Sailor and Fiddler
No Autobiography, and Why Not
YEARS AND YEARS AGO the late British philosopher Isaiah Berlin floored me by saying, "You should write your autobiography."—"Why me? I'm nobody."—"No, no, you've traveled, you've known many people, you have interesting ideas, it would do a lot of good."
I was meeting him at the Athenaeum Club in London on my way home from Auschwitz, where scenes of the War and Remembrance miniseries were being filmed. The poisoned cloud of the Chernobyl nuclear explosion still drifted over Eastern Europe, but the gargantuan American TV project, minus some fainthearted cast members, was soldiering on. I had started a new novel about Israel's wars, and Sir Isaiah Berlin was a stalwart Zionist, hence my stopover in London. Our friendship had begun years earlier, when he came to our Georgetown home for a seder. He was delivering the Mellon lectures at the National Gallery of Art during the Passover, and I made bold to invite him to our holiday table. Breaking matzoh with a man is not a bad way to get to know him. We stayed in touch after that, and at this meeting he offered an astute précis, as a British Jew and a world-class thinker, of Israel's achievements and perils. He walked out of the Athenaeum with me, and there on Pall Mall he gave me his blessing on the book, and a parting grandfatherly kiss.
On the homeward flight I got to musing about the autobiography. Why not, after all? Biographies of writers were then much in fashion, confessional books by or about Jewish authors all shook up with angst. I was not one of those, and might that not be a piquant novelty? Soon after coming home I mentioned Sir Isaiah's idea to my wife, also my agent. She was on me like a cougar. "Dear," she responded with a cold clear eye for a writer's dodge, "you're not that interesting a person. What is it that you don't want to write?" I had read her my start on the Israel novel, and she had said, "You've got me interested," so I had pushed on, trying to bring to life an invented TV journalist assigned to cover Israel, so as to put American eyes into the story. The last I remember, this journalist was standing on his head in a room full of books, I no longer know why. My wife wanted to know more about the upside-down fellow, but I did not, he was a lifeless puppet. Now I told her as much. "Well, then," says she with great good cheer, "pull up your socks and start over." So I did. End of autobiography brain wave.
Through several years spent partly in Israel, I wrote The Hope and The Glory; and I stand by the military history in the books, accurate as I could make it about wars still much in controversy. The personal story intertwines the lives and loves of some army families over two generations, with no American journalist as camera eye. "Oh, you're not making it an army story, are you?" cries a wise old Israeli on reading a few early draft chapters. "There's so much more to Israel than the army!" True, but I am not an Israeli, and those depths were not available for me. Somerset Maugham said that his novels were largely his autobiography, and in my way I have used up my own life, pretty near, in my fiction. That is what the Sailor part of this book is about. Those Israeli novels actually shade over into the Fiddler aspect of the book, which we will get to in due course.
The Sea Beast
A bright red hardcover book, The Sea Beast, got me going in Literature.
The year was 1927, which for some readers may merge with 1776. It was the year "Lucky" Lindbergh flew over the ocean nonstop to Paris. I was twelve. The book was the novelized screenplay of a silent movie about a ship's captain whose leg got half bitten off by a whale. The scene that caused all the buzz, and the lines at the movie theaters, showed the captain agonizing in clouds of steam as the raw bloody stump was cauterized. The novelized screenplay was very long, the print was very small, and the end hard to figure out. Had the captain really killed the whale, or not? In the movie, no problem; he not only killed it dead, he then stumped back to Nantucket, rescued his sweetheart from his evil brother, and lived happily ever after. But the book said only, about the harpooning, "The stricken whale flew forward." To me that word "stricken" meant the whale was done for. My softhearted sister ruled no, not necessarily, maybe the poor sea beast got away with the harpoon stuck in it. She had bought the book, she was fifteen. That was that.
A preface to the screenplay insisted the changes in the movie were not "presumptuous meddling," which puzzled me. Movies always changed the books. Tom Sawyer in the movie, for instance, had been a big plump clumsy kid, hardly more Mark Twain's Tom than he was a white whale. In the novelized screenplay, there was no cauterizing scene at all, and this Captain Ahab had no brother and no sweetheart, either. Strange business! About that time, I found in the public library a fat book, Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, and flipped through it. Lo and behold, The Sea Beast screenplay, word for word! That explained the small print, and such was my introduction to "presumptuous meddling." The theme may recur in this non-autobiography. The silent-film freebooters just helped themselves to this overblown old sea yarn and did what they pleased with it, just as they did with Anna Karenina, in which Greta Garbo didn't die, not on your life.
