Destinées Imagined: Film Stills and Storylines

The most recent additions to my collection of movie memorabilia – and of images featuring the likeness of stage and screen actress Claudette Colbert (1903 – 1996) in particular – are stills for the 1954 motion picture Destinées.  The French-language film, released in Britain as Love, Soldiers and Women and in the United States as Daughters of Destiny, is one of the few works in the Colbert canon that I have not yet seen.  Rather than relying entirely on plot synopses provided by Colbert biographers William K. Everson, Lawrence Quirk, and Bernard F. Dick, I am imaging and imagining the film’s story, or, rather, the story told in one of the three vignettes that constitute Destinées.

Even before I determined on an order for the five film stills, what came across is that this is a story about absent men and relationships between the women they left behind.  From the image I chose to begin my stills-inspired version of the story, I can tell that Destinées is as much about the future as it is about the past: fate, fatality and a fatalism to be challenged.  The number of aligned grave markers, impersonal yet collectively inspiring awe, distinguish this site as a war memorial.  This woman might be a war widow.

What stands out in the field of Christian crosses is the prominently positioned star of David behind her, suggesting a memorial to those who were killed during the Second World War.  Either the narrative of this mid-1950s film is set in the recent past or Colbert’s character, for whatever reason, is only belatedly coming to terms with her loss.  She may have come to bury the past, or else to uncover it.  

Yet this is not the story of her loss and of her past only.  The flowers on the ground are not placed there by her hand, at least not at that moment.  They are dry and withered.  Someone else may have been at the site before her – someone else may be mourning the loss she is experiencing.

A sense of probing into a dark past is communicated by the still of Colbert holding a lamp.  Light of day makes way for dead of night, the open field for the enclosed space.  The rough and worn interior contrasts with the sophistication of the woman’s clothing but corresponds with her careworn expression.  The scratches on the wall suggest that smooth surfaces are being challenged: anger and despair are on display in this place.

The image that continues my version of the story is of Colbert and the boy.  In a dark and seemingly cheerless place, she comes face to face with innocence.  Colbert’s character seems to be reaching for the child’s hand; but they are not touching.  Her hands are encased in gloves.

The boy staring at her is clutching a toy.  At first I thought it was she who placed it in his hand; but the apparently hand-crafted object – a cheerful fantasy figure, not a mass-produced toy soldier – is too singular to suggest that she has bought it for him.  More likely, she has just learned of the child’s existence.

The image I chose to come next in this sequence is of Colbert sitting on the bed opposite a woman (played by Eleonora Rossi Drago) who is younger and plainly dressed.  What they have in common is grief, as their facial expressions and postures tell me.  Are they grieving for the same person? Are they sitting on a bed that was once shared by a man whom they both loved? This might be the site where the child was conceived.  These women are joined in yet separated by more than grief. 

The image to complete my story suggests reconciliation.  The two women are breaking bread, and the lamp on the table is the same light that, in the other image, communicated a desire for clarity that is now being achieved.  Colbert’s character remains reserved, even skeptical.  The clenched hand, with its wedding band on display, suggests her clinging to the claim of legitimacy, even though that legal right seems to provide no comfort besides financial security.

But the woman sitting next to her is so lacking in guile that she might ultimately convince her unannounced visitor that theirs is not a destiny of contest but a bond of love: the war that has separated one woman from her husband has created another love that, in turn, begot what used to be called a love child.

Close to the battlefield, a life was created, while far from the war zone – in the cosmopolitan setting of a remote metropolis, New York rather than Paris, suggested by the affluence, and the affront, even, of Colbert’s designer clothing – a woman being left by a husband-turned-soldier could only see loss.

Initially, my story unfolded somewhat differently.  I had Colbert’s character confront the lover of her husband first, then learn about the child and change her attitude as a result.  Then I noticed the gloves, which have not yet come off when Colbert’s character meets the boy that might be her dead husband’s son; and, looking again at that other image, I noticed the rough, barn-like setting of their encounter, which more closely corresponds with the scratched wall and the lamp shedding light on the issue of a heretofore hidden love.

However inconsequential Destinées might have been, in terms of box office or impact on Colbert’s waning career in film, these images are remarkable in their ability to make readable what matters about this common story – a story told without Sirkian melodrama but with the neorealism of post-Second World War European filmmaking.  

French-born Colbert who, years earlier on US radio, had proudly and publicly exclaimed “I Am an American,” may have embraced this assignment as an opportunity to return to her roots.  Instead, cast as a visitor in Destinées, she was obliged to rehearse her estrangement and uneasy reintroduction.  France and cinema were moving on, away from the Hollywood paradigm of It Happened One Night; this is not the ersatz old world of Colbert’s I Met Him in Paris or Midnight.  And yet, the destiny that the new Europe was forging in the 1950s remained inextricably intertwined with the United States.  As the dresses of the two women make plain on one side and up-to-date on the other, there were destined to be clashes in style as well as in substance.

What Was I Thinking?: English 101, Phil Donahue and the Politics of Identity

I started college in the spring of 1991.  I had been visiting New York City since April the previous year, returning only once to my native Germany to avoid exceeding the six consecutive months I could legally stay in the US on a tourist visa.  The few weeks I spent in the recently reunited Vaterland that October had been difficult to endure, and for years I had nightmares about not getting back to the place I thought of as my elective home, the realities of the recession, the AIDS crisis, Gulf War jingoism and anti-liberal politics notwithstanding. 

The cover of my 1991 journal, with an image collage
borrowed from a copy of Entertainment Weekly

I was determined not to repeat the experience of that involuntary hiatus once the next six-month period would come to an end.  A close friend, who worked at Lehman College in the Bronx, suggested that I become a student and generously offered to pay my tuition for the first year.  We decided that, instead of entering a four-year college such as Lehman, I should first enroll in classes at Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC), an option that would cut those “foreign” tuition fees in half.

Having gotten by thus far on my better than rudimentary German high school English, I had doubts nonetheless about my fitness for college.  My first English instructor, Ms. Padol, was both exacting and reassuring.  She worked hard to make her students try harder.  Not only did she give us bi-weekly essay assignments, and the chance to revise them, but also made us keep a journal, which she would collect at random during the semester.

“This requirement for my English class comes almost as a relief,” I started my first entry, titled “A journal!” That it was only “almost: a relief was, as I wrote, owing to the fact that, whatever my attitudes toward my birthplace, I felt “so much more comfortable in my native language.” Back then, I still kept my diary in German.  

What I missed more than the ability of putting thoughts into words was the joy of wordplay.  “My English vocabulary does not really allow such extravaganzas,” I explained, “and even though the message comes through – in case there is any – the product itself seems to be dull and boring to read.”  This reflects my thoughts on writing to this day.  To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, I write to entertain myself and strangers.

In the days of the lockdown – which were also a time of heightened introspection – I scanned the old journal to remind myself what I chose to entertain notions of back in 1991.  Many entries now require footnotes, if indeed they are worthy of them: who now recalls the stir caused by Kitty Kelley’s Nancy Reagan biography? Not that I had actually read the book. “Nobody will use this book in a history class,” I declared. Being “a compilation of anecdotes” it had “no value as a biography.” Autobiography, being predicated on the personal, cannot be similarly invalidated, as I would later argue after taking a graduate course in ‘self life writing’ with Nancy K. Miller at Lehman. What I knew even in 1991 was that a journal was not a diary.

Unlike the diary, the journal provided me with a chance to develop a writerly persona.  I was playing the stranger, and what my reader, Ms. Padol, may have perceived to be my outsider perspective on what, in one entry, I called the “American waste of life” was in part my rehearsal of the part I thought my reader had reason to expect from me.  However motivated or contrived, that performance tells me more about myself than any posed photograph could. 

In an entry dated 3 May and titled “O temporaO mores!” I shared my experience watching Donahue, a popular talk show at the time, named after its host.  The broadcast in question was “People Who Change Their Sex to Have Sex with the Same Sex,” the sensationalism of which offering served as an opportunity to air my queer views as well as the closet of a journal that, for all its queerness, opened by lexically straightening my life by declaring my partner to be a “roommate.”

After expressing my initial confusion about the title and my indignation about the “exploitation” of the subject, I considered my complicity as a spectator and confronted the narrow-mindedness of my binary thinking:

Like the audience in the studio I asked myself why anybody would go through such a procedure only to have a lesbian relationship.

But then I realized that this is really a very shallow, stupid and yet typical question that shows how narrow-minded people are.

It also reflects ongoing intolerance in this society.

The woman in question made it clear that there is a difference between sexual identity and sexual preference.  When a man feels that he is really a woman most people think that he consequently must be a homosexual.

I refer to myself in the journal as gay.  What I did not say was how difficult it had been for me to define that identity, that, as a pre-teen boy I had identified as female and that, as a teenager, I had suffered the cruelty of the nickname “battle of the sexes,” in part due to what I know know (but had to look up again just now) as “gynecomastia”: the development of breast tissue I was at such pains to conceal that the advent of swimming classes, locker rooms and summer holidays alike filled me with dread.  I had been a boy who feared being sexually attractive to the same sex by being perceived as being of the opposite sex.

Reading my journal and reading myself writing it thirty years later, I realise how green – and how Marjorie Taylor Green – we can be, whether in our lack of understanding or our surfeit of self-absorption, when it comes to reflecting on the long way we have supposedly come, at what cost and at whose expense.  We have returned to the Identity Politics of the early 1990s, which I did not know by that term back then but which now teach in an art history context; and we are once again coming face to face with the specter of othering and the challenge of responding constructively to difference.  I hope that some of those struggling now have teachers like Ms. Padol who make them keep a journal that encourage them to create a persona that does not hide the self we must constantly negotiate for ourselves.

There is no record online of a Ms. Padol having worked at BMCC.  Then again, there is no record of my adjunct teaching at Lehman College from around 1994 to 2001, or at Hunter College and CUNY Graduate Center thereafter.  The work of adjuncts, and of teachers in general, lives on mostly in the minds and memory of the students they shaped.

I was more surprised at not finding any references online to that particular Donahue broadcast, except for a few mentions in television listings – two, to be exact.  The immediate pre-internet years, that age of transition from analog to digital culture, are a time within living memory to the access of which a minor record such as my English 101 journal can serve as an aide-memoire.  Whatever the evidentiary or argumentative shortcomings of anecdotes, by which I do not mean the Kitty Kelleyian hearsay I dismissed as being “of no value,” historically speaking, they can be antidotes to histories that repeat themselves due to our lack of self-reflexiveness.

Those of us who have been there, and who feel that they are there all over again – in that age in which the literalness of political correctness was pitted against the pettiness of illiberal thinking – can draw on our recollections and our collective sense of déjà vu to turn our frustration at the sight of sameness into opportunities for making some small difference: we are returning so that those who are there for the first time may find ways of moving on. Instead of repeating the question in exasperation, we need answers to “What were we thinking?”

Forecasts in Hindsight: Wrongly Predicting the 1948 Presidential Election

As my motto ‘Keeping up with the out-of-date’ is meant to suggest, I tend to look toward the past; and yet, I resist retreat.  Retrospection is not retrogressive; nor need it be it a way of reverencing what is presumably lost or of gaining belated control over what back at a certain time of ‘then’ was the uncertainty of life in progress. I am interested in finding the ‘now’ – my ‘now’ – in the ‘then,’ or vice versa, and in wresting currency from recurrences.

Many articles in Crosby’s column made it into this 1952 volume, which is on my bookshelf. The item discussed here did not.

I also tend to look at the ephemeral and everyday, the disposable objects or throwaway remarks we think or rather do not think of at all and dismiss as immaterial and obsolete, as too flimsy to carry any weight for any length of time.  Take an old syndicated newspaper column such as John Crosby’s “Radio in Review,” for instance.  Back in November 1948, Crosby, whose writing was generally concerned with programs and personalities then on the air, commented on a US presidential election that apparently no one, at least no one in the news media, had predicted accurately.  “Dewey Defeats Truman,” the headline of the Chicago Daily Tribune erroneously read on 3 November that year. Having listened to the words dispensed over the airwave on that day after – or, depending on your politics, in the aftermath of an election that paved the way for another term for President Harry S. Truman – Crosby noted:

‘Perhaps never before have such handsome admissions of error reverb[e]rated from so many lips with such a degree of humility as they did on the air last week.’  Truman had been in office since the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1945; but in 1948, he had confirmation at last that the public – or the majority of those who made their views public and official – agreed that he belonged there.  As Crosby pointed out, even seasoned political commentators had predicted a Republican victory.

‘[T]here probably never has been an election post-mortem in which the words “I told you so” were not heard at all,’ the columnist remarked, adding that ‘if they were said, [he] didn’t hear them.’  To his knowledge, ‘[n]o professional commentators … told anyone so.’

Among those who, according to Crosby, got it more wrong than others was the ultra-conservative broadcaster Fulton Lewis Jr., an opportunist and influencer who, Crosby remarked, had gone ‘far beyond’ his fellow commentators by predicting ‘Republican victories in states where most observers foresaw a seesaw battle.’  

Speaking from the secular pulpit that was his radio program, Lewis ‘fully admitted his wrongness’ after the fact, Crosby noted, reading aloud the messages he received from listeners who ‘invited him to drop dead,’ to ‘throw himself’ into Chesapeake Bay, or to ‘go soak his head in a vinegar barrel.’  Far from remorseful or self-deprecating, such revelling in controversy is representative of right-wing provocation as we experience it to this day.  

A question not posed by Crosby is whether future Barry Goldwater supporter Lewis simply got it wrong – or whether he predicted wrongly to demoralise Truman’s supporters by suggesting that a Republican landslide was a foregone conclusion. Given Lewis’s known bias, the miscalculation was obviously not calculated to rattle Truman supporters out of complacency. So, a question worth asking now not how commentators got it so wrong, but why.

Lowell Thomas, a conservative commentator courting an audience of both major parties, insisted that he had not predicted the election but that he had merely ‘passed along the opinions of others.’  Thomas added, however, that, had he made a prediction, ‘he’d have been as wrong as everyone else.’  Unlike Lewis, this statement suggests, Thomas distinguished between reportage and commentary, the line between which was drawn no more clearly in 1948 broadcasting than it is in today’s mass media, discredited though they are as ‘legacy’ and presumably obsolete by the social media weaponizing political right.

Reporter Elmer Davis who, also unlike Lewis, was critical of then on-the-rise Senator Joseph McCarthy, a Democrat who turned Republican and opposed the Truman presidency for being soft on Communism,  provided this statement to his listeners: ‘Any of us,’ he said, ‘who analyze news on the radio or in the papers must hesitate to try to offer any explanation to a public which remembers too well the lucid and convicing explanations we all offered day before yesterday of why Dewey had it in the bag.’  Commentators had ‘beaten’ their ‘breasts’ and ‘heaped ashes’ on their heads since the election, Davis told his audience; but they still looked ‘pretty foolish’ and should probably wait some time before sticking their ‘necks’ out again.

‘Cheer up, you losers,’ veteran newscaster H. V. Kaltenborn declared on his radio program, ‘It isn’t so bad as you think.’  The peculiar mash-up of scoffing, commiserating, mind-reading and prognosticating did not escape Crosby, who wondered just what went on in the ‘mind’ of someone who, more than having misjudged who lost, might himself have lost it.

The ‘explanations as to why President Truman won were almost as identical as the pre-election prediction that he wouldn’t,’ Crosby observed, namely that the nation ‘liked an underdog.’  Just how much of an ‘underdog’ can a presidential incumbent be? Playing one on TV would prove a winning formula for Donald Trump, at least, and the kind of doghouse he managed to furnish for himself, which is so unlike the residence some of us envision as rightfully his, provides support of that theory.

Summing up the state of desperation among commentators, Crosby stated that ‘many’ of them derived rather ‘odd comfort’ from the fact that US ally turned adversary Josef Stalin, who likewise incorrectly predicted a win for Republican candidate Thomas E. Dewey, ‘had been just as wrong as they were.’

Sure, there is momentary relief in Schadenfreude, seeing those who got it wrong having to admit – or trying to avoid admitting – the fact that, in hindsight, they were demonstrably wrong, and, being wrong, on the wrong side of the future.  And yet, getting it wrong may also be evidence of wrongdoing, of deceit and deviousness.  As someone relegated to the sidelines, I can offer only one reasonable piece of advice to those who prefer a Truman over a Trump: pay attention to but do not trust folks who are determined to convince you that your vote does not matter much by declaring the game to be over when it is still afoot.

Joan Blondell in Dachau

A cigarette card image of Joan Blondell on display at Dachau
I am no historian. At least not in a traditional facts-and-figures sense. Early in life, I became doubtful of efforts to account for the present by recounting the past of a place or a people. Growing up – and growing up queer – in Germany during the 1970s and 80s, I was not encouraged to find myself in such accounts.  After all, how could I have developed a sense of being part of a national history? The present did not make me feel representative even of my own generation, while the then still recent past was presented to me as the past of a different country. A different people, even. A people whose history was not only done but dusted to the point of decontamination.


Visiting Dachau, June 2015
That many of those people – those old or former Nazis – were all around me and that the beliefs they held did not get discarded like some tarnished badge was apparently too dangerous a fact to instill. Pupils would have turned against their teachers.  Children would have come to distrust their parents.  They might even have joined the left-wing activists who were terrorizing Germans for reasons about which we, endangered innocents and latent dangers both, were kept in the dark.
As I have shared here before – though never yet managed adequately to convey – I left Germany in early adulthood because I felt uneasy about my relationship with a country I could not bring myself to embrace as mine. It’s been a quarter of a century since I moved away, first to the US and then to Wales.  For over two decades, I could not even conceive of paying the dreaded fatherland a visit.  Eventually, or rather suddenly, this changed. In recent years, I have found myself accepting offers to teach German language, history and visual culture, assignments that made me feel like a fraud for being second-hand when imparting knowledge about my birthplace.  I realized that I needed to confront the realities from which I had been anxious to dissociate myself.

This summer, I visited the Dachau concentration camp for the first time.  There, in the face of monumental horrors, I was drawn to one of the smallest and seemingly most inconsequential object on display: a cigarette card featuring the likeness of 1930s Hollywood actress Joan Blondell.

