Monday, May 31, 2010

One Tough Stand-Up: "I Would Have Been Laughing At Auschwitz"

"Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work" (2010) will open soon at this blogger's nearby indy theater. Joan Rivers (Joan Rosenberg — born Joan Alexandra Molinsky — adopted her stage name at the suggestion of a talent agent, Tony Rivers, early in her career.) has done stand-up comedy (Actor-comedian Will Ferrell has called stand-up comedy "hard, lonely and vicious.") since 1958 and — at age 77 — is still a stand-up comic. She has come a long way from Larchmont, NY and Barnard College with a B.A. in English literature. If this is (fair & balanced) stand-up material, so be it.

[x NY Magazine]
Joan Rivers Always Knew She Was Funny
By Jonathan Van Meter

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Expect nothing and you won’t be disappointed. This is the mantra of the pessimist and the persecuted alike, the preemptive strike of those who tend to paint the picture a little blacker than it is. And then there is Joan Rivers, the orneriest creature ever to darken Hollywood’s door. She once told me that her husband, Edgar Rosenberg, who killed himself in 1987, lived by the heartwarming motto “Fuck them over before they fuck you over first.”

I have known Rivers for 22 years, long enough to know that she does not exactly share this view of the world, even if she likes to muck around in it from time to time. In fact, she considers it a flaw in her late husband’s character, one that set in motion the chain reaction that almost destroyed her career: In the mid-eighties, Rivers was one of the most successful comedians in the world. She was the highest-paid entertainer on the Vegas Strip and Johnny Carson’s permanent guest host on the "Tonight Show," until she was lured away to Fox to host her own late-night talk show. Edgar, she says, was a toxic presence on the set of her show, fighting bitterly with Barry Diller and Rupert Murdoch over everything from office furniture to money. Joan and Edgar were fired after only seven months, and the fallout was devastating. She was excommunicated by Carson, her mentor, for leaving; she was effectively banned from late night, hardly ever invited to appear on Letterman, Leno, Conan. Her marriage fell apart and then Edgar swallowed a bottle of pills. Her daughter, Melissa, stopped speaking to her. Rivers fell into a deep depression, became bulimic, and considered suicide herself.

When I first met Rivers it was 1988, just a year after Edgar had killed himself. She was moving back to New York after fourteen years in Los Angeles and taking over Linda Lavin’s role in "Broadway Bound," a gig that she says pulled her life out of its nosedive. It wouldn’t be the last time she found redemption through her work.

On a recent morning in early May, we are sitting in her study eating cake. It has been served to us by Kevin and Debbie, her butler and housekeeper, who have been living with her for twenty years in their own quarters in her grand apartment, a mini-Versailles on East 62nd Street. (“Marie Antoinette would have lived here,” Rivers likes to say, “if she had money.”) Joan loves cake, loves anything sweet. The Joan Rivers diet: You can eat anything you want before 3 p.m. and then nothing for the rest of the day. When she goes out to dinner, she puts a small pile of Altoids on the table next to her plate, which she eats one after another while barely touching her food.

We are talking about the peculiar turn of events her life has taken recently, how she is suddenly squarely at the center of the culture again—something that has escaped her since her Fox debacle. At the age of 76, it seems, she has been rediscovered. Much of it has to do with a new documentary about her life, "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work," which opens in theaters on June 11. Roger Ebert wrote, in one of the film’s many rave reviews, that it is “one of the most truthful documentaries about show business I’ve seen. Also maybe the funniest.” The film comes at the end of a remarkable year for Rivers, one that began when she won "The Celebrity Apprentice" (after one of the uglier reality-TV showdowns), outfoxing all those bimbos, has-beens, and two-bit poker players to emerge—somehow—as the sympathetic character. At long last, not fired! It’s unfamiliar territory for Rivers: to be the one people root for.

“It’s amazing,” says Rivers, shaking her head in disbelief. But then this: “People who have seen the film come up to me and say, ‘I never liked you until now.’ TV interviewers say, right in front of me, ‘Even if you have always hated Joan Rivers … you are going to love her and be mesmerized by this film.’ They spit right in my face and then spend the next ten minutes wiping it dry.” That is when she shows me the pillow she has embroidered that sits on a leather couch in her study: DON’T EXPECT PRAISE WITHOUT ENVY UNTIL YOU ARE DEAD.

If Joan Rivers has a hard time taking a compliment, she has an even tougher time handing one out. “I will only praise someone who can’t take anything away from me,” she says with a mordant laugh. “People ask me all the time: ‘What do you think about Sarah Silverman?’ ” She switches into a comically polite-insincere voice. “Hmmm. She’s nice, I guess. I really haven’t seen her.”She shoots me a get-real look. “She’s terrific. She’s very funny and very pretty. But why should I admit it?”

Even at this late stage in her 40-year career, Rivers is nowhere near ready to cede the stage to a younger generation. (As her former manager Billy Sammeth says in the film, “Right now they see her as a plastic-surgery freak who’s past her sell-by date.... But God help the next queen of comedy, because this one’s not abdicating. Never will.”) I am reminded of an e-mail she sent me a couple of years ago, when she was at yet another low point in her career. I asked her what she thought of Kathy Griffin. “I am her friend but also furious,” she wrote. “She is the big one now. My club dates have simply vanished and gone to her. She will last as she is very driven. Like me, she wants it. But every time a gay man tells me, ‘Oh, she is just like you! I love her!’ I fucking want to strangle them. But, please God let someone give me credit. I feel so totally forgotten. The fucking New Yorker did this big piece on the genius of Rickles, who is brilliant but who hasn’t changed a line in fifteen years. Meanwhile, I am totally ‘old hat’ and ignored while in reality I could still wipe the floor with both Kathy and Sarah. Anyhow, fuck them all. Age sucks. It’s the final mountain.”

In late January, Rivers made her first trip to the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, to attend the premiere of "A Piece of Work." Directed by Ricki Stern with Annie Sundberg, whose previous two documentaries were about wrongful convictions and Darfur (go figure), the film is essentially a year in the life of Rivers, who comes across as, if not the hardest-working person in show business, then certainly its most unrelenting practitioner. Ricki Stern is the daughter of her friends Marjorie and Michael Stern, a couple Rivers met five years ago “at a stuffy dinner party” in Connecticut, where she has a country home. “Marjorie was the only person who laughed out loud when someone said Demi Moore was talented,” jokes Rivers.

At Sundance, Rivers wears a slight variation of the same all-black outfit every day. Today: Donna Karan sweater, Chanel slacks, Manolo boots, full-length sable fur, huge sunglasses. Among the green and crunchy in their polar fleece and turquoise jewelry, she stands out like a whore in church. She knows she is anathema to this crowd, with her ostentatious plastic surgery, conservative streak, and glitzy lifestyle. Though she calls herself an independent and voted for Obama, she is constitutionally Republican. Friends with Nancy Reagan. Thinks we should just bomb the shit out of Iran. Ambivalent about feminism. Detests whining and victimhood and laziness. Hated "Precious." “I got very annoyed,” she says. “I thought, Oh, get a job! Stand up and get a job!”

To Rivers, Sundance is a tribal gathering of the too earnest and the no fun—artistes in hypocritically expensive jeans. At one point, she sits down for an interview with the film critic Peter Travers and he asks her about her first trip to the festival. “Everyone here is an act-or,” she says. “ ‘Hi, I’m Deborah, and I am an act-or.’ Oh, fuck you. You are an actress.” Who’s funny to you? he asks. “At Sundance? I find no one funny.” She cracks up. Are you going to be serious while you’re here? he asks. “When I meet Bob Redford I will be serious,” she says. “If I recognize him after the face-lift.”

She travels around town in a black Escalade bursting with entourage: two assistants, Jocelyn and Graham, hair-and-makeup man Martyn and his boyfriend Digby, as well as Marjorie and Michael Stern. It is a rolling cackle-fest, Rivers slaying the group with metronomic consistency. She is a spoken-word Twitter feed, constantly streaming one-liners: sometimes shocking, sometimes vile, sometimes cruel, always hilarious. Not surprisingly, she is recognized everywhere she goes. As we are heading into a restaurant on Main Street for lunch one day, she is swarmed by a group of very young people with pierced lips and pink hair. Rivers, as a young film-industry guy tells me one night at a party, is considered cool to people too young to know her as anything but the outrageous red-carpet lady. As we head into the restaurant, the strangest-looking chick in the group yells, “I love you, Joan!”

A few weeks before Sundance, I called Rivers to ask about the documentary and I got hit with her don’t-expect-anything-and-you-won’t-be-disappointed voodoo. Asked about Ricki and Annie, she cracked, “They don’t wear makeup.” Do you like the movie? Long pause. “They forgot to show that I actually enjoy my life.”But now, in Utah, it is finally sinking in that the movie is good. The premiere is at a synagogue, funnily enough, and after a long wait in a makeshift greenroom there is a silly press conference and photo op, where Rivers, off the top of her head, makes the joke, since repeated, that she should have made a documentary about her life selling jewelry on QVC called "Semi-Precious."

