The Heroes Among Us – And the Meaning of Courage – On the Anniversary of Pearl Harbor

The upcoming anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 reminded me of an essay I wrote for PARADE in final month of 1979, as the decade of the Seventies was ending and we were still trying to recover from Vietnam. The essay was based on my attendance at a gathering of recipients of the Medal of Honor and it revolved around the meaning of courage.  I think its message holds just as true today, as we look back on a shocking, tragic event of American history that occurred sixty-eight years ago, when our country was suddenly catapulted into World War Two:

An Essay by Hank Whittemore – PARADE – January 1980

Have Americans lost their courage? That question is often heard these days, along with the cynical observation that we’ve grown too soft to produce heroes.

Last November, I decided to attend the Congressional Medal of Honor Society’s biennial reunion in Tulsa, Oklahoma.  Perhaps a good place to learn about courage would be among those who had demonstrated it in battle.

First I consulted the government’s list of the 3306 recipients of the Medal since it was first awarded during the Civil War. Under each name a citation tells what the man did to deserve his honor. You can open any page and find a story to match your worst nightmare. It is impossible to read these accounts of courage and not be overwhelmed.

Many of the Medals had been given posthumously. One soldier had “saved the lives of his men at the sacrifice of his life by throwing himself directly on the mine as it exploded.” That’s a typical description, not the exception. For those who remained alive, personal survival was an afterthought, an accident of fate.

“The Medal of Honor is the highest military award for bravery that can be given to any individual in the United States,” I read. “The deed of the person must be proved by incontestable evidence of at least two eyewitnesses; it must be so outstanding that it clearly distinguishes his gallantry from lesser forms of bravery; it must involve the risk of his life, and it must be the type of deed which, if he had not done it, would not subject him to any justified criticism.”

There are 275 Medal-holders still living among us: 10 from World War I, 144 from World War 11,38 from Korea and 83 from Vietnam. Of these, about 160 would be on hand at the Tulsa reunion.

At the meeting place in a downtown hotel, the “national media” were conspicuously absent.  There were no hordes of reporters, no TV crews shoving their way into the reception hall.  The local press was there, but most of the country would never learn that the event was taking place. Those who had exhibited the highest form of military courage while serving America were reaching out to each other in virtual anonymity.

Attack on Pearl Harbor - Dec 7, 1941

Many of the men had brought their wives. They were dressed informally, with sports jackets and ties, and each man wore his Medal draped from its ribbon around his neck. They had name tags on their lapels. At first glance, you might have mistaken the group for a collection of ordinary businessmen. They greeted each other with handshakes, smiles, occasional embraces.

And soon you could feel that there was much more in the room, a more powerful emotion beneath the surface. Wandering around as a stranger, I saw two men who had each lost an arm.  I saw a man who had lost one of his legs. Others were limping.  Several had scars from burns.  Nearly all, I learned, were carrying wounds of one kind or another.

At some point it struck me. The world may forget these men and what they have done, but as long as any are still alive, they will not forget each other – because they know what courage is; because each man knows that the others understand what he went through; because of a common bond, transcending generations and races and all other differences; because they share a secret that is almost impossible for them to express to anyone else.

If I could learn that secret, I thought, maybe then I would have answers for those who worry about our courage. And so I joined the Medal-holders as they took bus tours, attended banquets, listened to speeches. I spoke to dozens of them, in small groups and individually – trying to learn the secret.

Each man openly admitted that he had been afraid. His courage had required an awareness of danger, not blindness to what was at stake. His act was not rash, but deliberate.  What counted was how he had controlled or handled his fear. He had “respected the situation” and then risen to it.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall - Washington, D.C.

But along with fear, I noticed, there had been anger. A man had gotten mad as hell at the course of events and said, in effect, “I won’t submit to that! I won’t let it happen!  Maybe this is the way things are supposed to be, but I’m going to change it!” And so, rather than give in to torture, he had slit his wrists. Or jumped on top of a deadly grenade.  Or stood up and fired at the enemy in the face of almost certain death.  And by his action, he had made all the difference.

Underneath the fear and the anger, however, there had been a dedication to others.  This sort of courage – perhaps courage itself – is not selfish.  It regards comrades’ lives as more valuable than one’s own. It means being willing to crawl back into a flaming helicopter to save the pilot, diving down to a submarine to rescue those who are trapped; instead of fleeing for safety, racing out to treat the wounded and helpless and dragging them away from the bullets.

Courage, I found, is not the result of a contest. You don’t “win” the Medal of Honor.  You have a certain amount of training and experience, but then comes an event that calls for spontaneous action. You either respond in a certain way or you don’t.  You cannot predict, ever, what you will do.  Not a single Medal- holder was aware, beforehand, that he really had the “guts” to be a hero.

And that is part of the secret:  These men, holders of the highest award for courage we’ve got, are just like the rest of us. Among them at the reunion were a college professor, a furrier, a police chief, a real estate salesman. They had come from steel mills, farms, assembly lines and executive suites.

The important fact was not their differences from us, but their sameness. As a group, they represent the diversity, and the ordinariness, of the whole nation.  They reflect the actual and potential courage that exists throughout American life.  They are a national treasure, symbolizing our capacity for valor. By taking a good look at them, it is possible to see ourselves.

For each of the Medal-holders there had been no script to follow. Before they acted, they had been just as “normal” as you or I. If a situation calling for courage arises, will we respond as heroes or will we shrink away to save ourselves?

There is no certain answer.  Which, I believe, is also part of the secret.  Heroism is an individual matter that cannot be “seen” in the absence of a test.  You cannot find it by looking at your neighbors or in a mirror. It is something that happens at the moment. Until then, no one has the right to judge who among us does or does not have courage.

These lessons, I believe, apply to courage in all its forms, not just military. For everyone, crises arise throughout life that test courage – in our jobs, in the family, in relationships with friends and with strangers.

