Category Archives: Essays

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Pico Diary

By Jon Wiener

A caravan of four Stanford football buses roars down Pico Boulevard with a police escort — in town for the Rose Bowl. I stand at the corner with a delivery guy from the Domino’s Pizza down the block — he’s an older Latino man.

He asks, “Is it Obama?”

Obama did come by a couple of months ago.

“No,” I say, “It’s Stanford.”

“But why?” he says, pointing to the motorcycle cops with the flashing red lights stopping traffic.

“This is football,” I tell him. “This is America.”

He shakes his head sadly.

¤

At the newsstand next to the McDonald’s, I ask the Turkish girl who works there what’s happening. “What’s happening is Playboy,” she says. “Everybody is buying. Because it’s going to be the last nude issue. We are always sold out. One man just bought 200 copies. I guess he’s going to sell them on eBay or something. I checked eBay today — normally they are $12, but now they are $25 — for the current one. My boss raised the price — from $10 to $15.95. He put a new sticker over the old price. Today I got ten more copies, but I think they are going to be finished again.”

¤

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A homeless guy with a dog has camped out on Pico near the pet store — he has one of those Booth dogs, white with a black ring around one eye. He’s a young black man, in pretty good shape for a homeless person. It’s a cold morning, and he has the dog in a stylish blue-and-white striped T-shirt. He also has a little stuffed penguin, obviously for the dog, but actually it’s a child’s toy. And he has a dog food dish. I give him some money. He becomes animated and charming, and wants to explain things. “I used to in a gang,” he says. “My father was a Black Panther. But I decided to take another road.” Then he points to his little camp as if it were a good thing.

He motions to the pet store, holds up the money, and says, “I noticed that they have little socks in there. I’m going to get some for my dog.” He says, “I had another dog, a puppy, but they took it away.” Then he says, “You don’t know what you did today, but I know why it happened.” He looks at me out of the corner of his eye and says with a big smile, “He’s always watching me.”

¤

Jon Wiener lives south of Pico, near the Pep Boys at Manning Ave.

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Special Offer

By Carol Berger

Enjoy EGYPTAIR special offer to NEW YORK from 5399 LE [$674] & to TORONTO from 5185 LE [$648]. Buy before DEC 15th.

— From a text received on 30 November

Who wouldn’t want a deal at Christmas? Who wouldn’t want to fly from Cairo to North America on a national carrier from the Middle East, from a country where 224 tourists never made it home to St. Petersburg after their Red Sea coast holiday?

The congested streets of Egypt’s capital are filled with the ghosts of lives cut short in two revolutions, in the tumult that preceded and followed each. Thousands of people have been arrested in the four years since Hosni Mubarak was forced out of office; some have just disappeared, their families hoping against hope that their loved ones are alive and that they too are being held by the state.

The new president, former field marshal Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, has put the security forces in command of public life. It feels like the late 1980s once more, when the state was first battling Islamist terrorists who assassinated public figures and attacked foreign tourists. Life goes on, forever changed, but somehow not.

If Egypt’s domestic problems were not enough, now there is a new element: the spectre of a widening Syrian war that threatens to pull together every strand of disaffected, militarised, radicalised “enemy” in almost a dozen Middle Eastern countries and turn their local conflicts into something much larger. Not to mention, young men and women who hold European passports but are drawn to take part in a faraway war.

There is a tangible flatness that falls over any attempt to think about what will happen next in the Middle East. Conversation with Egyptians on anything political has become almost impossible. The conspiracy theories grow ever more elaborate. And always, there is a special place in the blame narrative for “the media.”

Was the bombing of the Russian plane on October 30 the work of the CIA, Britain’s MI6, or Israel’s Mossad? Or were the foreign intelligence services conspiring together, all with the aim of punishing Egypt for the 2012 removal of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi? These are the suggested backstories to the tragedy. That Islamic State claimed the terrorist act is hardly mentioned.

Newspaper editorials instead focused on Egypt’s indignation over early reports that the plane was taken out of the sky by terrorists who had evaded security at the Sharm El-Sheikh airport. There was anger over suggestions that Egypt needed to improve its airport controls. And was there a public outpouring of sympathy for the Russian loss of life? Only a handful of bouquets were placed at the entrance of the Russian Embassy.

But perhaps Egyptians can be forgiven if they have compassion fatigue, given the weekly loss of life among their fellow citizens for the better part of four years. Some of the dead are policemen, targeted by Islamic militants, while others are alleged terrorists in the northern Sinai killed by the Egyptian Armed Forces.

More recently, there have been a number of deaths inside security facilities, allegedly caused by police torture. And in the last week of November, Islamic State claimed to have killed four policemen at the Sakkara Pyramid, on the outskirts of Cairo.

Amid Egypt’s uncertainties, refugees from Syria’s war are also trying to find a space for themselves. An estimated 200,000 are believed to have come to Egypt. Four years ago, you might ask a newly arrived Syrian which city he came from. Not anymore. Because what do you say to someone who has escaped from the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk in Damascus, under siege for years, bombed and starved into submission by the Syrian regime? Or someone who has left his family behind in Homs, now pummelled into rubble by Bashar el-Assad’s barrel bombs?

Two years ago, young Syrian men, with their distinctive long hair and open faces, started to avoid the streets. It was no longer safe for them to move around Cairo. Police had begun harassing them. Some were arrested and even deported back to Damascus.

But recently, Syrians can be seen on the streets once more. The women wear their hijabs close to the head, usually a simple silk scarf, and long raincoats buttoned to the neck and cinched at the waist with a belt.

The young Syrian who cuts my hair at a fashionable salon in the upscale Cairo neighborhood of Zamalek is learning French. He hopes the language will help him get to Canada. Last summer he travelled to Turkey and paid a large sum of money to smugglers who said they would put him on a boat to southern Europe.

But when he reached the water’s edge, he couldn’t do it. He was afraid. And so he is back in Cairo, cutting hair 12 hours a day, six days a week. He has a job and his youth. And maybe, one day, he will go to Canada.

¤

In late November, in the days immediately after the Paris attacks, I travelled from Cairo to Holland and Belgium. Did I feel uneasy about the Egyptair ticket I had bought well before the Russian plane downing? Yes, I did. Did I mentally note that our plane was still intact after 23 minutes in the air, after reaching altitude? Of course I did.

In both Holland and Belgium armed men wearing uniforms with a dark-blue camouflage and restraining large dogs on leather leads patrolled the train stations. On a train in Belgium, a Moroccan-born woman and I struggled to communicate in French, after quickly abandoning our shared Arabic. It felt like the right thing to do.

When I returned from Belgium to Amsterdam, I chose, without much thought, to transit via Antwerp rather than Brussels, a city that had been on lockdown at that point for three days. I was lucky as the Brussels station that day had several train cancellations, caused by security scares, and huge queues of stranded passengers were left waiting on platforms.

At Amsterdam’s Schipol Airport, as I headed home to Cairo, my boarding pass was sucked into the rollers of the conveyor belt shifting my personal possessions into an x-ray machine. I watched in horror as the flimsy piece of paper disappeared into the bowels of the complicated machinery.

Despite my concern, the security staff told me it wasn’t a problem. And it wasn’t. I was allowed to go through passport control without a boarding pass, to enter the massive terminal and walk for 20 minutes along the shop-filled concourse to reach my gate, where a new boarding pass was issued. I didn’t fit a profile.

Life goes on, forever changed, but somehow not. But with all the security concerns now monopolizing the policies of our governments, ever seeping into our individual psyches, it seems there will be many “special offers” in the coming months, and even years.

¤

Carol Berger is an anthropologist who specializes in South Sudan. She is a former foreign correspondent, reporting for the BBC, The Guardian, and The Economist from the Middle East and the Horn of Africa. She lives in Cairo, Egypt.

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When Old Blue Eyes Was Red: The Poignant Story of Frank Sinatra’s Politics


By Jon Wiener

I remember Sinatra who didn’t pal around with rich Republicans. During the early 1950s, at my Sunday school in St. Paul, Minnesota, one of the highlights of the year was the annual screening of The House I Live In, a short film starring a young and skinny Sinatra. In it, he told a gang of kids that racial and religious differences “make no difference except to a Nazi or somebody who’s stupid.” He sang about “The people that I work with / The workers that I meet. . . . The right to speak my mind out / That’s America to me.” The House I Live In, made at the peak of Sinatra’s popularity, won him a special Academy Award in 1945. Four years later his career was in ruins, in the wake of charges that he was tied to both the Mafia and the Communists. Forty years later his career was legend, his politics solidly conservative.

At first glance Sinatra’s political Odyssey from left to right seems to have followed a well-trod path. “Maturity” has been defined by figures as different as John dos Passos and Jerry Rubin as the abandonment of youthful ideals. But Sinatra’s case is different. Beaten down as an activist leftist, his career destroyed by the right-wing press, he made a stunning comeback, then found himself snubbed and abused by the liberals whose views he shared. Only then did he sign up with his old right-wing enemies.

The House I Live In was a turning point. The Cumulative Index to Publications of the Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), a handy list of everyone named as a communist in 20 years of committee hearings, indicates that in the eight years following The House I Live In Sinatra was named 12 times. The New York Times Index for 1949 contains a single stunning cross-reference: “Sinatra, Frank: See US—Espionage.” Sinatra reportedly denied the reports that he “followed or appeased some of the CP [Communist Party] line program over a long period of time.”

