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What do these two photos have in common? My closet!

27 Jun

Lysistrata-LannyVietnam execution

On a Sunday when the grass had been cut and there were no great demands on my time, I organized the treasures and junk in my archive closet. There were depths to plunge, but I mostly skimmed. Still, the experience was like reliving an almost forgotten life.

There I was, in costume, in an old college photo. It was taken back stage after a performance of the bawdy Greek comedy “Lysistrata.” The play by Aristophanes is set during the Peloponnesian war. It has the women of all the city-states withholding sex from all the men until they make peace. In the photo I wore a tunic. My skin was bronzed with theatrical makeup called Texas Mud.

I had only a small part but on the last night of the run I got the biggest laugh of my life. Without meaning to or even knowing it, I had successfully improvised. And it worked.

In the scene, a group of horny Greek solders (me included) were on the ground as teasing women danced around them. As per our director’s order, we were to cover the lower portions of our body with our shields. In the center of those shields, facing outward, were tubular objects that resembled what was under the shield and under the tunic.

When one of the actresses danced over me, my recumbent body began to vibrate feverishly. I wasn’t aware of what was going on but when the auditorium erupted in laughter I knew I had done something very convincing and very funny.

Later, someone in the audience said it looked as if I had experienced an orgasm.

On this high note, I ended my show business career and never played again.

Back in the archive closet, in one of many boxes, was an orange folder containing yellow pages of text that had come from a dot matrix printer. It was a novel I started years ago and recently took up again (after devising what I hope is a slightly better plot.)

I began reading and realized the opening of the old version was much better than the opening of the new version. How disappointing! I thought time had made me better. I won’t share the new opening but just for fun here is the old:

“The hall was dirty, as was her dress. And it was dim, like her future.”

The problem is that after that, there wasn’t much worth reading.

So I went to another box.

My attention went to a curling letter from the Detroit News dated Nov. 10, 1989. It appeared to be an answer to an inquiry I had made about a women named Jeanne, a journalist from Detroit whom I met when we both worked in China. That was during the mid-80s, and Jeanne had returned later during the Tiananmen Massacre. At the time of the letter, she was sort of missing.

The letter reminded me how exciting things could be in my former profession, and how we never quite recognized danger. Danger was for the people we covered, not for us.

The letter said:

“Pat talked to Jeanne and her husband (a Chinese national) the other day. The good news is that neither of them has been arrested, although Jeanne was in some trouble for the stories she filed for the Free Press and her husband, as I told you, was in trouble for helping ABC’s news crew. The bad news is that officials won’t let them leave China. Her husband, who got a master’s at Harvard, has been accepted into a doctoral program there with a full scholarship. Someone said officials won’t make a decision because they fear that whatever they do will be perceived to be the wrong thing by the higher ups.”

Jeanne was one of the most interesting people I have ever known. She was, and I’m sure still is, a great storyteller. Her life, on its own, was a great story. It even started out interesting.

Her father was a diplomat and she was raised in Vietnam during the early stages of the war. Her family was especially good friends with Ngo Dinh Diem, then the president of South Vietnam. Jeanne’s family often had him over for dinner.

Naturally, she was shocked and horrified when Deim, on the order of President Kennedy, was assassinated. Can you image how a little girl, unschooled in politics, might feel knowing the leader of her own country had killed a family friend?

The date was Nov. 2, 1963.

Three weeks later, when JFK himself was assassinated, young Jeanne felt justice had been served and a fair punishment issued.

That’s one of her best stories. But it doesn’t top her account of the Tiananmen Massacre in 1989. She was on the front lines with the protesting students when soldiers started firing. The only thing that protected her from the bullets were the dead bodies that had fallen on top of her.

When I finally got in touch with her and she told me this, I should have felt sympathy, sorrow and concern. Instead, I was jealous. Jeanne, damn her, would have yet another good story to tell.

How great to be part of history. I’m thankful that at least a small part of it is in my closet.

There is even more history in that closet. When I took an editor’s job at the Florida Times Union in 1986, I opened the draw of my desk and found an assortment of Associated Press Photos – actual photos, not newspaper clips – from a number of world events.

Columbia take over

And there they were now in my closet:

  • A captured member of the Viet Cong being executed with a bullet to the head.
  • Heavily armed black students proudly leaving the president’s office at Columbia University.
  • Reporters standing around watching men on the ground being run through with bayonets. (This might have been Indonesia)
  • President Kennedy walking idyllically at Camp David with former President Eisenhower.

. . . and more

Bayonet killingsAll of it in my closet.

There were some newer things in there as well, like the canvas bag filled with personal files dating to 2008.

They were from my last newspaper job as an executive editor, which I lost during the Great Recession when that paper combined with two others. I had left the files behind but a colleague brought them to me.

For almost seven years, there was no need or inclination to look inside the bag.

Now, I dumped out the contents to inspect them. Nothing too interesting. A few memories. Certificates of completion from a score of ridiculous management seminars. A letter from a reader who complained, “There is no excuse for bad English in a newspaper,” citing an article with the headline, “Imagine there’s no secrets.” It was about John Lennon and his battle with the FBI. The writer noted that it should have been “there are” no secrets.

Shuffling through the files, I noticed an unopened greeting card in a bright yellow envelope. I opened it. It was from the colleague who had brought me the files. There was a cute card with Snoopy on it wishing me good luck and happiness. There also was a letter. Seeing it, and being touched by it without having even read it, I felt great regret at never having acknowledged it. Once I read it, I felt that perhaps my years as an editor may have been worth something.

A person who leads never really knows if he’s a bastard, a prick, a woefully unfair tyrant, an anti-visionary who lacks talent and relevance. One can only hope he or she is respected and followed and right for the time. People can let you believe the latter even when it is not true.

Without going into detail, I will say that from the single perspective of the letter writer, I received confirmation that I had performed my job properly.

I will continue to keep and treasure this letter.

But there was something else about this letter that woke me to a situation I may have naively overlooked: discrimination against women in journalism.

Nothing in the letter directly spoke to this. It was the tone and sincerity of the “thanks” that suggested it.

While in newspapers, I always focused on the job of producing good stories. And it was always my belief that men and women were equally capable of doing this. In some cases, a woman would be better than a man. In others, a man might be better than a woman. The essence of it was that good was good and it could come from anywhere. The only thing I looked for was good.

The letter writer, a woman, had moved up through the ranks during my tenure. She began as a temp reporter and ended up being metro editor. There was one point where our managing editor – a woman – retired and I made this person acting managing editor while I searched for a replacement.

I had forgotten this; had forgotten why I did it. But in the letter it was explained back to me:

“Thank you for giving me a chance to be an acting managing editor. I wasn’t ready to be managing editor, but I put my name forth anyway. What a classy, clever suggestion that I be acting managing editor to help bridge the gap. Thank you for the experience.”

In the letter, she thanked me for every promotion.

“No Dale Carnegie course could have ever shown me better how important it is for managers to set a tone of inclusiveness and optimism,” she wrote.

It dawned on me then that the more natural course could have been a slower ascent (or no ascent) because she is a woman. It had never crossed my mind before, but knowing it now carries value.

In just a short time, I learned a lot from that overstuffed closet, with all it frozen chunks of life. I’ll have to go back again later and learn more.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

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A minor indiscretion that went unnoticed

24 Jun

Hot tub blur

I live in a picture-postcard town with lots of shops on and off Main Street. The merchants come and go and recent openings include a waffle-and-ice cream emporium, two vap parlors and a store made up like a pharmacy that sells “medicinal” cold-pressed juice for $7 a bottle.

 

People around here keep up with the shops, but there’s one that everyone overlooks. Instead of being parallel to Main Street, it’s set at an angle. When you round the corner right before it, your line of sight is directed elsewhere.

 

No one ever looks in that window. I know because I sat in it with two blondes wearing bikinis.

 

That was years ago.

