" . . . a natural for pictures": Tomáš Masaryk (1850-1937)

Statue of Tomáš Masaryk at Národní muzeum, Prague

I did not exactly come well informed. To Prague, I mean, and about it. Until recently, if truth must out, I had never heard of the founding father of Czechoslovakia, Tomáš Masaryk. Still, when I spotted it yesterday on the cover of the Prager Zeitung, a German weekly published in the Czech capital I am currently visiting, the name looked awfully familiar. I had just come across it in a novel. A satire on 1930s Hollywood, of all places. Yes, Masaryk’s name is being tossed about in Budd Schulberg’s aforementioned What Makes Sammy Run? (1941), whose narrator, East Coast journalist Al Manheim, goes West after having been recruited for the movies:

I got a good job, the best I ever had [. . .].  After Masaryk died, it struck me that the story of his life ought to be a natural for pictures.  His ties with American democracy gave it special significance for us, and with Mussolini shooting off his big guns in Ethiopia and Hitler his big mouth in Germany, an anti-fascist picture seemed like a good idea.

Now, despite his enthusiasm, shared by an understanding and intelligent producer, the picture never materializes.  He had been warned by an ambitious, opportunist colleague, the eponymous Sammy, that “anti-fascist stuff ha[d]n’t got a prayer.  It’s lousy for the English market. A producer who just got back told me that at lunch the other day.  England doesn’t want to get Hitler and Mussolini sore.”

Today, 14 September 2007, marks the 70th anniversary of his death in 1937. And once again, the former president of former Czechoslovakia is being fondly recalled, his name dropped left and right after years during which it was being dropped altogether from public discourse.

Would there be a market for a Masaryk picture today? As if to insist on it, the old statesman popped up unexpectedly yesterday at a museum devoted to natural history, where I got to take his picture. His politician son, Jan Masaryk, got a bit closer to moving images when he became a voice-over artist of sorts, narrating a film inspired by the Schweik stories of Prague-born humorist Jaroslav Hašek. Jan Masaryk, too, celebrates an anniversary today: he was born on 14 September in 1886.

Somehow, these encounters and reencounters convinced me that it is pretty much impossible to read anything entirely irrelevant. No matter how much we insist on the boundaries of time and space, no matter how strong the walls behind which we seek to escape the present or shelves the past, there are bound to be reverberations to be sensed by all but the most insensitive ear, echoes waiting to be traced to their origins, to be recalled to life in our minds . . .

What Makes Me Stay and Sammy Run?

Well, what a difference a day makes—at least if you are spending it installing a new router. The wireless woes of recent weeks having passed, I can continue to issue my journal without further “adieu,” this week’s return visit to the Welsh getaway of media mogul William Randolph Hearst and Marion Davies excepting. As much as I enjoy being out and about, I relish staying put to share whatever crosses my mind, free to linger in the presence of kindred spirits or chat online with friends overseas to learn about their struggles and successes in show business and music publishing. I am somewhat short on ambition, I guess, safe for writing my own radio column, come hell or high definition. And, unless I allow myself to stray from the subject or find myself thwarted by technology—I am doing just that right here.

A radio column. That was what got Sammy started. You know, Sammy Glick, the title character of What Makes Sammy Run? (1941), the novelistic debut of Budd Schulberg (whose voice you may hear at the close of this mid-1950s radio documentary about his friend and colleague F. Scott Fitzgerald). Now, Sammy was just a twelve-bucks-a-week nobody running copy for a drama editor at a New York City newspaper when, one day, he announced that he “felt himself ready to conduct the paper’s radio column. Of course,” sneered the narrator (said editor), “the fact that the paper had never had a radio column didn’t seem to discourage him in the least.”

I first read this exchange when I was researching my doctoral study on so-called old-time radio, examining it in relation to other and older media in the 1930s and ’40s. What Makes Sammy Run? provided a vivid example, albeit fictional, of the doubt, dread, and disdain with which the American press eyed, tried to suppress, and pretended to ignore the commercial might of the broadcasting industry. “[W]hy should we plug a setup that’s cutting our advertising?” the editor tells Sammy, the overeager upstart who aims to please with the aim of pleasing himself:

“And just what makes you think you’re prepared to be an expert on matters Marconi?”
“What made you think you were an expert on the theater?”

To this blunt challenge, the irked authority feebly replies:

“I always liked the theater. I’ve seen lots of plays.”
“Well, I’ve listened to the radio plenty, too,” Sammy said.
“That doesn’t mean anything,” I said. “Everybody listens to the radio.”
“That’s why there oughta be a radio column,” Sammy said.

Guess what, little Sammy gets his column, and then some. He’s got plenty of nerve and few scruples. Unencumbered by the weight of a conscience and lifted instead by an inflated ego, the boy is getting far, and fast. He even passes off as his own a radio comedy by an inexperienced if gifted nobody who came to ask him for advice, barely giving credit to its original author when he sells the piece as a screen project.

What makes the Sammys of the world outrun us? What makes them run us over and run our lives as we stay put and gaze at them through the cloud of dust those windbags leave behind as they make a dash for whatever it is that is it for them? That is what I ask myself while I remain seated, long after the handfuls of dust have settled, to see the world from my virtual porch . . .