But once the allegations had been made, Sinatra’s image in the press changed dramatically. He was first linked to the Mafia in a February 1947 gossip column that reported he had been seen in Havana with mobster Lucky Luciano and other “scum” and “goons” who “find the south salubrious in the winter, or grand-jury time.” The columnist’s source, and the source of many subsequent Mafia-Sinatra stories, turns out to have been Harry Anslinger, a crony of J. Edgar Hoover. Anslinger served as head of the federal narcotics bureau and was out to get Sinatra because he was a “pink.”

“Frank’s big nosedive,” as the pundits called it, began on April 8, 1947. That was the night he punched Hearst gossip columnist Lee Mortimer at Ciro’s celebrated Hollywood night spot. The Hearst papers went wild, running whole pages on the incident, repeating the Mafia story and HUAC charges. “Sinatra Faces Probe on Red Ties,” a headline read. Soon gossip titans Hedda Hopper, Louella Parsons, and Dorothy Kilgallen were heaping abuse on him. Overnight Sinatra was transformed by the right-wing press from the crooning idol of bobby-soxers into a violent, left-wing Mafioso.

Overnight Sinatra was transformed by the right-wing press from the crooning idol of bobby-soxers into a violent, left-wing Mafioso.

Sinatra said he punched Mortimer because the columnist called him a “dago.” In fact Mortimer had been calling him some other things in print. He wrote about what he called “the crooner’s penchant for veering to portside” and reminded readers that Sinatra had been named in HUAC testimony as “one of Hollywood’s leading travelers on the road of Red Fascism.” Mortimer, nephew of the editor of the Hearst-owned New York Mirror, pledged that “this column will continue to fight the promotion of class struggle or foreign isms posing as entertainment”–like The House I Live In.

How pink had Sinatra been? HUAC’s sources were pretty disreputable. The first to name him was Gerald L. K. Smith, a raucous native fascist. In 1946 he told the committee that Sinatra “has been doing some pretty clever stuff for the Reds.” Sinatra was named again in HUAC testimony in 1947 by Walter S. Steele, a private Red-hunter who had once accused Campfire Girls of being “Communistic.” Jack B. Tenney, a California state senator who headed a state version of HUAC, reported in 1947 that Sinatra had taken part in a dinner sponsored by American Youth for Democracy, which J. Edgar Hoover had declared a communist front.

Between The House I Live In in 1945 and the big 1947 HUAC hearings, Sinatra had in fact moved much closer to organized left-wing political activity. In 1943, when riots broke out in Harlem, he went uptown to speak at two integrated high school assemblies, urging the kids to “act as neighborhood emissaries of racial goodwill toward younger pupils and among friends.” Shortly after, when white students in Gary, Indiana, boycotted classes at their newly integrated high school, Sinatra spoke in the school auditorium and sang “The House I Live In” What other star at the top of the charts has thrown himself into the civil rights struggle so directly?

In May 1946 Sinatra issued what Billboard called “an anti-Franco blast.” The statement was remarkable for two reasons. First, the only people who still remembered the support that Spain’s dictator received from Hitler and Mussolini were real leftists. And second, there was Sinatra’s Catholic background. The comment caused the Catholic Standard and Times of Philadelphia to label him a “pawn of fellow-travellers.”

Sinatra moved closer to the Communist Party in July 1946, when he served as vice president of the Hollywood Independent Citizens Committee of the Arts, Sciences and Professions. Known by its asthmatic acronym, HICCASP had been a broad coalition of pro-Roosevelt liberals and leftists, ranging from Thomas Mann to Rita Hayworth. Sinatra became an officer during a faction fight in which Communists pushed liberals out of the organization and steered it toward Henry Wallace’s leff-wing challenge to Truman in 1948. Sinatra wrote an open letter in the New Republic to Wallace at the beginning of 1947, calling on him to “take up the fight we like to think of as ours—the fight for tolerance, which is the basis of any fight for peace.” Within three months headlines appeared linking him to the Communists.

A month later he was fired from his radio show; six months after that his New York concerts flopped. Soon his personal life was falling apart as fast as his career. By December 1949 his affair with Ava Gardner had become an open scandal. Columbia Records was trying to get back the advance they had given him. In 1950 he was released from his MGM film contract, and his own agent, MCA, dropped him. He was a has-been at 34.

After Sinatra’s stunning 1953 comeback in From Here to Eternity, he remained a Democrat. He sang “The House I Live In” at the Hollywood Palladium at a 1956 campaign salute to Adlai Stevenson. He returned to the political wars with new energy during the spring of 1960. He had two projects that season: working for the Kennedy campaign (Sinatra’s version of “High Hopes” was the official Kennedy campaign song) and breaking the Hollywood blacklist that had barred left-wingers from working in the movies ever since the 1947 HUAC investigations.

The second project was announced shortly after Kennedy won the New Hampshire primary. The New York Times headline read, “Sinatra Defies Writer Blacklist / Hires Albert Maltz for his job filming of ‘The Execution O’ Private Slovik.’” Maltz had written The House I Live In. In Execution of Private Slovik, a recently published novel, told the story of the World War II G.I. who became the only American since the Civil War to be executed for desertion. “This marks the first time that a top movie star has defied the rule laid down by the major movies studios” 13 years earlier, the Times explained. Sinatra would produce, Robert Parish was to direct. Slovik would be played by a TV tough guy named Steve McQueen.

Sinatra, asked if he was fearful of the reaction to hiring a blacklisted writer, had a defiant, I-told-you-so response. He quoted his own 1947 statement criticizing HUAC’s witch-hunt: “Once they get the movies throttled, how long will it be before the committee gets to work on freedom of the air? . . . If you make a pitch on a nationwide radio network for a square deal for the underdog, will they call you a commie?”

A square deal for the underdog seemed to be exactly what Sinatra was after—for underdog Maltz, who served time in a federal penitentiary for refusing to name names, and also for Slovik. According to director Parish, Sinatra regarded Slovik not just as a victim of an unjust system of military justice, but as “the champ underdog of all time.”

“They’re calling you a fucking Communist!” Harry Cohn, king of Paramount Pictures, shouted at Sinatra. The attack had come, predictably, from Sinatra’s old enemies in the Hearst press. Editorial writers for the New York Mirror reminded readers that the guy who just hired a Red had once had a “‘romance’ with a dame to whom he was not then married.” (Sinatra must have murmured, “Hey, that was no dame, that was Ava Gardner!”)

John Wayne found Sinatra’s Achilles’ heel. Asked for his opinion on Sinatra’s hiring of Maltz, Duke said, “I don’t think my opinion is too important. Why don’t you ask Sinatra’s crony, who’s going to run our country for the next few years, what he thinks of it?” Sinatra responded with “A Statement of Fact,” for which he bought space in the New York Times. In it, he declared that connecting candidate Kennedy to his decision to hire Maltz was “hitting below the belt. I make movies. I do not ask the advice of Sen. Kennedy on whom I should hire. . . . I have, in my opinion, hired the best man for the job.”

Just as the controversy seemed to be dying down, the Hearst papers ran the banner headline: “Sinatra Fires Maltz.” The Times and the trades contained a new ad signed by Sinatra, headlined simply “Statement”: “Mr. Maltz had … an affirmative, pro-American approach to the story. But the American public has indicated it feels the morality of hiring Albert Maltz is the more crucial matter, and I will accept this majority opinion.”

In an interview shortly before his death in 1985, Maltz recalled the incident. “Sinatra threw down the gauntlet against the blacklist,” he said. “He was prepared to fight. His eyes were open. The ad firing me was ridiculous. The American people had not spoken; only the Hearst press and the American Legion had. Something had come from behind that caused him to change his position.”

Maltz brought out his scrapbooks. Among hundreds of faded clippings was one from Dorothy Kilgallen’s gossip column. “The real credit belongs to former Ambassador Joseph P Kennedy,” she wrote. “Unquestionably anti-communist, Dad Kennedy would have invited Frank to jump off the Jack Kennedy presidential bandwagon if he hadn’t unloaded Mr. Maltz.” Kennedy’s campaign advisers worried also about Sinatra’s Mafia aura and expressed the hope that the singer would keep his distance from the senator. But, the advisers said, they hoped Sinatra would help with a voter drive in Harlem, “where he is recognized as a hero of the cause of the Negro.”

After the election, JFK asked Sinatra to organize and star in his inaugural gala. The singer proudly escorted Jackie, but Jack was the one he cared about. In a gesture of classic macho deference, Sinatra offered to share a prize girlfriend, Judith Campbell Exner, with the president. Kennedy liked the idea and began an affair with Exner. (Sinatra’s hit that year, appropriately enough, was All the Way.) Then Sinatra Went too far; he introduced Exner to Chicago Mob leader Sam Giancana.

J. Edgar Hoover’s ever-present eyes and ears quickly discovered the liaisons. Bobby Kennedy, in the middle of a campaign to crush the Mafia, put a stop to his brother’s involvement with Exner. The Kennedys had been planning to stay with Sinatra in Palm Springs. He’d remodeled his house in anticipation of the presidential visit. At the last minute, JFK announced they’d stay instead with Bing Crosby—who wasn’t even a Democrat. To the public, it was an inexplicable snub.

