'New Yorker' Cartoonist And TV Producer Writes 'Honest Portrait' Of His Parents
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. You may know the work of my guest Bruce Eric Kaplan from The New Yorker magazine or from TV. He's a New Yorker cartoonist who signs his work with his initials, BEK. He's also a producer and writer on the HBO series "Girls" and previously worked on "Seinfeld" and "Six Feet Under." His new book, "I Was A Child," is an illustrated memoir about his childhood growing up in the '60s and '70s in Maplewood, N.J. It's a collection of memories about his parents and about the furniture, food, sounds and smells he remembers. He describes how when he was a child, he wanted to be an adult but was petrified that he would never have a real life and would be stuck in his parents' house forever. There are passages that made me laugh out loud and many descriptions that made me think about my own childhood.
Bruce Eric Kaplan, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Let me ask you to start with a short reading from your book "I Was A Child."
BRUCE ERIC KAPLAN: (Reading) Emotions were a confusing thing for me and still are. I'm not angry, my father would shout when you asked him if he was angry. I'm not upset, my mother would say in an upset way when you asked her if she was upset. I'm upset, I would tell my father, who would say firmly, you're not upset.
I think I love the clarity of emotions on television. Everyone was what they were. I loved how direct Ricky and Lucy were, even when they were not being direct with each other. Of course I loved "I Love Lucy" and saw every episode over and over again. I found it heartbreaking that Ricky got to be famous and have an exciting life at the Tropicana while Lucy was stuck in that terrible apartment with the Mertzes. Her pain was too much for me. I guess I identified. I don't remember a time when I didn't think, why did I get stuck in this house? It's not that it was such a bad house or the people were so bad, it just seemed like life was elsewhere.
GROSS: Bruce, did you always feel that way growing up, that you were just kind of, like, trapped in your parent's world?
KAPLAN: I would say trapped is a strong word for it, but yes.
GROSS: You're right. I think a lot of us are born wanting to be adults. Did you always want to be an adult?
KAPLAN: Yeah. I mean, I don't remember, you know, not wanting to be. Like, when I was a kid, I would be watching TV shows like, you know, like "Get Smart" and be like, that's what being an adult is. Of course, you know, it turned out not to be at all like "Get Smart." But, you know, I was always watching TV, looking at adults, looking at old movies and trying to, like, have that life.
GROSS: Why did you want to do this book, which I consider a kind of inventory of childhood memories, of objects and of feelings? Is this is your version of Proust's "Remembrance Of Things Past" (laughter)?
KAPLAN: I haven't read it.
GROSS: Me neither (laughter).
KAPLAN: So I can't say.
GROSS: So I don't even know what I'm talking about.
KAPLAN: But it probably - I feel very comfortable saying it definitely is my version of Proust.
KAPLAN: I didn't know that I wanted to do it, actually. I had a meeting with a publishing company, Blue Rider Press, and I always thought - I intended to try and sell a light - sort of a lighter piece that sort of - not as autobiographical. But soon after sitting down with them, I was talking about my father's death 'cause it had happened a few months before the meeting. And then, like, one story kept coming out after another. And I just was talking about my childhood and, like, things that I saw or things that I thought about and my parents. And then, you know, at the end of it - it was a long meeting. I think it was over an hour, you know? They acted as if I had sold them a book about my childhood, so I guess I had.
GROSS: I think there's something especially potent about childhood memories 'cause they're our first memories. They're the most, like, deeply engrained in our brains. What was it like for you to do an inventory of those memories in putting this book together?
KAPLAN: It was good. It was good and bad, I would say. You know, as I said, I started writing the book soon after my father died. And so it was very comforting to go back into my childhood, go back to another time when both my parents - my mother died long before my father died. So it was very comforting and soothing to go back into a time when I had - when both my parents were alive and young and healthy. And so that was great and wonderful. And then - but at the end of the day when I would stop writing or stop drawing, they would be gone again. So I was always continually, you know, reliving the loss of them, actually, in the writing of the book.
GROSS: And yet, your feelings toward them in the book isn't like, oh, you love on them so much, you're so close to them. You say your parents' marriage almost seemed like it must have been an arranged marriage. You never understood (laughter) their relationship. I mean, you weren't especially close, it sounds from the book.
