My pal Budd Shenkin is someone whose views I seek out on most political, socio-cultural, and theological matters — not to mention matters of national health policy, where his opinions are particularly indispensable. (The only area where he is shaky is in his revisionist view of our personal history, but I digress.) Anyway, Budd has taken my blog “Moral Shopping” as a launching pad for his own related views: http://buddshenkin.blogspot.com/2014/09/on-impertinence-of-others.html. I recommend adding him to your Favorites list.
The latest book from my cafe pal Elizabeth Wagele, The Queen of Enneagrams, is out: “The Enneagram for Teens: Using your strengths to create healthy relationships and fulfilling choices.” I am one of those at the cafe who contributed themselves as a Case History from which instructional lessons can be drawn. The fact that Liz’s book was first published in Korea, and that Korean teenagers were thus imbibing life lessons from the denizens of our cafe was not without interest to me.
Anyway, the book is now available in Emglish, E-book, or print. Find out more at wagele.com.
We interrupt my journey into adolescence for another entry of the Life in These United States (or, at least, Berkeley) variety. I was thinking of it for BSR, but Adele didn’t think it developed enough. So until I decide to try again, here it is:
The Wheeze Board’s line began outside. It ran the store’s length, past the cheese counter, to the bread trays in the rear, then u-turned toward the cash registers in the front. I inched toward the baguettes. A man, early 60s, glasses, camouflage jacket, briskly walked to the trays and made his selection.
I stepped from line. I tapped his shoulder and pointed.
“What?” he said.
“He’s fine,” a woman, mid-40s, UC sweatshirt, said. She was not his wife. They were not together. But her – and his – point was that, once he had his bread, he would join the line and pay. Which – okay – but it still meant he would beat more patient people, like me, to their selections.
I returned to my place. Except the line had closed and moved on. My place was no longer apparent, and the woman, hair in a white pony tail, small dog in a shoulder bag, ahead of whom I attempted to step, refused me entry. Her point was I could not have been ahead of her because she had been waiting a long time. My point was I had to have been ahead of her because I was in line when someone had told her there was a line to wait in. Her point was it was absurd to make an issue of something so trivial. My point was then why not move behind me. Her point was it was demeaning for her to be even arguing about bread. By then I had realized that (a) she had also raced ahead to select her bread before joining the line and (b) no one, including the breadless, whose rights I had sought to protect from the camouflaged man, had rallied behind me.
I was feeling someone like Gary Cooper in “High Noon,” especially after the cashier answered my hypothetical by affirming my interpretation of proper etiquette. But, she explained, on days the store is crowded, some people feel they need not abide by it. Why the store did not enforce its policy… Well, some would say, that is Berkeley for you. I might say that too, except that every morning, when I arrive at the Wrench Café, I drop my bag on the available table I most prefer. Only then, no matter the length of the line, do I join it to order my espresso, which, not so many years ago, is also behavior to which I would have objected.
So maybe that first-stone-cast advising fellow had a point.
Regrettably retitled “Ready for My 15 Minutes of Fame, Me. DeMille,” this appeared on-line in the Nov. 7, 2009,”Broad Street Review.” It was one of my most satisfactory pieces to write, though, in that I literally knew nothing about my subject when I began it and had no idea in advance where this writing would take me. It also became the BSR piece of mine that received the most comments (three or four) from strangers, including a nephew of Ms. Manley’s and a woman in Georgia who remains an e-mail correspondent to this day. I assume whenever someone Googled “Peggy Manley,” mine was one of the only entries that bobbed up in response to their query.
Peggy Maley delivered one of the most famous set-up lines in film history: “Hey, Johnny, what’re you rebelling against?” “What’ve you got?” everyone remembers Marlon Brando answered. She’d tossed the perfect insouciant lob and he, slouching, slam-dunked it. But all the times I’d seen “The Wild One,” until I set out to write about it, I thought Mary Murphy asked the question.
But I’d always remembered Maley’s Mildred, the beautician. Buxom, pouty, her platinum blonde D.A. lodged between my synapses like an ember. She appeared an older sister – or, at nearly thirty, an underage mother – to the girls on corners or at soda fountains who had come to fascinate me. In tight skirts and tight sweaters and zipper jackets flashing with zebra stripes, they hung upon guys in pegged pants and box-toed shoes and pink shirts, the black undersides to their collars hiked up and showing. “Rocks,” we called them and, twenty years before Sylvester Stallone, “rocky” their style. Wary at first, Maley is quickly heated to party with the Black Rebels. But when they ravage her shop, there is pleading in her voice and terror in her eyes. “Please don’t do this, please” she begs before vanishing off-screen, lost, forever.
She was born June 8, 1924, in Pottsville, Pennsylvania. At eighteen, she was named “Miss Atlantic City.” She never wore a larger crown, but, one year later, was in New York, a “chorine” noted for her resemblance to Lana Turner. That was enough – or a large part of “enough” – for Hollywood. In four years, she appeared in eleven films, usually uncredited, as a “show girl” or “dance hall girl,” “marine’s second girl friend,” “girl in officer’s club,” “pretty blonde neighbor.” One assumes she rarely spoke. One contemplates the acts she performed to secure these meager bookings. One wonders, from her position on her back or knees, how far up the heights that were Lana Turner she imagined she might climb.