Sinatra always was, as Village Voice jazz critic Gary Giddins puts it, “a virtuoso at storing wounds.” He got even with Bobby in the 1968 California primary by supporting Humphrey. Then he discovered the Humphrey campaign had the same reservations that the Kennedy campaign had had, and he quietly left.

As youth culture flowered in 1966, Sinatra married Mia Farrow; he’d just finished an album he called September of My Years. He was 51, she was 21, five years younger than his daughter Nancy. A sixties rebel, Mia cut her hair short and wore pants, and opposed the Vietnam War. Sinatra’s friends explained the attraction: “He digs her brain.” Soon, however, she was denouncing him and his pals: “All they know how to do is tell dirty stories, break furniture, pinch waitresses’ asses and bet on the horses,” she said. She left him to join the Beatles in India, meditating with the Maharishi.

Sinatra announced his retirement in 1971. “The principle activity of his retirement years,” New York Times music critic John Rockwell writes, “was his political shift from left to right.” The key moment seems to have come when the House crime committee held a new investigation of Sinatra’s Mob ties in 1972. The committee was headed by Democrats including California senator John Tunney, an old Kennedy friend for whom Sinatra had raised $160,000 with a special show. The main evidence against him was the testimony of a confessed hit man who said that a New England Mafia boss had boasted that Sinatra was “fronting” for him as part owner to two resort hotels. The committee called Sinatra. “That’s all hearsay evidence, isn’t it?” Sinatra asked. “Yes, it is,” the committee counsel admitted.

Always a public man, Sinatra explained the shift in his political thinking in a New York Times Op-Ed piece he wrote just after he appeared before the committee. His old politics of standing up for the little guy had been altered. Now he embraced the right-wing populism that defined the principal oppressor of the little guy as big government. And he saw his subpoena as a prime example of government oppressing a little guy. Sinatra became a Reagan Republican. “It didn’t gall him as much as he had thought it would,” reported columnist Earl Wilson.

His turn to the right coincided with a deepened contempt for women and his most offensive public behavior ever. At a pre-inaugural party in 1973, he shouted at Washington Post columnist Maxine Cheshire, “Get away from me, you scum. Go home and take a bath. . . . You’re nothing but a two-dollar cunt. You know what that means, don’t you? You’ve been laying down for two dollars all your life.” He then stuffed two dollar bills in her drink, saying, “Here’s two dollars, baby, that’s what you’re used to.” He made that kind of language part of his concert routine for several months, to the evident enjoyment of his new right-wing following.

President Nixon invited him to perform in the White House in 1973—something the Democrats had never done. He sand “The House I Live In.” Twenty-eight years earlier, he had sung it for students at newly integrated high schools. Now he was singing for the man who began his career as a member of HUAC from 1946 to 1950, when the committee smeared Sinatra. The president beamed with satisfaction, and Pat Nixon kept time by nodding her head. At the end of the program, for the first time in his public career, Sinatra was in tears.

© The New Republic, March 31, 1986.  Reprinted with permission.

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An “Epic Recipe Fail”: Thanksgiving Grapegate in The New York Times

By Jon Wiener

The Tuesday before Thanksgiving last year, The New York Times ran a special food section they called “The United States of Thanksgiving.” “We’ve scoured the nation for recipes that evoke each of the 50 states,” they said. “These are our picks.” I’m from Minnesota, and I was sure they would report that the state’s indispensable Thanksgiving dish was wild rice casserole. But instead, for Minnesota they picked “Grape Salad”: grapes in sour cream with brown sugar on top, heated under the broiler. I had never heard of it.

I emailed friends and relatives in Minnesota, and they had never heard of it either. So I wrote to the Public Editor of The New York Times, who’s in charge of investigating complaints of errors and unfairness and “matters of journalistic integrity.” I cc-ed food editor Sam Sifton, who replied promptly: “Actually, Mr. Wiener, that recipe is from David Tanis [who writes the City Kitchen column for the paper]. And he doesn’t call it traditional. He calls it old-fashioned. Happy Thanksgiving! Sam.”

I pointed out to Sam that, while David Tanis had been a famous chef at Chez Panisse, that’s in Berkeley, not Bemidji.

It quickly became clear that I wasn’t the only Minnesotan complaining. The Minneapolis Star Tribune ran a piece quoting a string of tweets: “My favorite part of the holiday is pruning my family grape tree for our traditional grape hot dish.” “Traditional Minnesota condiments. Salt, Pepper, and Grapes.” One featured a great non-quote: “‘I can’t wait to have Grandma’s Grape Salad at Thanksgiving!!’-said no one from Minnesota. Ever.”

Tanis himself responded on Facebook that he got the recipe from a friend who was a “Minnesota-born heiress.” Readers weren’t convinced; one said that made for two things Minnesota didn’t have — grape salad, and heiresses.

Soon there was a hashtag: #Grapegate. A thousand people posted comments on The New York Times Facebook page. Many of them wondered why wild rice casserole had been overlooked.

Finally The New York Times Public Editor, Margaret Sullivan, published her report on Grapegate. She quoted one reader who wrote, “Dear New York Times, What the hell is ‘grape salad’? Signed, All of Minnesota.” Sullivan concluded that the choice for Minnesota was “bizarrely wrong.” She called it an “epic recipe fail.”

The Public Editor also checked with Food Editor Sam Sifton. He admitted that the recipe was “out of fashion” in Minnesota, but said the dish was “delicious,” and concluded, “I hope a lot of people try it.” He seemed pretty good-natured about the whole fiasco.

The next day the Public Editor published a Grapegate update, quoting Julia Moskin, a reporter with the Times’s Food section. She sounded bitter. “We worked hard […] to generate a mix of 52 recipes that would not be cliched, repetitive, unhealthy, or unappetizing,” she said. “It is frustrating to have the project so thoroughly misunderstood.” It’s not hard to understand her unhappiness — didn’t any one care about the other 51 recipes that had no problems?

We all thought that was the end of Grapegate. But then the Pioneer Press discovered that the historic Lowell Inn in Stillwater had had an item on their menu since 1960 called Grapes Devonshire. It was part of a prix fixe fondue dinner that started with cheese fondue, then a fondue pot with beef, duck, and shrimp, and finally fresh red grapes in sweetened Devonshire cream with mint and brown sugar. (If you didn’t want the Grapes Devonshire, you could get chocolate fondue instead — it came with marshmallows and pound cake.)

The special dinner was on the menu every Friday and Saturday night. It cost $38 per person, and reservations were required. Barb Cook, who had worked at the Lowell Inn for 50 years, told the paper that Grapes Devonshire was “very, very plain. It tastes good,” she said, “but any kind of fruit mixed with sour cream and brown sugar tastes good.”

Also, Grapes Devonshire was a dessert, she pointed out, not a salad. But at least one restaurant in Minnesota served a sort of “grape salad,” so you could say The New York Times had not been totally wrong.

On Thanksgiving Day The New York Times Food section ran another big 50-state recipe piece. For this one, they reported on Google searches for Thanksgiving recipes that were the “most distinct” for each state. Minnesota’s top search result was “wild rice casserole.” An accurate news report about the state’s indispensable Thanksgiving dish: that was something to be grateful for at dinner that night.

Abramsky

Marxism and Matzo Balls: Sasha Abramsky’s Memoir of His Remarkable Grandfather

By Peter Dreier

Sasha Abramsky will be reading from his book on Thursday, October 1 at 7 pm at Book Soup Bookstore, 8818 Sunset Blvd. West Hollywood, CA 90069

During 1968 and 1969 I spent a year in London. I was supposed to be studying politics and sociology, but I spent more time at anti-war rallies and protests, at folk-music clubs and concerts, writing articles, and traveling around England and Europe, than I did in class. On a whim, however, I decided to take a course in Jewish history at University College.  The catalog indicted that the course would be taught by a professor named Chimen Abramsky, whom I had not heard of before.

Despite my general indifference to academic matters, I rarely missed a session of Abramsky’s course, which met in a tiny classroom. Abramsky was in his mid-50s but to me he appeared much older — perhaps because I was only 20, but perhaps also because he had an Old World look about him. He spoke in a thick Russian-Yiddish accent, which required students to listen carefully to his lectures, which he often delivered while sitting in a chair, dressed in a rumpled suit and tie. Abramsky was a tiny man who seemed quirky, eccentric, impish, and brilliant.

I remember the aura more than the specific content of the course. I was not educated enough in Jewish history, or history in general, to appreciate what he had to offer. I should have taken some more basic Jewish history courses — or read about it on my own — before venturing into this class. Intimidated by his erudition and embarrassed by my own ignorance, I unfortunately didn’t bother to talk with him after class or to learn anything about him or his life outside the classroom. Still, I was mesmerized by his presence, almost as if he was a performance artist.

A few years ago, at a conference of activists and academics, I met Sasha Abramsky, a British writer, transplanted to the United States, who has authored several excellent books, including Inside Obama’s Brain and The American Way of Poverty: How the Other Half Still Lives. I asked Sasha if he was related to the professor I had taken a course with decades earlier. It turned out that he is Chimen’s grandson, and he told me about his grandfather’s fascinating life. From Sasha I learned that Chimen (pronounced “Shimon”) was an extraordinary historian and bibliophile, a world-renowned student of Marxism as well as Jewish history, and the center of a global network of scholars and activists.

