at the Schomburg Collection.

It was an opportune-time to aspire to greatness in public art. There was black artist Aaron Douglas’s mural cycle, “Aspects of Negro Life,” at the 135th Street Library, which young Lawrence haunted for intellectual sources. There were Diego Rivera’s murals at the Rockefeller Center as well as the Orozco sequence for the New School of Social Research.

From the library he was discovering the invisible Negro past he wanted to “publish”: from the WPA ateliers and the Mexican muralists he was finding the medium for his message. Thinking back about his first major achievement, the Toussaint sequence, Lawrence recalled:

“I’ve always been interested in history, but they never taught Negro history in the public schools . . . My first real introduction to Negro history was when I was very young, I imagine—when a Mr. Allen spoke on it at Utopia House. He spoke about Toussaint L’Ouverture . . .

“I do my research first; read the books and take notes. I may find it necessary to go through my notes three times to eliminate unimportant points . . . Having no Negro history makes the Negro people feel inferior to the rest of the world. I don’t see how a history of the United States can be written honestly without including the Negro. I didn’t do it just as a historical thing, but because I believe these things tie up with the Negro today. We don’t have a physical slavery, but an economic one. If these people, who were so much worse off than the people today, could conquer their slavery, we certainly could do the same thing.” (Ellen Harkins Wheat, Jacob Lawrence: American Painter (Seattle Art Museum, 1986.)

In short, Lawrence looked to history for means to free himself and his people. “How will it come about?” he asked himself rhetorically. “I don’t know. I’m not a politician. I’m an artist, just trying to do my part to bring this thing about . . . There’s so much to do, there’s never any trouble to find subjects.”

It is remarkable that an artist could find his métier so early in his career. Another characteristic part of the Lawrence signature also appeared early—captioning, using words to illuminate the narrative images. Ellen Wheat shrewdly speculates that photojournalism (Life began publication in 1936) probably gave him the notion of captioning.

But the didacticism he has fine-tuned for 50 years is an idiosyncratic amalgam of any and every thing that will further his program: making American blacks aware of the dignity of their past. And he’s no Pollyanna. There is a sting in those captions:

“As a child, Toussaint heard the twang of the planter’s whip and saw blood stream from the bodies of slaves.”

In 1938, he started the Frederick Douglass series, one of which he captioned: “The master of Douglass, seeing he was of a rebellious nature, sent him to a Mr. Covey, a man who had built up a reputation as a ‘nigger breaker’. A second attempt to flog Douglass was unsuccessful. This was one of the most important incidents in the life of Frederick Douglass. He was never attacked again by Covey. His philosophy: A slave easily flogged is flogged oftener—a slave who resists flogging is flogged less.”

One thing I’ve discovered from this retrospective is the brilliant use the painter makes of the English language: He is terse, aphoristic, eloquent in his almost Biblical simplicity. I don’t think critics have fully appreciated the remarkable power of his prose, so dazzled have their eyes been by his paintings proper.

Jacob Lawrence Retrospective: At the Brooklyn Museum of Art, through November 28.
Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, November 25, 1987

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Our False “Exceptionalism”

Professor Robert Zaller’s reflections on Obama’s Tucson speech are timely. We are the nation where two Kennedys and one King were “executed” in a turbulent decade. We lead the world in both incarceration rates and differential punishments for race and class, including executions. Our hunger for guns also leads the world as more and more citizens wrongly believe guns make them safer.

We live in a psychotic culture and should worry less about being overrun economically by China and more about imminent social suicide. My hunch is that we are most vulnerable because of our false “Exceptionalism” as the greatest nation in the history of the world. Until we are mature enough to confess to this absurd false consciousness, we will fondle our guns as a mindless guarantee of safety.
Patrick D. Hazard
Weimar, Germany
January 23, 2011

Editor’s comment: Granted, the notion of a uniquely chosen nation leads inevitably to arrogance. But what country, other than the U.S., gets your vote for greatest nation in history so far? Ancient Greece? Rome? Britain? France? The Hapsburg Empire? What?

