Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Catcher

There certainly isn't much I can add to any story about J.D. Salinger, the author of The Catcher in Rye, who went into seclusion when Eisenhower took the oath of office--for the first time. I certainly never met the man, only read his famous book once, and last read something he wrote--which turned out to be the last thing he published--in 1965.

Salinger was famous for not wanting to be famous, as Charles McGrath points out in his lengthy NYT obituary of him the other day. It is certainly hard for anyone to know much about anyone who has been an undiscovered tomb for over 50 years.

I don't even remember too much of the book, except that I read it in high school and "reported" on it. I don't remember if the whole class was assigned the book, or we got a choice from a list, but I do remember that there were parts I loved, particularly seeing that someone could write the word "fuck" outside of a dictionary on slang. That was great.

I remember someone named Maurice who was a bell hop, I think. But I'm sure I didn't "understand" the book. I didn't even pick up the fact that Holden is in a mental hospital at the end. The English teacher did tell me that in red script that that was something I missed. But I didn't fail the class.

What I remember most about the book is the era around me when I, and many others, were paying attention to the book. I remember the solid red cover of the paperback edition, and the gold lettering of the title. Very distinctive. I remember the candy/card/gift store a few doors down from the flower shop, in the same building, where I bought the newspapers, and where there were well stocked shelves of paperbacks, classic and otherwise. I think I read so many books as much because of the library, as because of that store. I loved it.

The 1999 front page obituary for Joseph Heller that appeared in the NYT quoted E.L. Doctorow as saying of Catch-22, "they say fiction can’t change anything, but it can certainly organize a generation’s consciousness."

Certainly The Catcher in the Rye did that.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Louis Auchincloss

The only thing I can add to the obituary for Louis Auchincloss (AW-kin-kloss) is that it was once reported that a woman seated next to him at a dinner party asked him if he had read such-and-such book, an apparent bestseller.

He replied that if he had, he wouldn’t tell anyone.

It was not reported what title she asked him about, but she's definitely destined for permanent purgatory if it was Jacqueline Susann's Valley of the Dolls.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

All In A Name

When I first read yesterday that Robert Mosbacher had passed away I was a bit confused. The obituary said his father was Emil Mosbacher. I remember the name Emil Mosbacher as someone who was once head of the New York Racing Association (NYRA), the organization that runs thoroughbred racing in New York state at Aqueduct, Belmont and Saratoga tracks.

The time frame didn't fit. Well, it turned out that Robert's older brother, Emil 'Bus" Mosbacher, Jr. was the NYRA head. The older brother passed away several years ago. The father was of course Emil Mosbacher, Sr.

The Mosbacher name goes back a long way in yacht racing circles. So there was some heavy skepticism when it was announced that Emil would head NYRA. Afterall, a "boat race" in horse racing is a derogatory term for a race basically run in single file so that the order of finish remains preserved as the same order that started. A fixed race. A standardbred, trotting or pacing race is however more likely to have the boat racing "look." No matter. When a yacht guy is named to head the ponies, it's basically, "who will they think of next?"

Then there's the missing jewels. I seem to remember that one of the Mosbacher wives claimed to have lost her jewelry when her jewelry case (full) entered an airport x-ray machine but came out empty. Same case? Lots of good questions ensued.

Then there was the story that one of Robert's wives, Georgette, claimed to have been held up at gunpoint in front of her hotel room door in 1990 at the Baribizon and relieved of at least $40,000 of jewelry she had on her.

That particular story was found digitally in the archives, with no report of recovery, or apprehension that followed.

All of which means that there are many ways to lose things without ever betting on a "boat race."

Saturday, January 23, 2010


There's a great story in today's WSJ that deals with the history of poison. It's a lengthy excerpt from a forthcoming book, "The Poisoner's Handbook," by Deborah Blum, due out next month.

Poison goes back a long way. It causes obituaries to be written. It has claimed victims accidentally, and by intent. The intent part is what creates the rubber-necking delays. The forensic detection of poison apparently used criminally in order to cause someone's death has not been going on for all that long. And that of course is what makes the book sound so interesting.

