Reviewing "Priests Of Our Democracy"
Priests of Our Democracy:
The Supreme Court, Academic Freedom and the Anti –Communist Purge
Author: Marjorie Heins
Reviewed by Harriet Posnak Lesser
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, …it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darknesss …it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair …
Charles Dickens’ immortal description of the years leading up to the French Revolution is disconcertingly applicable to America at the middle of the twentieth century when freedom of speech was threatened by the anti-communist paranoia of the times. Looking back from the vantage point of more than 60 years, the words are especially meaningful for educators and students who fell victim to the madness of those years.
Brooklyn College, of course, felt it as well, in a series of actions that killed off the college newspaper. It’s one of the infamous cases spelled out by this book. And there were others.
How it happened, why it happened, is meticulously chronicled in Marjorie Heins’ excellent book. Ms. Heins, a civil liberties lawyer, writer and teacher, is the founding director of the Free Expression Policy Project. She directed the American Civil Liberties Union’s Art Censorship Project where she was co-counsel in several major First Amendment cases.
The title of her book is taken from a concurring opinion by Justice Felix Frankfurter in a 1952 U.S. Supreme Court case which states: “To regard teachers — in our entire educational system, from the primary grades to the university — as the priests of our democracy is therefore not to indulge in hyperbole. It is the special task of teachers to foster those habits of open-mindedness and critical inquiry which alone make for responsible citizens, who in turn make possible an enlightened and effective public opinion…”
The1950s threat to academic freedom had surfaced a decade earlier when the appointment of celebrated British philosopher Bertrand Russell to the City College of New York faculty was challenged in court by a taxpayer. The judge ruled that “academic freedom does not mean academic license” and Dr. Russell lost his position.
At the core of the communist witchhunt was the 1949 Feinberg Law “which required detailed procedures for investigating the loyalty of every public school teacher and ousting everyone who engaged in ‘treasonable or seditious acts or utterances’ or joined an organization that advocated the overthrow of the government ‘by force, violence or any unlawful means.’”
Ms. Heins details how this law was upheld by the Supreme Court in the case of Adler vs. the Board of Education in 1952. Irving Adler, a New York City math teacher and a member of the Communist Party in his youth, had agreed to lend his name to the case. In a majority ruling, the court stated that teachers “may work for the school system upon the reasonable terms laid down by the proper authorities… If they do not choose to work on such terms, they are at liberty to retain their beliefs and associations and go elsewhere.” The court found no challenge to First Amendment rights
A meticulous researcher, Ms. Heinsbegins her book with Harry Keyishian, who in 1952 was a junior at Queens College. Although he had previously shown little interest in politics, Keyishian joined a group protesting the dismissal of a popular professor who had refused to answer questions from the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee about her political affiliations. Years later, Keyishian, then an English instructor at the University of Buffalo, found himself in a similar position along with other faculty members after they declined to sign the required certificates stating they were not now nor had they ever been Communists. The case of Keyishian et al v. Board of Regents of the University of the State of New York was brought before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1967. In a landmark decision, rendered a little more than a year later, the Court struck down the requirement of loyalty oaths for state employees, effectively putting an end to one of the most oppressive eras in American history.
Another case highlighted by Ms. Heins is that of Brooklyn College Professor of German and comparative literature Harry Slochower, who in the early 1950s refused to tell a Congressional committee if he had been a member of the Communist Party ten years earlier. As a result, Dr. Slochower, who had invoked the Fifth Amendment, was dismissed from his position. Four years later, the Supreme Court ruled that he had been denied due process of law and Slochower was reinstated – briefly – until he was suspended shortly afterward for allegedly making false statements at the Senate hearing and he resigned his position one day before a scheduled administrative trial.
Teachers were not the only ones caught up in this war on academic freedom and First Amendment rights. For the young and idealistic student staff of Brooklyn College’s Vanguard, the Keyishian decision came almost two decades late.The role of President Harry Gideonse in bringing about the end of the student newspaper and the victimization of its editors is an important part of Ms. Heins’ book. She portrays Gideonse early on as “an energetic Cold Warrior” and the “truculent head of Brooklyn College.”
She writes, “Harry Gideonse saw ‘old problems resurfacing’ at Brooklyn College after World War II. As in the late 1930s, Gideonse thought ‘a determined ideological minority’ was using college facilities for nefarious ends.”
Ms. Heins links the beginning of the problems to the Administration’s refusal to let a Communist Party official speak before the Karl Marx Society, even though the event was held off-campus.This led to a student protest that resulted in suspensions of the society and five of its officers. More demonstrations were held off campus and a number of clubs were suspended; among them, Hillel and the Harriet Tubman Society. The newspaper covered these stories.
Difficulties with Vanguard escalated in April 1950, Ms. Heins notes, when Gideonse vetoed the reappointment of a popular history professor who had been critical of the school president. Despite a warning from its faculty advisor, Vanguard named Gideonse as the one responsible. The faculty advisor resigned. Without an advisor, the newspaper was automatically suspended.
The staff raised enough money to publish -- independently -- a newspaper they called Draugnav. Some 5,000 copies were distributed off college grounds, but the rebirth was brief. The administration followed up with the introduction of a new equal viewpoints rule for B.C. publications. It called for “simultaneous presentations through editorials of multiple student opinion on controversial issues.”
Vanguard was reinstated in the fall of 1950 and sports editor William Taylor was elected editor in chief; but the calm would soon give way to a major storm. Ms. Heins recounts that the tempest began when the student Labor Youth League denounced America’s participation in the Korean War. The group was suspended by the administration on the grounds that its view was inconsistent with its club charter. Adhering to the equal viewpoints rule, Vanguard protested the suspension; but also included an additional article supporting the League.
Looking back, a Vanguard staffer told Ms. Heins, “We were all rankling at the restrictive intrusion into our freedom of expression.” To protest the ‘equal viewpoints’ rule, an editorial was written which was balanced by an opposing article from the Student Council president. Because the rebuttal greatly exceeded the allotted word count, she cut it to fit. “And that was it! The next day we were history, locked out and accused of censoring opinions that conflicted with ours.”
Shortly afterwards, Vanguard’s charter was permanently revoked for alleged violations of the equal viewpoints rule -- and a new publication with a different name was created by the administration. Vanguard editors launched their own newspaper, Campus News, which had the sponsorship of a number of college groups. The publication survived for six weeks until the administration notified the supporting groups that newspaper publishing was not included in their charters.
The story should have ended there, but there were repercussions. William Taylor was told by Gideonse that a reprimand would be entered on his permanent record. Despite continuing challenges from the B.C. administration, Taylor, a graduate of Yale Law School,went on to have an illustrious career as a Washington D.C. civil rights lawyer. Members of the Vanguard staff have since made their marks on major newspapers, in television journalism, and other prestigious fields.
In 2006, a plaque honoring Vanguard was installed on the door of the newspaper’s old office. Speaking at the event, one of the former editors thanked Harry Gideonse for
“… the bonds created by the adversity we faced together. We were no longer colleagues but buddies, trenchmates. I believe relationships which might have developed under normal circumstances were strengthened immensely by the battle we fought. Many of these relationships have lasted to this day.” Another staffer remembered Vanguard as “where we extracted the most pleasure and kicks from the ideas factory that Brooklyn College represented.”
Priests of Our Democracy is an important reminder for those who lived through the oppressive days of the political witch-hunt – and an important lesson for those who did not.
(Herbert Dorfman and Albert Lasher are among members of the Vanguard Alumni Group, acknowledged by Ms. Heins for their assistance.)