Rivers seems nervous on her way in to the theater. It is the first time she is seeing the film on a big screen in front of an audience. As we wait for it to start, she tells me a story about Prince Charles, with whom she has been friends for several years. (“Not inner circle,” she says. “Outer-inner circle.”) HRH sends her a Christmas gift every year, which, more than once, has been two very fancy teacups. “One year,” she says, “I took a picture under my Christmas tree with the teacups and wrote, ‘How could you send me two teacups when I’m alone?’ Another time I wrote, ‘I’m enjoying tea with my best friend!’ and I sent a picture of me in a cemetery. And he never acknowledges it! He never says to me when I see him”—doing his accent perfectly—“ ‘Ohhhh, funny funny funny!’ So this year I thought, I’m just going to write him a nice thank-you note. And the other day our mutual friend calls and says, ‘Just spoke to Charles! He said, “I can’t wait to see Joan’s note this year!” ’ ”

As the theater fills up, a steady stream of fans and well-wishers stop to chat. A woman in the aisle in front of us turns around and asks, “Doesn’t that bother you?” Rivers says, “Are you kidding? Forty years! Thank God they’re still doing it. I have many friends in the business they don’t bother with anymore, who are asked to step aside on the red carpet, and that’s more embarrassing.”

Rivers has always got her nose in a book. She devours them, several at a time. On this trip, there is Game Change. “Hillary comes off as furious and rightfully so. And you hate Obama in the end. He’s weak. Michelle is the tough one. Palin is a moron. McCain is an egocentric fool.” The other she is reading is George Carlin’s Last Words. “It reminds me why I hated him,” she says. “The arrogance, the self-congratulatory tone, the superior attitude, and then the selling out for any shitty award.”

It is a cliché but it is true. Most comedians are dreary bores: neurotic, self-obsessed, competitive, and no fun when they are not onstage. Not Joanie! She is funny in the way that your funniest friend is: aware of everything, well-read, opinionated. She also asks good questions. “Who do you hate?” is one of her conversation starters, and it always works because there is always someone to hate. At the moment, she hates Oprah, who she thinks is phony. “How can I help out Kitty Kelley,” she says. “Should I throw her a book party?”

Her single greatest gift is her ability, in the heat of the moment, to find the funny line. My recent favorite example also highlights the rarefied world in which Rivers sometimes travels. Not long ago she was invited to dinner at Lily Safra’s home at 820 Fifth Avenue. Safra owns the most expensive residence in the world, the $500 million Villa Leopolda in the south of France. Rivers was seated next to Carroll Petrie, a rich society lady who is deaf as a post, and the two of them were marveling over, oh, I don’t know, the dozens of Fabergé clocks in Safra’s house. Petrie said, too loud, “Doesn’t it just make you feel poor?” To which Rivers replied, “Carroll, name me one other person in this room who is playing Cleveland this weekend.”

One of the most consistently subversive things about Rivers is her level of commitment to a spur-of-the-moment prank. I have seen her pull off dozens of them over the years. Once, coming out of Pat Wexler’s office, where she goes for her Botox and filler, she crawled on her hands and knees into a waiting room full of socialites and models and, screwing up her face to resemble a stroke victim, moaned out of one side of her mouth, “Look what she did to me!” Another time, she played a practical joke on Marjorie Stern and some unsuspecting diners at Sarabeth’s: “It’s like three weeks into the Bernie Madoff thing,” says Rivers. “I get there first, and there are two tables to pass before you get to our table. And one was like six Jewish ladies and the other was two Jewish couples. You could just tell. Very New York people. I grabbed the waitress and I say, ‘Please don’t say her name, because Mrs. Madoff doesn’t want people to know it’s her.’ I said it loud enough for the other tables to overhear it.” Marjorie, who has a Ruth Madoff aspect, takes the story from here. “I walk in and they are all staring at me. And I look over at Joan to see what the problem is and she says, ‘Ruthie! Sit here!’ At which point the entire place is stunned speechless. Forks suspended in midair.”"They hissed at her,” says Rivers, crippled with laughter. When I remind her that there are six Jewish ladies who now think she is friends with Ruth Madoff, she yells, “I know!” and laughs even harder.

Rivers will take the piss out of anything. Shortly after I had lost a big job, she called, and when I answered the phone a bit too quickly she said, “Really? The first ring? So desperate.” And then she hung up on me. A few days after 9/11, she called and asked me if I wanted to meet her for lunch at Windows on the Ground. She pushes as far as she can as soon as she can. It’s compulsive.

In the film there is a scene where Rivers is playing some lousy casino in Wisconsin, and she does a bit about Helen Keller and a man stands and bellows, “It’s not very funny if you have a deaf son!” Rivers lets him have it. “Oh, you stupid ass, let me tell you what comedy is about... ”

“You go ahead and tell me what,” he says.

“Oh, please,” she says. “You are so stupid. Comedy is to make everybody laugh at everything, and deal with things, you idiot.”

At Sundance, an interviewer asks her about the moment. “If you laugh at it, you can deal with it, and if you don’t, you can’t deal with it. And don’t start telling me that I shouldn’t be saying it. That’s the way I do it. I would have been laughing at Auschwitz.”

One of the great misconceptions about Rivers is that she is mean-spirited and heartless—that there is nothing more to her than her comedy or her red-carpet patter. To the celebrities who are on the receiving end of some of her sharpest material she can seem cruel, but as a civilian she is surprisingly sensitive, someone who cries as easily as she laughs. At Sundance alone, she is brought to tears a half-dozen times. A journalist interviewing her on camera asks if she could sing a few bars of the song that’s been in her head lately. She demurs for a moment, saying she can’t sing, and then chokes out, in that raspy voice of hers, a few lines from “Send in the Clowns” (“Isn’t it rich / Isn’t it queer...”). When she starts to cry, the guy asks her why. “Because that’s life. And I’m very tired. Life is very tough. If you don’t laugh, it’s tough. And ‘Send in the Clowns’ is a song that says you need that because it’s all... ” She chokes up again and then says, “Horrible.”

One day at Sundance while we are waiting for a screening to end, Rivers is approached by an older gentleman. “Excuse me,” he says. “I just have to interrupt.” Rivers looks up at him and cautiously smiles. “I want to thank you for bringing me joy in 1960 in Korea.” Her body language changes in an instant. “I was a gay soldier in peacetime Korea who was starved for Broadway,” he continues, “and you were performing with the USO troop.” He pauses to watch the memory dawn on Rivers’s face.

“Sheila … ”

“Sheila Smith! Yes!” says Rivers, stunned.

“Jack … ”

“Jack Edelman! Yes! Yes! Yes!”

“Patience Cleveland,” he says.

Rivers screams, “Patience Cleveland!”

“Richard Nealon.”

“And Jeanne … Jeanne Beauvais,” says Rivers. “The opera singer... How do you remember the names?”

“I was way up above the 38th Parallel in Camp Kaiser, Korea, and will never ever forget all of you.”

“That was my first traveling job that paid,” says Rivers.

“She was an ingenue. A young singer-comedienne. Light comedy,” says the man to Rivers’s entourage, who are hanging on his every word.

When the man leaves, Joan says, “We were on the DMZ line between North and South Korea. It was very scary but it was fabulous. Patience Cleveland was pregnant and was trying to have an abortion. We took hot sea baths in Japan. We got these two crazy marines to ride us over bumpy terrain in Korea. Nothing worked. And she went back to New York, went to a Chinese restaurant on West 46th Street and went down into the basement and got an abortion.”

Michael Stern says, “A Chinese restaurant? Did they do it with MSG?”

Rivers pauses for a nanosecond—wait for it—and finds the line. “Bite down on this egg roll.”

What strikes me as this scene unfolds is just how long Rivers has been this radically modern presence. One of the best things about the documentary is that it reminds you, with great archival footage of Rivers’s early TV performances, that she is the mother of a certain brand of transgressive female comedy. Would there be a Sandra Bernhard or a Roseanne or a Rosie O’Donnell or a Kathy Griffin or a Sarah Silverman, without Joan Rivers? “When I am onstage, I am every woman’s outrage about where they put us,” she says to me one day. “We have no control. And that’s why I am screaming onstage. We have no control! I am furious about everything. All that anger and madness comes out onstage.”

Rivers adored her mother. “She died in my mid-to-late forties,” she says. “She was so smart and funny. My friend Alice told me at her funeral that my mother once said to her, so proudly, ‘Joan isn’t just a star. She’s a superstar! And she did it all herself!’ It still makes me cry. Both of my parents got to see me host Carson, thank God. That’s all anyone wants: to have their parents see they’re going to be all right in life.”

Her relationship with her own daughter, however, has not gone as smoothly. Some of the more visceral scenes in the documentary are between Joan and Melissa. There is something in their body language, in the way they talk over each other, that gives you a glimpse into the dynamic: classic yenta behavior on Joan’s part; stuck in a sullen teenage gear on Melissa’s part.

Someone who knows both women well said to me recently, “The greatest thing about Joan is her bravado, her ability to just laugh at everything and push through. But her greatest weakness is that moment when she can’t push through and she really takes something in. She can become unreasonable and vindictive. And it usually has to do with Melissa, when she feels that Melissa has been wronged. When Melissa has an enemy it has to be Joan’s enemy. But Joan carries it to the level of a crusade.”

