When I was growing up, I couldn’t wait for Andy the Mailman to bring the monthly magazines my mother subscribed to — especially Better Homes & Gardens, Woman’s Day, Good Housekeeping, Family Circle, and McCall’s.

Mostly, I liked the one-panel cartoons, and I looked forward to reading the humor column on the last page of BH&G, which appeared under the byline of Burton Hillis, which I learned only a couple of years ago was a pen name for Bill Vaughan.


My favorite feature, though, appeared in McCall’s. It was Eleanor Roosevelt’s Q&A column, “If You Ask Me.” She started writing that column in 1949 and continued until she died in 1961. I don’t know how old I was when I started reading it. I was only seven years old in 1949, so it might not have been then, but I must have been pretty young, because I can still recall my mother asking me why a boy my age wanted to read that column. I don’t know what answer I gave, but I remember being fascinated with Eleanor Roosevelt long before I fully understood who she was.

As I grew older, of course, I came to appreciate her character and the many contributions she made to American life.

My mind is on Mrs. Roosevelt just now because I recently reviewed Robert Klara’s interesting book, “FDR’s Funeral Train,” which is a chronicle of the transport of Franklin Roosevelt’s body from Warm Springs, Ga., where he died in April 1945, first to Washington, D.C., for a service in the East Room of the White House and then to Hyde Park, N.Y., for a funeral and burial at the Roosevelt home.

Klara provides a lot of details about the logistics of this enterprise — everything from the preparation of the president’s body and the selection of a 700-pound copper casket to the history and features of the engines and cars that made up the trains.


Woven into this account, however, are the human stories — including the culmination of Franklin Roosevelt’s long liaison with Lucy Mercer Rutherferd. Mrs. Rutherferd had been Eleanor Roosevelt’s social secretary when FDR — with the presidency far in the future — began his affair with her. Eleanor Roosevelt discovered this relationship in 1918 and ultimately agreed to an arrangement in which she and FDR would remain married but would live separately, as it were, and he would not see Mrs. Rutherferd. The second part of that bargain didn’t last very long, and he continued to see Mrs. Rutherferd literally until the day he died. In fact, she was present when Roosevelt suffered the cerebral hemorrhage that caused his death.

Taken by surprise by her husband’s death, Eleanor Roosevelt traveled to Warm Springs and was, to all outward appearances, the picture of composure and dignity as she planned and participated in the rituals that led to the grave.


During this sad trip, however, Mrs. Roosevelt not only confirmed what she had suspected — that FDR had continued to see Mrs. Rutherferd and that Lucy had been at Warm Springs when he died — but also that the visits between the two had been arranged with the connivance of various members of the president’s  official and personal household — including the Roosevelts’ daughter, Anna.

Klara also relates in this book how the death of FDR affected Harry Truman, who had not been a member of FDR’s inner circle and had not been informed of important matters of state, including the fact that scientists in New Mexico were at that moment developing what they believed would be the most destructive bomb ever produced.


However unprepared Truman may have been for his new role, Klara describes him as  a man who kept his wits about him and did what had to be done. Roosevelt died in Georgia on a Thursday  afternoon, and he was buried in upstate New York on the following Sunday. Truman planned to address a joint session of Congress on Monday, and he spent his time on the train from Washington to Hyde Park and back again working on that speech with his advisers. It was, Klara reports, a hit with Congress and with the public, as Truman promised to pursue Roosevelt’s policies, including FDR’s demand for unconditional surrender by both Germany and Japan. In a few months, Truman, who hadn’t been trusted with the secret of the bomb, would make the lonely decision to use it against Japan in order to put an end to hostilities in the Pacific.

Klara includes some detailed descriptions of the awkward political atmosphere on the trains as one administration was passing out of existence and another was taking control. The author also discusses the controversial security risk taken by organizers and participants in the Hyde Park funeral, as virtually the whole government traveled together on the train while the country was at war. The risk wasn’t far fetched; Klara notes that among the passengers — despite the high level of security — was a government operative who was a spy for the KGB.