 

The story begins at the county courthouse in the center of town. I covered the government there as a reporter. The important offices were on the fifth floor and were guarded by two sentinels sitting at adjacent desks that formed a sort of barrier. The sentinels were young, blonde and attractive. They looked alike and both had the same first name.

 

For the sake of this story, let’s say it was Donna.

 

To secure information or to speak with the people running the county, reporters had to get past the two Donnas.

 

On a day when I needed something special, the two Donnas were in a good mood and complied. In exchange, they demanded something of me.

 

“Tomorrow, meet us on Main Street at noon. Bring cheese, crackers, pepperoni and your bathing suit. We’ll bring the wine.”

 

They would say no more. As I think about it now, I really didn’t need to know more.

 

The two Donnas showed up as promised and walked me to the store that sits at an angle. We made the little turn and they explained.

 

“Our friend is renting this now,” one of the Donnas said. “He asked if during lunch we could help with his new business. He wants us to sit in there,” and she pointed to a steaming, redwood hot tub in the window.

 

This was a government town and I was fairly well known by all the government officials. Most took lunch at the local restaurants and would be passing by. While there was great appeal to the idea of being immersed in hot water with two almost-identical women who had the same name, I worried about my reputation. This was a town where people talked. I didn’t want them to be talking about me, especially when my job was to talk about them.

 

“Oh, c’mon,” one Donna said.

 

“Oh, c’mon,” the other Donna said.

 

And so I went on.

 

They were relaxed but I was tense. I watched the window as people passed, waiting for that moment when some authority figure – maybe a judge — would pause, stop, turn, point and show utter disgust. After a glass of wine, the tension seemed to boil off.

 

We were having a good time and had forgotten the world. But after a while we grew concerned – perturbed – that not a single person had noticed us. How odd. In an effort to draw attention, we frolicked in a more pronounced way, and still nothing. We yelled and waved, but no one waved back.

 

Was it us?

 

No, it was the store.

 

Hot tubs were popular around this time, but the friend of the two Donnas went out of business in just a few months.

 

I learned a couple of important lessons from this. First, have fun while you can. Second, before you open a business, for god sakes do a little research.

 

By Lanny Morgnanesi

Like Ben Stiller, he felt the pain of an unfortunate act. Unlike Ben, he couldn’t discuss it.

9 Jun

franks_and_beans

The Ben Stiller movie, “There’s Something About Mary,” was on the other night and it reminded me of Bill Foley.

 

Bill Foley was a reporter who always carried a notebook and pen. He needed them for work but also because he couldn’t talk. When you asked Bill a question, he’d pull out the notebook and write his answer. Often, it was only a word or two. Usually, it was funny.

 

Because of throat cancer, Bill had his voice box removed.

 

Everyone assumed he could not utter a sound. Through odd personal circumstance, however, I learned this was not true.

 

It happened while we both were in the men’s room at the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville. As we stood side-by-side at the urinals, I noticed Bill was in a hurry. Upon closing up, he – like Ben Stiller’s character in “There’s Something About Mary” — caught the frank-N-beans between the teeth of his zipper. And just like Ben, but not as loud, he let out a sound of agony and helpless distress.

 

The Stiller character, comically, was unable to free himself. Bill quickly fixed things and exited.

 

And there I was, with a secret to share: Bill Foley can’t talk but when it’s necessary he can moan! I tried being discreet and limited in my telling of the tale, but the worst got the best of me and the story spread. I never heard back from Bill and don’t know if my disclosure ever made it to his ears, which worked just fine.

 

Bill was a wonderful, witty columnist. Some knew him before the operation. I didn’t. I knew him only from his column, his actions and his laconic, handwritten retorts.

 

For a quiet guy, he brought lots of personality to the newsroom. I remember the time when lunches were being stolen from the office refrigerator. Members of the Refrigerator Users Group – RUG – went on a tear, sending out threatening memos and edicts to all possible suspects and devising multiple strategies of defense. Bill’s running commentary on the crisis was hilarious and ultimately silenced RUG.

 

It was pleasant to think of him again.