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Dear Danny and the Deer

In the Park/Im Park
by Joachim Ringelnatz
(Translated by Patrick D. Hazard).

A tiny deer stands by a very small tree
It was two after eleven at night
And I came along again at four in the morning
And there still dreamt that deer
Now I creeped up to him
Scarcely breathing against the wind
To the tree
And gave the deer a tiny push
And there he was in gypsum.

Ein ganz kleines Reh stand 2am ganz kleinen Baum
still and verklärt wie im Traum.
Das war des Nachts elf Uhr zwei.
Und dann kam ich um vier
morgens wieder vorbei,
und da traümte noch immer das Tier.
Nun schlich ich mich leise--ich atmete kaum-
gegen den Wind an den Baum
Und gab dem Reh einen ganz kleinen Stips.
Und da war es aus Gips.

Monday, 7 February 2011

Daniel Bell

I'll never forget my 1961 encounter with Bell at Stanford's "Itching Palms," the satiric name for the Center for Behavioral Studies, where everyone was after another grant!

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Is Jazz Dead?

Not if you are plugged into PureJazzStream on the Internet. Plug in!

The Research Bust

On researching research: Scientific research is cumulative: one well-executed experiment leads to another. Humanistic research is redundant, with squadrons of "original" researchers repeating each other ad nauseam.

Those energies ought to be reinvested in face to face explanation and discussion with students in class and their essays written in and out of class. The last,lost generation of our importing arcane European mystiphysics derived from the humanities profession's sense of intellectual inferiority vis-a-vis the successful scientific enterprises.

Just as scientists show their students how to conduct an experiment and test it, so must humanists invest in careful reading of established classics and putative ones. We have literally wasted our time with tenure granting publications instead of teaching our students how to read more and more carefully, which is to say more and more professionally.

Son and Father

Michael and Patrick D. Hazard

Saturday, 5 February 2011


I'm a wrecked wretch when it comes to such high-faluting rhetoric.

Friday, 4 February 2011

Minor White: Arts and Aperture

Many artists achieve personal greatness, but only a handful in history have managed to be equally gifted at creating a significant body of work of their own while at the same time helping their craft get its collective act together.
Minor White (1908-1976) was such a singular genius. During his 67 years he managed to cram several careers into a life so productive that it still sets a standard in the art he helped to legitimize as more than just a craft.

John Szarkowski, the dean of contemporary American photography criticism, has put the case well: “White’s influence has depended not only on his own work as a photographer but on his service as teacher, critic, publisher, theoretician, proselytizer, and house mother for a large portion of the community of serious photographers.

Indeed, White’s omnipresence in the photographic world has made it easy to forget at times that he has remained first of all an artist: a photographer who has made some of the medium’s most memorable pictures.” In Szarkowski’s opinion, only W. Eugene Smith, Harry Callahan, and Robert Frank have had comparable impact on our sense of the emerging medium’s artistic potential in the generation that reached its maturity after the Second World War.

His “zone system” of photography became a major ingredient in the curriculum of the photo teaching boom engendered by the free tuition of the GI Bill. It was that massive broadening and deepening of the serious audience for photography as an art that accounts for the medium’s high status within art museums and among collectors today.

Walt Whitman once observed that great poetry demands great audiences—in a democracy you get no more than you’re willing to pay for, whether in cash or concern. White’s propagandizing for a demanding esthetic for the professional photographer generated as well as growing minority of “amateurs” who expressed their love for the genre by being willing to accord it the same high seriousness of attention that aficionados of poetry, fiction, and drama had devoted to their favorite art forms for centuries.

White’s “zone system”—basically a mandate that the photographer previsualize the photo he was concentrating on taking—laid to rest the hobbyist curse implicit in Eastman Kodak’s advertising slogan for the first cheap camera in the 1880’s: “You push the button; we do the rest.” For photography to become more than a past-time or a commercial operation, the photographer had to not only take over control of “the button” (mastering the expressive potential of the medium’s variables—aperture, focus, shutter speed before the “click”) but he also had to “do the rest” with infinite pains in the darkroom.

