Saturday 25 July 2015


And in answer to your questions: it's a young Basil Rathbone!

Friday 24 July 2015

Nova Pilbeam RIP

Nova Pilbeam, actress - obituary
Teenage star of 1930s Hitchcock films who renounced Hollywood for a quiet life

22 July 2015

Nova Pilbeam, who has died aged 95, was celebrated in the 1930s as Britain’s leading child and teenage star on both stage and screen; yet her light guttered in the 1940s and thereafter she faded into total obscurity.

Thanks to DVD, however, she can still be seen at her peak in two films directed by Alfred Hitchcock. In The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), made when she was 14, she is outstanding as a girl kidnapped by international terrorists in order to prevent her parents divulging vital information. Somehow Nova Pilbeam manages to be both precocious and charming, while in the last scene, when she is trapped on a roof with a killer, she convincingly portrays terror.

It must have been a daunting experience for a child suddenly to find herself sharing the screen with such established figures as Leslie Banks, Edna Best and Pierre Fresnay. The Man Who Knew Too Much was also the first English film of Peter Lorre, who had recently escaped from Nazi Germany, and had to learn his English lines syllable by syllable. Yet Nova Pilbeam did not seem a bit fazed by her sudden ascent to stardom. “Even at that time,” Hitchock remarked of her, “she had the intelligence of a fully grown woman. She had plenty of confidence and ideas of her own.”

In 1937 Hitchcock employed Nova Pilbeam again in Young and Innocent. In this film she took on a lead role as a chief constable’s daughter who finds herself helping a dashing young fellow (Derrick De Marney) being chased by the police for murder. Having begun the film as a distinctly bossy and self-sufficient girl, Nova Pilbeam convincingly transmogrifies, as the affair develops, into an emotionally vulnerable heroine. She never, though, quite conveys that the flames of her passion are white hot. In this respect her cut-glass 1930s accent hardly helps. As for her undoubted beauty , it is rather of the seemly than of the smouldering variety.

Nevertheless, it was a fine performance for a 17-year-old, in a film which is full of character and humour. In general Hitchcock directed according to a pre-ordained plan that did not encourage much individual scope in actors. Sensing, though, that too much instruction might take the edge off Nova Pilbeam’s youthful spirit, he spared her the rougher edges of his tongue.

The two of them got on well, and shared a strong affection for the dog which appeared in the film. Hitchcock actually extended the animal’s role, in order to keep it longer on the set.

He was incapable, however, of being entirely sweet with a leading actress. In one scene, in an old mine, Nova Pilbeam was dangled over a precipice for rather longer, she thought, than was strictly necessary. “I thought my arm would come out of its socket,” she recalled. At least, though, the hand to which she was desperately clinging belonged to her real-life admirer, the assistant director, and not, as appears in the film, to her co-star Derrick De Marney.

After Young and Innocent Nova Pilbeam seemed destined for a great screen career, but it somehow failed to materialise. She was considered for the lead role of Hitchcock’s next film, The Lady Vanishes (1938), but the part went to Margaret Lockwood; while the producer David Selznick wanted her to be the second Mrs de Winter in Rebecca (1940), but Hitchcock preferred Joan Fontaine.

Perhaps he decided that, for all Nova Pilbeam’s high competence as an actress, this decidedly English girl, whose feet were so very much on the ground, did not quite possess the necessary romantic allure. Was there not a touch of woodenness where intensity and passion were required?

In truth, Nova Pilbeam had probably been flung too early into cinematic stardom. It did not help, either, that Gaumont-British – the studio to which she was contracted – went bankrupt during the making of Young and Innocent. Though she would appear in several more films over the next 11 years, it became increasingly evident that she would, after all, never become a major figure in cinema.

Nova Margery Pilbeam was born in Wimbledon on November 15 1919 and named after her maternal grandmother, who hailed from Nova Scotia. Her father, Arnold Pilbeam, was stage manager for Sir Nigel Playfair at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith.

Educated privately in Wimbledon and Blackheath, Nova spoke both French and German by the age of 14. She made her first professional appearance aged 12 at the Savoy as Marigold, the first character to appear in Toad of Toad Hall. In 1933 she was in Nigel Playfair’s production of a play about the poet Francis Thompson, which transferred to the West End. This was followed by a stint at the Shaftesbury Theatre as the daughter of the American anti-slavery campaigner John Brown in Gallows Glorious.

At 14, Nova Pilbeam made her film debut in Little Friend (1934), as a neurotic but perceptive girl who senses that there is something wrong with her parents’ marriage. Critics heaped praise on this performance, contrasting her acting expertise with her diminutive figure. The Gaumont-British studio immediately signed her up on a seven-year contract, and presented her to Alfred Hitchcock.

While making The Man Who Knew Too Much, she met Penrose (“Pen”) Tennyson, the great-grandson of the poet, and Hitchcock’s assistant director. They would marry in October 1939 when she was still only 19.

Meanwhile Nova Pilbeam had gained James Barrie’s approval to play Peter Pan at the Palladium in 1935-36. Later in 1936 The Daily Telegraph’s critic, W A Darlington, bestowed high praise on her performance of Rosalind in an open-air production of As You Like It by the Oxford University Dramatic Society .

Soon afterwards she returned to the West End as a rather unconvincing Bolivian girl in The Lady of La Paz. Darlington wrote of “a very good attempt at something which is beyond her”. In the cinema she enjoyed another success as Lady Jane Grey in Tudor Rose (1936), which won her a medal from Film Weekly.

In 1939, two years after Young and Innocent, she finally returned to the screen in Cheer Boys Cheer, which has been seen as a precursor of the post-war Ealing comedies, playing a brewer’s daughter who falls in love with the son of her father’s business rival. Shortly after her marriage to Pen Tennyson, she appeared as Viola in a production of Twelfth Night in Oxford.

She was next seen in the cinema in Pastor Hall (1940), inspired by the life of Martin Niemöller, who had been incarcerated by the Nazis. In fact the film had been made before the war, with Nova Pilbeam in the role of Niemöller’s daughter, only to be shamefully shelved for fear of offending the Third Reich.

Meanwhile Nova Pilbeam’s husband, Pen Tennyson, had made Convoy (1940), the first film to convince the government of the value of the cinema as wartime propaganda. When he was commissioned into the Navy, Nova Pilbeam helped him to learn the Morse code by signalling decidedly un-nautical messages.

On July 7 1941 Pen Tennyson sent her a telegram from Scotland, where he was making films for the Navy: “Will be with you tomorrow – cheers.” An hour later he died in a aeroplane crash. To distract herself from her grief Nova Pilbeam returned to the studios to make Banana Ridge (1941) with Robertson Hare, from an Aldwych farce. She had always, however, preferred the stage to film, and after Tennyson’s death played only minor parts on screen.

Following a cameo appearance in the wartime propaganda film Next of Kin (1942), in 1943 Nova Pilbeam undertook four lead roles for the Old Vic Company, then on wartime exile from London in Liverpool. She was Nina in The Seagull; stepped out of character to play Belle, the peroxide-blonde prostitute in Eugene O’Neill’s comedy Ah, Wilderness; and took on Juliet opposite Laurence Payne’s Romeo. She also acted the title roles in Shirley and Susannah and the Elders.

Back in the West End, she supported Sonia Dresdel in This Was a Woman, which ran for several months. The next year she joined the Dundee Repertory Theatre, and in 1946 appeared as Tracy Lord in The Philadelphia Story at Windsor, where her father was now the theatre’s business manager.

Her final West End appearance, early in 1950, was in Toni Block’s Flowers for the Living. At the end of that year she married Alexander Hamilton Whyte, who worked in radio. She was still acting in 1951, but after the birth of her daughter, Sarah Jane, in 1952, withdrew completely and permanently into private life, apparently without any regrets.

Alexander Whyte died in 1972. For many years Nova Pilbeam lived with Sarah Jane in Highgate, where she tended her garden and declined various requests for interviews. She would, however, happily sign autographs if approached on the street.

For a time she was an unlikely muse for the artist and Warhol acolyte Duncan Hannah, who painted her over and over again but who never got to meet his heroine. “In my head she is always 19,” Hannah said in 2007. “I don’t know what it would be like to meet her now – I have pieced her together from those bits of celluloid.”

Nova Pilbeam’s daughter survives her.

Nova Pilbeam, born November 15 1919, died July 17 2015

J. D. Salinger's Band of Brothers...

JD Salinger: the little-known legacy of one of the world’s most-read authors
Dead brothers and grieving characters are everywhere in Salinger’s fiction. 

Emma Michelle and Anne Maxwell
15 July 2015
For an author who wrote every day until his death in 2010, JD Salinger published very little. Yet despite his refusal to engage with the literary world, he generated vast critical and mainstream interest – interest that spiked dramatically when a recent documentary suggested he’d approved five new books for publication before 2020.

Today – 64 years since The Catcher in the Rye (1951) was first published – we examine a little-known legacy of one of the world’s most-read authors.

To date, Salinger is still known for the resonance that his only published novel has with young readers, but at the core of his fiction sits a theme that is often overlooked – unresolved grief. Salinger’s work is rife with characters suffering through long and unresolved mourning, a theme informed by his own experiences fighting in the second world war and subsequent nervous breakdown and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Salinger’s popularity among teenage readers is well documented and The Catcher in the Rye, in addition to more than 65 million copies sold already, continues to sell around 250,000 copies each year, (perhaps due to the fact it is often prescribed as a high school text). Classrooms and critics alike have seen Salinger’s novel as exploring adolescent themes such as rebellion and isolation, and the sarcastic vernacular of its 17-year-old narrator make him instantly relatable to generations of teenagers.

