Once Upon a Time in Radioland: A Kind of Ruritanian Romance

The other day, at my favorite bookstore here in Aberystwyth, I was caught in the eye by what struck me as a highly unusual cover for a 1938 edition of Anthony Hope’s fanciful pageturner The Prisoner of Zenda. Mind you, I’m not likely to turns those pages any time soon. I’m not one for Graustarkian excursions. That I found the old chestnut so arresting is due to the way in which it was sold anew to an audience of Britons to whom such a mode of escape from the crisis-ridden everyday must have been sufficiently attractive already. This was the 92nd impression of Zenda; and, with Europe at the brink of war, Ruritania must have sounded to those who prefer to face the future with their head in the hourglass contents of yesteryear like a travel deal too hard to resist.

My copy of the book

Now, the publishers, Arrowsmith, weren’t taking any chances.  Judging by the cover telling as much, they were looking for novel ways of repackaging a familiar volume that few British public and private libraries could have been wanting at the time.

British moviegoers had just seen Ruritania appear before their very eyes in the 1937 screen version of the romance, which make dashing Ronald Colman an obvious salesperson and accounts for his presence on the dust jacket.  It is the line underneath, though, that made me look: “The Book of the Radio Broadcast,” the advertising slogan reads.  Desperate, anachronistic, and now altogether unthinkable, these words reminded me just how far removed we are from those olden days when radio ruled the waves.

The Prisoner of Zenda was recently the subject of a highly successful film,” the copy on the inside states somewhat pointlessly in the face of the faces on the cover.  What’s more, it continues, a “further mark of its popularity” was the story’s “selection by the BBC as a radio serial broadcast on the National Programme.”  To this day, the BBC produces and airs a great number of serial adaptations of classic, popular or just plain old literature; but, however reassuring this continuation of a once prominent storytelling tradition may be, a reminder of the fact that books are still turned into sound-only dramas would hardly sell copies these days.  Radio still sells merchandise—but a line along the lines of “as heard on radio” is pretty much unheard of in advertising these days.

From my collection of Cinegrams.

“This book is the original story on which the broadcast was based,” the dust jacket blurb concludes.  I, for one, would have been more thrilled to get my hands or ears on the adaptation, considering that all we have left of much of the BBC’s output of aural drama is such ocular proof of radio’s diminished status and pop-cultural clout.

Perhaps, my enthusiasm at this find was too much tempered with the frustration and regret such a nostalgic tease provokes.  At any rate, I very nearly left Ystwyth Books without the volume in my hands. That I walked off with it after all is owing to our friend, novelist Lynda Waterhouse, who saw me giving it the eye and made me a handsome present of it.  And there it sits now on my bookshelf, a tattered metaphor of my existence: I am stuck in a past that was never mine to outlive, grasping at second-hand-me-downs and gasping for recycled air . . . a prisoner of a Zenda of my own unmaking.

Sweetness and The Eternal Light

My bookshelf, like my corporeal shell, has gotten heavier over the years.  The display, like my waist, betrays a diet of nutritionally questionable comfort food—of sugar and spice and everything nice.   Now, I won’t take this as an opportunity to ponder just what it is that I am made of; but those books sure speak volumes about the quality of my food for thought.  There is All About Amos ‘n’ Andy (1929), The Story of Cheerio (1937), and Tony Wons’s Scrap Book (1930).   There is Tune in Tomorrow (1968), the reminiscences of a daytime serial actress.  There’s Laughter in the Air (1945) and Death at Broadcasting House (1934).  There are a dozen or so anthologies of scripts for radio programs ranging from The Lone Ranger to Ma Perkins, from Duffy’s Tavern to The Shadow.

My excuse for my preoccupation with such post-popular culture, if justification were needed, has always been that there is nothing so light not to warrant reflection or reverie, that dismissing flavors and decrying a lack of taste is the routine operation of the insipid mind.  That said, I am glad to have added—thanks to my better half, who also looks after my dietary needs—a book that makes my shelf figuratively weightier rather than merely literally so.

The book in question is The Eternal Light (1947), an anthology of twenty-six plays aired on that long-running program.  It is a significant addition, indeed—historically, culturally, and radio dramatically speaking.

In the words of Louis Finkelstein, President of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, under whose auspices the series was produced, The Eternal Light was a synthesis of scholarship and artistry, designed to “translate ancient, abstract ideas into effective modern dramatics.”

In his introductory essay “Radio as a Medium of Drama,” Morton Wishengrad, the playwright of the series, defended broadcasting as a valuable if often misused “tool.” He did so at a time when, in the disconcerting newness of postwar opportunity and responsibility, radio was increasingly—and indiscriminately—dismissed as the playground of Hucksters, to name a bestselling novel of 1946 whose subject, like Herman Wouk’s Aurora Dawn (1947), was the prosperity and self-importance of the broadcasting industry in light of the perceived vacuity of its product. 