Something new to worry about
3-D PRINTING: A TRIPLE THREAT?
By Harriet Lesser
Starving. Absolutely Starving. Hamburger, hamburger, hamburger. Walked into kitchen past top-of-the line stove, microwave, toaster oven and grill, all purchased within past year. Ridiculous waste of money, but how was I to know? Maybe I can sell them to MOMA. Better hurry. Everybody else hasthe same idea.
Went over to freezer, took out grilled hamburger on roll with onions and ketchup and headed for 3D printer. Popped frozen grilled hamburger on rollwith onions and ketchup into printer, pushed medium well button and waited for buzzer to go off. Removed frozen hamburger on roll with onions and ketchup, returned same to freezer for future copies and sat down to eat freshly printed hamburger on roll with onions and ketchup.
Spent rest of afternoon replicating.Gold bracelet for daughter; designer shirts for sons; Barbies for grandkids.Afterwards, put originals back in cabinet. Time now for me. Rifled through collection of movie starphotos. Decided on Cary Grant and went back to kitchen. Put Cary into 3D printer and pushed button. Checked next morning and there was ….nothing. Hmm, maybe next year.
After reading the above, you’re probably thinking that I’ve totally flipped out. Well, yes and no. In case you’re not aware, and I wasn’t until recently, 3D printing is here. I learned about it from a CNN segment on South by Southwest, a music and technology festival held annually in Austin, Texas. I almost choked on my Cheerios when the young female reportershowed a machine that scanned and replicatedthree-dimensional plastic figurines. For her, this kind of technology appeared to be an accepted and not very interesting fact of life. For me, it was a bleeping miracle.
I followed up with an in-depth scientific investigation (I Googled‘3D printing’), whichshowed that companies are already turning out stuff like clothing and jewelry in addition toplastic figurines. Hamburgers are in the experimental stage but the technology is here.I also learned that 3-D printers are available at pretty good prices. (The Cary Grant thing was a stretch, but you probably knew that.)
Amazing, wonderful and frightening at the same time. Think about the possibilities for the future. The first thing that comes to mind is the end of assembly lines. Gotcha, Henry Ford! Three-D replication would also change the way we get our food. One steak, printed over and again, could feed a family for years. Good news for animals and fish. Bad news for farmers, ranchers and fishermen. The world’s economy would be turned upside down as mining, oil drilling, fracking, supermarkets and department stores become not so fond memories (except for the department stores, that is). The nightmarish downside will also include the ability to print weapons. Hate to burst your 3-D bubble but the technology is available nowand gun replication has achieved some early success.
Brave new world?I’m not so sure.There will be no place for the timid in our 3D future. Looks like the meek may not inherit the earth after all.
My Silver Bugle
By Sheila Solomon Klass
I did not have aflabby bunny, or well-worn teddy bear, or favorite flannel blanket! Alas! Mine must have been a solitary infancy and lonelyearly childhood because I never had a “transitional object,” a beloved warm-smelling, familiar possession that I could clutch and sleep with and derive comfort from. Deprived. Or so I thought.
My mother was concerned with kosher, cleanliness, and seemliness, and, of course,not-shocking-the-neighbors; her impoverished busy life absolutely absorbed her. Her days did not afford her the luxury of psychology.
But I have just realized that I HAD and STILL DO HAVE such a beloved object! Carefully cherished and guarded over the years, I still take it out and use it on special celebratory occasions!
It is my silver bugle! It is silver-colored though I think it is disguised brass, but no matter. To me it was and is my silver bugle.
It sits in my closet, at hand, readily. I truly love it.
When I was almost thirteen years old, my father - a World War I veteran - recruited me, along with my older sister, Marilyn – for a new drum and bugle corps his Jewish War Veterans Post was sponsoring. We paid weekly dues (10 cents each) and got weekly lessons on an instrument, I on the bugle and she on the bass drum. Drillmaster Stein, a crusty old army musician, was an exacting teacher. Remarkably, he didn’t mind girls; he treated us all like soldiers. We learned wonderful basic marches: Semper Fidelis,You’re in the Army Now,Pay Day. I mastered all the army bugle calls: Reveille, Mess Call, Taps, etc. Papa was so proud; on holidays he’d march behind us on tired feet (he was a clothing presser and stood all during his working days). His overseas cap was always jaunty on his head.
Summers, I got jobs as camp bugler in Catskill mountain girlscamps.
All through adolescence, I bugled and I was good enough to be hired to play “Taps” (solo) on Armistice Day at cemeteries and at other ceremonies. Drillmaster Stein was fond of me and gave me excellent instruction.One Sunday he brought his own old army bugle and let me use it. “I don’t play anymore,” he said to Papa. “See that she takes care of it. ” To me he said, “I want the old horn to be used. You take real good care of it, hear? It’s yours now.”
My eyes were full of tears. I was honored beyond measure. After drill that day he said sternly, “Polish the old horn and keep it clean. Be sure to use plenty ofElbow Grease.”
I went right home and took my small hoard of babysittingearnings and ran to Lee Avenue, where all the Williamsburg shops were. I went into two grocery stores and asked the proprietors for “Elbow Grease.”
Yiddish speakers, both, they had never heard the phrase. One more store left in Williamsburg, this one owned by a non-Yiddish speaking Irishman. When I asked if he carried Elbow Grease, he scratched his head – and asked me what I needed it for.
Then he smiled, rolled up his shirtsleeve and demonstrated what elbow grease was.
Yes, indeed, today’s pediatricians are right. A child needs a transitional object to help her develop independence. And I have a beaut! You should hear it!
I can't go on vacation without my........
By Harriet Posnak Lesser
Packing is the worst part of going on vacation; so I always make a list of must-takes.
Here we go:
· Toothbrush, toothpaste, makeup, cleansing cream, 15 pounds of moisturizer. Check.
· Forty five tops in different shades of green and 45 pairs of washable jeans. (My mother said I’m too sallow to wear green, but it’s very ‘in’ this year. Check.
· Thirty fivepairs of green shoes with handbags to match. (Can feet be sallow? Nah.) Check.
· One hundred panties and bras in assorted colors and environmentally friendly materials including burlap and/or gunnysack. (Eat your heart out, Victoria’s Secret.) Check.
· Five small knives with blades measuring 2.36 inches or less. Check.
· Four baseball bats. Check.
· Two golf clubs and two pool cues. Check.
· A dozen metal cork screws and bottle openers in assorted shapes and sizes. (Still can’t take my box cutter, but maybe next time.) Check.
· Four ice hockey sticks (never know who you’re going to meet and I love team sports). Check.
· Four lacrosse sticks (see ice hockey above). Check.
· And finally, two ski poles. Check!
Can’t wait to get on that plane. I hear the weather’s great in Miami this time of year.
Postscript: I was arrested by Port Authority police and missed my flight. Seems I was allowed only three ounces of Chanel Number Five and I had four. Sent letter of complaint to Brad Pitt who wrote back saying “Every journey ends but we go on. Plans disappear, dreams take over.” Wha? Try telling that to Angelina.
FOR MY EXTRAORDINARY MOTHER IN LAW, GRANDMA MIMI: AN ANECDOTAL TOAST!
By Sheila Klass
Here’s to Grandma Mimi!
A Jewish Cockney born in London, within earshot of Bow Bells, she came from a poor family (the kids slept three in a bed). Slum childhood was rough but fun, and it prepared her for an adventurous life.
Though apolitical herself, she married a Socialist pacifist who was jailed for his views during World War I. She would visit him in his London jail and to tease him she sang the 1915 poster song, “What Did You Do In The Great War, Daddy?”. He was apparently highly amused.
