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.
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.
|Cinegram No. 4, from my collection|
|A keepsake that hasn’t been looked after|
|Radio Celebrities—an oxymoron, perhaps?|
Back then, the reverse was to be accomplished by those cigarette card collectibles: to put a face to the unseen visitors that millions welcomed into their homes. No doubt, the chief purpose was to sell tobacco products—but aside from fueling an addiction these albums satisfied the need to turn word to flesh and hold on to fleeting sound by way of printed image. “For many years,” the “Radio Celebrities” album reminded the purchaser, anno 1934, “broadcasting artistes, announcers and speakers remained rather mysteriously aloof—in the air, as it were!” No more. The “Wireless” and their personalities were becoming “increasingly popular”; and the portraits to be collected and appreciated in this way were meant to “add a personal touch to names” that were already so “familiar to listeners.”
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 looks after my dietary needs—a book that makes my shelf figuratively heavier rather than merely literally so.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
|An Argosy find|
I had walked past this place many an evening on the way to Ty’s, my favorite Greenwich Village watering hole. This time, though, it was mid-afternoon and I turned left, leaving Christopher for Gay Street. I had come here specially to take a picture of number 14, the former residence of two sisters who, for about a quarter of a century or so, were household names across America. Ruth and Eileen McKenney had been on my mind ever since I saw that production of Wonderful Town on a visit to Manchester, England—and the gals, whose misadventures are tunefully related in said musical, seemed determined to stay there. On my mind, that is, not up in the Salford docklands; though, judging from their experience way down here on Gay Street, they might not have minded the docks.
Eileen was lying there all the same—prominently if carelessly displayed, draped in a flashy, tantalizingly torn jacket that stood out among the drab, worn-out linen coats of a great number of unassuming second-hand Roses about to be put in their place—waiting to be picked up. I don’t flatter myself. My company was of no consequence to Eileen. If I was being lured, it was no doubt owing to an itch Eileen had to get out of yet another basement.
|Not straight ahead|
Thinking of the case I had to lug to the airport before long—and the less than commodious accommodations that would await Eileen in my study—I had hesitated and walked out alone; but I soon changed my mind, returned to the Argosy, and, to my relief, found Eileen still there, though shifted a little as if to say “I’m not thateasy” and to make me suffer for waffling.
|14 Gay Street|
Every time a train roared by, some three feet under our wooden floor, all our dishes rattled, vases swayed gently, and startled guests dropped drinks.
|Wisteria on Gay Street|
Once, as I recalled here before, I had the audacity to tell a well-known biographer, whose student I was, that I had no respect for writers of other people’s life stories. Unless content to be mere chroniclers, recording activities and recounting events, they are fabricators of interiorities that, I was—and am— convinced, are unknowable to anyone other than the single occupant of that interior. For all our confidences and intimations, we are ultimately unreadable to one another.
In order to turn life into story, biographers must impose a logic beyond chronology, a pattern to make unreason rhyme. They connect the dots on a timeline to create causal relationships designed to account for people’s behaviors and actions: because she couldn’t face her past, she couldn’t live with herself; because she lost her brother, she lost her trust in family; because he was in truth insecure, he became a make-believe gunslinger. Without being supplied with at least a hint of what we call “motivation,” we reject stories as lacking in psychological depth and moral complexity.
Back when I gave my professor a piece of my mind—proffered, mind you, with a smile—I thought of the biographer’s determination to make sense of other people’s existences as sheer hubris. Now, I am more inclined to look at biography as an act of desperation. Nothing is more disconcerting, more silencing and disabling, than the blank we have to call potentiality in order to face or overwrite and deface it. We cannot—will not—settle for zilch.
Secrets and duplicities, intimacy and detachment. Like all family dramas worth relating to, Jon Robin Baitz’s stage play Other Desert Cities measures the distance between folks who are biologically—and often physically—closest to each other: the flesh, the blood and the closeted skeletons of kinfolk.
|Approaching Palm Springs (and Other Desert Cities)|
Baitz’s American stage family, the Wyeths, could hardly be more traditional: a mother and father, married to one another, a daughter and son, offspring of that union. Then there is the dramatically expedient extension of that nucleus; in this case an alcoholic, don’t-give-a-damn aunt whom the audience looks at as a go-between, not only between characters but between those characters and ourselves. It is a well calculated constellation, this, as Other Desert Cities does not just explore relationships but the act of relating, of putting that relationship and all those relations into words, and of questioning the words and the unspoken.
Though most of us couldn’t live with Aunt Silda (Judith Light, in the Booth Theatreproduction), we love her for what we are encouraged to read as her forthrightness and free spirit. She, we assume, would be the person most likely to tell the true story of that family, as compromised as her memory and judgment might be after years of swilling the kind of spirits from which she is unable to free herself.
|Hello Silda—The way I remember Palm Springs|
After all, we cannot expect to get the inside dirt from her sister Polly (Stockard Channing), a staunch yet tarnished Republican who is terrified that her daughter Brooke (Elizabeth Marvel) has written a tell-all autobiography threatening to tear the façade right off the family’s sunny Californian home.
Honey. News-flash: you’re not a Texan, you’re a Jew! We’re Jewish girls who lost their accents along the way, but for you that wasn’t enough, you had to become a goy, too. Talk about the real thing? Talk about ‘faking it.’ Honey, this Pucci is a lot more real than your Pat Buckley schtick.
As it turns out, neither Silda nor Polly are what we are led to believe them to be; and this is Brooke’s lesson, too, as she tries to piece together the life story of her lost brother, a left-wing radical whose act of terrorism forced Nancy Reagan pal Polly and her ex-Hollywood star husband Lyman (Stacey Keach) into retirement in the desert.
Desperate to figure out who or what made her brother Henry what the facts don’t quite tell her he was, Brooke turns from writing fiction to biography. Yet, in her attempt to expose the truth, she ends up with yet another version of the story rather than a definitive one. “She presents us as ghouls who drove [Henry] to become sort of a murderer,” her anguished, disconsolate father protests to his son (Thomas Sadoski), the “ADD riddled, junk-food-addicted porn surfing Trip Wyeth,” as Brooke calls him to his face.
“Christ, there’s something so vicious about what you’re doing here, Brooke, don’t you know that?” Lyman exclaims. Vicious and necessary, Other Desert Cities argues. And futile? As suggested by the closing scene, which may strike some as perfunctory or incongruously sentimental, Brooke’s ordeal—and the ordeal to which she put her family—has served a purpose.
What may seem like a coda or anticlimax I took as the point of the Baitz’s drama. As a biographer, Brooke has failed. She has been taken in, taken story for life and secrecy for guilt only to become complicit in her family’s cover-up. As an autobiographer, though, Brooke is to be envied. She has learned something about herself that she didn’t know before she came to investigate the lives of those around her. We may be unknowable to each other—but we can learn to know ourselves.
Like any wit, Vidal’s central character, William Russell, takes language seriously. He is not beyond lecturing and flinging the grammar at anyone who doesn’t play by the rules of that book, a volume that the upright man carries in his head.
Life is not a popularity contest; neither is politics. The important thing for any government is educating the people about issues, not following the ups and downs of popular opinion.
Few, no doubt, even bother, as they are more likely to have come to sample the wares on display in the latest Broadway production at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre. The cast is headed by two sentimental favorites—Angela Lansbury and James Earl Jones—whose presence, however lively, takes some of the bite out of the 1960 play, which now provokes nothing more effectively than nostalgia: a longing for politics that never were. Like politics, the business of staging a show is too much of a “popularity contest” to rely on a playwright’s words to win us over. Reading the script now without seeing the assembled personalities—Candice Bergen, John Larroquette, Eric McCormack—before me on that evening in May, I can better appreciate Vidal’s best lines—but, as a play, The Best Man remains ultimately unconvincing.