“An automobile does not manufacture bank-robbers,” Wishengrad reasoned, “it transports them.  It also transports clergymen.  It is neither blameworthy because it does the first nor is it an instrument of piety because it does the latter.  It is merely an automobile, a tool.

 What the medium needed—and what the times required—were writers who had “something to say about the culture.”

According to Wishengrad, there was “nothing wrong” with the techniques of radio writing.  He noted that serial drama, derided and reviled by “demonstrably incompetent” reviewers, had great storytelling potential: “Here are quarter-hour segments in the lives of people which could transfigure a part of each day with dramatic truth and an intimation of humanity instead of presenting as they now do a lolly-pop on the instalment plan.”

A  “lolly-pop on the instalment plan”! To paraphrase Huckster author Frederic Wakeman’s parody of radio commercials: love that phrase. Wishengrad is one of a small number of American radio dramatists whose scripts remain memorable and compelling even in the absence of the actors and sound effects artist who interpreted them.  Of the latter’s métier Wishengrad wrote: “Sound is like salt.  A very little suffices.”  He cautioned writers, in their “infatuation with its possibilities,” not to “drown” their scripts in aural effects.

Wishengrad’s advice to radio dramatists is as sound as his prose.  “Good radio dialogue,” he held, should come across “like a pair of boxers trading blows, short, swift, muscular, monosyllabic.”  Speeches, he cautioned, ought not to “be long because the ear does not remember.  There is quick forgetfulness of everything except the last phrase or the last word spoken.”

While Wishengrad made no use of serialization in The Eternal Light—as much as the title suggests the continuation and open-endedness of the form—his scripts bear out what he imparts about style and live up to his insistence on substance. 

Take “The Day of the Shadow,” for instance.  Produced and broadcast over NBC stations on 18 November 1945, the play opens: “Listen.  Listen to the silence.  I have come from the land of the day of the shadow.  I have seen the naked cities and the dead lips.  Someone must speak of this.  Someone must speak of the memory of things destroyed.”

The abstract gives way to the concrete, as the speaker introduces himself as the “Chaplain who stood before the crematorium of Belsen.”

I have buried 23,000 Jews.  I have a right to speak.   I stood the last month in Cracow when “Liberated” Jews were murdered.  I have no pretty things to tell you.  But I must tell you.

The “plain, and written down, and true” figures—appropriated from the “adding machines of the statisticians”—tell of the silenced.  But, the Chaplain protests, “[l]et the adding machines be still,” and let the survivors—the yet dying—speak; not of the past but of the continuum of their plight, of the aftermath that comes after math has accounted for the eighty percent of Europe’s Jewish population who were denied outright the chance to make their lives count.

At the time The Eternal Light was published, radio drama, too, was dying; at least the drama with a purpose and a faith in the medium.  To this date, it is a body unresuscitated; and what is remembered of it most is what is comforting rather than demanding, common rather than extraordinary.  Shelving the candy, resisting the impulse to reach for the sweet and the obvious—the lolly-popular—I realize anew just what has been lost to us, what we have given up, what we have forgotten to demand or even to long for . . .

The Touchables

The folks who proved that they had made their mark in Hollywood by leaving it in the cement slabs in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre had one thing in common. Besides having the stature of a movie star or Tinseltown personality, I mean. They could all stand up, bend down, and exert whatever pressure is required to produce those imprints. Even Charlie McCarthy, apparently. I always thought that it might please the supposed untouchables to be commemorated in a medium that is not as telltale about our inescapable senescence as a photograph or moving image. Many of us can stand up far longer than we can stand looking in the mirror.

Then again, the moving hands of time are readable in our footprints. Shirley Temple’s tiny imprint reminds us that, on 14 March 1935, she was at the height of a career that diminished as she increased in size. Still, the prints are meant to bespeak immortality. We don’t get to see the tracks of Christopher Reeve’s wheelchair, for instance. Nor is Zsa Zsa likely to be given the honor now to join those ladies in cement. These prints are all solid, no matter how much the concrete crumbles. The stars have bodies—and they are able and sound . . .

There is something reassuring in that solidity—if it weren’t for those cracks, and the puzzled looks I come across in the crowd gathered here to take pictures, mainly of themselves in front of a Hollywood landmark. Who was Rudy “My Time Is Your Time” Vallee, anyway? Norma Talmadge, who’s she? What were the Ritz Brothers all about? And who was that Sid fellow for whom they left those cryptic messages?

I got the space to myself as I have my picture taken with Marion Davies’s dainty indentations (dated 1929), my palm covering the hollow. No one is likely to pull a Lucy now; the Duke is still standing. Most walk right past—no, over—Ezio Pinza, whose block of concrete has become a mere steppingstone. Not a soul stoops to Monty Woolley. He’s the actor to whom my dog owes his name (I’m telling no one). I, too, I am out of touch.

