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Theater-Fashion Maven Elaine Jabenis

August 4, 2010 2 comments

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©Photo by Bill Sitzmann

 

Cities the size of Omaha or smaller have their local theater legends.  Omaha claims many, including at least two figures, in Henry Fonda and Dorothy McGuire, who became legends on a much larger stage.  One of the local legends who stayed local but whose talent might have played well beyond these confines had she sought to try is the subject of this New Horizons story.  As I was growing up, Elaine Jabenis epitomized glamour by the way she carried herself in theater, in fashion, in television, and at community events.  She was a queen and a diva without the baggage. She seemed apart from yet wholly approachable.  When I finally met her seven years ago I found she is still that charming mix of Grande Dame and down-to-earth hometown girl.  She’s still full of vitality and curiosity.  I must admit that I’ve never seen her perform in the theater, the domain where she perhaps made her biggest impact.  But I saw enough of her on television to appreciate her expressive talents. And even interviewing her at her home I was captured by her magnetic charm. She gives off a positive energy that you can’t help but be energized by yourself.

As if I needed proof, not long after my story appeared Elaine appeared with Michal Simpson in the SNAP! Productions staging of Richard Alfieri’s Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks, earning as usual rave reviews. She’s gone on to win a series of lifetime achievement awards. Look for a new story about Elaine and her unaging passion in a coming post.

Theater-Fashion Maven Elaine Jabenis

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the New Horizons

Elaine Jabenis

 

 

When considering her charmed life, Elaine Jabenis, that pert, pretty, petite bundle of energy Omahans have come to know as a well-versed radio-television personality, veteran stage actress, longtime fashion maven, seasoned author and perennial woman of style, has to admit it reads like “a storybook.”

Take the time she was waiting out a rain storm in the Times Building as a young newlywed in 1944 New York, where her husband Mace, a Kansas City native, was stationed as a flight crew member aboard Army Air Transport Command missions over the Atlantic, when she decided, on a whim, to put in an application at that bastion of American newspapering — the New York Times.

Mind you, she’d never worked on anything but the Omaha Central High School Register staff and had only taken a few courses at Northwestern University’s prestigious Medill School of Journalism before her money ran out. But, showing the penchant for imagination that would define her life, she bent the truth a little, well, a lot, by inventing from whole cloth a high-gloss work background, including a fictitious World-Herald reporting stint. What gave her the chutzpah to pull such a cheeky stunt?

“I was really doing it as a kind of lark,” she said. “I exaggerated, never in the world expecting to get a job. I was just playing this silly little game. This was the sense of drama in me” coming out, a vivacious Jabenis said in an interview from the home she shares with hubby Mace in Omaha’s exclusive Loveland neighborhood. The rich, tasteful decor of the home, featuring art objects from the couple’s wide travels to China and elsewhere, is a reflection of Jabenis, whose well-coiffured hair, stylish ensembles and trim figure, still make her every inch the fashionable lady.

After all, there wasn’t a chance in hell she’d get on at the venerable Times, right? Wrong. In a case of being at the right place at the right time, she was on her way out the building when a certain Mr. Tootle flagged her down and, much to her disbelief, offered her, on the spot, a temporary job filling-in for a secretary taken ill that day. She accepted and in typical Jabenis fashion she displayed such poise, industry and charm that at the end of her term she was kept on as an assistant in the high-octane city room. Thus, what began as a lark turned into a three-year whirlwind that provided invaluable experience and exposed her to the high-end creative world she would make her life’s work. “That application was probably the best piece of fiction I ever wrote,” is how she sums up the episode today.

Despite the frivolous attitude she adopted when applying at the Times and the fortuitous manner in which she got hired there, she really did have a hankering to write. Growing up one of three children of Sol and Ida Lagman, Russian immigrant grocers whose Laggie’s Market was a north Omaha fixture, she said, “I always had a pencil and pad under my pillow and I was always writing poems and stories.” At Central, she was encouraged to pursue writing by journalism department head Anne L. Savidge, who persuaded her to continue her studies at Northwestern.

 

The New York Times entrance Editorial Photo

 

At the Times Jabenis was first assigned to the Town Hall page and later as an aid to several experienced journalists under whose doting tutelage she learned a thing or two about writing, working under deadlines and trusting her muse. As a young reporter-in-training, she did a little of everything, from fielding phone calls to fixing copy, and sometimes accompanied beat writers on assignment, once to the first meeting of the United Nations security council.

