Tag Archives: NotebookM

The Quiet Presence of Celebrity

17 May

PPM-blur

By Lanny Morgnanesi

A man who sold millions of records in his lifetime and entertained hundreds of thousands sat on his guitar case on the sidewalk in front of the funeral parlor. He was about three hours from his New York home and may have been waiting for an Uber to the train station. Everyone else either went home or got in their cars for the procession to the cemetery. They walked by him and around him. He seemed old, frail and alone.

The funeral was for my friend, who was also his friend. The deceased was accomplished but not famous. This was not a celebrity funeral. It took place in a quiet suburban town. About 150 people attended.

My friend had been many things in life, most notably a newspaper man. As a journalist he met famous people. He eventually struck up a friendship with a trio of folk singers who were wildly famous in the 60s and even after. The group was so well-known it popularized Bob Dylan songs in a way Dylan never could. As I entered the narrow hallway of the funeral parlor, I saw the musician, one of the two surviving members of the trio, trying to make his way through the crowd. Even at 80 he was recognizable to me. He was being unceremoniously jostled, as was I, but with a guitar in hand and extra age on his body he was finding it difficult to maneuver. I waited for people to treat him in some special way, to acknowledge him and greet him, but at that moment no one did. He eventually made his way to a room off from the viewing area where there was coffee and snacks.

After an hour or so, the service began. All seats were taken. People were standing. A few more chairs were brought in and the singer managed to get one near me. He sat down precariously. The hand holding his guitar was shaking.

The famous folk trio he belonged to broke up in 1970 and thereafter would frequently reunite, perform and even record. Years ago, my friend wrote a lyric about the Irish-English conflict and sent it to him. The performer wrote music for it, and his trio recorded the song – Fair Ireland – in 1990. After three eulogies, the singer took the microphone, talked about our friend, and sang Fair Ireland. His shaking hand had settled.

The song opens with the verse:

They build bombs and aim their pistols in the shadow of the cross
And they swear an oath of vengeance to the martyrs they have lost
But they pray for peace on Sundays with a rosary in each hand
It’s long memories and short tempers that have cursed poor Ireland
It’s long memories and short tempers that have cursed poor Ireland

It ends with:

So we’re left with retribution it’s the cycle of the damned
And the hope becomes more distant as the flames of hate are fanned
Who will listen to the children for they’re taught to take their stand
They say love and true forgiveness can still heal fair Ireland
They say love and true forgiveness can still heal fair Ireland
Only love and real forgiveness can still heal fair Ireland

There was gentle applause. The singer retook his seat, and the service ended.

I imagine that after a life of intense fame and a loss of privacy, achieving semi-anonymity in old age is welcome. Nonetheless, I felt deep sorrow for the entertainer, possibly a carryover from the sorrow I felt for my friend, but still altogether different. I fully understand that generations pass, that what once was popular fades, and that value and esteem can evaporate. But there is this hope that dignity remains intact. Seeing the musician alone, sitting on his guitar case, waiting for something, I wanted to offer him a ride as a way to preserve his dignity. That would have meant leaving my place in the funeral procession, so I didn’t do it.

 

From my car window I could see he was weary, worn and sad. In his early years, he had traveled the world. He married and then divorced. He had two children. There was a problem with alcohol and drugs. In the 70s he was arrested on a sex charge but pardoned by the president of the United State. I wouldn’t have felt so bad if he had just come down from New York with a friend, anyone, younger or just as old. It didn’t matter. Just someone there for support.

He most certainly has people in New York. I only wish I could have seen one. To me, that would have made his past life more meaningful, more joyful. As the long funeral procession pulled away, I was at least happy that my departed friend, highly successful, had his success elevated by intense love and caring. In the end, he was not alone, and had never been alone. This, one learns, is the enviable life.

 

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A kind of Jewish internet flourished in 900 AD

13 Mar
Ancient Babylon

Babylonia

For this reason or that, I’ve adopted the belief that many human habits date back hundreds of thousands of years, to homo erectus, the Neanderthals, and Gods knows how many other hominid creatures.