From 1947 until 1951, her cinematic credit line is empty. One assumes she returned to New York, for she is noted, in 1948, as “the only girl” in “Mr. Roberts.” She seems to have frittered away few other hours on employment. She “is seen” with a department store heir. She “gives insomnia” to a George DeWitt. (Even Google is no help here.) She throws a party in which a wastebasket catches fire. She “dates” Artie Shaw and “tells off” Buddy Rich for paying her insufficient attention. She has “a big romance” with Al Capone’s cousin. A Greek shipping tycoon leases her an apartment. A British lord hosts her in London. On the continent she “is kept” by King Farouk, who “showers her with… haute couture.”
By 1951, she is back in Hollywood. She is a “very close friend” of Frances Faye. She is a “good friend” of Ava Gardner, Betty Grable, Shelly Winters. She is spotted at the Cresenada, Mocambo, Bantam Cock. She is linked with Farley Granger, the bon vivant and professional golfer Al Besselink, Corey Allen, ten years her junior, who will lose (or “win”?) the chicken race with James Dean in “Rebel Without a Cause.” She is “one of Harry Cohn’s ‘girlfriends,’” a friendship which, since Cohn headed Columbia and Columbia produced “The Wild One,” may have profited her as much as Farouk’s. (It may explain, for instance, her billing over Yvonne Doughty, who, as Britches, Johnny’s ex-squeeze, had more scenes with Brando – and more lines.) In a single month (February 1953), she is noted to (a) “date” John Hodiak but (b) have “her mind on” Mike Ireland, while being (c) “the love of” Brad Dexter, Peggy Lee’s most recently divorced husband. She is said to have a “nasty mouth,” “terrible drinking problem,” not even “a dime to her own.” She is married for two months.
By 1960, she has appeared in eighteen more films and thirty-nine TV shows. She is a “showgirl,” “tavern maid,” “blonde stripper,” “blonde barfly,” “blond woman.” She is “Gladys,” “Midge,” “Marge,” “Gwen.” She appears in “Tarawa Beachhead,” “The Brothers Rico,” “Live Fast, Die Young.” She is on “The Untouchables,” “Peter Gunn,” “Dragnet” three times. One wonders if anyone who saw her in one role recalled her when they saw her in the next or if, in each appearance, she had registered no more than a firefly’s blink. Within one year of helping launch Brando into immortality, she is uncredited in “Saga at Red River” and “Drive a Crooked Road.” Within a few years of that, she has aged into “The Rookie”s “Aunt Mabel.”
Envisioning a career ripening into someone’s aunt or mother or worse seems not to have sustained Maley. She returned to New Jersey to manage her father’s bars. She never again appeared on stage or screen. Of her next five decades, “Glamour Girls” finds only three items worth reporting: (1) a visit to Las Vegas, during which a “male model” escorts her to a coffee shop, where, upon meeting Troy Donahue, she embarrasses her date with “non-stop” talking and “inappropriate” dress; (2) her marriage (1961-75) to a Long Island policeman, fifteen years her junior, whose name (Schoenborn? Schoenberg?) can not be precisely attained; and, following a twenty-five year gap, (3) her living “in California.”
It is a life I associate with those I glimpsed in “Confidential” or “Whisper” or “Stag” on my boyhood barber shop’s low table. These are lives – Linda Christian’s and Lila Leeds’s and Barbara Payton’s – conjured up for me by the scent of Wildroot Cream Oil or Bay Rum like Combray was by Proust’s madeleine and tea. Lives of beauty pageants and car wrecks, champagne and Percodan, weekends in Acapulco and marriages annulled. They are lives played out in the shadows of more sumptuous and more sustained tales – in alleys that could have led into boulevards but for one or two wrong turns. Maley’s is a skeleton on which I weave a flesh of thoughts and associations. The words that come to mind are “glamour” and “tawdriness” and “exploitation” and “her own bootstraps.” America sets prizes, like plush bears on a carnival’s shelves, that some citizens must have to plug the holes that riddle their walls. They contort and gyrate and strive – and soon only the motions are left, all doors slammed, all hopes locked in the trunks with the pageants’ scepters and tiaras. Was, one wonders, being kept by King Farouk – being lain upon by his heaving, fat – a pinnacle? a pit? a piece of business? an improvement over Pottsville? By how much? For how long? Who among us is sufficiently without cravings to judge?
I think again of her in Bleeker’s Café, happy, dancing, flirting with Brando over Gil Stratton’s shoulder. I am twelve or thirteen, when I first see Maley, and hoping to understand sex. I have danced the box step and, maybe, spun-the-bottle and have little beyond that in actual girl-against-boy experience to go on. She is telling me it is fun; it is exciting; it is to be held at arm’s length; it is to be feared.
This one appeared at The Broad Street Review on October 29, 2009. I had called it, unimaginitely, “Movies.” It called it “’50s Films that Stoked the ’60s.” It’s your call.
In the mid nineteen-fifties, when I was growing up in West Philadelphia, there were six movie theaters withing walking distance of my house. The Byrd, on Baltimore Avenue. The Commodore, on Walnut. And the Locust, Nixon, Rivoli, and State on 52nd Street.