What saddened me at the Medal of Honor reunion was the feeling on the part of the recipients that their courage has so little meaning for the rest of us. “The Medal has a different significance these days,” a Vietnam veteran said. “If I had received it during World War II, I’d be treated differently. I came home as a soldier in scorn, so to speak.  Today, most kids don’t even know that the Medal exists, much less what it means.”

Isn’t it time we distinguished between the traumatic Vietnam experience and those who fought in that controversial conflict?  Isn’t it time we re-learned the Medal’s meaning, for ourselves and future generations?  Surely another war isn’t necessary in order to know that we haven’t lost our courage.

The men who gathered in Tulsa have put away their Medals until the next reunion. They go about their lives with that secret they share. They know what courage is – and so should we.

“The Judge Can Drop Dead!” – The Story of Mike Quill, Labor Leader

My first book (of eleven) was a biography of labor leader Mike Quill, the feisty head of the Transport Workers Union of America who led a twelve-day strike of all bus and subway workers in New York City in January of 1966.

My first book - A Biography of Labor Leader Mike Quill (1905-1966) of the Transport Workers Union of America

The book, published in 1968, was entitled THE MAN WHO RAN THE SUBWAYS – THE STORY OF MIKE QUILL, but I had wanted to call it THE JUDGE CAN DROP DEAD because that’s what Quill said when reporters asked him about the judge’s orders to stop the strike or go to jail:

“The judge can drop dead in his black robes, and we would not call off the strike.  Personally, I don’t care if I rot in jail!”

In fact he died soon afterward, of congestive heart failure, on January 28, 1966, at age sixty.  I had decided to start looking into Quill’s life with the notion of writing a book only a week before, having become fascinated by his character in the midst of that tumultuous strike, and upon his death I continued to pursue it.  During the early months of  research I worked for a living as City Hall Reporter for the Reporter Dispatch in White Plains, NY, then as Public Information Officer for that city’s Urban Renewal Project, and then as News Director of WVOX Radio in New Rochelle, NY.  I kept gathering material whenever possible in various Westchester County libraries including the New York Public Library on 42nd Street in Manhattan.

Michael J. Quill addresses a throng of workers outside the IRT Subway’s 59th Street powerhouse in 1935.

Bertha Himber, a kindly woman who worked in the office at the White Plains Urban Renewal Agency, offered to tell her daughter Jane about my project, which, frankly, appeared to have no chance of ever becoming a published book.  Jane worked in the Audio Visual Department of Holt, Rinehart and Winston in New York.  She passed along the idea of a Quill biography to the editorial staff; and soon Charlotte L. Mayerson, Senior Editor, called to say that she loved the idea and would work with me to develop it.

The process was long and difficult, but with Ms. Mayerson’s help I received a contract and found myself going out to conduct interviews and eventually flying to Ireland to interview Quill’s relatives and friends.  The book was published with the initials of my name (“L.H.” for Louis Henry), because they said “Hank” was too informal.  (The result is that five books of mine have “L.H.” and six have “Hank” — so that most libraries operate under the assumption that “L.H.” and “Hank” are two separate authors.  So it goes!)

Here’s my Prologue for the book:

Few people, if any, got the best of Mike Quill. He was a poor man’s version of James Bond, Charles de Gaulle and Casey Stengel, all in one. A pumpkin-shaped elf, he haunted the sub way tunnels of New York and transit systems around the country, wooing his fellow workers to a radical vision.

A Blake Hampton caricature of Mike Quill

For more than thirty years, he was both their royalty and their fool. The slave of an impish humor, he stood in the center of the storm he created and thoroughly enjoyed himself. He seemed to swallow new ideas as easily as a turnstile swallows tokens, and to change direction as often as the Times Square shuttle. To the general public, he assumed the proportions of a loose-lipped braggart, a brawling advocate of violence whom the papers called the “master of the half-truth, the advance deal, and occasionally, the Big Lie.” Most people thought he would just as soon have shut down New York’s subway system as draw breath, and Quill did nothing to discourage the image. He interwove legend and fact as they came to his tongue until he became, in his own words, “an elder statesman of public monsters.”

No book can do justice to the full flavor of Mike Quill with out a built-in recording of the rolling Irish brogue and the lilting speech that could quickly win an audience of angry workers to cheers and laughter. Behind the brogue was a brain, how ever, and Quill’s brain needed no Gallup poll to tell him that he was distinctly in the public’s disfavor. “I’ll begin to worry,” he chuckled, “the day the papers say something nice about me.” He never had to worry for long.

Quill was bad news, and for that reason he was on the front pages almost as often as the weather. He scorned respectability, partly because it was not newsworthy. It was dull, and Quill could never have been dull even if he had tried—and there is little evidence that he ever tried. The advent of black-and-white television made Mike Quill a figure to reckon with, although by that time he was already known as the Abbey Theatre’s gift to the American labor movement. He became a household picture and to many a housewife his homely face seemed to light up the screen. “There’s Barry Fitzgerald,” she would say with a trace of ‘affection. “Let’s listen to his lilt.” There was the big blackthorn stick and the deep blue eyes twinkling behind black, horn-rimmed glasses; and the moon face barely concealed his amusement, as his listeners took in the blarney, the tough wit, and the outrageous pyramid of illogic from this amiable rogue.

The best and the worst was said about Mike Quill. Carl Sandburg once described him as an “impossible-ist.” New Yorkers generally knew him as “the man you love to hate.” City Hall reporters referred to “the high cost of Quillism.” The transit workers of the city hated and loved him, and among friends there was a strange kind of reverence that is usually reserved for a saint.

