New York in History and Anecdote
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Category — Old Smoke

Michael Rosano, City Hall Insider

The first month’s name honors the god Janus, whose two faces let him simultaneously contemplate past and future. I suspect most of us look backwards, contemplating time spent, which increasingly for me is marked by death.

In my college’s quarterly alumni newsletter, nearly 25 years after my graduation, an increasing number of familiar names appear among the obituaries. I was throwing out old papers in yet another failed attempt to clean my office when I noticed an obituary I had clipped from The New York Times. Michael Rosano, who was and still is my friend, died a little more than a year ago, on October 13, 2000. He was 42 years old. He was a rarity: a political animal who was also a human being.

I first met him 20 years ago this month. On January 1, 1982, I attended the inauguration of Andrew Stein as Manhattan borough president. I would work for Stein, on and off, for the next 11 years. (My rabbi, Walter McCaffrey, introduced me to the Stein staff. Walter is neither Jewish nor a religious sage, although one would always be better off for heeding his wise advice. According to Lardner and Reppetto’s NYPD, this use of the word “rabbi” is peculiar to New York, dating from the late 19th century when some Irish Catholic police officer first used the term to refer to the senior officer or politician, usually also Irish Catholic, who was his mentor, protector, and counselor.)

Anyway, I was by then a self-taught editor and speechwriter, so I ended up in the Borough President’s press office, where Michael’s desk was conveniently located in the far corner, out of the line of sight of anyone bursting in the door to see the press secretary. Michael and I both came from Albany County: he from the city of Albany and I from Latham, which is, as F. Lee Bailey once said in a courtroom speech, “an unincorporated hamlet.” Albany is the last fortress of upstate yellow-dog Democracy. Among the family legends is my grandfather’s explanation of an infected hand: he had brushed the GOP lever on a voting machine. Even Michael only once admitted to voting for a Republican, although he was excused his apostasy because she was a woman and an Italian, and she lost.

Michael was darkly handsome, gentle, and dryly humorous. He often claimed that, although born of Italian heritage and a gay man (someone once called him “the capo di tutti frutti”), his soul was that of an uppity Jewish woman from the Upper West Side. A few weeks ago, while watching Robin Bartlett’s wonderful performance in Richard Greenberg’s Everett Beekin, I found tears in my eyes because, somehow, her manner and intonation vividly reminded me of my friend’s manner of camping it up.

We both took politics seriously while taking politicians lightly, so we hit it off. He had studied English literature at New York University and written for the school’s daily paper. Occasionally, after the second or third drink, he murmured about interviewing Sid Vicious at the Chelsea Hotel. “Mr. Vicious,” as Michael insisted on calling him, had received Michael in the squalid room the singer then shared with Nancy Spungeon. Sid was nearly stupefied when he opened the door to the boy reporter, and his answers were increasingly tangential and then incoherent. Finally he fell asleep between one sentence and another. Michael called the musician’s name a couple of times. The only replies were snores. Michael picked up his notebook and stole silently away.

Michael entered politics in 1976, when he volunteered to work for the great Bella Abzug in her Democratic primary campaign for the U.S. Senate against Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Michael was unusual for an 18-year-old in politics: he was efficient, hardworking, and enduringly patient, and Mrs. Abzug’s managers took note of him. After his graduation from NYU, Michael briefly worked at Channel 13, where, as in most not-for-profit organizations, the infighting might have tested the political skills of the Borgias. Then he came to the Manhattan Borough President’s office.

Michael was the first openly gay man whom I knew well. He told me that he had known from childhood that he was gay (I found nothing odd in this: I knew I liked women at the age of six, although I could not have told you why). His family loved him; his colleagues trusted and respected him. Nonetheless, he felt alienated, with a mild sense of always being the Other nearly everywhere save among his friends or among gay people. Despite his gracious manners and self-control, he bitterly resented anyone who did not accept his right to live as he wished without criticism or discrimination. In particular, he developed an antipathy to organized Christianity in general and Roman Catholicism in particular, although his relationships with individual priests and ministers were often quite friendly.

We have lived with AIDS as both a disease and a political question for nearly a generation. It first became prominent during the initial year or two of our friendship. Back when a citizen could still stand on the front steps of City Hall without the mayor’s prior permission, ACT UP, the gay and lesbian activist group, chained shut the Hall’s doors as protest against some forgotten municipal failure. I was then inside the building, sitting at a desk. In common with most folks in City Hall back in those days, I felt inconvenienced but not terrorized.  Politicians then understood that being the target of the public’s wrath was part of the job description. Probably we understood too that, at best, most City Hall politicos are hacks with good intentions. We would have laughed to think ourselves as important as city politicians seem to think themselves now—so essential to public life that they must be protected by effectively barring the people from City Hall.

Anyway, there was not much else to do until the guys from the Department of General Services appeared with the bolt cutters. The telephone rang. It was Michael. From my point of view, he was safely across the street in the Municipal Bldg.

“What’s happening?”

“Well,” I replied, “we’re being held hostage in City Hall by gay terrorists.”

“In your case, they have a good reason,” he replied, and hung up.

His experience of seeing friends die radicalized and hardened him. He believed that the government was responsible for solving the problem, in part because the public sector can throw an infinity of tax dollars at a problem, which many believe will solve it sooner or later; in part because he did not believe the free market would devise an affordable cure for the disease in time to save his friends; and in part because his political ideas were expressed through the rhetoric and legal precedents of earlier civil rights movements, all of which had relied on state intervention to further their agendas. He thus focused his talents on furthering government intervention by learning how one quietly amended statutes or modified budgets, the kind of practical political work that few ideologues bother to master because it often requires years of heartbreaking work.

As Michael gradually became an insider, he never forgot being an outsider. This meant his more radical acquaintances hurt him more deeply than they could have known when they called him a sellout. The best proof of Michael’s humanity was that he could tell these idiots to go to hell, and mean it, and still take their calls the following day.

He never lost his humanity. A Democrat clubhouse lawyer told this Michael Rosano story over drinks at Dusk on 24th Street. This guy intends to marry his girlfriend at a big formal event on Cape Cod in June 1991. He decides to go through a civil ceremony in front of a judge in November 1990 so the girlfriend might share his health insurance benefits. They get the license from the city clerk. Then the lovebirds realize they need two witnesses to the ceremony. For that matter, they need a celebrant. On the morning of the blessed event, this guy pokes his head into the office of the judge for whom he then works and asks whether she would mind performing the ceremony that afternoon. The judge, whose infinite patience is much taxed by this guy, replies, “Yes, I’ll do it. You really believe in advance notice, don’t you?”

The would-be bride talks her cousin, the pastry chef, into being her witness. The guy has a busy day and understandably forgets about getting his witness until about an hour before the big event. At the 11th hour, he knows there is only one man he can rely on. Like several thousand people who have outrageously imposed on Michael in the past, this guy is right.

He sprints from the Tombs to the Municipal Building, takes the elevator up to the 15th floor (there were no metal detectors in the lobby then) and sticks his head into Rosano’s office. Rosano, as usual, is on the telephone. This guy asks Michael to stand witness at his wedding in 15 minutes. “Sure,” Rosano replies. “Thanks for all the notice.”

The judge is conducting a murder trial when Michael, the pastry chef, and the blushing bride, in Dior suit and big hat with bouquet in hand, sweep up to the courtroom door. A court officer asked, “Who’s getting married?” The bride, who then and throughout her marriage is never at a loss for words, seizes Rosano’s hand and replies, “Michael and I are tying the knot.” Michael and the court officer arch their eyebrows into their respective hairlines. As the bridal party enters the courtroom where the judge is conducting a murder trial, the Assistant District Attorney asks the witness, “Is this the knife that you saw in the hand of the defendant?” Michael turns to the bride and pats her on the arm, murmuring, “So auspicious for our wedding, dear.”

He moved from government to lobbying and back to government, ending his career as deputy communications director to state Sen. Martin Connor, then the minority leader of the state senate. He worked harder than ever, and as do most who remain young in spirit, neglected his health, certain that he would live forever. When he was finally diagnosed with cancer, his condition was nearly untreatable.

Michael was as principled in death as in life: his estrangement from the church in which he had been born and raised was so profound that he requested no religious service over his remains. Last spring, his friends celebrated his life at New York University. Every seat was taken and there was standing room only in the hall. There was some rhetoric, which he would have tolerated, having written a bit of it himself. However, those who knew him best spoke of his hard work, kindness, wit, and blithe courage in the face of his own death, which takes some doing. One speaker called Michael a foul-weather friend, and quoted Maurice Baring’s “In Memoriam, AH,” which seemed right:

No one shall take your place.
No other face

Can fill that empty frame.

