Category Archives: Essays

“When We Were Kings”

By Peter Rainer

Excerpt from Rainer on Film: Thirty Years of Film Writing in a Turbulent and Transformative Era (Santa Monica Press 2013).

IN NORMAN MAILER’S The Fight, his great book on the Muhammad Ali/George Foreman “Rumble in the Jungle,” he begins by writing of Ali, “There is always the shock in seeing him again. Not live as in television but standing before you, looking his best. Then the World’s Greatest Athlete is in danger of being our most beautful man, and the vocabulary of Camp is doomed to appear. Women draw an audible breath. Men look down. They are reminded again of their lack of worth.”

This may sound like hyperbole but Mailer — like Ali — lives in the region where hyperbole can be transcendent. (It can also be bull). Mailer’s response to Ali in this passage is also our response to seeing him in When We Were Kings, Leon Gast’s amazing documentary about the 1974 Zaire fight and the events surrounding it. The film is unabashed hero-worship, but Ali is so clearly a hero here that we don’t feel swept away by gush. And because of what Ali has become — and George Foreman, too, with his newfound cuddliness — the movie is doubly poignant now. The documentary is, in essence, not much more than a record of what happened in Zaire, but it has been assembled with real feeling for the historical moment. It’s literally a blast from the past.

It’s also something of a miracle because it almost didn’t get made. Gast, who had already directed documentaries about the Hell’s Angels and the Grateful Dead, was initially hired to film the musical festivities surrounding the fight. He had in mind an African-American Woodstock complete with James Brown, B. B. King, the Jazz Crusaders, Bill Withers, the Spinners. Then, four days before the fight was scheduled, a cut to Foreman’s eye during a sparring session postponed the match for six weeks. Gast ended up training his cameras on Ali for much of that time, and what he came up with is the core of this movie.

It took almost 23 years to assemble. Returning broke from Zaire with 300,000 feet of celluloid — about a hundred hours — Gast spent the next 15 years processing portions of the film as he was able to pay for it. After finally untangling legal rights and acquiring completion funds, Gast and his newfound partner, David Sonenberg, an influential music talent manager, made the decision to insert additional fight footage and archival clips. They brought in Taylor Hackford to shoot and edit into the film look-back interviews with, among others, Mailer and George Plimpton and Ali biographer Thomas Hauser.

Gast includes snatches of the musicians doing their thing, but for the most part When We Were Kings is a musical in form far more than in content. It’s shaped like a musical — an opera, really — with arias of exhortation, massed choruses, and pomp. Gast knows how to syncopate the story; he gives it a pulse that finally makes it seem like the whole cavalcade of hype and holler is once again upon us.

Of course, we know how it all turned out: Ali, game but somewhat past his prime, stunned the world by knocking out the man most believed would demolish him. Gast builds our knowledge of the fight’s outcome into the film’s structure; there’s a retrospective thrill in seeing how hot the tumult got. It’s easy to forget now how geniune was the fear that Ali might be killed in the ring.

It’s the fear that underscores everything we see — the interviews with the sports commentators and trainers and fight organizers, with Ali’s giddy multitudinous African fans and even a worrywart Howard Cosell, who hyperbolizes about his concerns for Ali’s safety. Mailer makes the point during an interview that Ali must have recognized in his most private moments that Foreman could pulverize him, and the perception lends an extra dimension to Ali’s almost hysterical rants again his challenger. He takes up the African cry Ali boma ye — which means “Ali, kill him” — and is so rapturously insistent in leading the charge that the effect is frightening. It’s as if Ali were exorcising his own horrors right before our eyes.

Ali was attuned in a way Foreman wasn’t to the political momentousness of the event. “From slave ship to championship” was how he billed the fight, and his back-to-Africa oratory resonated with the Zaireans, who revered him not so much because he was a great fighter but because he stood up to the American government and refused induction into the Vietnam War. “No Vietcong ever called me nigger” was his mantra in all those years, and it made him a champion’s champion for people who sized up the racist implications of that war.

Ali had to demonize Foreman in the eyes of Africans; it was his standard operating procedure to run down his opponents before any fight. But Ali was faced with a problem in Zaire: In a match between two great black boxers in the “homeland,” how do you play up the racial angle? Ali was in fact much lighter-skinned that Foreman, but he castigates him as, in effect, white. “He’s in my country,” Ali says of Foreman, who had the misfortune to arrive in Zaire with his German shepherd — the very dog used by the Belgians to police the Congo.

Throughout When We Were Kings Ali comes on like — in Gast’s words — the Original Rapper. He successfully bleaches Foreman with his patter; he milks the press, the trainers, the camera crew. He says, “I’m not fighting for me, I’m fighting for black people who have no future.” Ali is not only a boxer of genius, he’s a politician of genius. I remembered being baffled by how wooden he was playing himself in “The Greatest.” But Ali — who has as much charisma as any movie star who ever lived — can come alive only by his own wit and instinct. To play a role in a movie, even if the role is himself, would mummify his genie.