At the end, Mike Quill did the unthinkable. He brought New York, the nation’s greatest city, to the brink of chaos and went to the grave in a swirl of public bitterness. Still, friend and foe could reach a consensus about this turbulent, irrepressible Irishman who worried all his life that the fire would go out of him: Michael J. Quill was one of the most controversial men in America’s labor history. As Mayor John Lindsay said at Quill’s death, his passing marked the end of an era.

My adventure into Quill’s life included an eye-opening education in how the Communist Party USA helped in 1934 to get the New York transport workers’ union on its feet (before he eventually kicked the Party out in 1948); and I’ll get around to that episode  another time…

“Julia & Paul” – My Lunch with Julia Child and her husband Paul

Before starting this running Memoir I had put up the following article on Hank Whittemore’s Shakespeare Blog — clearly an inappropriate place for it.  The article, which I wrote for PARADE magazine in 1982, was about my lunch with Julia Child (formerly Julia Carolyn Williams) and her husband Paul Cushing Child at their home in Santa Barbara, CA.

PARADE - Feb 28, 1982

I was sent there by editor Walter Anderson to interview Julia as she was about to become food editor of the magazine; and to my surprise, when I walked in, she called me (with that unmistakable voice) into the kitchen while she made lunch for us.  What a treat!

So I’ve taken the liberty of placing the same article here, where it actually belongs.  I hope you like the piece, which I’ve reproduced below in addition to including an image of it:

JULIA AND PAUL

Julia Child stands in her kitchen in Santa Barbara, CA, a dish towel hooked around her apron string, vigorously chopping vegetables and grinding herbs as her husband, Paul, looks on fondly. A Sunday-afternoon meal of soup au pistou becomes a celebration of their life together — a love story that would be difficult to make more perfect.

They and their guests move out to the dining room table by a window overlooking the ocean. The Mediterranean vegetable soup is served with hot French bread and white wine. Glasses are held by the stems so that when they are clinked together in a toast, they sound like musical chimes.

“L.e carillon de l’amitié,” Julia exclaims.

“The bells of friendship,” Paul echoes.

There is warmth and camaraderie and exuberance in the air. It comes from Julia’s spontaneous merriment, from Paul’s quiet appreciation, from their shared passion for fine food and for each other. On this day, Paul is moved to express his deep feelings about the famous woman to whom he has been married for 35 years.

“We met in Ceylon during World War II,” he begins, explaining that they both had been sent to the China-Burma-India theater as members of the U.S. Office of Strategic Services. He was a painter making maps for the OSS.  A confirmed bachelor of 41, he had lived in Paris during the expatriate era of the 1920s, learning to love the French language and cuisine.

“I wasn’t going to marry anybody.” Paul says, “but when we met, 1 liked her right away.”

At that time, she was Julia McWilliams, 31, originally from Pasadena, CA. She had joined the OSS hoping to become a spy, winding up instead as a tile clerk. At Smith College, she had majored in history and earned a reputation as a prankster. Now she was an aspiring novelist who had made her living as a public-relations writer. And so far, she had never tasted French food or done any serious cooking.

“She had certain qualities that appealed to me very much,” Paul continues.

“Brains, that’s one. And crazy humor, a lot of it. Guts. Ability. And she was interested in food, as I was.”

“Food didn’t bring us together,” Julia interrupts with a laugh. “I liked you.”

“I loved to look at her. I thought she was beautiful.”

“Eye of the beholder,” Julia quips.

“I liked the way she talks, and—”

“We thought the same way—”

“—and the sound of her voice. I liked that she was tough and worked like mad and never gave upon things. And I was automatically drawn to her outgoingness and sympathy for human beings. I could live in a cave, but she likes people, and I respond to that.”

“I wasn’t ready to marry anyone until I met Paul,” says Julia. “He brought out my nesting instincts. He was interested in food and—”

“She’s a wolf, by nature. Always hungry.”

“—and he was sophisticated. I wouldn’t have done nuttin’ without him.”

“It was a kind of human chemistry.” Paul continues. “We met and started a new fizzz going off. When we were sent to China, we told each other: ‘If we can get through this war and survive, we must get married. And then we must do everything together that we possibly can.’”

Julia nods at him across the table. “That’s the nice thing about a good marriage,” she says.

“And we’ve done it.”

A few years after their marriage in 1946, Paul was assigned to the American Embassy in Paris. With her first taste of French food, Julia was hooked. It was an “intoxicating revelation,” which made her plunge with fervor into the art of French cooking. And she has never looked back.

As a coauthor of the two volumes of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Julia Child helped to create the most thorough teaching books on the subject in English and her television appearances have done much to make French cooking a part of our culture.

Paul, who calls her “Julie” once in a while, says that the public and private “Julies” are the same. “She speaks the truth,” he says. “She’s not showing off. No phoniness. She’s just her self. And this is so when she’s writing or talking. Julie is always Julia.”

“It’s a great deal of fun as a career,” she says, adding that the “profession of gastronomy” should not be disparaged. “I think a country is only really civilized when it can take food as an art form. A meal doesn’t have to be like a painting by Raphael, but it should be a serious and beautiful thing, no matter how simple. And it’s a wonderful time to talk, the way we are now. What nicer way for a family to get together and communicate?  Which is what life is all about, really.”

Paul and Julia Child have been breaking bread together for a long time, and yet their enthusiasm for that communication has never dwindled. After Paul resigned from foreign service in 1961, they settled in Cambridge, MA.  A third home is in the south of France. While his wife has continued to expand her involvement in cooking and teaching, he has produced exquisite works as a painter, sculptor, photographer and cabinetmaker.

“We both need long, quiet, agonizing periods by ourselves,” Julia says, “so it works out very nicely. We always have something to do. So I think we are very fortunate in having interests that coincided. If we’d had children, we wouldn’t have had the life we have. They just never came. By now, we’d be grandparents, and that would be nice, but we’re not unfulfilled.”