I ask Melissa if she thinks her mother is still reacting out of guilt over that terrible time in their lives. “I think she does have a lot of unresolved guilt.” But, she says, “as an adult I have such a clearer perspective and acceptance of who my mother is and why she does what she does.” She also concedes that she has plenty of baggage of her own. “I carry the burden of my father, in his note, saying to me, ‘You have to take care of your mother.’ I take that very, very seriously. I feel like she is my responsibility.” She pauses for a moment. “And yet! I feel like we have a really good relationship. And it’s very normal in abnormal circumstances.”

Melissa was worried at first about the documentary. “Melissa is a very private person,” Joan says. “And she doesn’t understand show business. I will do anything on camera. You want me to do what?!?! ...Hmmm. How much?... Okay!” When Ricki Stern showed Rivers a rough cut, she sent back three pages of notes. Most of her complaints were about what was not in the film: Where’s the red carpet? Nothing on QVC? You don’t show my triumph in Edinburgh! “And then there were certain things that you really shouldn’t put in, that Melissa objected to,” she says. “I talked about Edgar one night and it was very late and I was saying what I say very often, which is that I walk past his picture and give him the finger. Fuck you, what you did to us! Which is part of suicide. But it shouldn’t maybe be there. Melissa didn’t want to see that.”

But Melissa seems to be coming around: “The first time I saw the film it was very difficult to watch. She is showing parts of herself that I see and I understand and I was worried that other people wouldn’t understand. But from the response the film is getting, I think I was wrong. Because people do understand.”

This summer, the family begins filming a reality show for WE called "Mother Knows Best." Rivers has rented out her house in Connecticut for the season and is moving in with Melissa and her 9-year-old son, Cooper, whom Joan is crazy about. “He is funny,” she says, handing out her highest praise. “And he gets that I’m funny. He recently told me that he knew that I was famous. And I said to him, ‘You know why Grandma is famous? Because I make people happy.’ ”

Rivers says she is nervous about the show. “I don’t know if it’s going to wreck our lives. I think it’s going to be very hard on us because I don’t want it to be one of these stupid reality shows. We want it real, with real mother-daughter conflict and real problems.” Like what? “I want her to get married to the boyfriend and they don’t want to get married. I’m sorry, I am not comfortable with somebody coming down the stairs in his jockey shorts who is not married to her.”

Melissa responds: “She’s, like, completely supportive of gay rights and everyone should be able to do whatever they want, live and let live, and whatever makes you happy. She has no problem with, like a rhino and a ferret living together, and yet she can’t believe that I don’t want to get married again!”

There will be plenty of grist for argument. “Everything she does in the house gets me crazy,” says Rivers of her daughter. “The way she lives—very California. Have a sandwich over the sink? Excuse me?”

The way that Rivers lives is very old-fashioned and extremely formal, with her live-in butler and stiff dinner parties with finger bowls. “It comes from the way my mother was raised,” she says. “She came from very rich Russians who had servants. When they came here they were dead broke, but my mother remembered that from childhood. She always lived very formally, or tried to.” I tell her that people are surprised when they see the film by how grandly she lives—this foulmouthed comic in her gilded palace. “This business is such a mess. Nothing is set in stone. As I say in the movie, ‘You are standing on mud.’ So the formality, the rigidness of sitting down to a beautiful table, it’s a ritual. My bed is turned down every night. But that’s because I’ve just come from hearing someone say, ‘If you’ve always hated Joan Rivers … !’ I want things to look pretty. I should have been Martha Stewart. Martha Stewartvitz.”

Earlier this year, apropos of nothing, Rivers sent me an e-mail while she was out in L.A. visiting her daughter. “Just bought Melissa three hundred dollars’ worth of new place mats. God she must hate me.”

“That is a perfect example of what our relationship is like,” says Melissa. “So, my place mats are a little worn out! We all get busy. But my mother had the car stop on the way from the airport to my house. And showed up with all sorts of new place mats and napkins. Without asking me. That’s stepping over the line a little. I can’t take care of myself?” She laughs. “But luckily I needed the place mats.”

All this talk of proper homemaking reminds me of something Rivers said to me years ago. She was talking about the scene in one of her favorite movies, "Rebecca," when Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine realize that their relationship is not what they thought it was. “Bad things can happen,” said Rivers, “even in a pretty house.” When I mention this to her now she says, “Sure did on Ambazac Way”—where they lived in L.A. “We were in Architectural Digest.” Pause. “Edgar still jumped.”

Joan Rivers will turn 77 on June 8. “Age is so frustrating,” she says to me in her study in New York. “I make deals with God all the time. ‘Give me ten more good years and I’ll call it a day.’ Age is the one thing that is absolutely coming at you. And right now, thank God, everything is working. I have my checkups and the doctors always say, ‘I can’t get over it!’ But I am pedaling as fast as I can. My manager was just here today. He said, ‘There’s very little left, timewise.’ But I can do it! I can do a radio show from anywhere! I just have to keep the pot churning. You cannot stop.”

People always ask Rivers why she doesn’t just retire, enjoy her old age. “But they don’t get that I love it,” she says. “All I ever wanted was this. I’m lucky, you idiots.” Here, she imitates her society-lady friends. “ ‘We’re going to the Kentucky Derby and then taking cooking lessons in Venice and then we are going on so-and-so’s boat and then perhaps five fun days with a group to the Galápagos!’ And you go, Why? I’ve done all that crap. That’s not retirement to me. That’s death.”

When I ask her how she fell in with that crowd, she says, “Sort of by mistake. I got friendly with C. Z. Guest and through her I met Jerry Zipkin and I had no idea that if Jerry and C.Z. said, ‘This Jew is okay,’ you were okay. You got in. Immediately. And it’s all very glamorous at the beginning. Going to the Metropolitan Opera, taking a table here, being on a committee there. Going out all the time all dressed up.”

She levels me with a look. “And then I got bored to death. Nobody tells you the truth. I once asked one of the ladies, ‘Did you ever have an affair?’ And she stared at me like I was crazy. ‘Why would I tell you?’ she said. Another time, someone had just bought an apartment and I said, ‘How much?’ And she said, ‘That is really none of your business.’ And I thought, Fine. Then we are not friends and I don’t want to spend any more time with you. I was friendly with one couple who I no longer see at all. They would always say, ‘We’re such good friends.’ And then I found out that their daughter had a complete nervous breakdown. For a year, I was always told everything is wonderful. Well, then what are we wasting our time here at Elaine’s or Mortimer’s or Swifty’s? I don’t want to sit in Swifty’s and not say anything about anything. I just totally stepped away. Blaine Trump is one of the few people I am friends with out of that period. She’s honest. She will sit there and say, ‘Life is crap.’ All I want you to do, if we are sitting down and it’s after 6 p.m., is tell me the truth. Because we’ve all lied to each other all day long in business and we’ve all had these lunches and we’ve all ass-kissed to the point where I carry Chapstick. If I am going to sit down and eat with you, just tell me the truth and let me say to you, ‘Things are lousy and I’m sad.’ ”

One of the saddest times in Rivers’s life since I have known her was when her best friend Tommy Corcoran died a few years ago. Rivers spoke to him three times a day and he walked Melissa down the aisle at her wedding. When I ask her about the challenges of getting old she says, “The loss of friends. It’s the thinning out of people with whom you have a history, whom you adore. I feel amazing. I truly feel like I am 25. I walk everywhere. There’s nothing wrong with me. The mind is going better than ever. But I look at my living room at night and I see Tommy and the good times and that just really upsets me. There’s no one to call up. Nobody cares that you got home. That’s horrible. To go into your apartment and nobody cares that you came off the plane very late. And suddenly you develop tremendous attachments to your dogs. And then you know that it’s sick. They are animals and they love me, but it isn’t right to say, ‘My dogs! I’ve got to rush home to the dogs!’ They’ll be just fine without me.” There is a long silence as she looks up to keep the tears from ruining her makeup. “And the other thing with age is that you have no tolerance. You just think, Ugh, don’t. I’ve played this game. You just want to say to people, ‘I’ve been through it.’ ”

After the first day at Sundance, Rivers insists that I move out of my fleabag hotel and into a giant suite that is connected to her giant suite at the Stein Eriksen Lodge. “It’s already paid for,” she says, “and I will only use it to put on hair and makeup.” And so we become roommates for a couple of days.

When we get home at night, and she closes the door between our suites, I can tell she is staying up late. “My day starts when I get home and it’s finally over,” she says. “I take my bath and do my crossword. I call it puttering. I may read a book. I go through The Wall Street Journal, I watch television. I want two and a half hours with no one talking. I went to bed at 4 a.m. last night. I do that every night.”

In the morning, Rivers comes in wearing her nightgown and no makeup, and she and Martyn begin the lengthy beautification routine. At one point in the film, as Rivers is sitting in a chair getting made up for some event, she says to the camera, “It’s very scary when you see yourself totally without any makeup.... Oh, it gives me the willies. Who is that person? So, I get up in the morning and the first thing I do is I get into makeup. I was never the natural beauty. No man has ever, ever told me I’m beautiful.” The insecurity is touching, and perhaps a clue as to why she has availed herself of so much plastic surgery over the years.