When Ali lit the Olympic torch in Atlanta and we saw up close the effects of his Parkinson’s disease, the press covered the moment as if it were an unalloyed triumph. The commentators didn’t allow for our mixed emotions, our rage even, for what Ali had become — possibly owing in large measure to his having taken so many blows to the head from such fighters as George Foreman while we cheered him on. Ali is a hero still, but in a more complicated way. His presence is both an inspiration and an admonition. When We Were Kings brings back the unimpeded joy we once felt in Ali’s presence. It’s a movie in a state of denial — magnificent, unapologetic denial.


Pico Diary #3

By Jon Wiener

At the Apple Pan, the guy waiting in line next to me says, “I started coming here in 1947, when I was eight years old.  My family came here once a week.  Always had the steakburger.  Across the street, where the Westside Pavilion is now, there was an empty lot.  Once a year the Clyde Beatty circus would come—they had everything, lions and tigers and elephants.  My brother and I would get jobs pitching hay for the animals.  You don’t know Clyde Beatty?  He was a famous lion-tamer, and he was big!  He was in movies and on the radio and eventually on TV.”




What’s new at the newsstand?  I ask the guy there, a new immigrant.  He points to Vanity Fair, and says “Everybody is buying.”  The cover is glamour shot of Meryl Street 30 years ago, her head thrown back and eyes closed in what might be ecstasy.  He asks me, sincerely: “Who is it?”


Dusk on Pico—you can see inside the shops.  Inside the Subway, three big guys in flannel shirts are playing cards.  At the karate studio next door, the teacher tells one of the adults in the class to attack him with a knife (it’s made of wood).  The guy lunges at him, the teacher grabs his arm, flips him around and onto the floor, and “stabs” the “attacker” with his own knife.


Across the street the door to Pico Teriyaki House is open–for the first time in more than a decade!  I walk in—it’s full of men at tables of four, grilling meat on hibachis.  A guy at the first table says, “Can I help you?” 

I say “I’ve never seen this place open before.”

He says “we’re not open.”  Long pause. 

I say “private party?”

He says “yes.”  Long pause.

I say “Okay, thanks!”  and leave.

Next door the guy who runs the music shop is locking up.  I ask him what he knows about his neighbor.  “They were open for lunch about 15 years ago,” he said.  “I went once.  They had the greatest teriyaki I’ve ever eaten.  Ever since then they’ve been closed.  But the guy is in there every day. And every year his cars get fancier.  Something is going on there – but I don’t know what it is.”


Jon Wiener lives south of Pico, near the Pep Boys at Manning Ave. Read the previous installment of the “Pico Diary.”


By Bernadette Murphy

The desk of Alex, a salesman at Harley-Davidson of Glendale, features a picture of Fonzie sitting on a Triumph motorcycle with a girl wearing a skirt sitting on the back, holding on to him fetchingly. The photo surfaced from the auction catalog when the actual motorcycle was found in someone’s garage after years of neglect.

“I always wanted to be Fonzie,” Alex says of the TV character whose last official appearance dates back nearly thirty years. We’re hanging out and chatting while my motorcycle is being serviced. Alex is almost ten years younger than me and must have gotten in on the tail end of the Happy Days era.

“I always wanted to date Fonzie,” I reply, plunking myself into the proper gender-specific role. As a girl who grew up in the ’70s, I can’t rightly wish for more than that. Yet I can’t explain to Alex that my yearning was deeper, more visceral. I wanted to consume Fonzie—just like the Holy Communion I took each week at Mass—and by ingesting him, to engender in myself the qualities I so admired.

I haven’t thought about my Fonzie obsession in decades. As a teenager, the names Fonzie, the Fonz, Arthur Fonzarelli, and Henry Winkler could all rocket me to a fourth dimension. I was a tomboy, a girl who competed and was ranked nationally in skateboarding, a young lady more comfortable in a pair of Van’s slip-ons and corduroy OP shorts than kitten heels and skirts, someone who liked to hang with the guys at empty, abandoned swimming pools to skateboard rather than go to the mall with girlfriends to shop.

I bought fan magazines featuring Henry Winkler, went to every movie he made, read his biographies, toyed with acting because that would put me in the same mental territory as this man/character/dream figure. Though Fonzie was my favorite, Winkler didn’t have to be Arthur Fonzarelli to make me swoon; any contact with him would do it. If we were to sit down and talk, I believed, we’d pick up a conversation that had already been in progress.

