Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Wrap Up Wrapped Up

This gets as close to complete as I can manage—for this year at least.

A review like this serves to remind one of is how versatile the obituary writer is. They seemingly become instant experts in the field the deceased made their mark in. Surely, some of the writers might have a grooved specialty, but the assignment may not always coincide. They become like a debating team, getting the assignment cold, and having to make good on what follows.

These were the doubles and triples that caught my interest. There were many single ones that have been clipped and stuffed. It’s impossible to predict if you’re newsworthy enough to even rate such a send-off who you might get ganged up with. Through suicide, or very careful planning (I always thought Charles Schulz just too coincidentally passed away on the last day of his Peanuts strip), one might be able to pick their time, but they can’t pick the company they’ll keep.

It’s like riding the subway. You never really know who will be next to you.

  • Peter E. Fleming Jr., 79; Defense Lawyer Who Relished the Limelight
  • Tears for Creator of Hot Dog Onion Sauce
(Okay, these weren't on the same page. They weren't even in the same newspaper. They weren't even on the same day. They were both, however in January, six days apart and together on my stack. With your own blog, you get to play editor.)

  • Ricardo Montalban, Actor, Dies at 88
  • Patrick McGoohan, 80, Star of Spy Series
  • W.D. Snodgrass, 83 a Poet of Intensely Autobiographical Themes
  • Andrew Wyeth, Realist and Lightning Rod, Dies
  • John Mortimer, Barrister and Writer Who Created Rumpole, Dies at 85
  • Leonard Andrews, 83; Bought Wyeth's Artworks
    (Same paper, same day. Honest.)
  • Pat Hingle, an Actor Adept at Good and Evil, Dies at 84
  • Victor H. Krulak, 95, Marine Behind U.S. Landing Craft
  • Philip Egan, a Designer of a Fabled Sedan, Dies at 88
  • Inger Christensen, 73, Scandinavian Poet
  • Harlington Wood Jr., 88, Siege Negotiator, Is Dead
  • Don Galloway, 71, TV Actor Known for 'Ironside' Role
  • Schuyler G. Chapin, Stalwart Champion of the Arts in New York, Dies at 86
  • John Cephas, 78, Piedmont Style Guitarist
  • Clement Freud, Wit, Politician and Granson of Famous Psychoanalyst, Dies at 84
  • Deborah Digges, 59, Poet Who Channeled Struggles
  • Whitelaw Reid, 95, Heir to New York Herald Tribune
  • John Oros, 87, Top Jockey as a 17-Year-Old
  • Yitzak Ahronovitch, 86, Exodus Skipper In Defiant '47 Voyage of Jewish Refugees
  • Lester Rodney, Early Voice in Fight Against Racism in Sports, Dies at 98
  • George Michael, Sportscaster, Dies at 70
  • Robert Howard, 70, Decorated Serviceman
  • Charles Lieber, 78, Dies; Studied Alcohol as Toxin
  • Alf Pike, 91, Cup Winner Before Rangers' Dry Spell
  • Rev. Joseph C. Martin, 84, Leader in Alcoholism Fight
  • Ron Silver, 62, Persuasive Actor and Activist, Dies
  • Jack Kemp, Football Star Who Became Champion of Tax Cuts, Dies at 73
  • John Michell, 76 Author and Eccentric
  • Paul Harvey, Homespun Radio Voice of Middle America, Is Dead at 90
  • Mary Printz, 82, An Ear for the Famous


Friday, December 25, 2009

Year-End Wrap Up, Part II

Back at the pile. This is a bit like shoveling snow. You make a dent, but you tire out.

Certainly not many occupational clusters here, but the first one does somewhat provide some irony. The last survivor of the Titanic and a famous boat designer are written about on the same day. If that bigger boat had a better design and came equipped with a lot more little boats, then the "survivor" might have only had a story to tell of landing in New York from the maiden voyage. Who knows if they even would have lived so long? New York can wear you out.

I was reminded of the serendipity nature of all his when my friend was over for Christmas and was telling me about the New York Giants book he was looking at that I gave him recently. It contains facsimile pages of the sports stories that appeared in the NYT of the Giant seasons throughout the years of the franchise. And like anything in a newspaper, the story of interest might be surrounded by something else. Just like these obituaries.

Passing through the Giants' history and the early 60s my friend came across a story about Cuba and Dr. Fidel Castro. This was the years when he was still being wooed by the United States. I somewhat remember this honorific, a nod it seems to a law degree, I believe. I also remember Castro throwing chicken bones out of the Hotel Theresa in Harlem at reporters one Sunday morning.

There are many ways to make an impression in New York.
  • Millvina Dean, Last Survivor of the Titanic, Dies at 97

  • Philip C. Bolger, 81, Prolific Boat Designer

  • Harry J. Gray, Who Lead the Rise of United Technologies, Dies at 89

  • Drake Leven, 62, of Paul Revere & the Raiders

  • William F. Reedy, 72, Billy Martin's Friend

  • Jerri FitztGerald, 57, Dies; Treated Herself at South Pole

  • Shelly Gross, 88 Producer For Broadway and Suburbs

  • Harve Presnell, Singing Actor, Dies at 75

  • Alexis Arguello, 57, Boxer and Politician

  • Howard Unruh, 88 Dies; Killed 13 of His Neighbors in Camden in 1949

  • James Wiseman, 91, James Bond's Dr. No

  • Soupy Sales, Flinger of Pies and Punch Lines, Dies at 83

  • Dr. Ignacio Ponseti, 95; Created Cure for Clubfoot

  • Jack Nelson, an Investigative Reporter, Dies at 80

  • Collin Wilcox, 74, Actress in 'Mockingbird'

  • Arturo Gatti, Fearless Boxer Known For Relentless Violence, Dies at 37

  • Barbara Margolis, 79, Prisoners' Advocate

  • Alan F. Kiepper, 81, Who Oversaw Transit in Atlanta, Houston and New York, Dies

  • Richard Egan, 73, a Founder of EMC Storage

  • Robert Schindler, 71, Father of Terri Schiavo

  • Keith Waterhouse, Writer, Dies at 80

  • F.M. Rogallo, 97, Father of Hang Gliding

  • Ismael Valenzuels, 74, Hall of Famer Who Rode Kelso

  • Sergei V. Mikhalkov, 96, Russian Anthem's Lyricist

  • Harold A. Ackerman, 81, A Longtime Federal Judge

  • John Storm Roberts, World-Music Scholar, Dies at 73

  • Bess Lomax Hawes, 88, Folk Scholar

  • Tommy Henrich, Yanks Star, Dies at 96

  • Jennifer Jones, Actress Whose Career Came With a Turbulent Life, Dies at 90

  • C. Bryan, 73, 'Friendly Fire' Writer, Dies

  • Thomas Hoving, Who Boldly Remade the Met in the '70s, Is Dead at 78

  • Gene Barry, Actor of TV, Film and Stage, Dies at 90

  • P. Scanlon, 78; Led Coopers When Big 8 Ruled Accounting

  • (With the length of Hoving's obit, I didn't even get to the Sports until we were in the tunnel)

  • Hugh Morgan Hill, Who Wove Tales as Brother Blue, Is Dead at 88

  • (Does anyone remember NY's Moondog, pictured above?)
  • Ira Hanford, 91; Rode Winner of '36 Derby

  • Evelyn Hofer, a Subtle Photographer Of People and Architecture, Dies at 87

  • Carl Ballantine, 92, Slapstick Magician

  • Bobby Frankel, 68, Trainer of Champion Horses, Dies

  • Edward Woodward, 79, Star of Spy Series

  • John J. O'Connor, a Times TV Critic In Years of Industry Upheaval, Dies at 76

  • Patriarch Pavle, 95; Led Serbian Church

  • John Kenley, 103; Took Big Stars to Small-Town Stages

  • Micelle Triola Marvin, 76, Of Landmark Palimony Suit

  • Captain Lou Albano, 76, Wrestler and Showman

  • Nan Robertson, Pulitzer-Winning Times Reporter, 83


Thursday, December 24, 2009

Starting the Year-End Wrap Up

I'm hardly exempt from the year-end look backs and nostalgia induced thoughts that occur at this time of the year. In fact, year-end might really be my July 4th, time to remember all that has occurred and celebrate.

