Notes on Camp

To return to adolescence, here’s a piece I wroten apparently in July 2013. It doesn’t seem to have been published anywhere. Maybe I didn’t send it to “Broad Street” because “Stanley Kessler” wasn’t really named “Stanley Kessler,” and I knew it’s editor would disapprove, and I couldn’t think of anywhere else it would fit. It’s pretty good though, and here it is.

“Many things in the world have not been named…,” Susan Sontag began the famous essay whose title I have clipped; and, until I was fourteen, I was one. Or, rather, before my parents sent me to over-night camp in the Poconos, I was “Robert”; and ever since I have been “Bob.”
Camps, at least those in the Poconos, were a Jewish thing. (None of my Friends’ Central classmates attended one. They summered in Ocean City or Stone Harbor or Maine.) These camps were for the children of doctors and lawyers, car dealership owners and Food Fair executives. Campers came from Lower Merion and Cheltenham and Mt. Airy, with an occasional rare bird blown off course from Wilmington or South Philly. The camps taught how to paddle a canoe and survive a night in the woods, skills which seemed as useful at the time as mastering cuneiform. (If the camps were coed and had private corners to their canteens, they allowed practice of other activities in which we saw more of a future.)
The camps offered children the chance to test themselves outside the shade of their families’ umbrellas. And they freed parents from responding to cranky complaints of “I don’t have anything to do.” Fourteen was late to start camp, and I think my parents’ fear of releasing me from their oversight was finally overcome by concluding that my development required healthier influences than I might incline to behind my bedroom door or roaming West Philadelphia’s streets.
Camp Tacoma, their instrument of choice, was in its inaugural year – and would not survive its second. It enrolled thirty or forty boys, aged ten to fourteen, in a tiny town whose name my memory can not reclaim from any map. It had a softball diamond and basketball and volleyball courts but no archery or riflery or arts and crafts. Our cabins were of Architectural Digest (Stroudsburg Edition) quality, but our tub-shaped “lake” was a hollowed-out hill into which water had been pumped or piped or otherwise diverted and always seemed in danger of having its plug pulled.
I suspect Tacoma’s primary appeal was its owner, Menchy Goldblatt, a basketball All-American, at Penn, in the mid-1920s, when my father had matriculated there. Menchy had coached Bartram to two city titles and owned camps for years, but an acrimonious split with his last partner had led him to launch this ill-fated solo flight. (Many Philadelphia-area Jewish basketball players of similar vintage owned Pocono camps, and games between them were fierce. Red Sherr, who played several seasons in the American Basketball League, had one, Sam Cozen, Drexel’s coach, a second, and Harry Litwak, Temple’s, a third.) Menchy seemed a nice man of seasoned learning, but the only bit of his acumen to affect me directly was his telling my father to buy weights so I might build up my chest.

I learned much that summer.
How to clean a toilet. How to make a bed with hospital corners – and how to short-sheet one. I had never before felt sufficiently grown up to shave with a safety razor or shake hands with someone when we met. But most of my learning had to do with athletics.
At Friends’ Central, the prestige sports were football and baseball, with basketball barely nosing out wrestling for third. I was a decent defensive end, and good-hit, no-field first baseman; but as a tallest-guy-in-the-class center… It seemed every school had a skinny, four-eyed geek, whose lay-ups clanged off rims and dribbles trickled off his feet, and I was mine.
But the camps did not play football, and Tacoma could not field a competitive nine against opponents two or three times our size. (The volleyball team was fine, as long as we could hoodwink others into not rotating players’ positions, so our spike-capable six-footers could plant at the net and not be replaced by our more numerous five-sixers.) The major sport among the Pocono camps, as befitting their founders’ roots, was basketball. And there, if you had one star, you could play anyone.
Stanley Kessler was Tacoma’s NML Cygni. He was Menchy’s nephew and four months of age, one grade of school, and light years of worldliness ahead of me. A freshman forward on Central High School’s JV, he was the only camper to be picked into the counselors’s games. I was in awe of his feathery touch – and almost as wowed by his accounts of his not-quite-consumated goings-on with his neighboring Wynnefield girls. From Stanley I learned the un-Quakerly skills of shifting my hips when I set picks, using my rear to clear rebounding position, and leveraging elbows to gain general respect. He also taught me to pass him the ball if I grabbed it.
I suspect Menchy had asked Stanley to befriend me, so I would not pull out mid-summer and cost him half my fee. But we became honest friends. My batting average helped, plus we both had been knocked out by the cinematic adaptation of Kiss Me Deadly and admired the recorded artistry of “Flying Saucers.” My major appeal though was attendance at a school which enrolled debutantes, who glittered to Stanley like the green light on Daisy’s dock had to Gatsby.
Then there was our shared study of our elders.

Camps were traditionally staffed by a series of egg-to-butterfly like progressions. Campers matured to waiters, then C.I.T.s, and counselors, with a winnowing-out ensuring only the fittest survived. Believing that ascent held value, one sought to identify keys to the climb. Tacoma, emerging wholly-formed, had filled positions unnaturally, but still attention could be paid and conclusions drawn.
Our waiters, for instance, who seemingly had been swept up in one scoop from the playing fields of Overbrook High School were a colorful, outside-my-accustomed-range-of-experience bunch. Atlas-muscled Marty P. was destined for the Marines, and five o’clock-shadowed Ronny S.’s aspirations stopped at minor league baseball, and devilish Dicky W. cemented his notoriety by inducing a girl he had just met at the town roller rink to allow his hand into her panties.
One counselor had coached Wilt Chamberlain before joining the family baking business because it paid better. A second played ball for Haverford and a third Trinity. Another had been Senior Class President somewhere, and a fourth, who lacked any such resume-building credentials, held our bunk rapt one evening recounting his pick-up successes. “Jewish girls are the hardest to get to go down,” Uncle Burt instructed, “but once they go down, they stay down.” Sturdy, focused, these men marched unswervingly, without complaint toward dentistry or stock brokerhood.
Stanley and I collected and pondered our data like curiosities within cabinets of wonder. We could not always know what would gleam significant beyond that summer’s light, but we sensed what we were struck by measured who we were and hoped to become. The future seemed to require no more than a set shot or a line to coax a girl into the back seat of a car.
Then rang one discordant note. We sat on a courtside bench while counselors went three-on-three. Dusk closed; air chilled; bats hunted, helter-skelter, insects of the night. “You know how ‘good’ you have to be to be ‘good’?” Stanley said. He had given it much thought and did not need my answer. “Al Schwait was All-Public. And he can’t start for Penn.”
I returned from Tacoma insistent upon my new name. I stuck with razor blades until this day. I boxed out for forty years. I never forgot Stanley’s wisdom either.

Conspiratoratorially Thinking

The NYT Sunday Mag had an article by Matt Bai, taken from his forthcoming book, about Gary Hart. It describes the series of converging, unlikely events that led to the destruction of his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1988, Bai concludes that, without these events, there would have been no President Bush (whom Hart led by double digits in the polls), no second President Bush, no invasion of Iraq, no where-we-are-now. There is, of course, no knowing where-else-we-might-be, but still…

I have been engaged in a recently revived, on-again, off-again debate for years, maybe decades, with friends, the most ardent of whom believe that the murders of both Kennedys, Martin Luther King, Jr, and Malcolm X, as well as the events of 9/11, were carried out and covered up by a vast governemental/military/industrial/national security conspiracy. I have been faulted by these friends for saying that I do not believe in this conspiracy, in part, because it would make me uncomfortable to believe I lived in such a world and that i prefer to believe in a world of randomness, chaos, chance, and odd, crazed madmen with rifles. But when I tell my friends that I believe they hold to their view, in part, because they are uncomfortable iin a world of chance, chaos and madmen and prefer the order brought by vast conspiracies, as some prefer to live in a world ordered by religion, they think this further evidence of my being naive and, well, off my rocker.