KAPLAN: No, no, not at all. I wasn't, and yet, you know, they were my parents.
KAPLAN: You know, so just having them...
KAPLAN: ...Be there, you know, in any capacity was a comfort. You know, even when it was horrifying, there was still - you know, they're your parents, and you want to, you know, have a closeness with them. Just by being in their presence, there's a closeness that isn't there when they're gone.
GROSS: So let's get to some of your memories. Cheez-Its on New Year's Eve represented total wild abandon (laughter).
KAPLAN: Yeah, completely 'cause it was - we lived for that box. I mean, I lived for that box of, you know - that red box of Cheez-Its because you didn't get them for the rest of the year.
GROSS: So what was food like in your house?
KAPLAN: It tasted horrible. I mean, my mother was a terrible cook. I didn't - when I went to college - and I remember 'cause we didn't go out to eat that often. And when I went to college and I went in the cafeteria and I tasted, like, the, you know, broccoli, I was like, oh, my God, this is incredible. This is what food is like.
KAPLAN: I mean, I used to go crazy that freshman year at the cafeteria, like, this is incredible.
KAPLAN: This is, like, a BLT. I can't believe this.
GROSS: On Halloween, your mother gave out pencils or Trident sugarless gum. That's pretty joyless.
KAPLAN: Right. Well, she was, you know, very against sugar. And she thought, you know, there's all this - you're getting all this candy, and so why not get something that's good for you? And she used to insist that all the kids were very appreciative about her pencils and her Trident.
KAPLAN: Like, that was the worst part - not that she did it, but, like, her insistence that kids loved it.
GROSS: One of the things that you wrote crystallized for me something that I've experienced but never quite formulated as a thought. You write, the O'Malleys' house smelled different from our house. In fact, everyone's house had its own distinct smell. I was confused because that meant our house had a smell, but I couldn't smell it. And I just think, oh, wow. I never really - like I say, I never really crystallized that thought before. But I know what other people's houses have smelled like over the years. I know what - where I lived smelled like when I first moved in - the smell of the people who lived there before and their foods...
GROSS: ...And their pet, you know? So what made you think about that?
KAPLAN: When I was writing the book, I would sit down and put myself in my parents' house, the house I grew up in, and then these things would flood my head, just absolutely flood my head. So I can really remember, you know, walking out of my parents' house into the next-door house, and I just vividly remember the smell and the thought. I don't know - I mean, I only live in my brain. I don't know what it's like to live in other peoples' brains. But is - I mean, you know, it feels very natural for me to, you know, access that.
GROSS: So let's talk about one of the objects that bring back a lot of memories for you. Your parents, through your childhood, had this big cabinet that was actually a stereo or a record player - I'm not sure if it was quite a stereo yet (laughter).
KAPLAN: Oh, I'm sure there couldn't have been anything stereophonic about it.
GROSS: OK. So describe this big, hulking piece of furniture and what memories it brings back to you.
KAPLAN: It was this enormous wood box that had a record player on the left and - no, a record player on the right and a place to put records on the left. And it was really big. And I remember, as a kid, like, you know, listening to my parents' copy of "My Fair Lady" on the floor next to it when it - and I was very young - like, probably under 5. And I would sit on the floor staring at the album cover 'cause that's what you did when I was a kid. You just - when you listen to the music, you stared at the album cover. It was like a law.
KAPLAN: Like, you just - I don't remember ever listening to music and not staring at the album cover. That one, the "My Fair Lady" one that I would listen to, had a drawing of Rex Harrison. And he was holding the strings, and Julie Andrews was a marionette. And it was so horrifying to me. I just remember, like, as I would listen to these sweet songs or something, just being, like, freaked out by, like, someone being - the idea of a person having strings that someone else was, you know, manipulating was, like, just - had me in its thrall in a horrible way.
But anyhow, the main thing I remember about the record cabinet is that soon after I was that age, the record player broke. And it was never fixed. And that was that, you know, that we had a broken record player in the living room in this huge cabinet that took up, you know, a lot of space. And it just was there for years - I mean, over a decade, you know? And that was - I mean, that's what things were like at my parents' house, where if something was put somewhere, it was, like - it stayed. It was like God had put it there. Like, you just didn't move it. Like, if it broke, if it, like, you know, didn't look good anymore, if something was wrong with it, it just was like, well - you know, it was like a member of the family. It's here. It's staying.