“Beaten to death, silenced to death”:
A memorial to the homosexuals killed during
the Nazi regime, made in the year I came out.
Dates and figures are no match for such a fragile piece of ephemera. To be sure, the macabre absurdity of finding a mass-manufactured collectible—purchased, no less, at the expense of its collector’s health—preserved at a site that was dedicated to the physical torture of real people and the eradication of individuality could hardly escape me.  But it was not this calculated bathos alone that worked on me.  It was the thought that I, too, would have collected such a card back then, as indeed I do now.  Investing such a throwaway object with meaning beyond its value as a temporary keepsake, I can imagine myself holding on to it as a remnant of a world under threat.

Looking at that photograph of Joan Blondell at Dachau, it was not difficult for me to conceive that, had I been born some forty years earlier, I might have been sent there, or to any one of the camps where queers like me were held, tortured and killed.  That minor relic, left behind in the oppressive vastness of the Dachau memorial site, speaks to me of the need to take history personal and of the importance of discarding any notion of triviality. For me, it drives history where it needs to hit: home—home, not as a retreat from the world but as a sense of being inextricably enmeshed in it.

Joan Blondell, meanwhile, played her part fighting escapism by starring in “Chicago, Germany,” an early 1940s radio play by Arch Oboler that invited US Americans to imagine what it would be like if the Nazis were to win the war.

Figured Speech: De-monstrating Lord Haw-Haw

When I picked up this slim and curious volume, Lord Haw-Haw of Zeesen (1939), at an antiquarian bookstore in the Welsh border town of Hay-on-Wye, I was puzzled, to say the least.  I mean, I had heard about—and had listened to recordings of—the notorious Lord Haw-Haw, the fascist broadcaster whose role it was to demoralize the British, to make them turn against their own government by convincing them that to side with the so-called Third Reich was the safest, surest way to march forward.  Yet here was a book—written pseudonymously by a journalist calling himself Jonah Barrington and cartoonishly illustrated by an artist who went by the name of Fenwick—that turned propaganda into satire by lending form and features to a voice of terror that was infiltrating the home front.
Yes, it is a curious performance—a biographical act of deflating a windbag, of knocking the stuffing out of a nameless, disembodied operative whose dangerous air of mystery was just plain hot by the time Barrington had laughed off the threat by calling it “Haw-Haw.”  Those in Britain who, like Barrington, had caught the bizarre broadcasts from station Zeesen in Germany began to speculate about the speaker.  In the absence of evidence, Barrington created a character that, to him, had already “become real”; and out of the polemics that “nightly pollute[d]” the British air, the journalist set out to weave “silly fancies.”
“Let me make one point perfectly clear,” Barrington added:
Although Fenwick and I have use our imagination in building up the home life and background of Haw-Haw and his fellow propagandists, the actual speeches credited here to them are given verbatim—exactly as broadcast from the stations Hamburg, Cologne and Zeesen (D.J.A).
Lord Haw-Haw of Zeesen defused a crisis by giving a ridiculous shape to uncertain things to come, by making preposterously concrete what had been potentially persuasive or at least dangerously ambiguous hearsay.  Filmmakers and journalists had parodied Nazi figures before—but the task of turning rhetoric into a figure of ridicule is a rather more complex strategy of counter-propaganda, especially since, in this case, print was rendering fictive what it had made definitive:
Haw-Haw in print needs stage directions, scene-setting and local colour.  And Fenwick needn’t thing he’s going to sit back and do nothing, either.  You want the best of Haw-Haw, and we give it to you—drawings and all.
Best or worst, readers of Lord Haw-Haw of Zeesen were meant to get the better of him.

Gotham/Gothic; or, A Tale of Two Strawberries

Visiting Strawberry Hill

Much of what I know about English literature I learned in the Bronx.  The peculiar indirection of my path—a German approaching British culture by taking the Lexington Avenue Express—did not escape me then; and even though I had no doubt as to the qualifications of those who taught me, I decided, upon finishing my Master’s thesis on the Scottish essayist-translator Thomas Carlyle, to go after something that, geographically speaking, lay closer to my temporary home. 

Never one for obvious choices, I wrote my doctoral study on US radio drama, a subject that, however arcane, struck me as being rather more compatible with life in a Mecca for the enthusiasts of American popular culture among which I numbered.  It also made it possible for me to take advantage of some of the resources particular to Manhattan, the isle of Radio City.

Not that I considered studying British culture so far removed from the Globe Theatre, the Scottish Borders, or the wilds of Yorkshire much of a disadvantage, being that I had adopted a subjective mode of reading that favors response over intention, that explores the reception of a written work rather than tracing is origins.  Call it rationalizing, call it kidding yourself—I thought that I should make a virtue of vicariousness. 

 
Living in Britain now, I am rediscovering its literature through the landscape rather than by way of the library; and I am finding my way back to those old books by stepping into even older buildings.  One such book and one such building is Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto (1764), otherwise known as Strawberry Hill.
 