Perhaps I was searching for male approval. My father was preoccupied caring for my severely mentally ill mother, watching out for my youngest brother who was fast becoming a juvenile delinquent, and trying to tend the five basically motherless kids in our family, while striving to keep food in the kitchen cabinets and making sure we went to Mass on Sundays. I’m sure, in some way, my father would have given me that approval if I’d known how to ask. But I didn’t.

When couldn’t get the approval I was looking for at home, I sought it with my skateboard and the grudging respect I earned from the boys — male approval was male approval, after all. But soon even that power faded and I looked where young girls turn next for that anointing: my own sexual power. Only, in adolescence, I didn’t know really that’s what it was I was reaching for.

My conversation with Alex moves on to other motorcycle-related subjects, but something is amiss. I’ve just lied to him and, more important, to myself.

“Actually, I take that back,” I clarify, knowing the truth doesn’t matter to Alex but it does to me. “I wanted to be Fonzie, too.”

After that, I decide to look deeper into my Fonzie obsession. Certainly, the Fonz was an important role model, demonstrating what it meant to be immune from peer pressure and true to one’s self. That made perfect sense at an age when my identity was forming. But now I am in midlife with established demographic markers—professor, author, homeowner, mother of three—when coolness seems radically beside the point. Yet the more I think about my long-forgotten Fonzie fascination, the more I find the qualities he embodied as important as ever. I am grappling once again with issues of identity.

I have just separated from my husband of 25 years and am living on my own for the first time. I now make my home in a one-room apartment perched above a garage, just like Fonzie. When riding my motorcycle, I wear motorcycle boots and a black leather jacket, just like Fonzie — though to be fair, I wear spring dresses and lace blouses when not on the bike. I’m learning to make my way through life as a solo person, no longer tied by traditional family bonds, a loner, just like Fonzie. Only I am the parent of three nearly grown children, 49, and female. Still, I feel myself channeling some of the energy, the chutzpah, the boldness, the generosity of spirit I found in the character. In short, I find myself needing to emulate Fonzie in order to survive.

My phone rings one evening while cooking dinner.

“Hello,” a gentle male voice speaks. “This is Henry Winkler.”

I almost drop the phone. “You just made my night,” I say.

Weeks ago, I’d told a writing colleague that I’d love to chat with him. Winkler now coauthors with my colleague the Hank Zipzer series of children’s books that tell the everyday adventures of a bright young boy with learning challenges. I never thought he’d actually call. He graciously agrees to schedule a phone interview. I try not to gush.

I competed on skateboards until age 16 when I attracted my first boyfriend, a “bad boy” in his own way. Over time, I gave up my skateboard and 501 Levi’s for high-heeled Candies sandals, Calvin Klein must-lie-prone-on-the-bed-to-zip-them jeans, makeup, and giggles. I learned to toss my hair and came to understand that boys didn’t want girls to hang with them at empty swimming pools if they could make out with them in cars. I discovered the socially acceptable role for girls like me: to become pretty like the rest.

My foray into that world wasn’t a comfortable fit. That first boyfriend pressured me into having sex when I was just as happy to cuddle. Fear of abandonment was enough to earn my acquiescence. That coupling at age 16 resulted in a teen pregnancy and a child relinquished for adoption. Returning to my high school after a stint in the Teen Mother Program brought with it whispered cruelties, ugly notes on my locker, a sense of being ostracized, and a cloud of shame surrounding my sexuality that would shadow me for the next thirty years.

“All I know is what the Fonz was to me, and what I added on, over the years, to the fabric of the Fonz,” says Winkler when we talk. “When I first started him, even in the audition, he was — the first word that comes to my mind but it’s not the best word — cooler than I am, he was more definite than I am, he was more sure about the air he moved when he walked through the world than I am — or even was. He was my alter ego. He was fun to play because he was who I wanted to be, also.”

As a result of my high school experiences, I learned my lesson fast and hard. Girls were meant to be not only pretty but also tame, and to follow the socially conscribed rules. Take one step outside of that realm and you will be slammed.

I finished my education, commuting from my father’s house to the local state college, and was married upon graduation to the most Richie Cunningham-type man I could find — no more bad boys for me! In short order I became a mother of three and settled in, adopting Winnie-the-Pooh jumpers paired with sensible mom shoes. Long gone were both extremes: the tomboy in torn Levi’s scrambling over a chain-link fence to gain access to a skateboarding venue, as well as the girl surprised by her budding sexuality, outfitted in too-tight jeans, unsure of what the sensual realm entailed other than trouble.

“He was who he was,” Winkler reflects. “And that was the strength that pushed everybody back, that made them want to follow him, and backed people down when they wanted to fight. He never actually threw a punch,” Winkler pauses. “It was the intimidation of authenticity — and that is more powerful than anything. He was so confident that he was able to be vulnerable.”