 

He died in 2001 at age 62 after working in newspapers for 40 years. I left the Times-Union in 1993 and never read his obit. I looked it up today.

 

Among other things, it said that, “Mr. Foley had written columns about generations of visionaries, bootleggers, politicos and hapless saps whose exploits helped shape the city.”

 

It said, “His wry humor and precise, staccato language attracted a following of readers that ranged from schoolchildren to corporate executives.”

 

It mentioned that he had played catch with Hank Aaron and spent time in Cuba with Che Guevara.

 

It didn’t mention Ben Stiller, frank-N-beans or “There’s Something About Mary.” For that I am grateful. I’m also grateful that Mr. Stiller, via his one-of-a-kind performance, was able to bring back some nearly forgotten memories of a man who could say a whole lot with so very little.

 

By Lanny Morgnanesi

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Normal Mailer: Now there was a writer

25 Oct

Mailer-young

Growing up and trying to write, I admired Norman Mailer. Oh, he had his bad points, but I thought he was fantastic. His fame as a character/celebrity was a self-creation but as a writer he was genuine.

 

There is a new biography out on him. It is “Norman Mailer: A Double Life,” by J. Michael Lennon. I haven’t read it, but I did read a review of it in the New York Times by Graydon Carter, the editor of Vanity Fair.

 

Carter does a wonderful job of describing Mailer:

 

It could be said that Norman Mailer was a man and a writer halfway between fame and infamy and yet with little in the way of middle ground. He was, in varying combinations, a world-class drinker, feuder, provocateur, self-mythologizer and anti-feminist. He was a war protester, a mayoral candidate, a co-founder of The Village Voice, as well as a wife stabber, a serial husband (of six wives), and a father (of nine). He was a boxer, an actor, a filmmaker, a poet and a playwright. He was also a journalist and a novelist of enormous and singular narrative inventiveness and thrust, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, and one of the least boring and most tireless and tiresome public figures of the last half of the 20th century.

 

Mailer-bookI heard Mailer speak at the University of Missouri during the ‘70s. Always the showman looking to shock, he opened with a dirty joke.  It was a good joke. The most interesting thing about the joke was it knocked him down a peg or two on the masculinity chart. This is unusual for a he-man self-inflator.

 

Here is the joke, which I clearly remember after all these years.

 

“I ran into one of my ex-wives recently. She had gotten herself a young new lover and so I asked, ‘How does your boyfriend like that old, worn-out pussy of yours?’  She answered, ‘He likes it just fine . . . once he gets past the worn-out part.”

 

One thing about this great mind, who loved verbal combat: Sometime he tried too hard and flopped. He’d come off like an ass. This happened on the old “Dick Cavett Show” when he went up against both Cavett and his mortal enemy, writer Gore Vidal.

 

I had watched the original show and was so disappointed in him. A clip of the performance has been posted on Youtube and I’d like to share it with you. Your thoughts on Mailer and this video would be greatly appreciated. I would guess Mailer had many more enemies than fans. Which are you?

By Lanny Morgnanesi

 

Murder under my nose: How I made an innocent man look guilty

26 Feb

Justice

One afternoon last week a coworker sat down next to me and I focused on his shirt.

“Were you wearing that this morning?” I asked.

“I was,” he said.

This innocuous exchange revived in me a memory of murder. It brought back a decades-old crime and thoughts of an innocent man I wanted to put behind bars because someone said he changed his pants at lunch.

Circumstance, no matter how incriminating, should never be mistaken for truth. This I have learned.

The incident occurred at a newspaper where I was an editor. Our building was adjacent a large parking lot. At the far end of the lot, away from the building, was a patch of grass and some picnic tables.

No one but Janice used them.

Janice was a 26-year-old secretary who would sunbathe at lunch, lying on one of the tables.  Her meal would be a salad from the Burger King across the street. She’d drive over there, get the salad, then come back and park her car near the picnic tables.  The keys were left in the car and the sound system was turned up so she could hear it while taking in the sun.