Herman Melville; or, Literature
Once, while writing The Language God Talks, I went to Princeton to consult a savant who had known Feynman well, and I got shanghaied into giving an annual lecture on physics. The scheduled eminent physicist didn't show, and to be a good fellow when asked, I waffled my way through twenty minutes, mostly by joshing about my ignorance of the subject. Afterward, someone in the crowded lecture hall (a Nobel physicist, I later learned) stood up and asked whether there existed in novel writing anything like the "aha" moment in science. "Absolutely," I said, "it comes thirty years after you're dead." As an ex-gagman's snappy comeback, it got a laugh. As a one-line response to the query, it was the strange and bitter truth about Herman Melville's life and work.
Literature, I tell aspiring writers, is a mug's game. The author of Moby-Dick died in his seventies utterly forgotten, everything he wrote long out of print. Not one newspaper obituary noted his passing. Some thirty years after he died—about the time The Sea Beast was cleaning up at the box office—the academic field of American literature was swamped by a tsunami of second thoughts about Melville. A Columbia professor of my time, Raymond Weaver, led it off with a respectful biography, discovering the unpublished manuscript of Billy Budd during his research. Professor Weaver has since been lost in the crush, but he beat them all to Herman Melville's "aha" moment, no contest. Today in the University of Chicago's Great Books of the Western World, Moby-Dick is volume 48 out of 54, and Melville is right up there with Aristotle, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Tolstoy, and Marx; no Balzac volume, by the by, no Dickens, no Henry James, no Twain, no Proust, no Joyce. A mug's game, I say, a crapshoot, the stakes one's heart's blood. Young aspirers to Literature who face the stakes open-eyed, yet roll the dice, have my grandfatherly blessing and a ghostly kiss.
Writing for a living is something else entirely. The distinction should clear up as we go along here.
A door-to-door book salesman sold my mother a set of green-bound books by "the American Shalom Aleichem," and so Mark Twain came into my ken. I was a cormorant reader, voraciously downing hardcovers traded by us urchins on the street—Baseball Joe, Tarzan, Rover Boys, Tom Swift—and lots of public library books. The hardcovers were peanuts to be shelled and eaten, the library books were passable nourishment. Twain was a bombshell, a beam of blazing morning sun in our fifth-floor back flat. His books were life itself, warm laughing life. Tom and Huck dissolved in my bloodstream. In the longer books—Innocents Abroad, Roughing It, A Connecticut Yankee, and the rest—a page or two might be hard going, a passage sad, but the note of wry laughter was continuous under all. Without giving it any thought I was finding my calling; I would be a writer, what was more a funny writer, nothing else. Such was the influence of Sam Clemens of Hannibal, Missouri, on a son of Russian-Jewish immigrants in the Bronx, born five years after he died.
Meantime, in Class 8B3 of P.S. 75, Miss Sarah Dickson was introducing us to Literature. Miss Dickson wore her abundant gray hair braided around her head in a net, and she did her Literature thing with zest. She taught us "Evangeline" and "The Courtship of Miles Standish," long Longfellow poems that didn't rhyme like proper poems—say, like "The Raven"—but were composed in dactyls, which made them poetry. To convince us of this, she recited some of the dactyls with combative emphasis: " 'THIS is the FOR est pri ME val,'?" and so on. Her abiding challenge was to make eighth-graders appreciate Literature, but such stuff was a tough sell. "Evangeline" and "Miles Standish" were stories, at least, if rather boring and gummed up by dactyls, but her favorite piece, "Thanatopsis" by one William Cullen Bryant, was a total baffler. It didn't rhyme, it wasn't even in dactyls, and it drove to the unconvincing point that dying was not so bad. Recently on the Internet I chanced upon an exchange between ninth-graders about The Scarlet Letter, with comments that would have puzzled Miss Dickson, like "Sucks." Possibly in a time of video games and reality shows, Literature is not for everybody; though, in fact, way back before even radio existed, let alone TV and video games, Miss Dickson did not do much better—at least for me, and I was her pet—at inoculating eighth-graders with Literature.