The destruction of Gary Hart could, of course, have been the work of a vast governmental/military/industrial/ national security conspiracy. But if it was, how much easier it would have been to, in similar fashion, destroy the careers of, if not Malcolm, King and both the Kennedys than to have killed and then covered-up their killings.

Then again, even if Hart was undone by chance, it doesn’t mean that the Kennedys and King and Malcolm were not assasinated and their assasins covered up. or that some were and some were not.

Uncertainty rules. At least in my world when I wake up each morning.


For those who have followed my adventures in cardio-vascular land, here are the results of my 6-month checkup with my sainted cardiologist. (When I wrote about her in my series at The Broad Street Review, I referred to her as “Dr. M.,” but in the manuscript Adele and I have in progress, we call her “Dr. Fleur.” So “Dr. Fleur” she shall be.
Anyway, my heart is doing wonderfully. This is exceedingly good news because Dr. Fleur had just returned from the highly regarded heart surgery center in Cleveland, where a recent study showed that 40% of valve repairs, which is what I had, fail within two years; and I’ve been three with mine. (It wasn’t such good news to hear they failed at all. But I expect to forget about that soon.)
At the end of the appointment when, in answer to her question about how I was feeling, and I replied that I felt terrific; life couldn’t be better, she reflected that she often felt that “things happened
for a reason.”
I jumped in to say that I often tell people that, while I don’t recommend it, I felt this had been a valuable experience. “It made me,” I said, “a better person.”
“No,” she said, “you always had the capacity within you to be this person. But this gave you the opportunity. The blow cracked the concrete.”


My most recent contributions to the Berkeley E-Plaque Project, founded and chairmanned by the estimable Robert Kehlmann, have gone up: Robert Duncan; B.N.Duncan (no relation). You may read them, perhaps with some sleuthing required, at

Top Ten

Here’s the natural follow-up to my prior post. It appeared on-line originally in the November 2010 “First of the Month” and was reprinted in “Perspectives by Incongruity,” DeMott, ed., 2012.