One of her mentors was education editor Benjamin Fine, who advised Jabenis on her ambition to be a serious writer with this admonition: ‘Go home and write a million words and then tell me you’re a writer. The only way to be a writer is to write all the time.’” And, like a good pupil, she took his sage advice years later when, writing “every single day,” she authored a suspense novel, The Burning of Georgia, set amidst the fashion world, an arena she knows well from her years as fashion guru for J.L. Brandeis & Sons Department Stores. In the early 1970s she penned the first of her two long-in-print fashion merchandising college texts published by John Wiley & Sons. She’s also written the book for two musical plays. Her Generation to Generation, with music and songs by composer and producer Karen Sokolof Javitch, is “a celebration of life” about a dying Jewish woman passing on her legacy to the grandchild she won’t live to see. Generation won the best new script award from the Theater Arts Guild.

Two other Times staffers she worked for, drama critic Brooks Atkinson and film reviewer Bosley Crowther, were living legends whose printed words carried much weight, but none more so than those of Atkinson whom Jabenis describes as “the most feared theater critic of all time. I mean, if Brooks Atkinson put his thumb down on a show, it could close tomorrow. He didn’t pull any punches.”

Looking back on her Times experience, she said, “It was a wonderful training ground. I gained so much while I was there. I was like a sponge just soaking up all that knowledge.” Her association with Atkinson afforded privileged access, via her Times press pass, to stars, including rubbing shoulders with Rex Harrison at the swank Stork Club, and taking in scores of Broadway opening nights for such classics as Oklahoma and Moon for the Misbegotten. Her total Broadway immersion prompted her own passion for theater, until she knew her place was not in the audience anymore but on stage. “I began to think — I don’t want to be down here, I want to be up there. I just began to love it. It was always there, that desire to act or to perform. If that basic temperament is there, it only needs cultivation to bloom.”

With a hoped-for life in theater or journalism before her, Jabenis was in an envious position, but reality has a way of tempering dreams. It was, after all, wartime and she had more pressing concerns than what professional path she should take. She explains, “My husband was crossing the Atlantic on ATC missions and my mind was more on, Is he coming home safely this trip? than on what I would do” for a career.

A life in the theater did indeed come to fruition for Jabenis, only in her hometown of Omaha, where she and Mace moved a year after the war ended, not in New York, where she longed to study at the famed Actors Studio but never found the time and where she ached to trod the boards but never took the plunge. As she would soon discover, her destiny as an actress lay on the Omaha Community Playhouse stage, not on Broadway. But before launching her six-decade run of success with the Playhouse, which in July honored her with its Dick Boyd Award for lifetime achievement, she had an unexpected brush with Hollywood.

 

Elaine Jabenis and Michal Simpson in the SNAP! Productions staging of Richard Alfieri’s Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks

 

 

About the same time her thespian ambitions flowered in New York, she said, she was offered a screen test by a major Hollywood studio, she thinks Paramount, a heady thing to have happen to “a country girl” with stars in her eyes and greasepaint in her veins. Flattered and flummoxed by the offer, Jabenis sought the counsel of one of her Times mentors, Crowther, whose resulting bromide may have dramatically changed her life. “

He said, ‘Elaine, don’t do it.’ And I said, ‘Why, because you don’t think I have the talent or the warmth or something?’ He said, ‘No, you probably have both, but you don’t have a killer instinct and without a killer instinct they’ll destroy you. You don’t want to be a part of that world and those ruthless people.’” A deflated Jabenis heeded the warning, even though “it was very hard to hear,” at the time, she said. “He just decided I was a nice Midwestern girl” unsuited to the cruel vagaries of Hollywood or New York. “Later, I was so grateful because after I got back here (Omaha) I had the best of both worlds. Not only could I have theater as an avocation, I had New York through my fashion career and I was able to raise my children and have a decent life.”

In Omaha Jabenis wasted little time embarking on her entertainment career. “Almost immediately I got a job as a continuity writer at WOW Radio,” then aligned with WOW-TV. “I wrote commercials and copy for on-the-air people,” she said. Then, one day an unlikely chain of events propelled her into the performing spotlight.