Rivers has had three big relationships since Edgar. “Spiros was my first one, my Greek shipping tycoon. That lasted four years.” Then there was Bernard, the cheap one. “He wouldn’t get a car and driver. A man who had $150 million. I was standing there in the pouring rain at Lincoln Center and he said to me, ‘You are so spoiled.’ I remember saying to him, ‘If you were an actor, Bernard, and had no money, we would be on the subway and I wouldn’t be saying a word. But you have $150 million, Bernard. And I’m wearing $700 shoes, and this is silly. What are we proving here?’ Bernard carried the ketchup back and forth to the Hamptons. Does that tell you everything?”

And then there was Orin Lehman, of the Lehman Brothers family, who served as New York State’s parks commissioner. He was a World War II hero who was injured in the Battle of the Bulge and had the use of only one leg and walked with metal braces. Rivers was with him for nine years, until she caught him cheating, in 2001, and threw him out. “I was mad about Orin,” she says. “Love of my life. Adored him. People would say, ‘Orin Lehman? Blech.’ Melissa never got what I liked about him. But he was amazing. A gentleman. He was elegant. He got everything. He was so brave. I loved the bravery. That this man walked. He willed himself to walk. I know it sounds strange, but he was very sexy.”

I ask her if she still hopes to meet someone. “Yes, but it’s very hard at this age. The pickings are so slim. I’d love to have somebody. And my terms are: Pay every bill I have and you’ve got to understand that I love my life and I love the theater. Talk about set in your ways. I love what I do, I love how I do it. I have my country house, I have my family, and I have my career. Where are you going to fit in? Call me a week from Tuesday.”

There is one man in particular she’s interested in. “He’s coming in February. He’s taking me to the dog show.” She laughs.

“Very, very rich,” says Marjorie.

“He’s from Oklahoma City,” says Rivers. “So it’s over already.”

And then she takes it a step further, paints the picture a little darker. “He’s a man in his seventies and he’s going to meet a very beautiful young woman in her fifties who will move in so fast, and he will feel so good, and she will show him a picture of her twat and it’s finished.”

Later that day, after a packed screening at the festival (“Listen to them laugh,” Rivers had said backstage, her eyes lit with joy), Rivers comes into my room and her mood has changed. “This is why everything sucks,” she says. “At the end of the day, no such thing as, ‘Ain’t it going great?’ We came here, we’re the toast of Sundance, Melissa calls me up beyond happy” about the good reviews for her new book about lessons learned on the red carpet. “The next call is from this man, who I have had dinner with three or four times and really clicked with. He asked me to save the week of February 14 because he’s coming in. Now he says, ‘Coming with a lady I’ve met that I know you will love as much as I do. Can’t wait to spend the week with you!’ My God. How about that? Nothing is ever a hundred percent. There’s no such thing as ‘everything is going great.’ ”

On the last night in Utah, Rivers and her entourage are going to dinner at an Italian restaurant to celebrate her assistant Jocelyn’s birthday. The snow is really coming down, so Jocelyn decides we ought to take the shuttle bus into town. Too dangerous to drive. “The diva is going out in style,” she says to her boss. “You can overrule us, but we all feel it’s the safest way.” We arrive at the restaurant and Rivers immediately begins to kvetch and worry about where we are going to be seated. But as soon as we settle at the table—a big round corner table with a beautiful view of the snow falling on the side of the mountain—her mood lifts. She ignores her mints and actually eats her dinner. She also knocks back a couple of glasses of red wine and before long is on a serious roll, telling funny stories and teasing the waitress (“You are never going to meet a man with that butch haircut”).

As we await the arrival of the birthday cake, Rivers launches into a story about a night in the early nineties when she performed at a big star-studded televised Comedy Central event at Radio City Music Hall. What I remember most about that night is how great she looked, how nervous she was in the limo as she ran her lines, and how she roared through her set and the audience went nuts. I have never once heard her brag about a performance. But now, at dinner, she is telling the group, “I walked in there and killed.” The disappointing part was what happened next. “They wanted to do, like, an original-cast moment. They wanted to put me up there with the Greats and the Has-Beens, you know what I’m telling you? I thought, What don’t you understand here? Don’t you put me out there with Phyllis Diller and Milton Berle. I was so angry that I wouldn’t stay for the finale. Into the limo!” She pauses. “But that night was a big night in my life.” And then she says, more quietly, “I was at such a low point then. And they were all coming over to me, all these comediennes, and each one has their own little show and I don’t. And they were all”—mockingly—“ ‘Thank you, Joan. I wouldn’t be where I am but for yoooou.’  ” She takes a big gulp of her wine. “You want to say to them, ‘I will show you how it’s done, pussycat. Follow that.’ ” Ω

[As a Contributing Editor for Vogue, Jonathan Van Meter writes about Hollywood, media, fashion, society, and politics. A regular contributor to the The New York Times Magazine and the founding Editor-in-Chief of Vibe magazine, Van Meter has also written for Esquire, New York, The New Yorker, New York Magazine, Vanity Fair, Out, The London Sunday Times, The Guardian, Allure, Spin, Spy, Tattler, and US, among other notable publications. He has lectured on magazine journalism and publishing at Fordham, Howard, Radcliffe, and Rice Universities. He was also featured in Maria Shriver's 1992 television special, "The Gay 90's." Van Meter's first (and only, to date) book is The Last Good Time (2008).]

Copyright © 2010, New York Media

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Sunday, May 30, 2010

The City Game: Take Your Grandkids To The Rack!

The two best books on playground basketball in NYC are Pete Axthelm's The City Game (1970, 1999) and Rick Telander's Heaven Is A Playground (1976, 2004). Today's NY Fishwrap carried a piece on playground hoops that explains a NYC playground player like Earl "The Goat" Manigault. The Great Wikipedia tells us that

Earl Manigault (09/07/44 – 05/15/98) was mentored by Holcombe Rucker. Manigault was particularly famous for his leaping abilities on the basketball court, including his signature move — the double dunk. He would dunk the ball, catch it with his left hand, switch the ball to his right hand, bring it back around to the top of the basket and jam it through again, all done while still in the air on a single jump, and without hanging on the rim. Like other street basketballers of the day such as Jackie Jackson, Earl was reportedly able to touch the top of the backboard to retrieve quarters and dollar bills, part of "elaborate innovations and tricks" elite street players of the era performed before games to help build their reputations. He was only 6'1", but wore ankle weights constantly during practice as a child which helped him to build up tremendous jumping ability. He once dunked two-handed during a game from near the foul line over two players much taller than himself (Vaughn Harper 6'6", Val Reed 6'8"). He once reverse dunked 36 times in a row to win a $60 bet. But to prove dunking wasn't his only skill, he would practice hundreds of shots each day, making him a deadly long-range shooter as well. Manigault played with some of the best players of his day, such as Earl Monroe, Connie Hawkins, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who went as far as calling Manigault the greatest player he had ever seen. When Abdul-Jabbar finished his career with the Los Angeles Lakers and had his number retired at the Los Angeles Forum, he was asked who was the greatest player he had played with or against. After a long silence, he answered, "That would have to be 'The Goat'."

And what drove "The Goat" and all of the other playground players in NYC to go to the rack and slam the rock home in the ultimate finish (hoops slang for scoring a field goal)? Clang! It was the rims on the backboards! If this is (fair & balanced) metal-working, so be it.

PS: Go Celts, beat the damn Lakers in 4!

[x NY Fishwrap]
Handmade Hoops Put The Clang Into New York Courts
By A.(rthur) G. Sulzberger

The old steel rim that presides over this public basketball court absorbs missed shots with an angry clank, sending the ball careening upward and the wood and metal backboard into a rickety seizure.

Like generations before them, the young men who play at the ramshackle court in St. Nicholas Park in Harlem know the rim is so troublesome that they tend to avoid perimeter jump shots in favor of aggressive drives to the basket, where perhaps its vagaries will be less pronounced.

“These are ghetto rims,” said Quaeshawn Berry, a lanky 14-year-old who is a regular at the park. “But I prefer these. I’ve been playing on these my whole life.”

These unforgiving, practically unbreakable orange rims — built so simply that there are no hooks to accommodate a net — are longstanding fixtures of the public basketball courts throughout New York City, where they play a minor, if usually overlooked, role in countless pick-up games.

But largely unknown to even the most devoted practitioners of the city game is that most of the basketball rims on these courts have been individually crafted by a team of blacksmiths who cut, weld and paint each by hand.

Using a century-old method that has long since vanished elsewhere, the half-dozen parks department employees — all basketball players themselves — have forged thousands of rims, each one worked into a microcosm of the local game.

“There are minor differences,” said John Fitzgerald, the longtime city blacksmith in charge of making the rims. “It’s like no snowflakes are exactly the same.”

Working from a hand-drawn blueprint, the blacksmiths use hammers and the horn of an anvil to shape the steel ring that serves as the hoop, welding it to several slabs of metal that form a support bolted to the backboard. The finished product is a remnant of an earlier era of the sport, somewhere on the evolutionary chain between the original wooden peach baskets and the modern spring-loaded breakaway rims used by the National Basketball Association.

Other cities, including those with their own share of contributions to basketball lore like Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and Newark, buy modern, factory-made rims. New York is among the few places, and possibly the only one, where municipal rims used at more than 700 public parks are still made by hand.