If readers remember nothing else of Holden Caulfield, they remember his enthusiasm to call people “phony”. Denouncing peers for any slight insincerity, Holden’s appeal to adolescents is long attributed to his struggle against conformity. In other words, he’s a teenage hero who navigates the divide between being oneself and fitting in – a key concern for young readers.

Yet Holden’s suffering in the novel isn’t the result of ordinary angst; its source is the death of his brother, Allie, from leukaemia. Four years later, Holden is still dealing with the loss, idealising Allie (“terrifically intelligent”, “the nicest … he never got mad at anybody”) and acting like he’s still alive (“I certainly don’t enjoy seeing him in that crazy cemetery. Surrounded by dead guys and tombstones and all”).

Freud described melancholia as a stalled mourning where a bereaved is abnormally consumed by loss. A 1983 study of bereavement showed that people experiencing unresolved grief were less likely to have attended the deceased’s funeral. Holden could not attend Allie’s funeral, Salinger tells us, because he was in hospital after breaking the garage windows with his fists when Allie died. Teenage rebellion is there, but only as a product of grief.

Dead brothers and grieving characters are everywhere in Salinger’s fiction, notably the shell-shocked war veteran Seymour Glass who puts a gun to his temple and thereby triggers multiple Salinger stories about the Glass family dealing with his death.

Eleven years after Seymour’s suicide, his brother “Buddy” writes a reminiscence that shows countless manifestations of his unresolved grief that is strikingly similar to Holden’s. Buddy describes Seymour by stressing his fundamental extraordinariness (like he had “the intellect of a genius and the moral sensitivity and compassion of a Buddhist monk”), speaks as if Seymour is still alive and suffers physically when recalling poignant memories of him.

Salinger’s exact movements during the second world war were revealed only recently, and the factual links to his stories are now well known.

The nightmares of Sergeant X are based on Salinger’s first-hand knowledge of the grisly Battle of Hürtgen Forest (1944) (which a historian in the documentary describes as “a meat grinder”). The second world war is the ghost in the machine of every Salinger story – he wrote non-stop during the war and even carried six parts of The Catcher in the Ryeinto battle on D-DAY .

His daughter wrote about how Holden’s cries of “Save me, Allie, save me!” as he feels himself “sinking down, down, down” can be read as a soldier’s anguish on the battlefield. While “the traumas of war and death” are displaced, she notes, “their ability to destroy lives and wreak emotional havoc upon the survivors diminishes not a whit”.

Salinger rarely spoke about his time at war, save for one chilling remark to his daughter:"You never really get the smell of burning flesh out of your nose entirely. No matter how long you live."

However, the prevalence of unresolved grief in his fiction helps illuminate our understanding.

As a notoriously reclusive figure Salinger would no doubt resist an autobiographical reading of his texts, yet critics keenly identify the obvious and numerous parallels between Salinger/ Holden and Salinger/ Buddy. The fact remains: a younger and much less guarded Salinger himself called Buddy “my alter-ego and collaborator” on the original dust jacket for Franny and Zooey (1961), and told friends that Holden was a younger version of himself.

Unresolved grief is rarely explored in critical discussions about Salinger. His “preoccupation with dead brothers” is noted in passing, as well as the general presence of internalised trauma in his fiction – and the fact Holden is definitely grieving.

If a theme across The Catcher In The Rye and the Glass family stories has not changed, it is observed as childlike innocence, not prolonged mourning. To date there is no comprehensive study of grief in Salinger’s work, the identical experiences of Holden and Buddy or any possible relation these have to the writer’s personal history.

Salinger’s contribution to bereavement literature remains little-known, though perhaps not for long.

Among the five new books is A Counterintelligence Agent’s Diary – a novella based on Salinger’s interactions with civilians and soldiers during the second world war.

Structured as the diary of a man entrenched in the everyday horrors of war, this text likely forms a missing link between the prolonged grief found everywhere in his fiction and Salinger’s own experience in struggling to reconcile death and loss.

Thursday 23 July 2015

Last night's set lists

At The Habit, York: -

Ron Elderly: -
No Expectations
A Good Year For The Roses
Dedicated Follower Of Fashion
Dead Flowers

Da Elderly: -
Is It Only The Moonlight?
In The Morning Light
Never Let Her Slip Away

The Elderly Brothers: -
The Price Of Love
Bring It On Home To Me
Walk Right Back
Proud Mary
Medley: Sweet Caroline/Hi Ho Silver Lining

A packed (most of the time) Habit watched and listened to an eclectic mix of open mic mayhem including regulars and new faces (thinks: that would make a great name for a TV show). The Elderly Brothers finished off the night and were overjoyed to be accompanied by Mr Bradley Blackwell on the upright bass - deepjoy in fact!!

After being inspired by a conversation in the Crown Posada last Friday, yours truly could not resist slipping in an Andrew Gold classic from 1978. Went down well with the very appreciative audience.

Wednesday 22 July 2015

E. L. Doctorow RIP

E.L. Doctorow, Literary Time Traveler Who Stirred the Past Into Fiction, Dies at 84

Bruce Weber
21 July 2015

E. L. Doctorow, a leading figure in contemporary American letters whose popular, critically admired and award-winning novels — including “Ragtime,” “Billy Bathgate” and “The March” — situated fictional characters in recognizable historical contexts, among identifiable historical figures and often within unconventional narrative forms, died on Tuesday in Manhattan. He was 84 and lived in Manhattan and Sag Harbor, N.Y.

The cause was complications from lung cancer, his son, Richard, said.

The author of a dozen novels, three volumes of short fiction and a stage drama, as well as essays and commentary on literature and politics, Mr. Doctorow was widely lauded for the originality, versatility and audacity of his imagination.

Subtly subversive in his fiction — less so in his left-wing political writing — he consistently upended expectations with a cocktail of fiction and fact, remixed in book after book; with clever and substantive manipulations of popular genres like the Western and the detective story; and with his myriad storytelling strategies. Deploying, in different books, the unreliable narrator, the stream-of-consciousness narrator, the omniscient narrator and multiple narrators, Mr. Doctorow was one of contemporary fiction’s most restless experimenters.
In “World’s Fair” (1985), for example, a book that hews closely to Mr. Doctorow’s autobiography and that he once described as “a portrait of the artist as a very young boy” (but also as “the illusion of a memoir”), he depicts the experience of a Depression-era child of the Bronx and his awakening to the ideas of America and of a complicated world. Ending at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, the book tilts irresistibly toward the technological future of the country and the artistic future of the man.

The narrator is looking back on his childhood, but the conventionality of the narration is undermined in two ways. For one thing, the man’s relatives get their own first-person chapters and inject their own memories, a strategy that adds depth and luster to the portrait of the time and place. For another, his own narration is offered in the present tense, as if the preadolescent character were telling an unfolding tale, though with the perspective and vocabulary of an adult. His opening recollection — or is it a contemporaneous report? — is of wetting the bed:

“Startled awake by the ammoniated mists, I am roused in one instant from glutinous sleep to grieving awareness; I have done it again. My soaked thighs sting. I cry. I call Mama, knowing I must endure her harsh reaction, get through that, to be rescued. My crib is on the east wall of their room. Their bed is on the south wall. ‘Mama!’ From her bed she hushes me.”

Beginning with his third novel, “The Book of Daniel” (1971), an ostensible memoir by the son of infamous accused traitors — their story mirrors that of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were executed as Russian spies in 1953 — Mr. Doctorow turned out a stream of literary inventions. His protagonists lived in the seeming thrall of history but their tales, for the convenience — or, better, the purpose — of fiction, depicted alterations in accepted versions of the past. Not that he undermined the grand scheme of things; his interest was not of the what-if-things-had-gone-differently variety. Rather, a good part of Mr. Doctorow’s achievement was in illustrating how the past informs the present, and how the present has evolved from the past.

Works With a ‘Double Vision’

In the book that made him famous, “Ragtime” (1975), set in and around New York as America hurtled toward involvement in World War I, the war arrives on schedule, but the actions of the many characters, both fictional and nonfictional (including the escape artist Harry Houdini, the anarchist philosopher Emma Goldman and the novelist Theodore Dreiser) were largely invented. Sometimes this was for droll effect — at one point Freud and Jung, visiting New York at the same time, take an amusement park boat ride together through the tunnel of love — and sometimes for the sake of narrative drama and thematic impact. Written in a declarative, confident voice with an often dryly arch tone mocking its presumed omniscience, the novel seemed to both lay claim to authoritative historical perspective and undermine it with winking commentary.

Houdini, Mr. Doctorow writes, “was passionately in love with his ancient mother whom he had installed in his brownstone home on West 113th Street.”

“In fact,” he continues, “Sigmund Freud had just arrived in America to give a series of lectures at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, and so Houdini was destined to be, with Al Jolson, the last of the great shameless mother lovers, a 19th-century movement that included such men as Poe, John Brown, Lincoln and James McNeill Whistler. Of course Freud’s immediate reception in America was not auspicious. A few professional alienists understood his importance, but to most of the public he appeared as some kind of German sexologist, an exponent of free love who used big words to talk about dirty things. At least a decade would have to pass before Freud would have his revenge and see his ideas begin to destroy sex in America forever.”

Woven into the rollicking narrative of “Ragtime” are the dawn of the movies and the roots of the American labor movement, tabloid journalism and women’s rights. The central plot involves the violent retribution taken by a black musician against a society that has left him without redress for his heinous victimization. The events described never took place (Mr. Doctorow borrowed the plot from a 19th-century novel by the German writer Heinrich von Kleist, who based his tale on a 16th-century news event), but they contribute to Mr. Doctorow’s foreshadowing of racial conflict as one of the great cultural themes of 20th-century American life.