There is one imprint, though, that keeps impressing after nearly sixty years. You can tell from the grime in the handprints of Marilyn Monroe just how many visitors have bowed down to approximate her posture, crouching over to show that they still look up to her. Screen partner Jane Russell’s palms are eloquently untainted by comparison. Marilyn—and we call her by her first name in recognition of her vulnerability—would be dead within ten years after being immortalized at Grauman’s. Our reaching out to her now is a belated, selfish gesture. You can’t expect rectitude from a crowd bent on lowering themselves for a photo opportunity. Remaining upright here means to be indifferent.

“Wipe your mucky paws,” I want to cry out. Yet these cultural touchstones are unlike other memorials to the untouchables. Here, we touch what we deem worth preserving. We bestow genuine stature with our own hands. We grasp at the chance to grease the Hollywood machine with our grubby palms, to fashion destinies with our filthy fingers. Since greatness does not rub off, most of us leave little more than a smudge. There is humanity in the residue of perspiration.

“The terror of the unforeseen”; or, Missing The Plot

While not entirely lacking in fancy or imagination, I generally avoid speculating about roads not taken, avoid taking in prospects retrospectively by asking “What if . . . ?” What if I had never gone to America? What if I had not left again some fifteen years later? What if what I had left had not been a country whose majority had just re-elected George W. Bush? While I would not go so far or sink so low as to substitute that “What if” with a nonchalant “So what,” I much rather ask “What now?” or justify whatever decision I made with a defiant “So there!”

I suppose dismissing the value of such speculations by arguing that any alternate of myself would not be myself at all is a way to avoid accusing myself of not always having chosen the best or most sensible path. Perhaps, a little foresight might have worked wonders greater than could ever be performed by getting myself worked up wondering, in hindsight, what I might have been; but to compound the failure to see the future with the failure of facing up to the past as is strikes me as perversely self-destructive . . .

Now, this is not about me sighing for what might have been. Since I don’t ask “What if,” such regrets rarely present themselves—itself ample justification for not indulging in morosely remorseful constructions of alternate biographies. This is about the alternate history I took with me on that trip back in early November 2004, when I left America for a new life in a part of the old world I had never seen let alone set foot on. The book in my hand luggage was Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America—which, I thought, was just the volume for the occasion, just right for the moment of leaving behind what had been home to me and what, owing to the hysterical war-on-terror politics in the shaping of which I had no right to take part, had felt increasingly less like the freest, the friendliest, much less the only place to be.

In The Plot Against America, Roth considers what might have happened if Charles A. Lindbergh had defeated Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1941 to become President, largely on the strength of a persuasive if false—and unfulfillable—promise of “an independent destiny for America.”

Roth conceives of an alternate 22 June 1941, five months after Lindbergh’s inauguration, while yet adhering to the historical fact that it was the day on which the Treaty of Non-Aggression between Germany and the Soviet Union was broken when the former nation embarked upon Operation Barbarossa in an attempt to conquer the latter.

On that 22 June in AR (Anno Roth) 1941, Lindbergh, as President, addresses his countrymen and women by expressing himself “grateful” that Hitler was waging a war against “Soviet Bolshevism,” a war that “would otherwise have had to be fought by American troops.” Listening with dread to that address over the radio are the central characters of Roth’s nightmarish revision, a Jewish family from New Jersey who are terrorized by the thought that the pursuit of an ostensibly “independent destiny for America” means the alignment with a regime engaged in the Holocaust, that putting America first means putting an end to their civil liberties, which means “destroying everything that America stands for.”

“The terror of the unforeseen,” Roth writes, “is what the science of history hides, turning a disaster into an epic.” Good histories, including alternate ones, may yet provoke terror by not swaddling in the paper logic of hindsight causalities what, however palpable, is yet uncertain and unascertainable as events unfold, and by reminding us not to mistake the unforeseen with the unforeseeable.

I remember opening The Plot sitting at a New York airport named after another American president and finding myself distracted by a German family visibly disquieted by the book’s cover art. There, staring at them was a swastika, the symbol of the terror that could have been foreseen. I was so self-conscious of this act of provocation that I was unable to read on; and once I had arrived in Wales, I was too absorbed in my own altered state—the detachment from what I had known and been—to have much use for any engagement with any alternate past one.