Here in the midst of what might be called our era of the “managed image,” in which anything goes in transforming the image before and after the “click,” we tend to underappreciate the magnitude of White’s achievements as a philosopher of photography. And his “zone system” of imaging the grey scale potential of an image-to-be purged the medium of both its hobbyist heritage and its hankering to simulate other already arrived visual arts such as painting, sculpture, and architecture. His message was clear: Understand your machine’s expressive potential and you’ll never be mastered by the machinery. Beauty indeed had to be seen in the eye of the beholder-photographer before it could ever be achieved on paper.

That White achieved this intellectual revolution without becoming too cerebral in the process is all the more remarkable. His eye never left his own viewfinder. I think he achieved this by joining a tradition of the American as mystic. He was a great aphorist in the tradition of Walt Whitman (“The hinge of the human hand puts to scorn all machinery”) and Louis Sullivan (“Form follows function”). “No matter what role we are in—photographer, beholder, critic—inducing silence for seeing in ourselves, we are given to see from a sacred place. From that place the sacredness of everything may be seen.” The sacredness of everything. That is White’s demotic gospel.

Just as Whitman wrote the first epic in American literature by celebrating the magic and wonder of the commonplace—can you get more down to earth than by praising mere “leaves of grass”?—just so White’s trained eye teases us into appreciating the miracle of everyday surfaces. His “equivalents” are in the Emersonian tradition of finding outside signs for inner states of gracefulness.

Louis Sullivan similarly made his great banks in small towns in the Midwest (why else would you want to visit Owatonna, Minn.; Columbus, Wis.; Sidney, Ohio?) with the same vision: If you turn yourself on to the wonder of the most ordinary existence, you will never again feel the lash of boredom. Like his forebears—William Blake, Whitman, Sullivan—White was creating a secular religion of awe and respect for the commonplace.

That is the cumulative intent of his wise sayings:

“Every moment of understanding is a birthday.”