They emigrated to the U.S. and settled in Brooklyn. She was widowed while quite young -- with three children. With only a minimal education and no particular skills, she improvised and somehow survived while the children went on to become: a Columbia University anthropologist/writer, a Penn State English professor/science fiction writer, and a public school teacher.
In her later years, alone, she could have lived with her children or other relatives, but she preferred a small low-rental apartment in city housing on the Lower East Side. “It’s easier to stay friends,” she said, “if you don’t live together.”
I looked forward to our nightly telephone calls. A natural storyteller, she had a hilarious and caustic tongue.
The night that I am remembering, I had just set on the stove, simmering, her fine recipe for cabbage soup..when the phone rang. Perfect. She knew when to call – between cooking and eating. Her “Hello” was resonant, even triumphant. Something had happened!
My first queries brought no information. She was well. The apartment was fine. Nothing had happened. I held in my curiosity a bit and then I noted, “You sound different tonight.”
No, no problems. The pension check had come, etc. However, she was obviously holding back. “Did something happen today, Grandma Mimi?” I asked.
“Happen? What should happen?” A sigh. “It’s only that Mrs. Gross …” An even deeper sigh. I waited. “She’s just such a show off. You wouldn’t believe.”
“I’ll believe, Grandma Mimi. I’ll believe whatever you tell me.”
“If you had that yenta Gross for a neighbor, you wouldn’t sound normal either.”
“What did she do to you?”
“Do to me? Nothing. What could she do to an old widow like me? Only, let me tell you, Gross is the biggest show-off in the world! No question about it.”
Then she paused.Though dying to tell, she was holding back to excite her one-person audience: Me!
I waited attentively. Grandma Mimi’s timing was impeccable; really, there was no pushing her. Then:
“This morning I was sitting outside on the bench with my next door neighbor - Klein, you know, a quiet woman, a fine person, who was telling me how to make gefilte fish without sugar. Then Gross came along and asked could we move over a few inches. Then she planted herself like Queen Cleopatra with all her tchotchkes: her sunglasses and her creams and her movie magazines spread out over every sunny inch of bench. Gross is no stringbean herself, you understand. A few inches for her is nothing.”
“But, Grandma Mimi, she lives in the building. She’s entitled to sit on the bench.”
“Who says no? She can get up at daybreak and take the whole bench. She can bring all her relatives. But today WE were there first! For my part she can even go to Brighton Beach and bake herself then say it’s a Miami tan.”
Grandma Mimi stopped but I knew there was MUCH MORE to come. You didn’t get a kerflofel like this out of her for minor infractions. I was eager to hear. “Is that all she did?”
“Of course not. But you need to let me tell my story my way.”
“Tell,” I invited her. “Please tell – only wait one minute, just let me get a chair.”
“Okay. I am already sitting.”
Crucial information. Major! It was a long story:
Mimi: “Right away Gross begins to brag about her grandson’s three bar mitzvahs.”
You heard me,” she said. “You heard right.”
“Please - continue.”
“Her grandson’s three bar mitzvahs!” Grandma Mimi assured me. “Now you should understand that Gross always begins friendly and chatty. But she’s sneaky. I know her. This time she started right off in a voice as sweet as honey.”
“So where was your grandson’s bar mitzvah?’ Gross asks. (A person could get diabetes just from listening to her.)
So I told her, says Mimi proudly, in New Jersey in their community’s own beautiful synagogue, and his mother with my help made a marvelous feast afterwards, in their lovely garden: roses and lilies and lilacs wherever you looked.
“You can’t eat flowers,” Gross, that genius, observed.
“Fortunately, no one had to, ”Mimi assured her. “The food was incredible, all home-made, even the challahs; such kishka and holopchi and strudel. It melted in the mouth. No frozen you-don’t-know-what’s-in-it. All fresh.”
“Like a dream such a bar mitzvah is,” friend Klein agreed.
Gross sniffed. “I didn’t know people still made such old- fashioned bar mitzvahs anymore. My grandson’s bar mitzvah was on Masada!”
“That’s very impressive,” Mimi told her. “To go all the way to Israel when you’re not even Orthodox is really very impressive.”
“And then he was bar mitzvah a second time in Jerusalem – at the Wall,” says Gross.
“Twice?” Klein expressed honest confusion. “How can a boy become a man twice?”
Gross corrected her: “Not just twice. Three times. Because -- my bad luck -- I got pleurisy and I couldn’t travel to Israel, so they had to do it again in their temple on Long Island. But no one had to lift a finger. Every single dish was catered. Champagne gushed from a gold spigot – like water!”
“Grandma Mimi!” I exclaimed. “What an incredible showoff she is!”
Mimi: “You don’t for one minute think I let her get away with that?”
“Of course not. WHAT did you say?”
“Well, first, because I am a peaceful person, I decided I would just sit quiet a while. But by then, the clouds were hiding most of the sun and I felt a chill on my back because whatever little sun there was left, Gross was using it up. So I got up. Then I picked up my cushion. “Gross,” I said before going in, “your grandson is a very lucky boy.” And this brought a big fat smile to Gross’s face: The cat who ate the canary.
“Yes,” Grandma Mimi had then added. “The boy is remarkably lucky that this was his bar mitzvah and not his circumcision.”
It was several minutes before I could successfully stem my laughter and offer my mother-in-law my tribute. “Grandma Mimi, I have always known you were very clever - but this was genius! Sheer genius!”
“I know,” she said modestly. “Every single neighbor on the floor says the exact same thing.”
Turmoil on the BC campus
By Albert Lasher
Even as a group of Vanguardians were meeting in mid-May to discuss this year’s Vanguard Prize, in the background was an event on the Brooklyn College campus that evoked memories of the period when we were engaged in conflict with the Harry Gideonse administration. (I can’t forget that Harry and some other BC administrators were FBI informers at the time.)
On Wednesday, May 2, students from Brooklyn College and other CUNY schools gathered on the BC quadrangle to protest the plight of undocumented students, the targeting of Muslim students by the New York City Police and mainly, the rise in college tuition. All of us at Vanguard remember that when we were students, tuition was free.
We also remember the l940’s and early l950’s as a time of the House Un-American Affairs Committee and the rise of Senator McCarthy. Fear of communist infiltration of government and evil conspiracies gave rise to First Amendment abuses which Vanguard fought.
The distinct aspect of the May 2nd event at BC is that 2 students were arrested when they resisted being physically removed by security guards from the corridor in front of the president’s office. The college administration, claiming they had no advance knowledge of the breadth or purpose of the demonstration, had the NYC Police deployed at every entrance to the college with paddy wagons at the ready. Also, CUNY security guards were brought in to beef up the existing Brooklyn College security force.
That earlier time, 60-70 years ago, Vanguard was in a struggle with the college administration. But President Gideonse never called the police to monitor or control campus protests. BC’s current president, Karen Gould, possibly could be excused over the gaffe; she was preparing for a riotous mob of 2, 000 protesters from around the city.
Turns out there were something less than 200 protesters and only about 20 entered Boylan Hall. They sat outside of Dr. Gould’s office, arms linked, shouting slogans. Nevertheless, the security guards were ordered to clear the hall.
Here’s an e-mail exchange on the resulting melee. It’s between me and my daughter, Renee. She is a senior staff member of the Professional Staff Congress (PSC), the 23,000-member union that represents CUNY’s professional and administrative personnel. The BC PSC chapter actively supported the protest. (Renee holds a MFA in Performing Arts Management from Brooklyn College.)