This week, for no particular reason, I picked up the book anew, and I read it as a commentary on two historical pasts—1941 and a 2004 (mis)informed by 11 September 2001—that somehow seems too comfortably remote, the anxieties that had given rise to its creation and my purchase of it being past as well. I can now amuse myself by pointing out that the day I read the abovementioned passage in Roth’s book coincided not only with the anniversary of that imaginary radio address but also with the birthday of Lindbergh’s spouse Anne; I can appreciate references to popular radio programs (“You should be on Information Please”) and personalities like Walter Winchell that render The Plot verisimilitudinous, conveniently to extract them for the sake of yet another cursory entry into this essentially escapist journal whose raison d’être was the sense of homelessness and estrangement I felt when I arrived in Britain on the eve of Guy Fawkes, that celebrated plot against King and Parliament.

What if I had not mislaid—and not even missed—The Plot all these years? What if I had avoided the impulse of discontinuity, of creating for myself a virtual space and time capsule of extra-historic hence fictitious isolation and had made more of an effort instead to participate in the real debates that are shaping my future? By refusing to ask myself “What if . . .?” as I belatedly re-enter The Plot I seem to be defusing Roth’s argument, fully aware that, by doing so, I may well expose myself to—rather than becoming exempt from—that certain “terror” of not foreseeing.

Cinegram No. 21 (Because It’s Some Holiday or Other)

It’s one of those days. I am reaching into my box of memorabilia, building paper bridges between the now and then. As I turn away from this little blue box—and from the scanner that transforms a printed image into a digital one—my eye catches another image, a framed poster on the wall of my study. And, once again, I become carried away, absorbed in the thoughts these two collector’s items—one British, one American—help to conjure, rather than in the appreciation of either. Besides, I have since retreated into our backyard to bask in the sunlight of a glorious spring afternoon. There’s time for all that, today. It is, after all, a holiday. Just what kind, though, I begin to wonder and allow the question to irritate me like ants running away with the picnic.

Now, you might say that a holiday by any other name smells just as sweet; but, if you ask me, “Bank Holiday” stinks. That is what the British insist on calling—or at any rate, are reduced to calling—some of their red letter days, including this one. Granted, considering the state of our financial system or individual finances, we might well be sitting round in a brown study, ruminating on our latter days in the red; but aren’t there any cultural cornerstones, historical milestones, or ancestral gravestones we ought to have our mind’s eye on?

We receive little encouragement from the dates as marked in our calendars. Here in Britain, we’ve got May Bank Holidays, and Spring Bank Holidays, and August Bank Holidays—and none of us are exactly laughing all the way to the nearest money-lending institution. Okay, we are not being pestered with notices demanding our immediate attention, but we don’t express our gratitude for not getting any bills by calling this a Post Office Holiday.

Not that all holidays are mere occasions for slipping into something comfortable or taking it off again at the beach; but we wouldn’t go so far, surely, as to declare Black Tuesday a day of observance by marking the anniversary of Wall Street laying an egg with a leisurely pancake breakfast. Sure, the banks are closed today; but is that what we are asked to celebrate?

How fortunate are those across the pond who can do as they please on Memorial Day. They may be decorating cakes instead of graves, but at least there is enough of a clue in the name to invite contemplation, encourage research or inspire gratitude. There is far more of a chance of drawing a blank if you’ve got nothing but “Bank” to draw on. If no consensus can be arrived at, if no joining of hands or thoughts is to be imposed, let any Bank Holiday become a blank one—and place on each celebrant the burden of making it meaningful . . .

So to Speke

When not at work on our new old house—where the floorboards are up in anticipation of central heating—we are on the road and down narrow country lanes to get our calloused hands on the pieces of antique furniture that we acquired, in 21st-century style, by way of online auction. In order to create the illusion that we are getting out of the house, rather than just something into it, and to put our own restoration project into a perspective from which it looks more dollhouse than madhouse, we make stopovers at nearby National Trust properties like Chirk Castle or Speke Hall.

The latter (pictured here) is a Tudor mansion that, like some superannuated craft, sits sidelined along Liverpool’s John Lennon Airport, formerly known as RAF Speke. The architecture of the Hall, from the openings under the eaves that allowed those within to spy on the potentially hostile droppers-in without to the hole into which a Catholic priest could be lowered to escape Protestant persecution, bespeaks a history of keeping mum.

Situated though it is far from Speke, and being fictional besides, what came to mind was Audley Court, a mystery house with a Tudor past and Victorian interior that served as the setting of Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s sensational crime novel Lady Audley’s Secret. The hugely popular thriller was first serialized beginning in 1861 and subsequently adapted for the stage. Resuscitated for a ten-part serial currently aired on BBC Radio 4, the eponymous “lady”—a gold digger, bigamist, and arsonist whose ambitions are famously diagnosed as the mark of “latent insanity”—can now be eavesdropped on as she, sounding rather more demure than she appeared to my mind’s ear when reading the novel, attempts to keep up appearances, even if it means having to make her first husband, a gold digger in his own right, disappear down a well.