My form of celebrating I suspect surely differs from most. I set out to clip and trim all the articles I've saved over the year. Sort of act like a butcher and get rid of all the extra pages, margins and other stories that are surrounding the one I'm interested in.

I have a great scissor for this. A left-handed scissor, no less, that is very sharp and cuts while just passing the newsprint through the angle of the two blades. This saves time, and creates less fatigue. Despite all these good intentions and tools, I rarely get through the whole year. So, I never really bail out the ocean. But I don't want to give up the clippings all together. Thoughts the second time around are more indelible.

And right now what is occurring to me is that while sometimes people kick off in occupational clusters, I'm finding that the subject of my article saving can also be surrounded by someone else who was of equal interest. Thus, far less to trim. There are even whole NYT obituary pages that are worth saving, because everyone featured has been of some of interest.

Here are some surprising double and triple headers that I wouldn't have put together on a test, but who landed on the same page throughout the year and who provoked interest. Some occupational similarities, but they can be a diverse set.

And since I do this over a period of time, this blog entry might have installments.

  • Mary Travers, Ringing Voice of Folk In 60s, With Peter and Paul, Dies at 72
  • Henry Gibson, 73, Versifier of 'Laugh-In'

  • Jody Powell, 65, Trusted Aide to Jimmy Carter, Dies
  • Crystal Lee Sutton, 68, The Real-Life 'Norma Rae'

  • Samuel M. Ehrenhalt Is Dead at 83; Added Color to Dry Economic Data
  • Danny La Rue, 81, Female Impersonator

  • Gale Storm, 87, Is Dead; Earned Television Fame For Her Wholesome Role
  • Michael Martin, 50, Subway Graffiti Artist Iz the Wiz
  • Billy Mays, 50, Enthusiastic TV Pitchman

  • Sam Cohn, Talent Broker in Film and Stage, Dies at 79
  • Eleanor Perenyi, Writer and Gardener, 91

  • Sam Church Dies at 72; Led United Mine Workers
  • Reggie Fleming, 73, Ruffian On the Ice and a Fan Favorite

  • Daniel Carasso, 103, a Pioneer of Yogurt
  • Edwin Shneidman, Authority on Suicide, Is Dead at 91
  • Wayne Allwine, 62, Mickey's Voice

  • James F. Calvert, 88, Sub Captain Who Surfaced at North Pole, Dies
  • Barry Beckett, 66, Muscle Shoals Musician

  • Daniel Carradine, Actor Defined by His 'Kung Fu' Role, Dies at 72
  • Sam Butera, 81, Saxophonist for Louis Prima
  • Charles Albury, 88, Co-Pilot of Nagasaki Bomber

  • Paul Haney, Voice of Mission Control, Dies at 80
  • Jerry Rosenberg, 72, Jailhouse Lawyer
  • Vincent O'Brien, 92, Top Irish Horse Trainer

  • Paul Fino, 95, Politician Who Battled Lindsay
  • Dusty Rhodes, Star Pinch-Hitter in '54 Series, Dies at 82


Wednesday, December 23, 2009

We Will Cobble You

It might be hard to believe that a Soviet Premier in the 1950s could ever emerge with something in common with hockey players from Boston, but this is actually a small world and events can be linked, no matter how much it may seem they have nothing in common.

Nikita S. Khrushchev was famous for many things, but he will ALWAYS be famous for taking his shoe off at a United Nations General Assembly session and banging it on the table, while also drumming his fists on the table, as if he was creating rolling thunder. He did this in 1960, after already being famous for telling the Western World, in 1956, via translation, “We will bury you.”

It turns out he claimed not to have actually said that, but that's how the Russian got translated when it hit certain newspapers. Headline writers get to create history their way. Gerald Ford learned this when the Daily News headlined his answer to a financial aid request for NYC in the 70s to be: Ford to City: Drop Dead.

Nikita was excited, but this was hardly a diplomatic approach. The remark was directed at the United States, and the free world in general, that the Soviet system would win out over the democracies of the rest of the world. The Soviet system did win, but it was rather in hockey, not government. Another story.

Dovetailing with this Cold War history we have today's NYT story recalling the Ranger-Bruin game of 30 years ago today that saw a memorable exodus of Bruin players leaving the ice via the stands, and in particular, wrestling with one fan to the point of taking his shoe off and hitting him with it, then throwing the shoe on the ice.

Ranger-Bruin games could always be memorable, and not always because of the game itself. The "shoe" game was in 1979, a little after I relinquished my season tickets after 11 years. The news story goes on about how the Garden always beefed up its security efforts when Boston came to town. They had to.

The era that I was in attendance bracketed Phil Esposito's career with the Chicago Black Hawks, the Bruins, and finally with the Rangers. Esposito was always a high strung player, quick to take exception to anything. He always had diaper rash. Even when he was a Ranger, I couldn't help calling him Cry Baby Phil.

But it was with the Bruins that he earned the enmity of the Ranger crowd. The Bruins of that era were good, very good, and played and beat the Rangers for the Cup in 1972, winning it on Garden ice.

I distinctly remember a pre-game skate of that era when the organist, Eddie Layton, played "Talk to the Animals," the theme song from the the recently released movie
Dr. Doolittle. Eddie played it well, and way more than a few bars, as the Bruins came out to start the game.

Well, Espo, always the irritated Espo, started jawboning with the organist and banging his stick on the ice. Eddie Layton, at that time, was situated quite close to the ice, so they could easily hear each other discussing the playlist. Espo was mad at the song selection. And of course, anything that irritated Espo was a good thing. I know I loved it, and so did the crowd that was just getting to their seats.

Today's story, complete with a great picture of Mike Milbury trying to find out where his seat is, has the intended effect of jump starting memories. And wouldn't you know it, Phil Esposito, as a Ranger, has a part in it, showing off his frustration at missing a tying goal in the final seconds.

So, how do we get to Russia? Well, the story is so good it finds people who were either there, or who could weigh in with a remembrance based on what they saw on television. And of course there are celebrities.

One person, Carol Alt, a model, e-mails her memories from Russia! Ms. Alt, who at the time of the "shoe" game was married to Ron Greschner, a Ranger defenseman, apparently has not lost her desire to be with hockey players, as she is now corresponding from St. Petersburg, where she has followed Alex Yashin, a former Islander and now a player on a Russian team.

By all accounts, Khrushchev got to put his shoe back on. The poor fellow who was in the middle of all this, and certainly a bit of an instigator, John Kaptain, got to go home without his.


Saturday, December 19, 2009

Lessons from the Crypt and Other Places

I don't know if Bruce Weber is the Dean of The New York Times obituary writers, but he certainly is a workhorse. Bruce is somewhat new to the pages there, but hardly new to writing. He recently completed a book on major league umpires that is informative and entertaining, As They See 'Em. Until now, umpires have been overlooked as subject material.

The other day Bruce got the call from the bullpen twice. Two bylines about two very different people. One was about an AIDS doctor in Africa, Dr. Manto Tshabalala-Msimang. The other about a writer, C.D. B. Bryan, most famously the author of Friendly Fire.

Bruce fools the ump on what might have been an out of the strike zone fastball that gets called a strike anyway when he reports that Mr. Bryan, who was fond of relaxing with gab, smoke and spirits will be cremated in advance of a memorial service, with his remains stored in martini shakers until the event.

As good as the book The Dead Beat is, it is more about obituaries and the art of writing obituaries, than a handbook on the logistics of death and internment itself. We're therefore left to wonder just how many martini shakers might get filled with the remains of a 73 year old male? And, are they shaken, or stirred?

If there are any Alert Readers out there who might be able to authoritatively answer that question, I'd appreciate it. An answer in grams or pounds is acceptable. Conversion tables are standing by.

