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!

No comments: