Friday 9 January 2009

Dumb Irish Luck: A Serendipitous Memoir

You know that sly bit of Irish self-denigration: God didn't give the Irish as many brains as most people so He compensated by throwing serendipitous blessings or breaks to them. My first really big serendipity came when I was twenty-eight years old. (We'll get into the lesser ones later on in this story.) After three years of teaching English at East Lansing, MI High School (I was finishing my Ph.D. in American Culture at Western Reserve University in Cleveland while raising a small family--Michael (1952) and Catherine (1954) with Mary, my graduate student wife) when I got a Ford Foundation fellowship for 1955-56 to study the implications of the new medium of television for English teaching.)

My first national publication, in Scholastic Teacher, had been Everyman in Saddle Shoes, urging teachers to follow my example and assign original television plays by the writers like Paddy Chayefsky and Rod Serling. I still recall the excitement I felt when I had assigned, sight unseen, Chayefsky's The Catered Affair, about a Bronx taxi driver torn between saving the big fee you needed to get a hack's license and financing an expensive catered affair for his daughter. My tenth graders were mostly the children of eagerly mobile Michigan State University professors or GM executives, with a sprinkling of blue collars, heh, somebody has to do the dirty work, even, perhaps especially in a ritzy suburb. They understood only too well the anxiety of making tough choices like the one facing the cab driver. Their class discussions and themes were easily the most nutritious I collected in thirty years of teaching.

This piece attracted the attention of the Harvard sociologist David Riesman, that ecumenically alert observer of our national character, as he was revising a series of lectures on education the University of Nebraska Press was publishing. He wanted insider feedback on his Olympian takes. It was of course thrilling to have a name ask you for your opinion: something which almost never happens in graduate school, until they went you to defend them in the auto da fe known as the Orals.

I objected to his selecting the social sciences as the most controversy generating sector of Academe. As a strict Roman Catholic morphing slowly but surely into a starry eyed Marxist, I had already felt the heat of the very uncontroversial colleagues at ELHS. I insisted to Riesman that the humanities, properly considered, were every bit as controversy generating as the social sciences, perhaps more so. All of my graduate professors were liberal of course but that is not the same as being controversial. Perhaps only one of my dissertation advisers, the historian Harvey Wish, fit the contentious category, but I had the feeling that even he had to be not too blatant in that still anti-Semitic ambience of American higher education in the 1950s. Riesman valued my reaction and he became not so much a mentor (we met only three times before he retired with Edie to Lexington, MS) as an ideal. The social scientist as humanist, like the Frankfurter School Leo Lowenthal, another exemplar. I'm sure Riesman's recommendation materially helped my successful application for the fellowship.

We moved into a middle class flat in Flushing, right across from where Robert Moses would eventually site the 1964 New York Worlds Fair. When Bill Boutwell, the publisher of Scholastic Teacher, heard of my award, he asked me to be the radio TV editor where I culled from network press releases a weekly series of recommendations for using radio and TV in the nation's classrooms. And I invented a full-page lesson plan called a Teleguide for specials like Maurice Evans doing Macbeth.

New York eggheads had no idea how big a leg up such access to High Culture was for viewers between the Left and West Coasts. (I would find out with a vengeance in 1960 when Daedalus magazine fielded a conference in the Poconos on how the clerisy should deal with mass culture beyond the perhaps too glib stereotyping of Dwight Macdonald's Middlebrow typology.)New York was of course a non-stop marvel for two hungry but inexperienced culture vultures from proley Detroit. MOMA and the Met, Central Park, foreign movies, exotic cuisines, along with the usual Dayline cruises around Manhattan and trips to the top of the Empire State Building. (The thrills of Windows on the World at the World Trade Center were yet to come and, alas, go.)

After a month or so of these excitements, I began to settle down with a plan to make my report to the Ford Foundation a substantial one. I rendezvoused with Marshall McLuhan, then the pet professor of Teachers College Lou Forsdale. As a Commonweal Catholic, I had early on known about Marshall's pioneering takes on popular culture, essays which eventually ended up in The Mechanical Bride, that Bible I had taken into my first classes at East Lansing.

(It amused me to learn that the Winnipeg born, Oxford University polished media guru had started thinking the way he did about popular culture when his first job was with Freshman English students at the University of Wisconsin: he told me he felt like an anthropologist studying an esoteric folk culture. He had to learn their language or fail.)

There were other revealing contacts, Bob Landry, the editor of Variety, who was conversant with network radio in which he first made his name. He was bemused, I recall now without the sense of inferiority I felt then, as this Julien Sorel out of the Midwest, asking him a beginners questions about the media he knew so well. He even published several pieces of mine on things like Mad magazine and the 50th anniversary of the Miss America contest. He told me about Steve Scheuer, a Yalie, with a syndicated TV Key service in hundred of papers. Steve was doing for the daily newspaper reader what I was attempted on a weekly basis for school teachers and their students. (Googling around recently, I was interested and impressed to see that all of those TV scripts he pried so painfully out of the network producers are now living a second existence, in a collection at Yale.) Steve introduced me to William Kaufman, who was then pioneering the publication of annual the best TV drama scripts. One highlight of our interaction was a dinner with him and his wife hosting the then fledgling TV director John Frankenheimer. He also set up a meeting with Arthur Penn in a dancehall rehearsing of a Philco Goodyear Theatre play, starring John and Diane.