At the conclusion of a dream that included my descending in an elevator with a hooker and leaping a barrier to catch a subway train, I found myself on a park bench taking out a notebook to describe my collection of .45 rpm records to which I have not listened in thirty-five years. When I awoke, it still seemed a good idea. I quote lyrics from memory. I record history from memory too. What are we, if not what we remember?
I acquired most of these records at Treegoob’s, 41st & Lancaster, situated, as its ads proclaimed, “in the heart of West Philadelphia.” Treegoob’s sold used .45s, culled from juke boxes when their plays diminished, for nineteen cents, which was seventy cents below the cost of new ones. The discount was an inducement, but the mile and one-half journey to the store from the safer, whiter shores of our homes, enriched the value of the discs exponentially for my friends and self. Its perceived risks turned our quest heroic and the black circles we retrieved golden rings to win a princess’s hand.
My prime shopping years were between 7th grade (1954-55) and 10th (1957-58). I am uncertain why I stopped, but I suspect the proliferation of Fabian and his ilk, coupled with the rise of Top 40 programming (or even Top 99, which Philly had for awhile), stripped rock of the outlaw edge which had hooked me. Plus, in 1958, my friends and I began turning sixteen, which meant we could drive. And borrowing a father’s car opened excitements to us beyond those available in our rooms with a stack of vinyl.
The records I list below are not necessarily my favorites – and certainly not the era’s Best or Most Significant. But they are those that elbowed to the front of the line once I had awakened.
1. “Annie Had a Baby.” The Midnighters. Federal. Annie couldn’t work “no more. Every time we start to working, she’s got to stop and walk the baby ‘cross the floor.” Uncharacteristically, I paid full price at a South Street shop that Max Garden led me to one day after Hebrew school. But I had to have it. It was not the bad grammar that led to its being banned from air play. The Dictionary of American Slang may not confirm it, but we knew the “working” going on. And the idea that you could sing about it electrified. “Annie” blew the collected works of Patti Page and Eddie Fisher from our minds forever.
2. “By the River.” Wilt Chamberlain. End. “…neath the shady tree.” Just the Dipper, his baby and he. They “kiss, hug, cuddle close…” Absolute pablum, I grant you, but here was Philadelphia’s greatest athlete sticking his toe onto our side of the revolution. Basketball and rock’n’roll – just what little inner city boys were made of.
3. “How Come My Dog Don’t Bark (When You Come ‘Round)?” Prince Patridge. Crest. “He bites the mailman, and he sees him every day, but when you come ‘round, he rolls over to play.” We liked the humor, the implications – and dogs. Plus what kind of name was “Prince” or, for that mater, “Patridge”? Where did he come from and where did he go? If he’d had a past or future, it was unknown to us. Greatness was forever existentially stamped transitory.
4. “Nite Owl.” Tony Allen. Specialty. Here he came, “walking through the front door,” and “Hoo, hoo, hoo” backed up The Champs, adding ornithological depth to the orchestration – or Dada-esq juxtaposition, depending on your point of view. But we all aspired to be what Allen claimed for himself. Out on the dark streets, boldly alone, unfettered by municipal curfew laws imposed to control our disappointingly tame delinquencies.
5. “Pledging My Love.” Johnny Ace. Duke. “Forever, my darling, my love will be true.” That silky, seductive voice. The promise of that eternally heated heart – set beside the chilling reality of Ace’s fate at the hands of Russian roulette. The hammer and the spinning chamber. The fickle, random universe at play. “What I want to know,” Georgie Woods, our favorite disc jockey inquired, “is did he win or lose?”
6. “Sixty Minute Man.” The Dominoes. Federal. “…fifteen minutes of teasing and fifteen minutes of squeezing and fifteen minutes of blowing my top.” Released before my time, but on a cross-country trip in 1963, Davey Peters and I stopped in a town in South Dakota because he wanted a pair of black jeans which, as I recall, he had seen James Dean wear, but which no place in Philly stocked; and in a five-and-ten I found a stash that contained this ribald classic. Maybe the last .45 I ever purchased. In the preceding few months I had acquired “My Favorite Things” and “Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” and was on my way to other things.
7. “Smokey Joe’s Café.” The Robins. Atco. “From behind the counter, I saw a man. Chef’s hat on his head and knife in his hand.” Early Leiber & Stoller (and wasn’t that really The Coasters, pseudonym-ed up for obscure contractual reasons?) An entire saga in under three minutes: a hint of sex; a threat of danger (we knew they had to be related); a bit of humor – served up over a plate of beans. Masterful.
8. “Speedo.” The Cadillacs. Josie. “Bum-bum-bum-bum-bop-bop- doodly…” His real name not “Joe” or “Moe” but “MISTER (emp. supp.) Earl,” and how cool was that? We knew no one named “Mister Bob” or “Mister Max.” Even our fathers weren’t “Mister Herb” or “Mister Sam.” When Stanley Kessler and I compared lists of Best Songs Ever at Camp Tacoma in 1957, I went heavy for super-charged do-wop like this and “Come Go With Me” and “Strange Love.” He out-sophisticated me with ballads: “Earth Angel,” “To the Aisle,” “Soldier Boy.” But it was to be expected. Stanley, the veteran of many more make-out parties, even claimed to have scored bare tit from Cookie Yosowitz (not her real name).
9. “W-P-L-J.” The 4 Deuces. Music City. “You shake it up fine. Get a good-good wine.” A tribute to the power of drink. More that the future promised but the present denied. And on the flip side (I kid you not), “Here Lies My Love” by Mr. Undertaker. Huh? What was that about? Was the universe trying to warn us about where such dissolution led? As if we didn’t have enough inhibitions snarling our progression.
10. “Zindy Lou.” The Chimes. Specialty. “…a girl that come from the hills and, oh hot dog (something about “thrills” or “chills” or even “I think that she will”). One of those girls we knew were out there and hoped to meet but wondered if we ever would. It didn’t help that her name, like Chuck Berry’s “Maybelline” or The Valentines’ “Lily Maybelle,” was one that had never been called in any of our home rooms. Nor that the number became a dance contest song in the early days of “ Bandstand,” co-mingling with another land of exotically named, beyond-our-reach damsels: Justine and Arlene and Big and Little Ro.
Honorable Mention. “Jam Up.” Tommy Ridgely. Atlantic. Georgie Woods opened each show on WHAT with it. When he switched to WDAS (or was it vice-versa), he didn’t, and when Max Garden called to ask why, he learned the station’s library lacked a copy. So Max borrowed my copy and brought it to Woods in order that tradition be preserved.
At least, I think that happened. Max is dead, so I can’t ask him. And Davey’s dead, so I can’t confirm that part about James Dean – or if it was South, not North Dakota. And Stanley’s dead, so I don’t know if he is sticking to his story about Cookie Yosowitz. My dream had summoned me to reflect upon my friends, cup our history in my hands, and craft it for my purposes. All pasts lie forgotten in closets and on shelves, crumbling to pieces, some of which may be salvaged and refashioned to construct a present and, hopefully, influence a future.