As if the house, Audley Court, did not have a checkered past of its own—

a house in which you incontinently lost yourself if ever you were so rash as to attempt to penetrate its mysteries alone; a house in which no one room had any sympathy with another, every chamber running off at a tangent into an inner chamber, and through that down some narrow staircase leading to a door which, in its turn, led back into that very part of the house from which you thought yourself the furthest; a house that could never have been planned by any mortal architect, but must have been the handiwork of that good old builder, Time, who, adding a room one year, and knocking down a room another year, [ … ] had contrived, in some eleven centuries, to run up such a mansion as was not elsewhere to be met with throughout the county […].

“Of course,” the narrator insists,

in such a house there were secret chambers; the little daughter of the present owner, Sir Michael Audley, had fallen by accident upon the discovery of one.  A board had rattled under her feet in the great nursery where she played, and on attention being drawn to it, it was found to be loose, and so removed, revealed a ladder, leading to a hiding-place between the floor of the nursery and the ceiling of the room below—a hiding-place so small that he who had hid there must have crouched on his hands and knees or lain at full length, and yet large enough to contain a quaint old carved oak chest, half filled with priests’ vestments, which had been hidden away, no doubt, in those cruel days when the life of a man was in danger if he was discovered to have harbored a Roman Catholic priest, or to have mass said in his house.

Loose floorboards we’ve got plenty in our own domicile, and room enough for a holy manhole below. It being a late-Victorian townhouse, though, the hidden story we laid bare is that of the upstairs-downstairs variety. At the back, in the part of the house where the servants labored and lived, there once was a separate staircase, long since dismantled. It was by way of those steep steps that the maid, having performed her chores out of the family’s sight and earshot, withdrew, latently insane or otherwise, into the modest quarters allotted to her.

I wonder whether she read Lady Audley’s Secret, if indeed she found time to read at all, and whether she read it as a cautionary tale or an inspirational one—as the story of a woman who dared to rewrite her own destiny:

No more dependency, no more drudgery, no more humiliations,” Lucy exclaimed secretly, “every trace of the old life melted away—every clue to identity buried and forgotten—except […]

… that wedding ring, wrapped in paper.  It’s enough to make a priest turn in his hole.

Blind Justice; or, ‘1000 for Verdicts’

“It does not matter whether your verdict is ‘guilty’ or ‘not guilty.’ If your reasons for it are good enough you will share in the prizes.” With this peculiar invitation, millions of Americans were lured to their radios, tuned in to WJZ, for a trial in which they, the listening public, were called upon to act as jurors. As previously mentioned here, it all began on this day, 25 November, in 1930. The judge in the case was none other than New York Senator Robert F. Wagner, lending gravitas to a spectacle that was, in more sense than one, a trial broadcast: Would the listeners find society beauty Vivienne Ware guilty of the murder of millionaire architect Damon Fenwicke, a crime for which she could be sentenced to the electric chair? And would they leap out of their armchairs to boost not only their own circulation but that of their local paper be rereading what they heard on the air?

“It is no part of your duty to decide whether or not she shall die,” Senator Wagner insisted. That, he told the listeners,

is the function of the Court and the Law. But you must remember that in endeavoring to secure a conviction of this young and beautiful defendant the District Attorney is but pursuing the business to which you, the people of this State, have set him. You will consider carefully all the evidence as it is presented for you from the witness stand.

Whether or not their voices could kill, those tuning in nevertheless derived their thrills from the importance of the interactive role granted to them. Tune in, have your say, all for a chance to win a substantial amount of dough—what’s not to love!

Leave it to a Hearst paper to conceive of a reality show like The Trial of Vivienne Ware—a trial that sold papers and bought the jury. Those who caught up with the daily broadcasts from the courtroom and read transcripts and analyses in their daily Hearst paper were rewarded for being informed enough to arrive at the verdict they were invited to mail in. No attendance, no deliberations with fellow jurors required. All that was needed, aside from a radio set and a few cents for daily tabloids, was curiosity, rhetoric, and greed.

You might say it was just fiction, this fictional call for justice; but the Hearst press, known to have started a war with mere words, was doing its utmost to make the trial seem as real the joined media of radio and the press could make it, all with the aim at a very real boost in sales through a cleverly manipulative marketing campaign.

More than a radio serial, The Trial of Vivienne Ware is one of the most fascinating media events ever staged. All that remains of it now are a number of newspaper articles and a book touted as “an innovation in both the radio and publishing worlds”—the “first radio novel.”

To be sure, Kenneth M. Ellis’s “novel”—a combination of faux news reportage and courtroom dialogue—has none of the thrills of the original experience. Its failure to excite and convince convincingly argues the power of the media to create a sense of reality through the realities we glean from sensation.