A few weeks ago, my better half and I were up in Manchester, England, to do research for an upcoming exhibition. While there, we had the good fortune of catching a production of Leonard Bernstein’s Wonderful Town starring Welsh girl gone West End Connie Fisher as Ruth. Though not quite the real thing, this revival of a Broadway musical version of a play (turned movie, turned sitcom) based on a series of magazine stories inspired by the personal recollections of an Ohioan in Gotham did manage to evoke some of the magic and the madness of life in the titular burg. And now that I’m back, the residential misadventures of Eileen and her sister come to mind each time I walk down Second Avenue in my old Upper East Side neighborhood. Like the McKenney siblings, whose Greenwich Village basement flat was shaken by blasts heralding a subway line then under construction, folks up here in Yorkville have been dealing for years with the pre-math of just such a subterranean project: the noise, the dirt, the traffic jams, the shut down stores, the narrowed sidewalks, the fenced in pedestrian passageways that make you feel like a laboratory rat . . . and the rats themselves.
Last night, I had the good fortune to hear the music of Alec Templeton. Live and by proxy—and right here in town. Templeton’s compositions, among them barrier-obliterating and class-unconscious numbers like “Bach Goes to Town” and “Debussy in Dubuque,” were performed at the National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth. Pianist Simon Crawford-Phillips was ably assisted by Templeton himself, whose voice and ways on the keyboard were heard in a variety of radio recordings from the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s. Why here? Why now? Well, Templeton was a Welshman by birth, a fact that seems to have eluded most of the Welsh who pride themselves to be a nation of song. So, last night was as good and as high a time as any for his countrymen and women to acknowledge Templeton’s remarkable against-almost-all-odds career, even if the will to embark upon it took the composer-pianist as far West from the West of Britain as Hollywood. The countrywoman who did the acknowledging was Rhian Davies, teller of Templeton’s life in words and images. Davies, who generously acknowledged as well all the support and assistance her project received from broadcasting buffs and music lovers around the inter-networked world, has known about Templeton practically all her life. Eager to share her readily transmitted enthusiasm, she brought home to us, the assembled audience, that it is always Alec Templeton Time.
Templeton’s life is the stuff of legend. Born blind, he developed an ear so keen and a wit so sharp that he was destined to play tunes made for the cutting of rugs. That he was an expert at middlebrow musical culture has a lot to do with the fact that the eyes beneath his brows saw nothing and that his ears saw nothing but potential. Others, left in the dark yet accustomed to light, might have seen an insurmountable impediment.
The mind’s eye of Alec Templeton saw no such manifestations of doubt. He saw, say, Lower Basin Street . . . and took it. It may be that sightless people, who sense space by feeling their way around and listening intently, are not so much impressed by the walls facing them as their seeing contemporaries, not so much concerned with apparent boundaries, be they cultural or national.
“I understand,” a writer for Radio Guide remarked in 1936, “why his friends, when you start glooming about his sightless eyes, smile superciliously and say: ‘Save your sympathy for someone who needs it.’”
The stuff sighted folks concern themselves with is so much nonsense to a man like Templeton. Sensing a universe where others might imagine chaos, he crossed the waves and made a home for himself on the airwaves, authoring an etherized existence.
“Radio,” Templeton reportedly said, “is to me the greatest miracle of man’s ingenuity. My ears are my eyes, and I tune in at every opportunity, listening to everything from Vic and Sade to Toscanini.”
Hearing Templeton’s music performed live and seeing his career celebrated was a thrill. Yet as pleased as I was that all this happened in the little Welsh town where I now live, I wonder what claim Wales has to her native son. After all, the place of his birth, like his blindness, was not of his choosing. Indeed, he chose to unfurl his pinions, take to the air, and come to live for all willing to be all ears, in a medium whose art is not limited by space but that is instead the stuff—the no-matter—of time. Make that Alec Templeton Time.