— January 8, 2002, New York Press

May 24, 2015   No Comments

The Road of Hubris

Occasionally, we think about investments we  could have made that might have made us rich. Armed with clairvoyance, who would not have sunk the farm into Microsoft, back when Bill Gates was a nebbish? But we probably would have put our money into AT&T, U.S. Steel or Western Union—sound investments that would become much riskier through technological change and management by mediocrity.

It’s easy to see why a century ago, an investor choosing between, on the one hand, an automobile factory promoted by an obscure Michigan mechanic named Henry Ford and, on the other, the New York, Westchester & Boston Railway, backed by J.P. Morgan & Company and controlled by the bluest of blue chips, the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad, might have opted for the known quantity.

The Westchester—“the Road of Ease”—ran its first train on May 29, 1912 and its last on December 31, 1937. It was safe, stylish, and efficient. Its trains ran on time. Though it never turned a profit, part of its main line survives as part of the IRT number 5 line, carrying passengers  between East 180th Street and Dyre Avenue in the Bronx.

The Westchester was an old idea. On March 20, 1872, the New York, Westchester & Boston Railway was incorporated to build from New York through the Bronx to the Connecticut border beyond Portchester. The Panic of 1873 cut off new investment in the scheme as abruptly as the 2001 recession cut off the dotcoms, and so the Westchester slumbered as a paper railroad—a file of corporate papers, including its franchise to build through the Bronx to Westchester—in its lawyers’ office. In 1906 investors headed by J.P. Morgan and William Rockefeller (John D.’s roguish brother) bought control of the Westchester for $11 million. This was a lot of money for an abstraction.

However, the corporate charter and the franchise justified the expense to Charles Sanger Mellen, the New Haven railroad’s arrogant, sharp-tongued, and audacious president. Throughout his presidency, from 1904 to 1913, Mellen enjoyed the confidence of J.P. Morgan, who was as much a financial statesman as an investment banker.

Morgan had dominated the New Haven through sheer force of personality since 1892. Mellen later testified that without Morgan the New Haven’s board of directors would have been “as lacking in interest as a herd of cows deprived of a bull.” Morgan’s policy was simple: eliminate competition. He saw the railroad as a route to a monopoly over southern New England’s surface transportation that would literally control “everything that moved.”

By 1912, Mellen had achieved this. Through new construction, stock control, or lease, the New Haven operated over 2,000 miles of track: nearly every inch of steam railroad and trolley in Connecticut and Rhode Island and most of southern Massachusetts. The New Haven even controlled the coastal shipping companies—like the great Fall River Line with its huge white wedding-cake four-decker steamers Commonwealth and Priscilla. (The heroine of John O’Hara’s Butterfield 8 ends her life aboard a thinly disguised Fall River Line steamer.)

The Westchester’s peculiarity was that, though controlled by the New Haven, it would directly compete with its parent for commuter passengers between New York City and its northern termini, White Plains and Portchester. Yet this wasn’t an absurdity. First, Mellen believed the Westchester would eventually save the New Haven money. The Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC), which regulated railroads, required the New Haven to operate commuter trains with cheap tickets between Westchester and Connecticut and Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan, which was owned by a rival company, the New York Central. The New York Central charged the New Haven up to twenty-four cents for each New Haven passenger passing through Grand Central. This meant the New Haven lost money on every commuter it carried.

The Westchester’s planned southern terminus was at 132nd Street and Willis Avenue, where its riders could board the IRT subway at 129th Street or the el train at 133rd. This obviated Grand Central’s terminal charges. If the Westchester charged lower fares than the New Haven, New Haven commuters might shift to the Westchester, cutting Mellen’s losses.

Second, Mellen believed that New York City’s commercial center would continue expanding northward. Between 1800 and 1850, the commercial district had grown from the tip of Manhattan to Canal Street; by 1900, it had passed 42nd Street. Mellen expected that it would reach the South Bronx between the 1930s and 1950s. (The city fathers planned for this: look at a map of the roads, railroads, and subways that converge at 149th Street in the South Bronx neighborhood nicknamed “The Hub.”) The Westchester would be right there, waiting for it.

The Westchester drove its first spike in 1909. Mellen spared no expense: Roger Arcara described it in Westchester’s Forgotten Railway as “the culmination of railway development: the most modern and efficient design, the most solid and sturdy construction, the greatest capacity (for its amount of trackage), and the most attractive layout and appearance of any line in the world.” It cut through rocks and hills and filled gullies and bogs to keep a straight, level right of way. Its bridges, viaducts, embankments, and retaining walls were designed to last for the ages. Although most of its route was then rural, the line was solidly built as a four-track heavy-duty electric railroad using the finest technology of the day.

It opened on May 29, 1912. From the beginning to the end, it was a first-class operation. Its 72-foot-long olive-green steel cars, with upholstered double-seat benches and a toilet compartment, could reach 57 mph within a minute. At E. 180th Street, Morris Park, Pelham Parkway, Gun Hill Road, Baychester Avenue, and Dyre Avenue the railroad built fabulously ornate stations of poured concrete and steel, designed in a kind of Spanish Renaissance style (“modified Mission” it was called), several of which still serve the MTA today. It carried 2.8 million passengers in 1913, 4.5 million in 1916, and 14 million in 1928.

Yet the Westchester never quite caught on. Its elegant trains were rarely more than five coaches long, in contrast to the fourteen-coach commuter trains run by the New York Central and the New Haven. Commuters preferred a one-seat ride to midtown over changing to the subway at the East 133rd Street terminal. Second, the city’s zoning laws, adopted four years after the Westchester opened, effectively set the northern limit of commercial development at 59th Street.

Third, the Westchester never developed much freight traffic: indeed, it operated only one freight locomotive throughout its existence. Some said it hauled a single load of coal up to White Plains in the fall and took out the ashes in the spring.

Fourth was the fall of Charles S. Mellen. The New Haven’s press bureau made the railroad seem a financial Rock of Gibraltar. Yet as early as 1907, Louis Brandeis, then a Boston lawyer, later a justice of the United States Supreme Court, had shown that Mellen’s profits were largely bookkeeping magic. Few paid attention then. In May 1912, a few days before the Westchester accepted its first paying passenger, the ICC began a routine review of the New Haven’s services and freight rates. Their accountants found confusing transactions between the New Haven and its 336 identified subsidiaries. The review became a full-scale investigation.

The report, issued in early 1913, proved Brandeis correct. The New Haven was insolvent: it had lent money to its money-losing subsidiaries, which they used to pay dividends to the parent company, which the parent then classified as income. Worse, Mellen had constantly shuffled assets between subsidiaries to inflate profits. One relatively clear example, outlined in George H. Foster and Peter C. Weiglin’s Splendor Sailed the Sound, was the New Haven’s coastal steamship operations. The ships themselves were sold in 1907 by one subsidiary, New England Navigation, to another, Consolidated Railway. They were not paid for in cash but with Consolidated Railway stock, worth $20 million but only because Mellen said it was.

The New Haven’s accountants showed a paper profit on the sale for New England Navigation, which was reported as real income, and an increase in the assets of Consolidated Railway. It looked like the real thing. With each transfer, though, the corporate books became works of increasingly elaborate fiction, showing explosive growth without any real increase in value. The steamboats alone shuttled from subsidiary to subsidiary (Consolidated Railway to New England Steamship to New England Navigation and back) over the next five years, pumping up the asset values on one or another set of books, depending on which one needed to be made attractive to investors at any point in time.

An immediate result of the investigation was Mellen’s resignation in August 1913. Within the year, the ICC offered and Mellen accepted immunity from prosecution in exchange for his testimony. He described the steamboat deals and numerous other secret transactions. The New Haven’s treasurer, Hiram Kochersperger, was taken ill; his doctors advised him to travel to Europe for a rest, rendering him regrettably unable to testify. Mellen, when asked how long Kochersperger had been ill, replied, “Since the Commission began to get after the New Haven’s accounts.”

On November 2, 1914, a federal grand jury indicted twenty-one New Haven directors; Mellen spent thirty-one days on the stand at their trial.

Meanwhile, the Westchester lost money on its day-to-day operations from 1912 until 1921 and from 1932 through 1937. Even in the good years, it never made enough to cover the bond interest, which was paid by the New Haven. Much as the dotcoms relied on infusions of fresh venture capital, so the Westchester relied on advances from its parent. In 1935, six years into the Great Depression, the New Haven went broke. The advances stopped. In its annual report for 1935, the New Haven wrote off the Westchester, stating that “The advances made to the New York, Westchester & Boston Railway Company amount to $21,460,494.87, but as the prospect of their being repaid is very remote, they have been reduced to a nominal value of $1.” The next day the Westchester defaulted on its bonds and filed for bankruptcy.