The Rivoli seemed to show nothing but black-and-white films no ten-to-twelve year old would consider: “Niagara,” “The Picture of Dorian Grey.” The Byrd was good for catching up on Francis the Talking Mule or Ma and Pa Kettle. The Locust played sophisticated fare – also of no interest – like “Mr Hulot’s Holiday” or the odd British import. The Commodore was where, during the opening of “It Came From Outer Space,” when the meteor shower rockets in 3-D toward earth, a new boy in the neighborhood, who had seen it before, earned his spurs by flinging a handful of pebbles into the air and setting everyone screaming. The Nixon featured cinematic excellence in the form of “Four Guns to the Border’ and “Riot in Cell Block 11,” and the State had the best Saturday matinee. Admission was fifteen cents. Candy bars were a nickle and a bag of popcorn a dime. You got, maybe, a Joe Penner short, three cartoons, a chapter in a Don Winslow or Dick Tracy serial, and a double feature (“The Crimson Pirate,” “Go For Broke”). Sometimes there were filmed races between funny men in cars or on bikes; and if your ticket stub had the winner’s number, you won a box of jujubes. During yo-yo season, you could come on stage to perform tricks and, even if you lost first round, receive a coupon for an ice cream sandwich.
Once you had attained a certain degree of maturity and wisdom – in my house this occurred between the ages of ten and eleven – you were permitted to take the 42 trolley (later bus) downtown, where another near dozen, mostly first run movies played. The Mastbaurm, Fox, Trans-Lux, Goldman (or was it Goldwyn?)… I forget the rest. Unable to wait for their general release, it was here that my friends and I pinned “House of Wax” and “Rear Window” and “Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” Admission cost more and bought fewer extras than in the ‘hood, but Center City offered other treats. Penny arcades filled with pinball machines. Army/navy stores loaded with the surplus of recent wars. Mustard pretzel carts and Horn & Hardarts automats. Book stores, where we peaked at nudist magazines, until the owners threw us out. Downtown took us a lot further from our parents than 52nd Street.
We did not go to movies for cathartic soul cleansing or philosophical challenge or the appreciation of montage and mise en scene. If we saw a comedy, we wanted to laugh. If we saw a western or war movie, we wanted excitement. But we could not help being schooled. We learned patriotism and foreign policy from John Wayne. We were instructed that the FBI would protect us from everything from Communists (“Walk East on Beacon”) to giant ants (“Them”). We understood that while it might be fun to ogle Marilyn Monroe, we really ought to settle down with someone perky and wholesome and steadfast like June Allyson. (I can’t tell you how shocked I was to learn, even fifty years later, that she had been two-timing Dick Powell with, of all people, Dean Martin.) And we knew to a certainty that evil-doers would be punished.
It went down as easily as vanilla.
Then, on December 30, 1953, a year in which I had rushed to see “Peter Pan,” a movie opened in New York City that would shake the world. I do not recall when or in what theater, I first saw “The Wild One,” but within the, oh, twelve months that I did – a year that also saw me imbibe “Rebel Without a Cause” and “Blackboard Jungle” – the experience, interacting with the hormonal additives by which age had seasoned me, so altered my viewing tastes that I was now plunking down my allowance for admission to “I am a Camera” (at, of all places, the Locust), “Man With the Golden Arm,” “Baby Doll,” “And God Created Woman.”
I doubt market researchers had fingered pre- (or even post-) bar mitzvah Jewish boys as “Wild One” material. Though commentators would link the film to “disaffected youth” and “juvenile delinquency,” Marlon Brando was nearly thirty when he made it; so was Lee Marvin; and Mary Murphy was twenty-three. (“Rebel,” with James Dean at twenty-three, Sal Mineo at fifteen, and Natalie Wood sixteen – though looking older than Murphy – was a closer demographic fit.) It did not bind to us with matching cultural adhesives either. The music on Bleeker’s juke box, to which the gang parties, was an assortment of anonymous instrumentals styled to rouse the temperatures of earlier generations. (“Jungle,” however, blazed with the embedment of “Rock Around the Clock” over its opening credits, a clarion hit of relevancy overshadowing the fact that when the students smash Richard Kiley’s records, they call for Frank Sinatra and Joni James, not Chuck Berry or Laverne Baker.) And motorcycles – motorcycles were about as forbidden to us as swastika tattoos or Gentile girl friends. But for the next decade and a half, when I would strike up a lasting friendship with a boy from Philadelphia or Boston or New York, one point of commonality on our resumes – not always, but often – was repeated viewing of this film, three times, six, a dozen.
It came down to Brando’s Johnny Strabler. He was revelatory: tough; sensitive; tender; cruel; leader of the Black Rebels but always apart; cat nip to the ladies but utterly contemptuous of squares. We were already receiving instructions about the evils of the establishment, the costs of conformity and the dangers of repression from “MAD” and Bob and Ray and Jean Shephard and other resisters of the Eisenhower ‘50s, which, a decade later, would help us establish the parameters of an actual counter-culture; and here was Brando, three years before Jack Kerouac, laying down the ecstasy of the road and the end-all and be-all of “Go.” His lines “I don’t like cops,” “Nobody tells me what to do,” and, most famously, in answer to Peggy Maley’s “Hey, Johnny, what’re you rebelling against?” “What’ve you got?” were catechistic and as valuable to us as Machiavelli’s instructions to the prince. We were assessing, building, equipping ourselves for our own futures with the salvageable and useful, whether we were to eventually to lodge as doctors or lawyers or something even further off the expected grid than tribal chief.