As Jabenis recalls, “Shaver’s Food Mart wanted a commercial tailor-made for them” and she obliged with one, which the general manager had her put on tape. “I went in the announcer’s booth of a little studio and recorded it and they took it over for Mr. Shaver to hear and he liked the concept really well and bought the package.” Then, the story goes, when Shaver was told, “We’ll get you an announcer” to cut the spot, he balked, saying, “No, I want the voice I heard on that tape.” When pointed out to him the voice belonged to a writer, he persisted, “I don’t care, I like what she said and the way she said it.” Acceding to “the customer is always right” credo, WOW put Jabenis on the air and, she said, “before I knew it I had a show of my own” — Saturday’s Scrapbook — and a star was born.

Saturday’s Scrapbook, which Jabenis co-hosted with Ray Olson, was what she calls “a forerunner of the talk show.” She added, “We talked back and forth. We had music and special topics. We did it quite loosely, but I think that’s what made it work.”

The program was recognized by Billboard Magazine as one of the best of its kind. Soon, she joined the television side of WOW, serving as spokes-model for commercials on evening newscasts, as featured guest on local morning programs and as host of prime time special event broadcasts, such as the Ak-Sar-Ben ball. It was all live, too. “There was no such thing as teleprompters or idiot boards. You just got up there and talked. It was very stimulating,” she said of those halcyon days. “Back then, television was just coming in and none of us knew what we were doing. We just did it. It was, Let’s try this, let’s try that.”

Among the talents at WOW she worked with was a young fire brand named Johnny Carson. At the time he was hosting his Squirrel Cage TV show and one day she came on to read some prepared copy when Carson, already known for his free-spirited, anything-goes ad-libbing, forced her to improvise as she joined him on set.

“I came in scripted and he knew I was going to want to look at those notes and he just tore up the script and cleared off the desk, sending stuff flying across the studio, and he said, ‘OK, Lainie, what did you want to tell me?’ That taught me.” From then on, she said, she knew to be ready to just wing it. Lainie is what Carson always called her and the nickname, which no one else but her mother used, endeared him to her. “It was such fun. He was always doing silly things. We always had a good time together. We were good friends. I like him a lot.”

The rapport they enjoyed is evident in a 1966 interview he gave her during one of his rare Nebraska visits. On the tape, the two engage in the easy, intimate banter and horse play of old chums, as she playfully slaps him and they embrace like schoolkids. “It’s so funny to be in this position of interviewing you,” she tells him.

She and Carson stayed in touch over the years. Once, returning from the West Coast after having given himself a year to make it out there, he tried coaxing Jabenis to join him in L.A., where he predicted great things for her. But she declined. By then, she and Mace had started a family and well, just like the Hollywood opportunity before, who’s to say whether she really would have succeeded or not and whether it was right for her or not? “I wasn’t that adventurous to pack up and move my family and risk everything on that chance.” Mace was in business then with his brother Eli as owners of Travelware Luggage.

In her career Jabenis has had the privilege of working with major talents. There was Carson, who forever put his stamp on the late-night talk format as host of The Tonight Show, and, more recently, there was John Beasley, a top character actor in movies (The Apostle) and television (Everwood). “Absolutely. I have found that when you’re around very talented people it just brings your level up,” she said. “I know when I played opposite an actor of the caliber of John Beasley in Driving Miss Daisy at the Playhouse it was a thrill because John is such a perfectionist and a professional. He really brought me to places where I never knew I could go.”

 

 Elaine Jabenis, center, hosting live TV special atopening of the new Playhouse

 

 

 

Jabenis got so busy working as a freelance commercial talent with Bozell and Jacobs and its stable of clients that some nights found her hurrying from station to station to pitch products on the evening newscasts.

“I would be booked into a commercial at Channel 3 for Peter Pan Bread, which I’d have to commit to memory and do live, and then I’d get in the car with the script for another spot beside me and as I drove up to WOW I’d be reviewing the lines I had to do for MUD and its new gas ranges. And then I’d go over to host a late-night movie show on Channel 7 and do the live cut-ins.” The excitement was intoxicating. “You just had to really move. But, boy, that really taught you to think fast on your feet. I loved the action. I loved the electricity of all those personalities and how ideas bounced off of each other. You began to pick up the pace of that kind of life. It was really wonderful.”

While her TV career flourished, she pursued a parallel career in drama.

“There was that pull to go into the theater,” she said.

So strong was the pull that in 1952, six weeks after giving birth to her second child, she played the ingenue in Father of the Bride at the Playhouse, then at 39th and Davenport. Years of award-winning lead and character roles followed, the most recent a 2001 supporting turn in My Fair Lady. Like a true calling found, the theater became her second home. “Yeah, I really loved it. I could just hardly wait to get into the next play, but it was very hard at first because I was raising our two children. I kept watching to see what was coming up next that had a good part for me.” Her passion extended to all aspects of theater. “There were times I worked backstage…props, costumes…I would do just about anything because I wanted to be in the environment of the thing I loved.” She could only pull it all off, she said, with “the support of Mace.”

 

 Omaha Community Playhouse

 

 

Whether as a radio-TV personality or theater actor, Jabenis proved a natural. Without any formal training, she simply took to it.

“I had an aptitude for it, I guess,” is how she explains it. “Nobody had to tell me. I just think it’s something you do and you know. I think it’s in here,” she said, patting her heart. Natural or not, Jabenis still battled stage fright. “I was terrified every time I went on camera, but the minute the light went on I was fine. That’s the same way it was with the theater. I’d stand back in the wings and feel like I was going to have a heart attack before the curtain went up, but once on the stage I forgot about Elaine and became whatever I had to become.”

Her absorption in her craft is complete. Take her approach to acting.

“What I think is important is to have a moment of truth with the audience…to give an honest interpretation of the author’s words. It’s exciting when it happens. It really is,” she said. Now, forget the glamour of the theater and consider the grind of working a full-time job, as she did 23 years at Brandeis, then coming home to shower and catch a bite to eat before spending hours in rehearsal or performance. “Once I got involved with the Playhouse it was totally consuming,” she said. “You have to be up every night.” Her devotion is such that one night during the run of Wingless Victory the trouper went on despite a high fever. “I was just going on sheer guts,” she recalls. “I just had to do it.” After her final exit she was delirious in the wings. “I didn’t know where I was. I was really sick. I was in bed the next two days.”

Broadcasting and acting success led Jabenis into another creative field — fashion. It happened this way. Having covered the Ak-Sar-Ben ball, Jabenis “got very well acquainted with the buyers and presidents of the stores furnishing gowns for the event. Brandeis invited me to be a guest commentator for fashion shows and this and that. Then, one day I got a call from Dick Einstein of Brandeis asking if I’d like to make it a permanent arrangement.”

As Brandeis fashion coordinator and, later, fashion merchandising director, she canvassed the designer market by reading the industry trades and by frequently visiting New York, Los Angeles and Europe to catch the biggest shows and identify the hottest trends. She met the top name designers — from de la Renta to Cardin — and worked with celebrities — from Irene Dunn to Vanna White. She recommended entire lines and styles of clothing for the store to purchase and pitched those fashions via all size and manner of shows.

“I was probably the first one to introduce theatrical pieces into fashion shows here when I started adding singers and dancers and that kind of thing,” she said, adding that she drew on her theatrical acumen in staging events. After Brandeis was sold she formed her own fashion production company and dished-out fashion advice as a TV and print commentator. Her biggest fashion forum has become the Woman of the Year Gala she created as a benefit for the Arthritis Foundation. As she said, “All stops are pulled,” for the extravaganzas. “That’s right up my alley.”

Reticent about revealing her age for professional reasons, it’s safe to say Jabenis is years removed from traditional retirement age, but she does not concede anything to mere numbers. “I haven’t retired from anything, honey,” she told a visitor to her home. “I don’t believe in that. I’m not going to let chronological years interrupt what I want to do.” What she wants to do is continue traveling, writing and acting. She’s already planning her next novel and she’s awaiting the next prime part to come her way.

“I’ve always felt there’s some kind of little angel sitting on my shoulder guiding me and taking care of me. I feel like I’ve led a charmed life.”

Preston Love, His Voice Will Not Be Stilled

June 3, 2010 1 comment

This is one of those foundational stories I did on Omaha jazz and blues legend Preston Love. Together with my other stories on him I give you a good sense for who this passionate man was and what he was about.  The piece originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com).  I should mention that Love’s autobiography, which is referenced in the story, was well-reviewed by the New York Times and other major national publications.  Preston always wanted to leave a legacy behind, and his book, “A Thousand Honey Creeks Later,” is a fine one.   The very cool Loves Jazz & Arts Center in the heart of North Omaha’s historic jazz district is named in honor of him.  More stories by me about Preston Love can be found on this blog site. I also feature a profile I did on his daughter, singer-songwriter-guitarist Laura Love.