My life choices were exactly what my father would have wanted. Traditional Irish Catholic to the core, he prized the virtue of motherhood and was most pleased when I fulfilled that role. At the same time, he disapproved of my writing. When my first book was published, he was so angered by what I’d written about my mother’s mental illness that he didn’t speak to me for two years. I tried through my writing to get him to see the “real” me, asking him to acknowledge if not approve of who I was. He preferred the construct he’d created: the good wife and mother to his grandchildren, the docile and obedient woman. That was the only woman he could condone. The same was basically true with my husband. He loved the homemaker image of me, the Play Dough-making mother, and didn’t seem to care to meet the full person I was.

Aren’t these the lessons the larger culture instills in us, simply reinforced in my case by my family members?

I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised, then, when the tomboy in me began to rustle, calling, bursting through the constraints I’d placed on her. I started backpacking, then climbing mountains, open-water kayaking, getting tattooed, running marathons, coming out as who I really was and had abandoned decades earlier. People who’d known me for years looked askance. Midlife crisis, they concluded.

But that wasn’t it. I was a reclaiming the person I’d always been, the girl who’d shaped herself into a mold that didn’t fit out of fear of yet another cultural and familial banishment.

It all started when, at age 48, I learned to ride a motorcycle. The minute I got the machine to skim smoothly over the blacktop, I was hooked. As I began to master the motorcycle, a complete version of myself coalesced. Weaving through orange cones on the training range, I sensed the two parts of me work in tandem for perhaps the first time. I felt as weightless and graceful as a dancer, executing moves of precision and elegance, as feminine as possible, while also aware of the brawn and boldness required to get that macho machine to do what I wanted it to. The male and female energies in me complimented rather than competed with each other.

There are few narratives in our culture that support this kind of tomboy, motorcycle riding, adventure-seeking life I was creating. I think back to Thelma & Louise, now approaching its 25th anniversary, the only road adventure film I can name in which women are the primary characters. In the film world, I struggle to name any female road story that does not end badly for the woman. Rape and death are the most common outcomes.  There have been a few books featuring female adventurers — the tales of Dervla Murphy come to mind — but these are the exceptions to the rule.  Where am I to find role models?

I ask Winkler about his experience with the motorcycle. I’d heard he was terrified of it.

“Not terrified,” he explains. “I almost never rode the motorcycle. I think I rode it for, like, 12 feet. But I was intimidated. I did not think that I could ride it with the internal confidence of not spilling it. I did not think I could figure out the hand, and the hand, and foot, and the hand, and the gear, and the speed, and the brake.”

I am ashamed of the hint of smugness I feel, hearing this. No wonder getting my motorcycle endorsement at the DMV felt so great. I had mastered a skill Winkler had shied away from.

So what was the draw of the motorcycle for Fonzie? The outlaw persona, the macho element, the beauty of the mechanics?

Winkler laughs. “All of it! He rode a motorcycle, loved it, loved just sitting on it.”

I knew the feeling. Not overnight, but fast enough to draw strange looks in my suburban world, leather boots and a jacket appeared, followed by a matte-black Harley that would make Bat Girl proud. The approval I’d craved from my father, my husband, and men in general was now bubbling up from within me. For the first time in my life, I didn’t simply want to be The Fonz. I had, on some psychic level, become him.

It’s a process Winkler knew well. As he puts it, he had long wanted to stop being “such a bowl a jelly at my core.” When his kids were growing up, he says, they were like muffins you’re baking. “You stick the toothpick in and you know they’re not done yet. Well, I wasn’t done until my late 40s, my early 50s. I think I mourned the sadness of how long it took me, all that time wasted, all the power you give away to other people.”

“Hearing that makes me feel so much better,” I tell him.

“You know why?” he pauses for dramatic effect. “’Cause we’re all the same. To varying degrees, we are all the same.”

I ask Winkler if playing Fonzie helped him get “done” any sooner? I’m hoping that my motorcycling experience is helping me get done, too. That maybe I’m on the verge.

“Fonz did not help me to authenticate. He showed me what was possible to be. I’m not talking about motorcycles, snapping fingers, that stuff, just walking your avenue through the world.” Playing the Fonzie character while still knowing he wasn’t as authentic to his core as he’d like to be was a frustrating experience he says. “Because I was still living with the worry while I was playing with the confidence.”

“But isn’t that how we learn to do anything in life?”

He agrees. “Then I’m luckier than anything in that I was able to play the character. People look for the metaphor of the character in order to get there. I was given it.”

For me, perhaps the motorcycle is the metaphor. It isn’t an act and the clothes aren’t a costume, but simply protective gear, not unlike the padded shorts I wore as a skateboarder. And because I know that truth to the depth of my being, and have never again since high school actively sought to appear sexual in my manner of dress, I can wear my black riding gear with no self-consciousness.

At least, that’s what I thought.

I was dressed in my leathers one day at the Harley dealership, looking at helmets and chatting with the guys working there. Quentin, the head of bike sales, introduced me to one of his burly, tattooed biker friend.