Buried somewhere in a Palm Springs warehouse is the autograph album of my P.S. 75 graduation class. Amid the scrawls of my classmates there is a page of queries such as "What do you want to be?" and "Who is your favorite author?" To those I answered, of course, "Writer" and "Mark Twain." Yet, startlingly, Mark Twain is crossed out, and above it is scrawled "Alexandre Dumas." DUMAS? Yes, Dumas. Uncle Louie, our family intellectual, was a pigeon for the book peddlers; they sold him not only Twain but Dickens, O. Henry, Dumas, Maupassant, and more. During family visits, I would poke into those sets. A big blue Dickens book I sampled began with great carrying-on about fog, and no story. I tried The Black Tulip, a red-bound Dumas. At the outset a roaring mob lynched two Dutchmen named DeWitt, tore them to bloody pieces, and sold the pieces around town to eat, and then an evil jailer crushed under his heel the bulb of a black tulip worth millions. This guy was pretty good. I sampled and then borrowed from the public library The Three Musketeers, after that The Count of Monte Cristo, and so on all along the Dumas shelves. Like Twain's laughter in my blood, Dumas narrative lodged in my brain—to remain dormant, however, for decades, since I was going to be a funnyman and nothing else.
Speaking of influence and of funnymen: my father, the stern busy boss of a steam laundry all week, at dinner Friday night was Papa, convulsing us kids with his drolleries in Yiddish, and his Shalom Aleichem readings. For folk humor Shalom Aleichem (Sholom Rabinowitz) was Twain's peer, quite as the book peddler told Mama. Yiddish was not a language I had to learn; rather an ambiance absorbed in infancy. Reading Shalom Aleichem today, I hear in his warm clear prose my father's Friday-night voice—the lover of Jewish characters and traditions, the Zionist, the unshakable optimist, the naive American patriot who freed himself from czarist Russia. "If you ever get called into the army," Papa once said, "I'll come and wash the floor of your barracks."
For some of the last century's literary elite, mostly Jewish, my books were outside their "canon" of protest and alienation. They were entitled. They never heard my father read Shalom Aleichem on Friday night.
Big Man on Campus
Inside, Outside, my novel that I call a kaddish for my father, has some painfully funny chapters about my high school years in a downtown public school, Townsend Harris Hall, attended mainly by Manhattan smoothies. Among them I was a Bronx nobody, a fat short baby-faced classroom clown. Depicted in fiction fifty years later, my teenage ordeals and disasters may be amusing, but I am not revisiting them now, thank you, not for love or money. On to Columbia College, where I found my feet as a funnyman. At the opening night of the 1932 Columbia Varsity Show, as a freshman just starting to shave, I watched awestruck the show's author, a Big Man on Campus, who also wrote comic verse and prose in Jester and the "Off-hour" humor column in Spectator, singing and dancing before my eyes as Hamlet in his hodgepodge Shakespeare musical.
This was Arnold Auerbach, a Manhattan smoothie and funnyman, who became my Columbia mentor. I joined his Jewish fraternity, I followed him as "Off-hour" columnist, as Jester humorist, as Varsity Show author, as Big Man on Campus. I shared his dreams of writing for Broadway. On graduating, since he became a radio gagman, so did I. Full disclosure: in my novel written decades afterward, Arnold morphs into a totally different imaginary figure, the famed novelist Peter Quat; a gifted sex-ridden critics' darling who gives his books titles like Onan's Way and My Cock, boffs his publisher's wife, and supports several children by several wives. Arnold was genially tolerant of this foolery, having made his name in Broadway musicals, and old Peter Quat remains a favorite creation of mine.
The Gag Czar
Our first employer, David Freedman, lived in a quadruplex tower penthouse on Central Park West. When I came for my job interview, Arnold already worked there. The Gag Czar was breakfasting on fried matzoh and pork sausages in midafternoon, paunchy, deathly pale, looking fresh out of bed. "This is the most terrific dish in America," he greeted me, and with that declaration he enters Inside, Outside as Harry Goldhandler, who keeps up a killing pace of day-and-night work on three or four weekly radio programs for different comedians. Freedman was a Jewish Phi Bete born on the Lower East Side, son of a Yiddish newspaper columnist called Solly the Atheist, and his true forte was rich Rabelaisian improvising, more than commercial joke-writing. He loved to hold forth with raunchy Jewish persiflage; publishers, journalists, Broadway celebrities would come to the penthouse after dinner just to hear him, cigar in hand, being the Gag Czar.
However, "Goldhandler's" lavish lifestyle in that penthouse, splendidly furnished on credit—black gourmet cook, kitchen maid, two housemaids, three teenage sons, and his wife's live-in parents—depended on a stream of Madison Avenue money from those radio scripts; nothing else, for he had nothing else in the world. The cascade abruptly dried up when Freedman's main source, the frenetic song-and-dance man Eddie Cantor, hired away a veteran writer of vaudeville acts who worked on Freedman's staff. The Gag Czar was dropped cold. Cantor's bestselling humorous autobiography, My Life Is in Your Hands, ghostwritten by Freedman, had made Cantor popular; and subsequent Freedman funny books, all published as Cantor's work, had sealed his fame.