In other obituaries writings we learn that circus clowns have defined roles.

Stephen Miller, in the WSJ reports of the December 6 death of Michael Polakovs, 86, a legendary circus clown who was quite literally born into the circus.

Along with details of Mr. Polokovs's genetic bonds to clowns we learn that he was of the "auguste" clown faction, as opposed to a white-faced clown. Apparently, this branch of clowndom is the butt of all the silly things other clowns do to them. Like squirt seltzer at them, pull their pants down, throw pies at them, and other circus-like mayhem. Never knew there were assigned roles. I thought opera was the only place where that happened.

I know little, personally, about the opera. I've only seen a few, and liked only half of them. Hardly a regular. But one observation continually sticks in my mind when I recall what someone who is an opera fan said: "Did you ever notice that all the baritones are c--------s?"

(The word is one of George Carlin's seven: lots of c and k sounds.)

So, if there any Alert Readers out there who might he able to tell us if this is true or not, I'll share the answer.

If I can print it.

And finally, from the world of book reviews, we learn from the WSJ book review of Leslie Caron's autobiography, Thank Heaven, that Leslie's mother advised her on coming to America not to marry Mickey Rooney.

It's still not too late to make a mistake.

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Missing Sock

It's hard to explain why these things happen, but every now and then I would think of the letter a woman wrote the the New York Times many, many, years ago that went something to the effect that the only Velazquez worth any kind of money was Jorge Velazquez, a capable jockey who booted home winners on the New York circuit in the 70s and 80s.

In the context of the times, it was known what she was talking about. It seems the Metropolitan Museum had just shelled out a grand sum for a painting by the famous painter Diego Velazquez, an apparent masterpiece, "Juan de Pareja."

The woman was making a point that a Velazquez on top of a horse coming home first with her money on it was worth more to her than something on a wall in a museum. As always, everyone has an opinion about something.

Over the years I lost track of how the letter was connected to the bigger story. The Times must have thought so much of the letter to not only publish it, but to also accompany it with a picture of a jockey on a horse winning a race at Aqueduct. Then, and now, I seldom read Letters to the Editor, but the picture must have attracted my attention. In 1971, the Times even ran small offerings of verse on its editorial page, which was also probably a bit of a hook for me.

So today, reading about Thomas Hoving, the other sock was found. It was his controversial acquisition of the Velazquez that created so much attention that even the railbirds were taking notice. It did get A LOT of attention, and based on the obituary was apparently a great part of this style. Showy.

He was also apparently pugnacious. What 78 year old man can still have on his resume being "eased out" of the Buckley School in the fourth grade? He also punched a Latin teacher at Philips Exeter Academy, thereby getting himself banished after six months. Must have been a contretemps over declining verbs, or Ovid translations. The closest I can relate to that is thinking about throwing a piece of wood at the shop teacher. (I didn't.)

I remember as NYC parks commissioner he was responsible for Mayor Lindsay's "Fun City" attitude extending to Central Park. Prior parks commissioners, like Robert Moses, maintained Keep off the Grass signs. Hoving invited everyone in to roll around on it, so much so they had to reseed the Sheep Meadow. The crowds and the concerts wore it out.

When I first absorbed today's obituary my first reaction was that I would have thought he was much older. Seventy-eight is not tottering. Hoving was around so long ago, but he was also so young when he was doing it. At 46, his parks and museum days were behind him.

He got a lot of attention in both positions. I remember reading, perhaps in The New Yorker, how when he was in Princeton he and his frat buddies burned their Hickey-Freeman suits in the fireplace on graduation. It reminded me of my own joy at no longer having to go back to St. Andrew's Academy On-the-Sound (a pretentiously named dumpy Greek school in Whitestone, Queens, hard by the East River) that I jumped up on down on my grey blazer from Miller and Mack while waiting for the city bus.

Hovings have house numbers with single digits, followed by East. People from Queens have hyphenated addresses. But like today, I always did enjoy reading about him.


Tuesday, December 8, 2009


Years and years ago I worked for a Midtown company that had its record storage center in Long Island City, an industrial, warehouse area of Queens, just across the East River from Manhattan that seems lit at night only by the moon and Amtrak locomotives, usually running behind schedule.

In my early days with this company the storage center was managed by a man named Gus. On occasion, I had some need to visit the place to retrieve some documents. This is well before this kind of thing was outsourced to companies like Iron Mountain, or documents were scanned and digitized for computer retrieval. The only computer in that era was something as big as a building itself.

Gus was always helpful, but not always there. He was at work, but he spent a good part of his day away from work at whatever local gin mill was playing whatever it was he wanted to watch on television. This was well known about Gus, and well before the enlightenment of Employee Assistance Programs. It was tolerated. Gus didn't handle heavy machinery, didn't meet the public, and was basically out of sight and out of mind--except when someone needed something.

There were no such things as cell phones then. That would have been a prisoner with special privileges. The story went that one day Gus's boss, or some boss, was tired of not being able to reach Gus on the phone. He was heard to be yelling on the phone, "Where IS that half-dead sonofabitch?" (People aren't always nice.)

I was reminded of this when I read a recent book review in the WSJ about Robert Sellers's book Hellraisers, a story about four of the most famous British actors who have consumed, or still consume, way more distilled spirits than most people. Even how they functioned and performed successfully while under the influence. Three of the subjects have passed on: Richard Burton, Richard Harris and Oliver Reed.

The reviewer, John Heilpern, fills us in on the status of the fourth when he tells us, that happily, "at 77, Peter O'Toole is still half with us."

At least he didn't curse.


Friday, December 4, 2009

Survived By

Alan King, the durable stand up comedian and sometime actor, who seemed to appear on the Ed Sullivan show nearly as often as Ed himself, had a terrific routine that basically pointed out that husbands died before their wives.

With a basic knowledge of the numbers this should come as no surprise. Men still tend to have a life expectancy less than women, and they tend to marry at least slightly younger women. So, it would come as no surprise to a student of statistics that men would generally pre-decease their wives.

But comic genius makes the obvious funny, and King did just that. In a Vegas-type show he is seen doing I don't know how many minutes of reading newspaper obituaries where, you guessed it, the man is "survived by..."

King's humor was typical of the the 60s and 70s in that its source was a take on the battle-of-sexes. Man vs. woman. Husband vs. wife. Fun in the truth. When King passed away I distinctly remember the obituarist reminded us what King reminded us: if you want to read about love and marriage, you need to buy two books.

Today's style of obituaries can sometimes, on purpose, leave out the hackneyed, or common phrases we've read so often when reading of someone's passing.

Today's obituary on Robert Degen by Bruce Weber, is itself a masterful blend of the past and the current obituary styles. It reads like a treatise on the origin of the song Hokey Pokey, a piece Mr. Degan was credited with co-writing. The next time the strains come up at an affair you might be at you would do well to remember that the origins might go back to the time of the Puritans, that it is so used by soccer hooligans as a taunt that it might result in being banned in Scotland by the Catholic Church as a hate crime. Admittedly, this is a lot to keep in mind as you might be heading to the bathroom to avoid being pulled onto the floor, or as you fixate on someone's behind if you do join in.

Robert Degan was 104 when he passed away. He is survived by his wife of 74 years, Vivian, and others.

I learned a lot today.


Wednesday, December 2, 2009

It's 3 A.M...Do You Know...

Today's obituary for Tommy Henrich is as much a homage to Old Reliable as it is to Casey Stengel. It's impossible to write about the Yankees of Henrich's era and not include something about Stengel. Stengel enters the obituary with the last word, when something he said about Henrich is used as an example of Tommy's character.

Tommy is described as dedicated with a strength of character that leads Stengel to say that if Tommy "comes back to the hotel at 3 in the morning and says he's been with a sick friend, he's been sitting up with a sick friend."

Stengel surely knew human nature, and stood by his players. It is a keen manager who tells you that a professional ballplayer never got in trouble spending all night with a woman. It was spending all night looking for a woman that would get him in trouble.