“You ride?” the friend asked, a bit surprised, probably wondering if I just sat on the back of some guy’s bike.

I nodded.

“She also runs marathons,” Quentin added, as if that explained the motorcycle thing.

The friend did what no one had done to me in decades — the slow up-and-down with his eyes, nodding approvingly. I could feel every inch of my thighs encased in leather as if lit up in neon.

“I can tell,” he said. “With legs like that, you could cut diamonds.”

I wanted to crawl under the nearest rock. I was so embarrassed I fumbled my words and then dropped my helmet — a huge no-no. I scrambled to leave as quickly as possible. Riding my bike home, I bawled under that helmet, so shamed by that moment of male ogling attention after years of actively avoiding it with mom-type jumpers and loose-fitting clothing.

I was able to identify the source of the shame and within a day or two to let it go. The sexual vibe given by the leathers, I decided, was a vibe others were adding, an identity I did not have to be categorized by. The safety equipment I wear is not meant to be your sexual fantasy, though out pop culture has framed it that way. If there was a female Fonzie, I reflected, she would totally blow off this guy’s hyper-sexualized read of my manner of dress.

And so I did, and in doing so, reclaimed a sense of my own sexuality and attractiveness. A few weeks later I allowed my 17-year-old daughter to pick out jeans for me a full size smaller than I usually wore. Soon, I was able to embody a bit of the teen girl I’d left behind all those years ago, the one who was a hybrid between the tomboy and the sex-kitten, but who could own both parts of herself.

When my son, away at college, called to ask me about the separation between his father and me, his question surprised me. “Mom,” he said, “did the motorcycle have anything to do with it?”

“No, of course not,” I replied, which was the truth. But not the whole truth. By embracing the part of me that had lain dormant all those years via the motorcycle, I had found myself again — a self my father did not want to meet, a self that hadn’t fit with my husband for at least a decade. My husband and I had grown so far apart, especially after I’d reclaimed my inner tomboy, that there was nothing left to connect us. And all the activities I’d undertaken — marathons, mountain climbing, etc.?

Henry Winkler puts his finger right on it. “Can I ask you a question?” he says. “Did all that activity fuel the separation?”

“Absolutely. It taught me what I needed to know: that if I could rally enough strength, enough courage, to do these things, I might have the courage to do what I desperately wanted and needed to do: to leave.”

In talking with Winkler about Fonzie’s authenticity, his voice becomes excited. “You know what it does?” he asks of claiming one’s self. “It frees you up and give you back so much of your life.  When you talk yourself down, and cut the negative off your bone with a bowie knife, that’s powerful. And then if you replace with a positive you walk taller, straighter, farther.”

So playing Fonzie helped Winkler get “done” by his late 40s, early 50s? That gives me hope.

“No, no, no!,” he practically shouts. “To be on the road to being done. I still have a molten chocolate center that is still gooey!”

Winkler sounds exhausted as our conversation winds down. “Wow!” he says. “I swear to you that I’ve had these thoughts in isolated boxes in the attic. I’ve never put them all together. Now I realize I don’t have the fucking slightest clue if I’m on the track but it seems right to me. What I’m saying seems right.”

After we hang up I realize that what I’m doing — I also don’t have the fucking slightest clue — but it seems right to me. I am working to embrace authenticity and all that comes with it, including the aura of loneliness that surrounded Fonzie. He may have been able to snap his fingers and have girls flock to him, he may have been friends with all the guys in town, but he was still a loner and an air of existential aloneness clung to him. Which, perhaps, is the price one pays for authenticity.

I’m grateful to Winkler for taking the time to talk with me and help me sort out my obsession. I can’t help wishing we could chat like that on a regular basis. Still, one sentence he used describing Fonzie stays with me long after. “Everyone seemed to believe that, if I knew him, he would have been my friend; he would have taken care of me.”

I guess that’s how I think of Winkler, and perhaps in a just-getting-started way, how I now think about myself. At the very least, I am learning to befriend myself, to approve of myself, to care for myself while continuing to care for those I love. I think, in maybe a tiny way, I am learning to be strong enough to risk being real.


Excerpt from Harley and Me: Embracing Risk on the Road to a More Authentic Life by Bernadette Murphy. Counterpoint Press, May 2016.

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‘The Oxford English Dictionary’: A Great Read in Alphabetical Order and Otherwise

By  Edward Finegan

“Don’t you love the Oxford Dictionary” David Bowie exclaimed to an interviewer in 1999 — and, in tribute, added, “When I first read it, I thought it was a really really long poem about everything.” It is about everything — everything with a name — and it is really long. Nor is it a stretch to regard it as poetic: Shakespeare is the most frequently cited author of the OED’s illustrative quotations. David Bowie may not have read the whole OED, but a furniture mover named Ammon Shea recently did just that. He read all of its 21,730 pages — and judged it “a great read.” In the OED he found “all of the human emotions and experiences … just as they would be in any fine work of literature,” even if, as he wryly noted, in the OED those emotions and experiences “just happen to be alphabetized.”[1] Plainly, Bowie and Shea were blessed with a touch of onomatomania!