By April 15, 1937, the Westchester’s receiver determined the line was hopelessly insolvent. On December 31, 1937, the Westchester made its final run. In June 1939, scrappers began removing the tracks in Westchester County; a year later, the City of New York purchased the line between E. 174th Street and Dyre Avenue for $1.7 million—much less than it had cost to build—and began operating it on May 15, 1941.

Here and there, the Westchester survives. The East 180th Street and Morris Park stations still bear the initials “N.Y.W.B.” The overpass at Brady and Matthews Avenues bears the railroad’s symbol: the caduceus, a staff entwined with coiled snakes, symbol of Mercury, the swift messenger of the gods. According to Cox Rail, an online site for collectors of obsolescent railroad securities, one of the Westchester’s handsomely engraved bonds, meant to be redeemed in 1946 for $1,000 in gold, is worth about $50.

New York Press, February 19,2002

February 3, 2015   No Comments

The Road of Anthracite

Phoebe Snow started here. I mean the train, not the singer–although she started here too, come to think of it. Born in New York City, she borrowed her stage name from the premiere express train of the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad, “The Route of Phoebe Snow,” “The Road of Anthracite,” which passengers boarded by taking a ferry boat from the railroad’s lower West Side ferry terminal to the massive Lackawanna Terminal in Hoboken, New Jersey.

The ninety-two-year-old ramshackle bronze-green Beaux-Arts giant, now operated by New Jersey Transit, still crouches a mile upriver from Jersey City’s financial district, its ferry slips gaping toward Manhattan. There, the Lackawanna began its long run to Scranton, Elmira, Binghamton, and Buffalo, where it connected with the Wabash, the Erie, the Nickel Plate,  and other trains serving all points west. It is the last working railroad-ferry terminal on the Hudson’s west shore.

Until the Hudson Tubes (now the PATH lines) linked New Jersey and New York in 1908, the Hudson had been untunneled and unbridged south of Poughkeepsie, ninety miles from the sea. Most regional railroads terminated at Jersey City, Hoboken, Weehawken, or Edgewater. They built or shared vast terminal stations where trains met the Manhattan steam ferries. It was a magnificent, leisurely way to enter or leave the city.

At the turn of the century, the Lackawanna’s locomotives burned what they hauled, smokeless anthracite coal. The railroad’s advertising emphasized this cleanliness through Phoebe Snow, a fictional woman passenger whose flowing white dress remained spotless by using the Lackawanna. The line even named its premiere express train for her. Thus the jingles ran:

Says Phoebe Snow about to go
Upon a trip to Buffalo,
“My gown stays white from morn till night
Upon the Road of Anthracite.”

With dimpling face all full of grace
Fair Phoebe pictures in a daze
That journey bright when clad in white.
She used the Road of Anthracite.

The same copy writer probably later worked on Burma Shave.

In 1914, the Pennsylvania Railroad—The Standard Railroad of the World (their ads said so)—finished tunneling under the Hudson, through Manhattan, and under the East River to Long Island while completing Pennsylvania Station at 34th Street. The Pennsy spent some 400 million prewar dollars over two decades to create history’s greatest privately financed public works project. (Advocates of a new Yankee Stadium should note: not one cent was the taxpayers’ money.)

However, the Pennsy monopolized Penn Station. At Hoboken, the Lackawanna’s passengers still changed to either ferries or the Tubes. A new jingle made the best of it:

Now Phoebe Snow direct can go
From Thirty-Third to Buffalo.
From Broadway bright the “Tubes” run right
Into the Road of Anthracite.

For another two generations—until they went bankrupt one after another—The Lackawanna and the other railroads ran passenger trains into their Jersey terminals. The Lackawanna ran boats between Hoboken and Manhattan’s Barclay Street until November 25, 1967, when the old steam ferry Elmira made its last run. The Phoebe Snow was discontinued. The Lackawanna (which in its last years was nicknamed the “Lackamoney”), vanished into Conrail and New Jersey Transit. Most of the terminals were torn down. But Lackawanna Terminal endured to link New Jersey Transit’s commuter trains with PATH and New York Waterways.

In May 1998 New Jersey Transit held its annual Hoboken Transit Festival in the Terminal’s great train shed. NJT displayed its latest, brightest, and best equipment. Little railroads also showed off their toys. The Morristown & Erie (called the “Ben Central” after its late president, Ben Friedman) had a fire-engine red switcher and the New York, Susquehanna & Western (“The Susie-Q”) a stainless steel rail-diesel car.

I thought of the fallen flags, the railroads that run no more. Gone are Thomas Wolfe’s “names of the mighty rails that bind the nation,” those names “that roll richly from the tongue and fire the imagining with sonorous and heroic imagery, with the sweep and wonder of plains and deserts, great rivers of empire…” Most modern railroad names seem selected by the accounting department. The CSX Corporation is the anonymous successor to nearly a dozen famous lines: Chesapeake & Ohio, Baltimore & Ohio, Western Maryland, Seaboard Air Line, Atlantic Coast Line, Louisville & Nashville, whose Pan American express—“Old Reliable”—was so prompt that a radio station used its thunderous passage by an open mike to signal noon every day.

Some names live on in old songs. The Wabash Cannonball. The Rock Island Line. The City of New Orleans. The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe. And who would not be intrigued by the Memphis, Ultima Thule & Arkadelphia?

Amid all the cheery modern colors at the festival darkly loomed a massive steam locomotive. The legend CHESAPEAKE AND OHIO in gold lettering emblazoned its tender, while the number 614 decorated its cab. The engine is the last dual-service steam locomotive built in North America, and it used to haul passenger trains across the Appalachians to Chicago, as well as deliver half-mile long strings of coal-laden hopper cars from West Virginia to tidewater, no sweat.

As with any work of art, the 614 symbolizes things uncontemplated by her makers, particularly the speed of obsolescence. The machine is fifteen years younger than my father, who in 1948 was shooting hoops with Waterford High’s sophomore team as the 614 rolled new from the Lima Locomotive Works in Hamilton, Ohio. Only eight years later, the C&O put her in storage where she remained for a generation until a new owner restored her to service.The 614 is as complicated as its 28,000 parts and as simple as boiling water. The same force that makes your teapot whistle sounds the 614 steam chimes,which can be heard five miles away booming two octaves below middle A.

As recently as a decade ago, the United States government tested the 614 for fuel efficiency, putting her back to work hauling coal trains in the West Virginia mountains. The results were inconclusive. Diesels are much less expensive to operate and maintain. However, a steam locomotive as large as the 614 is more powerful than most individual diesel-electric units, and it burns domestic coal, not imported oil. Only recently have diesels rolled out of the shops with power approaching that of Union Pacific’s Big Boy steamers, which hauled freight trains of up to five miles long at 55 to 60 miles an hour across the Rockies.

Even forty years ago, steam locomotives had largely disappeared from American railroads. And yet, and yet…on July 8, 1998, an express freight train failed at a siding at Carr, Colorado. The ultra-modern diesel’s computer went down, poor thing. Oddly, the nearest locomotive was one of Union Pacific’s two working steamers—the 844, a fifty-six-year old similar to the 614. Union Pacific had never retired the 844 (the railroad proudly claims it never totally dieselized), which now hauls fan trips and employee specials.

Now UP put the 844 to work. She passed and backed into the siding. The crews coupled her to the dead diesel, hooked up the air hoses, and tested the brakes. Waves of heat rippled off the firebox as gray oil smoke drifted from the stack.

The whistle sounded twice. The engineer released the brakes. The 844 sighed and eight brake shoes relaxed their grip on the drivers. He set the valve gear forward. Then, the engineer’s gloved hand opened the throttle, one notch, releasing steam into the cylinders, slowly forcing back the pistons, moving the main rods, turning the drivers.

A puff of exhaust burst from the stack. Steam hissed from the cylinder cock and the pistons returned. She crept forward. The engineer opened the throttle, notch by notch, and she slowly accelerated.

At five miles an hour, the exhaust began barking up the stack in rhythm with the moving pistons. She gained speed, effortlessly rolling into the Colorado hills, the stack talk faster and louder until the blasts blended into continuous roar that lasted all the way to Denver.