There's a great little book called Novels in Three Lines. It is a compilation of news stories, all written by Felix Feneon, a French man of multi-faceted intrigue. They all appeared in the French newspaper Le Matin in 1906. These "stories" are really tidbits of news, all three lines, before translation. Translated into English they seem to gain a Runyonese, as if Nicely Nicely Johnson were trying to translate from a French comic book.

Thus, you get understandable, pithy gems such as:

A merchant from Saint-Gaudens caught his wife entwined with a barber in Boussens. He fired. The lover was wounded, the beloved fled.

On Boulevard Carnot in Le Vesinet, an automobile drove at top speed into a flock of sheep. Three died.

Married for three months, the Audouys of Nantes committed suicide with laudanum, aresenic, and a revolver.
(Talk about a belt and suspenders. They added saftey pins.)

The columnist Jimmy Breslin, consciously or otherwise, seems to use the same style when in his biography of Damon Runyon he describes a serial meeting of two gangsters exchanging unpleasantries in a nightclub, with "Chink losing the third and most decisive gunfight by a wide margin."

This is somewhat like saying Bonnie and Clyde in the movie died from a cheap and inexpensive illness caused by bullet holes.

And so when I read in today's story about arsenic I wonder if in Feneon's book there's anything about arsenic poisoning. Apparently, according to Deborah Blum it became known as "poudre de succession" because it was used so often as a means to redistribute the wealth.

Of course, poison has never been the only way to redistribute the wealth. I remember a book review of The Bonfire of the Vanities, by Thomas Wolfe, that summed up the book as a story about how the jury system in the Bronx is used a means to redistribute the wealth.

Felix Feneon, Nicely Nicely, and Jimmy, I'm sure couldn't have said it differently.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Centenarians

This past week, on the same day, I read of two people of note who passed away who were both over 100 years old.

The first was Miep Gies, 100, a woman who was the last one left of those who helped hide Anne Frank and her family from the Nazis in Holland. The summary of her life and her era came through in the fairly conventional way: an obituary.

The second, whose story was not an obituary but rather a news story did not mean that Joe Rollino, 104 had not passed away. It just meant he passed away more abruptly, even at his age.

Mr. Rollino, a man of many occupations involving strength, had once been a Coney Island strongman who bent metal in his teeth, was himself bent by metal when as a pedestrian a minivan collided with him on a Brooklyn street. There is no end irony.

Both obituaries are great stories, of the people themselves and of course of their eras. Mr. Rollino's even makes its way into yesterday's paper as an additional story from the wake and the memories of mourners.

Aside from what always strikes me about obituaries was of course the ages of the deceased. Subtracting their ages from 2010 you get years in the early 1900s. Sounds like a long time ago, but my father's oldest brother was born in 1906, my father, the third brother, was born in 1915. No one is around today, but I certainly remember them, and I remember their stories and their era through their pictures and their words. Directly.

And I remember their father, my grandfather, who was born in 1885. An estimate, since he immigrated from Greece at some point in the early 1900s and didn't exactly have even a family Bible with him.

It turns out I was thinking about my grandfather's birth date when I read about Miep and Joe. All my grandparents were born in the latter part of the 1880s, exactly when is either unknown, or drifts in and out of memory. So, like so many things that dovetail their way into your life, think about something, and someone provides an answer.

My daughters, by genetic proportions have more Irish ancestry in them than anything else. This can only help explain why my oldest daughter seems to have chosen that Tuesday as a day to visit the family burial site in Mt. Olivet cemetery in Queens. She had told me the prior weekend she was going, and I did ask her to try and remember when my grandfather was born, so I suppose she felt she had a mission to fulfill. I also did say we'd trim the shrubs around the stone, but I also meant we'd do that in the spring. So, she was also on a scouting mission. She didn't choose the coldest day of the week, but it is still January.

Thus, as old as Tuesday's obituary and news story subjects were, I've got family members who I grew up with that go back even further. Of course they're not here to tell me anything now, but they did mention things that I remember. So I've got a linkage that goes back a long way. And that's what makes the obits so interesting. There doesn't seem to be a year that can be mentioned that I can't put an ancestor in. And who I met and remember.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Got Blood?