When I was hired, Freedman's decline had just started. Arnold and I soon abandoned him in his fall when we heard that Fred Allen, the one radio funnyman we admired, was losing his chief writer to Hollywood. We applied to Allen as a team and, in due course, got the job. A couple of years after that, "Harry Goldhandler," still in that tower penthouse, worn out by desperate clutching for income here and there, died one night in his sleep. Arnold and I loved the Gag Czar, but youth is cruel and selfish. Besides, it was show business—that is, writing for a living.
Fred Allen: Treadmill to Oblivion
Last night I was roaring with laughter over the yellowed pages of Treadmill to Oblivion, Fred Allen's mordant 1954 memoir of his years in radio. John Steinbeck, in a blurb on the faded jacket, calls Fred Allen an American humorist in the manner of Petroleum Nasby and Mark Twain. James Thurber pays him homage as a peer in comic writing. William Faulkner and President Roosevelt were among his multitudinous fans.
Who was this man who baffled and battled the broadcasting pooh-bahs for eighteen years, this great almost forgotten American? A Boston Irishman, to begin with, a high school graduate (he got no further), John Florence Sullivan, who, on taking to the vaudeville stage in his teens, billed himself "Freddy James, the World's Worst Juggler." He rose to appearing as Fred Allen in Broadway musicals of the 1920s. When advertising agencies discovered the new selling gimmick of radio, and further discovered that funnymen drew audiences, he was hired—not for his jokes, as he himself tells it in Treadmill, but for his flat nasal voice. His success in radio took time, while more popular comedians were snatching at the easy money that had ensnared the Gag Czar. Nevertheless, Fred Allen's Town Hall Tonight and Allen's Alley did climb to number one and stayed at or near it for years and years, utterly confounding Madison Avenue's highest seers who knew his stuff was "too cerebral." At last one of them was inspired to pit brainless triviality against brilliant wit and intelligent comment. A game show, Stop the Music, showed up on another network opposite Fred Allen and caught on. Fred's ratings fell and fell. He was never the same. He persisted for a few more years, but his heart was no longer in the weekly battle with dullards and censors, and bad health made him quit. So passed from the scene this original American humorist, who poured his rare comic powers into two decades of forgotten ephemera.
Treadmill to oblivion, indeed.
But when he took us on he was riding high, and what a contrast to the Gag Czar! The national number one funnyman lived in a two-room suite of an old midtown hotel with his wife and longtime foil, Portland Hoffa. His working habits were the essence of New England parsimony. He wrote the weekly show himself, using our rough drafts to get started. He never praised or blamed us; sometimes he adapted and put in our stuff, sometimes not. He handprinted the script on a single white sheet of nine-by-fourteen paper. When he had filled both sides of the sheet that was it, an hour-long comedy show, ready to be typed up by a sister-in-law for mimeograph. The rest was rehearsing, revising, performing; then a midnight script confab with "the boys"—Arnold and me—at Joe's, a local eatery, and back to work in the morning on the next program. So it went for five years, which on looking back, I see as a long dream in a featherbed.
An earnest review of The Lawgiver crossed my desk this morning, highlighting my Fred Allen years and suggesting that my literary style owes a debt to that experience. Not an unpleasing thought; Twain's high art was rooted in his lecturing career, with its one paramount rule, hold the audience. In radio that rule was life or death. If there is a trace of Fred Allen's art in my books, that is all to the good.
Our five years with Allen slipped by, especially during the thirteen-week summer layoffs, in the pursuit of la dolce vita by young wise guys with money to spend: travel abroad, callow amours, what you will. Now and then we made desultory gestures at collaborating on Broadway farces and musicals, and I expressed an occasional yearning to try Literature. Arnold dismissed this as self-soothing posturing, which no doubt it was. Hitler was on the ascent and black clouds were starting to obscure our sunny Franklin Roosevelt skies. Der Führer smashed into Poland. England and France declared war, and after a winter pause dubbed "the phony war," France fell in three weeks, and bombs rained on London. We chattered quite a bit about all this, and remained as oblivious—so now it seems to me—as well-fed apes in the zoo. Congress passed a draft bill. Draft boards formed all over the country, but not in or near Radio City. German armies marched into the Soviet Union, Roosevelt and Churchill met in Newfoundland, and the draft was renewed by one vote. Arnold and I duly received draft notices. The show went on getting laughs and we got our paychecks. Our girls were pretty, Dinty Moore's steaks were great, and we had great seats for all the new Broadway hits.