New York Press, September 1, 1998

January 31, 2015   No Comments

My Neighbors Got It Wrong

Back on October 30, 2010, I announced my intention to vote for Tom Vendittelli, the Libertarian candidate for U.S. Representative from the 13th District of New York. http://www.cityofsmoke.com/archives/5585 My motives were simple (although I admit a general sympathy for political independents and insurgents of all kinds). The Establishment party opponents, Democratic Congressman Michael E. McMahon and Republican challenger Michael G. Grimm, had harassed my wife and me with up to ten telephone calls a day. Mr. Venditelli and his friends had not.

I find such interruptions extremely annoying at the best of times. I was enraged when the candidates’ volunteer callers began arguing with my wife about why she should listen to them. As I knew neither McMahon nor Grimm, I took their measure from the people who supported them. Hence Tom Vendittelli. At least his followers weren’t harassing me in my home.

I thought my readers and neighbors here in Bay Ridge, some of whom had also complained to me about the calls and the empty glossy mailings jamming their mailboxes, might join me in protesting this abuse by voting for Mr. Vendittelli. I knew nothing about him beyond the materials on his website. But Tom was clearly sincere about his libertarianism. He’d left me alone.

My neighbors apparently didn’t share my concerns. The New York State Board of Elections’ official results were: Grimm, 65,024; McMahon, 60,773; Vendittelli, 929. Out of 126,726 votes, Tom had polled less than one percent. As he noted on Facebook, “We lost by a nose.”

While my neighbors clearly disagree with me, I can only note that next year, the politicians will be back, harassing me in party games.

January 22, 2011   1 Comment

Pocket Change

If you want to find a mirror of a society’s ideal—the image of what it hopes and imagines itself to be—public sculpture is as good a place as any to start, and none is more common or readily available than the public sculpture we carry around with us on the coins in our pockets.

This year will bring some changes to the world’s most common public sculpture, the Lincoln penny. The occasion is the Lincoln bicentennial, and the Mint is happy. Collectors and speculators were glad to pay $8.95 for the two-roll sets of the new coins (worth $1.00) that went on sale on February 12, 2009 and sold out within a month. And so far few have complained about the new reverse design, which represents the Kentucky log cabin at the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Site. (Of course, that cabin is itself a representation of someone’s idea of the original structure.)

Three more designs, one to be issued every three months throughout the year, will represent respectively Lincoln’s education, his pre-Presidential careers as lawyer and politician, and his Presidency. In 2010 and beyond, the Mint will issue yet another reverse, “emblematic of President Lincoln’s preservation of the United States of America as a single and united country.” So there will be five new designs, each issued by the mints at Philadelphia, Denver, and San Francisco (each mint’s coins has a special mint mark, P, D, and S, respectively), creating fifteen new coins for the delectation of collectors within less than thirteen months.

The original Lincoln cent, designed by Victor David Brenner, reflected the genius of the sculptor and of President Theodore Roosevelt, himself an aesthete, who forced change on the Mint bureaucracy of his day because he found the coinage of the United States unworthy of a great republic. It still is. For the most part, the heroes on our coinage and paper money depict the men considered great half a century ago.

Surely John F. Kennedy’s reputation has undergone re-evaluation since he replaced Benjamin Franklin on the half-dollar in a moment of national grief. Walt Whitman, George Gershwin, George S. Kaufman, Jonas Salk, Earl Warren, Eleanor Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, Sojourner Truth—from the arts and sciences alone the list of possible alternatives to the present set of political icons on our coins and currency (which date from the New Deal or before) is almost limitless.

All this brings to mind something I thought about while emptying my pockets the other day.

At some time in the last century, I was taken to a Broadway revival of the musical comedy “1776.” In one scene, an actor named Paul Michael Valley, who played Thomas Jefferson, briefly stood in profile, silhouetted against an open door. Some suburban housewife in the next row murmured to her neighbor, “He looks just like the guy on the nickel.” Indeed, he did, which may explain his casting.

Anyway, while putting my pocket change on the dresser, I noticed one of those odd nickels struck by the Mint to commemorate the bicentennials of the Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis and Clark Expedition. The obverse looked like the Man in the Moon. Of course, the head was still old Tom’s, but the image had changed.

The Purchase itself was commemorated in 2004 by adapting the design of Jefferson’s Indian Peace Medal for the reverse of the five cent piece. The Indian Peace Medals, a British tradition continued after Independence, were large, attractive silver medals awarded by the United States to Indian chiefs or other important men on such occasions as major conferences or the signing of treaties. Intriguingly, this custom reflected the European tradition of exchanging decorations at historic moments of concord, which the United States has otherwise never adopted.

In place of the King appeared the current President, and on the reverse, in Jefferson’s case, appeared two clasped hands, the one to the right with a metal wristband such as frequently worn by Indian chiefs, and the one to the left with an army officer’s braided cuff, all beneath a crossed hatchet and inverted peace pipe. The medal also bore the words, “Peace and Friendship.”

Many of Jefferson’s medals were given to Indians during Lewis and Clark’s expedition from St. Louis to the Pacific Coast between 1804 and 1806. They are mentioned in the Expedition’s Journal as among the articles taken for presentation to the Indians. On August 1, 1804, the Journal records the gift of a “First Grade” medal and flag to a “Grand Chief,” medals of the Second Grade to lesser chiefs; and of the Third Grade to inferior chiefs. Certificates to accompany the medals were also issued, such as one surviving in a California collection which refers to “the special confidence reposed by us in the sincere and unalterable attachment of War Charpa the Sticker, a Warrior of the Soues Nation, to the United States…”

Later in 2004, the Mint issued yet another kind of nickel with a reverse featuring one of the Expedition’s flatboats, driven by both sail and poles, like a Mediterranean war galley.

In the spring of 2005, the year of the coin I found in change, the Mint had doubly changed the coin. The obverse had Jefferson’s profile, oddly presented as to leave the coin resembling the Man in the Moon, with the word “Liberty” in Jefferson’s handwriting. The reverse adapted one of the Mint’s most popular designs, James Earl Fraser’s Buffalo nickel of 1913-1938, for the next coin in the series. Over 1.2 billion Buffalo nickels were struck during that quarter-century. They have now vanished from circulation. But as late as the 1960s, one still found Buffalo nickels in change, with the stern profile of an austere Indian warrior on the obverse and the massive buffalo on the reverse.

Fraser’s visual economy in its design is profoundly moving: without a touch of sentimentality, few accessible works of art so powerfully visualize the nobility of tragedy. And his commanding, virile bison dominates the design of its coin.

But as is often the case in the Mint’s modern adaptations of older designs from a heroic past, the modern buffalo, despite its unequivocal masculinity, lacks confidence. It seems neutered, almost cringing, standing, somehow off-balance, on a small, sloping patch of prairie, fenced in by the words “United States of America.”

In the fall and winter of 2005, the coin was changed yet again: the Man in the Moon obverse was coupled with a new reverse, a view of the Pacific Ocean with a quote from Captain Clark: “Ocean in view! O! the joy!” The minor irritant here is that Clark, whose writings betray a libertarian, if not Shakespearean, attitude toward standardized spelling, had written “Ocian.” While the Oxford English Dictionary includes “ocian” among its citations, the Mint corrected Clark’s usage. According to CNN, when questioned about this, a Mint spokeswoman answered, “We didn’t want to confuse anyone into thinking we couldn’t spell.” Again, a lack of confidence, this time in the reality of Clark’s spelling.

The following year showed the most unusual change in the design. Even as Monticello returned to the reverse, the obverse had Jefferson gazing at the viewer in one of American coinage’s first full-face designs. This is unusual for a technical reason. Coins first show signs of wear on the highest point of the design. The traditional profile tends to wear gracefully. But a full face design tends to wear out nose first.

The most notorious example of this was Copper Nose coinage of England’s King Henry VIII. By the 1540s, Henry was running out of money due to his personal and public extravagance. He both raised taxes and debased the coinage, transforming the nominally silver shilling to a copper coin which was dipped into a silver nitrate solution. Electrolysis left a thin wash of silver on the coins.

Instead of a conventional profile, the new coins bore the King’s facing image, executed with surprising candor, bearded and repellently bloated. Even a little wear on the coin’s highest relief – which with a facing portrait is the nose – revealed its copper core. As the coating wore off the most prominent feature – Henry’s nose – it became reddish brown. Hence, the king acquired the nickname “Old Coppernose.”

Such a sobriquet is unlikely to be attached to Jefferson, who is, after all, nearly two centuries dead. His coin is silver-colored metal all through. But the full face design is off-putting and unattractive, and one hopes the Mint will return to the customary usage in its future coinage.