Paul gazes at her and smiles. No more words are needed.

By Hank Whittemore

PS – I thoroughly enjoyed the movie Julie & Julia with Meryl Streep (Julia) and Amy Adams (Julie), along with Stanley Tucci as Paul; in fact, after seeing it I dug into my files to find the PARADE article.

A Stint in “Take Her, She’s Mine” on Broadway – 1961-62

In the summer of 1961, after sophomore year at the University of Notre Dame, I landed a lead role in Take Her, She’s Mine, by Phoebe and Henry Ephron, with Art Carney, Phyllis Thaxter and Elizabeth Ashley, under the direction of George Abbott and produced by Hal Prince.  I got the role Of Alex Loomis, a sarcastic Harvard guy in love with Mollie Michaelson, the role played by Ashley.

Art Carney

It didn’t last long, folks, because I got fired midway through the second act rehearsals in November (Richard Jordan took over the role).   I did get back in the show the following summer, however, after returning to Notre Dame to catch up with my classes.

Elizabeth Ashley

It had started after a wonderful agent named Hilary Holden, at the Deborah Coleman Agency, got me the audition that summer.  I recall standing in line with dozens of other guys in the stage-door alley of the Biltmore Theatre on 47th Street.  When it came my turn I went out on the stage and read a short scene with the stage manager.  For some reason I caught onto the sarcasm in the lines and, to my surprise, I could hear Abbott and Prince laughing out there in the darkened theater.  The next day Hilary telephoned me to say I’d gotten a callback.  And so it went, several times, until I actually got the role.

We began rehearsals that fall and I figured things were going pretty well.  The stage hands were laughing at my lines, a good sign.  But I was just turning twenty at the time and Liz Ashley, though just a few years older, was far more mature and sophisticated and confident that I was.  And of course she was a terrific actress on her way to becoming a great star.  And I could feel the end was coming…

George Abbott

We were in the middle of Act Two rehearsals.  The scene was a pizza parlor with Carney, the father; Ashley, the daughter, working there as a waitress; and me, the fiance.  I had a line to say and Carney was to ask her, “What’s so funny?”  But every time I said my line, Ashley stared back stone-faced until Carney shouted to director George Abbott, “How can I say my line unless she smiles?” At which point Liz turned to me and snapped, “Well, make it funny!”

That was it.  Producer Hal Prince called a break and bounded up on stage to tell me they were giving me two weeks’ pay.  “She has a run-of-the-play contract,” he said, referring to Ashley, “so obviously we have to let you go.”

Johnny Weissmuller as Jungle Jim with Marty Huston

I was crushed, of course.  Devastated.  Suddenly one of the cast members, Martin (Marty) Huston (who as a youngster had played Jungle Jim’s son in the TV show) came over and put his arm around my shoulder and shouted that he thought it was wrong to fire me and he was taking me across the street to the bar to get drunk.  And that is what we did.  I never forgot that gesture from Marty, who had been a child star and had enough stature to know he could get away with it.  We remained friends for a couple of years afterward.

(The television series of Jungle Jim, produced in 1955, starred Johnny Weissmuller; and Marty, 14, played his son Skipper.  He and the chimp “Tamba” were friends and played together like kids during rehearsal breaks.)

(During those rehearsals for Take Her, another young actor, Barry Primus,  also left the cast.  If I recall correctly, he just wasn’t right for the role in which he’d been cast; but in fact he continued on with a solid career, proving to be one of the best actors of his generation.)

Take Her, She’s Mine opened at the Biltmore on Dec. 21, 1961 and it would run for nearly a year.  In the spring, Judy Abbott called to ask if I wanted to return to play another role.  I was grateful, but had to wait until my classes at Notre Dame were over in June.  Then I did get into the play, in a very small role.  It was an interesting summer, however, to be racing around New York City taking classes in singing, Yoga and creative writing while also acting on Broadway.

By that time Marty Huston had replaced Joel Gray across the street as Buddy in Come Blow Your Horn, the hit comedy that was Neil Simon’s first play.  On those hot summer nights, Marty would dash out the stage door of the Brooks Atkinson Theatre and we’d play stick ball with the stage hands right there on 47th Street.  Suddenly one of the guys would yell, “Marty, you’re on!” — and he’d race back through the door and keep running right onto the stage and back into the play in front of a huge audience.

He was an amazing guy, rough around the edges, full of life and laughter, never taking himself or anything else too seriously — and I should add that the girls always seemed to fall for him.  (Marty died of cancer in August 2001, at age sixty.)

There’s much more about all this, but that’s it for now.

World War II – Waiting for My Father to Come Home

The story as it appeared in PARADE in January 1985, with a photo of me with my parents in 1942 and another one, taken by the great photographer Eddie Adams, in 1984

When we observed Veterans Day earlier this week, it occurred to me to find one of my all-time favorite articles that I wrote for PARADE magazine.  This one was published on January 20, 1985, at the start of the 40th anniversary year of the end of that horrible war.  It represents a personal memory behind just one of the millions of local announcements that appeared during the war in local newspapers across the country:

FROM THE DAILY TIMES, MAMARONECK, NY: ENGLAND, July 14, 1944 – Staff Sgt. William c. Whittemore Jr. of the Alden House, Larchmont, has recently arrived in England to serve in the Signal Corps.  Son of Mr. and Mrs. William C. Whittemore of 3 Virginia Place, Larchmont, Staff Sgt. Whittemore entered the service in July of 1943 and trained in Camp Crowder, Mo; State Teachers College, Tex.; and at Camp Edison, Sea Girt, NJ.  Staff Sgt. Whittemore and his wife, the former Suzette Schwiers of New York City, have one son, two-and-a-half years old.

