Friday, March 28, 2014


March 28, 2014:

          Today's NY Times has a review of a biopic about Cesar Chavez, who founded the farmworker's union back in the 1960s and became a cause celebre when the Left thought it was going to change the world. The movie doesn't sound like it's very good and I'm not going to see it, but the review brought him back to mind. I think it was 1968 when I met him. I was working for Sherman Fairchild as his business historian, but as an adjunct to that job I was asked to investigate the U. S. medical system and write a report for the Fairchild Foundation identifying research opportunities for the Foundation to invest in. This was a big job and it sent me to various places around the country. I talked to the heads of the Harvard Medical School, the National Institutes of Health, and any number of scientists from New York to San Francisco. At a conference in Boston Ralph Nader tore into me because one of the Fairchild companies had just made a prototype for a super-safe automobile under some sort of Federal contract, but wasn't following up on it by going into the car business; and this seemed to be my fault. I've thought Nader was an asshole ever since.

          I think it was at this same conference in Boston that I met a representative from the farmworkers' union. She was there to ask for help for the medical clinic that the union had set up in Delano, California. She worked for Chavez, or had donated her time to him--I wasn't sure which--and asked  me, if I was going to be in California, to come with her and see him. As it happened I was going to California to talk to some other people, and I agreed to drive up to Delano with her. I flew to Los Angeles, talked to somebody at UCLA, had dinner with this woman one night, and then we drove to Delano the next morning and she took me into Chavez's room. It was the ninth day of his famous fast. The room was absolutely bare except for the narrow cot he was lying on, one chair, and a crucifix on the wall facing the cot.

          She--I wish I could remember her name--sat down on the cot and held his hand while they talked. I simply listened. They talked about non-violence and the importance of sticking to it, worried about another activist who was advocating violence, went over some other problems the union was having. Nothing earth-shaking was said. He was not making a speech for my benefit. He more or less ignored me. He was, of course, very weak. You can't starve for nine days and be anything but weak.

          Yet he glowed. I've never forgotten it. I mean, literally, a kind of glow enveloped him, and it was very, very powerful. Inner strength? Spiritual power? It was transfixing; it silenced whatever was going on in my head; it made me want to cry. You could not help but feel you were in the presence of a saint. You felt as if, if he touched you, you would be healed.

          Back in New York I wrote a memo suggesting that the Fairchild Foundation make a small donation to the farmworkers' clinic. One of the nurses, an Anglo, as they would have called her, came to the city to try to raise funds, and I took her to every foundation exec I knew. I spent six months doing this. All in vain. Nobody would give them a dime. I learned a lot about American charity and its limitations in the process. I also almost got fired by my own charity, which went on, after they ignored all my suggestions as to research opportunities, to give their money to the hospital where Fairchild's own doctor practiced. It was one of my many failures. To be sure, I was a spy in the house of business so shouldn't have been surprised when all that work came to nothing. I understand business, watched it go on around me from the top down. It was an education. Fairchild had two companies on the Fortune 500 list employing 30,000 people; he was a director of IBM, which his father had founded; I saw firsthand the interconnections at the top between business and government. I had by that time long since lost my innocence. But I was no businessman. I didn't have the instincts for it, and you have to be who you are.

          Chavez was no saint, of course, but he did accomplish some of what he set out to do, and his cause was, without question, just. The conditions under which farmworkers did their jobs were unspeakable. Those I talked to afterwards warned me never to eat lettuce that hadn't been thoroughly washed. The owners refused to put Portapotties into the fields and the workers had to use the fields themselves as their bathrooms. I wouldn't be surprised if the same conditions still prevail in agribusiness. Money gets given to charities all the time, but how much charity is there in people's hearts? How much?

          This experience was one of the reasons that I knew early on the Left was not going to change the world.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014


March 18, 2014:

          In one of those odd coincidences in which life abounds Yale University Press has sent me a review copy of an enormous book about aerial photography, even though they could not have known that I am an expert on the subject. The title of the book is The Great War Seen From the Air: In Flanders Fields, 1914-1918, it contains more than 500 aerial photographs made during the war, and I spent eight years as a young man working for the aviation pioneer Sherman Fairchild, known in the industry as the "father of aerial photography." I was his personal historian, an odd enough job in its own right. After the Great War was over he invented the first aerial camera accurate enough to be used to make maps, and his company went on to become the premier aerial camera manufacturer in the world. The aerial cameras used in the Great War were not Fairchilds; he designed his cameras to correct their manifold inadequacies. So technically advanced were they that when America went into space, highly sophisticated Fairchild cameras went along. They were used all during World War II, of course, and the company expanded in the 1960s when it pioneered in the development of silicon transistors, which put the world into the computer age. As his historian I studied the cameras that were used in the Great War and know their inadequacies thoroughly. The book is more than welcome. Thank you, Yale.