May 19, 2009   No Comments

Aurelia Greene, Evergreen

Last week, a special election was held for Bronx Borough President, a job which, since the Charter reforms of the early 1990s, is largely ceremonial. The marvelously named incumbent, Adolfo Carrion, had resigned office to accept appointment as Director of the White House Office of Urban Affairs.

Even before State Assemblyman Ruben Diaz Jr. had won the Borough Presidency, he had announced that he would appoint State Assemblywoman Aurelia Greene his Deputy Borough President. She will be the deputy to a public official who doesn’t have much to do. Her duties are unlikely to be taxing.

The Assemblywoman’s name rang a chime in memory. She had been involved with Bronx Community School Board #9. Both she and her late husband, the Honorable Reverend Dr. Jerome Greene, who favored using all his titles at once, had been elected to the Board repeatedly. The Honorable Reverend Doctor had been its president from time to time, and by coincidence, Board #9 had employed several of Assemblywoman Greene’s relatives while she was serving on the Board.

Pastor of the Bronx Charismatic Prayer Fellowship, a church that met in his family manse, and Founder and President of the Bronx Unity Democratic Club, Dr. Greene had pled guilty in 1991 to larceny when he admitted using City money to pay for cameras, television equipment, and other merchandise purchased for his personal use. He also admitted using Board of Education employees to print political campaign literature at Board of Education expense.

The Greenes had previously been indicted for stealing a piano from Intermediate School 145. They beat the rap on that one, although the piano had ended up in their house, where it was supposedly used in his religious services. Dr. Greene was re-indicted on misdemeanor theft of services charges for using school employees to transport the piano to his house. However, that charge was apparently resolved when Dr. Greene pled to the larceny charge.

Both Greenes were serving on Board #9 when, in 1988, the late Chancellor Richard Green suspended them and the rest of the board amid charges of drug use and drug trafficking, extorting money from teachers, and stealing school equipment. The investigations leading to the Board’s suspension had stemmed from the arrest and subsequent conviction of a Board #9 principal, Matthew Barnwell of P.S. 53, for buying crack.

In addition to Dr. Greene and Mr. Barnwell, eight other people from Board #9 were convicted of crimes that included signing phony invoices, bribery, and defrauding the government. The Chancellor removed the district superintendent, Dr. Annie Wolinsky, for mismanagement. Dr. Wolinsky was unable to explain how, while schools went without basics like chalk and paper, thousands of dollars of uncatalogued supplies were stacked in the district warehouse, or why eight district employees worked only at videotaping the board members. She also couldn’t explain her failure to discipline Mr. Barnwell for, among other things, 142 instances of lateness or absence in the course of a 184-day school year.

However, death pays all debts. Despite his criminal record, Dr. Greene has been immortalized by the New York City Council which, by enacting Local Law 131 in 2005, renamed part of Teller Avenue in The Bronx as Reverend Jerome A. Greene Place. In his remarks at a December 29, 2005 public hearing before he signed the bill, Mayor Michael Bloomberg stated that the individuals commemorated that day-Dr. Greene among them-were being honored for their lifetime accomplishments.

I gather that one commentator has suggested that Assemblywoman Greene wanted a job that wouldn’t require a commute to Albany. As she trades the State Capitol for Bronx Borough Hall, everything looks pleasant for her: she is trading one well-paid job for another equally remunerative, and as she journeys toward the sunset of life, the downhill road is comfortably paved with city paychecks.

April 26, 2009   No Comments

The Conservative Case Against George W. Bush

Theodore Roosevelt, that most virile of presidents, insisted that, “To announce that there should be no criticism of the president, or that we are to stand by the president, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American people.” With that in mind, I say: George W. Bush is no conservative, and his unprincipled abandonment of conservatism under the pressure of events is no statesmanship. The Republic would be well-served by his defeat this November.

William F. Buckley’s recent retirement from the National Review, nearly half a century after he founded it, led me to reflect on American conservatism’s first principles, which Buckley helped define for our time. Beneath Buckley’s scintillating phrases and rapier wit lay, as Churchill wrote of Lord Birkenhead, “settled and somewhat somber conclusions upon… questions about which many people are content to remain in placid suspense”: that political and economic liberty were indivisible; that government’s purpose was protecting those liberties; that the Constitution empowered government to fulfill its proper role while restraining it from the concentration and abuse of power; and that its genius lay in the Tenth Amendment, which makes explicit that the powers not delegated to government are reserved to the states or to the people.

More generally, American conservatives seek what Lord Acton called the highest political good: to secure liberty, which is the freedom to obey one’s own will and conscience rather than the will and conscience of others. Any government, of any political shade, that erodes personal liberty in the name of social and economic progress must face a conservative’s reasoned dissent; for allowing one to choose between right and wrong, between wisdom and foolishness, is the essential condition of human progress. Although sometimes the State has a duty to impose restrictions, such curbs on the liberty of the individual are analogous to a brace, crutch, or bandage. However necessary in the moment, they are best removed as soon as possible, as they tend to weaken and to cramp. Thus American conservative politics championed private property, an institution sacred in itself and vital to the well-being of society. It favored limited government, balanced budgets, fiscal prudence, and avoidance of foreign entanglements.

More subtly, American conservatism viewed human society as something of an organism in itself. This sense of society’s organic character urged the necessity of continuity with the past, with change implemented gradually and with as little disruption as possible. Thus, conservatism emphasized the “civil society”—the private voluntary institutions developed over time by passing the reality test (i.e., because they work) such as families, private property, religious congregations and neighborhoods—rather than the State. In nearly every sense, these institutions were much closer to the individuals who composed them than the State could ever be. They had the incidental and beneficial effect of protecting one’s personal liberty against undue intrusion from governments controlled by fanatics and busybodies—the phenomenon Edmund Burke presciently termed “armed ideologies”—and thus upheld our way of life as flying buttresses supported a Gothic cathedral.

But the policies of this administration self-labeled “conservative” have little to do with tradition. Rather, they tend to centralize power in the hands of the government under the guise of patriotism. If nothing else, the Bush administration has thrown into question what being a conservative in America actually means.

Forty years ago, when Lyndon Johnson believed the United States could afford both Great Society and the Vietnam War, conservatives attacked his fiscal policies as extravagant and reckless. Ten years ago, the Republican Party regained control of Congress with the Contract with America, which included a balanced-budget amendment to restore fiscal responsibility. But today, thanks to tax cuts and massively increased military spending, the Bush administration has transformed, according to the Congressional Budget Office, a ten-year projected surplus of $5.6 trillion into a deficit of $4.4 trillion: a turnaround of $10 trillion in roughly 32 months.

The Bush Administration can’t even pretend to keep an arm’s length from Halliburton, the master of the no-bid government contract. Sugar, grain, cotton, oil, gas, and coal: These industries enjoy increased subsidies and targeted tax breaks not enjoyed by less well-connected industries. The conservative Heritage Foundation blasts the administration’s agricultural subsidies as the nation’s most wasteful corporate welfare program. The libertarian Cato Institute has called the administration’s energy plan “three parts corporate welfare and one part cynical politics…a smorgasbord of handouts and subsidies for virtually every energy lobby in Washington” that “does little but transfer wealth from taxpayers to well-connected energy lobbies.” And the Republican Party’s Medicare drug benefit, the largest single expansion of the welfare state since Johnson’s Great Society, was designed to appeal to senior citizens who, as any competent politician knows, show up at the polls.

None of this is conservative, though it is in keeping with the Bush family’s history. Kevin Phillips, whose 1969 classic The Emerging Republican Majority outlined the policies that would lead to the election of President Reagan, describes in his American Dynasty the Bush family’s rise to wealth and power through crony capitalism: the use of contacts obtained in public service for private profit. Phillips argues that the Bushes don’t disfavor big government as such: merely that part of it which regulates business, maintains the environment, or aids the needy. Subsidizing oil-well drilling through tax breaks, which made George H. W. Bush’s fortune, or bailing out financial institutions, such as Neil Bush’s bankrupt Silverado Savings and Loan, however, is a good thing.

This deficit spending also helps Bush avoid the debate on national priorities we would have if these expenditures were being financed through higher taxes on a pay-as-you-go basis. After all, we’re not paying the bill now; instead, it will come due far in the future, long after today’s policy-makers are out of office. And this debt is being incurred just as the baby boomers are about to retire. In January 2004, Charles Kolb, who served in the Reagan and George H. W. Bush White Houses, testified before Congress that, at a time when demographics project more retirees and fewer workers, projected government debt will rise from 37 percent of the economy today to 69 percent in 2020 and 250 percent in 2040. This is the sort of level one associates with a Third World kleptocracy.