“I’m totally amazed that they still do it that way,” said Dan Shaw, an engineer and sales manager for Spalding and an expert on the history of basketball rims. “I would love to see one made.

“Walking in there would be like watching equipment made 100 years ago when there were no basketball manufacturers, when all the equipment was being made locally.”

There remains something of a cult of personality around the showy offshoot of basketball known as streetball, a pastime marked by elbows-out play, a casual commitment to the rulebook and makeshift facilities. That is particularly true in New York, where the public courts are credited with grooming generations of stars.

And while it is unclear what, if any, supporting role these immutable rims might have played, Jason Curry, president of Big Apple Basketball, which runs clinics and tournaments around the city, suggested that they might be one reason many of the best players who honed their games outside have historically been skilled at driving close to the hoop rather than shooting from distance.

“There are so many different variables that it makes it difficult to become a really good outside shooter on New York City playgrounds,” he said.

A streetball legend, Joe Hammond, who is better known by his nickname the Destroyer, said the New York rims were so tricky that he became focused on having his shots avoid them altogether, refusing to count points if the ball touched steel. “One thing about playing on the rims in the parks: you learn to adjust,” Mr. Hammond said.

But even in New York, the forging of rims may be an endangered art. Some of the city’s most celebrated courts, like Rucker Park in Harlem and the West Fourth Street Cage in the West Village, have made the switch to prefabricated rims, in part because the players there expect modern equipment. And when a new park is built or an existing one receives a full rehabilitation, a prefabricated rim is installed.

The prefabricated rims are not only more up to date, but they are also less expensive — typically costing other cities less than $60, compared with about $90 for the handmade rims, which includes about $65 for labor.

But officials from the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation say the handmade rims stand up better to the demands of New York players, so they will continue to be produced — at least to replace those that have been stolen or, in rare cases, damaged. (The rest of the time blacksmiths occupy themselves with an assortment of other tasks, like repairing park fences and building lifeguard chairs.)

“We have found its more economical to make them because they’re stronger, they last longer,” said Jim Cafaro, the deputy chief of technical services for the parks department. “So it’s cost-effective to do this.”

The design, which parks officials said was of unknown provenance, has been kept in a dusty composition notebook in the center of the cavernous workshop on Randalls Island underneath the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge, where 92 rims were made last year. The blacksmiths are in the process of vacating the 80-year-old building, so production of the rims has been temporarily suspended.

The machinery and tools, including the old anvil, will be moved to a new location. Left behind will be the old hoop that hangs over an oil-stained section of the shop, used for years of lunchtime games. “You have to have a nice touch for them because they’re solid,” said Eugene Desplantes, a metal worker who starred in those daily battles. “They’re not forgiving.”

Even if fewer of these rims are being made, those already in the parks are not going anywhere soon.

Those made with a slightly different design, which features a double rim and straight steel supports, were discontinued years ago but remain a common sight in schoolyards, public parks and small lots around the city.

They have survived endless rounds of slam dunks, and occasionally served as chin-up bars and, for the especially nimble, even as spectator seating. Once, the blacksmiths strung a cable around a rim inside the workshop, which they used to tow a van halfway off the ground. That led them to conclude that their handiwork was, with all due humility, indestructible.

“These are the strongest hoops you’ll ever find,” Mr. Fitzgerald said. “They last forever. You could hand them down to your grandkids.” Ω

[A.G. Sulzberger is the 29-year-old son and grandson of NY Fishwrap publishers Arthur ("Pinch") Sulzberger, Jr. and Arthur ("Punch") Sulzberger, Sr. The youngest Sulzberger ("Pending"?) received a BA in political science from Brown University.]

Copyright © 2010 The New York Times Company

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Saturday, May 29, 2010

Stormin' Norman

What a blog! 3rd-grade simple one day and Norman Mailer the next! Only in the best damn Reserve Room in that messy library known as cyberspace! If only Stormin' Norman had met the former Governor of Alaska in his prime. What a sublime dream matchup on some TV talk show that would have been. One of Mailer's best features was that he did not suffer fools gladly. If only.... If this is (fair & balanced) fantasy, so be it.

[x VF]
The Norman Conquests
By James Wolcott

Tag Cloud of the following article

created at

[What an active afterlife Norman Mailer has led! He’s left us behind and yet here he buzzes, a prodigious gossip item from beyond the grave. A writer who never stopped making news—from the age of 25, when his best-selling novel The Naked and the Dead captured the first beachhead of postwar American fiction, until his death at the age of 84 in 2007, when the critical ruckus over his final novel, The Castle in the Forest (a metaphysical proctology probe of the incipient evil of Adolf Hitler), shook the branches yet again—Mailer was too warrior-minded to let his words do all the talking. His fists and penis also played principal roles. Perhaps the most highly publicized American author of the modern era, the inheritor of Hemingway’s heavyweight-division machismo and cult of experience (taste that salty sea air, inhale that tarty perfume!), he punched his way through the paper walls of print to test himself on stage and screen (as scriptwriter, actor, and director), in the TV studio (behaving like a wrathful thundercloud in his infamous face-off with Gore Vidal on "The Dick Cavett Show"), on the feminist battlefield (“I’m not going to sit here and listen to you harridans harangue me,” he barked in the 1979 documentary "Town Bloody Hall"), at the political racetrack (he ran for mayor of New York in 1969), and inside the boxing ring (sparring with José Torres on "The Dick Cavett Show"). Violence attended a life driving forward along the knife edge of one’s nerves. Mailer made shock headlines for stabbing his second wife, Adele Morales, at a party after she called him a “faggot,” and for co-sponsoring the release of prisoner Jack Henry Abbott, who, shortly after parole, stabbed a waiter to death in the East Village. By the time Mailer’s life neared its end, however, the fevers he had aroused had mostly burned off, dissipating into the winter sky, his hair and reputation glinting with statesman-like silver. More modesty entered his manner, yet the scale of his intentions remained overarching. Unlike some novelists as they enter the wind-down phase, Mailer didn’t miniaturize his ambitions in his senior years, aiming instead high and wide with mammoths such as Harlot’s Ghost, Oswald’s Tale, and the first installment of the Hitler prose epic, The Castle in the Forest, conceived as a Thomas Mann-ish seven-volume swan song. He intended to go out the way he came in: big.

After death comes inevitable shrinkage, a diminution of interest that can taper off into near-total indifference. (When’s the last time Jerzy Kosinski’s name lit up the board?) An admirable support system and a prolific publishing rollout have kept the Mailer enterprise from suffering a similar posthumous dip. Founded in 2003, the Norman Mailer Society sponsors conferences and publishes a thick annual issue devoted to Maileriana, and Mailer’s former home in Provincetown, Massachusetts, has been converted into a writer’s colony, with scholarships offered. Reissues of his works pound off the presses, including The Faith of Graffiti and an extravagantly illustrated edition of Of a Fire on the Moon, titled MoonFire. Excerpts from Mailer’s tremendous correspondence have been published in The New Yorker, Playboy, and The New York Review of Books, and a new biography is being written by Stephen Schiff, a former contributing editor at Vanity Fair. All very fitting and worthy. But now some of the old bumps in the night have come back to bite, raising unwelcome questions.

Three memoirs have been published this year alone about contending with being inside the particle collider of Mailer’s company and charisma, testaments ranging from the doting and domestic Mornings with Mailer, by Dwayne Raymond, Mailer’s cook and assistant at the house in Provincetown, to the glittery but trauma-racked A Ticket to the Circus, by Norris Church, Mailer’s statuesque, pale-moon widow, to the score-settling Loving Mailer, by Carole Mallory, one of Mailer’s countless extra-curricular hotsies. Although diametrically opposite in tone and texture, the last two books bear the puncture marks of Mailer’s satyr horns.

Like so many conquering heroes of his literary generation (a male fraternity to which the critic Vivian Gornick has devoted so much frowning attention), Norman Mailer had a “woman problem” that bedeviled his reputation while he was extant and may have cost him sales—half of a potential audience is a lot of alienation of affection to risk—and will do it few favors with future readers and literary reckoners. It isn’t simply a matter of sensitive types recoiling when Mailer or one of his Don Draper alter egos imposes his will on women and the world with a firm sausage, as with the spirited buggery of the German maid in An American Dream, his bestowing the title of “Retaliator” on his cock in The Prisoner of Sex, or the alchemical qualities he ascribes to male ejaculate in the Marilyn Monroe biography. (“He sees it as a one-way process, of course,” wrote Pauline Kael in her review, mocking Mailer’s magic-squirt-gun theory.) Being a male chauvinist isn’t an automatic disqualifier in the fiction department, and there are novelists tagged with the misogynist label who have rendered sympathetic, perceptive, full-dimensional portraits of female characters (crusty Kingsley Amis’s Rhiannon in The Old Devils, John Updike’s Joan Maple in the Maples stories). The crippler is that in his writing Mailer was psychologically, creatively, empathetically tone-deaf when it came to women, his female characters a creamy mélange of angel-whores whose lipstick was ripe for smearing—a Playboy Bunny mansion of haughty bitches and breathy ditzes whose dialogue bore no resemblance to indoor speech. One of the imponderables about Mailer’s career is that even though he bobbed and deep-sea’d in an ocean of women—six wives, countless mistresses and casual flings, five daughters—he doesn’t seem to have actually learned anything from them, because he never really listened. Because who needs to listen when you insist on and succeed in getting nearly everything your own way? Genius has its privileges, and male prerogative provides extra thrust.