Not Every Tome, Dick, and Harry; or, How to Approach Claudette Colbert

It had been two decades since last a biographer was given the chance to shed light on the life of a woman whose name was written in the bright lights of Broadway and whose radiant presence lit up the silver screen. Considering that the radiant one is my favorite actress, I was eager to clap eyes on Claudette Colbert: She Walked in Beauty (University Press of Mississippi, 2008), a promisingly scholarly tome by Bernard F. Dick. Not that the title inspires clapping, Byronic, bastardized, and bromidic that it is. It sure gave me the first clue, though: whatever it was that Colbert walked in—beauty, grace, wit—was being thoroughly trampled in a clumsy and inept performance that brings out the lambastard in me.

As I advised students attending my seminar in Effective Academic Writing yesterday, a gaffe can be so distracting as to drown out an argument in guffaws and undermine a reader’s trust in a professional writer. Dick’s editors left us with ample occasions to titter and groan. I put down the book often enough just to get some fresh air; but I had not gotten past page two when I was confronted with “the Prince of Whales.” That’s a fine kettle of mammals, I thought.

Not that the royalty thus referred to has anything to do with Colbert; Edward VII, along with Oscar Wilde and Theodore Roosevelt, is merely listed as one of the admirers of Lily Langtry after whom Colbert may have been named. Cumbersomely piled up, trivia like this slows the plodding, meandering account of how She Walked down to a crawl. However thorough a detective, Dick is unable to fashion the evidence he compiled into any cohesive—let alone compelling—narrative. Instead, he rehearses the biographer’s role of examining data:

Without school records, it is impossible to verify whether Claudette was still at Washington Irving in February 1919 [ . . .]. Although she told Rex Reed that she appeared in Grammar in December 1918, she could have graduated at the end of the fall term, in January 1919. Initially, Washington Irving, which opened its doors in February 1913, did not observe the traditional September-June school year. Then, too, there was the matter of Claudette’s missing at least four months of school, and possibly more, in 1916, which would also have affected her graduation date.

The “matter” in question was an accident that very nearly crippled his subject. It is commendable that Dick resists being melodramatic; but his idea of bringing an event like Colbert’s immigration to life for us is to check the records revealing that, “for the end of November, the temperature was a comfortable 45 degrees.” It is difficult to warm to such storytelling.

Fortunate for those who have not burned the book to beat the chill, She Walked gathers momentum once Colbert makes the move from stage to screen. Having watched virtually all of her films, Dick can fill in many of the blanks people are likely to draw when they try to remember any of the films in which Colbert starred before or after It Happened One Night. Most of these movies are not classics; and Dick does not pretend that they are. He nonetheless succeeds in offering a thorough overview of a career that might have been brighter had Colbert not been such a shrewd businesswoman. One of the highest paid actresses, she generally chose projects based on their financial worth to her rather than on their artistic value to us.

Demonstrating that her film career declined in the late 1940s, Dick is faced with an anticlimax that cannot be countered by references to stage performances to which we no longer have access. So, he holds back with the gossip some might have expected from him: was Colbert a lesbian or what? Once again, her biographer lays out the facts with admirable restraint. There is no evidence, besides her childless marriages, the fact that she did not so much as share a house with her first husband, that she had female live-in companions, and that she enjoyed being around gay people. No evidence, in short.

Dick confuses our desire to speculate about an artist’s gender orientation with untoward curiosity. Does it matter whether Colbert (whom Dick refers to as Claudette throughout, while according last names to her male co-stars) ever derived sexual pleasure from the company of another woman? Are those who, like me, are not born heterosexuals, inappropriately trying to appropriate another luminary by pushing her into the dark corner of our longings?

I have often wondered just what attracts me to Colbert, to whose Academy Award-winning performance I was introduced by my grandmother. Even as the pre-adolescent I was then, I sensed that I was gay. It would take nearly two decades more to make me feel cheerful about it. During that time, I rejected most of the gay icons to come out of Hollywood. In the dignified, understated performances of Claudette Colbert I seemed to detect something understood. Her sexuality was not threatening to a boy troubled by the realization that he could not get aroused at the sight of feminine beauty. To me, Colbert was a woman who charmed when others seemed to chide.

When I speculate about Colbert’s intimate life, I do so not with the intention of outing her, but in the hope of learning something about myself. She Walked is designed to put such speculations to rest. Yet no matter how many facts we can gather about others, even those close to us, we never stop wondering about them and our love for them. Once we have people all figured out, they tend to be more dead to us than alive. Such is the effect of setting a queer record straight.

Writing a speech about Colbert in college, I concentrated on her career, of which my fellow students knew little and for which they could not have cared less. That I mentioned the mystique in which her sexuality was shrouded did not seem to have bothered either Colbert or her secretary/companion much. Weeks after sending the only copy of my speech to Colbert’s home in Barbados, I received the autographed image shown here. While I would have liked to engage in conjecture, it was mainly to come out to my own audience, an autobiographical act I ultimately rejected as self-indulgent. A biographer’s predilections and prejudices must not get in the way of the project.