This originally appeared, entitled “The Dawn of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” on-line in THE BROAD STREET REVIEW of Sept. 1, 2009. Because of the REVIEW’s proscription against using pseudonyms and my refusal to abide by it, I did not identify my fellow seekers by name. But they were Max Garden, Davey Peters, Mickey Kipper, and, maybe, Fletcher Sparrow.

I bought my first record when I was twelve: Little Walter’s “My Babe.” The film Cadillac Records reveals him as scotch-soaked, pistol-packing, tragedy-fated. But if I thought of him at all, it was as a tiny guy with the same name as my cousin. No cult of personality compelled the release of my eighty-nine cents. It was entirely the edgy, haunted voice, the scratchy, lilting beat – the sound alone stirring my placid blood. I had no “babe.” I had not transgressed my way into “cheating” – let alone any “midnight creeping” – but I divined a summons onto tempting ground.
Rock’n’roll/rhythm and blues began slipping into my life and those of my friends, drip-by-drip, during seventh grade (1954-55). Songs were popping onto our car radios, like “Sh-Boom” (The Crewcuts neutered version, not The Chords original) or “Ling-Ting-Tong,” causing our fathers to push the buttons to re-establish the priorities of Kitty Kallen and Eddie Fisher. From the play list of “Bob and Sherry,” who tutored us in the rudiments of box step and jitterbug and mambo in the lower floor of Beth Zion synagogue, we could hear, besides “Hey There” and “The Naughty Lady of Shady Lane,” “Shake, Rattle and Roll” (Bill Haley, not Big Joe Turner) and “Earth Angel” (Gloria Mann, not The Penguins). I don’t recall who tipped me to WHAT and WDAS and the raw authenticity at the far end of the radio’s dial, but soon I was fighting my father for the car’s buttons, and in my room all I listened to was Kay Williams and Mitch Thomas and, best of all, Jocko (“EEE-tiddleee-yock, this is the Jock”) Henderson and Georgie Woods, “The Man With the Goods,” ringing his cow bell and declaring everything to be “cool, calm and copacetic.” For my bar mitzvah, I requested my own .45 player, handsome plastic, pink and black.