A woman weeps over the death of Franklin Roosevelt. The president's widow said she never realized until she watched the crowds along the funeral train's route the dimensions of the public's devotion to FDR. / Life magazine photo



We watched “What Just Happened,” an odd film starring Robert De Niro, who can’t be accused of never making interesting choices — “interesting” being a relative term.

This film was released in 2008 and was shown at the Cannes Film Festival that year. That was fair play inasmuch as the festival itself plays an important part in the movie. Although the title begins with an interrogative pronoun, it does not end with a question mark, which — as I tell my English students — mean that it is not a complete idea. The film is based on a novel which does have a question mark: “What Just Happened? Bitter Hollywood Takes from the Front Line” by Art Linson.


Linson has produced several films, including “Car Wash,” “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” “The Untouchables,” and “The Black Dahlia,” and he purports to tell, in his novel, about some of his experiences while he was so employed.
In the movie, De Niro plays a producer, identified only as Ben, who has just completed filming a violent flick that stars Sean Penn. In the conclusion  of Ben’s movie, Penn’s character and the character’s dog are shot to death in a gratuitously violent scene. When the movie is screened, the studio head demands that at least the shooting of the dog be removed, and she threatens to either assign someone else to do the cutting or else pull the from the Cannes festival.
Ben takes this up with Jeremy Brunell, a renegade British director played by Michael Wincott, and Brunell blows his stack, insisting that he will not change his film. While this argument is under way, Ben, who is supporting two former wives and several children, runs into a problem on his next picture when Bruce Willis — like Penn, playing himself in this film — refuses to shave his beard for the part, a decision the studio won’t accept. In the midst of all this, Ben is also obsessed with the idea that  a screenwriter named Scott Solomon (Stanley Tucci) is having sex with Ben’s second wife.


All of these issues are resolved, so to speak, in manners bizarre enough to earn their places in this film.
Penn’s role is kind of innocuous, but it is interesting to see Willis portraying himself as an overblown jerk. It makes a body wonder.
This isn’t a movie to relax by. It’s full of frenetic shots and screamed profanity and violence both imagined and real. If one assumes that Linson is being at all truthful in describing the atmosphere in which movies are made, it is fun to watch this one while running in the back of one’s mind those vapid scenes on Oscar night when actors and directors and producers compliment each other on their shared “courage” and, hey, for “being there.”

Bruce Willis, Robert De Niro, and Stanley Tucci in a scene from "What Just Happened"


The only time I have carried on a conversation with a naked man, the man was Kirby Puckett. I met him in the Twins’ locker room after a game at Yankee Stadium, and although I had no real business there, and although he had no idea who I was, and although he had just finished playing nine innings and hadn’t showered yet, Puckett couldn’t have been friendlier. The conversation confirmed Puckett’s reputation as Mr. Nice Guy, which is a good reputation to go along with one of the outstanding baseball careers of the 20th century.

Unfortunately, Puckett’s image and Puckett himself eventually came to grief. He was accused and acquitted of sexually assaulting a woman at a Minneapolis restaurant, and he was described in a column by Frank Deford as someone very different from his teddy bear image. He also developed glaucoma and suffered a stroke and died when he was only 45.

Things like that happen to a lot of people, but they take on Shakespearean proportions when they happen to the kinds of heroes and flops that baseball creates in a way that other team sports seldom do. That’s because baseball, unlike other team sports, pauses so often to focus attention on an individual player at an individual moment in time. This is why baseball has contributed so much to literature and film.


Consider Archibald “Moonlight” Graham, who became familiar to millions of people in the novel “Shoeless Joe” and the motion picture “Field of Dreams” not only despite the fact that he appeared in only one major league game — and never came to bat — but precisely because of that. Graham played two half innings in the outfield, but that distinguished him from most of us American men, who would be satisfied if we could say the same. He was one guy among thousands who have made it even momentarily to the bigs, and in a way that was good enough.
Twenty three men who made it to the top, plus one who never did and one who never existed at all, are the subjects of “Top of the Order,” a collection of essays edited by Sean Manning. Each of 25 writers responds in this book to an invitation to identify his or her favorite baseball player. Kirby Puckett was the choice of Craig Finn, singer and lyricist for The Hold Steady, the Brooklyn-based rock band.