From: Albert Lasher
To: Renee Lasher
Date: May 14, 2012, 12:06 PM
"The very last line of the attached message mentions the Brooklyn College Executive Committee of the PSC as a key supporter. Does your union leadership know about this?"
From: Renee Lasher
To: Albert Lasher
Date: May 14, 2012, 4:40 PM
"Oh yes – this is a big topic right now and was by all accounts a horrendous incident. I heard one professor tell of a female student who asked the professor for help because security had thrown her backpack down the stairs and she was afraid to retrieve it but her asthma inhaler was in it and she was having an attack. If any of your group can show up for this silent vigil (referring to the flyer I attached to my note calling for support for a silent vigil on campus on May 16) I think that would be terrific."
About 100 people participated in the May 16 Silent Vigil at Brooklyn College (I was a guest at the Columbia commencement and couldn’t get there) which was peaceful. No cops, no security guards. Some 160 letters of protest were dropped off in a box outside of the president’s office.
Irony: Just today, I received an e-mail from a BC professor reporting salary increases of more than 22% for CUNY Deans, Presidents and key administrators. The Chancellor’s maximum salary would jump 54% to $724,470 not including special salary supplements such as housing allowances.
What’s wrong with this picture?
P.S. An added irony to this story is that across the hallway from the President’s office is the door with a plaque saluting a previous occupant of the office – you guessed it : Vanguard.
Submitted by Stan Isaacs
No Chattering in the Press Box
The lost tribe of sportswriters known as the Chipmunks
By Bryan Curtis
A few months ago, George Vecsey stopped writing his regular sports column for the New York Times. This is a big deal. Among the members of the most exclusive club in sportswriting, Vecsey was the last to trudge to a newspaper office. He was the last of the Chipmunks.
The Chipmunks were founded in 1962 or thereabouts. No one seems to remember. But their origin story goes like this: One day, in the New York Yankees locker room, there was a group of young sportswriters chattering away like they owned the place. Which they pretty much did. Across the room, there was an old sportswriter. The old sportswriter had once been the undisputed king of the locker room, but in this youthful chatter, he saw the future.
"You sound like small, furry animals," snarled Jimmy Cannon, the old sportswriter. "You're making that kind of noise. You sound like a goddamn lot of chipmunks."
Chipmunks. Well, that did it. The young writers had Jimmy's insult printed on sweatshirts. They handed out the sweatshirts like uniforms. "Rather than a term of derision," says Newsday's Steve Jacobson, "we made it our identity." Yes, for the next half-century, members of the most exclusive club in sportswriting would call themselves Chipmunks …
One night in 1962, Larry Merchant, a Chipmunk, was on the Philadelphia Phillies team plane. If you know Merchant from HBO — he recently threatened to kick Floyd Mayweather's ass — you can guess that the column he was typing on his Olivetti was snide. Sammy White, a backup catcher for the Phillies, was sitting in the seat in front of him. He got annoyed by the clacking of Merchant's keys. So White reached behind his head and tried to yank out the paper from the typewriter. The Olivetti flew down the aisle of the plane.
Merchant, who is 81 years old now, meets me at a New York hotel one morning. At his request, it is 7:45 a.m. Regarding the Sammy White incident, he says with a smile, "I did two things." He sent the bill for a new typewriter to the Phillies. And he wrote in his Philadelphia Daily News column: "It was the best throw Sammy White made all season."
These are the Chipmunks: Merchant of the Daily News; Stan Isaacs, Steve Jacobson, and George Vecsey of New York Newsday; Phil Pepe and Paul Zimmerman of the World-Telegram and Sun; and the late Leonard Shecter, the late Maury Allen, and the late Vic Ziegel of the New York Post.1
In 1966, a Sporting News article described a Chipmunk writer as having "beatnik tendencies in dress and manner" and "hustle, in the form of endless questioning." The News also detected a blog-like admiration network: a "constant concern with, and profound admiration for, the literary talents of himself and his fellow chipmunks."
But the biggest qualification for Chipmunk membership was that you had to write sports for an afternoon paper. Back then, morning papers like the New York Times supplied the game replay, the who-what-where-when. At an afternoon paper, you had to break some news, come up with a funny angle. It wasn't blogging — let's not insult anyone here. But it pushed against the prevailing currents of sportswriting in the same way. "When we came along," Stan Isaacs says, "New York newspapers were stale. They were predictable." They weren't anymore.
Larry Merchant became the Philadelphia Daily News sports editor when he was 26 years old. He had a helmet of black hair and — his baseball writer Stan Hochman reports — the build of a tailback.2 Merchant's sports page was a pirate ship. In 1958, he learned that two Philly workingmen had had a fight on the job that they'd decided to settle in the boxing ring. Well, the first tenet of Chipmunk sportswriting is that you hype what's interesting, not what's hyped. Merchant played the bout like Ali-Frazier. The first-day Daily News headline was, "'He Called Me a Lousy Bricklayer.'" The second-day headline was, "'He Is a Lousy Bricklayer.'" The crowd at the Cambria was so big they had to call the fire department.
Merchant was hired by the New York Post in 1966. There, he practiced the second tenet of Chipmunkery: impudence. "One thing about all of them that's important," says the writer Pete Hamill, "is there was no sentimentality. By which I mean, no faking sympathy that they didn't feel." The broadcaster Marv Albert says, "I thought Larry Merchant was one of the great sports columnists of all time. I'd get the Post to read him."
One afternoon, Merchant was in the Yankee Stadium press box when word came in that Jackie Kennedy was at the game. The young sportswriters were told to keep away. "I said, 'Fuck it,'" Merchant remembers, "and I went down and tried to interview her." Merchant reached the First Widow and asked if she had a word for the Post. "Thank you," Kennedy said. She flashed a defensive smile. Merchant asked again. "Thank you," Kennedy said, still smiling.
Merchant: "So after about eight thank-yous, I got the idea."
A Chipmunk maintained a suspicion of sports television, which was beginning to encroach on his turf. "Television," Lenny Shecter wrote, "is like some gentle, mindless robot carrying sports tenderly in its arms to the top of the mountain and then over the cliff." Case in point: The 1970 Super Bowl between the Colts and Cowboys was a lousy game that featured 11 turnovers. But the NBC announcers remained mute. "They reacted," Merchant wrote, "as though they were watching a squadron of Communist pigeons defiling the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier."
Merchant was an urbane gent. Any sportswriter on deadline can come up with a movie reference, but a Chipmunk aspired to be a true cultural traveler. At the 1960 World Series, Merchant and several others saw Lenny Bruce perform. Merchant wrote about '60s radical Abbie Hoffman's stint as a Brandeis tennis player.3 "Why wouldn't you write about Abbie Hoffman playing tennis at Brandeis?" Merchant says. You would, of course, unless you were too busy writing what a swell guy Mickey Mantle was.
It was at Hoffman's apartment that Merchant met the acid guru Timothy Leary. "Leary said something," Merchant remembers, "that was directly on point to what we were doing. He said, 'If you want to study human behavior, don't watch rats in a maze. Go sit in the center-field bleachers at Fenway Park.'"
Larry Merchant took that observation and got a whole column out of it.
Tony Kornheiser, who broke into newspapers at the height of Chipmunkery, thought the young, hip, wiseass sportswriters were minor gods. "It was more than wanting to be as good as them," Kornheiser tells me. "We wanted them to like us."
As any Chipmunk would tell you, a good story needs a heavy. I have him right here. He's Jimmy Cannon, the Chipmunk nemesis. This is Jimmy's apartment.