In “Billy Bathgate,” a Depression-era Bronx teenager is seduced by the pleasures of lawlessness when he is engaged as an errand boy by the gangster Dutch Schultz, who is about to go on trial for tax evasion. The novel is not an allegory but, published in 1989, as the “greed is good” decade of the 1980s came to a close, it makes plain that Schultz’s corrupt entrepreneurism is of a piece with the avaricious manipulations of white-collar financiers, forerunners of a Wall Street run amok.

“The distinguished characteristic of E. L. Doctorow’s work is its double vision,” the critic Peter S. Prescott wrote in Newsweek in 1984. “In each of his books he experiments with the forms of fiction, working for effects that others haven’t already achieved; in each he develops a tone, a structure and a texture that he hasn’t used before. At the same time, he’s a deeply traditional writer, reworking American history, American literary archetypes, even exhausted subliterary genres. It’s an astonishing performance, really.”

Most of Mr. Doctorow’s historical explorations involved New York and its environs, including “Loon Lake” (1980), the tale of a 1930s drifter who comes upon a kind of otherworldly kingdom, a private retreat in the Adirondacks; “Lives of the Poets” (1984), a novella and six stories that collectively depict the mind of a writer who has, during the 1970s, succumbed to midlife ennui; and “The Waterworks” (1994), a dark mystery set in Manhattan in the 1870s, involving a journalist who vanishes and an evil scientist.

More recently, in “City of God” (2000), Mr. Doctorow wrote about three characters — a writer, a rabbi and a priest — and the search for faith in a cacophonous and especially hazardous age, using contemporary Manhattan as a backdrop. And in “Homer and Langley” (2009), he created a tour of 20th-century history from the perspective of a blind man, Homer Collyer, a highly fictionalized rendering of one of two eccentric brothers living on upper Fifth Avenue who became notorious after their deaths for their obsessive hoarding.

Indeed, much of his oeuvre describes a fictional history, more or less, of 20th-century America in general and New York in particular.

“Someone said to me once that my books can be arranged in rough chronological order to indicate one man’s sense of 120 years of American life,” Mr. Doctorow said on the publication of “City of God.” “In this book, it seems I’ve finally caught up to the present.”

“The March” (2005) was Mr. Doctorow’s farthest reach back into history, and it also expanded his geographical reach, populating the destructive and decisive Civil War campaign of General William T. Sherman — the capture of Atlanta and the so-called march to the sea — with a plethora of characters. Black and white, wealthy and wanting, military and civilian, sympathetic and repugnant, they are a veritable representation of the American people.

Winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction (also won by “Billy Bathgate”) and the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction (also won by “Ragtime” and “Billy Bathgate”), a finalist for the National Book Award(won by “World’s Fair”) and the Pulitzer Prize, “The March” was widely recognized as a signature book, treated by critics as the climactic work of a career.

Perhaps the most telling review came from John Updike, who was prominent among a noisy minority of critics who generally found Mr. Doctorow’s tinkering with history misleading if not an outright violation of the tenets of narrative literature. Updike held “Ragtime” in especial disdain.

“It smacked of playing with helpless dead puppets, and turned the historical novel into a gravity-free, faintly sadistic game,” he wrote in The New Yorker, going on to dismiss several other Doctorow books before granting their author a reprieve.

“His splendid new novel, ‘The March,’ pretty well cures my Doctorow problem,” Updike wrote, adding, “The novel shares with ‘Ragtime’ a texture of terse episodes and dialogue shorn, in avant-garde fashion, of quotation marks, but has little of the older book’s distancing jazz, its impudent, mocking shuffle of facts; it celebrates its epic war with the stirring music of a brass marching band heard from afar, then loud and up close, and finally receding over the horizon.

“Reading historical fiction,” Updike went on, “we often itch, our curiosity piqued, to consult a book of straight history, to get to the facts without the fiction. But ‘The March’ stimulates little such itch; it offers an illumination, fitful and flickering, of a historic upheaval that only fiction could provide. Doctorow here appears not so much a reconstructor of history as a visionary who seeks in time past occasions for poetry.

Learning the Power of Fiction

Edgar Lawrence Doctorow was born in the Bronx on Jan. 6, 1931. His grandparents were Jewish immigrants from Russia. His father, David, had a store that sold musical instruments in the old Hippodrome building in Midtown Manhattan; his mother, Rose, played the piano.

Though the family struggled for money, young Edgar had a childhood he later described as pleasant, with stoop ball games in the street, summers at camp, frequent trips to the theater and the Museum of Modern Art and a general immersion in the perfervid atmosphere of intellect and culture that distinguished New York even more than it does today.

“As a boy I went matter of factly to plays, to concerts,” he recalled in a mid-1990s interview with The Kenyon Review. “And as I grew up I was a beneficiary of the incredible energies of European émigrés in every field — all those great minds hounded out of Europe by Hitler. They brought enormous sophistication to literary criticism, philosophy, science, music. I was very lucky to be a New Yorker.”

His was a family of readers; he was named for Edgar Allan Poe, a favorite of his father’s.

“Actually, he liked a lot of bad writers, but Poe was our greatest bad writer, so I take some consolation from that,” Mr. Doctorow said in 2008. “He died many years ago. My mother lived into her 90s, and I remember asking her in her old age — I finally dealt with the question of my name — “Do you and Dad know you named me after a drug-addicted, alcoholic delusional paranoid with strong necrophiliac tendencies?’ and she said, ‘Edgar, that’s not funny.’ ”

Young Edgar learned the persuasive power of fiction at an early age. In a story he often told, in the late 1940s, he fulfilled an assignment in a journalism class at the Bronx High School of Science by writing a profile of Carl, the stage doorman at Carnegie Hall, filling it with such persuasive and poignant details that his teacher wanted to run it in the school newspaper. When it was time for a photographer to take the man’s picture, however, Edgar had to confess that there was no Carl the doorman; Carl was an invention.

Early Studies and Struggles

Mr. Doctorow studied with the poet and critic John Crowe Ransom at Kenyon College in Ohio, where he earned a bachelor’s degree, then spent a year in the graduate program in drama at Columbia, where he met his wife, Helen Setzer, then an aspiring actress. (She later published a novel, “Pretty Redwing,” under the name Helen Henslee.) They married in Germany while Mr. Doctorow, who had been drafted, was in the Army. In addition to his wife and son, Mr. Doctorow is survived by two daughters, Jenny Doctorow Fe-Bornstein and Caroline Doctorow Gatewood, and four grandchildren.

After his discharge, he worked odd jobs while trying to write; for a time he was a reservations clerk at La Guardia Airport, later a script reader for CBS Television and Columbia Pictures, jobs that fed his writer’s imagination and competitive spirit. His first novel, “Welcome to Hard Times” (1960), was a western fable, both violent and darkly comic, a sendup of the dreadful genre scripts he’d been immersed in.

His second book, “Big as Life” (1966), was also drawn from genre fiction. A peculiar fantasy — science fiction, sort of — the novel is about New Yorkers who are thrown together one morning when, without explanation, two human giants are found standing, seemingly immobile, in the lower Hudson River. An unsuccessful book — “Unquestionably it’s the worst I’ve done,” Mr. Doctorow said in 1980, and would have no reason to change his mind later — it remains his only novel no longer in print.

By then Mr. Doctorow had become a significant personage in the publishing industry. In the late 1950s, he had started as an editor at New American Library and within a few years had moved to Dial Press, where he was editor in chief, working with Norman Mailer, James Baldwin and others. Toward the end of his tenure he was the publisher, as well. He left the job in 1969 to concentrate on the book he was then struggling with, a reimagining of the Rosenberg case that became “The Book of Daniel,” a novel the critic Stanley Kauffmann, writing in Saturday Review, called “the best American political novel in a generation.” Soft-spoken, wry, and a bit professorial in demeanor — he taught at Sarah Lawrence College and New York University, among other places — Mr. Doctorow was nonetheless capable of stinging verbal rhetoric, particularly in the service of political protest. In 2004, his address to graduating seniors at Hofstra University, in which he criticized President George W. Bush for his “storytelling” in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, drew boos from the audience and a harsh retort from the columnist Peggy Noonan in The Wall Street Journal, who cited “the boorishness of the aging liberal” and called him Fast Eddy (oddly enough the same name used by a tennis partner, the novelist Avery Corman, who admired Mr. Doctorow’s quickness at the net.)

Making His Views Apparent

Mr. Doctorow’s progressive views (he described himself as “a leftist, but of the pragmatic social democratic left — the humanist left that’s wary of ideological fervor”) were often apparent in his fiction. His depiction, for example, of scabrous capitalists in “Ragtime” or his central figure’s decisive act of political engagement in “Lives of the Poets” (he houses a family of illegal immigrants from El Salvador in his Greenwich Village apartment) led to his being characterized as a political novelist as often as he was called a historical novelist, although he rejected any such characterization.

Several of Mr. Doctorow’s novels were adapted for the screen, including “Welcome to Hard Times,” a film, starring Henry Fonda, that Mr. Doctorow (and most critics) assessed as dreadful. Better films were made of “The Book of Daniel” (it was called, simply, “Daniel,” and starred Timothy Hutton), “Ragtime” (directed by Milos Forman, featuring James Cagney in his final appearance in a feature film) and “Billy Bathgate,” starring Dustin Hoffman as Dutch Schultz. His short story “Jolene: A Life,” tracing the picaresque travels of a teenage orphan girl, was made into a 2008 film that introduced the actress Jessica Chastain. Mr. Doctorow himself played a small role — as an adviser to President Grover Cleveland — in “Buffalo Bill and the Indians,” an archly comic historical film in 1976 by Robert Altman.