I give Maureen Dowd's column a glance on Wednesdays. If it's not political, I might keep going. And this Wednesday I was rewarded with a take on the hot domestic topic of the week: Jay Leno, Conan O'Brien, and NBC's chief executive Jeffrey Zucker.

This morning I have to say I was astonished to realize that I wasn't reading that Jeffrey Zucker had bled to death from Maureen's flogging.

Over the years Dowd is still the one person I can read who still comes up with words I really have to look up in the dictionary. Or Google. Whatever that says about my level of reading, I don't know, but how many can truthfully say they knew that "baldenfreude" was a word made up by Ms. Dowd to describe others having fun with bald Jeff Zucker's misfortunes--all self-created, which of course makes them better to feel superior to.

I should have suspected that when I once came across the word "moneygall" that she used to describe something having to do with the misuse of money around St. Patrick's Day, I think.

The column is worth reading for sustained bile. It doesn't stop, but it's well done. When she describes Hollywood as a place where "no one makes less than they're worth" she's not saying the place is great for parity or fairness of pay.

My friend who listens to Don Imus tells me that Don apparently is on the outs with Ms. Dowd when he tells his audience that her birthday was today, or yesterday and that she's 58, and "her train has left the station." Imus does however admit that he's carrying Wednesday's column around with him.

Well, my birthday is tomorrow and I'm older than Ms. Dowd, but younger than Imus. Regardless, I'm glad neither one knows about me.

And Jeff, there's always the Hair Club for Men.

Monday, January 11, 2010

We Can Be What We Eat

Citing Hazard,
New York Says
Hold the Salt
Latest Health Initiative
Seeks a 25% Cut

First New York City required restaurants to cut out trans fat. Then it made restaurant chains post calorie counts on their menus. Now it wants to protect people from another health scourge: salt.

Mayor Mike announced today that people should be discouraged from licking the streets in the winter.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Sweet Thunder

No surprise that Christmas deposits a few books on the night table. The additional good news is that they usually are something I really want to read. This is not due to any clairvoyance on the part of family members, but can rather be traced to their ability to read a list, only too happily furnished by myself. It is the thought that counts.

High on the list for getting, and giving, was the biography of Sugar Ray Robinson, Sweet Thunder by Wil Haygood. I can put an exact date on when I became a boxing fan, and when I stopped being a fan.

The start was $20 last row blue seats to the Ali-Frazier fight at Madison Square Garden on March 8, 1971, the first of their three meetings. The Fight. Tickets were obtained by advance planning and mail order. Imagine that!

The end was when I was in my living room with friends watching the pay-per-view telecast of Mike Tyson going cannibal on Evander Holyfield's ears, June 28, 1997.

As a kid growing up, I always heard about famous fights and fighters, who was good, and who was a bum. My father pointed out Paul Berlenbach, The Astoria Assassin, one night at the subway station cutting newspapers loose from a bundle that had just been tossed from a truck that barely seemed to stop. Paul had fought as a light heavyweight and held that title for a little over a year, 1925-1926, only one title per weight division then. He had earlier won a gold medal in wrestling at the 1920 Olympics, but was now helping to hawk the early edition. Fame is fleeting.

Despite the current lack of fan interest I've remained interested in the fighters themselves. Anyone who has even done a poor imitation of one of their workouts can appreciate what goes into that sport. So, when the book on Sugar Ray hit the shelves, it also hit the wish list.

I saw Sugar Ray introduced at numerous fights. He always seemed the most popular of those introduced, and he always looked great, gliding through the ropes with a Pepsodent smile, waving to the crowd, a black Clark Gable who really looked good in a suit. I never heard anyone say he was a "bum." Never.

Reading first the book reviews, then the look back stories on Harlem now vs. then and then the book itself I kept wondering why didn't I pay more attention to Sugar Ray when he passed away in 1989? I surely read the obituary. I've always been doing that. I know I didn't save it, though, but I do know how to get at it, and have printed it from a NYPL digital database.

I remember it was a fairly big deal that his son was a star in the professional Roller Derby league that was quite popular in the 1970s. I may have even seen his son at the one match I went to at the Garden when somebody came to town to skate against someone who was the Bombers. Nobody knew then they were watching the beginning of what would be a Jerry Springer talk show, chairs, screams, and punches from people with wheels on their feet. It was great.

