Woman Around Town’s Editor Charlene Giannetti and writers for the website talk with the women and men making news in New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities around the world. Thanks to Ian Herman for his wonderful piano introduction.
My only caveat about Still Writing After All These Years, this evening’s stage conversation with three eminent, lifetime writers is that it was too short. Moderator Budd Mishkin, just the right person for the job, is well versed on the history of his guests, appreciative without pandering, and a good listener. My title utilizes his quote.
Wardrobe appears to be by Central Casting, each author unwittingly personifying character and prose. Jane Kramer wears well cut, comfortable, practical black. Her answers are full of ancillary, factual detail; staccato hands emphasize. She addresses Mishkin, but reacts to all. Gay Talese, always meticulous in appearance, sports beautiful, undoubtedly bespoke, two-tone shoes. He watches his peers, replies thoughtfully, and gracefully mimes. Calvin Trillin, whose deadpan humor reminds one of Noel Coward, wears a camel sports jacket evoking gentlemanly geniality. Hands on his knees, all expression emerges in words.
Mishkin’s first question is whether the process of sitting down to write is the same now as it was early on. Kramer replies that as a published beginner, “you sit down delighted you’re writing and someone’s reading it….As you get older, expectations of oneself grow.” She uses a computer. Trillin says he tries to stay “three technologies behind,” but finally abandoned his veteran Underwood for the dreaded machine. Talese writes, as he always has, with pencil on a yellow lined pad “which the slowness of my writing requires…I’m 86, one of the reasons I’m still here is I haven’t changed anything in 60 years.”
“Is there doubt creeping in? asks Mishkin. “Not really, ” Kramer responds. Trillin quotes mentor, Mary McCarthy: The horrible thing about getting old is you’ve spent your entire life becoming wise in so many ways and nobody’s listening. Talese tells us he’d take 4-5 hours to write a 3 page article (for the New York Times), when he was just starting. “I wanted what I’d written to be the best I could write.” Neither standards nor fastidiousness has changed.
“What was the first time you thought, I might have something here?” the host asks. “I think self doubt for a writer is often well placed,” quips Trillin. “I do 2 or 3 kinds of writing (more, actually) …I was once at a luncheon with Isaac Asimov who had written some 350 books. The woman next to me commented Mr. Asimov is very quiet. I said, while we were talking, he’s written a novella.” Talese reflects “what’s so wonderful about non-fiction is that you’re not thinking about yourself…I’m endlessly curious about people who aren’t obviously interesting…”
After a career of political coverage, Kramer also finds herself interested in “people on the margins…and, recently, food.” Wherever she travels, she collects recipes.“I became addicted because I became a very good cook….and I enjoy the company. Produce is interesting to me now…”
Trillin has also written what Mishkin refers to as “a piece or two in which food is the star.” This began at The New Yorker when despite knowing nothing about comestibles, the author realized he could write lighter pieces on eating. Rather than approach the style he calls “La maison de la casa house continental cuisine,” Trillin concerned himself with “vernacular food…because it has to do with the place.” When people started calling to ask where to dine, he realized he was doing it too much. “At that point one of my daughters wouldn’t go to Chinatown unless she was carrying a bagel- just in case.”
Each writer is asked to talk about a specific work. Talese recalls Honor Thy Father the rise and fall of a notorious crime family of New York. Sitting at the mafia family trial in 1965, he became intrigued as to the nature of Salvatore “Bill” Bonanno’s family life. Talese introduced himself to the crime boss’s lawyer suggesting a piece, then wrote to him every 2 weeks for 5 years. Eventually the dogged chronicler was invited to dinner, and so it began. Sincere human interest is the greatest form of flattery, often garnering unusual openness from one’s subject. Talese possesses this in spades.
Kramer’s “Whose Art Is It?” centered on white sculptor John Ahearn who lived in and created art for The South Bronx. “We have to understand what it’s like to occupy someone else’s shoes.” Ahearn brought the neighborhood together making life casts, then bronzes in which local denizens saw themselves as heroes. This raised a furor over the political correctness of who might validly represent a people. “It’s not really thrilling to see another Prime Minister. This was thrilling.”
“Alice Off the Page”is Trillin’s tribute to his deceased wife. “I never read anything quite so beautiful and poignant about a spouse,” the host comments. Kramer concurs. Trillin had described Alice (and his family) before, but 3-4 years after her death, his New Yorker editor suggested different perspective. “I had written about her only as a wise, cartoon mom and I wanted people to see how much more she was.” Friends compared the couple to George Burns and Gracie Allen. Alice was George. The author’s daughters reviewed the article at his request finding nothing objectionable.