GROSS: (Laughter). You write that in the summer, windows were open and parents would scream for their kids at dinner time. I grew up with that, too, and in an apartment building, so there were lots of open windows and lots of parents screaming for their kids at dinner time and at other times when it was time to come in. Was that embarrassing to you, or was that just, like, that's the way the game was played?
KAPLAN: No. Yeah, I just thought it was happening for everyone, and I didn't know otherwise. I do remember - and I was young, you know, when that - when you're that age, when that's how you - that's the system for coming home. Your mother just yells for you. I remember later being a teenager in McGuire's, the clothing store in the town that I grew up in, and my mother yelling my name as we were getting our - you know, the fall clothing. We only got clothing once a year, like, right before school began. It's like, that's when you got your clothing. But when she said my name in McGuire's from a different aisle, that was, like - I was freaked out. Like, I guess, you know, I was a different age then, so I guess that's why.
GROSS: Well, you write for TV now. You produce for TV. "Seinfeld," "Six Feet Under," "Girls" are among the shows that you've worked on. You still work on "Girls." So has it brought - has writing for TV brought you closer to that life you imagined happened within the TV when you were growing up?
KAPLAN: Yes. I think in some way, in a way I can't explain - I mean, obviously, I can explain it and will. When I was a kid and I was watching TV, I just loved it so much that I wanted to crawl into that TV. Like, that's - that was my - I just wanted to go in there and get out of, you know, real life. But for me, the TV was the real life, and whatever I was living was not that real to me. So now, like, when I'm working on a show, I get this feeling - like, when I'm on a set, like, you know, Hannah's apartment in "Girls" or, like, the diner in "Seinfeld" - if I'm on a set and I'm talking to, like, some of the other writers or the actors, I am so soothed in a way I can't even tell you. Like, I don't know if other people have this, but it's like there's nothing more soothing and great for me to be in a fake room.
GROSS: Soothing is not the word I expected to hear.
KAPLAN: (Laughter). I don't know why that is. It's - there's something so - it's like I have crawled into the TV. I think it's a primal or - I don't know if the word - if primal is the exact word, but a childhood sort of desire that's been fulfilled that - 'cause it's not necessarily - I have to have seen the room on TV for this soothingness to be there as much as it is, I believe.
KAPLAN: Does that make sense?
GROSS: Yes, it does, actually. It's more like crawling into the television than just being on a set.
GROSS: (Laughter). Yeah. If you're just joining us, my guest is Bruce Eric Kaplan. He's a producer and writer for "Girls." He also was a producer on "Six Feet Under" and worked on "Seinfeld." He's a New Yorker cartoonist who cartoons under the name BEK - the initials BEK for Bruce Eric Kaplan - and now he has a new memoir called "I Was A Child." Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Bruce Eric Kaplan. He's a New Yorker cartoonist who cartoons under the name BEK for Bruce Eric Kaplan. He is a TV writer and producer who's worked on "Seinfeld," "Six Feet Under" and now "Girls." And he has a new memoir with illustrations called "I Was A Child," and it's a lot of, like, childhood memories.
Reading your memoir, I really find myself thinking a lot about your mother. You write that your mother was overwhelmed by having three boys to raise, and everything seemed to weigh on her. Anything at all was a burden. And it seems like she just - she couldn't handle the stress of raising three boys, of, like, cooking all those meals when she had no gift for cooking. The work that she ended up doing as a counselor in a school seemed to overwhelm her too. Did you have any understanding of it as a child?
GROSS: Or do you as an adult?
KAPLAN: No, you know, that's the thing. My parents...
GROSS: I mean, it must look different to you as an adult than it did as a child.
KAPLAN: No. I wish it did. My parents were and are mysteries to me, which is, you know, one of the horrors of your parents passing is when they go, that's it. You're never going to find out. I just knew that my mother had a hard time with things. So, like, if I came to her and said I was having a problem, you know, it became her problem. Like, it just was too much for her to deal with this thing. Everything was too much - she couldn't, you know - for her. I think my only understanding about my mother's - why everything was too much for her, is that now that I've become a parent, I understand. It actually is too much for you (laughter). I mean, there's so much horror about having children and their pain and all the things they need that, you know, she was not capable of sort of moving past whatever was going on for her to be able to, like, address children's stuff.