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Grosser National Product

A funny thing happened on the way to Terry Gross’s taking her Fresh Air forum national: WHYY-FM listeners are up in arms about the glitzing up and snippeting down of the 12-year-old jewel in our public radio station’s crown.
One of the most civilized traditions that All Things Considered inventor and station manager Bill Siemering has devised at 91 FM is a call-in program at the beginning of each month during which listeners can confront the brass about changes in programming.
The Monday before Fresh Air took its redesigned format national on May 11, Siemering was blitzed by a squadron of listeners who didn’t like what they were hearing. One gently irate woman said the old format was like an Amish quilt; the new one, a machine-made-orlon jobbie.
Siemering riposted with a metaphor of his own: The local show was like a dittoed bulletin board message; the national version had to be a well-printed job, easy to “read.” The loyal fans of hour-long interviews were having none of it. One man sneered that the new format was threatening to resemble People magazine. (I’d hazard a guess that Entertainment Today a radio clone of the TV syndie, is closer to the mark.)
A dignified sounding elderly lady pleaded with Bill to cut out the All Things Considered billboarding of upcoming stories. She argued that 91 FM listeners didn’t need to be told how good ATC is. She has my vote as well: That day, the advance teases included a Gross palaver with Renee Montaigne on a double Cagney & Lacey episode airing that night on CBS-TV, a promise that listeners would get an Irangate score card to follow the players at the hearings: a hint of Hart hanky panky, and a feature on an Alcatraz prisoner revisiting the island. Like the lady who pooh-poohed billboarding, “I’m willing to wait.”
And it’s not just a question of billboarding ATC either; John Barth billboards “91 Report”; Paul Danilefsy billboards the evening music and next day’s Morning Edition. I remember the good old days when Terry did all three hours of interviews and music herself; now there’s a staff of eight, and a million-plus budget to fill an hour. Those senior and associate producers have got to produce something. I guess.
To be fair, Gross can elicit more out of a good subject in a half-hour today than she did in an entire hour in the Golden Age of Gross. Her recent deft jabbing at Sam Donaldson (Don’t you showboat? Don’t you get Reagan off the hook with your adversarial style?) was a superb bite of radio. And her 11-minute interview with Chilean exile and novelist Elizabeth Allende was luminous—although lamely billboarded as a “poet” coming up. Maybe we need an editor of billboarders.
What I find ominous is the new “arts” format is its virtual depoliticizing of the old contents. We’ve got a rock and video critic (Ken Tucker, whose May 1 gloss on the new Prince was his usual anti-family, rockers-can-do-no-wrong hagiography): a history-of-rock critic from Texas (who was billboarded as about to cover a swamp rocker); a jazz critic (Francis Davis’s review of composer/alto saxophonist Henry Threadgill’s new LP was replete with dazzingly irrelevant similes, justifying Nels Nelson’s putdown of Davis’s recent book on jazz in the ‘80s as polysyllabic nonsense); a book critic; a language authority unknown to me but, with luck, worthy of the shade of John Ciardi; a critic at large from Vanity Fair whose work I don’t know (but the glitz of whose magazine makes me nervous); a classical music critic; and, luckily, a TV critic of real stature.
The last, David Bianculli, delivered a mini-editorial on Channel 12’s tactical postponing of Frontline’s “The Bombing of West Philly” until after the May 19th primary, the kind of tough politics I fear will be mostly missing with the Culture slant of the new format—if you call overrepresentation of rock music Culture. How about an architecture critic?
My advice is to slow down and do fewer things well. Siemering tried to justify the choppiness of the format as being mandated by network affiliates popping in and out of the show, slotting their own billboardery as well as local weather and traffic reports (some of the 40 stations signed up so far even play FA / NPR the next morning). Which confirmed one irate phoner’s gripe that going national was killing the very golden goose whose delectable eggs had made it estimable in the first place.
Will success spoil Terry Gross? I doubt it. I’ve touted her skill and savvy all over the world, from London (where I described it to Third Programme isolates as just as good and far more demotic than their best magazines) to Tokyo (where news executives return from USA trips appalled at the media malarkey of the radio their ears stumble over when they tour America’s airways.)
But I’ve been a Gross dropout I must confess since last fall when, returning from a trip, I heard her give very unprepared and unilluminating interviews on two lone, difficult, and exceedingly important books I had just finished, David Halberstam’s The Reckoning and Ralph Nader’s The Big Boys.
Now granted, I had read those tomes because I had just Greyhounded to San Francisco and back. But maybe Terry should be allowed more time to read and think and be less hassled over what Siemering pretentiously calls “aesthetic” issues of formatting.
Either that, or, when conducting an interview on a hard, long book she has just skimmed, give it a billboard: “This interview may be hazardous to your mental health.” Having fondly watched her mature since 1975, I think she has the character to not only endure but prevail against the Glitz Blitz.
Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, May 27, 1987

Terry Gross
To the Editor:
Has Patrick D. Hazard any idea how repellently patronizing he came across in his review of the new edition of Terry Gross’s “Fresh Air” (May 27)? Not to mention ignorant and reactionary.
First he tells us that Ken Tucker’s review of the new Prince was “his usual anti-family, rockers-can-do-no-wrong hagiography,” that he hasn’t listened since he heard her do “very unprepared and unilluminating interviews on two long, difficult and exceedingly important books I had just read.” (Congratulations, Pat! You’re very well-read! It’s well known!)
He has “fondly watched her mature since 1975” and advises that “Terry should be given more time to read and think.”
I too wish that we could hear more to Terry Gross, but I don’t think she needs to hear Hazard’s self-serving, condescending (and sexist?) commentary. I know I don’t.
Dan DeLuca
West Philadelphia
Editor’s comment: For my money, Tucker and Gross both belong to a very small and select group of Philadelphians who really know what the hell they’re doing. But if a guy like Hazard wants to keep them on their toes, what’s the harm?
Reprinted from Welcomat: Letters to the Editor, June 3, 1987