All of those on stage fell into journalism accidentally. None of the three ever considered another field, none acknowledge any other talent. Trillin pictured reporters in greasy suits with a bottle of bourbon in a desk drawer. “I assumed my father thought I’d be President of the United States and his fallback position was that I not become a ward of the county. After college, he suggested law school.”
Kramer was supposed to marry Stanley, the boy nextdoor. Instead, without saying goodbye, she hotfooted it to New York, registered at Columbia, wrote an article about Norman Mailer’s work in a handed-out student broadside, and was telephoned by her subject. “He told me I was a writer.”
Talese romanticized sports reporting at 10 when he visited temporary training grounds for The New York Yankees in Atlantic City during the war. He thought writers traveled with the team. Later, as a copy boy, the young man learned they “rip and read” i.e. get the news off wires and summarize. Still, the sports desk was his next stop. “To the present day, I find sports interesting. It gives the opportunity to see the story.”
The four discuss “fake news” and misinformation disseminated by the net. Trillin misses library research. Kramer references her publication’s fact checkers. Talese believes in face to face research. They all concede the electronic behemoth is nonetheless useful.
When Mishkin asks whether his guests think we’ll see the end of hard copy books, magazines, and newspapers, Talese notes “We need serious reporting and we don’t get that on the Internet…I believe reporting is not what it used to be. Bylines used to have a certain voice. Now, only The New Yorker does…”
“I envy every person in the country who finds a piece you have written for the first time,” Mishkin declares in parting.
The three writers are scary smart, accessibly articulate, entertaining and very much themselves. What more could one ask?
Jane Kramer – European correspondent for The New Yorker, author of 10 books.
Gay Talese- At The New York Times, 1956-1965 , he helped define literary journalism, myriad articles, 14 books.
Calvin Trillin- journalist, humorist, food writer, poet, memoirist and novelist.
Budd Mishkin – 40 years broadcast journalist; 2003 started One on 1 with Budd Mishkin on New York 1
Photo Courtesy of 92Y Left to Right: Gay Talese, Jane Kramer, Calvin Trilin, Budd Mishkin
The 92Y presents Still Writing After All These Years- (a nod to Paul Simon’s song “Still Crazy After All These Years”) Jane Kramer, Gay Talese, and Calvin Trillin in Conversation with Budd Mishkin February 22, 2018 92Y 92/93 Lexington Avenue
Author/historian/dramatist and self avowed “show maker,” Deborah Grace Winer owns her grandmother’s 1929 piano. (“Lots of cool people,” some of the best in the business, play it.) Among photos atop the instrument is her younger self with beloved mentor Rosemary Clooney. On the wall behind is a framed copy of “The Ballad of The Shape of Things” a hand written birthday gift from the song’s lyricist Sheldon Harnick. Across the room her sister’s paintings swirl. This is a woman defined by family and the company she keeps.
Deborah, Toba (their mother), and Jessica Winer
“One of the greatest gifts is to wake up in the morning and do something you love surrounded by people who have the same passion and love to create in the same vein… It’s flip side of the professional struggle. I’m a very glass half full person…”
Winer talks with urgency. Thoughts race forward like salmon determined to spawn. Enthusiasm palpably sparks. Longtime fan, author/historian Robert Kimball, whom she asks for advice and information, was instrumental in paving the way to her successful tenure as Artistic Director of 92Y’s Lyrics and Lyricists. He calls her a “cheerleader,” noting she brings out the best in people. (Positivity/can-do attitude is mentioned in every comment made about Winer.) She tenderly remembers Kimball’s being one of the first to telephone congratulations upon seeing her newly published 1990’s book on Dorothy Fields: On the Sunny Side of The Street in Barnes & Noble.
Robert Kimball and Deborah GraceWiner (Photo: Stephen Sorokoff)
“Bob’s work is the gold standard of historical scholarship in our field. He’s extraordinary about recognizing when someone of a younger generation has a passion and talent for understanding this music, nurtures and champions their effort. He does that for me.” There’s no doubt these two would go to the barricades for one another.
Her eyes fix on mine, typifying focus that enables the artist to metaphorically juggle an apple, a hat, and a buzz saw. Conceiving and putting together successful American Songbook concerts/revues requires knowledge, taste, imagination, planning, diplomacy, and tenacity. “My 92Y work taught me to organize lots and lots of moving parts.”