GROSS: So there's a sentence you just slip into the memoir about how your father once told you that your mother had two abortions. What do you know?
KAPLAN: All I know is I have this hazy memory of my father saying this. So it's not even - I'm not even a 100 percent sure about it. It's just I believe my father referenced that my mother had one abortion before they were married and then one abortion after I was born. I was the youngest of three.
GROSS: What clue does that give you about your mother's life? And - I mean, abortions were so risky before they were legal.
KAPLAN: They were. I think - I mean, obviously a lot of people were doing them, though. I mean, I think it was part of life, as far as I understand.
GROSS: Right. But I mean, like, you know that she had trouble coping with three children. And I'm just trying to imagine what was going through her mind thinking, you know, there might be a fourth on the way after you were born.
KAPLAN: Oh, right. Yeah, she was done. There was no - I mean, that - it wasn't a surprise when I... If it is true, it's not a surprise to me because a fourth would've put her over the edge. I mean, like, I actually am impressed that she held it together the way she did because she seemed to be, you know, just very fragile, as if, you know, she needed a stay at McLean's (ph) for a few months from having three boys.
GROSS: You write that neither of your parents believed it was possible to get what you want. I guess they didn't get what they wanted, or maybe they didn't even know what they wanted.
KAPLAN: You know, this is an area about my parents that I just shut down when I try to understand it. It's like I go into a childlike place, I think. I know my father wanted to be a successful novelist or television writer or playwright, and he ended up being a textbook editor. So I know, you know, he had a part of him that had wanted to be something more than he was professionally. In terms of my mother, I think this might be a cultural Jewish thing, which I'm sure my father had also. I don't remember her wanting - knowing that she wanted more than she had in - but I do feel there was this feeling of deprivation and don't ask for too much or it'll be taken away from you. Is that a culturally Jewish thing?
GROSS: I think it is. I really think it is. And I think a combination of, like, the Holocaust and the Depression...
KAPLAN: Oh, yeah, right.
GROSS: Made a lot of adults - and with the Holocaust, particularly Jewish adults - think, you know, work hard for a good outcome, but don't expect it. Expect things to turn out bad 'cause that way, when they do turn out bad or if they do turn out bad, you won't be disappointed because...
KAPLAN: That's definitely it.
GROSS: Things usually work out bad (laughter). Yeah.
KAPLAN: Right. That was a big part of our house; don't expect too much or you'll be disappointed. You needed this armor to, like, you know - well, I don't need anything. So then, I'll be fine.
GROSS: I think there's this idea that negative thinking was actually a very helpful approach. It was a very protective way of interacting with the world.
KAPLAN: Totally. I mean, it was to the point of almost having no interaction with the world.
KAPLAN: For my parents, it's like, if you don't talk to anyone, then nothing bad could happen.
GROSS: So do you feel like you still live in that world? I mean, you're very successful. You've got, you know, The New Yorker cartoons, TV, books. Do you still feel like somewhere in the back of your mind is the, don't ask for too much 'cause you're not going to get it anyways?
KAPLAN: Yes. It's definitely something I struggle with and something I'm aware of. You know, I don't - I'm conscious about it, though, in a way that I think my parents weren't conscious about it. So if I observe it, then I sort of see what I'm doing and adjust.
GROSS: My guest is Bruce Eric Kaplan. He's a New Yorker cartoonist and a writer and producer for the HBO series "Girls." He's written a new illustrated memoir about his childhood called "I Was A Child." After a break, we'll talk about working on "Girls." And we'll listen back to a 1985 interview with Cynthia Lennon, who died of cancer yesterday at the age of 75. She was married to John Lennon from 1962 to '68. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Bruce Eric Kaplan. He's a New Yorker cartoonist who signs his work with his initials, BEK. He's also a writer and producer for the HBO series "Girls" and previously worked on "Seinfeld" and "Six Feet Under." His new illustrated memoir, "I Was A Child," is about growing up in the '60s and '70s in Maplewood, N. J. In writing about his own childhood, he writes a lot about his parents.
Could you have written this book if your parents were still alive?