 

I won’t go much into this now, but one much-more modern bit of evidence – for me at least – is the preserved Italian city of Pompeii, which remains exactly as it was in 79 AD. The eruption of Mount Vesuvius and the fallen ash froze it in time. When I toured it several years ago, my lasting impression was: These people lived just like we do today!

 

Now something new to me – but historically old – has added to the idea that we haven’t changed much, even if our technology has. This small piece of information comes from a book called, “A History of the Jewish People,” written in 1934 by Max Margolis and Alexander Marx. It was paid for by the estate of one Rosetta M. Ulman, who during her life wanted such a publication written.

book-history-of-the-jewish-people

In chapters covering the years from 175 AD to 1038, there is a great deal of discussion about two highly respected schools of learning that guided Jewish communities dispersed throughout the known world. The schools, Sura and  Pumbeditha, were in Babylonia (modern Iraq). The two heads of these school was held in the highest regard by Jewish residents of Babylonia, Palestine, Egypt and many other locations. Every word from the leaders on religion, scripture, philosophy and life were sought out and followed.

Map-sura-pumbadita

Even the Arabs paid attention and gave their respect.

 

As I read, I wondered how word got from the schools to the communities. No doubt by heralds, messengers, traders and travelers. Obviously, it must have been a slow stream of news.

 

When Margolis and Marx get into a section on a schism between the two schools, however, it seems as if the news had a much faster way of getting out. The leaders of Sura and Pumbeditha were arguing over nearly everything. One highly sensitive issue was what kind of calendar or calculation should be used to set the Jewish holidays. They differed on this, and the result was that one year Passover was celebrated on two different days.

Ancient Israel

Ancient Israel

Margolis and Marx report that the “confusion” was so great “it was even noticed by non-Jews.”

 

My thoughts were: How did the details of this controversy and the two divergent holidays spread so quickly from Babylonia, through Palestine, to Egypt and North Africa, maybe to even to Spain, Greece, Turkey and Persia?

 

Was there a Jewish internet?

 

Information then and now was powerful and important and clever humans, with or without technology, knew how to spread it. What may be lost, however, is exactly how they did it, at what cost and to what extent. Margolis and Marx don’t get into that, but I’d sure like to know.

Sura-Iraq

The ancient school at Sura

Either way, the results were a lot like the results now.

 

We’ve always been the same and probably always will be. If we ever clone a Neanderthal, he may fit in much better than we’d expect.

Neanderthal

Depiction of a Neanderthal

But I would have known that. The bakeries, butcher shops, whorehouses, living room art, sidewalks and curbs and everything else in Pompeii seem to suggest the truth. And now, as more evidence, we have the ancient Jewish internet.

 

By Lanny Morgnanesi

What is so attractive about the opposite of modesty?

9 Dec

Modesty miniskirt high school

 

I’d like to share some thoughts on a topic often considered inappropriate, even offensive. That topic is modesty.

 

Decades ago, modesty was a common word and part of a common discussion. It was considered a good quality, something advocated by parents, teachers and others who sought to guide and instruct.

 

Today, it has become a pejorative. The reasons for this include:

 

  • Our present adversarial relations with Muslims, whose women often wear headscarves and sometimes cover up completely.

 

  • The belief that to advocate for modesty is to imply that a female’s manner of dress is at fault for a man’s assault or victimization of her.

 

  • The fact that current styles make it almost impossible for women to dress modestly and be fashionable at the same time.

 

modesty-Hepburn

The modesty issue first confronted me in high school, in the 60s, when the miniskirt was popular. That tiny article of clothing made it difficult for a young woman to sit down without revealing much of herself. There was a lot of pulling at the skirt in an attempt to cover up, but this was mostly ineffective. I recall wondering if my female classmates knew what was in clear view. They must have. They must have seen each other. The exposure was so common that a male friend had a name for it. He called it “having your picture taken.”