Other “onomatomaniacs” regularly grab the headlines. News outlets run stories about the word of the year, or WOTY, chosen by one organization or another. In January 2016, members of the American Dialect Society anointed they as their WOTY. Its utility as a gender-neutral singular pronoun for a known person — a substitute for the gendered pronouns he and she — won this 800-year-old humble pronoun that commendation! Besides simple words like they, the American Dialect Society accepts compounds and phrases as candidates and even hashtags and emojis. Last year the hashtag #blacklivesmatter won their vote, and two years earlier hashtag itself was the winner. If dictionaries are alphabetized repositories of words, we might ask what kinds of expression are eligible to appear in them. With the Oxford English Dictionary announcing revisions to its latest version every three months, we can address that question by reviewing recent additions.

About 500 updates were announced in late 2015 — expressions and senses added just in the preceding quarter: words like improvisor, locavore, phablet, subcommittee, and truther, along with compounds like attack ad, bankroller, commitment ceremony and commitment ring, exit interview and exit polling, firepit, fire hydrant, and fire sale, granny chic and granny gear, improvised explosive device and IED, location scout, strength training, and true believer. Among newly added phrases were fight fire with fire and be firing on all cylinders. Some updates captured expressions that had appeared only recently in print: locavore in 2005; phablet in 2010. While truther may seem novel, it’s been around for over a century, and bankroller dates to 1930, improvisor to 1830, and firepit to 1500. For a surprising number of updates, then, the OED is merely catching up. Dictionaries are linguistic laggards, not leaders!

Among recent “blends” added to the OED are autotune, bromance, photobomb, cybrarian, sext, sexploit, shockumentary, staycation, hacktivism, voluntourism, and twerk (a word since 1820, possibly blending twitch or twist and jerk); among compounds, Blu-ray, crowdfunding, pageview, stir-fry, tan line, tea partier, hoverboard, and the verb waterboard; among words derived by prefixing, declutter and retweet. More liberal now than in its first edition, the new OED contains foodie, gazillionaire, artsy, carb, trash talk, party animal, street cred, prenup, shopaholic and infoholic, app, McJob, studmuffin, LOL and OMG, shout-out, tighty-whities, wackadoodle, fashionista, schwag, blamestorming, selfie, 24-7, and about 8,000 other colloquial expressions. It also contains over two hundred “coarse slang” terms and senses, including dipshit, hump, Masshole, pissy, pole, screw, shag, and dozens that include the F-word. A 60-year-old euphemism itself, F-word first appeared in the OED only in 2008.

So how do editors decide what goes into the OED — and when? Well, the primary data upon which the OED relies for definitions and for tracing the evolution in a word’s meaning are real-life quotations. To nourish the first OED, volunteer readers around the world submitted slips of paper, each containing an illustrative quotation — a sentence with a single word underlined (and including details of its source). Today, via the Internet anyone anywhere can furnish quotations in response to editors’ appeals, and modern-day crowdsourcing provides the authoritative basis for OED definitions. Contributors tackle newspapers and diaries; specialist magazines (treating, say, jazz or pop culture) and journals (treating, say, medicine or astronomy); cook books, movie scripts — any venue where a vibrant English is in use. More than three million quotations breathe life into the OED, reflecting in words an evolving view of the world shaped for English-speakers by their adaptive language during the past thousand years. Beyond that, inquiries by people visiting the online dictionary — words typed into its search function — provide a heads-up about new and trending words that can indicate those missing from the dictionary. Editors may then seek published quotations containing previously unnoticed expressions or senses, and assess how widely they are used. Editors also mine other dictionaries — such as the Dictionary of American Regional English — to detect overlooked words.

Today, the vast resources of language on the Internet provide illustrative quotations that document a word’s meaning, origins, and utility. As a consequence of its reliance on real-world quotations, the OED is a descriptive dictionary — it illustrates and explains how English speakers actually use their language, and it doesn’t prescribe how editors — or anyone else — think they should use it. While many a language priss or fuss-pot may lambaste a dictionary that fails to prescribe, the OED prides itself on describing the living language and its history.

Despite an abundance of online language materials and mammoth computing power, lexicography — like language itself — remains a creative enterprise. Being a historical dictionary, the OED endeavors to document the development of English words from their beginnings to the present day. When the project was conceived in the mid-nineteenth century, its visionaries couldn’t imagine what labor and time their “New English Dictionary” would require. The first unbound “fascicle,” covering the letters A to Ant, was published in 1884, and by time the 128th — and final — fascicle appeared in 1928 the treatment of many words at the head of the alphabet had become outdated, and other words in widespread use were missing.