KAPLAN: I really wanted to do an honest portrait of my parents, like, nothing that would - you know, they were great in some ways. And they were loving, you know, and tried to be. So I wanted to do something that was a kind portrait of them but also a very honest portrait of what it was like to grow up in my parents' house. And they wouldn't have been happy with the honesty of the portrait. In fact, my dad's girlfriend at the time of his death, she just read the book. And she emailed me. And she was like, oh, it's very interesting; I don't think dad would have loved it.
GROSS: Do you feel a little guilty about it?
KAPLAN: Do you want me to?
GROSS: I have no opinion about whether you should or not.
KAPLAN: OK. I don't... I have many emotions about it. And one of them is, as I said, I feel like it's a very loving tribute to them. And it's a way of keeping them alive - I actually - not just for me, but for the world. So that's the positive. And then, in the negative, there is some guilt because there's things that I write in the book that I feel like they wouldn't have been happy about it. They just wouldn't like that to be the portrait of them for the world.
GROSS: Well, you know, along with the negative thinking that is perhaps part of a Jewish cultural trait from having been thrown out of so many countries and then the Holocaust, I think there's also this feeling from parents of a certain generation who witnessed the Holocaust, even if it was from afar, even if their own lives weren't in jeopardy, and who witnessed McCarthyism. So it's, you know, like, McCarthyism and anti-Semitism in the same era, this sense of, like, don't tell anybody. Keep it in the family.
KAPLAN: Oh, yeah.
GROSS: Don't expose anything no one should know. We'll be safer if no one knows.
KAPLAN: Yeah, I mean, that was - our house had that completely. Like, no one should know anything - like your ZIP code. You told someone our ZIP code? What, are you crazy?
KAPLAN: How could you tell a person our ZIP code? And then you'd say, well, what would they do with our ZIP code? They could already figure it out. They know what block I live on. They'd be like, what are you doing? Don't give them anything.
GROSS: Well, this is interesting. I mean, we're talking about how you grew up in this environment of don't tell anybody anything about yourself or the family. And now you're a producer on "Girls." And Lena Dunham is so - rightly or wrongly - is so associated with, like, over-sharing. I talked with her about that when she was on the show, you know, what it's like for her to reveal so much about her life and to reveal so much of her body, as well, on the show. What's it like for you to work with her, knowing how much she's revealed of, you know, about very personal details?
KAPLAN: She's an inspiration, you know, in many ways. But that, her transparency and openness about talking about her life and people in her life, is incredible. And I personally don't understand the word over-sharing. That's not my - it's like - it's a word like neurotic that I just don't get. Like, I just - I'm not sure what over-sharing is. And I'm not sure what neurotic is. When I hear them, they seem like negative words about positive things.
GROSS: The character of Hannah that Lena Dunham portrays on "Girls" doesn't really understand how self-absorbed she is (laughter) and how, in a lot of ways, selfish she is. I think Lena Dunham understands that. But Hannah doesn't understand that about herself. Does it ever pain you when you're working on "Girls" to see how self-absorbed and un-empathetic some of the characters are?
KAPLAN: No. I don't have this experience. I love them. You know, I love them like they're my children. So I love Hannah. I love all the characters. And to me, they're just doing their best. And they're out there in the world trying, you know. And in certain areas, they are challenged. But I don't have these negative thoughts about them at all. I love them.
GROSS: So let me get back to your book for a second. You write...
GROSS: (Reading) I'm always excited for the next thing, whatever the next thing is. Sadly, this can happen after starting what had just been the next thing moments earlier. I often start thinking about what I will have for dinner as soon as I take my first bite of lunch.
Is that true about worrying too, that once one problem is solved, once you've put one worry aside, another worry comes in to replace it immediately so that you always have something worry about?
KAPLAN: There is many more things to worry about than to look forward to - so yes, completely... Well seen.
GROSS: So is there always, like, a groove in your brain that has something it can worry about?
GROSS: What are you...
KAPLAN: Honestly, like, the second something is - the second something is removed, then the next thing is to worry about. Were you going to ask me, like, give me an example?
GROSS: Oh, yeah, what are you worried about right now? (Laughter).