WOULD MY FATHER COME MARCHING HOME AGAIN?
After 40 Years, one small story from our biggest war

I don’t think I can recall one thing about my father before he left us to go to war. I was not yet two years old when he disappeared from our lives, vanishing across the Atlantic Ocean’s turmoil of dark water and gray sky on his way to various European battlefields. I can recall, perhaps, the feeling of his presence in my life, but I don’t know that for sure.

What I do remember – vividly – are images formed as a result of looking at photographs and from being told the same stories over and over. Some of them refer to events that happened well before my birth in November 1941, back during the days when my father was growing up to become the handsome, dashing young man who would sweep my mother off her feet and marry her within six months of their first romantic meeting.

Yes, my images of him in those days are illuminated by the sort of glitter and glow reserved for Hollywood stars, and those old photographs only reinforce my conviction that he was a more-than- average fellow. He appears in them as tall and slim, often wearing white slacks and shoes, smiling with confidence and gazing at the camera as if he knew, right then, that he was creating an indelible effect.

The most striking physical fact about him was his bright red hair – wavy, thick, passionate hair that seemed to be perpetually on fire. On a couple of the black and white photographs, his hair was touched up with red-orange paint, and his eyes were given a watercolor blue.  But these were Ineffectual attempts to capture the true flavor of his arresting appearance – or so I was told, at age three, when I would stare at the photos of my absent father and pretend that he was gazing back into my soul.

CLOSEUP OF PIC WWII ARTICLE

He had lived as a little boy on West 150th Street in New York City; later, he moved with his parents out to the suburbs, to the Village of Larchmont in Westchester County, twenty miles north of Manhattan. He met my mother in the summer of 1940, when he was twenty-three and she was twenty-two. She had come up from New York to Larchmont with her parents, who had rented a home for the summer to escape the heat of the city. The house was diagonally across the tree-lined street from where my father lived.

To my mother, the colorful, flowers and green trees of Larchmont were as beautiful and thrilling as the hills and valleys of the countryside. I can only try to imagine the warm summer evenings and sunny weekend days of the courtship that led my mother and father to marry before the year was over.  I think they knew, even on their wedding day in December of 1940, that events beyond their control might soon reach out and pull my father away.

They were married in the city, at the Biltmore Hotel.  They took an apartment in Larchmont (in the Alden House), a short walk from where my father had lived and where his parents remained. I was born eleven months later in New Rochelle Hospital. Just five weeks afterward, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.

ALDEN1

The Alden House in Larchmont, on the Post Road, where we lived during World War II

As I say, I have no recollection of my father from the time I was born until he left us. I am told that it took at least eighteen months before he was drafted into the Army.  My mother and I were to stay in the Larchmont apartment while he was overseas, but first he would have to go into training. When he got to Camp Edison in Sea Girt, New Jersey, my mother and I traveled down there by train and took a room in a boardinghouse near the beach and a few blocks from the camp.

The story I like best from that time is about how my father would sneak out of the barracks area at night and make his way to the boardinghouse to be with my mother (and me) for a few stolen hours before racing back, climbing over the fence and slipping into his tent again in time for sunrise and reveille, hen he’d get up and continue, on virtually no sleep, training for war.

I have one other image from that time on the Jersey shore, just before my father was to be shipped overseas. I see myself in a little red wagon. My mother is pulling me on the boardwalk beside the sand and the ocean. I hear the waves slashing and pounding with an angry, threatening force. I feel the wind hurling itself against my mother as she pulls me, afraid but determined.  Her long, dark hair is blowing wildly from the violence in the air, which continues to build as if it were blowing all the way from Europe. Her face is very pale, and she seems so very alone with her willpower and her faith and her fear.

Coming upon the sight of a large crowd on the beach, we can see from the boardwalk that the object of curiosity is the enormous corpse of a whale. The sight of its ugly gray body terrifies my mother, who quickly turns the wagon around and starts pulling me away from the scene. She pulls with sudden, inexplicable strength, as if to save us both from some mysterious danger.  If such a powerful mammal has lost its fight against unchecked brutality, where is safety for a young woman alone with a child in a world whose madness no one, much less she, can fathom?  I see her pulling me faster and faster and calling the name of her young husband, whose vanishing figure she chases in bewilderment along an endless pier beside an endless, churning sea.

Even though I may not remember these things, I feel them.  And I feel my helplessness in being too weak, too insignificant, to protect her.

Back in Larchmont, we lived in the apartment together. It was during this time that my true memories did, in fact, begin to form. In the earliest one, we are on the high rooftop of our building, which itself is on a hill. I am standing on the tar paper, gazing through an opening in the wall.

“Be careful,” she says.

“Don’t worry, Mom.” I reply. Those are the three words I remember speaking most often, taking it upon myself to calm her down, to give her peace. I was acting brave. And, in the same breath, I was also absorbing her fears, her loneliness and her pain, making them my own and trying to reassure myself.

I could feel her waiting.  Always waiting.

One day we entered our building as usual, my mother picked up the mail and we went up in the elevator. When we were in the apartment, she told me to go and wait for her in the bedroom.  I was on my parents’ bed when she walked in, her eyes red and tears spilling down her face.  A letter was clutched in her hand, at her side. In the letter was a small, brownish close-up photograph of a man’s face – like a passport photo.  My mother knelt down, holding it in front of her, and I listened to her sobbing for a long time.

“He’s a prisoner.” she finally whispered. “They won’t let him tell the truth, but he’s trying to send me a message with this picture. He’s a prisoner of war, and he’s never coming home!”

She knelt and tried to pray, and the double bed beneath me became a floating raft set loose from its moorings, carrying me away. I lay face-down on the sheet with my arms spread wide, my fingers clutching but unable to hold on, as she continued to weep, and I felt the inexorable pull of the tide and the roll of the waves, beyond my control.