This, I felt, was precisely what kept She Walked from taking flight. Never mind the fanciful title with which Dick tries to evoke the romance he never found or instilled in his subject. Approaching biography with the mind of a bureaucrat, the scholar falls short of meeting the creative challenge at which he balked in duty.

As a failed opportunity to revive interest in someone who, to my great relief, is alive and well in films like the aforementioned Midnight and The Palm Beach Story, She Walked may well put an end to future studies. Yet even if an open-minded publisher can prevent this from being the last word on Colbert, Dick’s eulogy stands out as an act of unpardonable bumbling. Just how graceless a performance it is can be demonstrated by these two consecutive paragraphs, which I have mercifully abridged:

The end came on 30 July. Claudette, barely breathing, said, “I want to go home,” pointing upwards. O’Hagan stayed with her until the end [. . .]

Claudette was fortunate to have a friend in Helen O’Hagan, a celebrity in her own right. Widely known as the voice of Saks, she numbered the leading designers among her circle. In 2000, she hosted a retirement party for Bill Blass at the Waldorf, where she presented a slide show of his career, followed by a luncheon consisting of his favorite foods: meat loaf and oat meal cookies.

Not even if such culinary treats had been served at Colbert’s wake do I want to hear about them, especially not in the wake of the deathbed scene. If “The end came on 20 July” brought a tear to my eye, “oat meal cookies” made me choke—an unpleasant sensation that even the imminent conclusion of book could not alleviate. “A film actor’s life is a palimpsest,” Dick remarks in his Preface; She Walked in Beauty qualifies as an effacement I would like to see overwritten.

He Calls Them As He Hears Them: Joseph Julian Remembers

“The small but rich body of radio literature, which [Norman Corwin] brought so lovingly to life, lies languishing in a few libraries and second-hand book shops, under the titles Thirteen by Corwin and More by Corwin—a great shame and deprivation for the present generation!” My sentiments, entirely. Not my words, though, which is why I had to slap quotation marks on them. The man who said so was Joseph Julian, a once highly acclaimed and sought-after radio actor who starred in a number of plays written and directed by Corwin during the early-to-mid 1940s. Today, Julian’s memoir, a copy of which I recently added to my own library of out-of-print books on broadcasting, is one among those “languishing” volumes, a forgotten voice from a medium whose dramatic potentialities have remained largely unsounded since the late 1950s.

This Was Radio came out in the mid-1970s, a time widely deemed ripe for a reassessment of the aural medium and its derelict theater of the mind. Rather than waxing nostalgic—thereby squeezing the last few bucks out of a defunct business which, back then, most American adults still recalled experiencing first-ear, and fondly at that—Julian takes readers on a trip down memory lane that leads into neighbourhoods they would not get to hear about on an official tour.

His Corwinian class acts aside, Julian appeared on thriller programs like The Falcon, The Shadow, Inner Sanctum, Mr. Keen, Broadway Is My Beat, and The Mysterious Traveler. He was first heard on The March of Time, but as an also-ran-off-the-mouth, in re-enactments that called for crowd scenes. Briefly, he served as a sound man, during which stint he learned what noise a human body produces when it is turned inside out.

I can imagine just what kind of sounds emanated from Julian when he learned that the same thing was happening to his career. An established actor by the early 1940s, Julian remained highly successful throughout the decade, until, in 1950, his name appeared in Red Channels. His career as a radio actor declined rapidly; by 1953, his annual income had dwindled to a mere $1630.

Barred from work at CBS, Julian fired back by filing a lawsuit for libel. Character witnesses during Julian’s 1954 trial were Edward R. Morrow (last talked of here) and the aforementioned Morton Wishengrad. It was “an ugly period in American life and in mine,” Julian comments. His “urge” was “to skip over it”; but he felt a

responsibility as a victim to record some of what [he] went through. A whole new generation hardly knows that such a thing ever happened. But the fact is it could easily happen again if we relax our vigilance in defending our freedoms. Control of broadcasting is one of the first major objectives of those who would take them away.

His lawsuit was dismissed; thereafter, Julian virtually unemployed until William Fitelson, a theatrical lawyer and executive producer of the Theater Guild’s US Steel Hour television series staged one of the actor’s own plays in December 1954. Julian’s fortunes changed as quickly as they had declined; and he once again “getting calls for radio acting jobs.”

Without bitterness, Julian tells it as it is. About Myrna Loy, for instance, he remarks that, “if she had to win [her radio] role in a competitive audition with radio actresses, she wouldn’t have been there. Her voice, isolated from her other attributes, was dull and flat. She was selling her name, not her art.” More problematic still was it to perform a dramatic scene with Veronica Lake, who had such a weak, wispy voice” that the sound engineer could not get her and Julian “in proper balance.”

