“Who Are [These] People?”: The Mediations of A. L. Alexander

“What do you think of a husband who has given a woman eight children and lived with [her] for twenty-four years and in front of his children denies that he is married to her?” No one hearing the question—an estimated twelve million Americans—could have been particularly interested in the response. It was the story that thrilled, the common, raw and true story that was 1438C, one of three cases put before A. L. Alexander and his Mediation Board on this day, 28 June, in 1943. As told in the words—and the accents—of ordinary if not ordinarily quite so communicative contemporaries, it turned anyone tuning in to a father confessor, a judge of manners, morals and mental states. Placing the unexceptional and non-exemplary on a national rostrum, the Mediation Board, like the tabloid talk shows that dominated the daytime schedules of American television networks during the 1990s, was a readily available and gratefully ingested nostrum, a dose of quack medicine designed to comfort the listener rather than cure the speaker . . .

According to an article in the October 1945 issue of Tune In, “most” of the folks who wrote in to appear on the program—without receiving any compensation other than a few kind or cautionary words—were “working-class Americans who have never heard of psychoanalysts, or [would] find the cost of a divorce prohibitive,” and—the occasional “prankster” who would “invent some complex and chaotic problem” aside—turned to Alexander (pictured above, second from the right) and his rival John J. Anthony “with an intensity and devotion that [was] almost god-like.”

Case 1438C was the story of forty-year-old woman who, at the age fifteen, left her parental home, where, according to her, she had been shown “no affection whatsoever,” to live with the man, then also a teenager, who eventually fathered her eight children.

Having been presented with a wedding band, she assumed herself to be legally married; but, by the time their first child was born, she came to realize that this was not the case, an illegitimacy that did not stop her from bearing him seven more. “I want my husband to marry me,” the woman now demanded, and that despite her suspicion that her partner was also a bigamist.

Unable to confront this accusation, her agitated “husband,” who had agreed to join her on the program, nearly stormed out of the WOR, New York studio from which A. L. Alexander’s Mediation Board emanated and broadcast nationally over the Mutual network. “There’s no such a thing as love,” he exclaimed, suggesting that the couple’s care for their offspring—among them “three lovely sons in the service”—was not reason enough to keep them together and legalize their relationship after nearly a quarter of a century.

To this, the Mediation Board members—priest William C. Kernan, executive director of the Institute of American Democracy, rabbi James G. Heller, and Paul Dawson Eddy, member of the Council for Religious Education and president of Adelphi College—had very little to say. Their words of warning or compassion merely sanctioned the dramatic she says/he says showdown, giving it an air of respectability and creating a sense that the program was living up to FCC standards.

Apart from its culturally diverse and reputable panel, Alexander’s Mediation Board responded to detractors by suggesting that its relevance and service in the public interest lay in the presentation of domestic problems “arising out of restless wartime conditions” in the alleviation it strove to assist, presumably as part of the war effort, however questionable it might have been to penetrate the home front in order to air its sundry grievances, thereby demonstrating it to be less than sound and far from self-disciplined.

Alexander had not always been able to defend his cashing in on the mental anguish and the at times morbid curiosity of his fellow Americans. Some six and a half years earlier, in December 1936, he was forced to shut down his popular Good Will Court, which, according to the 3-9 January 1937 issue of Radio Guide, had commanded network radio’s “fifth largest listening audience” until the New York Supreme Court ruled in favor of those who argued, as Alexander put it, that “the consideration of legal problems on the radio was ‘unethical.’” By turning legal matters into spiritual and psychological concerns, Alexander managed to return to the airwaves and riding them, on the strength of the flotsam and jetsam with which his program was awash, for another decade.

After all, as Tune In pointed out, staying on the Board “proved to be one of radio’s most lucrative businesses,” especially considering Alexander’s credentials, or lack thereof, as a former “prize debater in public school” who had no “training in psychiatric social work.” Having studied for the ministry and served three years at a Cincinnati theological seminary, he

became infatuated with the vast potentiality of listeners that radio could provide, took several routine announcing jobs before the idea for his program crystalized in his mind.

During his involuntary and prolonged hiatus, Alexander explored the similarly vast financial “potentiality” of publishing by compiling Poems That Touch the Heart (1941), a volume of human interest poems that became a tie-in for his latest radio venture when selections were read at the conclusion the weekly Mediation Board meetings. Heard on the 28 June 1943 broadcast, for instance, was “Who Are My People?” by Rosa Zagnoni Marinoni (not identified by name), a poem that emphasized comforting commonality while mitigating against what, in the unscripted words of the quarrelling couples, might come across as dead common.

In search of “my people,” the speaker senses “no kinship” toward fellow worshippers and feels estranged from the native old world, only to find the question “Who are my people?” answered by an encounter with one of the plebs:

Last night in the rain I met an old man
Who spoke a language I do not speak,
Which marked him as one who does not know my God.
With apologetic smile he offered me
The shelter of his patched umbrella.
I met his eyes. . . . And then I knew. . . .

Few folks now know A. L. Alexander; but the man who made a nation’s tattered nerve and moral fiber his umbrella—and who so shrewdly stitched the profane to the sacred cover he found for it—still has his name on that volume of the poetry he did little more than piece together. In print to this day, Poems That Touch the Heart still credits Alexander, however meaningless the reference may now be, with being the “Creator and Conductor” of the Good Will Court, the “original” Mediation Board, and The Court of Human Relations. Patching, joining, and thriftily recycling for the ostensible public good—it was all part of the A. L. Alexander technique.

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