After that, I could feel my mother’s tension whenever she checked the mail or if someone called. At last, another letter from overseas.  He seemed okay, but the war continued. What would happen to him, and to us, was unknown.     Over the days, weeks and months, we waited.  We shared an unspoken agreement that our most fundamental activity was passing time, dangling, holding on, as if the beginning of our lives had been postponed.

In my grandparents’ house on Virginia Place in the winter of 1945, there is a large gathering of adults. I am playing off to one side, on the rug near the piano, with a jigsaw puzzle whose pieces show the jagged features of men in battle. The house is stuffy and warm from the radiator, the tobacco smoke, the body heat. From my vantage point on the floor, there is an ebb and flow of milling pants, dresses, legs and shoes accompanied by a loud, continuous babble.

I am concentrating on the puzzle when I feel a blast of invigorating air sweep through the forest of legs.  I hear a clamor of cheering. The congregation moves toward the open front door. There are shrieks of laughter and delight.  I remain on the rug, staring at the chaos.  The throng backs up into the living room and, after more commotion, the congestion breaks apart to reveal, in the glow of an amber light, a handsome man wearing an overcoat and a cap with a visor.  He is standing there with a confident smile, greeting people with hugs.  He takes off his overcoat. He is dressed in a uniform of the U.S. Army.  He removes his cap. In the warm, brown- yellow circle of light, his hair is fiery red.

As he puts his arm around my mother’s waist and gives her a kiss, I look away and shut my eyes; in this self-imposed darkness, it seems that my breath has been taken away. I hear his voice distinctly. He is calling my name.  “Where is he?’ I hear him say, and the conversation ceases abruptly, as if all the sound in the world has been shut off.  In the hush, my eyes are still closed; yet I can feel him staring at me from across the room. I wait – in fear, in resentment, in hope, in a darkness stretching away to the ends of a silent universe.

When I open my eyes, he is taking the last strides in my direction.  He bends down in a squat and gazes directly at me. The red hair is a ring of fire around his face, and I stare into his blazing blue eyes, which are familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. I feel his harsh breath and the scraping of his beard stubble on my cheek as he kisses me with strange, scary roughness.

So here is my first real memory of him, with his strong hands gripping either side of my chest under my arms, slowly lifting me off the ground as the scattered pieces of the war puzzle recede far below on the rug; and I soar, weightless, higher and higher, into the amber sky, gliding without effort above his head, looking down at all the faces and at the face of my mother, who is smiling up at me with glistening eyes, with the expression of a little girl being transformed suddenly into my father’s wife, and some terrible burden of the spirit, some unbearably oppressive weight, softly slides away.

Remembering November 22, 1963…

November 22, 2009 will mark the forty-sixth anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas.  On that terrible day of November 22, 1963, I was in New York City…

New York on Nov 22, 1963

New York City - November 22, 1963

Earlier that year I had graduated from the University of Notre Dame.  On the third of November, I had celebrated my twenty-second birthday.  Now I was in Manhattan having lunch with a fellow actor, Richard Fithian, at 666 Fifth Avenue.

I had met Dick in the summer of 1959 when I was seventeen and he was several years older, in his twenties.  We had acted together in Blue Denim at the Barn theater of Mount Kisco, NY.  Heading the cast was the beautiful and talented Eileen Fulton, then just twenty-six years old, who would go on to become a great TV star as Lisa in the long-running soap opera As The World Turns.

After lunch we divided the tab and Dick went up to the cashier to pay while I made a call.  I sat inside one of the several large wooden phone booths with folding glass doors along the wall.  When I hung up and turned around, I saw through the glass that long rows of patrons were lined up at the booths, mine included.  It was a strange sight that made no sense.  Why would so many people be making calls all of a sudden?

I opened the door and made my way to the cashier’s desk, where Dick was waiting.

JFK in New York City

Jackie and Jack - this is how it had been in New York - this is how we thought of them

“What’s going on?” I said.

“The president’s been shot!”

“What?”

“He was shot in the head, I think.”

We were already out on the sidewalk of Fifth Avenue.

“My god,” I said.

The city was gray and bleak.  It seemed that everything had come to a standstill.  The street seemed to be covered with silence.  People appeared to be moving in slow motion.  At street corners, men had stacks of newspapers with freshly printed headlines for sale.  The papers reported that Kennedy had been shot, but there were few details.

Dick and I wandered up Fifth Avenue until we came to St. Patrick’s Cathedral.  A crowd was out in front of the huge church, on the steps.  People were waiting around for something to happen and we automatically joined them.

235px-Saint_Patrick's_Cathedral_by_David_Shankbone

St. Patrick's Cathedral

“Is he dead?” a man in the crowd yelled out.

“If he’s dead,” another man hollered out, causing all heads to turn in his direction, “the bells will ring!”

Just a few seconds later the bells of St. Patrick’s Cathedral began to ring.  They rang loudly and the entire crowd on those steps fell to its collective knees.  We all dropped down, kneeling together, knowing at once that our young vibrant president was gone.  Some began praying aloud; others wept; nothing made sense and we knew the world would never again be the same.  The world would be forever different than what it had been a second ago.  It was impossible, it could not have happened, but President Kennedy was dead.

Later, along the West Side Highway, many cars heading north out of the city were parked over on the side, their drivers hunched over as they listened intently to their radios.

I kept driving back north to Larchmont, where I had grown up, and where I was now living with my young wife and our baby girl, Eva, who had been born just two months earlier.   Some time in the future, I told myself, I will tell her about this day.  I will try to tell her the meaning of November 22, 1963, if only I could learn what it was.

The Muppets – Three Decades Ago…

Given the current celebration of Sesame Street’s fortieth anniversary, I reached into my files to find an article I wrote on the Muppets for PARADE, the Sunday supplement, more than thirty years ago in 1978.  Jim Henson was forty-two; he died twelve years later, in 1990, at fifty-four.  Richard Hunt was twenty-seven; he died fourteen years later, in 1992, at forty-one.