None – well damned few – of us would follow Johnny into the nihilistic pit where Stanley Kramer left him, no family, no job, no girl, not even the stolen runner’s up trophy from a race he had not run. Fortunately, we also had Dean’s searching, struggling, wrenching Jim Stark to draw from. In “Rebel,” it is Corey Allen’s – born, by the way, Alan Cohen – Buzz Gunderson who flaunts the “Wild One” ethic. “Why do we do this?” Jim asks before they race their stolen cars toward a fiery doom. “You’ve got to do something,” Buzz answers. That proves insufficient. “I want to do something right,” Jim tells his parents later. A boy has been killed, and they must not pretend it didn’t happen. “We are,” he says, “all involved.”
That sense of involvement, that wish for proper action would also surface. But first, I needed to get my hands on a motorcycle jacket, hoping its black leather and silver zippered pockets would offset my acne and horned rims.
This blog appeared, re-punctuated to its detriment, as “Bar Mitzvah Boy,” on line, in the January 29, 2010, Broadstreet Review. I have edited it to better fit the stream I have underway here.
In 1953, when I was in fourth grade at Friends’ Central, my father, partly because the contacts might help his law practice, and partly because three doses of Hebrew School a week might immunize me against the identity eroding effects of the Gentiles, who, for the first time, would form a majority of my associates, had our family join Beth Zion.
I thought this a terrible idea. I do not know when I learned the word “hypocrisy,” but once I did, I knew it applied. If religion was important, my pre-adolescent mind reasoned, why hadn’t we always belonged to a synagogue? If we were going to belong, why didn’t we attend services every weekend? Then there was the fact that, at nine or ten, I wanted to fit in with my new friends. I wanted to stay after school and play baseball. (My development seemed to cry louder for an ability to hit the curve than the mastery of any Four Questions.) I did not want to trek by Red Arrow and D bus, from the suburbs into Center City.
I also did not feature, once I arrived, facing the glistening novelty of finding myself stupid. I was placed with children who had already studied Hebrew for a year. I did fine learning about Abraham and Isaac and Judah Maccabee in our history text, which, sensibly, like all good things, was in English; but when it came to reading or writing or speaking those cryptic squiggles, I would have stood more chance wrestling, one-armed, Mr. Moto. (From four years attendance, I retain that “baruch” means “blessed” and “yelda” “girl” – unless it means “boy.”) The highlights of my matriculation were (a) Carol E., a classmate of great sophistication, explaining menstruation; (b) a take-no-crap teacher, recently emigrated from eastern Europe, hypnotizing Max Garden and setting him clucking like a chicken; and (c) cutting class one rainy afternoon, spotting Stan Musial and Red Schoendist in the lobby of a downtown movie theater, and having them autograph my lesson book. I was, otherwise, lost.
The Minotaur lurking at the end of this labyrinth was my bar mitzvah, an experience destined to limn Goya-esq depth into the term “travesty.” Once lessons began, my voice proved as incapable of carrying a tune as Richard Nixon an ADA-friendly precinct. Cantor Mandleblatt, a friendly and decent man, offered the dispensation that I might read my haftorah portion. But my reading was so strained and imbecilic, he was forced to reduce it by three quarters. I mean, I could sound out the letters, but I had no clue whether I was producing noun or verb or preposition. Emphasis? intonation? rhythm? I was at sea on a raft of squawks. The only portion of the experience that provided pleasure was reading “Battle Cry” in the back seat of my father’s Lincoln as we cruised toward the synagogue on my performance day – distracting myself with the adventures of “Andy,” “Danny” and “Ski” as the blue-and-white chromed tumbil headed toward the guillotine. I suppose I understood that the pass:fail ratio I faced was more propitious than, say, that of those aspirants-for-manhood sent by their tribes into the wilderness, armed only with a dagger, and told to retrieve the heart of a grizzly. But if, as we crossed the South Street Bridge, I had been offered a penknife, Center City, and Weimaraner as an option, I am not sure how I would have jumped.
Of the event, I recall mercifully little. No cabbages were thrown by the assembled Levins and Levines. No guffaws issued from the Rothmans and Rosenbaums. Neither Kelner nor Kelmer nor Kessler nor Katz demanded the re-attachment of my foreskin. This was a time before circus tests were required for post-ceremony festivities or acrobatic troupes deemed necessary to entertain the assembled, so everyone marched upstairs for a modest luncheon. I was released to a table with neighborhood friends, who, their own days of reckoning looming, regarded me as if I was departing Guadalcanal as they were wading ashore, and a few from FCS, who had come to experience another sect’s rituals like Margaret Meade to Pago Pago. I worked the room, and Buick dealers and GE distributors, car wash owners and cold cuts magnates thrust envelopes into my hand or pocket.
Even from the perspective five decades has provided, my passage seems to have had little to do with who I was – or was slated to become. Some things I found painful, like inoculations, or demeaning, like having to wait an extra year for my driver’s license, I am now fully – or in the latter case, mostly – able to credit to my parents acting in my best interests. But my bar mitzvah still seems mandated solely by my father’s need to shape me in his image. A part of him scorned his friends who’d discharged their sons from this obligation. It seemed to taint them with a weakness he would not allow others to perceive in him.