Shortly after Chimen’s death in 2010, Sasha penned a wonderfully warm and evocative recollection of his grandfather in the British newspaper, The Guardian. Now he has expanded that essay into a book, The House of Twenty Thousand Books, which brings his grandparents and their world to life. Published last year in England, it has just been released in the United States by New York Review Books. Abramsky has also produced a five-minute video that is worth watching on its own and will surely whet your appetite to read the book.

Chimen Abramsky was born in Minsk in 1916, the son of Yehezkel Abramsky, an esteemed Orthodox rabbinic scholar. Yehezkel arranged for Chimen to be schooled by private tutors at home, where he learned Yiddish, Hebrew, and Russian. In 1929, Stalin’s police arrested Yehezkel in Moscow and sent him to Siberia for treason, although his real crime was his opposition to the regime’s persecution of Jews. Thanks to a lobbying campaign by Jews around the world, Yehezkel was released, and in 1932 moved his family to England, where he became a prominent rabbi.

Chimen had no interest following in his father’s religious footsteps, but he absorbed his father’s love of books and scholarship. Arriving in London during the Depression, he took English lessons at Pitman College and was quickly drawn to the city’s circle of secular Jewish immigrant intellectuals, artists, and activists, as well as the radical students at the London School of Economics. Thus began his lifetime love affair with the study of Jewish history and culture as well as Marx, Marxism, and socialism.

In 1936, Abramsky went to Palestine to attend Hebrew University, where he became deeply involved in socialist politics. The campus ideological battleground was so intense that one day Chimen was beaten up by Yitzhak Shamir, then a leader of the right-wing Irgun faction and later Israel’s prime minister.

Abramsky returned to London in 1939 to visit his parents but was trapped by World War II and unable to return to Israel. He found a job at Shapiro, Vallentine & Company, London’s oldest Jewish bookshop. In 1940 he married the owner’s daughter, Miriam Nirenstein, and both became active members of the British Communist Party.  He joined the CP in 1941 after the Nazis invaded Russia in June 1941, and became a leader of the CP’s large Jewish wing and editor of its publication, the Jewish Clarion. Miram left the CP in 1956 (after the Soviet invasion of Hungary), but Chimen remained a member for another two years, finally acknowledging the atrocities that left many leftists disillusioned with Communism.

Although Abramsky left the Communist Party, he never left the left.  Moreover, his left-wing views didn’t thwart his remarkable entrepreneurial skills. The bookstore provided him with an opportunity to acquire a personal library of 20,000 volumes, primarily books on socialism and Judaism. His collection included first editions of Spinoza and Descartes, books that belonged to Leon Trotsky, manuscripts and letters by Voltaire and Marx, and even Marx’s membership card in the First International. He developed a global network of book collectors and, with a keen eye for a good deal and a remarkable ability to authenticate and judge the value of a book, made a reasonable living in the book business.  Sotheby’s hired him as a consultant on rare books.  He played an important role in the rescue of several Torah scrolls in Czechoslovakia that had been confiscated by the Nazis.

He may have enjoyed the travel and the wheeling and dealing but at heart Abramsky was a scholar.  While he thrived as a bookseller and manuscript expert, he pursued his scholarly activities on his own, having no degrees or institutional affiliation. That changed after some noted British academics — including E.H. Carr, James Joll, and Isaiah Berlin — encouraged Abramsky to teach. After his book, Karl Marx and the British Labour Movement (co-authored with Henry Collins) came out in 1965, he was invited, through Berlin, to teach at Oxford. The next year, at age 50, he was invited to assume a newly-created lectureship in modern Jewish history at University College-London (UCL), which is where I encountered him in that small classroom. In 1974, he became head of the UCL’s department of Hebrew and Jewish studies, keeping the position until he retired in 1983. Twice he accepted invitations to teach in the United States, holding visiting professorships at Brandeis and Stanford.

He was widely influential through his writings, his mentorship of generations of scholars, and his ability to bring people together at dinners and meetings at his home. His friends included some of the world’s leading left-wing historians, including Christopher Hill, Eric Hobsbawm, and E.P. Thompson. In 1989, his students and colleagues published Jewish History: Essays in Honour of Chimen Abramsky, a reflection of his impact and inspiration. In 2012, a donor established the Professor Chimen Abramsky Scholarship for undergraduate students at the Department of Hebrew and Jewish Studies at University College-London.

The House of Twenty Thousand Books is part history (about his grandparents’ background and their social, political, and intellectual milieu) and part memoir (about how Sasha absorbed that world of Marxism and matzo balls). He describes the Abramsky home on Hill Way in London (not far from Highgate Cemetery, where Karl Marx is buried) as an ongoing salon that attracted socialists and Jewish intellectuals who came to eat, exchange ideas, enjoy each other’s company, and examine Abramsky’s huge collection of rare books, which filled every room and staircase in the house.

Abramsky was both generous and stingy about sharing his remarkable collection of books.  He allowed scholars and fellow bibliophiles to visit the house to examine his books, but only those who Abramsky considered serious enough to merit entry in his working library. Although each room was dedicated to books on a different subject, his “system” was quite disorganized and he lacked the time, money, and will to turn the chaos into order and to adequately protect some of the rarest and most valuable books from the elements.

To retrieve his grandfather’s story, Sasha had to excavate the book collection, review the writings of Chimen, his correspondents, and other scholars, and interview family members as well as his grandparents’ friends and colleagues.    He writes with both love and respect, an understandable nostalgia, and with sympathy, if not total agreement, with his grandfather’s intellectual and political preoccupations.  His grandmother, an accomplished social worker and political activist, gets less attention than she deserves. Abramsky mostly focuses on her cooking and homemaking skills, the hostess at the endless gatherings of family, friends and colleagues from around the world.  Although his grandparents were secular radicals, they kept a kosher home, a legacy of his upbringing and his unwillingness to completely alienate his father, the strictly religious rabbi.

The House of Twenty Thousand Books tells the story of a world that no longer exists. I missed my opportunity to get to know Chimen Abramsky personally when I had the chance. But now others will get to know this extraordinary man through the eyes of his grandson.

 

Peter Dreier teaches Politics and chairs the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College. His most recent book is The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame (Nation Books, 2012).

Getting to Grey Owl

Without a Map

By Sarah Woods

MOST TRAVEL WRITERS harbor a secret hope they will uncover something special as they voyage. But many never do. It’s rare to make a discovery in this world. To trail-blaze. To set the world alight; to reveal something new. We travel writers notice stuff, sure, and write it down for the enjoyment of others; most of us end wrapping rather ordinary experience up in ribbons to make it appear more extraordinary than it was.

Kurt Caswell’s Getting to Grey Owl isn’t a standard travel book — far from it. While some pieces are easier reads than others (you’d expect as much from a collection spanning two decades), Caswell writes vividly throughout, with humor and pathos (we learn early on that he has loved and lost), and not just about beautiful vistas or exotic locales; booze joints, bunk beds, and back alleys all have their place. Caswell, who teaches literature and creative writing in the Honors College at Texas Tech University, begins his travels in Japan in 1992 and ends them with a trip to Iceland in 2013 — in between, over the course of two decades, he visits more than a dozen countries on four different continents. Always, he’s as interested in the people as he is in place.

For example, on a river trip in China, boarding at Guilin and disembarking at Yangshuo, Caswell admits to being utterly beguiled by the exotic rosebud lips and coarse black hair of Chinese women. It is also in China, and in the same essay, that Caswell fails to cotton on to the hard-sell advances of a sexually savvy masseuse keen to deliver a “reaaaally goooood ma—ssage.” He fleetingly considers accepting the offer; and is later troubled, wondering why he did not.
While in Italy, Caswell goes to Venice, which he explores without a map (as I do). He is a rather reluctant tourist; still, Caswell can’t help but succumb to the lure of a gondola ride (again, like me.) He also spends lots of money sipping outrageously over-priced coffee (and I’m heartened by this, too.)

Caswell’s travels in Spain hark back, briefly, to the days of Hemingway. In Seville, he decides to attend a bullfight; it’s all rather sad and bloody. He’d ignored the advice of a barman (a pre-fight nerve-steadier is the order of day), and neglected to pack a bag “to vomit in,” because “it’s disgusting,” he writes. As the bull enters the ring he finds himself cheering, then quickly realizes the event is not a contest. “It’s a tragedy,” he writes, and as he observes the bull’s bloody demise, he reflects on man’s 20,000-year relationship with the animal to ponder why the custom continues.

He doesn’t tell us that Spain’s fondness for bullfighting is on the wane. Although Spain’s parliament awarded bullfighting national cultural heritage status in 2014, a 2013 poll showed that 75 percent of Spaniards have not attended a bullfight in the past five years, and that only 29 percent support it. Still, for Caswell, this is mainly an episode of gore, guts, and gloom, not about culture.