December 24, 1978

The Magical Hands of TV’s Muppet Zoo

MUPPETS

Article on the Muppets in PARADE on December 24, 1978

By Hank Whittemore

It’s the night before Christmas and all through the house, not a creature is stir ring, not even a – frog?

Unless, perhaps, there are visions stirring in your head inspired by the likes of Kermit—the nation’s First Frog – and his Muppet friends, including Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear and all the other funny, fantastical, foam-rubber TV creatures whose weekly antics make us laugh while reminding us of ourselves. The Muppets delight children and grownups alike with a magical blend of illusion and reality. They may not quite have the appeal of Santa Claus, but they’re the most popular puppets in the world.

Over the last decade, more than half of America’s preschoolers have grown up watching Cookie Monster and other Muppets on Sesame Street, the daily show on National Educational Television.  Forty million viewers in the U.S., and 230 million in 103 other countries, tune in for The Muppet Show, the weekly TV series now in its third year of syndication.  And now, folks, The Muppet Movie has just been filmed, for release this spring.

With Kermit and his friends already superstars, it’s time for a look at those behind – actually, under – them. Beneath the characters is a team of five men whose hands and voices give life to the Muppets. Each is tall, slim, agile, multi-skilled and possessed of a streak of nutty humor:

Jim Henson, 42, a soft-spoken man with long brown hair and full beard, is the Muppets. Twenty-three years ago he created Kermit (Out of a partiality to frogs) and coined the word “Muppet” to describe his own unique cross between marionette and puppet. Since then he has built a veritable Muppet empire, operating out of his New York-based Henson Associates – or just plain HA!

“I love the anonymity of it all,” Henson says, although he has allowed himself a degree of public visibility. He’s the guiding genius behind the Muppets’ success, acting as a designer, writer, producer and director, while continuing to perform below Kermit, Rowlf the Dog, Dr. Teeth, Captain Link Hogthrob, Waldorf the Swedish Chef, the Newsman and Mahna Mahna.

Frank Oz, 34, has a mustache, spectacles and receding hairline that gives him the high-domed look of a scientist. “I was a perfectly normal kid,” he insists. “You know—serious, studious, rotten. This craziness is a contagious disease I caught from Jim Henson.” Oz, a veteran of 15 years of Muppet service, is creative consultant for The Muppet Show and a vice president of Henson Associates. Henson says Oz is “probably the person most responsible for the Muppets’ being funny.”

Oz based Cookie Monster on his own addiction to chocolate-chip cookies. He drew Grover’s character from that of his dog, Fred. When 0z’s Bert began his first routine with Henson’s Ernie, one of the great modern comedy teams was born.

Perhaps Oz’s most inspired creation is Miss Piggy. “I am certain,” a colleague jokes, “that she’s a reflection of Frank’s warped soul.” She’s a complexity of bravado and vulnerability, a coy lady pig whose delicate identity is not only sustained but fiercely protected by Oz.

* Jerry Nelson, 38, a lean, bearded, actor, is regarded as the “master of voices” among the five, especially as a singer. “With the Muppets you never stand still,” he says. “You keep growing. The character keeps learning, expanding, changing – just like a human being.” He brings alive a range of Muppets, including Robin the Frog, Sgt. Floyd Pepper, Dr. Julius Strange- pork, Fleet Scribbler, Crazy Harry, Uncle Deadly, the Count, Herry Monster and Sherlock Hemlock.

Richard Hunt, 27, with a mop of curly hair and seemingly boundless energy, had never sent up anything more exotic than a basketball before becoming a Muppet performer. “I came aboard when I was 18,” he recalls,” so I’ve been kind of a younger brother to Jim and Frank and Jerry.  You might say I’ve grown up with the Muppets.” Hunt gives us Scooter, Sweetums, Gladys, Beaker and Statler, among others,

Dave Goelz, 32, the newest member of the regular team, with a beard and a mischievous glint in his eyes, performs for Great Gonzo, Honeydew, Muppy and Zoot, “My background wasn’t show business,” he says, “but my whole family was raised in an atmosphere of weird.  So I guess my doing this was inevitable,”

“We’re all pretty much group people,” Henson points out, “To become part of the Muppets, you have to know how to share and work unselfishly for the total effort.”

And what an effort that is! On the set, the Muppeteers stand together, jostling around with their arms up, moving their Muppets’ mouths and arms for the camera, which is poised up high to catch the action. They speak or sing into microphones attached to headbands, following a memorized script. On top of all that, they must constantly glance sideways to watch TV monitors so they can see what the camera sees.

For a character like Kermit, who cannot grasp objects with his hands, Henson moves the arms with thin rods painted to match the background. The many other characters who can hold objects require two performers standing together. One manipulates the mouth and the left arm (and hand) while the other operates the right arm, “It takes twice the work of an actor,” Hunt says, “because you’re trying to communicate everything through a piece of foam rubber.”

“We’re really actors who use puppets,” Nelson adds. “The Muppets have a personality makeup that extends beyond caricature.  I think it goes all the way back to the cavemen, who wore animal heads. It begins as a visual stimulus, but it also goes deeper and touches something basic in man. The Muppets let people indulge in fantasy, but they’re also rooted in real emotions that people can identify with.”

New Muppets are born only after much creative input from designers, writers and performers. When a character is ready, Henson tries to “link the puppeteer with the Muppet, whenever there’s an affinity.” Only after a long period of practice with a mirror and a tape recorder does the fledgling character go public.

Rehearsals are usually relaxed, jovial sessions. “When you’re squashed under a stage all day with two or three other guys, you’d better like each other,” Nelson says.