Tonight, Cannon and the Chipmunk Phil Pepe had been covering the fights at Madison Square Garden. Cannon asked for a lift home. Pepe regarded this as a mixed blessing. For while Cannon was arguably the most famous sportswriter on the planet, he was his own favorite subject. He'd drone on about his pal Hemingway. Or read his own hypnotic prose that allowed him to cannonball right into a ballplayer's head. Cannon would begin a column, "You're Mickey Mantle … " And then he'd tell you what Mantle hoped and feared.
So: You're Jimmy Cannon. You've entered a late inning where you're very famous but you're no longer especially important. Soon, no New York paper will carry your syndicated column. "It was a crabby old man who was seeing the end of his era," says Robert Lipsyte, the former Times sports columnist. "Here were these guys who were young and energetic and relating to ballplayers and passing him by. That's what made him angry."
So tonight, Jimmy, you're motioning Phil Pepe into your bedroom. Don't get funny ideas! You just want to show Pepe a little painting of the New York skyline that hangs over your bed. "It didn't look like anything special to me," Pepe says. Then he notices the artist's signature. Frank Sinatra. Frank gave Jimmy a painting. Pepe is floored.
You're Jimmy Cannon, and on this night, anyway, you showed that goddamn Chipmunk how great you are.
Leonard Shecter, the young Chipmunk at the New York Post, once wrote that he hated sports. "Bullshit," Steve Jacobson says. "He loved it." But like H.L. Mencken and Lester Bangs, Lenny showed his love in a funny way. He loved sports by whacking it with a bat.
Shecter and the Chipmunks arrived at the sports page at a propitious moment. The sportswriter of 1942 had gotten terrific access to athletes but swallowed the salacious stories. The sportswriter of 2012 has poor access, but makes up for it (sometimes, in theory) by writing the salacious stories. "There was this shining moment of the Chipmunks," says Robert Lipsyte, "in which they had total access and they pretty much wrote what they saw."
Shecter was on the Yankees team train in September 1958 when Ralph Houk, then a coach, slugged reliever Ryne Duren in an intramural brawl. Shecter's scoop — given to his editor only reluctantly, and a day late, after he was berated for getting beaten on another story — peeled back the curtain on how ballplayers behave.
Vince Lombardi waved Shecter into his inner sanctum in 1967. In Shecter's Esquire profile, Lombardi came off as a sniggering sadist. Shecter found a Packers player sprawled out on the ground, the other players averting their eyes as if he were "lying in a doorway in the Bowery." He printed St. Vincent's four-letter words. In a wicked touch, Shecter described the number of Packers stars who were prematurely balding, as if Lombardi had screamed their hair off.
Lombardi read the profile and, for the first time in his life, took a knee. "It absolutely destroyed him," the Packers' PR director said to biographer David Maraniss. Lombardi told reporters the article had brought his mother to tears.
This was Shecter's Chipmunkery: An all-out assault on the old-time heroes. He had a rule he called Shecter's Law of Diminishing Persons, which stated that the farther a man could hit a baseball, the more likely he was to be an asshole. Screw 'em, then! The Chipmunks hunted for "losers" — Shecter's affectionate term — whose distance from greatness might convince them to be co-conspirators. This is how Shecter met Yankees pitcher Jim Bouton.
"I first learned about him in spring training in 1962," Bouton remembers. "As soon as I made the roster, players came over and said, 'Wait till you meet that fucking Shecter.' 'Whatever you do, don't talk to that fucking Shecter.' I thought that was his first name: Fucking Shecter."
On the first day of the season, Fucking Shecter strolled into the Yankees locker room. He was a fat man4 with a mustache and a square face — Marty Appel, the former Yankees PR man, says he is reminded now of a young David Stern. "I look over," Bouton says, "and here's a guy with a big smile on his face, the friendliest-looking guy in the world. He comes over and we have a nice conservation. I thought, He was a great guy!" If Mickey Mantle had seen this meeting, he would have wept.
At a lunch in 1968, Shecter suggested Bouton ought to keep a baseball diary, and Bouton told him he'd already started. There have been a lot of things written about the book that sprouted out of that diary, Ball Four, which Bouton wrote and Shecter edited. But think of it from the sportswriter's point of view. For a man who longed to kick in the door to the locker room, here was the door being kicked out. It was an inside job. "He effectively had a camera and a microphone on buses and in the hotel rooms and the bars," Bouton says.
They had 18-hour editing sessions in Lenny's Manhattan apartment.5 They read drafts of Ball Four so many times that it became unfunny. "I can't judge it anymore," Shecter said to Bouton. "It seems like it's all cardboard." When news of Mantle's booze pilgrimages landed like an anvil on baseball, Bowie Kuhn suggested that Bouton blame the book on Shecter.6 Leukemia killed Shecter in 1974, at 47, before he could see Ball Four used as evidence to bury the baseball owners at the arbitration hearings.
After Ball Four exploded, Marty Appel says, "The tendency around the Yankee organization was to say Shecter never liked sports, never liked baseball, never liked the Yankees." To which the proper response is: Bullshit. He loved them.
Back at Jimmy's Apartment
You're Jimmy Cannon, and you're staggering, reeling, collapsing on the mat. This is May 1971. You were getting ready for the Kentucky Derby when you suffered a stroke at your apartment. When the paramedics find you on the floor some two days later, you've passed the time thinking about old boxers. Your left arm is paralyzed.
Jimmy, in your sad, final years, you don't exactly shower the Chipmunks with love. But in one interview7 — in the midst of a stream of anti-Chipmunk invective — you admit the youngsters "aren't so bad." This may be your curmudgeonly way of saying that the old sportswriter and his young nemeses have a lot in common. "Jimmy," Robert Lipsyte says, "was the original Chip."
Clear away the generational angst and it's obvious. When Cannon was young, he'd shoved aside old, tremendously famous, tremendously bad sportswriters (Granny Rice, Paul Gallico) just like the Chipmunks shoved aside Cannon. Before he became a reactionary venting about black Muslims, he'd quipped that Joe Louis "is a credit to his race — the human race." Adjust for years and here's Lenny Shecter describing the feds' case against Muhammad Ali: "One can only guess that some important person in Washington said, 'Get me that n-----' … "
The Chipmunks aren't renouncing Cannonism, Jimmy. They're making an adjustment. An adjustment for the age of free agency and televised fights and black Muslims and Jim Bouton. You're Jimmy Cannon. Maybe in your hard heart you realize the Chipmunks are rebels, just like you, who stepped into the on-deck circle at a different time.
On a warm day last spring, Stan Isaacs, the wiliest of the Chipmunks, stands in the door of his Pennsylvania retirement cottage. Before we list the rebellions Isaacs staged on the sports page, we should start with what could be called his coda. Steve Jacobson, Isaacs's colleague at Newsday, once turned to him in the press box and asked what he was writing — you know, so they wouldn't overlap.
"Don't worry," Isaacs said. "It won't be what you're doing."
"You might want to see this." Isaacs, who is 83, is leading me to to a small, sunlit room. This is Stan's office. In addition to being the site from which he still cranks out a column, it is the National Archives of Chipmunkery. There's a black-and-white photo of a young Isaacs with Muhammad Ali. Another of Larry Merchant in his pretty-boy days. Stan has a photo of Jimmy Cannon, but it hangs in the bathroom.