A most un-Gothicbut gloriousday at Strawberry Hill

Originally a small cottage in rural Twickenham, Strawberry Hill was transformed by Walpole into a gothic castellino; it also housed the author’s own printing press, although Otranto was published in nearby London.  The crenelated battlements were made of wood and needed to be replaced more than once in Walpole’s lifetime.  “My buildings are paper, like my writings,” Walpole famously declared, “and both will blown away in ten years after I am dead.” This could well have happened; but, despite the relative weakness of his materials—a spurious medieval romance and the less than solid additions to Chopp’d Straw Cottage—both survive today as a testimony to Walpole’s enduring influence on popular tastes in architecture and literature.

 
And yet, however exciting the experience, walking around Strawberry Hill after all those years of living and studying so close to Strawberry Fields, Central Park, brought home nothing more forcibly than that getting to the heart of the matter that is art is not a matter of inspection but of introspection. Stripped of most of its furnishings, Strawberry Hill is a tease. Beyond the stained glass windows and the restored façade, there is little left of Walpole’s story or his antiquarian spirit.  To be sure, even if Walpole’s library had not been emptied of the contents that makes and defines it, it would remain inaccessible to those looking around now without being permitted to touch and turn the pages.

Visitors to historic houses, like readers of fictions, must always be prepared to supply the fittings, to construct in their mind’s eye what the supposedly first-hand experience of seeing for ourselves can never make concrete and, therefore, never quite smash or supplant.  Where, if not in our reading, dreaming, thinking selves does the spirit of literature reside?

The audio guide at Strawberry Hill is a self-conscious acknowledgment of this sightseeing conundrum; it plays like a radio drama—my studies of which have not gone to waste altogether—that teases us with the voices of the dead and the echoes of their footsteps. Our own footfall, meanwhile, is muffled by the protective plastic coverings provided for our shoes at the entrance to the site.

Walpole’s paper house has been given a permanence in the midst of which I am reminded of the paper-thinness of my own existence.  What lingers is the anxiety of leaving here—or anywhere—without having left a trace at all.

Of “historical value”: Hitler’s “Best” Straight Talk and Other Continuity Types

As soon as I decided to make radio plays written in the United States in the 1930s, ‘40s and early ‘50s the subject of my doctoral study, I set out to scour New York City University libraries for scripts published during that period. My degree is in English, and I was keen not to approach broadcasting as a purely historical subject. The play texts and my readings of them were to be central to my engagement with the narrative-drama hybridity that is peculiar to radio storytelling. Whenever possible, I tried to match script with recording—but, to justify my study as a literary subject, I was determined to examine as many print sources as possible. One text that promised to provide a valuable sample of 1930s broadcast writing was Radio Continuity Types, a 1938 anthology compiled and edited by Sherman Paxton Lawton.

Back in the late 1990s, when I started my research, I was too focused, too narrow-minded to consider anything that seemed to lie outside the scope of my study as I had defined it for myself, somewhat prematurely. Instead, I copied what I deemed useful and dutifully returned the books I had borrowed, many of which were on interlibrary loan and therefore not in my hands for long. It was only recently that I added Radio Continuity Types to my personal library of radio related volumes—and I was curious to find out what I had overlooked during my initial review of this book . . .


Radio Continuity Types is divided into five main sections: Dramatic Continuities, Talk Continuities, Hybrid Continuities, Novelties and Specialties, and Variety Shows. Clearly, the first section was then most interesting to me. It mainly contains scripts for daytime serials, many of which I had never heard of, let alone listened to: Roses and Drums, Dangerous Paradise, Today’s Children. There are chapters from Ultra-Violet, a thriller serial by Fran Striker, samples of children’s adventures like Jack Armstrong and Bobby Benson, as well as an early script from Gosden and Correll’s Amos ‘n’ Andy taken from the period when the program’s format was what Lawton labels “revolving plot drama.”

Aside from a melodrama written for The Wonder Show and starring Orson Welles, I got little use out of Lawton’s book, mainly because I concentrated on complete 30-minute or hour-long plays rather than on serials I could only consider as fragments. Besides, I was not eager to perpetuate the notion of radio entertainment as being juvenile or strictly commercial.

Anyway. Looking at the book now, I am struck by Lawton’s choices. Never mind the weather report on page 346 or Madam Sylvia’s salad recipe. How about the editor’s selection of “Occasional speeches”? Historically significant among them are Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first inaugural, a “Welcoming” of Roosevelt by Getulio Vargas, President of Brazil, as well as Prince Edward VIII’s announcement of his abdication.