She thinks fast, speaks with confidence, and rhapsodizes about people she esteems as if they were leaders of a common tribe. Were it not self-created, the kind of professional freedom she enjoys might be viewed as a fairytale. Even during her demanding term at 92Y, she remained an independent contractor.
My subject has dedicated herself to illuminating and presenting songs and, in her books, associated talent, from the 1920s through the early 1960s, when popular culture shifted. She’d have loved to have been born early enough to have had her “heyday” in the time of supper clubs and The Golden Age of Broadway.
Deborah Grace Winer, Teenager
As an adolescent, friends listened to rock n’roll while Winer played Peggy Lee, Ella Fitzgerald, and musicals on the turntable. A quintessential New York kid growing up on the steps of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, she was raised by “smart set” parents: a mother who’d been a classical piano prodigy and a physician father with interest and friends in theater. Deborah and her sister Jessica (the painter responsible for the mural in Sardi’s upstairs banquet room) were surrounded by the arts.
Winer’s mom “instilled in us that in the world there’s no hierarchy or bureaucratic impediment to accomplishing anything you dream…if you envision it and do the work, there’s no earthly reason you shouldn’t go immediately to the top and sort it out with whoever’s in charge.” Her dad offered “a philosophical view of people, very measured and insightful…taking people on their own merits and accepting them for who they are.”
Dr. and Mrs. Winer had a subscription to The Metropolitan Opera. When her mother didn’t want to go, one of the girls was escorted as daddy’s date. Deborah’s first exposure occurred at seven years old. The opera was – wait for it – Richard Wagner’s Götterdämmerung. I wonder aloud at her sitting through, leave absorbing the piece. She lightly assures me that having had dinner, they arrived after the performance began and because her father had to be at the hospital early, left before it was over. This happened often. “…so stories often ended happily and we always got a cab.” She smiles. It seems to come easily.
That same year, a friend invited Winer to her first Broadway musical, Fiddler on the Roof. It was, she says, “tremendously impactful.” Recollected impressions include “visual enormity,” “thrilling theatrical values,” “wonderful dancing,” and “the sound of the pit orchestra.” Curiously, she applies none of these vivid descriptions to years of extravagant opera. Winer filtered everything through songs. She was more stylistically excited by Broadway and old Hollywood musicals. Though she appeared in school plays, even as a child she wanted instead to write them. Her work was produced at school.
Deborah Grace Winer and Jesscia Winer, Apprentices
The Winers spent summers in Westport, Connecticut, a haven for people in the arts. Deborah rounded up neighborhood kids and put on al fresco plays. The Westport Country Playhouse was a short drive and family friend Lucille Lortel’s White Barn Theater just a bike ride down the road. Mrs. Winer asked the impresario to take her daughters and “make’m sweep the stage or something” in order to get theater out of their systems. Like countless other cases, the reverse happened. Winer hastens to tell me that any field was fine with her parents as long as she and her sister “showed verified talent. “
Apprentices Debbie and Jessie got a taste of both grunt work and creative aspects of theater. As “pets” of the barn’s grande dame, they were additionally dressed up (she grimaces slightly) and trotted out to greet audiences. “We were the kids without sun tans, but I got to show Jason Robards where the bathroom was,” she adds nonchalantly. Even as a teen she was never starstruck. “It’s a missing valve.”
Lortel set another example for Winer. “A rich, social woman whose husband wouldn’t let her pursue a career she’d begun as an actress, she loved theater, and though not an intellectual, had an uncanny sense of what was valuable to our time.” Here was an independent, iconoclastic spirit – she sat her audiences like guests at a dinner party and insisted on having submissions read aloud to her – who found a way to participate in the art about which she was passionate.
A history major at Swarthmore, the young woman took every theater course. She and Jessica (also enrolled) were characteristically impatient to create rather than discuss. They began putting on plays and concerts at the campus coffee house. “Reinventing the space, creating our own opportunities to get work up set the template for almost everything in my career.”
After graduation, she was employed at what she cites as her only “real” salaried job, tearing and logging in Metropolitan Opera raffle tickets. No kidding. Winer had been “note-taker, sometime driver and all around resource person” for every show at the Barn directed by Charles P. Maryan. Reading a play by “this bright, enthusiastic young woman” led to his becoming a mentor. He recommended her for an editorial position at Opera News, later directing her Off Broadway play. Ever unorthodox, Winer’s first article, “Kid Sister,” was a profile of Frances Gershwin Godowsky. Making a living as a playwright is extremely difficult. Writing about what she loved, Winer found her way “in.”
“And then I made my way,” she comments mildly. The new graduate wrote for Opera News, The New York Times (she simply sent them a letter pitching an idea), and Town and Country. In 1995, Winer’s play, The Last Girl Singer, was produced Off Broadway by The Women’s Project Theater. (Others would follow.) Stephen Holden of The New York Times opined “…it offers a bracingly cynical view of show business and has some acidic, funny lines…” She was just out of her twenties.
Winer authored four books, the first two with Dennis McGovern, two on her own. Among solo efforts was The Night and The Music, day to day portraits of treasured mentors/ friends Rosemary Clooney, Barbara Cook, and Julie Wilson. Her show based on the vocal virtuosos will be presented during Mabel Mercer Foundation’s October 2018 Cabaret Convention.
Deborah Grace Winer and Rosemary Clooney (Photo: Jessica Daryl Winer)
Meeting Rosemary Clooney was “like lightening striking in a romantic story. We were insanely close. She taught me everything about how to be an artist in this business, how to be true to oneself and build what one thinks is valuable…” Winer shares the example of Clooney’s appearances at New York’s iconic Rainbow Room. “The economics of the job and the vocalist’s expenses meant that inevitably she would barely break even.”
Clooney told Winer it was nonetheless the most important gig of the year because artistically she made it exactly the way she wanted, stellar exposure made it worth the outlay. “It had to do with priorities…” This was a major star “whose psychological and prescription abuse issues along with the arrival of rock n’ roll had reduced her to playing The Holiday Inn in Ventura, California.” Winer notes this would be the show Clooney afterwards took on the road as if it was secondary motivation.
Barbara Cook and Deborah Grace Winer; Deborah Grace Winer and Julie Wilson (Photos: Jessica Daryl Winer)
“Barbara (Cook) was a broad with a great sense of humor… She was grounded…There was nothing world weary about her or namby pamby….She had edge, and fire and temperament… Even when very successful, Barbara kept pinching herself to recognize where she was and what she achieved.”
“Julie Wilson taught me mastery over an audience. She had them in the palm of her hand even when she had no voice left…she was never a worrier… she knew things were out of her control anyway, so whatever happens, happens. Other people knew that too…but they worry all the same – not Julie.”
Lyrics & Lyricists: Songs of The City-Billy Stritch, Klea Blackhurst, Jeffrey Schecter, Leslie Kritzer, Darius De Haas, La Tanya Hall, Deborah Grace Winer (Photo: Stephen Sorokoff)
Having parted with the 92Y hasn’t slowed the artistic director a moment. Her Gershwin program at The Schimmel Center downtown established a relationship there. Great Women Songwriters of The American Songbook began Winer’s collaboration with Feinstein’s/54Below, which will continue with The Classic American Songbook Series on March 27, May 8, and June 17, 2018.
Each of these will feature vocal entertainment bridged by brief anecdote and/or historical narrative riffs. Winer’s philosophy pervades: “I never want the Songbook to have a whiff of nostalgia. Do you go see Traviata and get nostalgic for the 19th century? The material is fresh, vibrant and current. Our first audiences included a bunch of young people.” Some recent and upcoming shows will also be staged at out of state venues. Projects abound. Multitasking is second nature to this seemingly indefatigable woman.
Feinstein’s 54/Below: Great Women Songwriters of The American Songbook – Margo Seibert, Karen Ziemba, Deborah Grace Winer, Kenita Miller, Emily Skinner (Photo: Bruce Cohen)
“I have been in the audience for programs about songwriters produced by Deb Winer and I have performed in such programs. Deb’s affection and respect for songwriters is quite moving to me,” friend/mentor Sheldon Harnick tells me. Ironically Harnick is the lyricist behind her first Broadway experience, a fitting case of aria da capo.
The artist met the famed wordsmith in the early 1990s. “I learn from him almost every moment we spend together, asking for stories about how he wrote this work, or solved that theatrical puzzle, or the ins and outs of collaborating with this or that iconic creative artist. He is also one of the most deeply principled human beings I’ve ever known…”
Deborah Grace Winer and Sheldon Harnick (Photo Stephen Sorokoff)
Winer absorbs something from every talent with whom she comes in contact. Professional relationships often evolve to friendships. “The biggest blessing is the people in my life.” Her mentors appear to be as outstanding as they are legion. Their presence and devotion is telling.
To Deborah Grace Winer, show making/artistic direction is alchemy, a great adventure, a cause. Watch the horizon.
Deborah Grace Winer at work (Photo: Jessica Daryl Winer)
Opening Photo of Deborah Grace Winer: Jessica Daryl Winer
Zero Hour is a helluva piece of writing. Now tightened from two acts (first premiering in 2006) to intermissionless, time-stopping captivation, Jim Brochu’s one man play offers a no-holds-barred look at the quick, wry, perpetually angry leftist; a boisterous man who, though an actor by profession, longed to just paint. This deeply researched piece, as personal as it is historical, illuminates Samuel Joel (Zero) Mostel. Peppered with anecdotes, jokes, and insults, its serious depiction of reasons for the subject’s dark side, including a pivotal run-in with The House Un-American Activities Committee, provides affecting, whiz-bang dramatization.
Mostel speaks to a New York Times reporter blackmailed into modeling. We don’t hear responses. This cleverly allows Brochu to look directly at his audience while he (actually) sketches. “I don’t want to know your name, this is an interview not a relationship.”
The actor begins with his 1915 birth on “a beautiful little radish farm at the intersection of Eastern Parkway and Pitkin Avenue” and ends about to start rehearsals for a Broadway production of Arnold Wesker’s The Merchant. Mostel died shortly thereafter.
We hear about his passion for art (since childhood), immigrant Jewish parents that declared him dead when Mostel married outside the faith, his second wife Katie “a gawegus (phonetic) Catholic Rockette”, HER MUTHA!, and his inadvertent entrée into show business. Brochu leans over the drawing table to scream the last two words stentorian and bug-eyed, then lightly resuming the tale as if his outburst had never occurred. Sheer Zero.
He answers the annoying phone “Palestinian Anti-Defamation League,” screams, swears, slams the receiver down and cheerily says, “that was my wife.”
The subject went from being an art student, to lecturing on art-adding humor, then doing benefits and finally breaking out as a comedian at Barney Josephson’s Café Society. (We see part of the routine. Both physicality and timing are recognizable.) Watch the bird movement of his large head as it jerks around as if gauging the room’s temperature; his eloquent hands, fingers most often splayed, gesturing close to the body – like a smaller man; and the frozen beat he takes to allow humor to land.
“I was a Marxist….Why? WHY???!!!.(ostensibly the reporter has asked) BECAUSE OF HITLER AND FASCISM!” Next comes the WPA, a Hollywood contract cut short when Mostel blew off a Louis B. Mayer party for a Longshoremen benefit, and the life altering HUAC: Communism equaled liberalism equaled Judaism! Names are vehemently named. Participants excoriated. Friends mourned. Part of his testimony is shared. As if things weren’t bad enough, the actor was then run over by a bus. (Did you know this, reader?)
Theater includes famous roles in Marjorie Barkentin’s Ulysses in Nightown, Rhinoceros (Eugène Ionesco),A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (Stephen Sondheim/Burt Shevelove/Larry Gilbert), which suffered near fatal growing pains on its way to Broadway and threw in his path one of Hollywood’s major HUAC informers, and the iconic Fiddler on the Roof, (Jerry Bock/Sheldon Harnick/Joseph Stein) during which his past came back to haunt the actor. (The actor initially hated both Forum and Tevye, the first iteration of Fiddler.)
We then neatly circle back with palpable regret to lost peers, lost family, and Mostel again forced to leave his art studio for theater. A last line, which refers to what he considered an outrageous request from Katie, couldn’t be better. It leaves us with a knowing smile.
Jim Brochu is so filled with energy, so present, it’s as if he’s performing early in the run of a new show. The actor has honed his character over the years to a degree that brings a whole human being to life. Though familiar mannerisms and speech patterns (including intermittent volume) are employed, this is less a purposeful imitation than top notch channeling.
Director Piper Laurie has done a wonderful job of utilizing the stage, seamlessly evoking mood change in extremely subtle chapters. Pacing is just right. Use of props is completely natural. One assumes this is predominantly the original direction.
Josh Iacovelli’s Scenic Design is detailed and evocative. His Lighting adroitly defines subtly overlapping vignettes.
There’s no credit, but Sound Design is excellent.
Production Photos by Stan Barough
The Peccadillo Theater Company presents Jim Brochu as Zero Mostel in Zero Hour By Jim Brochu Directed by Piper Laurie Theatre at St. Clements 423 West 46th Street Through July 9, 2017