The most prominent adaptation of Mr. Doctorow’s work, however, was for the stage. In 1996, “Ragtime: The Musical” opened in Toronto as the foundation of the theatrical empire planned by the Canadian impresario Garth Drabinsky. Though the show also ran for two years on Broadway, winning four Tony Awards, with several other productions put on in other American cities and internationally, it failed to be the megahit that Mr. Drabinsky gambled it would be.

By 1998, Mr. Drabinsky’s company, Livent, was mired in debt; he and a partner, Myron Gottlieb, were ousted by the board, and the men were subsequently indicted in the United States for misappropriating company funds. A less lavish revival of “Ragtime” appeared on Broadway in 2009.

Mr. Doctorow’s own play, “Drinks Before Dinner,” about a party of urbane New Yorkers that is hijacked by an existentially outraged guest with a gun, was directed by Mike Nichols and starred Christopher Plummer when it was first performed, in 1978 at the Public Theater in Manhattan.

Mr. Doctorow’s final novel, “Andrew’s Brain” (2014), was written as a confessional monologue by a brilliant and deluded cognitive scientist whose gift for dissembling is attributed to the nature of the mind and the impossibility of burrowing to the truth with the tools of thought and speech.

“Pretending is the brain’s work,” Andrew explains. “It’s what it does.”

In “Andrew’s Brain,” Mr. Doctorow created perhaps his most inscrutable character — a narrator who recognizes the futility of narration.

Mr. Doctorow could be inscrutable himself. In writing a novel, he once said, it was his technique to stand at a remove, to invent a voice and let the voice speak, “to create the artist and let the artist do the work.”

“The image I like is the one from cartoons,” he added in an interview in The New York Times Magazine in 1985. “You see the artist’s hand drawing a little mouse. It colors in the jacket and the pants, and then it gives him a little goose, and the mouse scoots away down the road.

“Well,” he said, “the hand is drawn, too.”

E. L. Doctorow, The Art of Fiction No. 94

George Plimpton
The Paris Review
Winter 1986

This interview on the craft of writing with E. L. Doctorow is one of the first in this series conducted in public—which it was, under the auspices of The Poetry Center, in the main auditorium of New York City’s famed cultural spa, the 92nd Street YMHA. An audience of about five hundred was on hand. After a short introduction, Doctorow and his interviewer came out and sat facing each other in two chairs at center stage. The audience was invited to ask questions at the end of the formal interview. Actually, the first question from the floor suggested that the public forum might not be the best place for such an interview. A befuddled lady in the fifth row asked, “What made you write about the firestorm in Dresden?” With the patience of one who has taught at a number of institutions (Sarah Lawrence, Princeton, Yale Drama School, and New York University, among others), Doctorow politely informed his questioner that she probably had Kurt Vonnegut’sSlaughterhouse-Five in mind, and that the Dresden firestorm had been done “so beautifully” there was little reason for anyone else to try. After the flurry caused by this exchange had died down, the questions from the audience were more germane. They are included with their answers at the end of this interview.

At first meeting, Doctorow gives the impression of being somewhat retiring in manner. Yet, though his voice is soft, it is distinctive and demands attention. His expression is perhaps quizzical (described by The New York Times as “elfin”), yet it is instantly apparent that a great deal of thought has been put into what he is about to say. The fact that a large audience was listening during the interview seemed not to discomfit him in the slightest.

You once told me that the most difficult thing for a writer to write was a simple household note to someone coming to collect the laundry, or instructions to a cook.
What I was thinking of was a note I had to write to the teacher when one of my children missed a day of school. It was my daughter, Caroline, who was then in the second or third grade. I was having my breakfast one morning when she appeared with her lunch box, her rain slicker, and everything, and she said, “I need an absence note for the teacher and the bus is coming in a few minutes.” She gave me a pad and a pencil; even as a child she was very thoughtful. So I wrote down the date and I started, Dear Mrs. So-and-so, my daughter Caroline . . . and then I thought, No, that’s not right, obviously it’s my daughter Caroline. I tore that sheet off, and started again. Yesterday, my child . . . No, that wasn’t right either. Too much like a deposition. This went on until I heard a horn blowing outside. The child was in a state of panic. There was a pile of crumpled pages on the floor, and my wife was saying, “I can’t believe this. I can’t believe this.” She took the pad and pencil and dashed something off. I had been trying to write the perfect absence note. It was a very illuminating experience. Writing is immensely difficult. The short forms especially.

How much tinkering do you actually do when you get down to nonhousehold work—a novel, say?
I don’t think anything I’ve written has been done in under six or eight drafts. Usually it takes me a few years to write a book. World’s Fair was an exception. It seemed to be a particularly fluent book as it came. I did it in seven months. I think what happened in that case is that God gave me a bonus book.
Did you feel as though He were speaking to you as you wrote things down?
No, no. I imagine He just decided, Well, this one’s been paying his dues, so let’s give him a bonus book. But Faulkner wrote As I Lay Dying in six weeks. Stendhal wrote Charterhouse of Parma in twelve days. That’s proof God spoke to them—if proof is needed. Twelve days! If it wasn’t God it was crass exhibitionism.
In World’s Fair you make a very interesting shift: writing from the points of view of Rose and Donald and Aunt Frances and then the protagonist. So you have several voices, really. Is it difficult to shift from one to the other?