As for 3 A.M., this must have been when most bars closed in the cities the team visited. Stengel seemed to have that time on his mind quite a bit. When he was once asked by a reporter if he was aware that so-and-so--a known carouser--was seen in the lobby by the elevators at 3 A.M. Stengel replied that he'd have to look into it and determine if the player was leaving very late or arriving very early.


Tuesday, December 1, 2009

It Was A Very Good Year

Max Eisen, 91, press agent of a bygone Broadway era, has passed away.

"This is the crowning achievement in lunacy,” is how a staff member described Max Eisen's staging of a Broadway Olympics in 1964 through Shubert Alley, involving eight events and 30 performers from seven shows.

Say what you will about that, but 1964 was an Olympic year and Max was either in the USA Olympic spirit because he expected a good showing, or was in one because of a good showing, which the Americans did have.

Apparently some of Max's eight events included a 50 yard, and a 100 yard dash. This is notable because Shubert Alley, cutting north/south between 44th and 45th Street is not 300 feet long. So, whatever dash there might have been, it must have had a bend in it. No matter, Max doesn't read like a man who was burdened with technicalities and infinite details.

There was even a half-mile, back and forth walking event. It turns out one female performer won these three events. There is no mention of drug or gender testing, even given that show people were involved. This is a testament to the 60s that shows that fun was possible, even then.

And, like any genius, Max was ahead of his time. Just look at the stunts on TV that get coverage and prize money these days. Running a self-styled Olympics promoting shows would now have to compete with some pretty weird stuff. It seems quaint.

Which of course is what makes the phrase so timeless. “This is the crowning achievement in lunacy.”

Should be etched in stone. Awarded often.


Friday, November 27, 2009

Gobble, Gobble

My long time friend was over for Thanksgiving yesterday and were remembering one meal in particular that was in 1967.

I ate over his house that year, and his mother cooked, and his father and Uncle Benny were there as well. My surrogate family.

Now his father was about 20 years older than his mother, his second wife, and Uncle Benny, the father's older brother, was a bachelor, born in 1889, a World War I veteran with many memories of helping French women get a good night's sleep.

My friend's mother was a very good cook and the meal was great. It didn't take long after the meal for his father and Uncle Benny to be sound asleep in their armchairs. As my friend and I were going out to shoot pool his mother stopped at the door a bit just before closing it and looked at us and looked back at two old guys sleeping and digesting and said, "I hope I don't have to call Campbell's twice tonight."


Sunday, November 22, 2009

All in One

When I was a kid the Long Island Star Journal came to our house everyday. In it I distinctly remember a one panel cartoon, The Strange World of Mr. Mum. It had no caption or speech bubbles, but was purely funny by what it was showing, juxtaposing something, or imagining things as they might be.

I used to clip some of these cartoons out and save them. Goodness knows where they are now, but one in particular always stuck in my mind. It showed Mr. Mum at the post office standing in front on the slots that allowed you to pre-sort your mail for the postal people. In that era there were slots for Zone such-and-such only, Other Local Zones, Out-of-Town, Air Mail, Special Delivery, and Foreign.

The cartoon was drawn as a bit of a cross section that let you see Mr. Mum pushing his letter through the slot he chose and seeing where it went on the other side. One cardboard box on the floor was set up to catch all the letters. So, no matter what sorting you did, it was undone by going only one place. Talk about a strong union.

Many, many things in life have made me think of this cartoon. The most recent occurred when I was working only slightly late and the cleaning lady came by to empty the waste baskets. We attempt to be a "green" office and have one waste basket for white paper only, and the other basket for everything else. Usually I have only the white paper basket ready to hand her because I use a white pad of paper and do not eat in the office.

But lately I've been using a yellow pad of paper, so I've had white and yellow paper. I still chuckle when I separate the two into separate baskets. Is this really going to matter?

By now you might have guessed what was next. Out of the corner of my right eye I saw that she was emptying both baskets into the one large basket that she was pushing around. She was not being negligent. After laughing hysterically to myself I asked her about her use of only the one basket. She told me they never told her to separate the paper, and gave her no means to keep it separate.

I swore I would tell no one. Mum's the word.


Friday, November 20, 2009

Koala Bears and Kumquats

“When pigs fly” is an expression used when it is desired to tell the listener that the likelihood of whatever it is you’re talking about has as much chance of happening as when bacon and chops takes to the air. (It’s amazing what three small words can stand for. Of course, “No” is even shorter.)

But horses do fly. Generally thoroughbred horses. Not on their own of course, but they do when they’re cargo in a plane and are being transported from one place to another when entry in a race is involved. The distance is generally sufficient enough that van travel is impractical, or there is an ocean involved. Shipping quality thoroughbreds to certain races has become fairly common. One trainer, D. Wayne Lukas, got so good at spotting entrants in races they could conquer that his prowess was acknowledged by a handicapper's rhyme that went, "D Wayne off the plane." This meant, if Lukas shipped, then you better pay attention as to why.

Quality Road is a quality thoroughbred that was recently shipped to California from the East Coast to compete in the Breeders' Cup Classic, a race of such importance that generally the winner emerges with tons of money, increased value in breeding rights, and is generally thought to be cinch for Horse of the Year honors.

Quality Road is a bit of what they call a "head case," meaning he can get a stubborn streak when he's asked to enter the starting gate, or even participate in the pre-race post parade. And a few weeks ago he proved so stubborn at the starting gate before the big race that he persistently refused to enter the gate. He was a handful.

A fair amount of time was spent trying to coax him in. Eventually, because he was delaying the start by being so temperamental, the other horses were backed out and he was given a chance to enter again. Nothing worked. This happens, and when it does, the horse becomes scratched, or taken away from the gate and does not run. A major disappointment to his owners, connections, and fans who thought he had a good chance to win. The scratch produces betting refunds to the bettors who used him in their wagers.

A few days after the disappointment, it was time to go home. In this case, Kentucky. Quality Road has flown before. He was flown out there. He's raced in New York and Florida. He's been around a bit.

Turns out Quality Road became Rain Man, the sometimes excitable character Dustin Hoffman played so well in the movie of the same name. He wouldn't get on the plane. Wouldn't, didn't, plain and simple. They spent 5 days vanning him (Quality Road on the road again) back to Kentucky. In his own way, he went Greyhound, rather than American.

What we don't know is if someone mentioned Quantas to him, or if he even thought about it himself, but just couldn't bring himself to be Mr Ed, the talking horse. Quantas has never crashed. Quantas goes to and from Australia. And there is quality racing in Australia, although comparatively not as many races.

If I ever get the chance to name a horse I'm not sure what name I'd use. I really don't know if Pegasus has been used before.


Tuesday, November 17, 2009

They Still Miss Someone

You suspect you're in for a different kind of news story when the lead describes a convict "flicking his hand" at a deck of playing cards, giving it a "mystical cut." And you are.

The deck of cards is unlike anything from Bicycle, or any other major card manufacturer. There are 52 of them, in four suits, with all the recognizable markings. But there's more. Each card contains a picture of someone who represents an unsolved murder, or disappearance in South Carolina. There is a short summary of the case, and a tip hotline number to call, just in case you might know something you want to tell someone.

The cards are sold to a very selective audience: prisoners in South Carolina prisons. The thinking is that there a lot of information in prison, and someone might, after repeated visual reminders staring at them from a deck of cards, remember something about a cold case. There are anonymous phone numbers prisoners can use. Apparently other states have similar programs, among them Florida.

It's more than an intriguing story. It's a touching story because the people behind the effort to produce the cards have lost someone to violence, or an unexplained disappearance, and have no satisfaction of justice being served. What they know hasn't yet reached a ending.

These people still miss someone. It's never over.


Saturday, November 14, 2009

Chuckles the Clown

I don’t know if I ever saw it, or just plain forgot the Chuckles the Clown episode from the Mary Tyler Moore show, but thanks to Bruce Weber (and the recently departed David Lloyd for writing it) I will now forever think about the possibilities of a rogue elephant mistaking a clown dressed as a peanut and accidentally killing him in an attempt to shell him.