 

I felt sorry and embarrassed for the women wearing these skirts, thinking how totally ashamed I would be if, for example, I were caught walking the halls with my zipper down. I wanted to say something but lacked the nerve.

 

Men in high school, frankly, seemed more modest than females. But to this day I don’t know why. The swimming coach at school once told me it was difficult to get men on the team because they had to wear those tiny Speedos, which showed masculine protrusions. This I understood. So why didn’t women have a similar concern with the miniskirt?

 

Out of high school and college and into an office environment, I had an unexpected and really surprised warning from an older male colleague about my own modesty. It was a hot summer day and I wore a short-sleeve shirt.

 

“That’s not professional,” he said. “You’re supposed to wear long sleeves. Always long sleeves. You don’t show your arms at work.”

Modesty minnie-driver

I had never heard this rule and took heed of his counsel. The next day also was hot, but I wore a long-sleeve shirt. In a meeting that day, I noticed the women were showing an assortment of arms, legs, shoulders, cleavage, even toes. Not fair, I thought, and questioned how this double standard came to be. Would the women in the office accept me if I were showing my chest or toes? I was certain they would not, and that everyone would believe I had lost my mind.

 

These little stories are not to suggest that modesty is alien to all women. I dated a woman once who, while not overtly modest, had a disdain for showy fashion and sexy clothes. Her common attire was jeans and a shirt. She wore a dress only when it was called for, and never used make up or styled her hair.

 

She made an exception at a Halloween party. As a costume, she put on heavy makeup, fixed her hair and wore a provocative dress. She looked totally different, very enticing. I raved about her appearance and told her to do it again sometime. As long as I knew her, she never did.

 

I respected and admired that.

Modesty

Earlier I mentioned Muslim women. Years ago, I had one as a friend. She was Indonesian. Pretty hip, fashionable and not at all religious. We were both living abroad in an international community. After a harsh winter, spring broke out to our great relief. On a warm bright day, I told my friend, “You know what I want to do? I want to make a picnic lunch, take a blanket outside and lay in the sun. Would you do that with me?”

 

She said she would, but after a minute on the blanket she got up and said, “I’m sorry. I can’t do this. I know you just want to enjoy the day and don’t mean anything by it. But I’m a Muslim woman and I can’t lay out on a blanket in public with a man. I just can’t.”

 

I assured her I understood. We packed up and went to a restaurant. I felt horrible for not realizing what I had asked her to do. I had been totally blind to it.

 

This might have been more about dignity than modesty, but the two actually meld.

Modesty-quote-dignity

Clearly, there is some trace of a belief that says modesty has its place and that it can be adopted by choice and without compromise or surrender of rights. With fashion the way it is today, with so many women going out confidently in pants that are nothing more than a second layer of skin, and at a time when so many men are being exposed as sexual predators and uninvited Lotharios, why doesn’t a modesty movement – a small one – take hold?

 

To help me better understand this, I need women to explain the issue to me, mainly why even a modest amount of modesty is moderately objectionable. So please comment here. More important, what is the strong attraction to modesty’s inverse?  Why the other extreme? That’s the even bigger question.

 

This is what has truly confounded me, ever since those high school days when young boys, uncaring about the dignity of their female friends, regularly got their pictures taken.

 

One final note. I know a man who became a woman. After the change, she seemed obsessed not by womanhood and all that it can and should be, but rather by the superficial — jewelry, clothing and appearance. Something there seemed missing or wrong.

 

Can it be the same with the modesty issue?

 

Lanny Morgnanesi

Is Democracy Sick?

14 Oct

 

With the Russians continuing to mess with us, it might be time to consider an alternative system of government. Perhaps Plato can guide us.

 

When Truman Capote seduced Marlon Brando

28 Dec

brando-1

One of the great classics of entertainment journalism is a 1957 piece called, “The Duke in His Domain.” It appeared in the New Yorker and was written by Truman Capote. The subject was actor Marlon Brando.