In the past few years I’ve been interested in the work of the so-called oral historians. The statements people make about their own lives to oral historians have a certain form that I think I have figured out. Now the basic convention ofWorld’s Fair is that it is memoir: that is what it pretends to be in the voice of the protagonist. My idea was to lend that voice verisimilitude by dropping in some oral-historic statements by other members of the family. I composed these to read as if they were spoken into a tape recorder. You always try to find ways to break down the distinction between fiction and actuality. Another advantage of those voiced intrusions is to provide a kind of beat or a caesura in the ongoing narrative; I thought that was a good thing to do.
So there is an ongoing change and shift in the forms of voice.
To me the more interesting change has to do with the voice of the major narrator, the protagonist, Edgar, who as he recalls more and more of his childhood, as he passes from infancy to youth, takes on the voice of an articulate child. The diction changes, the tone changes, as if Edgar is gradually possessed by his memory. So there’s a kind of two-voiced effect, I think, the man recalling, but in the boy’s higher pitch. I really like that. I didn’t know I was going to do that.
You didn’t? Well, how calculated is all this?
Do you mind if I loosen my tie?
It’s not calculated at all. It never has been. One of the things I had to learn as a writer was to trust the act of writing. To put myself in the position of writing to find out what I was writing. I did that with World’s Fair, as with all of them. The inventions of the book come as discoveries. At a certain point, of course, you figure out what your premises are and what you’re doing. But certainly, with the beginnings of the work, you really don’t know what’s going to happen.
What comes first? Is it a character? You say a premise. What does that mean? Is it a theme?
Well, it can be anything. It can be a voice, an image; it can be a deep moment of personal desperation. For instance, with Ragtime I was so desperate to write something, I was facing the wall of my study in my house in New Rochelle and so I started to write about the wall. That’s the kind of day we sometimes have, as writers. Then I wrote about the house that was attached to the wall. It was built in 1906, you see, so I thought about the era and what Broadview Avenue looked like then: trolley cars ran along the avenue down at the bottom of the hill; people wore white clothes in the summer to stay cool. Teddy Roosevelt was President. One thing led to another and that’s the way that book began: through desperation to those few images. With Loon Lake, in contrast, it was just a very strong sense of place, a heightened emotion when I found myself in the Adirondacks after many, many years of being away . . . and all this came to a point when I saw a sign, a road sign: Loon Lake. So it can be anything.
Do you have any idea how a project is going to end?
Not at that point, no. It’s not a terribly rational way to work. It’s hard to explain. I have found one explanation that seems to satisfy people. I tell them it’s like driving a car at night: you never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.
How many times do you come to a dead end?
Well if it’s a dead end, there’s no book. That happens too. You start again. But if you’re truly underway you may wander into culverts, through fences into fields, and so on. When you’re off the road you don’t always know it immediately. If you feel a bump on page one hundred, it may be you went off on page fifty. So you have to trace your way back, you see. It sounds like a hazardous way of working—and it is—but there is one terrific advantage to it: Each book tends to have its own identity rather than the author’s. It speaks from itself rather than you. Each book is unlike the others because you are not bringing the same voice to every book. I think that keeps you alive as a writer. I’ve just read the latest Ernest Hemingway publication, The Garden of Eden—it’s actually a fragment of a work he never completed—and in this as in the others he spoke with the Hemingway voice. He applied the same strategies to every book, strategies as it happens that he came upon and invented quite early on in his career. They were his triumph in the early days. But by the last decade or two of his working life they trapped him, restricted him, and defeated him. He was always Hemingway writing, you see. Of course at his best that wasn’t such a bad thing, was it? But if we’re speaking of entry to the larger mind, his was not the way to find it.
Does that change you at all? The voice, for example, in Loon Lake is very different from the voice in Ragtime. Do you change as a character yourself?
Well, you do participate, I suppose, as an actor does in a role. As the roles change, the actor’s voice and deportment, his physique, even his makeup, everything changes.
But sitting around the house you don’t behave like Joe of Paterson, for example, the hobo in Loon Lake.
Well, how do you know?
I don’t know!
Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia. You can get away with an awful lot. One of my children once said—it was a terrible truth, too, and, of course, it had to be a young child who said this—“Dad is always hiding in his book.”
But aren’t you very evident in your books? I mean, Lives of the Poets, who is that?
I don’t know. It’s somebody who might be me. Or part of me. Certainly in the past two books, I’ve used my own memory as a resource. But that does not mean I’ve written autobiographically. I recognize Jonathan, the narrator of Lives of the Poets, as a character, but he is not me. Not the fellow I see in the mirror. In World’s Fair I gave the young hero my name, Edgar, but I don’t think he’s me either. You use found materials as you use anything else from your own life. Books are acts of composition: you compose them. You make music: the music is called fiction.
Is that to suggest that Ragtime, for example, with all those extraordinary historical reminiscences and facts, is in fact stretched truth?
Oh no, not stretched: the appropriate word is discovered or revealed. Everything in that book is absolutely true.
Where did you ever find out, for example, that Theodore Dreiser, after Sister Carrie was published, was so upset that he rented a room and spent a great deal of time realigning a chair? That’s an extraordinary detail.
I know a lot about the sufferings of writers. It’s a subject that interests me. Dreiser wrote this magnificent novel. It was published in 1900; it was then and is still the best first novel ever written by an American. It’s an amazing work. He found a voice, speaking of voice, for that book of the wise septuagenarian. I don’t know how he found it—he was twenty-eight when he began writing. Nevertheless, it is the voice of a world-weary man who has seen it all. The book was a magnificent achievement but the publisher, Doubleday, didn’t like it, they were afraid of it. So they buried it. And naturally it did nothing; I think it sold four copies. I would go crazy too in that situation. Dreiser rented a furnished room in Brooklyn. He put a chair in the middle of this room and sat in it. The chair didn’t seem to be in the right position so he turned it a few degrees, and he sat in it again. Still it was not right. He kept turning the chair around and around, trying to align it to what—trying to correct his own relation to the universe? He never could do it, so he kept going around in circles and circles. He did that for quite a while, and ended up in a sanitarium in Westchester, in White Plains. But the trip to the sanitarium didn’t interest me. Only the man turning the chair. So that’s where Dreiser is in Ragtime, in that room, trying forever to align himself.
For describing J. P. Morgan, for an example, did you spend a great deal of time in libraries?
The main research for Morgan was looking at the great photograph of him by Edward Steichen.
That’s all?
Well, I needed the names of the various companies he took over, railroads and so on, so I suppose I must have looked that up. But my research is idiosyncratic. Very often in Ragtime it involved finding a responsible source for the lie I was about to create, and discovering that it was not a lie, which is to say someone else had thought of it first.
Isn’t there an enormous temptation as a fiction writer to take scenes out of history, since you do rely on that so much, and fiddle with them just a little bit?
Well, it’s nothing new, you know. I myself like the way Shakespeare fiddles with history; and Tolstoy. In this country we tend to be naive about history. We think it’s Newton’s perfect mechanical universe, out there predictably for everyone to see and set their watches by. But it’s more like curved space, and infinitely compressible and expandable time. It’s constant subatomic chaos. When President Reagan says the Nazi SS were as much victims as the Jews they murdered—wouldn’t you call that fiddling? Or the Japanese educators who’ve been rewriting their textbooks to eliminate the embarrassing facts of their invasion of China, the atrocities they committed in Manchuria in 1937? Orwell told us about this. History is a battlefield. It’s constantly being fought over because the past controls the present. History is the present. That’s why every generation writes it anew. But what most people think of as history is its end product, myth. So to be irreverent to myth, to play with it, let in some light and air, to try to combust it back into history, is to risk being seen as someone who distorts truth. I meant it when I said everything inRagtime is true. It is as true as I could make it. I think my vision of J. P. Morgan, for instance, is more accurate to the soul of that man than his authorized biography . . . Actually, if you want a confession, Morgan never existed. Morgan, Emma Goldman, Henry Ford, Evelyn Nesbit: all of them are made up. The historical characters in the book are Mother, Father, Tateh, The Little Boy, The Little Girl.
Do you have a reader in mind as you write?
No, it’s just a matter of being in language, of living in the sentences. With The Book of Daniel, for example, I obviously had an idea I thought I could do something with. But beyond that I couldn’t have had any reader in mind, because I didn’t even know what I was doing for the first several months. In fact, with Daniel I wrote a hundred and fifty pages and threw them away because they were so bad. The realization that I was doing a really bad book created the desperation that allowed me to find its true voice. I sat down rather recklessly and started to type something almost in mockery of my pretensions as a writer—and it turned out to be the first page of The Book of Daniel. What I had figured out in that tormented way was that Daniel should write the book, not me. Once I had his voice I was able to go on. That’s the kind of struggle writing is. There’s no room for a reader in your mind: you don’t think of anything but the language you’re in. Your mind is the language of the book.
When did you come by this? When did you get into the language, as you put it. At college? You speak of Kenyon as a place where people think about writing the way they think about football at Ohio State.
What I actually said was that Kenyon was a place where we did literary criticism the way they played football at Ohio State. We did textual criticism. I studied poetry with John Crowe Ransom. I could write twenty-page papers on an eight-line lyric of Wordsworth. Of course it was invaluable training. You learned the powers of precision in the English language. The effect, for instance, of juxtaposing Latinate and Anglo-Saxon words. But criticism is a different conduct of the brain. That kind of analytical action of the mind is not the way you work when you write. You bring things together, you synthesize, you connect things that have had no previous connection when you write. So, all in all, as valuable as my training was, it took me through language in the wrong direction. It cost me a few years of writing time to recover my ignorance, the way I felt about writing as a child. I really started to think of myself as a writer when I was about nine.
At nine? How did this feeling manifest itself?
Whenever I read anything I seemed to identify as much with the act of composition as with the story. I seemed to have two minds: I would love the story and want to know what happened next, but at the same time I would somehow be aware of what was being done on the page. I identified myself as a kind of younger brother of the writer. I was on hand to help him figure things out. So you see I didn’t actually have to write a thing because the act of reading was my writing. I thought of myself as a writer for years before I got around to writing anything. It’s not a bad way to begin. It’s to blur that distinction between reader and writer. If you think about it, any book that you pick up as a reader, if it’s good, is a printed circuit for your own life to flow through—so when you read a book you are engaged in the events of the mind of the writer. You are bringing your creative faculties into sync. You’re imagining the words, the sounds of the words, and you’re thinking of the various characters in terms of people you’ve known—not in terms of the writer’s experience but your own. So it’s very hard to make any distinction between reader and writer at this ontological level. As a child I somehow drifted into this region where you are both reader and writer: I declared to myself that I was the writer. I wrote a lot of good books. I wrote Captain Blood by Rafael Sabatini. That was one of my better efforts.

It’s amazing how many people have been affected by Captain Blood—Norman Mailer talks at length about it.
Does he really? I’m flattered. Did he ever read Smoky by Will James? That was one of my best.
Does this twin-barreled construction mean that you are constantly an observer? That is, do you spend your day noticing things and saying to yourself, Ah, that will work in a book?

