Friday, 22 June 2012

Polak and Stroking Celebs

“I’ve never met a happy celebrity. Never,” Rex Reed confided to Chicago Tribune reporter Cheryl Lavin. “And it’s such hard work—to take these boring people and make them interesting.” Reed has obviously never read the celebrity interviews of Maralyn Lois Polak, since June 1974 the Boswell of the boffo for the Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine.

Polak could well be the Will Rogers of the genre. Reading 45 of her efforts in The Writer as Celebrity: Intimate Interviews (M. Evans and Company, $9.95), one could infer that she has never met a writer she didn’t find interesting.

But in spite of her long and repeated telephonic protests that she never slants an interview (“I just hold up a mirror and let them reflect”), I find one of her chief assets her contentiousness. The only hint of schlock in the whole enterprise is that “intimate” in the subtitle.

If Maralyn’s intimate in the way she interviews writers, then a yenta is diffident and withdrawn. Motivated by an insatiable curiosity and a poet’s palpable love for words (her book of poems, Facing the Music, appeared over a year ago), Polak mellows a pile-driving persistence with a tactical adaptability to the slings and arrows of outrageously erratic interviewees.

In searching for what she means by celebrity, she notes that her new dictionary defines it as “a famous or well-known person,” while her old one puts it differently—“the condition of being celebrated; fame, renown.” As Polak will understands, there’s a humongous and growing cleavage between those two conceptions of fame.

Her own definition falls somewhere between the two, possibly closer to the former than the latter: “not really someone we know from appearances on The Tonight Show, but someone who has distinguished himself through important work, whose name excites us.”

As a steady but unstrident feminist, Polak has understandably chosen 17 women as her subjects. She also chose an equal number of Jewish writers; down the road, cultural historians may well wonder if that balance fairly represents the tapestry of contemporary writing in the English language. No matter, the range is broad and very rarely shallow.

The mechanics of such a magazine feature are almost as interesting as the individual reviews. Back in the early ‘70s, she was poking out a precarious existence as assistant editor of the Temple University alumni magazine, then writing about programming for Channel 12’s magazine, then as an exhibits captioner for the Academy of Natural Sciences. She leavened this make-work with what one guesses was nearest the poetry where her heart is—English teaching at Community College, stints for the Poetry in the Schools project and book reviewing for Larry Swindell at the Inquirer.

Those reviews caught the Inky’s eye. They asked her if she wanted to intern for the profile slot; she parried that she would only be interested if it led to a regular assignment, worn out by the freelancer’s endemic fatigue of being chewed into 99 pieces.

Perhaps the spectre of being upstaged makes her sound like a CIA agent when you quiz her about upcoming subjects. She believes the pool of potential interviewees is becoming seriously depleted, and her guardedness extends even (perhaps especially) to her feature-writer peers on the Inquirer.

Like her mentor, Studs Terkel, she uses a tape recorder to get the words that give her interviews both their liveliness and authenticity. Her transcriber (Sharon Crippen of Cherry Hill) gets 22 single-spaced pages out of her tapes, which Maralyn has to boil down to 1,500 words.

Over the years (her first subject was Judge Lisa Richette), she has discovered that the best interview is the secure person, someone who doesn’t care what readers (or the interviewer) might think of him.

Who was her favorite interview? Mickey Mantle. (Norman Mailer, eat your rotten heart out!) Who has been her most frustrating “no thanks?” Frank Rizzo. On the question of which personages she would most like to land on her Sony today, she is both non-ideological and non-sexist: “Fidel Castro and Mother Teresa.”

It’s been a long way, baby, since an idolized electronics engineer of a father awakened an interest in science at age nine when they built a radio together. She also wrote her first poem during that same annis mirabilis, which shall remain dateless because Maralyn is edgy about revealing her age.

I found her interactions with writers I know (Charles Fuller, Buckminster Fuller, Art Buchwald, Allen Ginsberg, Studs Terkel and Paul Theroux) genuinely illuminating. And on those about whom I was underinformed (Germaine Greer, Rita Mae Brown, Judy Blume, Marilyn French), instructive and inciteful.

But it’ll be a slow day in the Inquirer newsroom when I believe she’s objective in her handling of Robert Bly, Eldridge Cleaver, E.L. Doctorow, Mary Hemingway or Jean Shepherd. I’d have been disappointed if she had been “objective.” Maralyn’s muse is complex enough to be its own excuse for being.

Mirror, hell. Funky microscope, with a fascinating built-in agenda of its own. In a dozen years, Rex Reed’s drivel to the contrary notwithstanding, Maralyn Lois Polak has made an honest whore of the least intellectual journalistic genre.

From Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, January 28, 1987 

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