This genial, creative atmosphere is a reflection of Henson’s quietly offbeat personality. He maintains a firm artistic hand but is singularly unthreatened by others’ talents. His wife – the former Jane Nebel, his original puppeteering partner – says the best insight into his style comes from close observation of his alter ego, Kermit the Frog:

“Kermit is the emotional pivot point for the other Muppets to work around. He sort of watches and enjoys the characters around him, taking them for what they are. Jim does the same for the people around him. The result is that they all have great respect for their characters and lend a general balance to each other,”

Jim and Jane Henson met as art students at the University of Maryland. Henson, who grew up in a suburb of Washington, D.C., had joined a puppet club during high school. Alter graduation he started building his own creations and, in 1955, toward the end of his freshman year in college, he landed a late-night five-minute TV show of his own on a local station.

Married in 1959, the Hensons kept that show, Sam and Friends, on the air for eight years. Kermit went on The Ed Sullivan Show as a regular for five seasons, and Rowlf the Dog, created for a dog-food commercial, wound up as resident comedian on The Jimmy Dean Show in the 1960’s.

“From the beginning we played to an adult audience,” Henson says, so in some ways Sesame Street was a set back. Starting in 1969, it became a tremendous success – but mostly for preschoolers.  Some of the Hensons’ own children (there are five, ranging in age from 7 to 18) helped with their reactions. It wasn’t until The Muppet Show began in 1976 that Henson’s original conception was proved once and for all: the Muppets are for everybody.

Sesame Street is taped in New York while The Muppet Show, produced by Henson and ITC Entertainment, is done in London, “We have a schedule to drive people crazy,” Hunt says, alluding to the additional travel to Hollywood to do The Muppet Movie.

“The feature film has been one of our big goals,” Henson says. “We’ve reversed the format of the TV show. Instead of guests coming to visit from outside, we’ve taken the Muppet characters out into the real world. The story begins with Kermit down South in a swamp. He hitchhikes across the country, and all the friends accumulate.”

Another movie, planned for 1980, would involve all new Muppet creations in the form of “gnomes, wizards, elves and other uglies,” according to Hunt.

Henson says it’s coincidence that all current members of the performing team are male. There have been female performers in the past – notably Louise Gold of London – and he says there undoubtedly will be again. “There are always people on the fringes and working toward joining us,” he adds,

The Hensons live in Bedford, N.Y. Of the others, all of whom are bachelors, Oz and Nelson live separately in Manhattan, Hunt in New Jersey and Goelz in California. They all have outside interests. Oz, for one, has been an Off-Broadway actor and is also a playwright, sculptor, videotape producer and enthusiastic sailor.

One day he was strolling on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, near his apartment, when he overheard two men discussing Cookie Monster. “Excuse me,” Oz said, “but I am Cookie Monster.”

“Hey,” said one of the men, “no kidding! He’s great!”

Not you’re great, but he’s great – which pretty well sums up the public identity of a Muppet performer.

The White House Press Corps – A Nixon Photo Op in 1971

I traveled during eight months of 1971 with the White House press corps for a possible book about reporters who cover the president.  When in Washington, D.C., often staying with my brother Bill when he was in law school, I’d arrive at the White House in the morning and go to the press room in the West Wing.  I’d take notes during the day, interviewing reporters when they had time and at lunch or dinner.

There were some wonderful people — off the top of my head, I count among them Helen Thomas of UPI, Robert Semple Jr. of the New York Times, Peter Lisagor of the Chicago Daily News, Dan Rather of CBS, Herb Kaplow of ABC, Fay Wells (the pioneer aviator; see photo below) of Storer Broadcasting — these are just a few of the folks who were covering President Richard Nixon at the time.

dan rather ron zeigler

Dan Rather of CBS and White House Press Secretary Ron Zeigler (standing, right) in the early 1970's

Ron Zeigler was press secretary; Diane Sawyer was one of his assistants.   Here’s just one little incident that somehow always stands out for me:

One late morning in the press room, when things had been pretty uneventful so far, there was an announcement of a “photo op” in the Cabinet Room.  A couple of reporters got set to go with some photographers, along with Cleve Ryan, who held the light for them.  (He had been doing that job since the FDR days.)  On this occasion I asked to attend the photo op and was told it would be fine.  A few minutes later we were trooping up the hallway past some Secret Service agents into the Cabinet Room, where Nixon was meeting with Republican governors seated around the big table.

press-briefing-room-nixon

President Nixon in the White House Press-Briefing Room - 1971

The reporters and photographers were on one side of the table and Nixon was across the way, looking good with a tan and wearing one of his favorite blue suits.  Cameras started flashing and clicking as the President spoke to the governors — making small talk — and he pointed across to Doug Cornell of the Associated Press, who was seated at the table with his pen and notepad in front of him.

“There’s Doug Cornell of the AP,” Nixon said.  “He’s covered five presidents.”

“Six,” Cornell shot back.

“Six,” Nixon said.  “He started when he was a Boy Scout.”

The governors around the table took their cue from the president and they all laughed.  Then one of Zeigler’s assistants shouted to us that it was over and
Cleve Ryan switched off his big round light.  On our way back down the hallway, I caught up with Cornell.

“Hey, Doug, that was something, hunh?  I mean, how’d it feel to be singled out by the president like that?”

Cornell laughed.  “Oh, God,” he said, “we’ve gone through that routine more times than I can count!  Nixon likes to do it because it loosens him up.  He says ‘five presidents,’ I say ‘six,’ and then he gives the Boy Scout line.  Works every time.”

As we walked back into the press room of the West Wing,  I realized how naive I’d been to assume that the little back-and-forth between Richard Nixon and Doug Cornell had been spontaneous!  A tiny matter, perhaps, but it taught me something nonetheless.

Fay_and_Amelia

Fay Wells (left-center) with Amelia Earhart (right-center)