But why do I seem to care more about Sugar Ray now, than then?

In this atmospheric cosmos we live in the question seems to have played in one form or another in other people's minds. Perhaps not about Sugar Ray, but about someone who has passed away a good while ago.

Through the marvel of the Internet, audio and video streaming, I was lead to a presentation made at a library by Ms. Marilyn Johnson, author of The Dead Beat. You've really got to be impressed by what is possible. A click of the mouse and I'm tuned into a portion of a lecture Ms. Johnson recently made at a library somewhere. I say recent because Michael Jackson has just died and there's no snow on the ground, but few leaves on the trees, as the camera tracks us through library shelves, the lecture itself and what looks like nice grounds where Ms. Johnson looks like she's about to give a poetry reading to the birds. Tweet, tweet, Twitter.

The same question seems to prevail on her mind as well. She mentions that Picasso died in 1973 and she didn't really pay too much attention. My own answer is that having gotten older by virtue of uninterrupted breathing I've approached the same time on earth as some of the people I now read about with such detail. Sure, some are a lot older, and a few are even younger, but we're covering congruent periods of time. We remember the same presidents.

The poet Phyllis McGinley wrote something called The Seven Ages of a Newspaper Subscriber.

It's something from the 1950s, rhymes, and describes a person's progression of interest in the daily paper as they get older. The poem is not long, and ends with:

But witness how the human viewpoint varies:
Of late he reads the day's Obituaries.

I've re-read Sugar Ray's NYT obituary. As you might expect, it was written by Dave Anderson, their lead sportswriter and golf and boxing maven at the time. It's a good obituary, even touching on a less complimentary aspect of Robinson's life when he went AWOL from the Army stateside before shipping out during WWII. Even given that, I don't remember that people ever took that as a reason to dislike him. He got an honorable discharge.

The lecture clip ends with Ms. Johnson saying something about obituaries that allow us to consider what a life means. And maybe that's the thought we consider more of as we grow older.

I do know that I care more about Sugar Ray Robinson in 2010 than I did even in 1989.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Pez Sez

Third day into 2010 and nothing's hit me yet. To my utmost surprise, I created 137 blog entries last year, starting January 11, something I would not have predicted at the close of 2008. So much for predictions. I seldom try and make them.

While time is a continuum, I always see a gap at the end of the year. If I were to draw 12/31 and January 1, I would never put them next to each other. There would be a ravine, or something that would need to be crossed before you got to 1/1. Maybe that has something to do with hanging a calendar. You have to take the old one down and put the new one up. And you probably aren't doing that at 12:01 A.M. January 1st.

So, it took a few days, but Margalit Fox's NYT obituary on Curtis Allina gets the year off to a start. I like to read nearly everything she writes, but I first misread the headline and thought Mr. Allina was an 'Executive Who Put Heads on Prez, Is Dead at 87." I somewhat imagined a baker who was designing inauguration commemorative cookies.

No, it's Pez, not Prez, and apparently Mr. Allina was responsible for designing, promoting, whatever, the Pez candy dispenser that became so popular when I was a kid. And apparently, the item is still made, and there is, guess what, a robust collectible business in acquiring vintage Pez dispensers. Web sites ensue.

My daughter on casual questioning confirms Pez is currently available in the supermarket. This fully explains my ignorance. Others in my family go to the supermarket, and they do such a great job at it that I've never challenged their right to continue without me. I fairly hate supermarkets.

Margalit, in her mixture of history and current cultural use, reveals that Pez is from an Austrian company, and that Pez is a contracted word for the German word for peppermint: pfefferminz. Marketing at its finest.

The collectible part doesn't surprise me, but I really had no idea the company was still around and churning out tomorrow's memorabilia as we speak. There's a Barack Obama headed Pez dispenser, so Pez and Prez is not really such a leap. Clicking my way through the pictures I came across the one I used above. It doesn't have a title anywhere near that of who it reminds me of: Rod R. Blagojevich, the former governor of Illinois who recently resigned.

They couldn't have known it, but they got him to a T, with what looks like a dead animal haircut on his head.

I've got to look at Pez dispensers a little more closely as a source of social satire.