Even worse than this extravagance are the administration’s unprecedented intrusions into our constitutional privacy rights through the Patriot Act. If it does not violate the letter of the Fourth Amendment, it violates its spirit. To cite two examples, the FBI has unchecked authority through the use of National Security Letters to require businesses to reveal “a broad array of sensitive information, including information about the First Amendment activities of ordinary Americans who are not suspected of any wrongdoing.” Despite the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on unreasonable search and seizure, the government need not show probable cause: It does not need to obtain a warrant from a judge. And who can trust any law enforced by John Ashcroft, who single-handedly transformed a two-bit hubcap thief like José Padilla first into a threat to national security and then, through his insistence that Padilla, an American citizen, could be held without charges, into a Constitutional crisis?

All this stems from Bush’s foreign policy of preemptive war, which encourages war for such vague humanitarian ends as “human rights,” or because the United States believes another country may pose a threat to it. Its champions seem almost joyously to anticipate a succession of wars without visible end, with the invasion of Iraq merely its first fruit: former Bush appointee Richard Perle, from his writings on foreign policy, would have us war against nearly every nation that he defines as a rogue. The ironic consequence of this policy to stabilize the world is greater instability. It reminds me of the old FDR jingle from the Daily Worker:

I hate war, and so does Eleanor,
But we won’t feel safe until everybody’s dead.

To be sure, there’s more than enough blame to go around with the Congress’ cowardly surrender to the Executive of its power to declare war. The Founding Fathers, who knew war from personal experience, explicitly placed the war power in the hands of the Congress. As James Madison wrote over 200 years ago:

The Constitution expressly and exclusively vests in the Legislature the power of declaring a state of war… The separation of the power of declaring war from that of conducting it is wisely contrived to exclude the danger of its being declared for the sake of its being conducted.

But since the Korean War (which the Congress defined as a “police action” to avoid using its war powers), war has been waged without its formal declaration. Thus Congressional power atrophies in the face of flag-waving presidents. Perhaps Congress is too preoccupied with swilling from the gravy trough that our politics has become to recall its Constitutional role as a co-equal branch of government, guarding its powers and privileges against executive usurpation. The Congress has forgotten that the men who exacted Magna Carta from King John at sword point instituted Parliament to restrain the executive from its natural tendency to tax, spend, and war.

Moreover, there is nothing conservative about war. As Madison wrote:

Of all the enemies to public liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. [There is an] inequality of fortunes, and the opportunities of fraud, growing out of a state of war, and…degeneracy of manners and of morals…No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.

By contrast, business, commerce, and trade, founded on private property, created by individual initiative, families, and communities, has done far more to move the world forward than war. Yet faith in military force and an arrogant belief that American values are universal values still mold our foreign policy nearly a century after Woodrow Wilson, reelected with a promise of keeping America out of World War I, broke faith with the people by engineering a declaration of war within weeks of his second inauguration.

George W. Bush’s 2000 campaign supposedly rejected Wilsonian foreign policy by articulating both the historic Republican critique of foreign aid and explicitly criticizing Bill Clinton’s nation-building. Today, the administration insists we can be safe only by compelling other nations to implement its vision of democracy. This used to be called imperialism. Empires don’t come cheap; worse, “global democracy” requires just the kind of big government that conservatives abhor. When the Wall Street Journal praises the use of American tax dollars to provide electricity and water services in Iraq, something we used to call socialism, either conservatism has undergone a tectonic shift or the paper’s editors are being disingenuous.

This neo-conservative policy rejects the traditional conservative notion that American society is rooted in American culture and history—in the gradual development of American institutions over nearly 230 years—and cannot be separated from them. Instead, neo-conservatives profess that American values, which they define as democracy, liberty, free markets, and self-determination, are “universal” rather than particular to us, and insist they can and should be exported to ensure our security.

This is nonsense. The qualities that make American life desirable evolved from our civil society, created by millions of men and women using the freedom created under limited constitutional government. Only a fool would believe they could be spread overnight with bombs and bucks, and only a fool would insist that the values defined by George W. Bush as American are necessarily those for which we should fight any war at all.

Wolfowitz, Perle, and their allies in the Administration claimed the Iraqis would greet our troops with flowers. Somehow, more than a year after the president’s “Mission Accomplished” photo-op, a disciplined body of well-supplied military professionals is still waging war against our troops, their supply lines, and our Iraqi collaborators. Indeed, the regime we have just installed bids fair to become a long-term dependent of the American taxpayer under U.S. military occupation.

The Administration seems incapable of any admission that its pre-war assertions that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction were incorrect. Instead, in a sleazy sleight of hand worthy of Lyndon Johnson, the Administration has retrospectively justified its war with Saddam Hussein’s manifold crimes.

First, that is a two-edged sword: If the crimes of a foreign government against its people justify our invasion, there will be no end of fighting. Second, the pre-war assertions were dishonest: Having decided that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, the policymakers suppressed all evidence that it did not. This immorality is thrown into high relief by the war’s effect on Iraqi civilians. We have no serious evidence of any connection between Iraq and 9/11. Dropping 5000-pound bombs on thousands of people who had nothing to do with attacking us is as immoral as launching airplanes at an American office building.

To sum up: Anything beyond the limited powers expressly delegated by the people under the Constitution to their government for certain limited purposes creates the danger of tyranny. We stand there now. For an American conservative, better one lost election than the continued empowerment of cynical men whose abuse of power unrestrained by principle is based upon the compromise of conservative beliefs. George W. Bush claims to be conservative. His administration’s unwholesome intrusion into domestic life and personal liberty, and the local governments who imitate it, suggest otherwise. George W. Bush is no no friend of limited, constitutional government—and no friend of freedom. The Republic would be better served by his defeat in November.

New York Press, August 4, 2004

February 24, 2009   No Comments

How Things Seem

New York Press, November 6, 2001

Neil LaBute’s The Shape of Things; Strindberg’s Dance of Death with Mirren and McKellen; Artistic disarray at the New York Shakespeare Festival/Public Theater

There’s some first-rate acting going on at the Promenade Theater, where Gretchen Mol is appearing with Paul Rudd, Frederick Weller, and Rachel Weisz in a new play by Neil LaBute called The Shape of Things. The play is part comedy of sexual manners and part drama of sexual intrigue, which is to say that it feels a little like Mamet’s Sexual Perversity in Chicago or Howard Korder’s Boys’ Life while you are watching it, and like Dangerous Liaisons afterward.

LaBute is a filmmaker with something of a reputation for “misogyny,” or so reviewers keep saying. Actually, his work appears no more anti-woman than Mamet’s. It may be anti-people, but there’s nothing wrong with that, to my mind. LaBute seems to be primarily interested in power and cruelty. The young people he writes about commit emotional atrocities for no reason other than that they can and the amusement the fact affords them.

LaBute’s first film, In the Company of Men, was about the calculated seduction of a young deaf woman by a pair of businessmen. The Shape of Things has a similar plot: Adam (Rudd), a nebbishy undergraduate, falls for a shrill and pusillanimous art student with advanced ideas who sets about trying to destroy him. What’s curious is her choice of weapon, which is positive influence. She brings him down by making him over into a more attractive and self-confident person than he was before. LaBute isn’t advocating superficiality; on the contrary, in the play’s own most superficial strain he makes this horror-show of a girlfriend spout pseudo-intellectual apercus about dishonest art and our surface preoccupation with “the shape of things.”

If this sounds muddled, it is. LaBute’s intellectualizing is almost indistinguishable from his anti-heroine’s. Moreover, nearly everything about the play is artificial: the plot, the two central characters, the denouement. That it’s also riveting—and it is—is largely due to the quality of the acting, not from Weisz, who is strident and pedantic, or Rudd, who has an impossible task (playing an intelligent man hoodwinked by a woman who is obviously up to no good), but from Weller and Mol, who play two friends of Adam’s, a former not-quite-girlfriend and the former roommate to whom she is ambivalently affianced. These are contemporary humor characters—the almost-insipid blonde, the testosterone-happy best friend—and Mol and Weller play them with great subtlety and humanity. A couple of scenes in which Adam fails to recognize his repressed feelings for them, or theirs for him, are electrifying.

Two good characters and two great scenes are nothing to sneeze at, and there’s an art to making us want to see a predetermined story play out. The Greeks did that a lot. So did Mamet in Oleanna, where our knowledge of what had to happen seemed to militate against what we saw in front of us. Watching The Shape of Things, I found myself admiring the way in which LaBute had taken into account one of the contemporary realities of theatergoing: the knowledge we come to the theater with about where a play is going. It’s knowledge derived mostly from hype and buzz, things without which theater can’t survive.