          But enough about me. The book is welcome, and it's splendid. The Great War was the first war in which airplanes fought and the first to use aerial photography systematically to take pictures of battlefields from the air. This revolutionized warfare. It was no longer possible to move large bodies of troops without being detected. Reconnaissance from the air made artillery fire much more accurate. Trench systems were now fully exposed to enemy scrutiny. The effects of bombardment could now be clearly seen. All of this the book illustrates, in detail, following the course of the war as it stalls in Belgium, northern France, and elsewhere on the Western Front, explaining, using pictures, text, and diagrams, what the pictures reveal, and showing how constant bombardment changed the landscape. Its overall effect is chilling. Whole communities simply disappear from the ground as the war goes on and on, with neither side gaining anything substantial. Cemeteries grow larger and larger. Farmland turns into huge fields of craters, craters turn into defensive positions. The book uses photographs taken from the ground to complement the aerial photographs, and plastic overlays printed with trench lines and other features to help with the interpretation of the photographs underneath them. And it covers the whole course of the war. Indeed, it continues beyond the war. I found one set of photographs in particular quite striking, photos showing the Belgian town of Nieuwpoort on the North Sea at the end of the war, when little is left of it but ruins, and again in 1923, five years later, when it has been almost completely rebuilt.

          The Great War goes on. It destroyed empires, unleashed ethnic and nationalistic forces that still engulf us, made instant enemies of the United States and Russia after the U. S., at the end of the war, intervened in the civil war then being waged in Russia between the Bolsheviks and the so-called White Russians loyal to the Tsar. It unsettled the Middle East when European powers created instant "nations" there without regard to the indigenous population and its tribal divisions. And of course it triggered feelings in Germany that led directly to the rise of fascism and World War II. I just finished a piece for Military History magazine on the English war poets who emerged in the Great War and have written on the civil war in Yugoslavia during the Nazi occupation in World War II for the same publication, and that sideshow, too, came out of the Great War. We are now entering on the centenary of the Great War's beginning in 1914 and already publishers are flooding the market with books describing various aspects of it. But none of them can surpass this book's visual explanation of how it was waged, and what effect it had on the landscape. People are still occasionally killed when their plows run into unexploded ordinance in Flanders. The trench lines ran all the way from the North Sea to the Swiss border. Millions of people died; on one day alone, at the first battle of the Somme, there were 27,000 casualties. War is hell, said General Sherman. Take a look at The Great War From the Air if you want to see what hell looks like.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014


March 11, 2014:

          One aspect of being a writer is that you tend to wind up knowing other writers and forming many of your friendships among them. That's especially true here in Sag Harbor, which has attracted writers since John Steinbeck ended his days here, in a house and writing shed overlooking the water. As far as writers, editors and the like are concerned, Sag Harbor is Manhattan East. I suppose it's a clannish thing. We share the experience of struggling with language trying to make it come out right, we have all failed at that, and tried again, and again, and we know how humbling that can be; and we also know how it feels when we do get something right and the world acknowledges it by publishing what you've written. Then, if you're really lucky, you make some money. Usually not much. Mostly you live for that feeling.

          So I'm here today to celebrate the victories in this struggle of two of my friends, Kathryn Levy and Jim McMullan, who have recently, after years of work, each published a book, an exceptional book in both cases, breakthrough books that won't necessarily make a lot of money but that represent for each of them a victory of sorts, a culmination, and a new direction.

          Kathryn is a poet and that alone more or less guarantees that there's no money in what she does, but she has always written poetry, she identifies herself as a poet, she basically has no choice in the matter. It's her calling, her vocation; she was born to it. She doesn't make a fuss about how deeply her life is entwined with poetry but if you quote a line or two of Keats, or Wallace Stevens, or Zbigniew Herbert or almost any poet to her, she's likely to complete the quote. She belongs to a reading group devoted entirely to Shakespeare; the group meets once a month, has done that for many years, and has gone through the complete works four or five times. She has taught poetry to young disadvantaged children in the New York City public schools in a program designed to free their imaginations. She also worked for a long time at the New York City Ballet, running the volunteer department, managing fund-raising benefits, and running a poetry program there, too, for public school students. She knew Balanchine, who's buried in Sag Harbor, and knows his work from the inside out. But she's not a dancer herself. Her real passion has always been writing poetry, and she has been doing that for a very long time.