No, not at all. I don’t think of myself as an observer. I feel things and have to work back from my feelings, my intuitions, to what must have caused them. I’m like most people: I don’t usually understand what’s happening to me while it’s happening. I have to reconstruct it later, like a detective.
But I mean if you went to a dinner party one night and there was an extraordinary argument between a husband and wife, would that not be something you would store away?
Well, I might store it away. Of course, I might have walked out of the room first. You do see things. But I’m trying to say you can’t turn around and move too quickly on them. As a matter of fact, anything that you want to use too quickly is suspect. You need time. I had heard a story, for instance, that a housekeeper in a suburb in New Jersey had secretly had a child and abandoned the child in the garden of another home in the neighborhood—swaddled the newborn infant and buried it in the garden bed. The child was discovered alive and the woman was found out—a very sad story. Well, about twenty years after I heard it I gave it to Sarah to do inRagtime, a novel set in the 1900s in New Rochelle. That’s the way it works. You collect all these things without knowing really what if anything you’re going to do with them—old rags and scraps.
How much experience do you think a writer should have? Would you ever suggest journalism, for example, as a career to begin with? Or send a writer to a war, or whatever.
You seem to think the writer has a choice—whether to work here or there or run off to a war. Maybe it’s an American middle-class question, because in most places writers don’t have a choice. If they grow up in the barrio, or get sent to the gulag, their experience is given to them whether they want it or not. Even here we respond to what’s given: I seem to be of a generation that has somehow missed the crucial collective experiences of our time. I was too young to understand the depression or fight in World War II. But I was past draft age for Vietnam. I’ve always been a loner. Perhaps for that reason I subscribe to what Henry James tries to indicate when he gives that wonderful example of a young woman who has led a sheltered life walking along beside an army barracks and hearing a snatch of soldier’s conversation coming through the window. On the basis of that, said James, if she’s a novelist she’s capable of going home and writing a perfectly accurate novel about army life. I’ve always subscribed to that idea. We’re supposed to be able to get into other skins. We’re supposed to be able to render experiences not our own and warrant times and places we haven’t seen. That’s one justification for art, isn’t it: to distribute the suffering? Writing teachers invariably tell students, Write about what you know. That’s, of course, what you have to do, but on the other hand, how do you know what you know until you’ve written it? Writing is knowing. What did Kafka know? The insurance business? So that kind of advice is foolish, because it presumes that you have to go out to a war to be able to do war. Well, some do and some don’t. I’ve had very little experience in my life. In fact, I try to avoid experience if I can. Most experience is bad.
Could you describe the genesis of Loon Lake? A poem runs through the book.
What you call the poem was the very first writing I did on that book. I never thought of it as a poem, I thought of it as lines that just didn’t happen to go all the way across the page. I broke the lines according to the rhythm in which they could be read aloud. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was writing something to be read aloud—I think because I liked the sound of the two words together—loon lake. I had these opening images of a private railroad train on a single track at night going up through the Adirondacks with a bunch of gangsters on board, and a beautiful girl standing, naked, holding a white dress up in front of a mirror to see if she should put it on. I didn’t know where these gangsters came from. I knew where they were going—to this rich man’s camp. Many years ago the very wealthy discovered the wilderness in the American eastern mountains. They built these extraordinary camps—C. W. Post, Harriman, Morgan—they made the wilderness their personal luxury. So I imagined a camp like this, with these gangsters, these low-down people going up there on a private railroad train. That’s what got me started. I published this material in the Kenyon Review, but I wasn’t through. I kept thinking about the images and wondering where they’d come from. The time was in the 1930s, really the last era a man would have had his own railroad car, as some people today have their own jetliners. There was a depression then, so the person to see this amazing train was obviously a hobo, a tramp. So then I had my character, Joe, out there in this chill, this darkness, seeing the headlamp of the engine coming round the bend and blinding him, and then as the train goes by seeing these people at green baize tables being served drinks and this girl standing in a bedroom compartment holding the dress. And at dawn he follows the track in the direction the train has gone. And he’s off and running and so am I.
Given this method of yours, how do you know when to stop?
As the book goes on it becomes inevitable. Your choices narrow, the thing picks up speed. And there’s the exhilaration of a free ride—like a downhill ski run. You know before you get there what the last scene is. Sometimes what the last line is. But even if none of that happens, even if you find yourself at the end before you expected to, a kind of joy breaks over you, spills out of your eyes. And you realize you’ve finished. And then you want to be sure, you see. You need confirmation. You ask somebody you love to read it and see if it works. I remember when I finished The Book of Daniel. We were living in a house on the beach in southern California. One of those houses with sliding glass doors for windows. I asked my wife if she would read the manuscript. She said she would be pleased to. And I left her sitting and reading with the sun coming through those big windows, and I went for a walk on the beach. It was a Sunday and the beach was crowded; they really use their beaches in California, every inch of them. Back toward the road were the volleyball players and the kite flyers. Boys throwing footballs or frisbees. Then the sunbathers, the children with their sandpails, the families. Then the runners splashing along at the edge of the surf. Or the people looking for little shells in the tide pools in the rocks. Then the swimmers. Beyond them the surfers in their wet suits waiting on their boards. Further out snorkelers’ flags bobbing in the water. Out past the buoys the water skiers tearing along. Or rising into the air in their parachutes. And beyond that sailboats, flotillas of them, to the horizon. And all in this light. It was like a Brueghel, a southern Californian Brueghel. I walked for several hours and thought about my book, and worried in my mind—in that California light worrying about this dark book, very much a New York City book. Was it done? Was it any good? And I came back to the house in the late afternoon, the house in shadows now, and there was Helen sitting in the same chair and the manuscript was all piled upside down on the table and she couldn’t speak; she was crying, there were these enormous tears running down her cheeks, and it was the most incredible moment—never before had I known such happiness.
How much confidence do you have when you finish? I would guess a wife’s tears would help.
Well, at that point you’ve made an extraordinary investment of time and emotion, and you’re just grateful to be there. Then the rest of the world rushes in, everything you’ve been holding off: your mind becomes ordinary. You worry if anyone’s going to buy the book; if your publisher is going to publish it properly; you fret about the jacket, the typography, and the copyright, that it be correctly drawn; you worry about everything. But no matter what kind of reaction the book receives, whether people like the book or don’t like it, nothing comes up to the experience of writing the book. That’s what drives you back.
How much time a day do you spend on this pleasure?
I would say I’m at work six hours a day, although the actual writing might take fifteen minutes or an hour, or three hours. You never know what kind of a day it’s going to be; you just want to do whatever you set out to do. I type single space, to get as much of the landscape of the book as possible on one page. So if I do a single-space page with small margins, that’s about six-hundred words. If I do one page I’m very happy; that’s my day’s work. If I do two, that’s extraordinary. But there’s always a danger to doing two, which is you can’t come up with anything the next day.
What are the destroyers of this pleasure? Not for you, necessarily, but for writers? I remember we had a dinner once with John Irving and we started talking about how alcohol had diminished so many American writers.
A writer’s life is so hazardous that anything he does is bad for him. Anything that happens to him is bad: failure’s bad, success is bad; impoverishment is bad, money is very, very bad. Nothing good can happen.
Except the act of writing itself.

Except the act of writing. So if he shoots birds and animals and anything else he can find, you’ve got to give him that. And if he/she drinks, you give him/her that too, unless the work is affected. For all of us, there’s an intimate connection between the struggle to write and the ability to survive on a daily basis as a human being. So we have a high rate of self-destruction. Do we mean to punish ourselves for writing? For the transgression? I don’t know.
But this is not applicable in your own case, obviously.
Well, time will tell. I have a few vices, but one of them is moderation.
Do you enjoy the company of other writers?
Yes, when they’re my friends.
Does anybody see anything you’ve written until it’s finished?

Usually nobody sees anything until at least a draft is done. Sometimes I will read from it in public just to see how it sounds. To get a feeling back from the audience. But I tend to clutch it to myself as long as possible.
You were an editor for a long time, weren’t you? What is the relationship between that and the craft of writing?
Editing taught me how to break books down and put them back together. You learn values—the value of tension, of keeping tension on the page and how that’s done, and you learn how to spot self-indulgence, how you don’t need it. You learn how to become very free and easy about moving things around, which a reader would never do. A reader sees a printed book and that’s it. But when you see a manuscript as an editor, you say, Well this is chapter twenty, but it should be chapter three. You’re at ease in the book the way a surgeon is at ease in a human chest, with all the blood and the guts and everything. You’re familiar with the material and you can toss it around and say dirty things to the nurse.
Do you accept advice ever?
No, none.
Well, on that decisive note perhaps some of you in the audience have some questions to put to Mr. Doctorow.
AUDIENCE [gentleman wearing dark glasses]
What responsibilities do you think writers or artists should have to those who can’t be heard—like Andrei Sakharov? Do you consider yourself to be someone who should be speaking out?
Well, yes. Modernism made us think of writing as an act of ultimate individualism. But, in fact, every writer speaks for a community. If you read Mark Twain, for instance, you know that there’s a whole people behind that voice. I don’t mean necessarily ethnically or geographically, but as a writer you get that feeling once you get going that you’re not just speaking for yourself. You remember the way people waited at New York docks for the ship bringing in the latest Dickens installment? They called up to the crew, “Is little Nell dead?” Or how when Victor Hugo died all of France went into mourning. That’s what I mean. There’s a profound relationship. The writer isn’t made in a vacuum. Writers are witnesses. The reason we need writers is because we need witnesses to this terrifying century. Novelists have always written about intimacies, about personal relationships. Since in the twentieth century one of the most personal relationships to have developed is that of the person and the state, we have to write about it, and some of us have. It’s become a fact of life that governments have become very intimate with people, most always to their detriment.
AUDIENCE [a young student]
Do you see a danger in the proliferation of creative writing graduate programs around the country?
Are you a writing student?
AUDIENCE [the same student]
Actually, I’m trying to decide whether or not to become one . . .
Well, there is a danger. Since World War II the university has become the great patron of writers. Originally the poets worked out this scheme for staying alive. Robert Frost was drawing big audiences for his readings. Dylan Thomas came and read from this very stage at the 92nd Street Y. Suddenly there was this whole new possibility: it was like the poet’s equivalent of the invention of the computer chip. Poets got university jobs teaching poetry. Then they invited other poets to come and read. A network sprang up. Writing programs came into being. The poets built up this alternate communication system of poetry. We novelists never paid much attention. Poets are much better friends to each other than we are. We are always relating to our publishers. So we came to this kind of late. Nevertheless we are in it now. There are writing programs all over the country. The great danger is that you are creating and training not just writers but teachers of writing. In other words, someone goes into a graduate writing program, gets an MFA in writing, and immediately gets a job on another campus teaching other young people to get their MFA’s in writing. So you have this whole other thing—teachers of writing begetting teachers of writing, and that’s bad. On one hand you see the results of that, generally speaking, which is that the writing of young people today is much more technically assured than it’s ever been. You’ll see what I mean if you read Faulkner’s first novel. It’s a terrible, clumsy book. Most first novelists who come out of university training are craftier than he was. On the other hand the horizon of the university-trained writers is diminished; the field for their work and attention is generally the bedroom, the living room, the family. The doors are closed, the shades are pulled down, and it’s as if there were no streets outside, and no town, no highway, no society. So that’s the danger. But then you start thinking of all the good writers who have come out of the university writing programs, and how valuable they are and how fortunate we are to have them, and you can’t condemn the system totally. [To the student in the audience.] Why don’t you just consult the I Ching before you make your decision?
AUDIENCE [gentleman in back]
Have you ever consciously set out to develop a style, or have your books been more organic?
I don’t want a style. This was something that I was trying to explain earlier, that I want the book to invent itself. I think that the minute a writer knows what his style is, he’s finished. Because then you see your own limits, and you hear your own voice in your head. At that point you might as well close up shop. So I like to think that I don’t have a style, I have books that work themselves out and find their own voice—their voice, not mine. So I’ll have that illusion, I think—I hope—till the very end.
AUDIENCE [same gentleman]
Isn’t it true that there are many writers who have a definite style, like Henry James?
Yes! And look at the botch he made of things.
AUDIENCE [lady in sixth row]
How was your experience writing a play different from writing a book? Would you write another?