LaBute has The Smashing Pumpkins blaring out at deafening levels between scenes, reportedly to keep audience members from talking to each other. He runs the two-hour play without intermission, like a movie. And he keeps us asking ourselves, “How are these characters going to get where they have to go?”—which doesn’t make his play literature. It’s a potboiler, but it’s good commercial theater.

What exactly constitutes “commercial” theater is a question I found myself pondering during a recent performance of The Dance of Death at the Broadhurst. There I was in a big Broadway house, watching Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren, two of the greatest living actors of the English-speaking theater, acting their hearts out in one of Strindberg’s most unrelievedly grim and cerebral plays. There before me was one of those breathtaking Santo Loquasto sets that contrive to evoke squalor pleasingly and express a life of mind-crippling tedium while offering us no end of interesting things to look at.

Nothing very pleasant or uplifting was happening onstage: a husband and wife who loathed the sight of each other were battling it out, alternately abusing and tormenting each other, while a third character, played by David Strathairn, tried to make sense of it all, allowing himself to be used and manipulated by both. Not jolly stuff; yet all around me hundreds of people seemed, like myself, to be having a perfectly swell time. There was no restlessness, no checking one’s watch every five minutes. We were engrossed, entertained. And if, during the intermission, we found ourselves talking about other things, if the play stopped short of actually moving us, it wasn’t for anything lacking in the production or the performances. It just wasn’t King Lear, that was all—that was the worst you could say.

On the whole, it was like going to see a non-masterpiece performed by a world-class opera or ballet company. This in itself can be a rewarding and uplifting experience: exposing oneself to extraordinary human achievement—great dancing or singing or, in the case of Dance of Death, acting. For me, seeing Dance of Death was primarily about seeing Mirren in a stage vehicle that, unlike the Roundabout Theater’s dreadful A Month in the Country some years back, was worthy of her gifts. It’s always a treat to see McKellen doing what he does best, which is hamming adorably and what he does here.

But Mirren belongs to that rare breed of British actress who can be many different women at the same time, often within the same role. We’ve come to know her mostly through her role as the unsexualized heroine of the Prime Suspect series on television, but over the years, on film, she’s played a whole spectrum of differently tempered women in a man’s world—wives and mistresses, most of them, whose alliance with an obsessed or unbalanced man gives him a clarity or depth he might have lacked with a less interesting woman. Often, these roles have entailed little more than radiating a kind of sexualized intelligence that hinted, in silence or repose, at what Mirren hid below the surface. The Strindberg gives her a chance to be Hedda and Ophelia, Miss Julie, Lady Macbeth and Arkadina all at the same time.

There’s a long pause between acts, about three-quarters of the way through, where Mirren is offstage changing her costume and McKellen, left alone onstage, goes about in the dim light picking things up and putting them in order in a desultory way. It was during this lull that I found myself wondering what made this production any more “commercial” than any of the plays or productions New York’s institutional theaters send to Broadway. At a time when artistic directors all over the city are behaving like Broadway moguls and all the interesting, healthy, vibrant impulses in New York theater seem to be coming from outside the nonprofit sector—from institutional theaters abroad, like the Almeida in London, or from small independent producers—this seems like a valid question.

Certainly it’s worth asking in the context of the institutional meltdown that the New York Shakespeare Festival seems to be going through. Earlier this month, the theater announced the resignation of Fran Reiter from the top financial post. A former deputy mayor, Reiter was the latest in a succession of people who had tried to put the theater’s affairs in order. Then last week came the news that the two largest and most loyal donors on the theater’s board of directors had stepped down.

More than once, Times theater reporter Robin Pogrebin has characterized the situation at the Public as a dispute over money laced with personality conflicts. Her most recent article, from last week, made the current disarray sound like a function of George Wolfe’s unrealistic spending policies and an inability to play well with others. For people familiar with the history of the New York Shakespeare Festival under its founder, Joe Papp, and its subsequent fate under Wolfe, it’s hard not to suspect that there is more going on, and that at least some of it has to do with Wolfe’s lack of anything like an artistic policy and his apparent inability to behave like the artistic director of one of the country’s most influential nonprofit theaters.

Since taking over the Public, Wolfe has focused almost entirely on commercial productions, using the company chiefly as a tryout ground for productions he hopes will move to Broadway. The Times, equating “artistic” with commercial achievement (“The theater has also had its share of recent artistic successes. This season’s production featuring Elaine Stritch is already sold out…”), seems to have no problem with this but others may.

Mostly what the company has lacked under Wolfe is any serious or consistent vision, which may well be what its longtime supporters are finally responding to. Among the many basic things that Wolfe has failed to do, one was to keep up with what was happening in the nonprofit theater elsewhere in the world. Over the years, for instance, Papp had developed a longstanding alliance with London’s Royal Court Theater, a connection he mined as a source for new work. Wolfe let that relationship lapse—and just at a time when the Court and the Almeida Theater, in Islington, were becoming centers of a renaissance in writing for the stage. Under Stephan Daldry, the Court had opened its doors to unrepresented writers, while the Almeida, under Ian McDiarmid and Jonathan Kent, had opened its to movie folk, creating a synergy between the worlds of theater and independent film. The result was a general rekindling of interest in the stage.

If Wolfe had wanted to, he could have made us, his constituency, beneficiaries of that rebirth. If he’d done anything—anything at all—to foster a spirit of non-commercialism at the Public, New York’s other institutional theaters would have had to follow suit. A rivalry might have developed, like the rivalry between the National Theater and the Royal Shakespeare Company, which sparked so much great theater in the 70s and 80s, or like the rivalry that exists between the Royal Court and the Almeida now. Instead, what has happened is a wholesale betrayal of the philosophies upon which art and arts patronage are based.

June 8, 2002   No Comments

The Truth as You See It

In 1900, when newspapers were still the only mass media, over thirty daily papers of general and specialized circulation were published in Manhattan alone. But by the Twenties, a combination of massive capital investment and increasing difficulties in getting through traffic jams to deliver the newspapers to customers made launching a new daily something only an established publisher might try.

For example, the Daily News, first published on June 26, 1919, was founded by Captain Joseph Medill Patterson, an heir to the family that published the Chicago Tribune. Within five years its large photographs, wild headlines, and popular columnists had given the Daily News a circulation of 750,000, making it the most widely read daily in the United States. In 1924, William Randolph Hearst, publisher of the New York Journal and the New York American, declared war on Patterson by starting his own tabloid, the Daily Mirror.

But these papers, however sensational, still published something that could be recognized as news. Nothing had prepared journalism for Bernarr Macfadden’s New York Graphic.

Macfadden proved that material success can be won by the hard-working, ambitious, and utterly humorless. He was an ignoramus with the courage of his convictions, believing that whatever interested him would interest everybody else, and for an amazingly long time, he was largely right.

He was a graphomaniac health nut: during his long career, he published some 150 books on diet and fitness. He was also fixated on sex, although to call his focus on the human body an obsession is to lend glamor to a grimly Celtic fanaticism.

Bernard Adolphus McFadden was born near Mill Spring, Missouri on August 16, 1868. No one knows when or why he changed his name: one memoirist wrote, “…there was a legend around the Macfadden magazines…that the name was a misprint of Bernard, but that upon seeing it misspelled by a printer he had decided to keep it.”

He arrived in New York in 1894 after a brief stint as a professional wrestler with Sandow, the Strong Man. Four years later, already a vegetarian and non-drinker, Macfadden launched his first magazine, Physical Culture, from the Flatiron Building. At first he wrote most of the magazine himself, including its serialized novels. He also posed for the magazine in various stages of undress as an exemplar of Healthy American Manhood. He lectured, denounced alcohol and tobacco, and advocated fasting, natural healing, and exercise.

In 1912, his five-volume Encyclopedia of Physical Culture argued that all major illnesses, including polio, cancer, and Bright’s disease, could be cured by simple diets, water therapy, and modest exercises. One diet called for grapes—nothing but grapes—which Macfadden insisted would eradicate any cancer in the system.

His four marriages produced eight children, six of whom were daughters—Berwyn, Braunda, Beverly, Brynece, Byrne, and Beulah. They were a handsome family, and he loved publishing photographs of his children as representative of ideal American youth, often wearing costumes that Graphic reporter Lester Cohen later described as looking “like…a number of silk handkerchiefs, hanging here or there.”