It’s difficult to forgive Mailer for the wringer he put Norris Church through, even if forgiveness isn’t ours to withhold or grant. In A Ticket to the Circus, the former teacher and model describes her unlikely romance and marriage with Mailer in a memoir that is generous, sweet, well observed, harrowing in its recounting of a rape and a miscarriage, and occasionally waspish, but never unkind. Although Mailer serenaded her with love letters the likes of which Abelard never wrote Eloise (“Darling, I just had a picture of how you look in the morning with that incredible beauty in your face as if you’d been fucking a stag in your dreams and he said something lovely as he left you in my arms”—fancy that, a talking stag!), prominent bystanders, wise to Norman’s ways, waved caution flags to warn her of heartbreak ahead. Elizabeth Hardwick, novelist and essayist, cautioned “with that croaky little giggle she had” not to let him get her pregnant, and Congresswoman Bella Abzug, whose voice, Mailer once wrote, could boil the fat off a cabdriver’s neck, gave Norris her phone number as a 24-hour personal emergency hotline. Norris shooed away such well-intended, buttinsky advice, and her May–December romance with Norman resulted in a marriage whose installments became a staple of the gossip columns and celebrity spreads, her Juno-esque height and his howitzer stare embossing them as one of New York’s most totemic 80s couples, matching accessories. Unlike Mailer’s previous marriages, this one looked as if it would be his climactic toreador turn in the matrimonial ring, his final Picasso period. Asked which Mailer wife was she, Norris would tartly reply, “The last one,” and so she proved to be.

But at what a bruising and exacting price, a long season of blight and betrayal that cannot fail to leave discolored memories that even death can’t entirely pacify. It began with a twitchy suspicion, a bit of dodgy behavior from Mailer during a trip to California (an uncharacteristic late-night phone call in which “he was vague and defensive and obviously had been drinking”), along with credit-card receipts from Chicago, which hadn’t been on the itinerary. He claimed he had made the unscheduled stop to meet with Saul Bellow about a joint project, a fib so preposterous that it collapsed as soon as the Alpha-Bits sputtered out of his mouth. Busted, Mailer confessed to meeting with an old girlfriend, but it was no one-off for auld lang syne; Norris tugged on the loose string in the evidence chain and found herself deluged by a balloon drop of floozies, a Clinton-esque bimbo explosion. (Interestingly, Norris reveals in the book that she had a brief tryst with the future president.) Mailer’s desk bulged with letters, notes, gifts, and photographs from girlfriends, including a stack of nudies from “an aging porn star,” the kind of tender keepsake with which so many men would find it difficult to part. Mailer’s rationale for his furtive rampage of satyriasis was that he had begun living a double life and was conducting covert operations in the sack while working on his C.I.A. epic, Harlot’s Ghost, a writer’s version of a Method actor getting into character. “It was an imaginative excuse. I do give him credit for that,” Norris writes. But given the long gestation of Harlot’s Ghost, this meant that for half of their marriage up till then, 8 out of the 16 years, “he was totally, blindingly, a cheat.” Adding insult to infidelity, she finds herself bumping into her husband’s former harem partners on book tours and at parties, forced to restrain herself from whipping out Wonder Woman’s golden lasso on one of these hussies for fear the paparazzi would have a field day. “Why had I been so consumed by this old, fat, bombastic, lying little dynamo?,” Norris Church asks in the reeling aftermath. But they patched themselves together and toughed it out until the last round, through the faltering arc of his infirmities and her unsparing bouts of cancer, kidney pain, and intestinal operations, bound by devotion, attrition, and too much shared history to declare their marriage kaput.

What has this to do with Mailer’s literary legacy? Not listening to women in general handicapped Mailer’s fiction and not listening to Norris in particular was a literary felony, like refusing to ask for directions and driving hundreds of miles into the mouth of mounting despair. She implored him to junk the interminable narrative detours in Harlot’s Ghost that took the novel so wearily astray, losing readers in droves, and lobbied in vain for him to fix the clangers in his screenplay of his pulp novel Tough Guys Don’t Dance (including the immortal howler “Oh, man, oh God, oh man, oh God, oh man, oh God, oh shit and shinola,” uttered by Ryan O’Neal, looking as if he wants to enter a witness-protection program for mortified actors). Raymond’s Mornings with Mailer records that Norris was none too enthused by the prospect of her husband’s Hitler opera cycle and of having the top floor of their house converted into something resembling “a Nazi propaganda vault”: “Her feeling was that any subject floating around in the house that was so inherently evil could not be good.” How right her premonitions were, given the dense spoilage that The Castle in the Forest became. If only he had heeded her!

But heedlessness was what helped propel this human cannonball into the highs of The Armies of the Night and the other daredevil triumphs as well as the belly flops into the sawdust where he wildly, erratically overshot. For better (brash, brilliant, generous, ebullient, defiant) or worse (stubborn, bullying, hyperbolic, coarse), he was what he was, and to wish otherwise is to play nursemaid in hindsight. Still, this woman thing—it’s a stickler. Literary scholarship has peeled away Hemingway’s hearty bluster to reveal an androgynous side hidden under his safari jacket, but I don’t see that happening here. Ω

[James Wolcott joined Vanity Fair as a contributing editor in 1983, left in 1992 to be a staff writer at The New Yorker, and returned in 1997. He writes a monthly column covering the media, politics, and pop culture. In 2003, he received a National Magazine Award for Reviews and Criticism. Wolcott began his career in the circulation department of The Village Voice in 1972 and became a regular contributor two years later, writing some of the earliest articles about the punk scene. Wolcott has written numerous reviews for such publications as The New Republic, The New Criterion, and The Nation. He is also the author of The Catsitters (2001), a novel, as well as Attack Poodles and Other Media Mutants (2004). Wolcott attended Maryland's Frostburg State College for two years. From there, he moved to New York City to work at The Village Voice.]

Copyright © 2010 Vanity Fair — Condé Nast Digital

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Friday, May 28, 2010

Ancestor (Non-)Worship?

When Glenn Dreck stumped the former Governor of Alaska by asking her, "Which Founding Father is your favorite, Sarah?" The Bitch of The North paused and replied: "All of 'em, Glenn." In this time of Teabaggers and their nonsense about The Founding Fathers and today's judicial proponents of originalism, below is a handy Top Ten List. Feel free to e-mail this page to the former Governor of Alaska. If this is (fair & balanced) civil religion, so be it.

PS: CLick on the More: links below for Top Ten images (and more info about GW, TJ, and the rest).

PPS: The third-grade reading-level is apporpriate for the former Governor of Alaska and, at the end o'the day, one of her handlers can say, "What did we learn today, Governor?" And the dumbest of all True Republican Women can reply, "All of 'em."

PPPS: The Austin Fishwrap (05/20/10) supplied a wonderful editorial 'toon by Ben Sargent that speaks volumes about the worshippers of the Founding Father in these times.

Top 10 Founding Fathers
By Martin Kelly

1. George Washington — George Washington was a member of the First Continental Congress. He was then chosen to lead the Continental Army. He was the president of the Constitutional Convention and of course became the first president of the United States. In all these leadership positions, he showed a steadfastness of purpose and helped create the precedents and foundations that would form America.
More: George Washington Biography

2. John Adams — John Adams was an important figure in both the First and Second Continental Congresses. He was on the committee to draft the Declaration of Independence and was central to its adoption. Because of his foresight, George Washington was named Commander of the Continental Army at the Second Continental Congress. He was chosen to help negotiate the Treaty of Paris that officially ended the American Revolution. He later became the first vice president and then the second president of the United States.
More: John Adams Biography

3. Thomas Jefferson — Thomas Jefferson, as a delegate to the Second Continental Congress, was chosen to be part of a Committee of Five that would draft the Declaration of Independence. He was unanimously picked to write the Declaration. He was then sent to France as a diplomat after the Revolution and then returned to become first the vice president under John Adams and then the third president.
More: Thomas Jefferson Biography

4. James Madison — James Madison was known as the Father of the Constitution, for he was responsible for writing much of it. Further, with John Jay and Alexander Hamilton, he was one of the authors of the Federalist Papers that helped persuade the states to accept the new Constitution. He was responsible for drafting the Bill of Rights that were added to the Constitution in 1791. He helped organize the new government and later became the fourth president of the United States.
More: James Madison Biography

5. Benjamin Franklin — Benjamin Franklin was considered the elder statesman by the time of the Revolution and later Constitutional Convention. He was a delegate to the Second Continental Congress. He was part of the Committee of Five that was to draft the Declaration of Independence and made corrections that Jefferson included in his final draft. Franklin was central to getting French aid during the American Revolution. He also helped with negotiating the Treaty of Paris that ended the war.
More: Benjamin Franklin Biography

6. Samuel Admas — Samuel Adams was a true revolutionary. He was one of the founders of the Sons of Liberty. His leadership helped organize the Boston Tea Party. He was a delegate to both the First and Second Continental Congresses and fought for the Declaration of Independence. He also helped draft the Articles of Confederation. He helped write the Massachusetts Constitution and became its governor.
More: Samuel Adams Biography