Another story centers on ascending four small mountains in the UK and Ireland: Mount Snowdon in Wales at 1085 meters, Ireland’s Mount Carrantuohill at 1039 meters, Ben Nevis in Scotland at 1,344 meters and Scafell Pike at 978 meters. Caswell must have a strong stomach, because Scafell Pike isn’t just England’s highest mountain; it is home to one of the nation’s highest makeshift toilets. I pulled myself up to the summit, red-faced and weary, only to be greeted by the nauseating stench of human waste. Could it be that Caswell didn’t notice? Or had the shocking amounts of litter and excrement been cleared away after my ascent? He briefly remembers another great climb, up the steep winding trail that leads to the top of 620-foot Multnomah Falls, the second-highest waterfall in America, and its sublime vista. But back on Scafell Pike, Caswell can see little through the drizzle, which lends his essay a Wordsworthian air. And when anxiety strikes, Caswell, like Wordsworth himself, “wanders lonely as a cloud” feeling lost and bereft. He recognizes nothing familiar. Nothing comforting. No flower, tree, or creature. As he contemplates weeping, I worried for him, but I needn’t have: that same evening he is rescued by a friendly Samaritan, Xiaolin, a radiant Taiwanese.

In Iceland — the land of ice and fire — Caswell writes of fjords, glaciers, low-lying northern sun, treacherous snow paths, and arctic foxes, as well as his relationship with Scott Dewing, a friend for over 30 years. Travel is the glue that has cemented their bond. As boys, they were competitive; now Scott is happily married and devoted to family life while Caswell is flying solo after a break up. Scott sometimes yearns for Caswell’s solitude — Caswell often longs for his friend’s family life. Caswell is full of wanderlust, Scott is steady. Caswell has long, thick hair, and Scott’s is thinning. But although each man envies his friend, neither attempts to eclipse the other.

In other tales, Caswell stays closer to home, describing excursions into Anasazi Country, Utah (in four separate trips over 10 years, 1996 – 2006), and the tricky mountain paths of Idaho. However, it is the Scottish town of Inverness that provides Caswell with his most bizarre encounter. As one of the prettiest of Scotland’s seven cities, Inverness sits in the south of the rugged Highlands, on the wide sweeping banks of the fabled River Ness. Crowned by a pink castle that looks like a wedding cake about to topple into the waters below, Inverness is famous for its small historic central core, already a thriving trading port in the 6th century. The town has famously survived Jacobite bombs and ground-shaking tremors, and is now a picturesque gateway to the leaping Atlantic salmon that swim the River Ness. It’s a stone’s throw from Culloden Battlefield, Moray Firth and the boats that cruise down the Caledonian Canal to reach Loch Ness. Yet I don’t learn this from Caswell, because his encounter isn’t with the landscape or its wildlife, but rather with Tia, a transgender hostess whom he meets in a restaurant. Once again, as in China, he is slow on the uptake, assuming that Tia is all woman. She is not.

“She was the most gorgeous creature I’d seen all day, ” he writes.

Shouler-length black hair, kinda ratty and witchy, huge dark eyes like Bambi blinking at that raging forest fire, a long graceful line down the length of her tight black trousers, and the most unexpectedly perfect chest. She spoke in a dark smoker’s voice, which, unbeknownst to me until then, kinda turned me on.

Tia and Caswell share a moment outside in the dark street over a cigarette before bidding each other goodnight. Did they go home together to share a bed, as Tia suggests? Caswell isn’t saying. Curiously, he ends the chapter this way: “And from here, gentle reader, our scene becomes so filled with mist, it’s impossible to know what happened next.”

The final piece in the collection — Caswell’s search for Grey Owl’s Cabin in Saskatchewan — gives the book its title. As with the writer’s other rambles, this quest is fodder for a lyrical and reflective essay executed with whimsy and awe. Caswell’s style serves him well: whether he is on a lung-busting hike in Wales, cruising through mysterious Chinese waters, or bartering for a rug in a Moroccan market, his writings are as much an exploration of his inner as outer landscape. He muses as he meanders, wonders as he wanders — about the meaning of life, of love, of lust, of aging, and of the end itself. But for a man so intensely thoughtful and well-traveled, Caswell seems worryingly naive. It strikes me now that his various unwise encounters add a frisson of adventure to his adventures; adding danger to the dangers. But to stroll in strange cities by dark, to drink too much in iffy bars, to loiter too long in the wrong places seems either reckless or gormless, as if the author simply didn’t notice the potential for harm.

Caswell is distracted in part because he’s anxious about the state of the world and he frets about his carbon footprint. A deep thinker, his unanswered questions about the role of the travel writer and the health of the planet resonate perfectly. Undertaking immense journeys to write about environmental disaster, burning thousands of gallons of jet to bring us news of melting glaciers and the decline of arctic? Caswell can’t help but ask if it wouldn’t be better to stay home. He worries if writing and researching a story on climate change — as he has done — is actually worth its weight in carbon. His conclusion, if I’m not mistaken, is that it is important to justify your travels by ensuring that they make some kind of difference.

Will the story of Caswell’s trip to Grey Owl’s Cabin help to save the earth? No, it will not. His discoveries and revelations are mostly of a personal nature. But will it cause us to relish the idea of wandering? Inspire us to yearn for more wriggle room? To more deeply examine our motives and ourselves? Undoubtedly, yes.

¤

Sarah Woods has travelled for two decades non-stop, circumnavigating the globe in several directions and clocking up over 620,000 miles along the way. She has traveled all the continents and navigated many of the world’s most iconic landscapes. She is a veteran of jungle treks and wildlife conservation expeditions and an early pioneer of Giving Something Back and responsible travel. Now based in the UK, Sarah is a regular travel expert/contributor to daytime TV and BBC radio, and she has written extensively for more than 70 magazines worldwide, including National Geographic, WanderlustBBC WildlifeWild Travel, and Traveller. She works closely with Europe’s biggest wildlife conservation charity, the RSPB, is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, and a Member of the British Guild of Travel Writers and the International Travel Alliance.

cecil lion

An Open Letter to Dr. Walter Palmer, Dentist, Hunter

By Deanne Stillman

Dear Dr. Palmer:

Due to the news story that you’ve recently been involved in, I know a lot about you. Or at least enough to write you this letter. You probably don’t know anything about me, and I’d like to introduce myself. I’m a writer, teacher, American citizen, fan of baseball, heavy metal, blues, jazz and all that has rhythm and a beat and a tune that you can breathe and dance and sway to. I like German chocolate cake and espresso and roast duck and sometimes I take my espresso with amaretto. I also eat the beef of cattle and bison, but not very often; more generally, I go for kale but really my favorite thing is crepes, at any time of the day or night. I should mention as well that I like hiking and wide open space, especially if sand is involved, and every now and then, I try to surf, but mostly end up hanging twenty – and then falling off anyway.

I don’t think I’ve ever written to a dentist before, although I’ve sent Christmas cards and thank you notes. I want to let you know that I have no fear of those in your profession and I’ve liked all of my dentists. One in fact was so wonderful that I almost considered staying in the wrong town, even though that would have meant not seeing my best friends ever again or re-uniting with an old boyfriend. Over the years I’ve noticed that some of my dentists, and doctors as well, have photographs of wild animals on their walls; I recall one thoughtful and light-hearted dentist who even had such images on the ceiling, to offer patients a beautiful thing to look at as they lay prone in his chair, perhaps undergoing an uncomfortable procedure.

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Photo by Larry Lasker

As for the subject at hand, Cecil the Lion, I am not trying to be coy when I say that it must be rough to get busted – by millions of people on the internet, no less – for something that a lot of other people do all of the time all over the world on a regular basis. I refer specifically to hunting wildlife for sport, and more specifically, in your case, to the recent killing of Cecil in Zimbabwe. I know that you may engage in such activity in the name of conservation, along with the many others who pay large sums of money to hunt and kill wild animals in exotic and domestic locations, often at the behest of sponsors and guides who are part of a licensed network, though not always. In your case, many things have converged; we live in a time during which the world is mad as hell and isn’t gonna take it any more. Because of the internet, and depending on what “it” is at any given time, this anger increases exponentially, and the person who is the focus of whatever the world is mad about at any particular moment assumes association with that selfsame act. You are the person who now represents trophy killing everywhere.

There are so many things I want to ask you. When did you first come into contact with lions? When you were a little boy, did you see them at the circus atop their mounts and gaze in wonderment at their flowing manes and static power as their trainer kept them in place and then took a bow?   Did you see them at the zoo, behind bars, and if so what did you think? I would often accompany my mother, an artist, to our local wild animal dwelling. She liked to draw the animals, in particular the small capuchin monkeys on Monkey Island and after that, we would wander over to the big cat house. I remember watching the lions pacing, pacing, pacing inside their cage. There was a sign that said they were the king of the jungle and it had some other information that was scientific that I don’t remember. Even locked up, they retained a magnificence. There was still a flicker in their eyes, or so I like to think, but maybe my memory here stems from the fact that I had been listening to a recording of famous poems around that time, and had developed a fascination for one in particular, about another big cat, and lately, I can’t shake it. It was “The Tyger” by William Blake, and it had the well-known phrase, “Tiger tiger burning bright.” Maybe you know it? It’s been recorded many times by British orators and “covered” by rock bands. Here are a couple of verses:

TIGER, tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?