Then he made his fortune. True Story began publication in 1918. It was the first modern true-confessions magazine. It warned young women against “random flirtations and promiscuous sex.”

One of his writers once asked an editor, “Can a heroine of True Story have sexual intercourse?”

“Yes,” the editor replied, “if she doesn’t enjoy it.”

Perhaps the greatest argument for Macfadden’s sanity is that, when the magazine’s sales dipped in 1920, he did a complete turnabout, publishing stories that placed a heavy emphasis on women who sought sexual gratification outside the bounds of marriage (although Macfadden still drew a conventional moral lesson from his characters’ unhappy lives).

At a time when most magazines still used illustrators, Macfadden used posed photographs of actors or models to illustrate his stories. He always admitted the photographs were posed, usually in microscopic type on the contents page. The mere use of photographs blurred the line between fiction and fact: many of his readers believed the stories were true.

True Story became enormously popular. It spawned legions of imitators. Then he started True Detective Stories and other gritty pulp magazines. He made $30 million within five years. This was not enough: he had to publish a New York City daily. Thus, on April 15, 1924, the New York Graphic hit the streets for the first time.

Of course, Macfadden’s paper would publish Nothing but the Truth: it said so on the masthead. He knew what the public wanted: after all, he’d succeeded with True Story and his other magazines. And it would be a crusading newspaper, fighting for health and physical fitness and against medical ignorance, fighting against the use of pharmaceuticals and against what he called “Prurient Prudery,” to advance “a new human race, free of inhibitions and free of the contamination of smallpox vaccine.” Within days, the joke was that the Graphic was for fornication, against vaccination.

Macfadden, then in his late fifties, was slender, beaky, and about five feet, six inches tall. He looked vaguely exotic: many thought he had Native American blood. He spoke with a bizarre accent: one listener compared it to a combination of Old Scotch and Choctaw.

Macfadden had assembled some interesting professional talent. Money can do that. His managing editor, Emile Gauvreau, had been editor of the Hartford Courant at twenty-six; his memoirs, My Last Million Readers, is a fine, racy impression of Twenties tabloid journalism. Macfadden’s greatest catch was an unknown, Walter Winchell. It was Winchell’s first job on a daily newspaper. He was the nightclub editor, sports columnist, and dramatic critic. Within months, his gossip column made him famous; within two years, it landed him a job with Hearst. Better than Macfadden, perhaps, he knew what “they” wanted.

Between his own genius, the keyhole journalism of Walter Winchell, and contests (the Graphic appears to have been the first American daily to offer cash prizes in crossword puzzle competitions), Gauvreau built circulation from 30,000 to 300,000 within two years. Headlines like “Nude Models and Students in Mad Revel at Paris Ball” and “Boys Spill Beans on Nude Coeds in Reservoir Swim” helped a lot.

So did the Composograph, “a depiction, posed in the Art Department, of a sensational real-life scene that…could not be photographed.” To Macfadden, it was simply the logical extension of the sort of thing that his magazines  had done for years. His competitors found it fraudulent and unethical.

The tabloid photographers would do almost anything for a great shot. Thus, on January 12, 1928, Tom Howard, a Chicago Tribune photographer on assignment to the Daily News, concealed a miniature camera in his pants to illegally smuggle it into Sing Sing so that he could snap murderess Ruth Snyder, bound and hooded in Old Sparky, just as the executioner flipped the switch.

They were nearly two years behind the Graphic, which had used a Composograph to cover the execution of cop-killing post office bandit Gerald Chapman, whose polished manner had won him the tabloid nicknames “Gentleman Gerald” and “The Count of Gramercy Park.”  Gus Schoenbaechler, a Graphic staff, posed as Chapman; his editor hung him from a steam pipe for the shot; Schoenbaechler nearly strangled himself when he accidentally kicked away the chair; and the picture made the Graphic’s front page on Tuesday, April 6, 1926.

More importantly for the Graphic’s prurient readership, as long as the darkroom held out, the Graphic could simply fake front page photographs showing celebrities in intimate situations, as in the misadventures of Daddy Browning and his child-bride, Peaches.

Edward West Browning (1875-1934) rose from office boy to real estate multimillionaire by the age of forty. He first appeared in the tabloids when his wife left him for the family dentist in 1924. He complained, “How can any sensible woman fall in love with a dentist, particularly with the dentist who has done her own work?” Mrs. Browning’s response was to allege Browning’s weakness for little girls.

The divorce settlement left Browning with custody of his adopted daughter Dorothy. Within a year of the divorce, Browning, claiming she needed a sister, advertised in the Herald Tribune for a “pretty, refined girl, about fourteen years old…” He allegedly interviewed 12,000 applicants over two weeks, bouncing the girls on his knee as he caressed and pinched them. Unfortunately, the successful candidate was soon exposed as a twenty-one-year-old impostor.

A year later, Browning met Frances Heenan at a sorority dance. The fifty-one-year-old was entranced by the fifteen year-old blonde. He said, “You look like peaches and cream to me! I’m going to call you Peaches.” The tabloids had already named him “Daddy.”

At five feet, seven inches and 145 pounds, Peaches was a healthy girl. Damon Runyon wrote, “She is…one of those large, patient blondes…her legs are what the boys call piano legs. They say she is fifteen, but she is developed enough to pass anywhere for twenty.”

They were married on April 11, 1926; on October 2, 1926, less than six months later, she marched out of their hotel lugging $30,000 worth of jewels, furs, gowns, and gifts while screaming, “Money isn’t everything!”

Daddy and Peaches each held numerous press conferences, at which they washed, as one writer commented, not only their dirty linen but their scanties and socks as well. Before their five-day divorce trial, Peaches confusingly claimed that: that he had forced her to perform unnatural acts, that she had had nightly relations with him “except when ill,” and that she had never slept with Browning at all.

At trial, Peaches testified that Browning had forced her to look at pornography and eat breakfast with him in the nude. He loved to hide behind doors and screens and then jump out naked to surprise her, shouting “Woof! Woof!”

Macfadden found this material irresistible.  A flood of Composographs followed, such as one showing Daddy (discreetly in his pajamas) advancing on a cowering, towel-draped Peaches, saying “Woof! Woof! Don’t be a goof!” in an overhead comic-strip balloon while Daddy’s pet African honking gander, “perched on the marital bed,” comments “Honk! Honk! It’s the bonk!”

Peaches was awarded $350 a week in temporary alimony, cut off when the divorce was finalized.

The death of film star Rudolph Valentino, the Great Lover of the silent screen, made the Composograph almost  infamous. Near the height of his fame, Valentino was only 31 when he died suddenly of peritonitis on August 23, 1926. There was an orgy of frenzied mourning, encouraged by the studios and the tabloids, with hysterical mobs shattering windows to get into Frank E. Campbell’s funeral home on Madison Avenue where Valentino’s body lay in state.

Macfadden sent two photographers to Campbell’s before the body’s arrival. Presumably after a distribution of appropriate gratuities, one photographer posed in Valentino’s empty casket. The other snapped away. While developing the photograph, the darkroom boys superimposed the actor’s head on the photographer’s body. Thus the Graphic had a picture of Valentino in the box before Campbell’s had finished embalming him. The boys also created a picture of Valentino on the operating table (Graphic staffer Lester Cohen later wrote that he recognized two fellow reporters among the “surgeons” and “nurses” in the photograph) and yet another, based on a medium’s vision, showing Valentino standing with Enrico Caruso in heaven as scores of dead souls ascend the stairway to the Pearly Gates.

Macfadden responded to one critic of this sort of thing by snapping, “What’s the harm in telling the public the truth as you see it? I ask you, sir!”

Macfadden never tired of pushing his nuttier ideas into the paper against Gauvreau’s better instincts. In 1928, Gauvreau, worn out by fighting with his boss, left the Graphic for peace and tranquillity as managing editor of Hearst’s Daily Mirror, and the paper lost momentum with his departure. Macfadden, now convinced he should be President of the United States, further dissipated his energies by building a chain of newspapers and magazines to further his ambitions. Nearly all lost money.

On July 7, 1932, Macfadden folded the Graphic. In eight years, he had reportedly lost between seven and eleven million dollars. He never actually ran for President: in 1940, he ran for U.S. Senator from Florida in the Democratic primary, one of those old-fashioned races with sixteen candidates, and managed to poll a little over ten percent of the vote. A year later, the bankers took over Macfadden Publications and he was out.

In 1955, Macfadden was diagnosed with jaundice. Refusing all medical help, he trusted to fasting. He died on October 12, 1955—probably of his own prescription.

New York Press, January 11, 2000

January 11, 2000   No Comments