7. Thomas Paine — Thomas Paine was the author of a very important pamphlet called Common Sense that was published in 1776. He wrote a compelling argument for independence from Great Britain. His pamphlet convinced many colonists and founding fathers of the wisdom of open rebellion against the British if necessary. Further, he published another pamphlet called The Crisis during the Revolutionary War that helped spur on the soldiers to fight.
More: Thomas Paine Biography

8. Patrick Henry — Patrick Henry was a radical revolutionary who was unafraid to speak up against Great Britain at an early date. He is most famous for his speech which includes the line, "Give me liberty or give me death." He was a governor of Virginia during the Revolution. He also helped fight for the addition of the Bill of Rights to the US Constitution, a document with which he disagreed because of its strong federal powers.
More: Patrick Henry Biography

9. Alexandert Hamilton — Alexander Hamilton fought in the Revolutionary War. However, his true importance came about after the war when he was a huge proponent for the US Constitution. He, along with John Jay and James Madison, wrote the Federalist Papers in an effort to secure support for the document. Once Washington was elected as the first president, Hamilton was made the first Secretary of the Treasury. His plan for getting the new country on its feet economically was instrumental in forming a sound financial basis for the new republic.
More: Alexander Hamilton Biography

10. Gouverneur Morris — Gouverneur Morris was an accomplished statesman who ushered in the idea of a person being a citizen of the USA, not the individual states. He was part of the Second Continental Congress and as such helped provide legislative leadership to back up George Washington in his fight against the British. He signed the Articles of Confederation. He is credited with writing parts of the Constitution including possibly its preamble.
More: Gouverneur Morris Biography Ω

[Martin H. Kelly taught for eight years as a Secondary School Social Studies teacher. He is currently the Director of Curriculum for the Florida Virtual School and developed the AP American History Course for the school. He also wrote (with Melissa Kelly) The Everything American Presidents Book (2007) and (again with Melissa Kelly) Government (Colonial Life) (2007). Kelly holds a Bachelor's in History with a Classics Minor and a Master's in Instruction and Curriculum from the University of Florida.]

Copyright © 2010 — a part of The New York Times Company.

Get the Google Reader at no cost from Google. Click on this link to go on a tour of the Google Reader. If you read a lot of blogs, load Reader with your regular sites, then check them all on one page. The Reader's share function lets you publicize your favorite posts.Copyright © 2010 Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The 1st Salvo Of The Sesquicentennial Of The War Between The States Of The Rebellion?

In today's Austin Fishwrap, the local Enormous State University is grappling with the legacy of the war that almost destroyed the Land O'The Free and the Home O'The Brave nearly 150 years ago. A dormitory named for a long-ago law school prof who founded the Ku Klux Klan in Florida before he relocated to Austin is one controversy. Another campus brouhaha is statuary on campus that honors Confederate leaders and the Confederacy itself.

Earlier this spring the Dumbo governor of Virginia (Bob McDonnell) attempted to declare April to be "Confederate History Month" in the Old Dominion. The Dumbo Governor mentioned nary a word about slavery in his foolish — and later amended — proclamation.

Then a week or so ago, the Dumbo nominee for the U.S. Senate from KY — the state, not the jelly — (Randal H. [Rand] Paul) got tangled up in rejecting the Fair Housing Act, the Americans With Disabilities Act, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In the case of the last civil rights law, Senate-nominee Paul advocated the right of private businesses that provide public accommodations to discriminate on the basis of race ("Whites Only"). Perhaps Randal Paul, MD only treats the sclera in his opthamology practice in Bowling Green, KY.

So it would seem that we are doomed to keep fighting the old battles of the KKK, separate, but equal, and "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever." Old Confederates never die, they just smell that way. If this is a (fair & balanced) rejection of the Lost Cause, so be it.

[x WQ]
America’s Changeable Civil War
By Christopher Clausen

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As the Civil War Sesquicentennial approaches cruising speed, North and South look a great deal more alike than they did on the eve of the war’s last great anniversary just 50 years ago. That much-heralded celebration coincided with the rise of the civil rights movement with a precision that was almost too good to be true. A century after Gettysburg, President John F. Kennedy had just proposed the bill that would become the Civil Rights Act of 1964. When the centennial of Appomattox rolled around, Congress was about to pass the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and few people were paying much attention to ceremonies on old battlefields.

The fact that the White House is now occupied by a man born during the Civil War Centennial to a mother from Kansas and a father from Kenya represents a historical development hardly imaginable at the time, yet all but the most regressive now accept it as perfectly natural. The major civil rights laws of the 1960s are so well established that whatever disagreements may arise in their application, few Americans understand—or can even imagine—what life was like without them. Sometimes progress takes the form of historical amnesia.

Yet the question of what the Civil War was about, and therefore what was actually won and lost, is less settled than you might expect after 150 years. Both sides fought with determination, but their motives were shifting and sometimes ambiguous. To add to the confusion, as soon as conflict ended, the losing party readjusted its position sufficiently to win back in peacetime not only a more positive historical reputation, but some very tangible benefits.

When Jefferson Davis of Mississippi resigned from the U.S. Senate after his state left the Union—the second to do so, after South Carolina seceded on December 20, 1860—he made a much-praised speech explaining his reasons. The essence of it was simple: “We but tread in the paths of our fathers when we proclaim our independence... not in hostility to others, not to injure any section of the country, not even for our own pecuniary benefit, but from the high and solemn motive of defending and protecting the rights we inherited, and which it is our duty to transmit unshorn to our children.” Defenders of the South since the war have taken much the same position. The 11 states that briefly constituted the Confederacy left the Union, they have said, for much the same reason the original 13 colonies left the British Empire. They fought to protect what they considered inalienable rights.

Not only did most secessionists believe in the constitutionality of their actions, the Pulitzer Prize–winning historian James M. McPherson has argued; they did indeed represent “traditional rights and views” about the relationship between the states and central government, views about which the North had largely changed its mind since the adoption of the Constitution. That is not to say that slavery was not the fundamental issue, in McPherson’s view; it was indeed slavery, he asserts, that made the North-South division deep and irreconcilable. The election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, along with a Republican Congress hostile to the interests of the South, led those who favored secession—an overwhelming majority of white Southerners, McPherson concludes—to feel that the North had violated the compact embodied by the Union. Secession amounted to a preemptive counterrevolution against the Republicans’ revolution.

Whether or not they owned slaves, Southerners almost universally professed the doctrine known then and now as states’ rights, grounded in the federal system as originally understood, at least by the followers of Thomas Jefferson. When the South lost, states’ rights lost with it, and the unquestionable supremacy of the central government has been with us ever since. That abstract phrase “states’ rights” as used before the Civil War immediately prompts the question, states’ rights to what? “The right to own slaves,” McPherson explains, “the right to take this property into the territories; freedom from the coercive powers of a centralized government.”

There is, of course, no logical connection between local autonomy and racial oppression. Insofar as they coincided in this instance, it was an accident of history, as some perceptive contemporaries recognized. Bound up with the defense of an odious institution to which the South had committed itself in word and deed were some positive values—the federal system, limited government, the defense of one’s homeland against long odds—that many Americans in both the North and the South would continue to profess. Lord Acton, the English apostle of liberty, strongly supported the Confederacy while loathing slavery. “History,” he explained, “does not work with bottled essences, but with active combinations.” Acton defended his position by arguing that a federal structure like the American one, whose balance of central and local powers he felt the North was destroying, would be the best means for a future united Europe to avoid the dangers of nationalism. He was a man in some ways clearly ahead of his time.

For the seven states that seceded first, however, distinguishing between slavery and states’ rights was a waste of breath. These were the Cotton States, and four of them—South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, and Texas—issued mini-declarations of independence explaining what possessed them to end a union that had begun in revolution 85 years earlier. Fortunately for the Confederacy, whose success depended in large part on achieving recognition and assistance from antislavery Europe, these declarations, with their tedious legalisms and tendentious histories of the slavery controversy in American politics, went largely unread. South Carolina complained that Northerners had systematically shirked their constitutional obligation to return escaped slaves and were now inciting “servile insurrection.” Texas made similar claims in pseudo-Jeffersonian language, adding for good measure that the federal government had failed to protect white Texans from raids by hostile Indians and Mexican “banditti.” In a rare lapidary sentence, Jefferson Davis’s Mississippi candidly proclaimed: “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery—the greatest material interest of the world.”

Because slavery is one feature of the American past that long ago lost all its defenders, explaining the war solely in these terms almost requires portraying it as a conflict of good against evil. Many academic historians who fervently support diplomatic compromise and peace processes in today’s world largely endorse the Lincoln administration’s refusal of those means in the 1860s and its determination to prevail unconditionally, no matter what the scale of death and devastation. This shift in the interpretations of historians became dominant after the civil rights movement and can be seen even in the titles of major works, as the Mississippi novelist Shelby Foote’s evenhanded The Civil War: A Narrative (1958–1974) was soon challenged by McPherson’s more militant Battle Cry of Freedom (1988). The Lincoln administration’s gradual transition from reluctant prosecutor of a war undertaken merely to save the Union to the Emancipation Proclamation and, by 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment, is one of the familiar legends of American history.

