Saturday, 29 December 2012

Letters from America

I first caught Alistair Cooke’s BBC radio “Letters from America, 1946-2004” (Allen Lane,2004)as a radar tech swabbie at the Pensacola Naval Air Station, plotting what I would do at age 19 when I was about to muster out to a university somewhere. It was his catholicity that impressed me. 

One day he’d be talking about the boxer Joe Louis, then the newest hero of my hometown, Detroit; and then describing, in his obit of an old friend, his meeting Eugene Victor Debs Rostow at Yale on his first day there, almost sixty years before: he recalled the day JFK in 1962 phoned Rostow, then Dean of the Yale Law School, to discuss the complications of his appointing Gene, a Jew, to the Supreme Court. It was my first realization that you could be highly intelligent before a microphone. Ultimately he would inspire me to become a mass media critic and participant. Reading almost a hundred of these letters was like reliving your own life with a fascinating companion.
Especially significant was his “Towering Glass and Steel” (31 October 2003), a Requiem for the destruction of the 1910 McKim, Mead and White’s New York Pennsylvania Station, their inspired take on the Roman Baths of Caracalla. For a generation visiting this masterpiece was a required visit for the thoughtful New Yorkers. “ But fashions in architecture, as in everything else, change. The European intelligentsia came to chuckle and sneer.” (p.495.) 

America and its business class had been ordered to admire the sterile innovations of the Walter Gropius Bauhaus. They were taught to snoot the gaudiness and fussiness of the Victorian Age. Simplicity was the new God. “He simply, earnestly dogmatically reacted to everything that had gone before, from the Greeks on. He invented the monolith, the large upright plank of concrete—what an independent American pioneer, one Frank Lloyd Wright, called the new log cabin that misuses steel, faceless, characterless, god-awful rectangles of concrete and steel, leading to its peak in the United Nations building which he called “an anthill for a thousand ants.” (p.496.) 
Thus it was that in 1960, the board of directors of the Pennsylvania railroad decided their Baths of Caracalla was an economic burden and embarrassment. So at 9 a.m. on 28 October 1963 the jackhammers gathered and the wrecking ball did its amnesiac evil. The grandeur that was a whiff of Rome in Manhattan was no more. Replaced by what the “Blue Guide to New York” called “the utterly graceless and unappealing Madison Square Garden. . .a 20,000 seat arena in a pre-cast concrete drum, a movie theatre, a bowling alley and an office building.” “Ugh”! A few eggheads howled. The noble New York Times harrumphed: "a monumental act of vandalism!” All was not lost, permanently. The outraged complained bitterly to the Mayor and his sleepy Council. They finally formed the Landmarks Preservation Commission. 

Their agents snooped FBI-ishly, forestalling more barbarous destructions. “Gropers” plotted to tear down the grandest of train stations, namely the Grand Central —to be replaced by a Gropius skyscraper. (It’s that lonely looking structure mouldering at the far North end of Park Avenue!) Whew! That was closer. Their scrap went all the way to the Supreme Court where those Justices proclaimed the GCS’s sacredness in 1978. 
When Bill Siemering approved my weekly palaver “Talking Travel” over WHYY-FM in 1970 out of their old “American Bandstand” barn, it was Alistair I was emulating. Rereading those old letters makes me feel thirtyish—for about a half hour!

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