Isaacs started at Newsday in 1954. As New Yorkers fled to Long Island, Newsday grew into a suburban powerhouse with a swashbuckling sports editor, Jack Mann. Long before the Times, Newsday began refusing the free plane rides and goodies that had been doled out by team owners since the golden age of sportswriting.8 "We felt we were serious newspaper guys trying to treat sports like city-side reporters," Isaacs says. Another important tenet of the Chipmunk: If you're going to be a professional wise guy, you first have to be a professional.
Isaacs was a pro. In 1964, he caught San Francisco Giants manager Alvin Dark saying black and Latino athletes lacked "mental alertness." Nearly two decades later, he discovered a fellow dissident named Keith Olbermann doing radio in New York. According to Olbermann, the profile Isaacs wrote got him his very first gig on television.9
But the best part about writing from Long Island was the elbow room. Larry and Lenny were under the thumb of their Manhattan editors. Stan was free to be a spritely humanist — a liberal in all senses — gathering material for his Groucho Marx routine. "I don't know any other paper in the country where he could have done that kind of thing," says the Chipmunk George Vecsey, who worked with Isaacs at Newsday. "He set a tone of goofiness and worldliness and intelligence all in the same package."
Rebellion no. 1: the 1962 World Series. Ralph Terry, the New York Yankees pitcher, throws a Series-clinching shutout in Game 7. Later, at his locker, Terry takes a call from his wife and then explains to the sportswriters that she'd been up all night feeding their baby. In his Brooklyn accent, Isaacs squeaks: "Breast or bottle?"
Rebellion no. 2: a Yankees game in Kansas City. Isaacs learns that owner Charlie O. Finley has installed a sheep meadow beyond the right-field wall. Isaacs takes his typewriter, leaves the press box, and reports from the meadow for the entire game.
Rebellion no. 3: "Now here's a column no one else would have written," Isaacs says in his office, as he pulls out a clipping. February 25, 1969. At a museum, Isaacs sees a painting that dates from 1560 and is credited to Pieter Brueghel the Elder. There are children climbing on each other's backs, and Stan thinks old Pieter may have discovered the precursor to buck buck.
Stan Isaacs takes that notion and gets a whole column out of it.
Sportswriting is like a Third World country. It makes up for a lack of natural resources with an endless supply of revolutionaries. The Chipmunks weren't the last exclusive club. The next one included Tony Kornheiser (the Times), David Hirshey (the Daily News), and Henry Hecht (the Post). Thurman Munson dubbed them "the Munchkins." "We were so enamored with the Chipmunks," Kornheiser says, "that we got brown shirts with little animals on them and tried to peddle ourselves as the Munchkins." After that, some more clubs were founded, once-young writers grew into bitter, old Jimmy Cannons, and here we all are on the Internet today.
Stan Isaacs says to me, "This gives you a sense of my nature. The Bryn Mawr women's basketball team is 0-18. I think I should go and talk to the coach."
He pauses. I can see Stan plotting a Chipmunk column, one that takes "normal" sportswriting and does a Groucho walk in the other direction. "Oh-and-eighteen," Isaacs says with fascination. "What's that like?"
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Men Who Went Against The Grain For Me
Men Who Went Against The Grain For Me
By Sheila Klass
These days I wear a handsome gold wristwatch from my employer, Manhattan Community College, CUNY. I can’t tell time on it, but I love it nonetheless and I don it first thing after my shower every morning. It is my trophy! I’ve been teaching English at the college for forty-five years . That I shower daily is ample proof of my modernity; I grew up in a one-bath-a –week, heat-your-own-water Brooklyn flat.
This luxurious watch, designed as a gift for an academician, obviously HAD to have Roman numerals! Ancients are happiest with the script of their childhood. Unfortunately, I can’t read those tiny lines etched in gold.
I am legally blind.
Nevertheless, I am still a dependable member of the work force. There are so many of us survivors who are still working that a term has been coined to describe us: OLD OLDS. I’m fond of it; in the 1930’s my well-off Uncle Harry had a precious car he called his OLD OLDS.
The fact that I still work, that I like work and want to work troubles some people. Why don’t you sit back and smell the flowers?” the coy ones wonder. You need a hobby, the bossy ones advise. Surely your pension can’t be so small, the estimators guess.
“I like work,” I say, and I have learned that is enough. No need to try to share the esoteric pleasures of a busy day dealing with books and language and ideas and academic nonsense.
The woman who chairs my department is an African American scholar and a role model for our students, many of whom are women of diverse ethnicities. In her they see mirrored their own possibilities. My own youth offered no such hopes. In the orthodox Jewish community in Williamsburg, a Brooklyn slum, I knew only two kinds of women: those who aspired solely to be wives and mothers in the Tradition, and the rigorous, non-Jewish, unmarried schoolteachers who came to civilize us, the children of immigrants.
Though I had no role models, I did have help. Oddly, it was from men, not proto-feminists but men who unaccountably went against their own religious and chauvinist convictions sometimes to help me toward independence and a career. I remember them with gratitude.
In Eastern District High School in 1944, a balding English teacher interprets “The Scarlet Letter” brilliantly. He leads us to appreciate the strength and beauty of the human spirit in Hawthorne’s heroine, Hester Prynne, forced by Puritan Boston to wear the letter “A” for adulteress. But this very teacher, who adores Hawthorne and has spent his life immersed in scholarship, has adopted his idol’s prejudices as well. Intrinsic in femininity, he argues, is lack of genius. As writers, women might be good, but can never be great. With malicious pleasure, he quotes Hawthorne’s description of a cow belonging to Margaret Fuller, the bluestocking writer. “She is very fractious and apt to kick over the milk pail…but she has a very intelligent face and seems to be of a reflective cast of character. I doubt not that she will soon perceive the expedience of being on good terms with the rest of her sisterhood.”
We all know Hawthorne is not talking about the cow. He hates this woman writer who is presumptuous enough to go her own way. I sit silently, bewildered by this injustice. I do not dare to challenge it. I am too ignorant and too cowardly.
My teacher goes on to quote Hawthorne on the women writers of his day. “America is now given over to a d----d mob of scribbling women, and I
should have no chance of success while the public taste is occupied with their trash and should be ashamed of myself if I did succeed.” I am so glad when at last we leave Hawthorne for Dickens.
Yet, at the end of the school year, this same teacher recommends me – not a boy – for English Honors. He scribbles “Excellent!” in red pencil on my final essay, and he takes the trouble to keep me after class to urge me, “Go to college.”
“No one in my family has ever gone to college,” I tell him.
“Never mind. Don’t let your education end here. You can be quite a good writer,” he argues fiercely.
I cannot help myself. “Good but never great,” I murmur, and he flushes, recognizing his own words. “Don’t let it all end here,” he repeats. “You have a fine mind.” I am dismissed.
Confused, but inspired and grateful, I begin to think: Yes! I will go to college. I’ll go to Brooklyn College. After all, it’s free. What could be better? I am jubilant. It won’t all end here.
My parents, unfortunately, do not see it that way. They argue that I am smart enough already. That really means, “ Your mouth is too big already.” They insist that what I must do immediately after graduation is get a job and help out at home, while I wait for someone to marry me. My father speaks rhapsodically of a mythical “big” man he knows who might hire me for a clerical job. A white-collar job!
My parents are impoverished observant Jews. My mother – American-born, the eldest of seven children – never finished high school. An avid reader of romances in her youth – Sir Walter Scott, Eleanor Porter, R.D. Blackmore – she reveres education and scholarship but not for me. She takes her fixed position: bitterly opposed.
My father, who emigrated from Hungary just in time to fight in World War I, reads and speaks Hungarian, German, Yiddish and English; he reads Hebrew as well. For years he worked as an immigration interpreter but the Depression ended that. He is a clothing presser in a factory that makes theatrical costumes. While Torah study delights him and occupies his spare time, scholarship and Judaism are, for him, synonymous – for men.