My father had come out of 10th & Baimbridge at a time when ethnicity drafted one into bloodier wars than it would me after we’d reached 46th & Pine. It had denied him jobs and barred him from clubs and taught him that, when our family stopped for the night on automobile trips, to send my mother into the motel to ask for a room because her eyes were blue. He took pride in how he had established himself in the face of these blows and constrictions, and he would not have his son drawn further from whom he perceived himself to be than seemed absolutely necessary. “Jewish boys don’t hunt,” he told me, when I came back from FCS one evening, asking for a .22 rifle like certain privileged classmates. “Jewish boys don’t play football,” he told me in fifth grade, when that option became available as a fall sport. By eighth grade, he’d changed his mind there; but my bar mitzvah had been non-negotiable, occasioned no second thoughts, stood a banner planted in the sand.
It does not surprise me now to think, given the cloak of infallibility within which my father presented himself in all matters, from the worth of Adlai Stevenson to the uselessness of Del Ennis in clutch situations, that despite my protestations, I may have adopted a portion of his belief as to the significance of the ceremony in question. For I also recall that when, following its conclusion, my family having flown to Coral Gables, on my first day in the Atlantic, a Portugese Man o’ War lanced me squarely on the tuchis, the pain nearly convinced me that there was a God, that a recording of my performance had just reached him, and this had been his fitting, critical judgment.
So before I start on filling in my junior high days, I will digress to discuss…
…Rick Atkinson’s “The Guns at Last Light,” the final volume in his trilogy on World War II, as it was fought in North Africa, Italy, and Western Europe.
Atkinson is a journalistic historian, writing clear, conscise, direct, ground-covering prose, unencumbered by deep thought or theory. He does a fine job caturing the character and personalities of generals and political leaders, especially in this book, Eisenhower and Montgomery. He is a master at the use of numbers to concretize his points, whether he is cataloguing the contents of transport ships, the extent of various diseases striking down troops, or the total of Camels cigarettes Ike smoked in the weeks before D-Day. And je superbly captures the morality murdering misery of infantryman, fighting and dying inch-by-inch across this terrain.
At the end, the sheer horror of war, no matter the nobility or necessity of the cause, is overwhelming. It put me in mind of a position taken by an anti-torture expert in the weeks following the Abu Ghraib story’s breaking. He was asked if it would be proper to torture an individual if that was the only way to find out where terrorists had hidden a nuclear device they were planning to detonate. His answer was, “No.” If you take the position the saving of a few hundred thousand lives does not justify abusing one person, must you not also conclude that perhaps saving a couple million lives does not justify killing several hundred thousand.
I recall that Nicholson Baker wrote a book several years ago which argued that the United States should not have entered World War II. I may take a look at it and report
The Upper School required boys wear ties and jackets (or sweaters, my preference). It held Quaker meeting once a week, boys on one side of the auditorium, girls the other. (The Quakers were liberal on political issues but cultural, not so much. Each fall, we would lose classmates, boy or girl, rumors about whose personal lives had led them not to have not been “asked back.”)
My grades stayed the same. “AU” in Math, Latin, English, Social Studies. “U” in Manual Training, Music, Art, Gym. So did my assessments. “Robert” needed to “become more attentive,” “less careless,” and “settle down.” “If (he) applies himself,” one teacher wrote, summarizing the thoughts of many, “he should do excellent work.” Though Robert seems not to have behaved as recommended., one English teacher found him “a pleasure to teach.”
I played first base on the class baseball team and defensive end in football; but basketball, given my height and lack of coordination, proved an embarrassment. Even more shaming was my social life. In eighth grade, make-out parties had become the order of the day. But to be invited, you needed a girl friend, and I had none. A girl or two might have been willing to make-out with me, but none gave any overt sign of this, and I was too shy and self-conscious to take any steps required to find out. (Between my glasses and my newly developed acne, I had much to feel self-conscious about.) Besides, one’s stature was influenced by whom one made out with, and the most stature-enhancing girls seemed well beyond me.
In my neighborhood, things were worse. At FCS at least, my athletic capabilities – and the positives attendant upon not settling down – gained me credibility with “A” list guys; but in West Philly, my externals and internals, combined with my “private school kid” taint – that tie being as shaming as a scarlet letter – made me a near untouchable for both sexes.
Which was not all bad.
I had enough belief in my self-worth that these exclusions, while painful, were not crippling. Having one world where I was somewhat comfortable and another where I was somewhat not provided a valuable perspective from which to view both. I mean, the fact that one could feel comfortable in one surround and uncomfortable in another meant that these feelings did not depend on who one “was,” since one was always the same and only the surrounds different. Thus, the “one” became more important than his “worlds.” And the development of this one became the area where my interests and instincts called forth the efforts my elders would have preferred I channel elsewhere. I undertook, with diligence and purpose, investigations of somewhat out-of-the-way corners of orthodox West Philadelphia and orthodox Friends’ Central and took from them what seemed of most significance for the person I hoped to become.
The next several blogs will be accounts of that process. I wrote most not knowing what the next would be and, certainly, in the beginning, unaware of their commonality. For the most part, they stemmed from anecdotes I enjoyed telling over the years to others or inside my own head. Only when I began writing them down, decades later, did I begin looking for the lessons they might contain.
While we’re on cultural influences on the pre-adolescent — not to mention SEX — here’s one that first appeared in “Perspectives in Incongruity” (2012) and then, if my CV is correct, “That Floating Bridge” (2013), both edited by Benj DeMott and both published by TransAction Press.