In Los Angeles where I live, flames of that fire have licked at our gates in recent days. A cougar who lives at Griffith Park and thereabouts holed up for a few days in a dark space in a home near its range, creating a media frenzy and talk of how to make it leave and what if it attacked. Known as P22, the mountain lion slipped away one night, evading anchor folk and the rest of us, and according to its tracking collar, safely returned to what remains of the wilderness. As I wrote here at the time, the presence of P22 brought to mind how we have appropriated cougar spirit in our lives, and so too have I been thinking about how we have commandeered lion essence, or talk about it at least, as we go about our daily lives. By any chance, Dr. Palmer, are you a Leo? If not, you most likely know one or two such folk who have been born under this astrological sign, which is Latin for lion, so named by the ancients because at a certain time of the year, certain stars configured themselves so as to resemble the king of the jungle and those who emerged under this constellation were said to be imprinted with the characteristics of the lion, which is to say, they were fierce, courageous, they were the king.

Do lions figure into your life, I wonder? Do you dream about them? Do you love or hate the Detroit Lions? Have you been to a production of “The Lion King”? Most likely you’ve seen the MGM lion at the movies, possibly one of the most well-known marketing mascots of all time. Do you have any thoughts one way or another when he roars, even if only to know that the roar signals the start of something big?   When you were in Zimbabwe, did you hear lions roar? When that happened, what happened to you?

In the timeless time, aboriginal hunters said that a desired animal would present itself to the one who desired it, head into the line of attack and make eye contact just before it was felled, as if to say, “I’m yours. Take me.” The animal knew that conditions required its sacrifice; the tribe was hungry and on the animal, the two-legged members of its circle were dependent. After the animal was taken, there was ceremony and the web was not broken.

Dr. Palmer, let me put it to you this way: I am asking you to come in and lay down your arms. If you give up trophy hunting in honor of Cecil, you wouldn’t be alone. In fact, you’d be in fine company.

May I introduce you to Aldo Leopold? He happens to be a founder of the wilderness system that we have in America today, and helped take the country from outdated concepts of wildlife management which he himself was involved with to an approach that was more inclusive of animals and their welfare. His writings about the environment were far ahead of his time, and they have since become an underpinning of the modern campaign for ecosystem and wildlife protection.   Before he became such an influential person, he was a hunter, a bounty hunter in effect, paid by the government in his capacity as manager of the Gila Wilderness in Arizona, and he liked it. Yet it was through hunting that he came to renounce the practice of killing wild animals in order to save things. His turn-around was not conceptual, not the result of an idea; it happened one moment after he killed a wolf and he wrote about it in his seminal piece, “Thinking Like a Mountain,” which appears in Sand County Almanac,  his collection of essays about how we live on and with the land and share it with other creatures great and small. It was first published in 1949, though this particular hunt had happened sometime earlier. Here’s an excerpt, describing the sojourn and his transformation:

A deep chesty bawl echoes from rimrock to rimrock, rolls down the mountain, and fades into the far blackness of the night. It is an outburst of wild defiant sorrow, and of contempt for all the adversities of the world. Every living thing (and perhaps many a dead one as well) pays heed to that call. To the deer it is a reminder of the way of all flesh, to the pine a forecast of midnight scuffles and of blood upon the snow, to the coyote a promise of gleanings to come, to the cowman a threat of red ink at the bank, to the hunter a challenge of fang against bullet. Yet behind these obvious and immediate hopes and fears there lies a deeper meaning, known only to the mountain itself. Only the mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of a wolf…

My own conviction on this score dates from the day I saw a wolf die. We were eating lunch on a high rimrock, at the foot of which a turbulent river elbowed its way. We saw what we thought was a doe fording the torrent, her breast awash in white water. When she climbed the bank toward us and shook out her tail, we realized our error: it was a wolf. A half-dozen others, evidently grown pups, sprang from the willows and all joined in a welcoming melee of wagging tails and playful maulings. What was literally a pile of wolves writhed and tumbled in the center of an open flat at the foot of our rimrock.

In those days we had never heard of passing up a chance to kill a wolf. In a second we were pumping lead into the pack, but with more excitement than accuracy: how to aim a steep downhill shot is always confusing. When our rifles were empty, the old wolf was down, and a pup was dragging a leg into impassable slide-rocks.

We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes – something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.

And so, I ask you again: Dr. Palmer, would you come in and lay down your arms? If you give up trophy hunting in honor of Cecil, you wouldn’t be alone. Aldo Leopold wasn’t; in fact, he had fine company.

May I introduce you to Ernest Thompson Seton? It was in his footsteps that Leopold travelled, although that does not seem to have been on his mind, in an overt way at least. Yet it is very likely that any well-informed hunter of his era, and any wilderness-minded individual, would have known the story of the famed wolf called Lobo, the one whose brutal killing at the hands of Seton, the dedicated hunter, changed the life of this man – and the country. You see, in 1893 he responded to a call for help from ranchers in New Mexico; their cattle was under siege, they said, and one wolf in particular was to blame, leading his pack in all manner of bloodthirsty raids and making it impossible to stake out a decent life in the wilderness. So Seton travelled to the beleaguered region to stalk the animal known as “vermin” – using terminology that is still in use today, applied to many wild animals – during the final stages of the great wolf removals of that era. It was not the first of such hunts for him; in fact as the Telegraph reported several years ago, before he had emigrated to the United States from Canada, he had written the definitive manual on how to catch wolves. By the time he arrived in New Mexico for the hunt he would document in a short story, only several wolves remained, including Old Lobo. Along with a posse of other men, Seton spent months tracking the “outlaw,” as he was treated and called, wanted just as badly as any fugitive who had eluded the hanging tree.   And oh that Lobo was smart, all right; as Seton later wrote, the wolf had “disarmed” his traps, avoiding bait that was laced with strychnine and cyanide while managing to extract sustenance from a thing that would have otherwise killed him. This only added to his notoriety and allure, making him all the more defiant and wanted, and his stalkers took the ability to elude them as an affront, and Seton noted that the situation had become a humiliation. Finally, he discovered that Lobo had a mate, a white wolf known as Blanca, and now he had a way to catch Lobo. After luring Blanca into a baited trap, he killed her, “the first death blow we had been able to inflict on the pack,” he said. And then something happened that surprised him, and it was so shattering that it would lead him to write “Lobo, the King of Currumpaw,” a story that came to guide the country along a new path of greater protections for wolves after it appeared in an illustrated collection of his stories called Wild Animals I Have Known. Here is an excerpt:

At intervals during the tragedy, and afterward as we rode homeward, we heard the roar of Lobo as he wandered about on the distant mesas, where he seemed to be searching for Blanca. He had never really deserted her, but, knowing that he could not save her, his deep-rooted dread of firearms had been too much for him when he saw us approaching. All that day we heard him wailing as he roamed in his quest, and I remarked at length to one of the boys, “Now, indeed, I truly know that Blanca was his mate.”

As evening fell he seemed to be coming toward the home canyon, for his voice sounded continually nearer.

There was an unmistakable note of sorrow in it now. It was no longer the loud, defiant howl, but a long, plaintive wail; “Blanca! Blanca!” he seemed to call. And as night came down, I noticed that he was not far from the place where we had overtaken her. At length he seemed to find the trail, and when he came to the spot where we had killed her, his heartbroken wailing was piteous to hear. It was sadder than I could possibly have believed. Even the stolid cowboys noticed it, and said they had “never heard a wolf carry on like that before.” He seemed to know exactly what had taken place, for her blood had stained the place of her death…

He then set steel traps for Lobo, 130 of them, buried and concealed them, and dragged Blanca across each one, laying down her scent. Lobo responded to one of them, and it gripped each of his legs in a way that was final, and that’s how Seton found him, the next day, a “a great grizzly form” arising from the ground, “vainly endeavoring to escape.” Yet the old wolf continued to struggle, the light still fierce his eyes, and the men further subdued him, deciding not to shoot him and end his pain, but instead placing him atop a horse and taking him back to their camp, where they could secure his hide.   En route, Seton noted that Lobo’s eyes were no longer focused on his hunters, but

Afar on the great rolling mesas they were fixed, his passing kingdom, where his famous band was now scattered. And he gazed till the pony descended the pathway into the canyon, and the rocks cut off the view….[Back at camp] I set meat and water beside him but he paid no heed. He lay calmly on his breast, and gazed with those steadfast yellow eyes away past me down through the gateway of the canyon, over the open plains—his plains—nor moved a muscle when I touched him. When the sun went down he was still gazing fixedly across the prairie. I expected he would call up his band when night came, and prepared for them, but he had called once in his extremity, and none had come; he would never call again.

A lion shorn of his strength, an eagle robbed of his freedom, or a dove bereft of his mate, all die, it is said, of a broken heart; and who will aver that this grim bandit could bear the three-fold brunt, heart-whole? This only I know, that when the morning dawned, he was lying there still in his position of calm repose, his body unwounded, but his spirit was gone—the old kingwolf was dead.

I took the chain from his neck, a cowboy helped me to carry him to the shed where lay the remains of Blanca, and as we laid him beside her, the cattle-man exclaimed: “There, you would come to her, now you are together again.