A guy she was dating worked in the advertising department of the newspaper, but word was their relationship was coming undone. Janice planned to head north that weekend to visit a Canadian football player friend. But on Friday, before she left, she planned to talk with the old boyfriend and explain things.

She never did because she went missing. After a few days her body was found in the woods near a river. She had been stabbed about 40 times. Bloodstains were found on the parking lot near the picnic tables.

When word got out, everyone at work huddle together to cry, grieve, commiserate and ask why. I was the editor on the story and had to put aside personal feelings. I informed my coworkers that reporters would be interviewing them to find out if they had witnessed anything odd in the past few days and to learn what they knew about Janice.

The boyfriend was there. He looked terrible. He hadn’t slept or shaved for days. He seemed a wreck. Normally, his hair was perfectly coiffed in what could be called “disco” style. Now it was all mussed.

He took me aside and said, “I’m sorry, but I can’t talk to you about Janice. I just can’t.” He shook as he spoke.

I told him it was his decision to talk or not talk, but I asked him what he meant by “can’t talk.”

He was quiet for a moment then said, “Let’s go into an office.”

We did, and he shut the door.

“The thing is,” he said nervously. “The thing is . . . if I talk about Janice, if I tell you the story of Janice … the real story … she’ll come off looking like” – and he paused – “the devil.”

At that exact moment I decided I was alone in a locked room with a murderer.

Over the next few days, the reporters and editors worked feverishly to find Janice’s killer. The boyfriend is always a suspect and much of our findings were pushing us toward him.

The jealousy motive was clearly present. But there was more. A colleague told us that on the day of the murder the boyfriend had been wearing a pair of brown pants in the morning and in the afternoon had change to black.

Witnesses from outside the paper were coming forward. One was a hairdresser who said she had been driving past our building around the time of the murder and saw a man and a woman at the end of the parking lot. The man was raising and lowering his arm in the direction of the woman, she said. Being a hairdresser, she said she couldn’t help notice the man’s hair. She said it was neat and styled, like the hair of men who frequented discos.

When we spoke to the police, they suggested we could be onto something. It was odd, however, that they never wrote down anything we said.

Meanwhile, the boyfriend found it difficult to come to work. Janice had been well liked. This was not true of him. Now, popularity was a moot issue. He was being looked upon as the most horrid of creatures.

That did not change, although it should have.

Everyone at the paper, me more than anyone, was stunned when police arrested a 16-year-old high school dropout and charged him with the murder.

The boy, who hung out at the Burger King, recently got his driver’s license and wanted his parents to buy him a car. They refused. He liked Janice’s car, a hot black number that he’d see when she drove in to buy her salads. He decided he wanted it and followed her on foot to the newspaper parking lot across the street.

While she was on the table sunning, he got in the open car and was preparing to take it. She challenged him. He pulled the knife and stabbed her repeatedly. He put the body in the trunk and drove away with his prize.

All this happened in broad daylight, on a heavily traveled road, outside a building that employed hundreds of people, including journalists trained to observe and photograph news.

I don’t think any of us ever apologized to the boyfriend. In the face of rock solid evidence to the contrary, a few continued to believe he committed the crime.

Not long after the arrest, the largest fire in the area’s history broke out. A Kmart warehouse the size of several football fields was fully engulfed in flames and smoke. It was massive. The scene looked like World War II. The newspaper sent someone up in an airplane to shoot the fire, and the dramatic photo ran across six columns in the paper.

A copy of that day’s paper with the huge fire picture was on my desk when I arrived at work. There was a note attached. It was note I’ll never forget; a very short note that was very long on black humor; a note full of hurt.  Somewhere I must have it in my archives, but I’m not sure where. It was from the boyfriend, and this is what it said:

“Honest to God. I didn’t do this.”

The boyfriend eventually resigned from the newspaper. Years later, on Valentine’s Day, the murderer hanged himself in prison.

The whole episode is something I think about from time to time, especially when a colleague has innocently and maybe for no good reason changed an article of clothing in the middle of the day, or at least I or someone else thought he did.

 By Lanny Morgnanesi

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