Set ‘er up, Joe!

December 31, 2010

Vodka and cranberry

We asked the bartender at a hotel in Warsaw for vodka and cranberry juice, but he claimed never to have heard of such a thing. When we described it to him, he offered to substitute blackberry brandy for the cranberry juice, and that turned out to be satisfactory – enough so, that we ordered it every day we were there.

I think about cocktails at this time of year, because I have associated them with New Year’s Eve since I was a child. It seems to me that images associated with the occasion — in newspaper ads, for instance — invariably have martini glasses along with the confetti and streamers. Before I started going out to New Year’s Eve parties and confronted reality, I thought of them as the epitome of sophistication, and cocktails were intrinsic to the concept. I guess I don’t think of myself as being sophisticated, because the only mixed drinks I like are vodka and cranberry and gin and tonic, and I haven’t had a gin and tonic in about a decade.

Horse's Neck

Coincidentally, I read today that Franklin Roosevelt loved to mix drinks for his friends and visitors. According to the author of the book that will be the subject of a post sometime next week, FDR especially liked to flourish the shaker. His own favorite cocktail was the Horse’s Neck, which in his case meant whiskey and ginger ale. The drink gets its name from the twisted lemon rind submerged in the glass.

When I was a kid, I liked the names of individual drinks my parents and their friends mentioned — Black Russian, Manhattan, Brandy Alexander, Tom and Jerry, Tom Collins.  Those names were right out of Esquire, and I’d rather not say how I knew that when I was a kid. One of those names was Presbyterian, and I understood years later when my father-in-law, strictly a social drinker, got hot under the collar at a wedding we attended, because the young bartender didn’t know what a Presbyterian was — namely bourbon, club soda, and ginger ale.


Harvey Wallbanger

That young guy aside, I always thought of the bartender as the archetype of cool. I still occasionally think that I’d like to be a bartender if it was in just the right kind of establishment — high brow, cool, “the ladies who lunch” kind of place. That may be why I wandered into a hotel bar in Manhattan one early afternoon many years ago while I waited for the actress Jane Russell to keep an appointment with me. Dim lights, highly polished dark wood, barkeeps with black vests, and garters on their sleeves. At the time, I had taken a few turns with Harvey Wallbanger while pretending to keep up with some of my harder-drinking friends, so I sat alone at the bar and ordered one. I think I imagined myself in a movie, circa 1948. The bartender allowed as how Mr. W. hadn’t caught on yet in Gotham and, when I had fought my way to the bottom, he asked if the drink had been satisfactory. I had no idea, but the script made me say that it was a bit too heavy on the Galliano. I think I wished at that moment that I was a smoker, because exhaling a long stream before answering would have added so much to that scene. My host was accommodating nevertheless, and he served up another on the grounds that the customer must be satisfied. My appointment was long in coming, and Roberto got the proportions right on the third try. When Jane Russell came down from her room in a cloud of apologies, I wouldn’t have made her feel guilty for the world, and I gallantly agreed when she asked if we could find a place with strong black coffee.

Sheet music cover for "Friend Highball" lyrics and music by William J. McKenna, 1915.




When I was a kid, I was led to believe by adults, who I assume meant well, that his contemporaries discouraged Christopher Columbus from undertaking his first voyage to “the Indies” on the grounds that he and his ships would drop off the edge of a flat earth. I didn’t imagine this. I have asked at least a dozen folks of my vintage — which grows increasingly rare, by the way — and they have recalled being told the same thing, even by teachers. I was well into middle age when I learned that the Europeans Columbus was likely to have encountered knew that the Earth was a sphere, and that the argument current at the time had to do with the planet’s size, not its shape. I now know that the idea of a spherical Earth, dates from the sixth century BC, although it wasn’t until much later that there was practical proof of what had been generally accepted as the fact. Columbus was one who helped to demonstrate it. The Admiral of the Ocean Sea, it turns out, wasn’t wrong about the globe; he was simply wrong about its dimensions.


It wasn’t until more recently — the past few weeks, in fact — that I learned the truth about the Roman emperor Nero, namely that he couldn’t have fiddled while Rome burned, because the violin didn’t appear in Europe until hundreds of years after his death. That came up in a new biography of Nero written by Stephen Dando-Collins, who also casts doubt on the widely accepted ideas that Nero ordered the burning of Rome in 64 AD and that he initiated the Roman persecution of Christians in order to deflect blame for the fire from himself. (The writer points out that there were so few Christians in Rome during Nero’s reign that it’s even likely that the emperor knew nothing about them.)

Nero was 16 years old when he succeeded his uncle Claudius, becoming the fifth Roman emperor and the last who shared a bloodline with Julius Caesar. Among his interests were singing and chariot racing, and he wasn’t content just to be a spectator of either. Dando-Collins explains that Nero repeatedly entered amateur singing contests, which were all the rage at the time, much to the enjoyment of the hoi polloi and much to the dismay of the Roman nobility.

Nero: The boy emperor

Besides sponsoring and reveling in races, he also took the reins at times, once narrowly missing death when he was thrown from the chariot. He first entered a singing competition in Neapolis, what is now Naples. On the occasion of the fire in Rome, he was in his  birthplace, Antium — present day Anzio — to participate in another contest. The fire evidently started in the food concessions under the stands of the Circus Maximus, which was the largest wooden structure of any kind and the largest sports arena ever built. The capacity was about 300,000 spectators.

Rumors that Nero was responsible for the fire and that he had ordered his agents to impede the firefighting — such as it was — began while the city was still in flames. The rumors were the results of a complex of jealousies and intrigues that were common to life in the corridors of Roman power. They were encouraged, ironically, by Nero’s seemingly efficient response to the fire, which some said he caused so he could remake the city in his own image. He did build an enormous new residence for himself, but he also rebuilt the devastated part of the city with broader streets and a better water supply and — of all things — building codes to prevent some of the shoddy construction that had contributed to the losses in the fire.


Nero did a great deal to assist those whose homes and belongings were wiped out in the fire, but he was no angel. He irritated powerful people with what they considered his coarse behavior — including his bi-sexual adventures — and with his choices for appointments, favoring freedmen to blue bloods. He led the kind of uneasy life that went with being emperor  of Rome, and his insecurities — some of them well founded — resulted in the suicides and executions of many a noble figure, not the least of whom were his mother, Agrippina the Younger, and his stepbrother. Dando-Collins describes in some detail the political dynamics and the bloody outcomes that both solidified Nero’s power and eventually led to his own downfall a few years after the fire, when he was only 30 years old.

Many of us, who have no reason to be students of ancient Roman history, carry around a cartoonish notion of Nero as a crazy tyrant. But while Dando-Collins doesn’t try to disguise the extreme measures the emperor would take to keep himself on the throne — and his head  on his shoulders — the writer does present Nero in context. He points out that contemporary accounts of Nero’s life were written in most cases by men who disliked him, that his manner of dealing with political enemies and criminals was not out of line with the practices of the time — in fact, was more lenient — and that he was remarkably patient with people who ridiculed him. The author also regards Nero as a “visionary” with respect to public works and points out that the empire was prosperous under his administration — at least until he started collecting and spending money to rebuild the ruined capital.

As much as we’d like to know the whole truth about people like Nero, they make history more interesting in their own way by flitting in and out of the shadows.

Nero agonizes over the death of his mother, whose constant interference caused the emperor to order her execution. Painting by John William Waterhouse

“Bide the end!”

December 24, 2010


When I was in the sixth grade, our teacher, Mrs. Minor Merchant, assigned two other students and me to write a short play based on Charles Dickens’ novella, “A Christmas Carol.” I had never read the story before then, but I have read it every Christmas season since, as I am in the midst of reading it now. In the meantime, I became a fan of  Dickens in general, and have read all of his novels and many of  his other works — some of them over and over again. Of course, I have also watched adaptations of his work for the screen and the stage. Most of Dickens’ work is too expansive to be recreated in another medium except in sharply truncated form. That’s to be understood, but I have noticed that among the elements of his storytelling that usually fall by the wayside is the intensity of the anger with which he wrote — and that is in no case more than true than in the case of “A Christmas Carol.”

Alastair Sim in the title role of the 1951 film "Scrooge"

This tale, published in 1843, reputedly changed the way Christmas was observed in Great Britain and the United States. Apparently Christmas had become an impersonal, institutional event. Dickens believed it should be centered more on the family and the home and should inspire feelings of affection and generosity. The themes in “A Christmas Carol” touched folks in exactly that way and permanently altered the way they marked the day. Dickens was not religious in the conventional sense; in fact, he famously rejected organized religion in general and religious dogma in particular and repeatedly  lampooned the clergy and their preaching. Still, he held Jesus in high regard and subscribed to what he construed to be Jesus’ central message: Love one another.

Ebenezer Scrooge is confronted by the ghost of his business partner, Jacob Marley.

Dickens had experienced a powerful dose of inhumanity as he grew up in impoverished and humiliating circumstances, and he went out of his way as an adult to witness the suffering of those whom the industrial revolution had left without hope of a decent, dignified life. His reaction to what he saw is often obscured in the popular images of the characters Dickens created. When Dickens was 12, his father was sent to debtor’s prison — an event memorialized by the experience of Wilkins Macawber in “David Copperfield.”  Dickens had to work 10-hour days under atrocious conditions pasting labels on bottles of boot blacking — and that was also recreated by the boy Copperfield in the novel. The fact that not only Dickens but many other children were treated so badly infuriated Dickens. He wrote about such abuse in “Oliver Twist,” but the anger with which he wrote is hardly evident in such echoes as the musical “Oliver!” And as charming as “A Christmas Carol” can be, it is darkened again and again by Dickens’ flaring temper. This indignation drives these stories, but it often gets left behind when the text is reinterpreted for the stage or the screen.

Scrooge meets the Spirit of Christmas Present

Dickens bristled, for example, over his perception that those who were well off  were not only insensitive to the poor, but dismissive of them. He put the words in the mouth of Scrooge, and the adaptations generally preserve them: “If they would rather die, they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.” But less familiar is Dickens’ outburst through the Spirit of Christmas Present, who – as they discussed the crippled Tiny Tim –- the son of Scrooge’s impoverished and misused clerk — hurled Scrooge’s words back in his face but went on: “Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die? It may be , that in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man’s child. Oh God! To hear the Insect on the leaf pronouncing on the too much life among his hungry brothers in the dust!”

Alastair Sim as Scrooge and Francis De Wolff as the Spirit of Christmas Present

There is another exchange between Scrooge and the same Spirit that was inspired by the views of a member of Parliament, Sir Andrew Agnew, who several times introduced measures that would have forbidden virtually all activity in London on Sundays. The restrictions were skewed in such a way that they would have heavily affected the poor but would have had little impact on the rich. Among the provisions would have been a ban on popular recreation and the closure of bakers’ shops. These enterprises were already prohibited from baking bread on Sundays and on Christmas Day, but many poor families, who had only meager facilities at home for heating food, took their victuals to a baker so as to enjoy a hot meal once a week and on the holiday. As Scrooge and the Spirit are watching simple citizens bustling around the city shops on Christmas day, Scrooge remarks, “I wonder you, of all the beings in the many worlds around us, should desire to cramp these people’s opportunities for innocent enjoyment.”

Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim

When the Spirit expresses surprise on being blamed, Scrooge presses on: “You would deprive them of their means of dining every seventh day, often the only day they can be said to dine at all? Wouldn’t you?” The Spirit denies any part in such a thing, and Scrooge makes one retort too many: “Forgive me if I am wrong. It has been done in your name, or at least in that of your family.” Here, again, the text provides a furious outburst on the subject of hypocrisy, as the Spirit speaks on Dickens’ behalf: “There are some upon this Earth of yours who lay claim to know us, and who do their deeds of passion, ill-will, hatred, envy, bigotry, and selfishness in our name, who as strange to us and all our kith and kin, as if they had never lived. Remember that, and charge their doings on themselves, not on us.”

The Spirit exposes Scrooge to Ignorance and Want

Perhaps one of the best-known scenes in this Christmas story occurs when Scrooge notices something like a foot emerging from the same Spirit’s robe. When Scrooge asks about it, the Spirit opens the robe to reveal two “yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish children.” “Are they yours?” Scrooge asks. The Spirit’s answer is always abbreviated in the retelling, but it is worth reading in full, especially considering how they might still apply: “They are Man’s. And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it! Slander those who tell it ye! Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse. And bide the end!”

“Have they no refuge or resource?” Scrooge asks.

“Are there no prisons?” the Spirit replies. “Are there no workhouses?”


We watched “Bread and Tulips” – “Pane e Tulipane” – an Italian romantic comedy from 2000.

This is a quirky, entertaining film with absurd English subtitles. My knowledge of Italian is just enough past the rudimentary level that I could follow much of what the actors were saying, and I could also see that the subtitles in many cases were only rough approximations of the actual dialogue. And a person who didn’t know Italian at all would notice that some of the translations were so literal as to be comical. Despite that distraction, however, we found this film to be well worth the while.


The story concerns Rosalba Barletta (played by  Licia Maglietta), who is left behind at a rest stop during a vacation with her family. When she telephones her overbearing, unfaithful husband Mimmo (played by Antonio Catania), he barks at her to stay where she is and expresses no regret for the mistake or concern for her wellbeing. Already discontented with her life, Rosalba decides to ignore his instruction and sets off on her own by hitchhiking. She ends up in – where else? – Venice, where she secures room and board in the apartment of Fernando Girasole, a suicidal Icelandic man (played by Bruno Ganz) who works as maitre d’  in a small restaurant.


. Rosalba supports herself in this spontaneous adventure by working for a local florist named Fermo (played by Felice Andreasi)  – an anarchist in the best Italian tradition. Rosalba, who has developed a sweet and mutual romantic interest in Fernando, keeps in touch with her family but does not hurry home. Mimmo runs out of patience with her and hires Cosantino Caponangeli (played by Giuseppe Battiston) to travel to Venice and find her. Cosantino does find Rosalba, but that enterprise doesn’t turn out at all the way Mimmo intended.


Although we found this film engaging over all, we were confused by dream sequences involving Rosalba. Under Silvio Soldini’s direction, the transition from reality to dream is not immediately clear. We would like to have understood better Fernando’s secretive relationship with a young woman and her son. The nature of their connection – not what most people might assume at first – is only superficially explained. There are also several instances in which scenes fade to black in a way that gives the film the feel of a television movie with the commercials edited out.

On the other hand, the director keeps the film visually interesting by avoiding any saccharine image of Venice and presenting instead a glimpse at the city’s life that tourists don’t experience. Licia Maglietta and Bruno Ganz are irresistible if unconventional romantic figures, and the contrast between their thoughtful personalities and the cartoonish Mimmo and Cosantino makes for a pleasant menage.

“Bread and Tulips” was well received when it first appeared. The attention was deserved.

Rosalba gives Cosantino the slip in a scene from "Bread and Tulips"


Danny Thomas used to do a monologue about a man who got a flat tire and then discovered that he had no jack in his car. He had no choice but to walk to a gas station that was miles away, and the routine consisted of this guy muttering to himself as he trudges along the road. Already annoyed, he makes himself angrier by imagining how the garage owner will try to take advantage of him. He is so furious by the time he reaches the station that he verbally attacks the unwitting mechanic, telling him what he can do with his jack. Some people could tell that story in a few sentences; Thomas could make it last ten minutes. That was the genius of the saloon comic whose talent and know-how made him a television mogul.

Thomas was a popular guy in our house, not only because he was funny but because he had Lebanese parents. My mother’s parents were from Lebanon, and when Thomas became a national figure, he was the only one who shared that heritage. The Lebanese were once regarded in our country as exotic, so much so that my mother told me that her parents instructed her to say she was French if anyone should ask. Danny Thomas with his broad popularity and his frequent acknowledgement of his background provided a chance to wave the flag.

The story has been told often enough about how Thomas, when it appeared that he might never succeed as an entertainer, promised St. Jude that if his fortunes changed he would build a shrine to the saint. Even St. Jude might have forgiven someone for dismissing a vow made in desperation, but Thomas stuck to his word and, in the process, made himself one of the heroes of 20th century America.

When Thomas first launched a campaign to raise money for his project, the backbone of the drive then as now was the Arab-American community, including several of my mother’s Lebanese cousins. My parents attended fundraising events, including one at which Thomas and his wife, Rose Marie, appeared.



I figured that tenuous connection was better than nothing when I had an opportunity last year to share a meal with Marlo Thomas, one of Danny Thomas’s three children. I needn’t have bothered. She is a gracious and open woman who doesn’t require pandering. She and her siblings are also their father’s successors as heroes, making an extraordinary commitment to generating support for the hospital he founded. Although it has been operating since 1962, the mission of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital – to treat children with catastrophic pediatric diseases regardless of their families’ ability to pay – seems more like a dream than a reality The hospital has operating costs in the neighborhood of $1.5 million a day. Someone who joined us at dinner asked Marlo about covering that nut. “How do you do it?” he said. And she answered: “We do it.” I have often thought about that answer; it reveals a combination of determination and confidence that I have encountered in leaders of other charitable enterprises.

Marlo Thomas, on her own, has had a remarkable career. She is a talented dramatic and comic actress, and her TV series “That Girl” was a benchmark in prime time representation of independent women. Her project “Free to be You and Me” — a record album, a TV special, and a book — broke new ground in eliminating the image of the helpless or subservient female that infected traditional children’s literature and entertainment.

She has recently published her sixth book, “Growing Up Laughing.” This book alternately recounts her childhood and adolesence in the Thomas household — which was frequently extended to include the likes of Sid Caesar, Milton Berle, and Jan Murray — and her conversations with contemporary comics about the origins of their own funny bones. Jerry Seinfeld, Kathy  Griffith, Whoopi Goldberg, Don Rickles, Chris Rock, and Robin Williams are among them. The observations of these modern performers supplement the wisdom that Marlo Thomas gleaned from her exposure to the wits of her dad’s generation. The book is entertaining and full of insights about both the inspiration and the discipline of comedians.


I particularly liked Jerry Seinfeld’s explanation of his  remark that comedy doesn’t belong on the arts pages, but on the sports pages:

One of the things that drew me to comedy was that it’s a simple world. It doesn’t require the interpretation of any critic to tell you whether something is good or not good. If the audience is laughing, the guy’s good. If they’re not laughing, he’s not good. Period. And that’s the analogy to sports: You can talk all you want about how two teams played in a game. But we all know who won at the end. There’s no debate. It doesn’t require any perception. … Standup comedy doesn’t require value judgments. If you get laughs, you work; if you don’t get laughs, you don’t work. It’s all about the score.

Number 12

December 1, 2010

While I wasn’t paying attention, Gil McDougald slipped away. The news got away from me over the weekend, and I did not hear until this afternoon that the former Yankee infielder had died on Sunday.

I saw Gil play many times in the 1950s, when my father used to take me to Yankee Stadium as often as three times a week. We looked at ballplayers differently then. We admired players like Gil, of course. How could we not have admired a guy who played second, short, and third at a championship level? But, aside from their prowess on the field, we didn’t think of them as being remote from our place in the world. They were celebrities, but not in the way that term is understood today.

McDougald had a business on the side; I think it was called Yankee Maintenance Service. One of his clients was the bank around the corner from our house, and we’d often see the blue Volkswagen bus parked outside while the crew was cleaning the place. Once in a while, Gil would stop by to make sure his customer was satisfied with the service. It wasn’t the sort of thing Alex Rodriguez does with his time.

The news stories about Gil’s death have reported that he played on a bunch of championship teams with Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, and Yogi Berra. But he also played with Hank Bauer, Bill Skowron, and Andy Carey — just guys playing ball, like Gil.

I went to see Gil at his place of business long after he had retired from baseball. He told me that at the end of his ten-year career with the Yankees, Gene Autry offered to double his annual salary if he would play two more years with the fledgling Angels in California. Autry wanted names on the roster. Gil — a family man par excellence — said he wouldn’t disrupt his household for that price.

Gil McDougald was an All-Star at three infield positions. The  only other man who can make that claim is Pete Rose. When Casey Stengel said, after the Yankees had beaten the Braves in the 1958 World Series, “I couldn’t have done it without the players,” he was talking about Gil as much as about anyone else. And when I remember those hazy afternoons in the Stadium that greed has torn down, the guy out there gunning one over to Joe Collins, that’ll always be Gil.


The Polo Grounds in 1951: Gil McDougald becomes the first rookie to hit a grand slam in a World Series.