One famous example involves appendicitis. The word had first appeared in print in 1886, but OED editor James Murray excluded it: too erudite and rare. Then, in 1902, when the coronation of Edward VII was postponed to accommodate an attack of appendicitis, his subjects — and English speakers worldwide — were left to wonder what it was! Changed by World War I, the English language and the dictionary encapsulating it needed to reflect new realities, incorporating military and war terms and a wide range of cultural expressions, and a supplement appeared in 1933. Again, in 1957, following another world war and great cultural changes, work started on a new supplement, which appeared in four large tomes between 1972 and 1986. The second edition of the OED, incorporating the four-volumes, included a huge expansion of 20th-century terms, especially in science and technology, and far better coverage of English outside Britain. On a tour of the United States, R. W. Burchfield, the supplement’s editor, acknowledged that “The center of gravity for the English language is no longer Britain” and conceded that “American English is the greatest influence on English everywhere.”

English may be said to have started in the middle of the 5th century when Germanic tribes invaded Celtic-speaking Britain. Since that time, English speakers have come into contact with peoples speaking hundreds of languages, and as a consequence English has “borrowed” tens of thousands of words from scores of languages. Names of foods are among the most obvious borrowings. In cities around the world, ethnic restaurants familiarize English speakers with terms to spice up their wordhoard. As examples, miso, ramen, sashimi, shiitake, soy, sushi, tempura, teriyaki, tofu, and wasabi come from Japanese; kimchi from Korean; tahini, falafel, harissa, shawarma, tabbouleh, halal from Arabic; and dal, ghee, and chutney from Hindi. Reflecting various historical and cultural touchstones are other borrowings: from Korean, tae kwon do; from Arabic, alcohol, alcove, algebra, alkali, almanac (all beginning with the Arabic definite article), and mujahidin, hijab, loofah, fedayeen, jihad, medina, and intifada; from Hindi, jungle, rupee, raj, yoga, guru, veranda, cot, thug, sari, dinghy, bangle, cheetah, loot, chintz, sangha, ganja, gunny, and swami; and from Japanese, Zen, samurai, tsunami, kimono, tycoon, haiku, karate, rickshaw, shogun, geisha, judo and ju-jitsu, kamikaze, bonsai, kanji, ginkgo, karaoke, sumo, futon, koi, origami, kudzu, honcho, ninja — and over 500 more.

Visitors to the OED Online can readily discover that from American or Mexican Spanish come abalone, Apache, charro, Chicana and Chicano, coyote, gringo, hoosegow, and stampede (alongside food names like burrito, chilli, fajita, taco, and tamale). Given the prominence of Spanish-speaking communities in Los Angeles, it’s no accident that the Spanish word quinceañera first appeared in an English-language newspaper published in Van Nuys (in 1972). Los Angeles also has a significant Persian-speaking community, through whose language directly or indirectly have come ayatollah, baksheesh, bazaar, caravan, cummerbund, dervish, dinar, divan, khaki, kiosk, pashmina, seersucker, shah, sherbet, taffeta, and turban. From Hawaiian comes wiki (shortened from wikiwiki ‘quick quick’), while hickory, hominy, moccasin, skunk, sockeye, tepee, toboggan, tomahawk, wickiup, and woodchuck come directly or indirectly from Native American languages, as do place names like Illinois, Oklahoma, and Malibu.

Not all words have known origins, and OED Online makes it easy to identify posh, gizmo, honky-tonk, reggae, nifty, jalopy, bonkers, bozo, smidgen, boondoggle, pizzazz, barf, fuddy-duddy, and boffin as terms seemingly from nowhere. But such informal words aren’t the only ones that thwart etymologists: the origins of girl, big, dog, beach, and other core words also remain baffling.

In print dictionaries we rely on the alphabet to locate a word and its meaning, and the 21st-century OED Online remains alphabetical, with meanings organized chronologically (and by part of speech) within its entries. Alphabetically, abalone follows abalienation and desk follows desize, but there is no shared meaning within the pairs. Our discussion above peeked at words through the lenses of word type (blends and compounds) and language source (Persian and Hindi). Within language sources we discussed foods, a semantic category of words. Had it suited our purpose, we could have organized the discussion solely by categories of meaning: food (sushi, taco, kimchi, chutney), sport and recreation (tae kwan do, karate, sumo), combat (kamikaze, mujahidin, tomahawk), fabric (chintz, khaki, taffeta), and dress (cummerbund, sari, turban). Even a dictionary that lists meaning relationships like synonym (shut for close) and antonym (close for open) doesn’t allow meaning connections to be systematically pursued. Instead, the job of organizing words according to their meaning falls to a thesaurus, and despite Roget’s influential lead it’s a gigantic challenge to systematize meanings meaningfully.