Lake was handed a “separate microphone across the stage” so that the engineer could “could mechanically raise her voice level to mine.” However effective for listeners at home, her faraway whispers had Julian straining to hear his cues. “Especially since they had her facing front so the audience could see her famous peek-a-boo hairdo. Hardly the way to play an intimate love scene with a lady!”

Of the notorious Hummerts, who “grimly dominated their empire” of soap operas, Julian remarks:

There was something darkly foreboding about [them].  Their stiff presence always evoked a sense of insecurity.  And with good reason.  They had a reputation for firing actors who incurred their slightest displeasure.  And authors.  When Mrs. Hummert once told a writer that she wanted “God” on every page of a script, and his answer was “Who will we get to play Him?” he was fired on the spot.  And whey you were fired from one of their shows it was a catastrophe.  It meant being banned from all their nine or ten others that might be on the air at any given time.

Call him fortunate or not, Julian continued to act on the air well into the medium’s decline. On this day, 4 October, in 1959, he was heard on Suspense, one of radio’s last remaining drama anthologies, in the routine thriller “Room 203.” It is a far cry from Julian’s greatest work; but these days, almost any cry uttered on radio seems distant.

The Lilt of the Lilliputian

The cover of Adventure in Radio, from my collection

A few years ago, walking home from graduate school one afternoon, I stopped by at a second-hand bookstore in my old neighborhood of Yorkville, Manhattan. Judging from the window display, the shop seemed to specialize in children’s books and memorabilia. While this did not deter me, I hardly expected to make any significant acquisition of a volume on the subject to which this journal is chiefly devoted. I mean, I was not looking for a decoder ring or some such souvenir from the bygone age of radio dramatics. I was, after all, researching my dissertation. There was on the shelves a beautiful copy of Adventure in Radio (1945). Subtitled “A Book of Scripts for Young People,” it may be expected to include juvenile playlets written for the medium, although not necessarily produced on network radio. On such compilations, of which there are many, I was not inclined to waste money or time.

Spiting my assumptions, Adventure in Radio not only contains a number of broadcast scripts from programs like Jack Armstrong and Let’s Pretend but also propaganda plays and wartime commentaries geared toward an adult audience. In addition, it offers insights on the production of radio plays, on sound effects, announcing, and “radio language.” It took a little salestalk from the owner of the by now long closed store, but I was soon convinced. Where (I did not know much about eBay back then) would I ever find such a book again? And how could I claim to be serious about old-time radio if I did not snatch up this copy? So, I handed over my $40 (it was the price tag that made me hesitate) and walked off, eager to continue my studies . . . and determined to find the recordings to match the published scripts now at my fingertips.

That often proved quite difficult; but I had made up my mind that I was not going to write about words divorced from performance. I wanted to hear what was being done with those scripts, how they were edited and interpreted. Take the NBC University Theater’s production of “Gulliver’s Travels,” for instance. It was broadcast on this day, 24 September, in 1948. My appreciation of the challenges of soundstaging the play grew after reading the comments with which Frank Papp, a director of radio drama for NBC, prefaces the script, originally written for the series World’s Great Novels. Papp points out the “unusual problems” Frank Wells’s adaptation posed in production:

In the matter of casting, the Lilliputian was the most difficult.  Here was needed a voice which gave the illusion of a tiny man.  A trick voice in itself would be only a caricature.  What was required was a voice that created a picture of a real human being of Lilliputian size.  After extensive auditioning, an actor was found whose talent and vocal capabilities fulfilled these requirements.

The actor portraying Gulliver was placed in an isolation booth, Papp explains, “so that the Lilliputian’s voice would not spill over into his microphone” and the two voices could be miked separately, with a volume reflecting the size of each character. The voice of the King of Brobdingnag, meanwhile, was “fed” both through an electronic filter to amplify its base quality and through NBC’s largest echo chamber to create the illusion of a giant.

The 24 September 1948 presentation of “Gulliver’s Travels,” starring Henry Hull in the title role, does not quite live up to the expectations raised by Papp’s introduction. Under the direction of Max Hutto, child actor (Anthony Boris) is cast in the role of the Lilliputian, a choice that infantilizes the character and renders pointless the effects achieved by the sound engineer. While Wells’s script downsizes Swift’s story and diminishes its bitterness and bite, it is the production that contributes to a sense that Gulliver’s Travels is, at heart, a juvenile fantasy, despite its airing on the ambitious if misguided NBC University Theater, a program that linked listening to such bowdlerizations with courses in distant learning. I may have been able to match the script with a production, but it was not the one described in Adventure in Radio.

Squeezed as I am into the isolation booth of my preoccupations, it is my mind’s voice that supplies the lilt of the Lilliputian . . .