There is nothing obvious about this book. The writers don’t choose their “favorites” based solely on careers such as Puckett had. A couple of players are in this book, in fact, because they stunk, and some are there because they were only adequate, but still played the game hard and, from time to time, came through with a thrill for the fans.
Jim Bouton, pitcher-turned-media man, writes about Steve Dembowski, who went to high school in Rutherford, N.J., and college at Fairleigh Dickinson University, and at both places was an outstanding baseball player. He was small for a pro player — five foot four — but besides having all the usual requisite skills, Dembowski has mastered the art of getting hit by a pitch again and again and living to tell about it. This is no joke. In his senior year at FDU, he hit .375, walked 39 times, stole 27 bases in 28 attempts, and drove in 21 runs. He was also hit by a pitch 36 times and had a .729 on-base percentage — unheard of at any level of play. The scouts showed no interest, Bouton writes, because they thought the kid was too small to play among the giants in the modern game.
Lou Gehrig, Pedro Martinez, Dave Kingman, Jackie Robinson, Vic Power, Mookie Wilson, even the fictional Crash Davis. They’re all among the “favorites” in this book, and they make for good spring reading.

On April 19, I wrote about a 22-inning baseball game in 1962 in which the Yankees beat the Tigers, 9-7, thanks to the only home run of Jack Reed’s career. I mentioned in that post that Tigers outfielder Rocky Colavito went seven-for-ten in that game. That attracted a response from Gloria, who is a member of a group that is campaigning for the Veterans Committee to elect Colavito to the National Baseball Hall of Fame this  year.

It’s well known by now that the Hall of Fame is not the Hall of Justice. I have commented here, for example, on the fact that Pete Rose — an obnoxious SOB, but one of the best hitters of all time — is ineligible because he gambled on baseball, but Adrian “Cap” Anson stares smugly from his plaque despite his critical role in keeping two or three generations of black players out of the major  leagues. So if Rocky Colavito hasn’t been elected, there is no reason to be surprised.

I have a good perspective on this question, because  I saw Colavito play at Yankee Stadium many times. I was fortunate enough to have a father who was devoted to both baseball and the Yankees, and at one  point in the 1950s and 1960s, we attended an average of three games a week when the Yankees were home. We saw Colavito through most of his career.


Colavito’s stats as a hitter and as a fielder speak for themselves. They are readily available on the Internet, so I won’t recite them all here. I will mention that in 116 years, only 15 men have hit four home runs in one game; Colavito was one of them. That in itself doesn’t qualify him for the Hall of Fame, but in the context of the career he had at the plate, it can’t be ignored. The feat was first accomplished by Bobby Lowe of the Boston Beaneaters in 1894. Lowe was playing in the dead-ball era, but he was also playing in Boston’s Congress Street Park, which had a short left-field line. All four of his homers were hit to left. The only other player in the 19th century to hit  four home runs in one game was Ed Delahanty of the Phillies, who did it in 1896. Records are incomplete, but it is known that at least two of Delahanty’s homers that day were inside the park.

Another thing that distinguishes Colavito’s share of this record is that he is one of only six men in major league history to hit four home runs in consecutive at-bats in a single game. The others were Lowe, Lou Gehrig, Mike Schmidt, Mike Cameron, and Carlos Delgado. As rare an accomplishment as that is, it was typical of Colavito in the sense that he always brought excitement to the game; he put derrières in the seats, as it were, and it’s hard to calculate the value of that. It’s unusual for the fans at a baseball stadium to jump to their feet because of an outfielder’s throw, but Colavito’s arm was a high-caliber gun, and I was often among those who bolted out of our seats when he uncorked one toward the infield.

Rocky Colavito belongs in the Hall of Fame. If you want to read more about Colavito or sign a petition to the Veterans Committee, you can do both at THIS SITE.

Rocky Colavito, right, with pitching great Herb Score in 2006, when they and five others were inducted into the Cleveland Indians Hall of Fame.


“The truth of our faith becomes a matter of ridicule among the infidels if any Catholic, not gifted with the necessary scientific learning, presents as dogma what scientific scrutiny shows to be false.”

Thus spake the Dominican priest Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century. Aquinas was a master of the syllogism, and his idea of scientific scrutiny was that conclusions had to be based on premises which themselves were either self evident or had been objectively demonstrated. I thought of Aquinas when I wrote a post yesterday about Albert Einstein, who was in the business of putting together premises and conclusions. In a sense, Aquinas and Einstein came at the question of the origins of the universe from opposite directions. Aquinas was a man of faith, but he believed — and sought to demonstrate in his “Summa Theologica” — that a person could arrive at the existence of a First Cause — God — through reason alone.


Einstein didn’t believe in God in the sense that Jews and Christians and Muslims do. In that sense, he didn’t believe in a god at all, no matter how hard religious folks try to hear him saying otherwise. However, Einstein’s  lifetime of inquiry into the physical laws that govern the universe did lead him to speculate — forgive me if I don’t express this precisely — that somewhere beyond the seemingly endless questions about the universe must lie some force that governs it.

I recently discussed all this — Aquinas, Einstein, God, the origin of the universe — with, of all people, the actress Sandy Duncan.


By “of all people,” I don’t mean to imply that there is anything surprising about Sandy Duncan discussing such things. In fact, I gathered she gives such things quite a bit of thought and has had provocative conversations about them with her two adult sons. I only meant that I would be unlikely to talk to Sandy Duncan at all, except that she was scheduled to appear in a new play that examines the outfall that can occur when science and religion collide head-on. The actress was to play the title role in “Creating Claire” by Joe DiPietro, but she took ill, withdrew from the cast, and was replaced by another talented performer, Barbara Walsh.


DiPietro’s play begins previews tomorrow night at the cradle of new theatrical works, the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick. The title character, Claire Buchanan, is a teacher but now works as a docent at the Museum of Earth and Sky in upstate New York. She leads visitors on the Origins of Life Tour, reciting a script that focuses on the evolution of species. The script is the brainchild of Victoria Halstead, museum director and friend of Claire – in that order, as things work out. Victoria encourages a docent to “personalize” the presentation as long as the glosses are innocuous, but Claire is no automaton, especially when a reference in the script to “random mutation” complicates her attempt to understand a fact of her own life. Claire and her husband, Reggie, have an autistic 16-year-old daughter, Abigail, and Claire has been considering how the process described by Charles Darwin could result in an individual such as Abigail. Eventually, Claire’s contemplation creeps into her talks at the museum as she suggests to visitors that the processes of nature may have been – gasp! – designed. Once that genie is on the loose, there is hell to pay, as it were.


Victoria — to be played by Lynn Cohen — puts her own belief in science and her vision for the museum ahead of friendship when she learns about Claire’s transgression. Reggie – a high school teacher who has considered his bond to Claire a “mixed marriage” only to the extent that he is an atheist and she is an agnostic — is stunned by this change of Claire’s train of thought. Disagreements over Abigail’s status have already revealed strains in the couple’s relationship; Claire’s public speculation about a “designer” pushes those strains to the breaking point.

This play, however, is not a death struggle between science and religion so much as an examination of intellectual openness and honesty. Claire is willing to at least entertain an idea that had been anathema to her but does not insist that others accept that idea. Victoria and Reggie opt to defend their “rightness,” as Duncan called it, regardless of the professional or personal consequences. The implications for contemporary political discourse may be painfully obvious.

Believe in God or not, but in the end it is Claire, and not the more “scientific” Victoria and Reggie, who seems to have heeded Einstein: “Only daring speculation can lead us further, and not accumulation of facts.”

Em cee squared

May 17, 2010

A blackboard with formulas written by Albert Einstein, preserved in the Museum of the History of Science at the University of Oxford.

Several decades ago, I began to make a point of reading several books each year on subjects about which I knew little or nothing — including subjects that I found repulsive. Among those subjects have been mathematics and physics, both of which bedeviled me when I had to study them in high school and college. As I have mentioned here before, at least with respect to mathematics, I have derived a great deal of satisfaction from pondering these subjects when examinations and grades are not at issue, and I have found that those who claim that there  is beauty and wonder in these fields are telling the truth

That background explains why I grabbed the opportunity to review a popular biography entitled “Einstein: The Life of a Genius” by Walter Isaacson. This is a coffee table book that contains a limited amount of text in proportion to the number pages and illustrates its points with many photographs and also with facsimiles of several letters and documents. Among these are Einstein’s letter to Franklin D. Roosevelt in which the scientist advised the president to call together a group of experts to study the possibility of developing an atom bomb — something Nazi Germany was known to be doing at the time. As it happened, Einstein — a pacifist whose work in physics  helped pave the way to such weapons — was considered too great a security risk to work on the project himself, what with him being a native of Germany, a socialist, and a Jew.

Isaacson records that one of Einstein’s early physics instructors described him as “an extremely clever boy,” but added, “You have one great fault: You’ll never let yourself be told anything.”  It wasn’t meant as compliment, but still, this tendency as much as anything else led to Einstein’s achievements in theoretical physics. Einstein — like Isaac Newton before him — would not accept anything as settled just because it was handed on to him by authoritative sources. He wondered and questioned and “experimented” with physical phenomena such as light and motion by forming images in his mind, and he changed the world.

Einstein is a curiosity in a way, because he was one of the most widely known celebrities of his time and his name is part of our language more than 50 years after his death, and yet most of us have little or no idea what he was up to. That doesn’t matter. He deserves his place in our culture if for no other reason than his persistence in questioning even his own conclusions.

Out of the depths

May 14, 2010


I finally remembered the password to my previous blog, and I rescued a few posts that I particularly liked — narcissist that I am. This is one of them, from June 11, 2006:

I WAS SITTING the car yesterday, waiting. I ran the windows down because sun was bright and the temperature was rising. It was windy – no doubt, you noticed that. The wind blowing through the car was simultaneously chilling and cleansing. The sky was brilliant, decorated only with racing puffs of moisture. I checked the cassette to see what CDs the usual driver had stored there. “La Boheme.” I put it on and concentrated to see how much of the opening dialogue I could decipher. What can you say about Puccini? Although he once sued Al Jolson, claiming that Jolson had filched the first few chords of “Avalon” from a passage in “E Lucevan le stelle” – specifically, “O dolci baci. O languide carezze.” The court thought that whatever reprehensible things Jolson might have done in his life, this wasn’t one of them.
DOWN AND ACROSS the street was a bar. On this bright, blue, breezy day, the dark room was crowded. One man, with a belly the size of a St Bernard, came out onto the sidewalk, sat on a high stool, put his foot up on another, and lit a cigar. He carefully arranged the stools before he sat down. He does this often. Whiles away a bright spring day in the darkness of that bar and comes outside to smoke, sitting on one stool with his foot up on another. One by one, others joined him from inside the bar, including two women and a boy who looked to be about 10. He hugged one of the women in a way that suggested she was his mother. A man pulled his car into an adjoining parking lot and walked toward the gaggle of folks outside the bar. The boy ran toward him – sort of the reverse of the father and son in the parable. The man exchanged a few words with the woman, took the boy with him to the car and drove away. The woman watched them until they were in the car, and then she turned back to her friends. One by one they went back inside. The man with the belly got up and carefully put the stools back in their places. He was the last one to disappear again into the darkness, leaving behind the wind and the sun and the clouds and the sky.

Sheet music to "So Long, Oolong"

When Patricia T. O’Conner, author of popular books on English usage, visited the Leonard Lopate show on WNYC this week, the segment was introduced by a vocal of the song “Three Little Words,” which made me think of Harry Ruby. Ruby and his longtime colleague, Bert Kalmar, wrote that song in 1930 for what would now be considered an offensive movie.

The film was “Check and Double Check” — the only movie made by Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll in their blackface roles as Amos Jones and Andrew H. Brown — characters they made famous with their long-running radio series, “Amos ‘n’ Andy.” The song didn’t get small-time treatment in the film; it was performed by Bing Crosby and the Duke Ellington Orchestra.

The song also lent its name to the title of the 1950 film biography of  Ruby and Kalman.


Harry Ruby first came to my attention when  I was a kid, and he made a guest appearance on the Danny Thomas television show, “Make Room for Daddy.” Ruby sang another song he had written with Kalman, one that — some might say mercifully — is not as well known as “Three Little Words.” The 1920 tune was “So Long, Oolong. How Long Ya’ Gonna be Gone,” which had racist overtones, as did so many Tin Pan Alley songs written in that era.

The song is about a Japanese girl named Ming Toy, whose boyfriend left for what was supposed to be a short spell but turned into a long spell. Hence the chorus: So long, Oolong, how long ya’ gonna be gone?”


Ruby and Kalman were prolific, and some of their work was much more sophisticated than the Oolong affair. For example, they wrote “My Honey’s Lovin’ Arms,” which got a signature performance many years later in “The Barbra Streisand Album.” The pair also wrote “Who’s Sorry Now?” “Nevertheless (I’m in Love with You),” “A Kiss to Build a Dream On,” and the Betty Boop theme, “I Wanna be Loved by You,” among others.

As talented and productive as Ruby was as a songwriter, though, what I like best about him is that he always  wanted to be a baseball player. He tried, unsuccessfully to make it into the pros, and he never missed a chance in later life to get close to the game. His devotion to the sport is the source of one of the great baseball anecdotes.


Ruby seized an opportunity to appear in “Elmer the Great,” a sports movie starring the comedian Joe E. Brown, who was also a devotee of baseball. The movie was shot at the old Wrigley Field, a minor league park in Los Angeles. One of the scenes called for an player, to be portrayed by Ruby, to drop a ball hit to him in the outfield. Ruby walked off the set, insisting that he wouldn’t drop a ball on purpose for any amount of money. Later, when Brown and Ruby happened to be in the company of Lou Gehrig, Brown told that story, figuring that Ruby would be embarrassed. Gehrig, with a straight face, said it was the greatest baseball story he had ever heard


We watched the 2009 film “Everybody’s Fine,” starring Robert De Niro and Drew Barrymore, and it was — well — fine. The movie, which also stars Kate Beckinsale and Sam Rockwell, is based on an Italian flick, “Sono Tutti Bene.” The American version has earned about half of what it cost.

The premise is that a widower, Frank Goode (De Niro), who lives alone in upstate New York, has his mind set on getting his four children to gather around the same table. A reunion at the family home has been arranged, but the kids cancel on Frank. Frustrated by this outcome, he decides to travel across the country and visit them — unannounced — one by one. His first stop is New York City to see David, who is an artist, but David is not at home, and does not come home. Frank moves on to visit daughter Amy (Beckinsale), who is an advertising executive — married and the mother of one boy. Lying ineffectively because she’s hiding bad news about David and about her marriage, Kate tells Frank that his visit was ill timed, and she hustles him out of town as quickly as possible.


Frank moves on to Denver, where, he mistakenly believes, son Robert (Rockwell) conducts a symphony orchestra. Robert also bluffs, says he’s about to leave on a tour, and gets rid of Frank — breaking his promise not to call ahead to sister Rosie (Barrymore), a dancer in Las Vegas with a couple of  secrets of her own. Rose gives Frank a warmer welcome, but this time he is the one who decides to cut the visit short because he lost a needed medication during a mugging incident on his travels.

What Frank’s children are keeping from him concerning David is made clear from early in the movie. What unfolds gradually as Frank sees through the lies his offspring tell him is that they and their mother systematically shielded him from bad news in the family while  he labored to support them by coating telephone lines with a toxic insulation.


The children also nurse a vague notion that Frank was a bit too hard on them when they were growing up, but this turns out to have been more complex than they describe.

De Niro is surrounded by talented actors in this film, but the movie also provides him with a low-key tour de force in which an aging man figures out who he has been and who he is going to be for the rest of his life. The children discover that Frank is  sharper than they gave him credit for, and he discovers that, as his children, they have fulfilled any worthwhile ambition he may have had for them.

“Everybody’s Fine” didn’t get a lot of attention, but De Niro did win the Hollywood Film Festival “best actor” award, and Paul McCartney’s original theme, “(I Want to) Come Home,” was nominated for several awards, including a Golden Globe.

Kate Beckinsale and Robert De Niro in a scene from "Everybody's Fine"