 

 

 

Preston Love, His Voice Will Not Be Stilled

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader

One name in Omaha is synonymous with traditional jazz and blues — Preston Love Sr., the native son musician most famous for playing lead alto saxophone with the legendary Count Basie in the 1940s.

The ebullient Love, still a mean sax player at 75, fiercely champions jazz and blues as rich, expressive, singularly African-American art forms and cultural inheritances.  This direct inheritor and accomplished interpreter of the music feels bound to preserve it, to protect its faithful presentation and to rail against its misrepresentation.

He has long been an outspoken critic of others appropriating the music from its black roots and reinventing it as something it’s not.  Over the years he’s voiced his opinion on this and many other topics as a performer, columnist, radio host, lecturer and oft-quoted music authority. Since 1972 his Omaha World-Herald “Love Notes” column has offered candid insights into the art and business sides of music.

From 1971 until early 1996 he hosted radio programs devoted to jazz.  The most recent aired on KIOS-FM, whose general manager, Will Perry, describes Love’s on-air persona: “He was fearless.  He was not afraid to give his opinion, especially about what he felt was the inequality black musicians have endured in Omaha, and how black music has been taken over by white promoters and artists.  Some listeners got really angry.”

With the scheduled fall publication of his autobiography “A Thousand Honey Creeks Later,” by Wesleyan University Press in Middletown, Conn., he will finally have a forum large enough to contain his fervor.

“It’s written in protest,” Love said during a recent interview at the Omaha Star, where he’s advertising manager.  “I’m an angry man.  I started my autobiography to a large degree in dissatisfaction with what has transpired in America in the music business and, of course, with the racial thing that’s still very prevalent.  Blacks have almost been eliminated from their own art because the people presenting it know nothing about it.  We’ve seen our jazz become nonexistent.  Suddenly, the image no longer is black.  Nearly all the people playing rhythm and blues, blues and jazz in Omaha are white.  That’s unreal.  False.  Fraudulent.

“They’re passing it off as something it isn’t.  It’s spurious jazz.  Synthetic.  Third-rate.  Others are going to play our music, and in many cases play it very well.  We don’t own any exclusivity on it.  But it’s still black music, and all the great styles, all the great developments, have been black, whether they want to admit it or not.  So why shouldn’t we protect our art?”

When Love gets on a roll like this, his intense speaking style belongs both to the bandstand and the pulpit.  His dulcet voice carries the rhythmic inflection and intonation of an improvisational riff and the bravura of an evangelical sermon, rising in a brimstone tirade one moment and falling to a confessional whisper the next.  Suzanna Tamminen, acting director of Wesleyan University Press, says, “One of the wonderful things about Preston’s book is that it’s really like listening to him talk.  A lot of other publishers had asked him to cut parts out, but he felt he had things to say and didn’t want to have to change a lot of that.  So we’ve tried to have his voice come through, and I think it does.”

Love pours out his discontent over what’s happened to the music in the second half of the book. Love, who’s taught courses at the University of Nebraska at Omaha on the history of jazz and the social implications of black music, says he “most certainly” sees himself as a teacher and his book as an educational document.

In his introduction to the book, George Lipsitz, an ethnic historian at the University of California-San Diego and a Wesleyan contributing editor, compares Love to the elders of the Yoruba people in West Africa” “According to tradition, elders among the Yoruba…teach younger generations how to make music, to dance, and create visual art, because they believe that artistic activity teaches us how to recognize ‘significant’ communications.  Preston Love…is a man who has used the tools open to him to make great dreams come true, to experience things that others might have considered beyond his grasp.

“He is a writer who comes to us in the style of the Yoruba elders, as someone who has learned to discern the significance in things that have happened to him, and who is willing to pass along his gift, and his vision to the rest of us.  His dramatic, humorous and compelling story is significant because it uses the lessons of the past to prepare is for the struggle of the future.  It is up to us to pay attention and learn from his wisdom.”

Some may disagree with Love’s views, but as KIOS Perry points out, “All they can do is argue from books.  None of them were there.  None of them have gone through what’s he gone through. They have nothing to compare it with.”  Perry says Love brings a first-hand “historical perspective” to the subject that cannot be easily dismissed.

Those who share Love’s experience and knowledge, including rhythm and blues great and longtime friend, Johnny Otis, agree with him.  “Those of us who came though an earlier era are dismayed,” Otis said by phone from his home in Sebastopol, Calif., “because things have regressed artistically in our field.  Preston is constantly trying to make young people understand, so they’ll do a little investigation and get more artistry in their entertainment.  He’s dedicated to getting that message out.”