Salted or unsalted, shelled, or otherwise, it’s not safe to be a peanut around an elephant. What if you were dressed as a crumb at a picnic? You’d soon be covered in ants.

Obituary writers bring life from the dead. Mr. Weber, perhaps correctly, has his own interpretation on what the episode means. We use laughter and tears to get through things. At my mother's wake Father Hannon asked me if there were any special prayers, poems, or songs they might use at the church the next day. She might have had a Greek married name, but if he's a Catholic priest he was correct to assume she wasn't Greek Orthodox. Father Hannon, with a brogue and a cold, seeing my mother in a green suit topped with wisps of faded red hair, must have thought she was Irish. After all, he was Irish.

I thanked Father Hannon for his thoughtfulness, but I explained that my mother was of Polish and German ancestry, and unless they were prepared to play a polka or a march in church, there really wasn't anything I could recommend.

The poor man turned into Mary Richards at Chuckles' wake. He had all he could do to keep from bursting out loud with laughter as I was grinning at him. He turned away and went on with his work.

The You Tube link above is really a link. It's a link to an age of TV comedy that we're not likely to see again. We're probably not even going to see people who dress like that again either, even at a funeral. Ted Baxter's 50 cent cream shoe shine is long gone as well. As is Ted Knight.

Nestled in the episode's dialog is something Red Skelton is known to have said at the funeral of Harry Cohn. Cohn was head of Columbia Pictures, was powerful and strongly disliked. Seeing the size of the crowd at the services, Red said that it proves that if you give the public something they want to see, they will turn out for it. (I read that in Skelton's obituary.)

Ted Baxter boasts that his funeral will have more people than are there for poor Chuckles. Murray turns and explains how well attended a desired event can be once the word gets out.

Think of how many ways Chuckles is remembered by in the episode that are so well recounted in the obituary. When the popular actor Ed Wynn, (Keenan Wynn's father) a rubber faced vaudeville comedian who was in Mary Poppins, passed away it was commented that when he died it was the only time he made people sad.

David Lloyd will be missed. There are those of us who were already missing the kind of shows he was part of and contributed to. It might even be the only time he made people sad. I don't know. I do know that any man who invents a clown who meets his demise when he's dressed as a peanut and is accidentally shelled by a rogue elephant in a parade makes both the clown, and himself, forever memorable.


Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Paid Announcements

Paid obituaries, or death notices, are certainly nothing new. Members of the family and or friends notify others, and the public at large, of someone's passing. Funeral arrangements and particulars are detailed. There is a certain solid format one can expect.

What has been happening in the last few years is the paid death notice that is epic in length. It is taken out by the same relatives or friends, but acts more like a biographical infomercial than just a notice. Pictures usually accompany these. Newspapers charge a lot for any kind of advertising, and these are no exception. A long notice for a long life doesn't necessarily mean a discount. They become a revenue center for the paper.

We get someone's cradle to grave achievements. Their scholastic, military, athletic, professional, philanthropic career highlights. Their marriages, children, grandchildren, and where they all live. We get Business Week like details about how the company they started out with became another company through mergers and acquisitions. We get hobbies, and even in one case what their last meal was seasoned with. (Cinnamon, not arsenic.)

The longer the notice the near guarantee it will become embarrassing in detail. No one makes you read these, but if you do, you start to feel like you've intruded into someone's family. You're caught in an elevator and someone's spilling their guts out. They didn't just press a floor's button, they pressed memory dump.

But without judging their motives, or making fun of the details imparted, a haiku, or a tome, a notice does tell us one thing: someone is missed, who can only come back through a memory.


Monday, November 9, 2009

Acrostic Messages

The Numbers Guy has a great story in Thursday's WSJ that California's governor Arnold Schwarzenegger sent more than one message to the legislature when he vetoed a piece of recent legislation.

It seems the text of the governor's message in the veto was a neat seven lines, a four line paragraph, followed by a three line paragraph. The first letter of each paragraph line spells something. Two words. The first is the word that Richard Burton lovingly described as that great Anglo-Saxon word for copulation. (To be without it would be to be without life. I don't think he was kidding.) The second is a pronoun: you.

A clear message, hidden in plain sight, it seems.

The article goes on about the mathematical possibilities that this was, or wasn't a coincidence. Worth reading, but it may be no surprise that coincidence is what has the longest odds.

This of course brings us to California governorships, Richard Nixon, and the nation's destiny.

Richard Nixon famously lost his election bid to be governor of California, and in a parting statement basically said the rest of the world would no longer have him to "kick around." There's that all needed K.

I don't know what the state of term limits are in California, but we know whatever they are, things can change. So, if governor Schwarzenegger seeks another reelection bid and loses, or is forced from office for some reason, then his next coded message can easily spell Hasta La Vista.

And in true Richard Nixon fashion, his final coded message, shown on Fox News after it is revealed that he really was born on a military transport plane bearing a vast cargo of American geraniums potted in U.S. soil, is that he really is eligible to run for president: I'll be back.


Friday, November 6, 2009

The Champions

If there are people who tell you they're writing a book, or plan to write a book, I tell people I'm compiling a book.

It's a work in perpetual progress. It will never be finished, because there's always something to add. This blog has somewhat taken the place of making additions to it, but the blog itself is additions to the "book."

It's a book of leads, quotes, clever phrases, poetic prose that's found nearly anywhere, but basically in the newspaper, in almost any kind of story. I just happen to favor reading sports and the obituaries, unlike the Irish who read the obituaries and call it reading the sports page.

Margalit Fox had one of those phrases in her obituary today on Art D'Lugoff, the impresario of the Village Gate. Anyone's who's been below 14th Street after the sun goes down and is at least 40 has likely at least been aware of the Village Gate, if not having actually been in attendance for some musical venue held there. I'm no exception.

So when Margalit describes Art's brother Burt, a medical doctor, (at least someone in the family became a doctor) as the "frequent silent partner" in his brother's "joyously noisy endeavors" you certainly feel like there was fun in that family. And that's the kind of polished line that deserves to be preserved: a silent partner for a noisy other half. Balance.

It made me think of the Yankees. If only I could buy into the once again world champions, whose victory parade was held today. I could be a silent partner to their "joyous, noisy endeavors."

And where some see and hear noise, others see a peaceful easy felling as Tyler Kepner describes the Yankees in his Thursday lead as adding the 27th jewel in their crown and creating a "peaceful easy feeling across their empire."

I really think they should play the Eagles song at the opener next year.


Thursday, November 5, 2009

It Depends Where You Look

Not all databases and search engines are created equal.

And while this sounds obvious, there are many people who don't realize that just because they can't find it, it doesn't mean it's not there, or it doesn't exist.

Digital retrieval is now largely a part of everyday life. But it depends on what clues, or tags you provide the search engine to use. And it also depends on what's out there to be searched. Not everything has been saved in the same spot.

Adam Keiper, in a recent WSJ book review of Delete, by Viktor Mayer-Schonberger, discusses the theme that we're in danger of always being able to reach our past. It's a few mouse clicks away. It is healthier sometimes to forget, than it is to remember.

It seems more likely however that due to age, or trauma, we'll forget at the same rate we've always forgotten, despite an ability to retrieve vast amounts of the past with a few mouse clicks. What can be dangerous is that someone will erase, or make inaccessible that past quite easily. We're more likely to be denied the ability to find. It may not be there, by design, or neglect.

I somewhat recently tested this out by using what I've recently become a user of: library databases and digital retrieval of news items. (I have not in any way stopped saving clippings yet. Belt and suspenders.)

I searched for a known major news story from 2002. It was in all the papers, and I have all the papers. The New York Public Library has a wide variety of these databases available to users from their home computer using their library access identification number. They have an even wider variety of these databases if you actually drop into a library and log on from there. No news to some, I'm sure, but the places have changed.