Once on a Plan B impulse, I inquired at a Navy recruiting office about volunteering for reserve officer training. The Navy wanted, I learned, only applicants with engineering degrees. I asked the ensign on duty what I might do about this. "Go to engineering school," he airily suggested, and I skulked out.
On the morning of December 8, 1941, the day after the day that would live in infamy, my brother-in-law phoned me at seven A.M. I had been working all night, rewriting a radio script instantly outdated by Pearl Harbor. "Do you have this week's New Yorker?"—Me, blearily, "Sure, why?"—"Take a look at the bottom of page ninety-seven. The small Navy ad." I did. I got up, showered, dressed, and caught a cab. The Navy was being forehanded enough, as the President's negotiations with the Japanese dragged on, to start trolling for reserve officer recruits, age eighteen to twenty-seven (I was now over twenty-six), two years minimum of college, nothing about engineering school. The place to apply was a Navy training vessel tied up at a wharf on the East River. Sober-faced collegians were waiting there in the wardroom for interviews, and more were arriving as I signed in, a decidedly old fellow among them. They were summoned into another room one by one while I collected my thoughts. The gag-writing team had broken up in the summer break, Arnold had married and gone off to Hollywood, and I was writing a program promoting defense bonds for the U.S. Treasury, a summer replacement for the Allen show. When Fred returned in the fall, The Treasury Hour had moved to another network, and I had gone with it, writing for a living.
That was where I stood in life when my name was called.
The Green Table
Behind a table covered with green baize, five blue and gold uniforms confronted me. Questions came at me from five faces more or less alike. Why was I applying for midshipman school at my age? What was my major in college? What was my favorite sport? My physical condition? The grayhead in the center was looking through a folder on the desk. He spoke up.
"Have you received a draft notice?"
"Yes, sir, I have."
"And an army medical?"
"Yes." Knees shaking.
"Then you're ineligible, sir." Chill note of authority. "You must know that."
"No, sir," I managed to articulate. "I was not aware of that." Long pause. Grayhead closed the folder and tapped it. "I see you've written for Fred Allen."
"Yes, sir. For five years, until last June."
The faces changed. All were regarding me with lively interest. The senior officer: "What's Fred Allen like? Is he funny in real life?"
My knees firmed: familiar ground. The younger officers spoke up with more questions about Fred Allen, clearly a spell of relief from the interviewing chore. The grayhead put an end to it. "Well, sir, the Navy could have used you, but you have your draft notice and the Army has got first call on you." He shrugged and half smiled. "Maybe a man who writes for Fred Allen can do something about that."
The nearest telephone booth was in a drugstore. I called Fred and told him of the interview. "I see." Old familiar twang. "Come up here." I found him typing as usual at the desk piled with newspaper clippings, books, and papers. He glanced through the papers and handed one to me. "Take a look at this. Is it all right?" It was a flawlessly typed letter to my draft board—all lowercase, no capitals—on one letterhead sheet with the famous Fred Allen caricature by Hirschfeld: shirtsleeves, eyeshade, overflowing desk, baggy eyes, worried face. He was recommending me as a naval officer, in a deadpan vein that nevertheless made me laugh out loud. "How's Arnold? I hear he's settled down in Hollywood, waiting for nibbles." Fred waved off my thanks, turned back to his typewriter, and was clicking away as I left.
My draft board office was uptown on the West Side, a nondescript storefront lined with steel files, a nondescript man at a battered desk. Nobody else was there. He took Allen's letter from me with a bored air, glancing from the letter back to me, and began to laugh and laugh. "Fred Allen, eh? What's he like? Is he funny in real life?" I gave him a hearty honest answer. "Five years, eh? And now you're applying for Naval Reserve training?" With that, so help me, he swivels around and types out on a government form my release from the army draft.
"What's in a name?" says lovesick Juliet. "That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet . . ."
Back at the green table, where the five officers still sat, by now looking weary, I handed the draft release to the senior officer. He raised his eyebrows over it. "Well done," he allowed himself to say.
Truth to tell, I don't much recall the rest. Remember, all this happened seventy-two years ago. I was in. That I can tell you. In the United States Naval Reserve, thanks to the name of Fred Allen, with one foot firmly planted on a treadmill to Literature.