I read the article for the first time this week. It made me realize that, although I have been in journalism for many years, I’ve been doing it all wrong. Little Truman, God bless him, had been doing it all right. This is not a testament to his skill as a writer but rather the way he approached his craft.

Capote laid Brando bare.

In the portrayal, the normally reticent and reclusive actor was not a shimmering Hollywood star but a flawed man who could be seen from all sides and angles; a man who revealed much of his soul. In the 50s, entertainment journalism was not done this way. This piece was revolutionary; a precursor to something called The New Journalism.

Brando hated the article and wanted to kill Capote. Yet it was Brando who voluntarily revealed all … talking endlessly into the night, canceling meetings so he could continue the gabfest, not wanting to stop.

All the while, for almost six hours, Capote never took a note. Therein, I believe, lies the secret to great journalism.

It doesn’t take a reporter long to learn that the best material often comes at the end of an interview, when the notebook is put away and you are walking toward the door. I call it the Columbo Effect.  The person being interviewed relaxes and opens up, trying to build on the uneasy rapport established while the notebook was out.TrumanCapoteA_800_0

In a way, gathering information without taking notes is something of a con. In the Brando interview, the actor indeed felt that Capote was not working. Capote thought this was absurd. The interview was conducted in a hotel in Kyoto, Japan, while Brando was making the film “Sayonara.” Why would Capote make such a journey if his intention were just to socialize?

Long ago, when I was a student, I met a tough reporter who toiled in the pre-computer era. He was aware that people would talk casually and unguarded and then insist the conversation was off the record. That’s why he firmly and emphatically told all his sources, “When you talk to me you’re talking into a typewriter.”

Capote didn’t say this to Brando. It would have been fairer to do so.

The story behind the “Duke in his Domain” is an intriguing one.  It is documented in the Nov/Dec issue of the Columbia Journalism Review by writer Douglas McCollam. He does a fantastic job explaining the events of more than a half-century ago.

Over the years there has been much speculation about how Capote got his story, but two key elements seem to be alcohol – Truman got Marlon drunk – and the fact that Capote baited Brando by sharing his story of an alcoholic mother, a story very similar to Brando’s.

“I didn’t trick him,” Capote later said. “We simply swapped stories.”

But I’m convinced that the results were only achieved because Capote carried not a pen, not a notebook, not a tape recorder. He claims to have had what some call a photographic memory.

Capote, who broke literary ground with the so-called nonfiction novel, “In Cold Blood,” is said to have taken no notes while researching this book on the brutal murder of a Kansans family in 1959. After interviews, however, he would type up his mental notes.

There was a time when I was working in a situation where those around me would have objected to note taking, so I tried to train my mind like Capote said he trained his. I had no special skill for it. If there were a good quote that I wanted to preserve, I would have to say it over and over again in my head. When I had the chance, I’d use a scrap of paper to write down one or two words to help me remember it.  The one-or-two-word method also was used to record the facets of the story as it unfolded.

It was difficult work, but as time went on I got better at it.

Even so, my technique was totally incapable of producing anything like the detailed, full picture in “The Duke in His Domain.” The story has long quotes and conversations and captures incredible moments. Here is one, as Brando talks about his mother moving in with him.

“I thought if she loved me enough, trusted me enough, I thought then we can be together, in New York; we’ll live together and I’ll take care of her …. I tried so hard. But my love wasn’t enough …. And one day, I didn’t care anymore. She was there. In a room. Holding onto me. And I let her fall. Because I couldn’t take it anymore – watch her breaking apart, in front of me, like a piece of porcelain. I stepped right over her. I walked right out. I was indifferent.”

I can see where a reporter could reconstruct sentences like these, keeping the sense of the message while taking license over the choice of words. That’s how I view Capote’s technique.

Brando, however, said this: “That little bastard’s got total recall. Every goddamn word, he remembered.”

For all journalists and journalism students, I recommend reading “The Duke in His Domain.” For myself, I’ll be thinking a lot about the huge gap between notebook and non-notebook journalism. I’ve become convinced that the latter, even without precise quotes, might render the truer story.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

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