I take the Brooklyn College entrance exam. There are bitter fights at home. I pass the exam. The battles increase in ferocity. Until – armed with the very thin bravado that comes of teenage desperation – I find a job as a live-in babysitter near the college, a room, breakfast and dinner in exchange for various domestic tasks. I move out. It is 1945. I am the first unmarried young woman from our community to do this heinous thing. My parents try to conceal their disgrace; they do not acknowledge to anyone that I am not living at home. When the men in the synagogue ask questions, my father is evasive. He is mortally embarrassed.
My mother does not relent. My father, slowly at first and then with increasing kindness, surreptitiously sends me a few dollars when he can and sometimes he sends me a salami. He begins to ask an occasional question about what I am studying. He is fascinated by much of it. Very gradually (and never in front of my mother) he becomes proud that I am a “college girl,” a phrase that is a delectable sweet on his lips. Periodically, he garners a remnant of cloth in his factory and sews me a skirt or a pair of slacks. Since the fabrics are meant for theatrical extravaganzas and he is a presser - not a skilled tailor - my garments tend toward the bizarre, but I am grateful for them.
I work weekends roasting nuts in the window of the huge Planter’s Peanuts store opposite Duffy Square in Manhattan. I am violating the Sabbath. I understand how much this hurts my father, but he does not hassle me about it. It is my only source of income.
In 1949 I graduate. He comes to the Commencement, and Miracle of Miracles, he brings my mother along! The day makes him happy, though he is troubled by my decision to go to graduate school. “Enough is enough,” he says, then wisely lets it drop . During the graduation he is one of those embarrassing fathers who hurries up and down the aisles snapping countless pictures. What a bright and glorious day he makes for me on that field in Flatbush!
One other man looms as an unexpected source of strength during my college days, my late brother-in-law, a massive ex-football player and an unlikely figure in any feminist’s pantheon. A truck-driver, he had to quit high school during hard times and he works in his father’s meat delivery business. They work in the late hours of the night and in the early morning delivering meat to the city’s small restaurants.
This man, married to my sweet gentle sister, finds me argumentative and politically softheaded, an altogether peculiar sister-in-law careening toward spinsterhood on the academic track. “Too smart for your own good,” he sums me up. We differ on practically everything in arguments that are frequent, loud, long, and good-natured, for that is his temperament. He is not a man to hold grudges.
Late one night, in 1947, he finally brings himself to believe what I have been saying all along – that I want to be a writer more than anything in the world. “A writer should have a typewriter,” he tells my sister, as he gets into his work clothes to set out to deliver meat. And he goes out and buys me one. I mean goes out literally. At 2:00 A.M. he buys me a Smith Corona portable from a street peddler near the wholesale meat markets on Tenth Avenue.
“It’s probably hot,” he assures me with glee. “The guy took off like a bird the minute I gave him his money.”
Who knows? My brother-in-law always spends too much, and when we protest his extravagance he invariably defends his purchases by claiming he got them very cheaply because they were “hot”.
“Do me a favor,” he asks me privately. “Don’t mention outside who gave this to you. I don’t want to be known as the idiot of the neighborhood.
“Why?” I ask.
“For encouraging your pipe dreams. Just don’t talk about it. Okay?”
That typewriter stays hot for more than thirty years through college and graduate school and then through countless drafts of my books. I pass it on to my children, who use it through high school.
My life moves along. After two years of graduate work in Iowa City, I return to teach Junior High School in Harlem -- for a long time. I marry and have two children. I stay at home to care for them.
Seven more years pass, and I sorely miss teaching. I find part-time work at Borough of Manhattan Community College; I am ecstatic. Each semester for the next three years I teach one or two courses, and, in emergencies, I substitute, readily, for colleagues. I am teaching composition, literature, and, occasionally, creative writing.
When I am almost forty years old, my husband and I decide we want one more child. I become pregnant. I continue to teach and all is well. The baby is due during the winter recess. A crisis occurs. The BMCC English Department is suddenly awarded several “faculty lines.” The college is expanding and they are beginning an immediate search for qualified, full-time faculty. I am qualified, ungainly in the last trimester of my pregnancy, but qualified! And like Barkis in “David Copperfield”, I am ‘willin’.
The Chairman of the English Department is a quiet, scholarly bachelor, a poet. Often, we talk about our favorite writers and sometimes we read one another’s work and offer criticism. He is a consummate academician and administrator, brought in years before to correct a chaotic, unruly situation. He runs the Department thoughtfully and skillfully.
He sends for me. “There are new, full-time lines,” he says, “and I would gladly recommend you – except for your condition.”
“I’m absolutely fine,” I assure him.
“I know you are – now,” he says gravely, “but remember: when I came here this Department was anarchic. There was a lot of irresponsibility and excessive absence. I need to be sure that anyone we hire will be here every teaching day. “If this baby . . .?” He rubs his chin pensively, conjuring up fearful scenarios.
“The baby isn’t due till Christmas break. I promise you I will be here every teaching day.”
He is listening, but I can sense his uncertainty.
“It’s a commitment I can make honorably. I respect the way you run the Department.”
He taps a pencil and ponders. I know that I have been absolutely reliable so far. And that he is a fair person. I count on him.
He gets up smiling and comes round the desk to give me his hand. “I’m with you,” he says. “We writers have to look out for one another. But I’m the easy part. Now we only have to convince the Dean.”
The Dean of Faculty is a cold, courtly scholar of the very old school. His hair, his eyes and his suits are iron gray. He has never been seen – even on the hottest days of summer – without a vest as well as his jacket. Legends about his conservatism, his inflexibility, and his integrity abound. He is an institution within our institution. I tremble at the prospect, but I want the job.
First, my Chairman goes to see him and presents my application and curriculum vitae. He argues my case: academic achievements, professional experience, publications, years of part-timing and loyalty to the school. He offers fresh copies of my books for the Dean’s perusal.
Right off, the Dean says no. He is adamant. Most appalling to him is the unseemliness of a woman in my condition standing in front of a class. All around the country, women are wearing miniskirts -- but the Dean has not noticed the changes.
My advocate argues for me with such fervor that he wears the Dean down to the point where the Dean at least promises to consider my candidacy. “Look at her books,” my colleague urges. “Her condition is irrelevant. She’s a valuable teacher.”
No one could have done more for me. A whole week passes and I am in despair. Then a formal letter comes requesting that I appear for an interview.
I don my most flowing maternity dress, a pale blue cotton creation of endless pleats and fabric, which cannot do very much for me because this is a large baby I am carrying. I do my hair in what I consider a neat and scholarly style, and I take pains with my make-up and grooming.
The Dean comes to greet me at his office door and almost carries me to a large chair. He moves to sit behind his vast, polished desk on which there is a single, rather thin set of papers in a folder – my file.
“Mrs. Klass,” he says, “I have been looking at your vitae.” There is a long pause during which he puts on his glasses and riffles through the few papers. “It is seven years since you left your last full-time employment. How can you account for those seven years?” An implicit accusation of malingering, of idleness, hovers in the air.
“Well,” I begin, “I had two children and I stayed home to raise them. I wrote a number of books, two of which were published.”
Elbows on the desk, he presses his hands together palm-to-palm. The silence is awesome as he weighs these activities of mine.
“Actually, those were pretty busy and productive years,” I follow up, “if you count two children and two books.”
He reflects on this challenge. “I count children and books,” he finally responds and gives me a thin smile.