          But not publishing it. Out of a certain diffidence, out of shyness, perhaps out of fear of failure, she did not go through the process of trying to make her work public. It is, in fact, a miserable process. The poetry world is small, intensely political, cliquish, and often quite nasty. I stopped writing poems myself for this reason; it just didn't seem worth the effort. Her friends have been urging her for years to just do it, take her chances. But poetry often grows out of pain, out of the darkness of early experience, out of bad dreams, losses of all kinds, your world at three o'clock in the morning. Working those parts of yourself into poems, and then exposing them to an indifferent world, is no easy thing.

          A few years ago, however, she finally published her first book, Losing the Moon, with Sag Harbor's occasional publisher Canio's Books. It meant very limited distribution, but it was at least a book, she could hold it in her hand, people could see her work. And now her second book, Reports, is out from New Rivers Press, she is actively publicizing it, it has gathered considerable praise from established figures in the poetry world, and not only that--IT'S REALLY GOOD. The pain, the distilled despair, the darkness at the core of her world is still there in the poems, but now she has turned it into small works of very powerful art, words like drills, words that take unexpectedly subversive directions in your mind. Just a few lines from "Driving All Night":
               You can say I feel free, here
               up in the mountains.
               This air is thin, breathing is hard.
               But I'm free, I feel free.
               Shout it, sing it--
               the air won't mind. It
               has you and it's not
               letting go.

          You have to read whole poems to get the full effect and I don't have the space in my little blog to put them in. But trust me, this is impressive work, written by a poet I'm proud to know. What is a black tulip but a victory in the night? The night has not gone away; but it has produced a flower.

          Jim McMullan is a whole other story, a world-class illustrator who for many years has done the posters for the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center, who has illustrated children's books for years as well, many of them written by his wife, Kate McMullan, and is also well-known for doing the illustrations in New York Magazine for the story that morphed into the film Saturday Night Fever. Lorraine and I have known the McMullans since 2002. A few years ago I interviewed him for a show on LTV, the local TV channel here in the Hamptons where I occasionally talk to writers and artists about their work. We filmed it in Jim's studio and I was startled by his early work in magazines when he pulled examples of it out of storage. It was edgy and it was dark. Figures loomed out of uneasy backgrounds, smiles were rare, objects, events, portraits did not aim to be pretty. I was not expecting it, but as we got to know him better and he talked about his childhood we began to see where, in a literal sense, he was coming from. He was born in China in the mid-1930s to a British father and a Canadian mother. The family had lived in China for several generations, first as Christian missionaries, then as business people. They had attained a comfort level that included servants and Western luxuries, and the family had founded a prosperous business that gave employment to young girls who had been abandoned as infants--a not uncommon custom in China. But it was the 1930s. Japan was already at war with China. Eventually the war reached Cheefoo, where they were living, and their life changed radically. Jim's father went undercover as a British agent. Jim's mother took him to Canada, to her family, on the next to last boat allowed to leave, then, as the war wound down, to India, where they could see Jim's father, who, shortly after the war was over, was killed when the airplane he was flying in crashed in the Himalayas. Through all of this Jim was growing up, learning firsthand what it means to have your life intersect violently with history, before you're ten years old. To make it that much harder he was a sensitive kid, loved to draw, didn't play sports, wasn't macho, was small, timid, easily bullied. His mother, who descended from time to time into alcoholism, wasn't much help.

          This is the source, as he himself will tell you, of the dark vision coming from the brush of this kind, sensitive, brilliant artist. Catch the tragic sense of life when you're very young and it marks you. It leaves a message on the heart nothing can erase. A few years ago, going through old papers, he found his father's letters to his mother and himself and he decided to address it, to do a book, an illustrated memoir of his childhood, and it is just out now: Leaving China, from Algonquin Books. Brilliant indeed. The chapters are short, one page, and each one is faced by an illustration, and they work like a team. The illustrations are understated, subtle, and all the stronger for that. The text is straightforward, honest and open, and totally unsentimental. This is how it was; this is what happened. But these are dark events, awful to have lived through, terrible in what they tell us about human nature. To be able to back off from the tragedy of his early life, to see it and make art out of it like this--I don't want to deaden such an achievement with a trite phrase, but the phrase is accurate: a triumph of the spirit. This is what gives all his work its strength. It doesn't blink  at the way things are.

          Yes, they're personal friends, very good friends, and you can dismiss this praise if you want. But I was a book columnist for eighteen years, I have read and written reviews of more than 300 books, I've written about the visual arts, I've written published poetry, and I don't write about books written by friends if I don't like them. This is not about friendship, this is about brilliance and power and dark victories won over experience. All of which are rare. Find these books, read them. They are extraordinary.