That play happened roughly the way the books happen. I happened to be reading a translation of a speech that Mao Tse-tung made to his troops in the field in 1935. It had an extraordinarily familiar sound. I thought that he wrote just like Gertrude Stein. To test that proposition I went to my copy of Stein’s essays, opened it at random. They both repeated nouns instead of using pronouns. In fact they repeated everything—nothing was ever stated just once. Pieces of the sentences changed during each repetition, and it turned out the unit of sense was not the sentence but the paragraph. So I reasoned that any rhetoric common to the leader of a billion people and Gertrude Stein was worth trying. It turned out, of course, that, as a Sinologist told me, not just Mao’s prose, but all transliteration from the Chinese sounds like Gertrude Stein. Nevertheless, I was on my way. I found myself writing a monologue. The speaker was angry at everything and everybody—a real sorehead. Then I began to hear opposition in the same rhetoric to all his assertions and claims. I wrote these down, and to keep everything straight I started giving the positions in this argument names. The sorehead, I thought it was only fair to give my own name. One thing led to another and these dialogues became a play in which a man pulls a gun at a dinner party; he sort of hijacks the dinner party and then ties up the honored guests, their children, and so on. This is not the way plays are usually written. Nor is it a typical American play. It’s not a domestic biography. It doesn’t have pathos in it. People don’t talk about their childhoods. They take their characters from their ideas. They speak in this ceremonial way. It ran down at the Public Theater for six weeks. I had a wonderful cast. Christopher Plummer was in it, Mike Nichols directed it, and it was terrific. The critics—or what pass for critics in New York theater—hated it. It is now a kind of cult play in university and regional theaters, and I like to see it when I can. All in all it was a wonderful experience, and I hope never to do it again.
AUDIENCE [gentleman waving hand]What’s the name of it?
Drinks Before Dinner is what it’s called.
AUDIENCE [woman in red scarf]
Have you ever had the experience of losing a story because you talked about it to somebody before you’ve written it?
Yes. When you’re talking about a story you’re writing it. You’re sending it out into the air, it’s finished, it’s gone.
Is that actually so? You couldn’t tell a story at a dinner party that you thought you could use?
Occasionally, you want to show off. The moment’s too good, and you want to impress somebody. So you take one of these secret, private things, and present it to the table. It’s over, it’s done, you’ll never be able to use it. It’s a very reckless thing to do. Maybe you’ve made a decision that you don’t really want it, you don’t really need it. Because there are certain stories that we all have that we never use, that are more valuable to us not being used. But by and large it’s better to restrain yourself.
The discipline must be extraordinary, because so many of the stories are so wonderful, very much the sort that should be told at dinner parties. I’m thinking of the story you have of the robbery on the Long Island Expressway, of the Chevrolet that bumps the Mercedes. It’s in the monologue in Lives of the Poets.
But I didn’t tell that story before I wrote it, because if I did I could not have written it.
You must be very poor at dinner parties, holding on to those stories.
On the other hand, you never know when I might pull a gun.

Tuesday 21 July 2015

Bob Dylan's Like a Rolling Stone: 50th Anniversary

Plus a day!
On the 50th Anniversary of "Like a Rolling Stone"

By Steven Rosen
20 July 2015

In a recent New York Times profile of the photographer Robert Frank, Nicholas Dawidoff describes the impact of his book The Americans—starting with its opening image—this way.

“The Harvard photography historian Robin Kelsey likens it to the splash of snare drum at the beginning of Bob Dylan’s ‘Like a Rolling Stone.’ ‘It flaps you right away.’ …That is the miracle of great socially committed art: It addresses our sources of deepest unease, helps us to confront what we cannot organize or explain by making all of it unforgettable.”

That is certainly true of both those works of art and worth considering today, the 50th anniversary of “Like a Rolling Stone” being released as a single. Frank’s Beat Era masterpiece went on the road to see and show us the disaffected Americans not brightened by suburbanization and make us acknowledge “the other;” Dylan’s convention-defying song announced rock ‘n’ roll would become the voice—his voice—for disaffected Boomers out to revolutionize everything they could touch. Including rock ‘n’ roll, itself.

But there was a difference. Frank quietly went on the journey that produced The Americans in 1955 with a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation. It was a struggle to get the resultant work published—in 1958 in France and 1959 in America. Even then, as Dawidoff point out, its impact was slow. It is still seeping into our awareness today. “(It) would follow the trajectory of experimental American classics like Moby-Dick’ and Citizen Kane—works that grew slowly in stature until it was as if they had always been there,” he writes.

That is where “Like a Rolling Stone”—every bit the “American experimental classic” of those others—is different. From virtually the moment it was released as a single, the culture was ready for it. That’s an understatement. It detonated like a missile.

It was truly radical, as so many writers before have pointed out, especially Greil Marcus in his book Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads, which details its recording in June 1965.

That startling drumshot of an opening: Al Kooper’s beckoning, carnivalesque Hammond B-3 organ part and Michael Bloomfield’s electric-guitar curlicues run around Dylan’s own determined rhythmic playing. And over which, Dylan’s strange lyrics seem triumphant, yet also full of warning, as his unglamorous voice brimming with attitude, holds onto syllables as if they were gleeful riders on a hurtling-downward roller-coaster. He sings phrases like “Mystery tramp?” “Chrome horse with your diplomat?” “Napoleon in rags?” as if they were a new language, a secret code, masquerading as popular song.

As it went on for just a bit over six minutes, it was both intellectual incitement and a soulful sing-along rocker—Allen Ginsberg’s Howl joined with both sides of the Isley Brothers’ “Shout.”

After an initial period during which Top 40 radio tried to play a shortened version of the song supplied by Columbia Records, Dylan (and much of the public) forced stations to play the full version.

There was great drama surrounding that at the time. In Cincinnati, where I grew up, there were two Top 40 stations at the time and one played the short version but also programmed Barry McGuire’s doomy yet more familiarly structured folk-rock protest song “Eve of Destruction.” The other banned McGuire as too negative but played “Rolling Stone” the way Dylan intended. And each bragged they had more courage than the other.

Dylan was already a celebrated folk-based songwriter at the time, and his ambition to cross over to electric rock ‘n’ roll as a performer was no secret. But his earlier stab at a hit record, “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” seemed derivative (of Chuck Berry, especially) and almost a novelty. Time has altered that view, of course, but at the time it was underwhelming, given the amount of press he was getting as a writer. It had scraped the Top 40 earlier in 1965, and gave no indication of what was to come.

Billboard magazine’s Hot 100 chart had “Like a Rolling Stone” at No. 91 for the week ending July 24, which means it was it getting sales action even before it was officially available. It was in the Top 40 by Aug. 14, the Top 10 by Aug. 28 and No. 2, just behind the Beatles’ “Help!” and every bit as big a hit by Sept. 4.

Perhaps the most important thing about the song’s impact is that while it was indeed revolutionary art, it was directed straight at teenagers. And by their sheer number, those ages 13-19 in 1965 made the country take notice of them.

In 1946, the start of the Baby Boom that officially ended in 1964, the number of Americans born jumped startlingly to a record-breaking 3.47 million from 2.8 million in 1945. That number stayed at 3.5 million or higher through 1952. They also had their own unified means of communication in Top 40 radio. (Dylan, of course, was not one of them. He was 24 when “Like a Rolling Stone” struck.)

With 50 years of study, it’s easy today to see the song’s surrealistic lyrics for what they were—a knowing retort, but empathetic, to a privileged woman who has had her comeuppance. As such, its attitude and subject matter aren’t the song’s most progressive aspect. Both Dylan and the Top 40 had been there before. In fact, one of the song’s namesakes, the Rolling Stones, had explored the same territory with much less complexity earlier in 1965 with “Play With Fire.”

But that’s not how “Like a Rolling Stone”’s intended audience heard the song. They saw themselves as the subject, the “you,” at the same time they were being shaken by their country’s violence in the mid- to late-1960s. Many were preparing to seek radical change in so many ways, and that idea was both scary and liberating. “Like a Rolling Stone”’s refrain, “How does it feel / To be on your own? / With no direction home,” quickly became prophetic to them. It was a call to liberation.

The ghost of “Like a Rolling Stone” runs through the lyrics of Neil Young’s “Ohio,” which Crosby, Stills & Nash released as a single shortly after National Guard troops killed four students during a 1970 protest at Kent State University: “Tin soldiers and Nixon coming / We’re finally on our own.”

Recently, I was having lunch with a friend from high school who had just signed up for Medicare. After explaining the process to me, he said, “Jesus, can you believe we’re 65?”

I answered that, yes, years have passed too quickly, but I felt lucky to have been a teenager in 1965, at the exact time “Like a Rolling Stone” was released and directed right at me. It was a momentous event then, and it still feels that way now.

Monday 20 July 2015

You Bet Your Life - Groucho Marx saved for posterity...

How Groucho Marx was saved
The legend's grandson tells the incredible true story of the TV show that almost ended up in the garbage dump

Sean Cole
Sunday 24 March 2013

Groucho Marx began hosting the TV game show “You Bet Your Life” in 1947. This was after his classic films with Chico, Harpo and Zeppo, and unlike those movies, Groucho didn’t dance around in a painted-on mustache. He sat in a chair with his cigar, wisecracking with the contestants for a long time, and the results were the stuff of classic TV.