 So I ask you again, Dr. Palmer, won’t you come in and lay down your arms? If you give up trophy hunting in honor of Cecil, you wouldn’t be alone. In fact, you’d be in fine company. Along with the men I have mentioned, there are others out there. Like you, they have taken the lives of wild animals in the name of other things, but not always. I know because I’ve met them. When they are young and in their prime, they are unreachable, defiant, afraid. They are receiving approval for their acts from a circle of friends and it is a thing with which they are familiar and it sustains them. They are equipped with all manner of gear and accessories, “varmint calls” that let them “hunt the hunters” and after they’ve done it, they display the take proudly and sometimes are photographed with it in a manner such as you know. Years later, some are full of remorse, or more accurately, some of their kind, for I have not followed their lives individually, but have met and spent time with different sorts of hunters at different stages of their lives, and those who have killed for sport and are remorseful cannot show this feeling to their friends. Sometimes they come to my talks, after others have left, unassuming, defeated, not really a part of this world. “I’m sorry,” they say, on the verge of tears in certain instances, sometimes extending a hand. And then they tell me what they have done, which is to say kill wild horses (as mustangs and the ongoing war against them is the subject of one of my books). They regret their role in the decimation of our herds, living in the West as most of them do, and now looking out their back doors, say, if they have a home (some are without one, living on the road, cast aside like the animals we do not want), and seeing a Wal-Mart, for instance, or string of fast food establishments, on the horizon of the once open range. “It’s all gone,” they say, and they know they have been part of the wipe-out, which extends to all wild animals at this point, and they have participated in the wars against all of these animals (if you think that a wild horse is a “varmint,” you generally think that wolves and mountain lions and bobcats are too, and they have, for instance, used the carcasses of wild horse to attract other four-leggeds so they can kill them). Now, with everything gone and the land empty, they ask me what they can do. “To make things right,” they say, like a prayer, and they tear up and begin to have trouble talking and then they leave, vanishing into the national vapors. “In America,” Jim Harrison once wrote, “there are a lot of bodies by the side of the road.”

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Photo by Larry Lasker

Finally, there is one more thing I’d like to say and then I’ll be on my way.   Earlier this year, my dear friend, Michael Blake, passed away.   You may not be familiar with his name, but you well may know his legacy. He wrote “Dances with Wolves” – the book and the movie. Throughout his life, Michael spoke on behalf of all wild things, including mountain lions, and like me, he was a long-time defender of wild horses. Here is an excerpt from “Horse Number 1202,” a poem he wrote about a wild horse after it was seized from the wilderness and penned up in a government corral:

In city traffic
I remember his eyes
So dark and wet
So full of God

Michael adopted this stallion sometime after he was seized from the land, and he named him “Twelve,” part of the government brand on his neck. He took him home to Wolf House, the wilderness ranch in Arizona that Michael named in tribute to Jack London and his writing studio in northern California.  On the spread in the Sonoran Desert, Michael lived with other rescued horses, a rescued raven and various dogs and cats, working on new stories and traveling between bouts of cancer, trying to bring attention to the plight of wild horses. “Whatever he may be doing at this moment,” he once wrote of Twelve in his book about him, “it is of no harm to anyone or anything. He has never performed a destructive act in his life. Lying or cheating for personal gain is not part of his being, nor is the accumulation of wealth for its own sake. The only system he is part of is that of the Creator.”

There came a time that Michael could no longer fight an increasing number of maladies. He began alternating his days between friends and family and then finally, he moved to a hospice. The last time I spoke with him was in a phone call at Christmas, arranged by a mutual friend, John Coinman, who has memorialized the West in song. John and his wife Jo Anderson were helping Michael connect with close pals in his final days, and sometimes John would dial the phone and hand it off to Michael.   As we often did over the years, we talked about our writing and then Michael told me about some things that were bothering him, such as the fact that among other things, he couldn’t remember the parts of speech (or maybe that was in an earlier conversation; they’re all conflated now). In any case, the implication was: what did that mean for him as a writer and if he couldn’t write, then what?, for that was where he lived, but he didn’t say that, and somewhere in the conversation, he told me to keep writing, which is something he always said, but this time it took on a heightened meaning.   I could hear the anguish in his voice, and he was passing the baton, or so I like to think, yet you see, he still had these stories in his head. He told me he so, and I believed him. The thing was, he could not get them out and on to the page; he simply could not remember how to write a sentence. And so the songs remained inside him – or in the thousands of pages he inscribed before he died, now in his archives. But what is surely an opera for all time made its way through Michael and we are all the better for it. Recently, his ashes were scattered over Twelve’s burial site at Wolf House. “Although his age could not be proven,” Michael said, “it was somewhere in the vicinity of forty years…I have visited his grave nearly every day since he died, driven not so much by grief as a sense of honor.”

Since the moment he walked on, to use Native American parlance, I’ve been wanting to write something for Michael, but I did not know how or what to say. I think that now, with this letter, I’ve said it.

I wasn’t sure how to begin and now, I’m not quite sure how to sign off. I guess I’ll keep it simple and thank you for your time, Dr. Palmer. And if you’ve gotten this far, I’d like to put it out there one more time: won’t you come in and lay down your arms? You wouldn’t be alone.

Sincerely,

Deanne Stillman

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Translating and Tweeting

By Joanna Chen

I’m in the lotus position above Iceland. I have two seats to myself and one more whenever the guy next to me totters down the aisle for another whiskey on the rocks. Whenever he does this, I stretch my legs out onto his seat as well. Sometimes I go stand at the back of the plane, where the airline attendants are snacking on potato chips and laughing together. They adjust their smiles as I come towards them. I’d like a cup of tea, I say. The tea is handed to me in a plastic cup and I continue to stand there, moving from one leg to the other, stretching as unobtrusively as I can. Do you need the bathroom? The flight attendant asks me brightly, and I shake my head and obediently return to my seat.

My legs crave movement but the rest of me loves this limbo, this hovering above the sea, this island that is me, surrounded by whimpering babies and businessmen in open-necked shirts popping peanuts and watching movies on their personal screens. I love watching other peoples’ movies as they flicker in the darkness, without knowing what the actors are saying but trying to guess. I love these poems I am translating, scattered on the empty seat beside me, their Hebrew syllables easing into English, shaking off the heavy “r” at the back of the throat, the gutturals.

I am heading to New York. I will try to shake off the jet lag and then fly on to Vermont for the inaugural Bread Loaf Translators’ Conference. I think of home longingly. I think how the leaves fell from the trees yesterday all at once, as if they were in a hurry to fall before I left, to show me that they are truly sorry I am going.

I lingered at home until dusk. I listened to the birds that visit the valley where I live in early summer, calling to each other, settling for the night. By the time I left, the old wooden table on the front porch was covered in leaves of green and yellow. I considered brushing them off but decided against it. There was no point. The leaves would continue to fall after I left.

The man in my row offers to buy me a drink and I smile and say no, thank you. He shrugs, orders himself another one and ignores me for the rest of the flight. Later, he switches places with a woman sitting further down the plane. I can’t work out if she’s his wife; he brings her over, points to the seat and shrugs his shoulders in my direction again. Her head is covered with a pale scarf and she wears an enormous amount of mascara on her eyelashes. She stares at the screen in front of her, at the icon of an airplane moving across the globe on a yellow line that turns green when the distance is covered. Under the airplane is a vast sea, indicated by the kind of blue you see on the balmiest of days at the beach. The woman reaches out long, tapering fingers to the screen and plays with the picture until it becomes a twirling globe and the airplane is flying on top of the globe, against an inky sky scattered with stars.

She manipulates the screen again and the landscape moves, revealing green furrows and what appear to be deserts; we’re flying over Kazakhstan. She draws the globe together with her fingers and Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq, and Iran crowd in together at one end of the globe. She moves around the globe, this time very quickly, as if she is afraid to lose something. Japan, North Korea, and the East China Sea become visible, their names floating in an indigo crater. Our eyes meet for a second across the empty seat. She keeps turning the globe this way and that, her fingers hovering over Argentina, Bolivia, and Paraguay, and I imagine the people of Bolivia looking up for a moment at the sky, wondering who is moving it. The globe spins, and the woman leans forward, minimizing the distance we are traveling so that Amman appears on one side and New York on the other, divided by a short yellow line. We are almost there.

I sleep badly on my first night in New York. The next day I head out with my friend, Ali, to the Whitney Museum of American Art. I linger over an E. E. Cummings abstract painting, “Noise Number 13,” at the swirling colors and conical shapes that appear to expand and contract, a visual depiction of sound. I didn’t know E. E. Cummings painted. I think of the woman on the plane, expanding her own boundaries. Later Ali and I stand on the terrace and look down at people moving like ants along the High Line and I watch the trees, green against the drab, vibrant metropolis, swaying eloquently in the wind.

I sleep badly (again) and fly to Vermont the next day. On the drive up there from the airport, I sit in the front seat clutching my bag. The driver tells us there are bears in the woods. “If you see a bear,” he says, “don’t move. Just freeze.” “One person was killed by a bear in the woods,” the guy in the back chimes in, winking at me. I peer out of the window at the dark spruce trees. The road winds up to the mountain and I’m filled with foreboding. A whole week ahead of me and there are bears in the woods.