I searched the available home database, provided by Gale, that held items from the New York Times and the New York Post, from 2000 to present. Only the articles that appeared in the Post came through. All kinds of digital lures were thrown at the search engine, but the one story that I know that appeared in the Times did not come through. Easy explanation. Gale didn't assemble everything. And they weren't going to, so they did what they said they would do. But you may not know this, because you may not know there was a Times story. Not finding one, doesn't mean there wasn't one.

Another database assembled by ProQuest and dedicated solely to the New York Times was even more historical and did yield the story I knew existed. A variety of digital clues lead me each time to the one story I knew appeared in the paper. This database, however, is only available by actually going to the library. No home access.

What can any of this mean? Don't take no for the first answer. Especially when you know there is one.


Monday, November 2, 2009

Vocabulary Improvement

Add vocabulary improvement to the list of benefits derived from reading obituaries.

Take the recent NYT piece on Michelle Triola Marvin, 76, of the landmark palimony suit. Anyone who was instrumental in how affairs of the heart and wallet are settled certainly deserves mention on their passing.

Basically, although never married to Lee Marvin, she sued him when they parted ways. Her lawyer, Marvin M. Mitchelson became famous for arguing that there was an oral agreement between the couple to share, and that now it was time to share. The court didn't quite agree, but the concept was born.

The writer of the piece, Anhad O' Connor, educationally fills us in that word palimony (the $104,00 in rehabilitative alimony that was awarded) is a "portmanteau" of "pal" and "alimony." A what?

Language certainly evolves. A portmanteau is a word that is "designating a morph which represents two morphemes simultaneously." Oh. "Combine, esp. to form one word." Just as I thought. William Safire might have passed away, but help is still being provided, thanks to Anhad.

Since affairs of the heart and their subsequent effect on dividing the pool and landscape can be common, and are a great read when it's a celebrity, palimony is a word that's stuck around. Marvin M. Mictchelsom became so famous that there' s no doubt the George Clooney lawyer in the movie Intolerable Cruelty, Myles Massey, was an alliterative reference to him.

And of course we thankfully have the pair of words "'gal pal" that say so much with a simple pair of three letter rhymes. It's almost like "cat in the hat." Certain newspapers couldn't be without the words. While women can pair off with their "girlfriend" and trot off to the bathroom together, or explore malls, if a guy has a "gal pal" it's likely there's a wink involved and surveillance might be called in.

Michelle Triola Marvin passed away at the home of Dick Van Dyke, her partner for over 30 years. So, at least all "gal pal" relationships don't have to lead to paparazzi frenzies and court. It is still possible to die in peace.


Friday, October 30, 2009

Nikola Tesla

This must happen to other people. Someone, something that I've never heard of pierces my consciousness and before you know it, I hear of them or it again. Quickly. At this point, I've travelled over 60 years in earth's time zone, never heard of someone, and before the day is over, I've heard of them twice. Gotten to know them, so to speak.

On my way to work each day I pass the back of the Serbian Orthodox Cathedral on 26th Street, between Broadway and 6th Avenue. The church runs through the block. It's of Gothic design, but to me, not particularly attractive. Maybe it's the mid-block setting, the cleaned, but still muddy looking stone, or the fact that for many months now the place is ringed by large half-dead potted palms. No landscaping is better than that.

On Wednesday I had an errand to do after work and passed in front of the church. Not much better; still more nearly dead palms. But to the left of the entrance was a modest bust of Nikola Tesla on a polished black marble pedestal. I don't know who everyone is, and I don't know who Nikola was. I'll assume Serbian. A legendary pastor?

Going home, reading the Wall Street Journal's column by "The Numbers Guy" the story goes on about lucky, unlucky numbers, their origin and how different cultures react to them. There are "missing" floors in some places. I work on the 13th floor in a building that I was surprised kept a 13th floor in its numbering scheme.

Anyway, the column, by Carl Bialik, gets to describing people who are just a tad compulsive about these numbers, and other numbers and their combinations. "Electricity pioneer Nikola Tesla demanded 18 clean towels a day and showed an intense preference for multiples of three."

This is incredible. A bust of a Serbian in front of a church has made the pages of today's newspaper.

It turns out Nikola Tesla was no scientific slouch. He worked with Thomas Edison, went out on his own, is credited with improving the efficiency of electric motors and is considered to be the inventor of the radio. The guy was on the cover of Time magazine. He lived from 1856-1943, and was of course born in Serbia-Croatia.

"Obsessive about threes" is mild. He lived the remaining years of his life in New York, in the Hotel New Yorker, insisting on being on the 33rd floor, in room 27: 3327. No doubt the hotel was chosen as much for its height as it was for its ability to supply towels.

The Sebian Orthodox Cathedral of St. Sava New York was originally the "uptown Trinity" church, meant to serve the Episcopalians in New York who lived just a little further north of Trinity Place and Broadway. The building is a NYC landmark and is on the Register of National Historic places.

It became a Serbian church in 1943, the year of Tesla's death. So, can Nikola be happy where he is? He's no longer at 3327, and 26th Street, is not evenly divisible by three.

Well, the front of the church is on 25th Street, and 2+5+2+6 = 15. Last I looked, evenly divisible by three.

Nikola, rest in peace.


Monday, October 26, 2009

The Big Whistle

No, it's not about a train. The Big Whistle was the nickname given to Bill Chadwick, a legendary NHL referee and Ranger broadcaster, who has now passed away at 94.

It's been a long time since Bill was on television doing Ranger color commentary, but anyone who was a Ranger fan during the 60s, 70s and 80s would know him. And to know him, was to love the gravel voiced broadcaster who could tell you stories of early days of NHL hockey and who more than once called them like he saw them. Even if he only had vision in one eye, what he saw and told was worth twice as much.

The years he was a Ranger broadcaster, either with Marv Albert, or with Jim Gordon, were some of the best and the absolute worst Ranger years. There were good teams, even great teams, but no Stanley Cup. Players came, but mostly came and went.

One player, Gene Carr, was memorable because he was fast, had flowing blond hair (no helmets, then), but nearly no offensive ability. He was fragile looking. A revolving door was likely to leave a bruise. Bill described Gene's chances of adding a goal to the scoreboard by telling us, and his broadcast partner: "Jim, Gene Carr couldn't put the puck in the ocean." Carr really couldn't, and was eventually another ex-Ranger. Many, many people became ex-Rangers.

Another favorite Chadwick observation was when he described the Rangers as being sluggish: "Jim, the Rangers are skating in sand tonight." They were painful to watch at times.

Bill's between period interviews with King Clancy, scion of the Toronto Mable Leafs, were the stuff of legend. Clancy, who had to be an an octogenarian, watched the Maple Leaf games from a private booth at one end of the old Maple Leaf Garden, complete with his cane (or was it a shelagh?) and keen eyesight.

When he and Bill got going we'd hear of how the rinks used to be lit by drop lights. So the players adopted the practice of flipping the puck into the offensive zone high, like a pop-up, in the hopes the puck would be above the lights and not be visible to the defensive team until it was too late when it came down below the lights.

In the the era that Chadwick was a referee there were only 6 teams in the NHL. Six teams, 20 players to a team. One hundred-twenty men, usually all Canadians, were professional hockey players. Given the length of the season, eventually 80 games, they could play each other 18 times a year. A LOT of animosity built up between players when they played each other home and home, as they often did on the weekends. Bill said he often had a referring mess to clean up because everyone was trying to settle a score from the game before.

When I first started to follow the Rangers as a kid Chadwick was also described as a Vice President of Weissberger movers. I could never reconcile an ex-hockey referee and broadcaster being associated with a company that had a warehouse two blocks from my family's flower shop on Third Avenue. Weissberger movers delivered the voting machines when we once became a polling place one election year. (Never sold a single flower that day.)

Chadwick never looked out of shape, always looking good in a suit. Somewhat like John Forsythe, steel grey hair, executive looking. I guess he did look like a vice president, come to think of it.