KAPLAN: What I'm worried about right now is what we're doing. Like, what am I saying, and why am I saying this? How am I saying it? Whereas, like, you know, on my way here, I was worried, like, am I going to get there? How am I going to get there? Oh, my God, this is the wrong street. I'll look at the right - this is, you know, this is from my parents, probably. But I'll look at the right street sign and be like, I'm on the wrong street. It's mislabeled. I'm on the wrong street.
GROSS: Do you ever feel like your parents taught you how to worry, and then they'd say to you, why are you worrying all the time?
KAPLAN: No, no, no. They did teach me how to worry. But they never said why are you worrying all the time. They were like, worry more.
GROSS: Worry more.
KAPLAN: You should be worried.
GROSS: Yeah (laughter).
KAPLAN: Yeah, like, of course - you couldn't possibly worry too much. (Laughter).
GROSS: And in what way was worrying supposed to be helpful?
KAPLAN: Well, it's like what we talked about. It's like, if you worry about something, that's armor to, like - it - if it happens, then you've been protected 'cause you worried about it. You prepared yourself for it. I actually believed that up until, like, you know, maybe just, like, 10 years ago. It took me a long time to understand it wasn't helpful to pre-worry, you know, to worry about something before it happened so that you would be emotionally prepared for the bad thing to happen.
GROSS: Do you think that there was confusion when you were growing up between worry and preparation? Like, preparation is good; worry isn't necessarily going to be helpful?
KAPLAN: No, the view is that worry is the most helpful thing.
KAPLAN: (Laughter). Worry - first, you worry. Then, you prepare.
GROSS: OK. Did you do therapy? Is that too personal to ask?
KAPLAN: No, not at all. I've been to a million therapists. So yes, I've done it. I've - yes.
GROSS: You said that you couldn't have written your memoir about your childhood when your parents were alive 'cause you wanted to be able to be honest in a way you wouldn't have wanted to do when they were alive 'cause it would've made them uncomfortable.
GROSS: Was it that way with cartooning too? Did - were you able to do things in your cartoons that you wouldn't have done before?
KAPLAN: No. The cartoons have always been this great thing for me because you can hide in them. I mean, they're the greatest things. And what I mean is that they're very autobiographical and very personal. And, I mean, I've said this in the past. They're my journal. They're my diaries. Like, they're what I'm thinking about. They're what I'm scared about. They're what I'm seeing. But you put them through a prism of, you know, goldfish or about children or about two women on the street. And then that's the freeing part. That means it could be about - you don't know what it - you know, it's not an autobiographical essay where you say this happened, and this is what I thought; and this is what I saw. It's more like you take those, and then you put them in this blender. And they come out in a different way. So no one - no one will quite know what it is, the moment that it happened, that you had that thought or that you saw something.
GROSS: Can you think of a cartoon that was, like, two fish or whatever? It was really, like, your parents...
KAPLAN: Yeah, there was one. Once, I did a cartoon about my father. And it was a man on a telephone. And he's alone in his house. And he's saying to the person on the other line, I'm not saying anything. I'm just talking.
KAPLAN: (Laughter). And, you know, it was about my father. But my father would have no way of knowing that he was the person that I was writing that about. And, you know, the punch line to this story is, you know, mostly, I do these cartoons, and I never hear anything from anyone. You know, they just - they're published, and then that's that. You know, it's not like someone in my life says, oh, I saw that cartoon, and that was funny or not funny or anything. I mean, occasionally they do - but not that often. In this particular instance, my father - I was talking to him on the phone that weekend. He said, I saw your cartoon this week; I loved it. And I was, like, amazed 'cause I thought, like, well, he can't possibly think it's about him 'cause he wouldn't love that. But - so does he feel other people are this way - like, the way of the guy in the cartoon who isn't saying anything; he's just talking? And that, you know, it's a mystery that I'll never know.
GROSS: Thank you so much for talking with us.
KAPLAN: Oh, absolutely. This was fun. It was great.
GROSS: Bruce Eric Kaplan is a New Yorker cartoonist and a writer and producer on the HBO series "Girls." His new illustrated memoir is called, "I Was A Child." Coming up, we listen to a 1985 interview with Cynthia Lennon, who died yesterday at the age of 75. We talked about what it was like to be married to John Lennon when The Beatles became an international phenomenon. That's after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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