In a recent Wired, J.J. Abrams lamented the loss of the need to leave one’s home in order to buy music – of having to “brave the weather, bump into strangers… (and) earn” it. Well, my friends and I earned the records stacked upon the spindles of our machines.
Treegoob’s, our primary source of supply, was at 41st and Lancaster, which was, in Georgie Woods’s terms, “in the heart of West Philadelphia.” Joseph Conrad could not have put it better. For in those days, Market Street drew a racial divide through our portion of West Philly, whites to the south, blacks to the north; and, from my house, once you crossed the shadow of the el, Treegoob’s still lay one scary mile away.
But every few months, on a Saturday morning, two or three of us made the journey. We did not ride bikes; bikes too strongly tempted brigands. We did not ask our parents for rides. (For out purposes, we probably would have preferred encountering brigands to begging rides from parents.) Across Market Street stretched a vacant block, where weeds sprouted and cabbage moths flitted among the husk of an abandoned Chevrolet. Beyond it lay home-based churches, whose Sunday sermon titles were misspelled in chalk on slate, and storefront emporiums offering sinks and toilets from their pavement or displaying fish we had not heard of from seas we would never troll.
We kept our gaze straight ahead. We challenged no stranger’s stare – and most certainly did not “bump” any of them. In truth, interracial violence, though present, was not extreme in our corner of the world. One boy I knew had been socked in the jaw when he refused to hand over an orange sweater. My brother had been forced to surrender his Halloween candy to a trio of older girls. And once word had reached Lea School that the Black Bottoms, a gang from Sulzberger Jr. High, intended to wreak havoc upon us for some outrage no one could identify. Seventh and eighth graders slid pen knives into their lunch boxes and pool cue butts down their pants legs; older male relations patrolled the perimeter. No auslanders appeared, but, following that threat, the term shvartzes had come into common usage among my peers. Still, in all our treks, over two or three years, the worst inflicted upon us were some muttered oaths and thrown stones.
Treegoob’s primarily sold appliances. But even its EZ Credit terms did not lure us toward console TVs and toaster ovens. We bee-lined for the record department. Overhead, from Riverside and Blue Note covers, Horace Silver and Art Blakey and Thelonious Monk appraised us with indifference. But they were gods in a world more than our allowances kept us from entering. Our goal was the three trays stacked with hundreds of more accessible .45s, culled from juke boxes because their plays had slackened and offered for nineteen cents apiece – the best price in the known world. We fell upon them like harpies at Phineas’s table, fingering rapidly, front to back, in pursuit of the wildly admired, the thoroughly desirable, the trophies which would rain envy upon us. Those searches yielded me “Annie Had a Baby” and “Speedo,” “Smokey Joe’s Café” and “Zindy Lou,” “How Come My Dog Don’t Bark” and “WPLJ,” “I Hear You Knocking’” and “Pledging My Love.”
It was not everything I wanted, but it was a lot.

We were aware that this exercise of our discretionary spending placed us on one side of a cultural divide. We recognized that our position was not championed by any authoritative adult. We understood that ours was a tolerated taste we were expected to outgrow. But each week we checked the Top Ten list at our neighborhood record store and tuned in radio’s Make Believe Ballroom and TV’s Your Hit Parade seeking our favorites vindication. We buzzed with excitement when “Maybelline” surfaced in the line-up locally. But it crept no higher than number nine.
Then, in July 1955, “Rock Around the Clock” became the best-selling song in America. To appreciate the magnitude of this achievement, recognize that, for the previous nine weeks, the bearer of the crown had been “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White” – and “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” had reigned the five before that. (Recognize too that it would be another seven months before a record with origins in the black market, “The Great Pretender,” captured the title.)
We knew that we were on the winning side of a revolution. In fact, our suspicions hardened that all our revolutions – even those we had not identified – even those where sides had not been dawn – were ones that we would win.


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: I recommend adding him to your Favorites list.

The Latest Word on Enneagrams

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

Moral Shopping

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:

Moral Shopping
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.

As Mildred

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.

As Mildred
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.