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

The Life and Loves of a Velvet Fog

Talk about velvet fogs: I still remember my astonishment, sitting in the Venetian Room of the Fairmont Hotel in Dallas, taking notes to review the Mel Torme / George Shearing act for the Dallas Fort Worth Business Journal. It was Yom Kippur time, and some badinage about the Jewish New Year alerted me that my favorite male jazz singer was Jewish. Torme? Jewish?
It’s all explained—along with much else—in his beguiling memoir, It Wasn’t All Velvet (Viking, $18.95): The Russian-Jewish family name Torma was sandbagged by a sloppy Ellis Island functionary.
This book isn’t a class with Mountain Greenery or Blue Moon by a long shot, but it’s a tasty smorgasbord. I like learning that Glenn Miller, turning down Torme’s first lyrics assignment, told him to study songwriter Johnny Mercer endlessly. And this injunction as well: “Read anything and everything you can get your hands on. All good lyric writers are great readers.”
There’s more about his priapic and often sad love life than I need to know, although there’s a touching passage about how hard it is for a guy with a love life like his to sing all the great standard love songs.
He is most revealing when he least intends to be, as in recounting how Harry Reasoner and Morley Safer fantasized about doing him on “Sixty Minutes”—until the CBSers learned that he had never had a drug or alcohol problem. I even empathize with his smugness when “20/20” goes ahead with a problem-less piece and it gets an Emmy.
Did you know that Torme was a gun nut (although he is diffident to the point of humble about his historical interest in firearms)? He could give the NRA a kinder, gentler mien (make that mean). Or that he’s an obsessive collector of fast, sleek sports cars? Or a certified aviation enthusiast, with even some hairy close calls flying his own light planes? Or that he starred in many B-features for Hollywood and TV? Is a published novelist? And a freelance non-fiction writer?
You begin to wonder how he managed to get all these things done and still marry four times and sire five children. And then you begin to understand that his being on the road wasn’t the only thing that alienated the first three perfect romances.
Torme dedicates this book to his pa (90 and still shouting at his wife) and ma (87 and replaying the uncompliments). In some ways, his family history is the most interesting and instructive element in his life. We get to better understand the validity of Ethel Waters’ judgment that “Mel Torme is the only white man who sings with the soul of a black man.”
He was blessed with a black nanny named Alberta who insisted on having Friday and Saturday nights off so she could play piano in a five-piece combo at the Savoy Ballroom, next to Chicago’s Regal Theatre. He may not have sipped his scat with his mother’s milk, but Alberta’s sessions on the family’s Kimball at least gave it to him with his pablum.
Occasionally his diction (and wit) fail him. Rationalizing the perfidy of Carson and Donahue in their not letting him flog his novel Wynner, he comforted himself with the “pleasure of appearing on Larry King’s program. King, a great old friend, is also unequivocably (sic) the finest interviewer in our country.” Vocably, possibly.
A deeper wound to his vanity he’s still stinging from: “Apparently, most news / media people think all singers are airheads. That’s unfortunate and unfair. Most singers I know are bright, articulate individuals. Many are actually literate. The prevailing attitude during that book tour, nonetheless, was that I was a pretender in the world of the literati.”
What can I tell you, Mel? If I had to choose between singing “Blue Moon” the way you do or appearing on the New York Times best seller list, I’d go for the tune. The greenery always looks more mountainous in the other guy’s lot.
But it is a wry residue of a culture with different values that entertainers seek the beatification of print to legitimize their Dow Jones industrious ups and downs. Everybody is entitled to 15 minutes of solitude to ponder the fickleness of fame. Boychik (as Edward G. Robinson playfully addressed Mel when he belatedly discovered Torme was Jewish), you’ve got nothing to worry about. Your unabused tonsils (no smoke, no hard liquor, seven hours’ sleep a night—think of that, Sinatra) are your claim to immortality.
Mel Torme will appear with Cleo Laine, Sunday, June 24 at 8 p.m., at the Academy of Music, Broad and Locust Sts. $22.50-30.50. 893-1930.
Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, June 20, 1990