The next morning, still jet lagged and unable to sleep, I check out the schedule and decide to join what is listed on the handout as a bird walk. I go down at 6:30am to the entrance of the Bread Loaf Inn. It’s raining a little and mist rests lightly over the mountain. A small crowd is gathered under the yellow porch. I’m the only translator here on this first walk; everyone else is from the parallel Orion Environmentalists Writers’ Conference. They’re sipping coffee in biodegradable cups and chatting together. Some have binoculars around their necks. The packet I received prior to coming to the conference said to bring a jacket. I‘m here for the translators’ conference and here is my first error in translation: I brought a blazer, not a jacket; I’m British. I begin blessing my friend, Ali, for lending me something more subtle as we cross over the meadow in a long line, the damp squelching under our feet. I am also wearing her boots. We walk to the middle of the meadow. We are looking for migratory birds that pass through this area in the month of June. And then, the sentence that resonates for me throughout the conference: “Let’s see what we can hear,” Orion conference co-director, Chip Blake, says, cocking his head to one side and placing a hand to his ear. Everyone follows suit. “Hear that?” Chip asks. Everyone nods. I hear nothing. All I can hear is the wind and the faint sound of water gurgling along down below in the woods. “Anyone know what that is?” Chip asks. We stand there. “That’s a red-eyed vireo,” he explains. He repeats this on every morning walk and the answer is always the same; it really is a red-eyed vireo. The idea of seeing what can be heard, like E. E. Cummings’s synesthetic painting, breaks through boundaries, translating sound into a visual dimension. And these beautiful bird walks, that open every single morning at the conference, become the real gateway for me to the act of translation. These are the woods of Robert Frost and his words echo in my ears as I take these walks:

The woods are lovely, dark and deep
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

These walks into the woods of Vermont are all about translation. They reveal how the sparrow marks its territory between trees by squawking, how the hairy kingfisher’s notes pierce through the wind in the treetops, undecipherable by human ears. It’s the difference between a jacket and a blazer. It’s the thin, high call of the waxwing, and the witchety-witch call of the yellow-rumped warbler, whose young form what are known as punk flocks, before drifting southward. Week-old punks, but not the punks I know, up here on the mountain. It’s the winter wren, whose loud voice carries above the rushing water, close to where it nests in winter. I saw very few of these birds with my own eyes, although Bill Johnston, the acclaimed translator and Bread Loaf faculty member, hands me his binoculars on the fourth day so I can see an eastern kingfisher dive-bombing a crow. Like translation, bird-watching demands close reading.

Later that day, in Johnston’s lecture on The Quest for a Voice, I think less about the role of the translator striving to capture the authorial voice, and more about those birds, traversing continents, flying in on the weather system, dropping onto Bread Loaf Mountain as if they are standing on the platform in a subway, waiting for a fast train, as one of the people on these walks remarked. I want to know where they are going and how they talk to each other.

We translators talk to each other a lot. We discuss the lure of language prisms. We critique translations from unfamiliar languages: Swedish, Korean, Arabic, Latin, and my own Hebrew, among other languages. We listen not just for meaning but for tone, pitch, rhythm, and texture. You cannot see it but you can hear it if you listen, and look, carefully.

In the middle of the week, we all walk over to Robert Frost’s farm for a long and delicious picnic. On the way, a translator friend and I take a detour to Frost’s cabin, where we peek through the windows. Turning to leave, we catch a yellow-striped ribbon snake slipping lazily through the grass. On the last day, I listen to Alison Hawthorne Deming talking about the importance of place in our writing and how everything comes down to animals, plants, and rocks. I understand how all these translate into feelings and rhythms, how the snake has its own unhurried language. Up here in the mountains of Vermont, there is time to learn other methods of communicative translation. For this, after all, is what translation is all about. It’s about migration to other worlds and other cultures, to the hidden lives of others.

The conference ends. The networking is over, the barn socials are over, the walks and readings too. My notebook is full of email addresses; my head is full of ideas. I’m still not sleeping properly, and rise early to take a final walk, this time on my own. I help myself to coffee and exit the Inn, crossing the road to the meadow where we went on the first day. I want to reenter the woods we visited and feel the soft, dense ground under my borrowed rain boots. I begin walking across the meadow and there it is, just ahead of me, a tiny bird with gray, black and white markings. It rises into the air, chirping like Morse code, and I lift up my head and follow with my eyes as it flies across the meadow and beyond. Finally, a red-eyed vireo.

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Reading in the Dark: My Winter with T. C. Boyle

By Michelle Brafman

I devoured T.C. Boyle’s novels and stories after the PEN/Faulkner Foundation asked me to moderate an event called “All Things Animate Beating in Unison: An Evening with T.C. Boyle.” I read them as he wrote them, a novel followed by a cluster of short stories, rinse and repeat. I started in late December and stopped the night of the Boyle event, six days after the end of a cruel winter.

I decided on that brisk spring night that I would not read T.C. Boyle for a long while, and it wasn’t because I didn’t love his work, because I still do, or that reading him would not make me a better writer, because it definitively would, or that I hadn’t found a dozen models of the point of view I am trying to pull off in my next novel, because I did.

I decided not to read T.C. Boyle past the sixth day of spring because I knew that I would always associate him with the winter of my developmentally disabled sister-in-law’s torturous demise. I know now that I will also link him with the joyful moments of my family and professional life, only made sweeter by the looming death we lived with every day as her caregivers.

In early January, I made a pledge that I was going to endeavor to read everything Boyle had ever written: 15 novels and around 100 short stories. I failed at my goal, but not without putting a nice dent in his canon. Breakfast is the only meal my family consistently shares, and while my husband divvied up The Washington Post, I sat at the head of the table with my shiny new red 915 page hardcover beauty, T.C. Boyle’s Short Stories Volume II. I didn’t read like a writer. I didn’t attach Post-It notes to my favorite pages or underline sentences that hummed or dissect narrative structures that should come with a warning: “Don’t try this at home.” I simply followed the stories wherever they took me: to an abortion clinic, an Alaskan bar, a virtual peep show.

I assigned “Balto,” and “Hit Man” to a student whom I tutor, and we unpacked them together, and then I read a dozen more stories sitting in the bleachers of my son’s swim meets. I read passages of “Greasy Lake” aloud to my husband, and he smiled because he appreciates a well-crafted sentence and an apt rock ‘n’ roll epigraph, although he’s not a Springsteen fan. And when friends asked me how I was doing, I often responded by describing a T.C. Boyle story or tidbit from an interview I’d just read because really, who wants to hear the gory details of a long and protracted cancer death? My family had built a cocoon around itself as confining as my sister-in-law’s apartment, thick with the scent of the Bengay her hospice nurses rubbed on her lower back. Periodically, we’d let relatives and close friends inside; for me, Boyle had taken up permanent residence with us.

I read “Chicxulub” after coming home from a difficult visit with my sister-in-law, her arms and legs skinny as chopsticks and excruciatingly painful to the touch. I cried, not only because I shared the narrator’s imagining of the tragic fate of a daughter, but because the meteor that had hit my sister-in-law hadn’t been kind enough to knock her out completely. Much of the beginning and ending of life revolves around waste management, and as my sister-in-law’s body shut down, ironically, I read Road to Wellville, its numerous scatological references resonating with me a little more than I’d wished. It did feel good to laugh, though. During one of many snow days, I curled up with When the Killing’s Done and renewed my connection to the natural world, its vastness taking me outside of myself for a span of pages. On the sub-zero degree night before my sister-in-law’s funeral, I read Boyle’s newest novel, The Harder They Come, in a Syracuse Hampton Inn while my children stretched out beside me on our king-size bed and watched reruns of an insipid Disney sitcom. I finished the book the next night in another Hampton Inn room in Pennsylvania because the snow thwarted our plans to drive back to DC. I found the novel’s violence a disturbing comfort.

Between stories and more novels, I read essays, the most profound, “This Monkey, My Back.” As a somewhat obsessive person, I was stirred by Boyle’s description of his writing as an addiction “as powerful and overmastering an urge as putting a bottle to your lips or a spike in our arm.” Yes, writing was just the vice I needed to make it through the winter, and maybe beyond. So I wrote, mainly junk and journal entries of moments with my sister-in-law: my little boy bringing her snow in a plastic cup, spending date night watching Family Feud with her, sitting with my husband while he told her that she wasn’t going to get better, that kind of thing. By simply moving my fingers across the keyboard, I was able to hold on to the human moments hidden in her suffering.

When I told a friend about Boyle’s influence over the past few months of my life, she suggested that I would have attached such meaning to anything I’d read. But that’s not true. I believe that books find you when you need them most. I wouldn’t have read them at all had I not had this assignment from PEN/Faulkner. I couldn’t concentrate without a good reason to, and even if I could have, I wouldn’t have sought out T.C. Boyle. And I wouldn’t have had a companion throughout my winter.

Now it is summer, and we are molting. My sister-in-law’s death is a receding headline in our lives, although if someone appears truly interested, I’ll find myself blurting out details about the funeral or shiva. But that’s rarer and rarer as the days progress. I am grateful to T.C. Boyle for his unwitting visit to our grief bubble.

It is time to let him go.

Christopher Lee

The Killing Time

Our friend Ann Louise Bardach interviewed Christopher Lee for Los Angeles’s WET magazine in 1981. We post it with her permission here in memorium.

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Christopher Frank Carandini Lee was born in London on May 27, 1922. During WWII, he served in the British Royal Air Force in some intelligence capacity, the details of which he says he would rather not discuss. After the War, Lee decided to try acting. He appeared in his first film in 1949 and starred in The Curse of Frankenstein in 1957. Over the next decade, he became a fixture in the horror genre, often outclassing the gory potboilers in which he starred. In person, he’s quite tall but not spooky at all.

A.L. Bardach chats with Lee about his war years, which proved an odd sort of inspiration to his future career. Continue reading