The Garden as I've known it has always been on the West Side. The "Old" Garden on Eighth and 49-50th Streets, and the "New" Garden, over Penn Station. There's a line in the musical West Side story that is sung by one of the Jet gang members: "When you're a Jet you're a Jet all the way, from your first cigarette to your last dying day."

I like to think Chadwick never stopped being a Ranger fan. Even when they were skating in sand.


Sunday, October 25, 2009

Obituary Archeology

The prior posting refers to the obituary and the news story about the passing of Howard Unruh, at 88, who by all accounts was America's first mass murderer.

I asked a friend of mine who is as old as I am, (we remember the same presidents) if he ever remembers hearing anything about the rampage. I was over his house watching television when Charles Whitman, the Texas Tower sniper was picking people off in the 60s, but don't remember anyone making a reference to Unruh. Not the news, not my friend's mother.

My friend said he only heard of Unruh becasue there was an episode on one of the cable stations about evil people, and he qualified. One of those crime-type shows. I had never even seen that.

We further talked about the story and the pieces of information I picked up in reading the archived news account. I told my friend about the reporter who called Unruh's house and got him on the phone as he sought refuge after his killing spree. The reporter and Unruh talked for a bit, but then Unruh broke the call off and said, "I'm too busy now." Tear gas had just crashed through the window.

The reporter got Unruh's phone number quite simply by looking it up the phone book: CAmden 4-2490W.

My firend and I certainly remember phone numbers that started with a geograhical exchange, but NEVER a number that had an alpha character in it. Then as now, the alpha characters would translate to numbers, what was then on a dial, but never heard of a W. West Camden?

In that era, Q and Z were not on the dial, and the 1 had no letters associated with it. My own number as a kid was an FL 9, for Flushing. I vaguely remember party-lines in which people on the block shared the same number. You had to wait for their call to be through before you could get a dial tone. You could listen to their call, and they to yours, but there was a distinctive sound when someone else was "on the line" so the eavesdropping was detectable.

If anyone needed a new phone number after September 6, 1949 it was Howard's mother. Maybe a few other people did too.


Friday, October 23, 2009

After The First, There Is No Other

There is a Newtonian Law in physics that basically states that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. I'm sure it doesn't quite apply, but Willie Nelson loves to deadpan the story that his home town of Abbot, Texas has the same population it's always had: when a baby is born, a man leaves town.

Obituaries can be guided by physics as well. When someone bites the dust, something else might also take on life. Something from their past, or something resuscitated by their passing. If they've lived a fairly long life, we might learn of an event that few people alive today are even aware of.

Such is the case when I read of Howard Unruh, 88, America's first mass murderer, single episode. Thirteen people in 20 minutes. The award goes to.

It was 1949, and while I was alive at the time, I was hardly old enough to remember it. It was certainly something every adult had to be talking about for a good while. But it receded into the background so sufficiently that even when other nearly similar rampages erupted, I never remember hearing a reference to it.

The New York Times obituary in Tuesday's paper by Richard Goldstein recounts the story. It also tells me that the obituary was on file, and it took a life of 88 years before Unruh's tale hit the paper again.

The obituary makes good use of the reporting that earned the Times reporter, Meyer Berger, a Pulitzer for local reporting. If the obituary leaves you with a bone chilling, hair raising account of the events, an archival retrieval of the story itself positively leaves you with goose pimples.

Camden then, and now, is hardly New York Times territory. There were only two stories in the Times within 9 months of the shootings. The first story is someone's announcement that all firearms should be registered. The second story reports the ruling of insanity and that no trial will take place. According to Mitchell H. Cohen, the Camden County prosecutor, Mr. Unruh will be committed to the state mental hospital and that he, Mr. Cohen, will "vigorously oppose any attempt by anyone at any time to have this man released into society."

Howard Unruh's high school year book shows a pen and ink drawing of "How" and a stated goal of becoming a lifetime government employee.

Mr. Cohen, and likely others, made sure that Mr. Unruh never did make it back into society. He was only released when he passed away in a state psychiatric nursing home, and we once again read about him. A reaction following an action.


Thursday, October 22, 2009

File It Under...

I can't seem to help it. Something always seems to remind me of something else.

Take yesterday's NY Times book review of their own Gail Collins, who's just published, When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present.(With the right font, all that does fit on the cover.)

The reviewer, Francine Prose, recounts one of the incidents in the book when Ms. Collins tells the story that the draft of a Congressional bill to insure equal pay for women was discovered to have been filed "under B--for broads."

To have to have passed through that era is to completely believe this could be true. In fact, someone was likely thinking they were gallant by not using the other "B" word.

So, filing systems are in the eyes of the filer who bring their own spelling, alphabet and view of the world to the job. What this reminded me of was Jimmy Breslin's account of doing his research for what became his lively biography of Damon Runyon, the legendary New York newspaperman who wrote for the Hearst papers.

It seems through some philanthropic gesture, the University of Texas came up with enough money to buy the entire New York Hearst newspaper morgue. So here's Jimmy, in Texas, doing research about a New York newspaperman being confronted by some New Yorker's filing system that would place a card in the M drawer telling anyone interested that:


Which of course proves that everything has got to be someplace.


Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Oh Well

All the digitalization and all the microfilm lookups couldn't reunite me with something I know I once read.

It was a great vignette, written perhaps for an earlier edition that was later eclipsed by the one they use for keeping records. It surely was on the front page, but in its preserved state it slid from the front page to the first page of the second section. No one was killed.

Plane Slids Off a Runway at Snowy La Guardia, the headline of March 3, 1994 proclaimed. All 115 passengers and crew were evacuated with some minor injuries to a few. It seems the pilot aborted the takeoff, but the plane kept going on the icy runway, dipping the front into the mud and water of Flushing Bay. Runways at La Guardia are notoriously short.

Late, dark, cold, wet, it was quite a scene. But everyone got off the plane. A man waited around for a few hours, wondering what to do. Would his luggage be available? Was there going to be another flight soon?

But New York can ignore you, sometimes so much that even if you're a plane crash survivor there's no one to tell you what to do. No direction, a complete unknown, all alone, certainly not a rolling stone. The gentleman, after putting in a few hours of wonderment finally grew weary and took a cab back to Manhattan and checked back into the hotel he had checked out of.

At least when you survive a plane crash, there is still tomorrow.


Thursday, October 15, 2009

Things in Threes

Someone I know who pays more attention to these things than I do once asked me if I noticed the three "makers" who passed away and were written about on the obituary page. I thought for a bit, and didn't remember seeing three family members named Maker who bit the dust together and deserved a writeup. In fact, even after checking the paper and carefully (so I thought) going over the names I could find no "makers."

Well, it wasn't names, it was occupations. Each headline for the person who passed away contained the word "maker" in their occupation. It seems a chocolate maker of note passed away, as well as a dressmaker, and a car maker. Three "makers." Yes, people do notice things.

So today I thought I'd score a grand slam when I spotted a Martin-o, an Alban-o, and a hoped for someone else whose named ended in O. No. Denied.

But it did remind me of the famous on-air exchange between Phil Rizzuto and Bill White, his Yankee broadcast partner.

It seems Phil one day was going on about how people whose last names ended in a vowel were pisans. Italians. Everyone knew that.

Well, Bill White, who is black, quickly followed with, "Oh, I get it, you mean names like Shapiro and White."

Rizzuto nearly choked on a cannoli and missed a birthday wish.


Friday, October 9, 2009

The Mirage

Now you see it, now you don’t.

No doubt anyone who pays even a little attention to these things has come to realize that newspapers are in trouble. Advertising revenue has been taken over by the Web, and people can get whatever news they feel satisfied with through Web sites, that are often only taking it verbatim from the print people. It’s been like handing your opponent your weapon and letting them use it on you.

Feel sorry for the papers? Not really. They don’t really know what to do, even at this point, with the Internet well over 10 years old. Talk about playing Hamlet.

Take the WSJ. Online edition. Print edition. Charge for both. Yet, they still make items available on the Web just by logging in. Okay, teasing can be good. But papers can be annoying with their indecision on who to be.