No less significant but rather more curious are Lawton’s “Straight Talk” selections of fascist propaganda by Benito Mussolini, Joseph Goebbels and Adolf Hitler: “Long live the National Socialist German Reich!” and “Now and forever—Germany! Sieg Heil!” Surely, such lines draw attention to themselves in a volume promising readers “some of the most successful work that has been done in broadcasting.” What, besides calling Goebbels’s “Proclamation on Entry into Austria” and Hitler’s “I Return” speech (both dated 12 March 1938) “straight” and “occasional,” had the editor to say about his selections? And what might these selections tell us about the editor who made them?

In a book on broadcasting published in the US in 1938, neutrality may not be altogether unexpected, as US network radio itself was “neutral”; but Lawton—who headed the department of “Radio and Visual Education” at Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri—seems to have beyond mere representations of “types.” Introducing a translation of Hitler’s speech, which comments on the reluctance of “international truth-seekers” to regard the new “Pan-Germany” as a choice of its people, Lawton argued it to represent “some of the best work of a man who has proved the power of radio in the formation of public opinion.” There are no further comments either on technique or intention. No explanation of what is “best” and how it was “proved” to be so. No examination of “power,” “public,” and “opinion.” It is this refusal to contextualize that renders the editor’s stamp of approval suspect.

The “continuity” Lawton was concerned with was of the “type” written for broadcasting—not the “continuity” of democracy or the free world. When he spoke of “historical value,” the editor did so as a “justification for a classification” of the kind of “continuity types” he compiled (among them “straight argumentative talks” by Senator Huey Long and Father Coughlin). And when, in his introduction, he speculated about radio in 1951 (“when broadcasting [would] be twice as old” as it was then), he did not consider what consequences the “best” and “most efficient” of “straight talk” might have on the “types” that were still “in common use” back in 1938.

Given its definition of “historical value,” it hardly surprises that Lawton’s anthology was not in “common use” for long. There was no second edition.

“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.

Eur[e]vision

I don’t often indulge in morning afterthoughts. I might—and frequently do—revise what I said (or, rather, how I said it); but I generally just take time, and one time only, to say my piece instead of doling it out piecemeal. Unlike the producers of much of the (un)popular culture I go on about here, I don’t make a virtue of saying “As I was saying” or make my fortune, say, by milking the cash cow of regurgitation. To my thinking, which is, I realize, incompatible with web journalism, each entry into this journal, however piffling, should be complete—a composition, traditionally called essay, that has a beginning, middle and end, a framework that gives whatever I write a raison d’être for ending up here to begin with.

Although I resist following up for the sake of building a following, it does not follow that my last word in any one post is the last word on any one subject—especially if the subject is as inexhaustible as the Eurovision Song Contest, which festival of song, spectacle and politics compelled me previously to go on as follows: “It [a Eurovision song] is, at best, ambassadorial—and the outlandish accent of the German envoy makes for a curious diplomatic statement indeed.”

Diplomatic blunder, my foot. My native Germany did win, after all, coming in first for the first time since 1982, when Germany was still divided by a wall so eloquent that, growing up, I did not consider whatever lay to the east of it German at all. Apparently, this year’s German singer-delegate Lena Meyer-Landrut, born some time after that wall came down, did not step on anyone’s toes with her idiosyncratic rendition of “Satellite,” a catchy little number whose inane English lyrics she nearly reduced to gibberish.

Her aforementioned insistence on turning toenails into “toenates” intrigued a number of bemused or irritated viewers to go online in search of answers, only to be directed straight to broadcastellan. Perhaps, the United Kingdom should have fought tooth and nates instead of articulating each tiresome syllable of their entry into the competition, a song so cheesy that it did not come altogether undeservedly last, even if European politics surely factored into the voting.

Britain never embraced European unity wholeheartedly—and those in the thick of the economic crisis now challenging the ideal of Europe may well resent it. Is it a coincidence that the votes were cast in favor of the entrant representing the biggest economy in Europe, a country in the heart of the European continent?

While not content, perhaps, to orbit round that center of gravity, other nations may yet feel that it behoves them to acknowledge the star quality of Germany, which, according to contest rules, is called upon to stage the spectacle in 2011. After all, why shouldn’t the wealthiest neighbor be host of a competition some countries, including Hungary and the Czech Republic, declared themselves too cash-strapped even to enter this year.

I may not have been back on native soil since those early days of German reunification, but there was yet some national pride aroused in me as “Satellite” was declared the winner of the contest by the judges and juries of thirty-eight nations competing in Oslo this year along with Deutschland.

That said, seeing a German citizen draped in a German flag as she approaches the stage to take home a coveted prize, however deserved, still makes me somewhat uneasy. Given our place in world history, the expression of national pride strikes me as unbecoming of us, to say the least. I was keenly aware, too, that there were no points awarded to Germany by the people of Israel.