To help in that endeavor, OED Online links to the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary, published in 2009 after decades spent designing a suitable system other than the alphabet. In the end, the Historical Thesaurus organized words under three top-level categories of meaning — the external world, the mind, and society, each with subcategories and subcategories of subcategories. As an example, alongside the OED’s definition of Hollywood (“The American film industry, its characteristics and background; (also) a film produced in Hollywood”), a link to the thesaurus yields two kinds of information: the hierarchy categorizing this meaning of Hollywood (society > leisure > the arts > performance arts > cinematography …) and — in historical order — the words in the OED that share that meaning: filmland, Hollywood, Tinseltown, and la-la land. A monumental work itself, the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary reorganizes all the OED’s words in accordance with their meaning.

Our discussion of the OED, citing so many categories of words, could not have been written using only a print edition customarily found in a library reading room. Online search capabilities were crucial. With links to the thesaurus and a fistful of search functions, OED visitors can access a vibrant language in a dynamic historical dictionary that remains alphabetical in its organization but invites exploration in a dozen alternative ways as well. With frequent announcements of revisions and with fascinating search options, OED Online is the most stimulating and informative window on the development of English vocabulary and, over the course of a millennium, the evolution of the notions, concepts, and meanings captured in English words. Beyond linguistic matters, today’s OED invites social, cultural, and historical exploration in ways hardly imagined before the 21st century. Visits to the OED, traveled along the alphabet or alternate routes, have the power to reshape how we organize our knowledge of the world through words: the Oxford English Dictionary is about everything — everything with a name!

[1] Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages (2008)

Edward Finegan is Professor of Linguistics and Law, Emeritus, at the University of Southern California.

This essay is connected to Hollywood is a Verb: Los Angeles Tackles the Oxford English Dictionary, a Library Foundation of Los Angeles project. The project will also host an unprecedented dual language English and Spanish spelling bee in the Mark Taper Auditorium of Downtown LA’s  historic Central Library this Saturday, March 19.

Image courtesy of the Library Foundation of Los Angeles.


By Jon Wiener

Twenty little kids, two by two, wearing matching blue T-shirts, are walking down Pico and chattering away, watched over by two teachers and five  moms – no dads.  The T-shirts say “Overland Avenue Elementary School, Mrs. Shaffer’s kindergarten class.”

“We’re going to Louise’s,” the teacher in the lead explains.  “To make pizzas.”

At nine in the morning, in kindergarten, you get to go out and make pizzas?

“That’s right,” she says.

Then, to the kids: “Okay pay attention now, this is very important: two by two holding hands crossing the street.”

*     *     *

The Cemitas Poblanas truck parks outside the Pep Boys every morning as soon as the tow-away parking hours end.  They serve tacos, but it’s not your usual taco truck: “Cemitas Poblanas are like a sandwich,” the good looking young guy inside explains, “with meat and cheese but no vegetables, except avocado and chipotle sauce.”

It’s clear he’s said this line hundreds of times to ignorant gringos like me.

At noon, half a dozen guys are waiting for their orders—they seem to be mostly from nearby construction sites.  I’m the only one here speaking English.

The cemita poblana starts with a great big roll, a special kind of crunchy egg bread with sesame seeds, almost six inches across.  They serve twelve kinds, including “Cemita Al Pastor”–marinated roast pork sliced thin; “Cemita de Cesina”–salted beef; and “Cemita de Milanesa”–thin pounded beef or chicken deep-fried in garlic breading.  There’s also “Cemita de Pata”–they say it’s some kind of meat from a cow’s foot.  They all come with shredded quesillo string cheese.

Poblanas, meaning from Puebla. Puebla is south of Mexico City. I ask him, you’re from Puebla?

“My dad,” he says.

I get the chicken Milanesa.  Deep-fried meat, lots of string cheese, with avocado and sauce on a fresh roll—not terribly healthy, but of course it’s terrific.

*     *     *

fire station 92

The big doors are open at LA Fire Station 92—maybe they are waiting for a visit from a gaggle of schoolkids? Last night around eleven we went past a bad motorcycle accident on Olympic and Beverly Glen – the bike was on one side of Olympic, a bashed-in car on the other side, and a guy was lying in the street, helmet on, not moving.  I ask the guys if it was them pulling up.

“Yeah, that was us.”

What happened to the guy?

“Killed instantly.  Speed way too high, misjudged a car turning left in front of him, went right into the side of it, flew 50 feet through the air, broke his neck.  Sad.  But if you have to go, that’s not a bad way to do it.”

Jon Wiener lives south of Pico, near the Pep Boys at Manning Ave. Read the first entry in his diary here.

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.”



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.

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.

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.

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.

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).