Less familiar is the postbellum change of emphasis by Southern writers in their depiction of the motives behind the Confederate cause, from the defense of slavery to the more abstract and sympathetic protection of limited government, states’ rights, and the freedom of a local majority to decide its own political destiny. Identifying their new nation inextricably with slavery made foreign support more difficult to attract, especially once the North decided it was explicitly fighting for emancipation. By the same token, once defeat came, Southerners who wished to save something from the ruins needed to redefine their reasons for resisting so valiantly. This necessity applied not only to the historical record, but also to their immediate political needs in grappling with Reconstruction.

Edward A. Pollard, a Richmond newspaper editor, began writing a history of the war almost as soon as it began and published several installments while it was still going on. In explaining secession to Southern readers in 1862, he recounted at length the controversy over slavery from its beginnings through the Missouri Compromise of 1820, the Compromise of 1850, and Bleeding Kansas down to what he saw as the North’s treachery in embracing Hinton Rowan Helper’s antislavery tract The Impending Crisis of the South (1857) and John Brown’s effort to start a slave rebellion with his raid at Harpers Ferry in 1859. Treachery was, Pollard maintained, the basis of nearly all Northern politics, and was demonstrated even by those Northerners who seemed to share Southern convictions about the scope of federal power: “While acting with the South on empty or accidental issues,” he complained, “the ‘State Rights’ men of the North were, for all practical purposes, the faithful allies of the open and avowed consolidationists on the question that most seriously divided the country—that of negro slavery.” Sneering at the successive compromises that had averted war for so long, Pollard praised the militancy of South Carolina and ended his account of the war’s background with a portentous description of the state of affairs on the day of Lincoln’s inauguration: “Abolitionism and Fanaticism had not yet lapped blood. But reflecting men saw that the peace was deceitful and temporizing; that the temper of the North was impatient and dark; and that, if all history was not a lie, the first incident of bloodshed would be the prelude to a war of monstrous proportions.”

When Pollard published a complete version of his history for a national audience in 1866 under the title The Lost Cause, his account of the war’s background underwent considerable alteration. Although “a political North and a political South” were already recognized when the Constitution was adopted, slavery was not really the issue. “The slavery question is not to be taken as an independent controversy in American politics. It was not a moral dispute. It was the mere incident of a sectional animosity”—that is, a pretext for the North’s jealousy of the South’s greater power in the early Republic.

While protesting that Southern slavery “was really the mildest in the world,” Pollard declared tactfully that “we shall not enter upon the discussion of the moral question of slavery.” As an institution, it was gone forever; defending it now would simply prejudice Northern readers further against the South. Instead, he repeated, “the slavery question was not a moral one in the North, unless, perhaps, with a few thousand persons of disordered conscience. It was significant only of a contest for political power, and afforded nothing more than a convenient ground of dispute between two parties, who represented not two moral theories, but hostile sections and opposite civilizations.” Needless to say, Southern civilization in Pollard’s eyes was more elevated and honorable than that of the “coarse and materialistic” North.

Pollard’s immensely popular book quickly became the standard Southern history of the war, a status it retained for decades in part because it made slavery a side issue in a war that was really fought by the South for states’ legitimate rights and by the North for sheer power. This position, still popular among Southern commemorative organizations and Confederate reenactors, made possible the abiding romantic image of the Lost Cause. It was not made up entirely out of whole cloth. As a Virginian, Pollard had pointed out even in 1862 that the states of the upper South (Virginia, North Carolina, Arkansas, and Tennessee) chose not to secede over Lincoln’s election and left the Union only when the North began a war of coercion against their departed sisters. Since Virginia was the most important Southern state, site of more battles than any other, and home of the preeminent Confederate hero, Robert E. Lee (a man who had reluctantly followed his reluctant state out of the Union), its motives and sufferings were crucial to rehabilitating the failed Confederacy itself.

Another newspaper editor, Henry Grady of Atlanta, proved even more successful at restoring the South’s honor by retouching the historical record. “The New South,” a much-reprinted 1886 speech Grady delivered to an audience of New Englanders, stands as a completed monument to a civilization that had fought gallantly for eminently moral reasons, lost through no fault of its own, and was now starting anew better than ever—a region of honorable gentlemen and pure ladies whom any nation would be proud to embrace as fellow citizens. After paying graphic tribute to the poor “hero in gray with a heart of gold” returning from Appomattox to a devastated homeland, he turned to the demise of slavery: “The South found her jewel in the toad’s head of defeat. The shackles that had held her in narrow limitations fell forever when the shackles of the Negro slave were broken. Under the old regime, the Negroes were slaves to the South, the South was a slave to the system.” Without slavery, the South was far better off than it had been before the war. “The New South,” Grady announced, “presents a perfect democracy,” in which former masters and former slaves alike would experience “the light of a grander day.” It was an age of florid oratory.

When he spoke of the war itself, Grady, whose father had died for the Confederacy, was less conciliatory. “The South has nothing for which to apologize. She believes that the late struggle between the States was war and not rebellion, revolution and not conspiracy, and that her convictions were as honest as yours. I should be unjust to the dauntless spirit of the South and to my own convictions if I did not make this plain in this presence. The South has nothing to take back.” For Grady and his enthusiastic audiences, the outcome of the war spoke for itself, and his assurance that the New South fully accepted reunion and emancipation left no fundamental issues unresolved. As Shelby Foote described the beginnings of postwar harmony, “the victors acknowledged that the Confederates had fought bravely for a cause they believed was just and the losers agreed it was probably best for all concerned that the Union had been preserved.”

After 1865, then, Southern apologists hardly ever claimed that the country or the region would have been better off had slavery survived. States’ rights, of course, was another matter. A decade before Grady put the final rhetorical seal on it, the subtle alteration in the Southern position had encouraged Northerners to revert to what might be called “default federalism,” a more traditional understanding of the constitutional system modified only by the conclusion that slavery and secession had been settled for all time. Fifteen years after Fort Sumter, ordinary citizens in the North and their political leaders were looking for an exit strategy from a devastated, occupied, but still defiant South in the throes of the bitterly hated Reconstruction. The outcome of the 1876 presidential election was disputed amid massive fraud, and a commission ultimately had to settle it. The eventual result was a bargain that historians today, following C. Vann Woodward’s classic Reunion and Reaction (1951), uniformly denounce as the shameful beginning of an era of segregation and white supremacy that lasted until the middle of the 20th century.

The South agreed, in effect, to allow the Republican candidate, Rutherford B. Hayes, to take office. The new president and congressional leadership agreed in turn to withdraw the last occupation troops from the South and let the vanquished run their ruined states according to their own prejudices. Broadly speaking, state governments were free to pass any laws that did not overtly challenge the authority of the federal government or outrage the elastic conscience of a national majority. So long as they made no attempt to secede or reinstitute slavery, white Southerners were free to build monuments to the Confederate soldier in every county seat, romanticize the Lost Cause to their hearts’ content, and deny the rights of citizenship to anyone with a visible fraction of African DNA.

This agreement, sometimes referred to as the Compromise of 1877, finally ended the Civil War, though at a heavy cost. That it sold out the recently freed slaves is beyond question. So, unfortunately, is the fact that a deal of this sort was unavoidable. If you force the inhabitants of 11 states to remain part of your country after defeating them in a conflict that took 600,000 lives, but shrink from ruling them indefinitely by martial law, you have to compromise sooner or later in ways that may distress future generations. As Woodward expressed it in a 1958 speech at Gettysburg College, the North had fought the war and imposed Reconstruction for three reasons: to save the Union, to abolish slavery, and, more equivocally, to bring about racial equality. The first two aims were achieved and soon accepted, however grudgingly, by the South. The third, seemingly assured by constitutional amendments and supporting legislation, was bargained away for most of another century.

“It would be an ironic, not to say tragic, coincidence,” Woodward wrote on the eve of the Centennial, “if the celebration of the anniversary took place in the midst of a crisis reminiscent of the one celebrated.” Now that that second crisis too is a matter of history, its timing a hundred years after secession seems nearly inevitable. By that time Southerners and Northerners had fought on the same side in two world wars, and the solidity of the Union was beyond question. The rusty, clanking apparatus of institutionalized inequality had finally become such a widely recognized contradiction to official American values, highlighted both by our Cold War adversary’s propaganda and our own television news broadcasts, that the days of the post–Civil War compromise were clearly numbered. Without ever fully agreeing on the rights and wrongs of the war itself, the nation at last attended to its most ignominious legacy—the hard bargain through which reunification had been accomplished.
Read a blog post from Christopher Clausen on the controversy surrounding Virginia's Confederate History Month. Ω

[Christopher Clausen is a retired Professor of English at The Pennsylvania State University. He holds the follwing degrees: Ph.D. Queen's University (Canada), M.A. University of Chicago, and B.A. Earlham College. He has written four books: Faded Mosaic: The Emergence of Post-Cultural America (2000), My Life with President Kennedy (1994), The Moral Imagination (1986), and The Place of Poetry (1981).]

Copyright © 2010 The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars

Get the Google Reader at no cost from Google. Click on this link to go on a tour of the Google Reader. If you read a lot of blogs, load Reader with your regular sites, then check them all on one page. The Reader's share function lets you publicize your favorite posts.Copyright © 2010 Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves