Chelsea, an aspiring actress, tells Cosmo Kramer during an episode of the TV series Seinfeld that her manager is “trying to put together a miniseries for me on Eva Braun. I mean think about it, is that a great idea? We know nothing about Eva Braun, only that she was Hitler’s girlfriend. . . . What was it like having sex with Adolf Hitler? What do you wear in a bunker? What did her parents think of Hitler as a potential son-in-law? I mean it could just go on and on….”

It could and it will, because while it isn’t true that we know nothing about Eva Braun, it is true that we know relatively little, considering that she was the consort of one of the most recognizable and most reviled men in human history.

Heike B. Görtemaker, tries to bring some clarity to this subject in Eva Braun: Life with Hitler, which was originally published in GermanThe very things that have made Braun an obscure figure up to now were obstacles to the author’s work, beginning with the fact that Hitler wanted to be perceived as a solitary messiah whose life and energy were devoted to lifting Germany and its people from the ignominious consequences of World War I.

 In order to maintain his image, Hitler kept the very existence of Eva Braun a secret from the German people, and he kept her at least at arm’s length and often much farther when they were in the company of his inner circle. Hitler married Braun on the day before they both committed suicide in a bunker in April 1945 while the Red Army was literally striding through the Reichstag grounds about 25 feet above their heads. He once said that he had never married because  he needed the political support of German women and that he would lose some of his appeal if he had a wife. “It’s the same with a movie actor,” Hitler said. “When he marries he loses a certain something from the women who adore him. Then he is no longer their idol as he was before.”

When I read that in Görtemaker’s book, I wondered what “certain something” Hitler had that would attract any woman, never mind millions of them. Evidently the author wonders about that, too. When she writes that Braun’s life was shaped by Hitler’s power, his world view, and his “charismatic attraction,” she adds parenthetically, “however difficult it may be to explain what that consisted in.”
Görtemaker is convinced that neither Braun nor the other women around Hitler — principally the wives of men like Albert Speer and Joseph Goebbels — were simply adornments who were expected to be seen but not heard. On the other hand, the author finds it impossible to say definitively how much Braun and the others knew about German policy, and particularly about the Holocaust. They had to know of the persecution of Jews in Europe; it was no secret. But discussion of the extermination program in Hitler’s presence was forbidden when he was in his “family circle,” as it were, meaning the crowd that frequented Berghof, Hitler’s frequent refuge in Bavaria.

Hitler met Braun in 1929 when he was 40 and she was 17 and working as an assistant to Dietrich Hoffmann who became the privileged official photographer of the Nazi party and the Third Reich. Görtemaker speculates that the couple were not intimate until 1933 when Braun had become an adult . At first they saw each other only intermittently, and this apparently weighed on Braun and was the cause of two suicide attempts. After the second incident, Hitler arranged for Braun to have her own home in Munich and to have regular access to Berghof, where her assertion of her prerogatives irritated some of Hitler’s coterie.

Whatever attracted Braun to Hitler in the first place, long before it was clear that he would lead the German nation, her commitment to him was complete. Görtemaker writes that the level of her loyalty was the object of admiration to at least some of Hitler’s associates and it may have been the one thing that most endeared her to him. There’s no evidence that she pressured him to marry her or that she complained about being kept out  of the public eye. And, in the most dramatic possible demonstration  of her constancy, however misguided, she went to Berlin against Hitler’s wishes with the clear intention of dying with him while many others, including Speer and Hoffmann, were already concocting lies about being “outsiders” in Hitler’s camp. The normal confidentiality of the culture in which Hitler lived, coupled with the loss and destruction of written records and the unreliability of later testimony by turncoats trying to save their own hides and reputation may mean that we’ll never know more about Eva Braun than Görtemaker has been able to tell us in this book. That’s unfortunate, not because Braun was so different from others who supported Hitler, but because she was so like them. She was in all respects an ordinary person who came under the still elusive spell of a bumbling, absurd little man who terrorized the world for more than a decade


"His Master's Voice," Francis Barraud, 1898

In a post on May 14, I mentioned a song written in 1920 by Harry Ruby and Bert Kalmar: “So Long, Oolong, (How Long Ya Gonna Be Gone?”) I didn’t mention that I happen to have a recording of that song, sung by Frank Crumit on the Columbia label. Crumit was a popular singer and radio personality who also wrote about 50 songs, including “Buckeye Battle Cry” which is played at Ohio State University football games.

Victrola, the Victor Talking Machine Co.

My recording of the Ruby-Kalmar song is a 78 rpm shellac disk. I could play it on the electric turntable that we use to listen to our 33 rpm LPs, but I don’t. I play it on our 1927 model wind-up Victrola. I have an odd assortment of records stored in the cabinet of that phonograph. Most of them are 10-inch disks, but there are a few of the 12-inch disks. Some of these are recorded on only one side – including a 12-inch Victor record of Giovanni Martinelli singing “Celeste Aida” from the Verdi opera. By the mid 1920s, Crumit was recording for Victor, so the recording I have has to date from before that. The Martinelli recording was made at the Victor studios in Camden on Nov. 25, 1914. I was able to determine that at THIS LINK, which is a complete catalog of Victor recordings. An interesting detail is that the Martinelli recording – one side only – sold for $1.50 and the Crumit record sold for a buck.

45 rpm record

I got on this subject because of a story I read today HERE, on the Boston Globe web site.  The nut of this story by Sarah Rodman is as follows:

As consumers buy fewer and fewer CDs, an interesting phenomenon is occurring — artists who appeal to older listeners are showing up surprisingly high on the charts.

The reason: Adults are largely the ones buying CDs these days. Younger people tend to download in general and focus on singles.

The story makes it clear that while this isn’t universally true, it’s a clear trend. It’s also interesting to note that “surprisingly high on the charts” is a relative concept. Rodman points out that a reissue of a Rolling Stones album recently hit the charts in second place on the strength of about 76,000 sales. In the “early 2000s,” the writer explains, a recording had to achieve six figures just to be in the Top 10. The early 2000s are already “the old days.”


The acts the story cites as appealing to “older listeners” are an eclectic group that includes Sarah McLachlan, Sade, Barbra Streisand, Michael Buble, and Susan Boyle.

There is a lot of discussion about the changes that have taken place in the recording industry. Like some other fields affected by rapidly evolving digital technology, this one presents a variety of challenges to everyone involved. And the challenged include people like me, who have lived through all of the developments in recording except wax cylinders — and who have accumulated evidence of every stage.

Besides the heavy shellac records and the acoustic talking machine, we have boxes of 45 rpm records in the garage — including a duet by Connie Francis and Marvin Rainwater — hundreds of LPs in the living room — dozens of cassette tapes (and several cassette players, including the one in my Beetle), CDs all over the house, and a couple of MP3 players. The only stage we skipped was 8-track.


There’s an episode of “Seinfeld” in which George Costanza, having seen “Les Miserables” on Broadway, can’t get the song “Master of the House” out of his head. We’ve all had a similar experience, and it can be annoying. I read a book by the neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks in which he discusses the possible causes of this phenomenon. Pay attention. I think the next step in sound technology will be a chip implanted in the listener’s head and songs transmitted directly into the brain.

Meanwhile, is  there a market for all these jewel cases?


On a “Seinfeld” episode re-run last night, Jerry Seinfeld says Elaine Benes’s complaint about a clothing store mannequin that looks like her might have a legal precedent: “Winchell versus Mahoney.” That was coincidence for me, because I had just been discussing Winchell with some of my students — who had never heard of him and didn’t know what a ventriloquist was.
We were discussing in class the idea of irony as an unexpected outcome from known circumstances. I used Winchell as an illustration because he was most widely known for his comedy act with dummies Jerry Mahoney and Knucklehead Smiff, among others.  Winchell also had a long career as a voice actor, meaning that he provided the voices for animated characters, not the least of which were Sam-I-Am and Tigger.


The unexpected outcome from those circumstances was that Winchell was awarded the first patent for an artificial heart designed to be implanted in a human being. To what extent his model played a part in the later practical application of such devices seems to be a matter of dispute, but that doesn’t reduce at all what Winchell achieved while he was fully occupied with an unrelated career.
After our classroom conversation, I decided to poke around the Internet to read more about “Mr. Winkle,” as Jerry Mahoney called him. I was sorry I did. While, on the one hand, he was a kind of renaissance man with a wide variety of interests and a humanitarian bent, his life had a very dark side that resulted in discord and estrangement in his family – so much so that one of his daughters described him after his death as “a very troubled and unhappy man.”
Since I was around for the heyday of television variety shows, I have vivid memories of Paul Winchell, and they are, of course, of a lighthearted and creative artist whose goal in life seemed to be to make people laugh. I would rather have died with that fantasy.



When Elaine Benes broke up during a piano recital because Jerry Seinfeld had put a Pez dispenser on her knee, Noel the pianist played on. Oh, she was plenty upset, but she didn’t acknowledge the distraction and continued to play.

Not every artist has that kind of composure. About 45 years ago, I was at a concert at Seton Hall University at which Leopold Stokowski was conducting the American Symphony Orchestra. Some people came in after the concert had started. I guess we were all aware of the doors opening and closing and the latecomers making their way into the gymnasium, but — hey — it happens.

Well, tell that to Stokowski.


He stopped the orchestra in the middle of the first piece, turned around and glared into the darkened gym. When the place had settled down, he went to the microphone and said, “You have to excuse me. When one comes to a place of learning one expects to find intelligence.” Then he returned to his place and started the concert again.

Of course, that’s a reasonable expectation on both sides of the footlights, so to speak. But the principle apparently is lost on Ian Hart, who went to pieces during a performance of “Speaking in Tongues,” a play on London’s West End for which he has gotten good notices. And, according to an account in The Times of London, witnesses say Hart’s threatening verbal abuse of a patron in the theater was without any basis except in the actor’s imagination.

Gerald Earley — the target of Hart’s ranting — said that a certain point in the proceedings, the actor had become “pretty feral,” which I thought was a delightful choice of words. Hart brushed off the incident as silly, but he also admitted he doesn’t like acting in the theater because he doesn’t “enjoy the relationship between the audience and the actor,” and, may I say, there’s a simple solution to that.

For The Times’ account of Hart’s outburst, click HERE.

Ian Hart and John Simms in "Speaking in Tongues"




I’m not clear on this point: Was Rochelle of “Rochelle, Rochelle” a native of Milan who happened to have relatives in Minsk, or  was she a native of Minsk who had emigrated to Milan? While we’re pondering that question, there is one native of Ulyanovsk – Simbirsk to you old timers – who may be making his own trek to the capital of Belarus that became a household word thanks to Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld. 

Pravda is reporting that Vladimir Lenin’s mummified body may be removed from its tomb in Red Square and taken to Minsk, where it will be buried – perhaps no longer placed on public display in a crystal casket. As I mentioned here previously, Lenin – whom Pravda describes as the “leader of the world’s working class” – has already suffered the indignity of wearing the same suit for three years, and he’s not in line for a new one ITE – “in this economy.” Now, it appears from the Pravda report, the Russian government – which seems to only half-heartedly revere the old Bolshevik – may soon dispatch him to the republic from which he sprung – and the government of Belarus has said it would be glad to have him. In fact, a monument reminiscent of the tomb in Red Square is likely to be built to receive him.




The issue of actually burying the Hero of the Proletariat apparently is controversial: the Russian Orthodox Church, for instance, would like him out of sight and out of mind, but the president of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, says burying Lenin would be a crime. According to Pravda, there’s a strong nostalgia in Belarus for the glory days of the Soviet Union – no doubt among folks with medium-term memory disorder.




The Los Angeles Times is reporting today that of the 71 scripted pilots that are contending for spots on the broadcast schedules of five TV networks, 33 are half-hour comedies. The television industry evidently thinks we need a good laugh. How many good laughs we’ll actually get remains to be seen. The kind of writing that has characterized shows like “Taxi,” “Seinfeld,” “Frasier,” and “The Bob Newhart Show,” is hard to come by, and many television series are obvious at best and vacuous at worst. I wonder if folks more than 50 years from now will enjoy re-runs of “Surviving Suburbia” the way they do re-runs of “I Love Lucy” and “The Honeymooners.” In fact, I wonder if folks next week will watch an original episode of “Suburbia.” Chuck Barney, writing in the San Jose Mercury News, said it for me: It’s not that this is a horrible show or even the worse sit-com on ABC. “It’s just that it has no real reason for being. It’s a series that looks and feels like hundreds of other sit-coms, with the same kind of tone, the same forced one-liners and the same ridiculously annoying laugh track.”

Why has television comedy declined so much? It might have something to do with the form. A couple of playwrights have told me that they wouldn’t write sit-coms no matter how much it paid, because they refuse to force a story into a shape predetermined by the schedule of commercials. I wonder if it also has to do with the backgrounds of the producers, writers, and actors, many of whom have grown up in television. I was talking with Marlo Thomas last week about her upcoming appearance at the George Street Playhouse, and that naturally evoked some conversation and even more memories of her father. Danny Thomas had a genius for humor, but he also had a chance to refine his technique in nightclubs, on the radio, and in movies before he ever went before a television camera. He understood comedy – understood that it had to have structure, consistency, and an underlying sympathy – all of which were factors in the success of his own show, “Make Room for Daddy,” and in “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and “The Andy Griffith Show,” which he later produced.



Marlo Thomas – who has her own package of insights when it comes to entertaining people – opens at George Street next week in Arthur Laurents’ new play, “New Year’s Eve.” She told me her father used to say, “Do you know what I would have been if I hadn’t been a comedian? A pain in the ass.”  “And I think he really meant that in the deepest sense,” she said. “He would have had no outlet. He would have been a butcher driving everybody crazy trying to make jokes about the lamb chops.”  That compulsion to be a storyteller – as opposed to the compulsion to fill a half-hour time slot at the expense of some nearly bankrupt auto manufacturer – may have been more at work in those who created television programming during the medium’s first three decades than it is now.  

“Cash or charge?”

March 13, 2009

firestonegaspump2It’s a good thing we don’t always have to explain our behavior. If we did, I’d have to invoke temporary insanity or on-set senility to account for myself last night. When I left home to drive to Passaic, I thought there was barely enough gas in the Beetle to make the round trip. I pass two gas stations within the first mile and a tenth from home, but I didn’t stop. Before I got to the college – actually, it was during that stop-and-go traffic jam at the junction of Routes 46 and 3 – I already knew there wasn’t enough gas left to make it back to Whitehouse Station. I don’t know how many gas stations I pass on Routes 3 and 46 on the return leg, but I passed by that number, whatever it is. Once I got on Interstate 80 in Wayne, I knew my options would be limited. But I got on. As I headed south on I-287, I passed by chances to buy gas on Route 10 and again in Morristown. Somewhere south of Morristown, the warning light went on on the gas gauge. The needle was nudging the “E” when I saw what I knew was the sign for the Last Resort, an all-night Exxon station that is three miles from the highway. I did a lot of coasting, and gratefully paid $1.99 a gallon – cheap under the circumstances. Did I enjoy myself? Sure – I love white knuckles. Still, I realize that I didn’t measure up to the standard set by Kramer and Rick, the car salesman. Unlike them, I’ll never know how far I could have gone if I hadn’t done the sensible thing, the boring, ordinary thing. Even when Cosmo and Rick had safely reached the dealership – and had not yet plunged on toward The Ultimate – Rick said, “I learned a lot. Things are gonna be different for me now.” For me, I guess, they’ll always be the same.