You can watch the show on Netflix now, or YouTube – which might not have been possible if it weren’t for the efforts of Andy Marx, the grandson of Groucho Marx. Andy’s a writer and photographer now. But in 1973 he was instrumental in saving this vital piece of Marxianna and Hollywood history from the garbage dump.

First question: How many people have tried out their Groucho Marx impression on you?

Oh my god, probably hundreds. There’s some legitimate ones that are good. I’ll be at lunch, and somebody will throw off some line or something, or they’ll try to relate a line of Groucho’s to whatever’s going on in the conversation.

At what point did you realize that your grandfather was Groucho Marx and what that meant?

I grew up in the 60’s, so “You Bet Your Life” was off the air. It was an Emmy-winning show, but at that particular point the movies had not been rediscovered, and the Marx brothers hadn’t been lionized and become these cultural icons, so Groucho was the equivalent of the retired Bob Barker. He was obviously much funnier, but that was what he was known for. When I was growing up he was just kind of like this regular grandfather.

I was maybe 8 or 9, and I remember my mother and father saying “Oh, come in, ‘A Night at the Opera’ is on TV.” Back then, there was no way to see this stuff unless it was on TV. It never showed in theatres, and so I can literally remember watching that movie and thinking, “Wow, that’s kinda cool.”

Did you think it was funny?

I did. When I was in high school, there was an album that came out, and it was narrated by this very great radio guy named Gary Owens who was very, very famous – he was the announcer on “Laugh In”– and he would do an intro and the whole album was nothing but comedy bits taken from the Marx Brothers films.

At that point I was probably 15 or something and going around and dressing up, and doing the whole thing, and then going off to college and then…

Dressing up like your grandfather?

Yeah. I went to UC Santa Barbara, and they did a yearbook photo. And I actually dressed up – I put a mustache on and a cigar and everything – and got in the picture. They took the photo with, like, the 20 other guys in my dorm, and they published it in the yearbook – they didn’t notice.

It sounds like you were using this as currency quite a bit among your peers.

It was an absolute great way to get dates. There was a revival theatre near my college, and they played Marx brothers films, and I could say to a woman, “Hey, you wanna go to the movies? My grandfather is in two movies they’re showing.” I’m ashamed to say it, but I did use it as currency.

No shame in your game, man. I can’t imagine anybody who wouldn’t have done the same thing in your position.

And it worked.

I will actually tell you a funny story. My father had written a play called “Minnie’s Boys” and they were going off to New York – it was going to go into production – and I remember there was a big going-away party for my dad. Groucho was there, and I was back from college I was very proud of myself that I knew all the lines. I started doing them for him, and he got angry and he said “I don’t wanna talk about the past. When you do that, it just makes you really old.” He didn’t like it at all. But then, a couple years later, when the accolades started rolling in, then it was a completely different story. Then he loved it.

What do you think changed? Just that suddenly it wasn’t just you, but it was the whole world that was fond of him?

It was a freight train that you couldn’t stop. They got an honorary Oscar. Every day, there was something else. There was the release – maybe it was ’74 – but they re-released “Animal Crackers” in theatres, and they had these premieres in New York.

So do you remember first seeing the show “You Bet Your Life”?

I kinda do. I don’t really think I watched it that much to begin with. I was kinda young.

So you don’t remember whether you thought it was funny or not?

I mean, yes, there was stuff on it that I thought was funny. What I actually thought was funny was when he would ask those sort of consolation prizes to the people, like “Who’s buried in Grant’s tomb?”, “What color is an orange?”, “From what city do we get Boston baked beans?”.

Those are the sort of jokes that a kid would actually appreciate.

And I do remember hearing about some of the crazy contestants, and some of the funny lines and things like that. But I was very young, so I really was not a regular watcher of it at the time. That’s why it was kind of a pleasure to go through every one of those movies and watch those.

So this is, more like something you would hear on “This is Your Life” as opposed to “You Bet Your Life” but, but the year is 1973. You’re right out of film school.Your grandfather Groucho has invited you to lunch, and you are, what, 21 at the time?

Yeah. Well basically, he and I would pretty much have lunch at least once a week and literally there would always be some turnover of celebrities there. He loved to sing for his guests and, and I was a pretty good piano player. So I kinda served a dual purpose – he got to have his grandson there but then he got to have a piano player too. There would always be some crazy group there, so he said “Hey, come to lunch,” and so I went over, and this particular day it was Jack Nicholson, Elliott Gould, and Marcel Marceau, the fantastic French mime.

That’s like a joke waiting to happen right there. “Jack Nicholson, Elliott Gould and Marcel Marceau walk into a bar, and…” And God knows what happens in that bar, but it can’t be…

Well it’s sort of funny, because the other great mime is Harpo. And so I’m probably one of the few people on earth who has actually heard both Harpo and Marcel Marceau speak.

But I can remember dinners at my grandfather’s house. I had a girlfriend and I’d bring her, and there would be Jack Nicholson, and it would be just us having dinner. This was in the very early stages of Nicholson’s career, but he was a super nice guy. We’d go into the screening room and we’d watch “A Night at the Opera”, and so you’re sitting there and it’s like, Groucho Marx and Jack Nicholson watching “A Night at the Opera”, which is kind of amusing.

But, anyway, so Nicholson was there that day and this was a different thing because now there were people there that I either idolized or looked up to.

So then, a Hollywood movie comedy thing happens where the phone rings and sets off this chain of events that cannot be believed.

Yeah. I mean basically, there was a guy, probably some guy working in a warehouse and he said “Is Mr. Marx in?” and I go “Who’s calling?” and he goes “Well I’m so-and-so, I work in this warehouse in New Jersey and we have some film of ‘You Bet Your Life’ which we’re going to destroy. We were wondering if Mr. Marx would like any of it.” I think it was CBS and then it went over to NBC or something, but it was from the warehouse, they were storing all the film.

And they were running out of room, so they were either going to destroy it – which they did all the time. I think there’s a lot of the Steve Allen stuff from “The Tonight Show” that’s all gone. One of Groucho’s very close friends, Oscar Levant, had a local show in L.A. called “Information Please” and it was apparently incredible. It was all Cinescopes, and I think it was all destroyed.

What happened was, he said “Do you want any of this?” and I ran back into the dining room and I said to my grandfather, “Hey, there’s a guy on the phone, they’re gonna destroy all this film, what do we do?” And I think he said , “I don’t care, they can burn it for all I care if they want to.”

Burn it?

You never knew with him if he was just rattling off a line to be sort of funny or if he really didn’t care.

Sort of playing the Grouch role or actually being grouchy.

Exactly. So he loved doing that, and thenI said, “We can’t let him do that,” and then the other guys chimed in and said “Yeah, your grandson’s right, let him send it out here.”

And we didn’t know how much it was. The guy kind underestimated. He said “Oh, we have a few boxes here,” which is not what it turned out to be…

Two weeks later, my grandfather calls, and he was angry. And he said, “You better get over here,” and he said, “There’s like five UPS trucks out here and guys have been wheeling stuff in for the last hour and who knows when they’re going to finish.” And so I went over there, and it literally was like something out of a comedy. He had this big house in Beverly Hills, and it was just in every room of the house. There were boxes piling up to the ceiling. And nothing was marked. You didn’t know what was in any of them, but it was just unbelievable.

And was Groucho really p.o.’ed when you got there?

Yeah. He said, “What am I gonna do with all this now?”

So, these UPS guys leave and then what’s the conversation between you and Groucho?

I said “Let me come back and let me at least try to figure out and make some sense of what is here and then let’s go from there.” And you know, it took me weeks to figure out what all was there.

So, these boxes all stay in the Marx manse?

Yeah, they actually did. He had an ex-wife that had a big bedroom and a lot of the stuff was in there. Anywhere you went in his house, into a closet or anything, you would just find like another 25 boxes. Good thing he divorced that wife and he had that extra room.

How did you manage to get “You Bet Your Life” on television again?

John Guedel had been the original producer of “You Bet Your Life” and so John Guedel and I went down to KTLA, which was down in Hollywood and we just pitched this idea of, look, Groucho’s gonna get his Academy Award in a couple months. This is a good time. We’ve got the stuff. It’s ready to go. And everybody knew what the show was and the guy said “Sure, OK. We’ll give it a shot. We’ll put it on. We’ll see.” And then the guy said, “But we’re going to have to hire somebody to go through all this stuff…” And that’s how I got my job.

And so he basically hired you to do the thing that you had already started doing?

Yeah. I probably did that for at least a year and probably even longer. That was actually the tail end of ’74 and ’75, and Groucho died in ’77, so for the next year and a half or two years, I pretty much spent every day up at his house, and sometimes there’d be one of those crazy lunches, and if not, he and I would eat lunch together and then we’d watch a couple of episodes.

But what a dream job! Jeez.

Forget the job part. Just being able to spend that much time with him, watching this whole thing unfolding, it’s great.

So what do you think, because you watched these shows on occasion on Netflix now, right?

Yeah. I just noticed them on Netflix the other day. I thought, “Wow, that’s cool.” I don’t know how many are even on there, but it was just cool to see that that’s up there.

What do you think when you watch the shows now?

It’s kind of a neat blessing that there’s basically stuff of my grandfather that I can watch.

My other grandfather was the great songwriter Gus Kahn, who wrote “Makin Whoopee” and “It Had to be You”, and “Dream a Little Dream” and all these really terrific songs. And I’m probably the only person whose two grandfathers have been referenced by Woody Allen in “Annie Hall” – because Diane Keaton sings “It Had to be You” and then of course, in “Annie Hall”, Woody Allen quotes Groucho, so basically both of my grandfathers are referenced in one of the greatest comedy movies of all time.