When I was a boy, my father took me to westerns (“Whispering Smith,” “Red River”) and my mother to musicals and Disneys ( “Easter Parade,” “So Dear to My Heart”).
But once I entered fourth grade (1951), my parents decided I was old enough to attend Saturday matinees alone. In my neighborhood, the Nixon and State, both on 52nd Street, between Chestnut and Market, had them, but I usually went to City Line Center. My Uncle Bernie and Aunt Esther’s cookie-cutter row house in the new neighborhood of Overbrook Park backed up on Cobb’s Creek Golf Course. My father would play 18 holes with cronies. My mother and aunt would prepare spaghetti and meatballs for dinner. And I would spend the afternoon transfixed by the bright screen in the dark.
Admission was ten cents. That bought you a short, a serial chapter, three cartoons, a double feature, and, if you were so inclined, the opportunity to stay through the early show of what was playing evenings. Popcorn was a dime and candy bars a nickle. That was how I spent four uninterrupted hours a week for three years.
During those years, that was the most time I spent on any waking activity unsupervised by parents or teachers. It was a time to laugh (“Knock on Wood’” “Son of Paleface”), to duck behind the seat ahead, covering one’s ears in fear (the flying monkeys in “Wizard of Oz,” “the minefield in “Steel Helmet”), to be indoctrinated (good guys always win, the F.B.I. was our friend), to hoot and holler and toss paper cups from the balcony, to cheer one’s preferences and, unconsciously, add definition to one’s still embryonic self.
The movie star to whom I most cathected during this period was the Burt Lancaster of “The Flame and the Arrow,” “Ten Tall Men,” and “The Crimson Pirate.”
Lancaster had been born, blonde and blue-eyed Irish, in East Harlem, the son of a postal clerk, in December 1913. A six-foot-one basketball star at the academically select DeWitt Clinton High School, he had developed an interest in painting, singing and theater at the Union Settlement House. It offered him a partial scholarship to NYU in return for his continuing to coach and work there. One afternoon, Lancaster spotted a man exercising on the stationary bars and convinced a neighborhood pal, Nick (“Little Dempsey”) Cuccia, a five-foot-two, heavily muscled eighth grade drop out, to take lessons with him. By 1932, “Lang and Cravat” had developed a gymnastic act that carried them through the Depression, working one-ring circuses, fairs, carnivals, and burlesque houses. During World War II, Lancaster served in Army Special Forces, entertaining troops in North Africa and Italy.
In 1945, following his transfer stateside, someone in an elevator spotted Lancaster, and, on the basis of his looks alone, offered him a reading for a Broadway play. During a preview of that play at Philadelphia’s Locust Theater, an agent for Hal Wallis, an independent producer at Paramount, signed him to a movie contract. “A Sound of Hunting” closed after two weeks, and Lancaster left for Hollywood.
The Lancaster I met had already been in about a dozen, mostly black-and-white noir films. The most notable were “The Killers” (his debut), “Sorry, Wrong Number,” and “Criss-Cross,” all of which were deemed too murky, shadowy, gloom-ridden for kiddies on Saturday afternoons. We got him resplendent, in full color, shirt often off (displaying his 41″ chest), muscles gleaming, eyes twinkling, a smile wider and whiter that Lambert Glacier, a vision of heroic male perfection, one of the brightest of Hollywood’s post-World War II stars, dazzling us in the slim mirror of time before Brando and Dean re-calibrated our vision.
In “Flame,” Lancaster plays Dardo, a free-spirited brigand in 12th century Lombardy, who after refusing to join a band of rebels against Frederick Barbarossa (“I depend on no one. Why should anyone depend on me?”), changes his mind once he realizes, “A man can’t live by himself alone.” In “Tall Men,” he plays Sgt. Mike Kincaid, a French Foreign Legionnaire in the Sahara, who assaults his commanding officer and then leads a squad of fellow outlaws to honor by besting an army of blood-thirsty Riffs. And in “Pirate,” he is Captain Vallo, scourge of the late 18th century Carribean, who initially spurns the entreaties of an island’s populace to aid their struggle for freedom (“You’ve got your world, and I’ve got mine”), only to change his mind when he recognizes, “All my life, I’ve witnessed injustice and dishonesty fly the flag of decency.” In “Burt Lancaster: An American Life,” his biographer Kate Buford views these tales of of common men struggling against their oppressors as blows against HUAC’s efforts to stifle leftist dissent in motion pictures. But while Lancaster was an early, fervent foe of the committee, she goes on to strongly suggest that, despite his later assertions to the contrary, he sought – and received – its clearance to continue his career, after authoring a confidential letter affirming his patriotism and anti-Communism.
In any event, though I was a junior-Stevensonian Democrat to whom that whole Family-of-Man thing appealed, I can’t say I came out of Lancaster’s movies whistling “L’internationale.” I was more impressed by his action sequences and way with women. In “Flame,” he wins Virginia Mayo, who plays the niece of the villainous Count Ulrich, by kidnaping her. In “Tall Men,” he wins Jody Lawrence, betrothed of the duplicitous Kayeed Hussein, through a similar wooing. And in “Pirate,” Eva Bartok, daughter of the insurrection’s leader, falls his way after he dupes her aboard his ship, planning to sell her to the authorities. All these ladies, given the opportunity, recognized Lancaster’s inner goodness; and while I lacked his chest and hair and grin, I was certain I just needed the chance to flash my soul to win such swoonings for myself.