Tremors course through my body like aftershocks. I am so excited and overwhelmed, it occurs to me that I might go into premature labor right there in his immaculate lair. The thought is so unseemly it helps relax me.
“And now,” he says, “though it may be indelicate, we must talk about your condition. I believe that full-time working at this stage would be perilous for both you and the child.”
It is 1967. I know of no precedents, and I have no legal resources to help me. “I brought a note from my doctor,” I say doggedly, and hand it over.
“Nonetheless” the Dean continues somberly, “I had a cousin who died in childbirth some years ago simply because she did not rest and take care of herself.”
“I rest a lot and take very good care of myself,” I assure him. “I love teaching here, and if you give me the chance I’ll do a very good job.”
“We’ll have to see,” the Dean says, rising and hastening to assist me out of the chair. I do a creditable job of getting up. “This is a highly irregular situation,” he goes on. “I wouldn’t have expected it of your Chairman. I shall have to consider its many aspects.”
I am emboldened by desperation. “It is very hard to be discriminated against – as you well know – because of a natural physical condition,” I say, looking him in the eye.
At the door, he shakes my hand firmly. “I admire your spirit. I wish you good health and an easy time of it.”
I thank him, and I repeat, “I hope children and books count enough.
Looking a little dazed, he stands in his doorway and watches as I trundle off as light-footedly as possible.
My Chairman is in his office waiting eagerly. At his request, I reconstruct the entire interview.
“It’s hard to believe, but I think maybe you’ve got it,” he says, shaking his head in wonder. “The Dean is really a fair and decent man.” He begins to grin. “I really think you’ve got it.”
He is prescient.
Indeed, I had it! And I have held onto it for forty-five years.
I am awed and grateful when I think about these men of generous spirit who defied custom and culture, who forfeited male privilege so I might realize my ambition. They went against the grain for me. Their generosity was, what Hawthorne, when he was truly great, celebrated: the strength and beauty of the human spirit.
The Biblical Plagues of Obama
OBAMA ‘PLAGUED’ BY PROBLEMS
By Harriet Posnak Lesser
(My friend Mischa Goss, who works for the White House Requisitions Office, sent me this top secret memo from Holy Moses Enterprises of Egypt Land, NY. Please read before Election Day. It explains a lot.)
Dear Barack Obama,
We regret any inconvenience caused by a mix-up in the online order you placed in December 2009. The blame rests with our OT guys. No, we did not mean IT guys, we meant OT guys as in Old Testament. Your order somehow ended up with our Bible Department, which has been sending you plagues instead of the plaques you actually requested. (You know, the ones that said “HOPE” in big blue caps. REMEMBER??) Our office, which until recently used only stone tablets, has now gone hi-tech thanks to a generous grant from the Melissa and Bill (Golden) Gates Foundation and therein lies the problem. We realize that you inherited a financial crisis, an overwhelming unemployment rate, a huge budget deficit and John Boehner, but according to our eye for an eye; tooth for a tooth policy, we have to charge you for the order, aka The Deluxe Exodus Package, which includes the following:
Frogs: We arranged for a swarm of frogs, fish, sea birds, etc. to come out of the Gulf of Mexico in 2009, following the explosion of a BP drilling rig that dumped millions of barrels of oil into the water. Amazing how that always works.
Lice: We sent most of them to Congress where they are working both sides of the aisle and irritating the heck out of people. Really hairy situation.
Dog flies: Couldn’t find any flying dogs so we launched a Navy drone over Iran in 2011 and let the Iranians bring it down. Never learned how that ended, so we are not billing you at this time.
Murrain: A fancy name for the cattle plague which was mailed to the White House shortly after your inauguration. You spoiled that by immediately banning sick cows from the food supply. Guess you didn’t trust the chef, a leftover from the Bush administration.
Boils: 2011 was our best year yet for wildfires. We hit Arizona, Texas and California real bad. Then you stepped in with the big bucks and ruined everything.
Just Plain Plague: We delivered our combination Bird/Swine flu in 2009, causing an expensive albeit fleeting distraction. Billed as the deadliest strain ever, it was renamed H1N1 and disappeared shortly afterward. Lots of swine and a few birds sued the government for slander anyway.
Darkness: This one had nothing to do with us. Blame it on daylight saving time and Ben Franklin.
Hail: In 2010, you pledged $100 million in aid to Haiti after a killer earthquake decimated the island. Guilty! One year later, we hit Japan with a quake and followed up with a tsunami. Even we get tired of same old.
Hail 2: We made history with Hurricane Irene in August 2011. Because you’re such a good customer, we’re putting Irene on the installment plan to be paid in full by January 2012 or January 2016. We call such arrangements “term” insurance.
Firstborns: Please be advised that we’ve dropped Plague Number 10 in accordance with our No Smote-ing Policy.
Like the Biblical originals, all these plagues have worked. Check out what’s happening in Egypt now. Meanwhile, we owe you one more shipment. You have a choice of locusts or Kardashians, the worst plague known to 21st century humanity. And that’s fer sher.
AN OPEN LETTER TO GLORIA ALLRED
From Harriet Posnak Lesser
Dear Gloria Allred,
I just reviewed my Bucket List and I’m missing a couple of items. I’ve never held a press conference on CNN and I’ve never been sexually harassed. I’m turning to you for help because I like your style.
All my friends have been sexually harassed and they never miss an opportunity to brag about it. Lunch with the girls is like Konfessions with the Kardashians except no one has done a sex tape, proving there’s a huge generation gap when it comes to technology.
Seems like everyone I know has been propositioned, winked, whistled and stared at, teased, called inappropriate names like girl, honey, baby, or doll, checked out, brushed up against, and had their necks massaged – all defined as sexual harassment in guidelines issued by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission aka the EEOC-- (A fed agency forgotten by Rick Perry and Herman Cain).
Yes, Gloria, I’ve gone over my long and diverse work history and I can’t come up with even one case of sexual harassment though I’ve experienced all of the above criteria. My mother taught me that boys will be boys and should be treated with patience, understanding and above all, a sense of humor. She also warned me against going alone to a man’s hotel room, unless his name is Stephen Colbert. (She actually said Rudolph Valentino, but I couldn’t find him on Facebook.)
I think I’ve come close to being sexually harassed, but no cigar, so help me Bill Clinton. For example, a magazine editor once promised me a freelance job for favors, so I gave him a party hat, a couple of noise makers and a bag of personalized M and Ms. Worked just fine, and I got the job.
Then there was the practical joker who pinned me against the wall of an elevator. In the spirit of fun, I countered with some fast knee action. I got that job too, after the screaming stopped.
On at least one occasion, I found myself alone with a boss who had (Oops! His dumb!) sent everyone else home early.He tried to atone with a gourmet in-office dinner and cocktails. I good-naturedly shoved his face into the potatoes au gratin and emptied the ice bucket onto his lap. Despite that, or maybe because of it, there were no hard feelings and I held on to my job.
I’m obviously not looking for you to represent me and get both of us tons of media attention and money. I admit that may not have been the case if I’d been hit on by Tiger Woods, Charlie Sheen,or the afore- mentioned Mr. Cain. But embarrassed as I am to admit it, I haven’t even been sexted by Anthony Weiner.
So here’s why I’m writing to you. I’ve got a job interview with the senior intern division of CNN and I want to make a good impression and maybe even get sexually harassed. I know all about lawyer/client confidentiality of course – but can you please tell me where you buy those stylish, sexy suits?
Not so fashionably yours,
Harriet Posnak Lesser, columnist at large (or at small on a really good day).