Will I ever stop being or seeing myself as a satellite and, instead of circling around Germany, get round to dealing with my troubled relationship with the country I cannot bring myself to call home? That, after the ball was over, formed itself as a sobering afterthought. And that, for the time being, is the beginning, middle, and end of it. Truth is, I take comfort putting a neat frame around pictures that are hazy, disturbing or none too pretty.

Dunkirk 70 / Roosevelt 69

This week marks the 70th anniversary of “Operation Dynamo,” an ad hoc rescue mission involving small civilian ships coming to the aid of French and British soldiers who had been forced into retreat at Dunkerque during the for Allied troops disastrous Battle of Dunkirk. The operation, which became known as “The Miracle of the Little Ships,” was recreated today as more than sixty British vessels, sailing from Kent, arrived on the shores of northern France.

During the course of a single week, nearly 340,000 soldiers were brought to safety, however temporary. Many civilians who had what became known as “Dunkirk spirit” were recruited after listening to BBC appeals on behalf of the British admiralty for aid from “uncertified second hands”—fishermen, owners of small pleasure crafts, any and all, as the BBC announcer put it, “who have had charge of motor boats and [had] good knowledge of coastal navigation.”

Eager to maintain its neutrality prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, America was understandably lacking in such public “spirit,” frequent outcries against Nazi atrocities notwithstanding; but even long after entering the war, the US government kept on struggling to explain or justify the need for sacrifices and (wo)manpower to a people living thousands of miles from the theaters of war. On this day, 27 May, in 1941, one year after the operation at Dunkirk began, US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt came before the American public in another one of his Fireside Chats.

Although the nation was “[e]xpect[ing] all individuals [. . .] to play their full parts without stint and without selfishness,” the Roosevelt administration took considerable pains to explain the significance of the war, the need for “toil and taxes,” to civilians who, not long recovered from the Great Depression, were struggling to make a living.

If Hitler’s “plan to strangle the United States of America and the Dominion of Canada” remained unchecked, FDR warned the public,

American laborer would have to compete with slave labor in the rest of the world. Minimum wages, maximum hours? Nonsense! Wages and hours would be fixed by Hitler. The dignity and power and standard of living of the American worker and farmer would be gone. Trade unions would become historical relics and collective bargaining a joke.

Crucial to America’s freedom was the security of the oceans and ports. If, as FDR put it, the “Axis powers fail[ed] to gain control of the seas,’ their “dreams of world-domination” would “go by the board,” and the “criminal leaders who started this war [would] suffer inevitable disaster.”

The President’s address—broadcast at 9:30 EST over CBS stations including WABC, WJAS, WJAS, WIBX, WMMN, WNBF, WGBI and WJR—departs only slightly from the script, published in the 31 May 1941 issue of the Department of State Bulletin. Whatever changes were made were either designed to strengthen the appeal or else to prevent the urgency of the situation from coming across as so devastating as to imply that any efforts by the civilian population were utterly futile.

The address, as scripted, was designed to remind the American public that the US navy needed to be strengthened, alerting listeners that, of late, there had been “[g]reat numbers” of “sinkings” that had “been actually within the waters of the Western Hemisphere.”

The blunt truth is this—and I reveal this with the full knowledge of the British Government: the present rate of Nazi sinkings of merchant ships is more than three times as high as the capacity of British shipyards to replace them; it is more than twice the combined British and American output of merchant ships today.

In address as delivered, this passage was rendered slightly more tentative as “The blunt truth of this seems to be,” a subtle change that not so much suggests there was room for doubt as it creates the impression that the great man behind the microphone was weighing the facts he laid bare, that the devastating and devastatingly “blunt truth” was being carefully considered rather than dictated as absolute.

No mention was made of the “Miracle of Dunkirk,” that remarkable demonstration of spirit and resilience. More than a flotilla of “little ships” was required to defend the US from the potential aggression of the Axis powers. The challenge of American propaganda geared toward US civilians was to make the situation relevant to individuals remote from the battlefields, to motivate and, indeed, create a home front.
In Britain, where “ignorant armies clashed” just beyond the narrow English Channel and where the battlefields were the backyards, there was less of a need to drive home why the fight against the Axis was worth fighting.

In the US, the driving home had to be achieved by breaking down the perfectly sound barriers of that great American fortress called home, by making use of the one medium firmly entrenched in virtually every American household, an osmotic means of communication capable of permeating walls and penetrating minds. Radio served as an extension to the world; but it was more than an ear trumpet. It was also a stethoscope auscultating the hearts of the listener. As FDR, who so persuasively employed it in his Fireside Chats, was well aware, the most effective medium with which to imbue the American public with something akin to “Dunkirk spirit” was the miracle not of “little ships” but of the all-engulfing airwaves—and the big broadcasts—that helped to keep America afloat.