 

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But Love’s book is far more than a polemic.  It’s a remarkable life story whose sheer dramatic arc is daunting.  It traces his deep kinship with jazz all the way back to his childhood, when his self-described “fanaticism” developed, when he haunted then flourishing North 24th Street’s popular jazz joints to glimpse the music legends who played there.

He grew up the youngest of nine in a ramshackle house in North Omaha.  Love’s mother, Mexie, was widowed when he was an infant.  Music was always part of his growing up.  He listened to his music idols, especially Count Basie and Basie’s lead alto sax man, Earle Warren on the family radio and phonograph.  He taught himself to play the sax brought home by his brother “Dude.”  He learned, verbatim, Warren’s solos by listening to recordings over and over again.  By his med-teens he was touring with pre-war territory bands, playing his first professional gig in 1936 at the Aeroplane Inn in Honey Creek, Iowa (hence the title of his book).

At Omaha’s Dreamland Ballroom he saw his idols in person, imagining himself on the bandstand too — hair coiffured and suit pressed — the very embodiment of black success.  “We’d go to see the glamour of Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong.  We aspired to escape the drabness and anonymity of our own town by going into show business,” Love recalls.  “I dreamed of someday making it…of going to New York to play the Cotton Club and of playing the Grand Terrace in Chicago.”

He encountered both racism and kindness touring America.  The road suited him and his wife Betty, whom he married in 1941.

The couple’s first child, Preston Jr., was born 54 years ago and the family grew to include three more off-spring: Norman and Richie, who are musicians, and Portia, who sings with her father’s band.

Life was good and Love, who eventually formed his own band, enjoyed great success in the ’50s.  Then things went sour.  Faced with financial setbacks, he moved his family to Los Angeles in 1962, where he worked a series of jobs outside music.  His career rebounded when he found work as a studio musician and later as Motown’s west coast band leader in the late ’60s, collaborating with such icons as Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder.  He returned to Omaha in 1972, only to find his music largely forgotten and his community in decline.  While often feeling unappreciated in his hometown, he basked in the glow of triumphant overseas tours, prestigious jazz festival performances and, more recently, reissues of classic recordings. Today, he’s an elder statesman, historian and watchdog.

 

 

 

 

To grasp just how much the music means to him, and how much it saddens him to see it lost or mutilated, you have to know that the once booming North 24th Street he so loved is now a wasteland.  That the music once heard from every street corner, bar, restaurant, and club has been silenced altogether or replaced by discordant new sounds.

The hurt is especially acute for Love because he remembers well when Omaha was a major jazz center, supporting many big bands and clubs and drawing premier musicians from around the region.  It was a launching ground for him and many others.

“This was like the Triple A of baseball for black music,” he says.  “The next stop was the big leagues.”

He vividly recalls jazz giants playing the Dreamland and the pride they instilled:  “All of the great black geniuses of my time played that ballroom — Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Earl “Father” Hines, Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker.  Jazz was all black then, number one, and here were people you read about in magazines and heard on radio coast-to-coast, and admired and worshipped, and now you were standing two feet from them and could talk to them and hear their artistry.”

Love regrets many young blacks are uninformed about this vital part of their heritage.  “If I were to be remembered for some contribution,” he says, “it would be to remind people that what’s going on today with the black youth and their rap and all that bull has nothing to do with their history.  It’s a renunciation of their true music — blues, rhythm and blues and jazz.  You couldn’t get the average young black person today to listen to a record by anyone but one of the new funk or rap players.  It’s getting to be where black people in their 20s and 30s feel that way, too.”

He says “the power structure” running the music business in cities like Omaha plays on this malaise, marketing pale reproductions of jazz and blues more palatable to today’s less discriminating audiences:

“Everything’s controlled from out west and downtown in our music.  It’s based on personalities, politics and cronyism.  Even though it’s often a very poor imitation of the original, it passes well enough not only for whites, but for black too.  The power structure has the ability to change the meaning of everything and compromise truth.  It’s a disservice to this art and to this city.  Every old jazz friend of mine who comes here says the same thing” ‘What happened to your hometown, Preston?'”

Love says his son Norman, a saxophonist living in Denver, largely left Omaha out of frustration — unable to find steady gigs despite overwhelming talent.  Love says black musicians have been essentially shut out certain gigs because of their race.