This is was not mere celebrity hounding (which I despise). It was getting glimpse of the many complexities of getting good TV on the air. I was beginning to feel that I was getting more than a rube's view of TV as a medium. And not just TV drama. It was the era of Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca improvised comedy, the lively conversations (before TV cable shouters) of David Susskind and Richard D. Heffner, and the documentaries of Edward R.Murrow. It was also the NBC of Sylvester Pat Weaver's Dave Garroway, Home and Wide, Wide World. It is hard to believe that this dawn of TV diminished so quickly and depressingly to the manic mess it is today.

One Friday morning I was reading my already ritual New York Times on the subway into Manhattan when I read that there was to be a White Conference on Education tomorrow at the Sheraton Plaza in Washington. I didn't know anything about press passes or invitations. I just up and went. As I entered the hotel foyer the next morning I saw two men deep in conversation.

One I recognized (from a Time cover) as Ralph Bunche. The other man didn't ring any bells at all. With the chutzpah of the pre-cosmopolitanized, I wheedled my way into their presence and grandly announced, I'm Pat Hazard from East Lansing High and I'm on a Ford Foundation year to see what English teachers should do about television. As you might well imagine, there was an abrupt and painfully long pause to our conversation.

Finally, the anonymous man offered:Well, how is it going, Mr. Hazard? I replied that of course New York was an inexhaustibly exciting three ring cultural circus, but that I was getting nowhere in my effort to arrange an interview with Pat Weaver, who had recently unburdened himself at length in Variety about his media theory Enlightenment Through Exposure.

To be not too retroactively snide about this utopian hypothesis, it theorized that if you dropped an operatic aria onto the Ed Sullivan Show every Sunday, in six months Americans would all be opera buffs. (Or Opera Bouffe buffs?) After a bit more of this caterwauling, the unidentified man owned up not only to being Roy Larsen, the publisher of Time magazine but also on the board of directors of the foundation giving me my fellowship. He wondered casually if I could use an office in the Time Life Building to forward my researches! Ahem. Er, ah, thank you, Mr. Larsen, as I scribbled down the name and telephone number of his aide who would set me up two days hence.

Thus it was that early Monday morning that bright October, I was gazing out the window of my 34th floor office asking myself what the fuck do I do now. I know. I'll call Pat Weaver. Now Mr. Weaver's secretary knew me only too well from previous attempts to set up an appointment. By now, she was on the edge of mean, the iciness of her demeanor almost setting off frosty waves off the telephone wire. Mr. Hazard, she chided me on the cusp of exasperation,this is the beginning of the fall season, and Mr. Weaver is very, very busy.

Unfamiliar with greater world politesse I replied that I was at the beginning of my Ford grant and also very very busy. I added, giving her the magic Time phone number, JU 62525, asking her to call me when her boss had fifteen free minutes so I could write a story for the nation's teachers on ETE. That was 11:00 a.m. At 1:30 I was in Weaver's office, watching him in astonishment, balancing on his Bongo Board, as we parried about the future of TV. (He claimed he thought better on the board!) I can't remember a single word of what we discussed that day. (When his autobiography came out thirty years later, he begged off an interview, on the grounds of failing memory.)

I can't remember a word we said, but I learned more about the mechanics of the American media system in that transaction than at any other time, save one the day Newton Minnow asked me and three social scientists in 1961 to revise TV license renewal forms. (Of that, more later.) What I learned was that the Scholastic magazine switchboard was unconnected to the Big Ones. But call from Time, and the world wanted to listen. I hadn't changed. The same cheeky outlander meets one socially conscious publisher and my access changed.

And Time, Inc was in the old days, as everyone knew, a great and genial host. They flew me all expenses paid to Chicago, to see how their magazines were printed. They paired me and Axel Springer's son in an all afternoon seminar watching the editor, managing editor, and art editor of Life put together an issue. It was truly a serendipitous encounter that Saturday in Washington. Later it would lead to my becoming the education adviser for Time Life Films for four years (1968-72), which led to appearances of BBC-2's Late Night Lineup, and five years as American TV correspondent for Contrast, the video journal of the British Film Institute. All because of an uncourteous interruption of two movers and shakers in conversation. There would be more, lesser and greater, serendipitous encounters, but this was the one that unleashed me on an unwitting and too frequent witless whirl of media.

How did I get to be so cheeky? It all began in an empty Kellogg Corn Flakes carton in Battle Creek, Michigan, where my father was a furniture salesman (after mustering out as a Captain with mustard gas exposure in World War One) and my mother May Fitzpatrick, a certified school teacher (Mount Pleasant Teachers College, 1919) with one son at home already, Harry E. (1920) who was forever nicknamed Mike by the nurses in the hospital where he ended up with infantile paralysis while I was being born and baptized Patrick. Pat and Mike. What a joke. The seven years that separated us were never bridged, and I spent sad years later springing him from the nefarious Radford prison in Florida and his favorite bar in Greenwich Village. He died the next day from the DTs at Nazareth Hospital, Philadelphia.

Whatever is the opposite of serendipities was poor Mike's fate, never recovering from his father's abrupt elopement with his secretary to Nevada in 1930. I was an oblivious three and was too young to be hurt until later. He was ten, and never got over his devastation, slowly sliding into a wasted life and final alcoholism.

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