I like the print editions, with some need to search for items when I leave the paper on the train and suddenly realize I’m still interested in something I saw. I’ve subscribed to the Journal for years. I like the fact that the Journal has made a home for Stephen Miller, the obituary writer from the now defunct Sun.

But maybe they’ve put him under house arrest. His last piece appeared in the paper on September 30, 2009. It was about the Russian woman, Elizaveta Mukassei, who was a spy for Russia for her entire life and who worked at from Hollywood. She was 97, and her husband pre-deceased her, but he was also active in the spy trade. They were a real-life Natasha and Boris.

The next piece appeared online, October 7, 2009, about Craig Johnson, a venture capitalist lawyer. The online version said the piece appeared in the paper on page A16. Checked, but it wasn’t there. I didn’t miss it.

Went back the next day to read it online, but now the online entry is gone. There is a blog reference to the Miller piece, but no Miller piece.

So, besides the annoyance of expecting something to be in print and then only seeing it online, it doesn’t stay online long. There are other Miller pieces online, but not the latest.

Electronic media is the best medium for air brushing the news. Just change it, or make it disappear. It took a while, but some of Orwell’s fears have come to pass.


Tuesday, October 6, 2009

North, South, East and West

The slender building pictured at the right is an artist's drawing of a proposed Santiago Calatrava building for lower Manhattan. It is not yet started, and may not even be built, but does represent where current design is headed.

There are already buildings that look somewhat like it, and one in particular is going up on 23rd Street at the start of Madison Avenue. There are even buildings that are proposed that will have floors that rotate independent of each other, somewhat like a Rubik's cube. This will allow your apartment to face all four directions in the course of a day.

Obviously engineering details still need to be resolved. To say nothing of people's desire to sue each other when their apartment can't face the fireworks because it isn't on the schedule.

There will be trouble.


Sunday, October 4, 2009

The Buddy List

How nice to be someone's buddy.

And when you're the buddy of JFK and pass away at 91, as Paul B. Fay recently did, you get quite a two column send-off, complete with cropped picture of you and JFK.

Mr. Fay apparently was a great friend of JFK's. They came from similar family backgrounds, went through basic training and PT boat training in the Navy, and served in similar waters in World War II. So, when all those things coincide and you are shot at by a common enemy and have your boats sunk by the Japanese, you share a lifetime of memories.

Paul was an usher at JFK's wedding. Certainly an admission to an inner circle. He was appointed as an under secretary of the Navy, despite Robert Strange McNamara's objections. Their families vacationed together on the Cape. But most importantly, he was a friend, and made JFK laugh.

JFK said that when you're president, it's hard to make new friends, so he was going to keep the old ones.

My father had a friend like that. They grew up together on New York's midtown east side, were mentored at the 29th Street Boys' Club together, became camp counselors, went into the Army together, (Joe a CO and a medic) and remained in touch until death. My father never really liked the Catholic religion because not being Catholic prevented him from being Joe's best man. He held a bit of a lifelong grudge at organized religion.

So Paul Fay was like a lot of guys; he was someone's buddy. I've often said, the best we can hope for is to be remembered affectionately, and it seems Paul was.

And as for being a president's buddy, that's even better. And it seems rarer. Someone said that if you're president and want a friend, get a dog. Didn't Bill Clinton have a dog named Buddy?

Someone I know at work whose word I trust told me the story just the other day of the time he encountered Richard Nixon walking his dog outside his home in Saddle River, New Jersey.
This was of course after the presidency, and was likely about 20+ years ago, or so. It seems from taking driving lessons in the area, the instructor pointed out that Nixon lived at the end of a long street that became a cul de sac.

One day, after attaining his license and driving through the area again, he and his buddies spotted Nixon walking his dog, accompanied by two Secret Service men. They rummaged around for autograph material and the only thing my co-worker could come up with was his acceptance letter for college. They approached Nixon, and the Secret Service closed ranks. But Nixon sort of waved off the guard, and they wound up spending half an hour walking with the former president, talking about school, and football.

He said when he tells the story people always ask him why didn't he mention Watergate to the former president? He didn't, but probably because when you're in between your high school senior year and going to college, and the country hasn't fallen apart, Watergate might well be the furthest thing from your mind. It certainly was for him and his buddies.

My co-worker did add that Nixon's mind was sharp, but he seemed lonely. Probably was. He was out with his buddy and it was only a dog.

Note: The picture above is of the headstone of Nixon's somewhat famous dog Checkers. Checkers is buried in an animal cemetery in the town where I live in Nassau county. How this came to happen is entirely beyond me, but Checkers is listed in the Notable Residents section in the Wikipedia recap.

And why not? He was a buddy.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Free Gift

From all I understand, no one who is the subject of a New York Times obituary gets to actually pick who is going to write it when the time comes. Parts of these are written in advance, and can occasionally produce a byline by a writer who pre-deceases the subject. One such obituary was the one for Jack Dempsey, written by Red Smith. It was first quite a shock, then a delight, to see Red's name pop up for Jack's going away present. Red had passed away before the Manassa Mauler.

We don't really know, but my guess is William Safire would have loved his written by Robert McFadden in today's Times. One of the best, was sending off one of the best.

No one writes a more concise lead than McFadden. He usually gets the big crime stories, fires, and accidents; New York happenings. When I read what he's written I think of the movie Teacher's Pet, in which Clark Gable plays a veteran newpaperman who poses as a student in Doris Day's journalism night school class. He surprises her when he turns in the best lead in the class, within seconds of being given the classroom assignment.

So it is no wonder McFadden got the nod to do Safire's obituary. Certainly he's done many others, and in yesterday's blog posting I quoted a classic lead he did for Mayor Lindsay's obituary. I still recite it to myself.

It was almost a year ago when there was an obituary writing gathering at the New York Public Library. It was a full house in the Trustees room as the attentive audience listened to Daniel Okrent and others. Mr. Okrent, a former Timesman, pulled a copy out of his jacket of McFadden's September 6, 1998 obituary on Amory Bradford who had passed away at 85. Mr. Bradford was many things, but at one point he was famously the chief negotiator for the newspaper publishers during the 1962-63 114 day newspaper strike that changed many things.

Mr. Okrent read large portions from the obituary, one of which was McFadden's recounting of the Times's labor reporter, A. H. Raskin, who once wrote a top-level mediator said of Bradford that he "brought an attitude of such icy disdain into the conference room that the mediator often felt he ought to ask the hotel to send up more heat."

I remember the strike, and now I know why it lasted 114 days, wiping out the newspapers through the heavy Christmas advertising season, and ultimately forcing some papers to cease publication. The strike actually gave birth to television news.

It also revealed what the negotiators ate when there was a meal break. They always sent out for roast beef sandwiches. Every strike I ever heard about growing up had the negotiators taking a break from whatever hotel they were camped in, and ordering out for roast beef sandwiches. If they were ordering sandwiches, there was no progress in the talks.

More passages revealed the full measure of Bradford's life. And there were some terrific turns. The obituary is a work of art, and a lesson in labor negotiations in the 1960s.

And so it is with Safire's obituary in McFadden's hands. Certainly a different personality than Bradford, but it is full of words and playfullness that surely would have made him happy. You get a full measure of the man as if you just spent a few hours talking with him.

McFadden lists some of Safire's rules for writing, some of which I didn't get at first. I used to read "On Language" enough to now know literally how to use the word "literally." I also learned to see through the redundancy of "free gift."

The obituary closes not with a zinger, but really a nod to the master. Perhaps McFadden plays the pupil here.

It seems there was an occasion when Safire called Hillary Clinton a "congenital liar" in one of his columns. Hillary was said to have been offended only for her mother's sake.

A White House aide said that Bill Clinton, "if he were not the president, would have delivered a more forceful response on the bridge of Mr. Safire's nose."

McFadden tells us that Safire was "delighted, especially with the proper use of the conditional."

This of course leaves people like me to wonder what the improper use would have been. And now Safire is not here to tell us. I am however informed that that's why there are copy editors.

And Robert McFadden.