Of course, I also lacked Lancaster’s swashbuckling chops. His films allowed ample opportunities for him to climb ropes and poles and walls and to perform vaults and throws, catches and back flips and somersaults, and for chandelier swinging, tightrope walking, and high bar mastery. He did almost all his own stunts; and in two of his films, “Flame” and “Pirate,” Cravat played his sidekick (Piccolo and Ojo, respectively), mute in both instances, since he could not unlearn his New Yawk accent, allowing them to reprise many of their act’s greatest hits. Such feats imbued the pictures with a buoyant humor and comic edge. The body count was leavened by prat falls and belly flops and water dousings. More foes were laid out by cartoonish head bonks than ghoulish eviscerations. No one but the most black-hearted ever screamed.
Explorations of my past, like this one, have taken a similar form. I select something in-the-now which had seemed important to me way-back-then, this importance established by my having clutched it in my memory over the intervening decades, rather than any of the countless other incidents that competed with it for attention. I amplify this memory through research in books or movies or Wikipedia or through conversations with friends. Then I theorize about what it was to these bars or basketball games, cheese steaks or comic books that kept them alive within me.
At this point, in this piece, I had expected to focus on a scene in “Ten Tall Men” which still resonates more vividly to me than any other scene in the movies I’ve mentioned. I saw this film at least three times, though not since 1954 or ‘55, and I had carried this scene with me through high school and college and law school, across a continent, and through a career, into retirement. I was as certain of its particulars as I was of the names of these schools or who had succeeded Eisenhower as president or how the city basketball championship had come out my senior year.
Then I gave the “Play” command to what my DVR had recorded.
In my memory, the sadistic Lt. Kreuger (Stephen Bekassy), having learned that his lady friend Mme. De la Tour (Mari Blanchard) has been dallying with Lancaster, goes to her apartment. When she opens the door, he slashes her across the face with his riding crop, disfiguring her for life with a bright red scar. But in the movie, Lancaster goes to Blanchard’s apartment, after an exchange of meaningful glances on the street. She opens the door. They passionately kiss. “My name’s Mike,” he says. The door closes. Now Bekassy rushes to the apartment. He finds Blanchard and Lancaster, not the least dishabille, having drinks. Bekassy strikes Blanchard bluntly with his crop (no slash, no cut, no scar). Lancaster decks him with one punch.
So where did my adaptation come from? Had the undeveloped, partially formed boy that I was considered Lancaster’s doorway kiss as much an assault as Bekassy’s doorway slash to which I seemingly converted it? At the film’s climax, Lancaster turns a flaming red poker against Sheikh Khalid. We never see flesh sizzle, but had I transplanted its presumed damage onto Blanchard to mark her as the scarlet woman her shameless behavior indicated her to be? As I was indulging myself in Saturday matinees, I was also immersing myself – against parental approval – in comics book of the era. In “Fired,”(Crime SuspenStories #17. June-July 1953), Patricia, a ranch owner, learns that Roy, a cowboy in her employ with whom she is romantically entangled, is two-timing her with a saloon singer. In the last panel, the story delivers a full frontal of Roy’s “blistered and charred” face after Patricia has stamped her Circle-Diamond brand upon it. Before the Comic Book Code of 1954, comics were freer than films to delve into sex and violence and consistently mix the two. Had I thought that “Fired”’s message perfectly suited “Tall Men” and grafted it thereto, where it bloomed unimpeded?.
Saturday matinees licensed one to sit in the dark and eat and think and imagine what one desired, free of outside monitoring. But when the lights went, the doors opened, and defenses returned, adjustments had to be made. What I knew about actual sexual behavior between actual men and women was scanty and ill-informed. But I had apparently ingested lessons that contemporary society was promoting. Sex was dangerous and, if uncontrolled, demanded punishment. Once I had left City Line, I had merely meted out what I deemed necessary to confine the urges I had loosed inside it. And I had learned my lesson well enough to be able to replay it upon command for years.
There are those today calling for a return to the values and order of the 1950s. I am not one.
For the December 1997 issue of The Comics Journal, the editors asked contributors to write about their favorite comic book story. While we are on the subject of EC comics — and my development as a pre-adolescent — my selection fits nicely here. This is an edited and truncated version, with the complete one available in my book Outlaws, Rebels, Freethinkers & Pirates.
Sex and the Single 11-Year-Old
In my much rejected and thoroughly reviled black comedy, The Schiz, one of my major characters, Stanley Doone, a reclusive, sexually repressed cartoonist engrossed in the creation of a 2500-page graphic quadrumvirate, Lunacies, Failures, Disaster, Tragedy, Bum Luck & Other Commonplace Happenings of the 20th Century, reflects upon his favorite comic book story as a child. fifty healthy, intelligent, handsome men and fifty healthy, intelligent, beautiful women are selected by the leaders of a doomed earth to be frozen into a state of suspended animation for a lengthy rocket ship flight to a distant planet, where they are to awake, still youthful, vibrant, potent, and create a superior world. One man arranges to wake early…. He wakes one woman at a time. When he gets bored, he kills her and defrosts another…. (Stanley had) never forgotten the look on the rocketeer’s face as he lingered over the suspended animation chambers, pondering his next choice — blonde? brunette? redhead? — as if at a Baskin-Robbins counter — rum raisin? butter crunch? chopped chocolate?
That story, “50 Girls 50,” drawn by Al Williamson and written by Al Feldstein, appeared in Weird Science #20 (July/Aug. 1953.) Its full plot Stanley (and I) knew was more complex — and more twisted. Sid, the rocketeer charged with setting the timers on the Deep Freeze (D-F) units, is seduced by Wendy into arranging to wake with her before the others so they can enslave them and rule their new world. But he decides to rise earlier and party all the way across the void. His “appetizer” is Laura, and only after he has tired of (“It’s been almost a YEAR… and I want SOMEONE ELSE…”) and fatally paralyze-blasted her does he wake Wendy. She immediately blasts (“So long, sucker!”) him, for her true plan has been to rule with “THE GUY I REALLY LOVE.” Before losing consciousness, Sid reveals the last laugh is his. “(When Wendy) THAWS her ‘REAL LOVE’… she’s going to watch him turn PUTRESCENT. You see, the FIRST phase of my scheme was to KILL EVERY MAN ON THE SHIP.”
Upon mature re-reading, “50 Girls 50” turns out not to be so dire as I imagined. Earth is not “doomed”; this is a simple mission of planetary exploration (or imperialistic expansion); mankind will endure. Moreover, I had forgotten an entire moral theme. The mission’s chief planner, a white-bearded, John-Huston–as-God, patriarchal sort, had counseled the crew pre-blast-off that the selection process had factored in a “perfect mate” for each, whose finding would be “inevitable.” Sid dismisses this idea as “hokum,” but his final final thought is “Just ONE thing bothers me, LAURA! Why did I pick HER FIRST… OVER WENDY? Hmmmmmm.”
However, this suggestion of Sid’s greater loss — and monogomy’s greater rewards — is undercut by “50 Girls 50″‘s inner workings. He did find Laura. And after a year he blasted her. No, Stanley had grasped the story’s essence. Any doubt of that is blown away by Wally Wood’s cover. A man stands inside a spaceship whose walls are lined with row-upon-row of long-haired, full-lipped, hour-glass-figured women, dressed for their voyage in tight, low-cut, crotch-high dresses and lying in clear plastic tubes like cigars on display. “Alone in space with FIFTY FROZEN DOLLS just WAITING TO BE THAWED!” he is saying. “Now, let’s see! EENIE… MEENIE… MINEY…”
But in my novel Stanley is in his 30s. It is unlikely this could have been his favorite comic book story AS A CHILD. It is more likely that, in one of those endearing, imaginative, breath-taking interweavings of truth and fiction that so stimulate and reward scholars and students of my work (if there were any), it was ONE OF MINE.
Which raises some interesting questions.
Due to a parental embargo on what reading matter was allowed to cross our portals, it is probable that I first read “50 Girls 50” in the residence of a more open-bordered friend. However, since an actual, much- battered Weird Science #20 exists among my personal papers, it is reasonable to assume I had acquired my own copy. And since this comic is no more dog-eared than any other EC I have retained (and is in far better shape than many Mads) and “50 Girls 50” no more abused than any other story in the issue, its attraction for me and its power to spring from my buried past and flourish in my fiction of 40 years hence seems worthy of exploration.
I have previously argued without refutation — in fact, darn well without any comment whatsoever — that what accounted for EC’s appeal was not the quality of its prose (exemplary) or art work (unsurpassed) but its masterful orchestration of Sex-and-Violence. Certainly, that is what comes trumpeting (and bassooning) out of “50 Girls 50” today. But what I want to know is, whether I read it in Fletcher Sparrow’s bedroom in 1953, when I was 11, or alone, when I was 12, What-the-hell-did-I-make-of-it? What hooks did it plant that caused its thaw for re-examination from the D-F units of my brain?
To put things in brutal perspective, I did not read Facts of Life and Love for Teenagers until 1955, and, even then, more murky areas than I like to recall remained. This state held true among my friends, except for Max Garden, whose parents, progressive types who kept Das Kapital on full display in their living room throughout the McCarthy era, told him about sex when he was four. “The only problem was,” he says, “Is I couldn’t figure out why in the world anyone would do it.” When dirty jokes came along several years later, he got the idea sex was fun. “It wasn’t that I liked sex any better, but I liked jokes, and suddenly there were a lot more of them around. Then, when I was 12, I got a boner, and it all came together.”
In 1953 and 1954 my friends and I may have been trying to whip together an understanding of sex from Over Sexteen and “Pardon My Blooper” and “cracker” postcards of outhouses and farmers’ daughters and the occasional stray jack or trey from a Wolf Deck that reached our sweaty hands, but I don’t recall it making much of a ripple in our daily lives. For us, it was still boys on one side of the cafeteria or gym or square-dance class and girls on the other, coming together only when it was absolutely necessary to do-si-do. The box-step and Spin-the-Bottle and being riveted by the rape scene in Blackboard Jungle were a year or more away, and it would be a full two before I actually knew a contemporary who claimed to have done what-I-didn’t-even-know-it-was-that-you-did-yet. The July/Aug. 1953-me, in Sid’s place, would have defrosted one of the guys so he would have had company for Wiffle-Ball.