 

Omaha Bar-B-Q

 

He believes several local musicians and presenters inappropriately use the jazz label.  “The implication is that these guys might be fine jazz players.  It’s an arrogance on the part of people who really don’t have the gift to perform it and don’t have the credibility to present it.  What I’m saying is not an ego trip.  It’s irrefutable.  It is, at least, a professional opinion.”

It’s on points like these Love elicits the most ire because they are, arguably, matters of taste.  For example, Love complains the city’s main jazz presenters don’t book enough black performers and the people booking the events are unqualified.  When it’s pointed out to him that half the acts featured in a major jazz series the past two years have been black and the series’ booker is Juilliard-trained, he dismisses these facts because, in his view, the performers “haven’t been much” and the booking agent’s classical credentials carry little weight in jazz circles.

He acknowledges limited opportunities extend even to North Omaha.  “We have no place to play in our own neighborhood,” he says.  “The club owners here, in most cases, really can’t afford it, but even if they could they don’t know anything about it.  So we’ve been thrown to the wolves by our own people.”

Bill Ritchie, an Omaha Symphony bass player and leader of his own mainstream jazz quartet, agrees that many local jazz players don’t measure up and rues the fact there are too few jazz venues.  The classically-trained Ritchie, 43, who is white, says the boundaries of jazz, rightly or wrongly, have been blurred:  “There’s so much crossover, so much fusion of jazz and rock and pop today, that it’s hard to say where to draw the line.  Preston obviously feels he’s one to draw the line.  I might go a little further on that line than someone like Preston, because he comes from a different era than I do, and somebody younger than me might even stretch that line a little bit further.”

For Love and like-minded musicians, however, you either have the gift for jazz or you don’t.

Orville Johnson, 67, a keyboardist with Love’s band, says jazz and the blues flow from a deep, intrinsic experience common to most African-Americans.  “It’s a cultural thing,” Johnson says. “Jazz is sort of the sum total of life experiences.  It’s the same with the blues.  There’s a thread that runs clear through it, and it’s a matter of life experience that’s particular to black people in America.

“If a person hasn’t lived that life, it’s unlikely they’ll be able to express themselves musically that way.  It’s a sum total of what musicians frequently describe as ‘the dues that we’ve paid.’ It doesn’t have much anything to do with technique.  It’s a matter of being able to express in musical terms your experience.  A university-educated white student who’s been raised perhaps in a middle-class white neighborhood and never known hunger or the frustration of living in a racial society, usually isn’t able to play and get the same feeling.  And that includes a young black person who hasn’t known nearly the hardship that people of my generation or Preston’s generation has known.”

It’s the same message Love delivers in lectures.  Like Johnson, Love feels jazz is an expression of the black soul:  “To hear the harmony of those black musicians, with that sorrowful, plaintive thing that only blacks have.  That pain in their playing.  That blue note.  That’s what jazz is,” he says.  “The Benny Goodmans and those guys never got it.  They were tremendous instrumentalists in their own way.  But that indefinable, elusive blue note — that’s black, and a lot of blacks don’t get it.”

The two men doubt if many of the younger persons billing themselves as jazz and blues musicians today have more than a superficial knowledge of these art forms.  “Take the plantation songs that were the forerunners of the blues,” Johnson says.  “Many of the things they said were not literal.  When they sung about an ‘evil woman.’ frequently that was a reference to a slave master…not to a woman at all.  There’s pretty much a code involved there.  When you study it as I’ve done and Preston’s done, that’s what you discover.”

He and Love feel their music is diluted and distorted by university music departments, where jazz is taught in sterile isolation from its rich street and club origins.

Love bristles at the notion he’s a “moldy fig,” the term Boppers coined to describe older musicians mired in the past and resistant to change.

“As far as being a moldy fig, that’s bullshit.  I’m as alert and aware of what’s going on in music now as I was 60 years ago,” he says.  “I hear quite a few young guys today who I admire.  I’m still capable of great idol worship.  I am eternally vital.  I play my instruments as modern as anybody alive…and better than I’ve ever played them.”

And like the Yoruba elders, he looks to the past to inform and invigorate the present:

“When you muddy the water or disturb the trend or tell the truth even, you make people angry, because they’d rather leave the status quo as it is. A  lot of musicians around her will say privately to me the same things, but they’re afraid to say them publicly.  But I’m not afraid of the repercussions.  I will fight for my people’s music and its preservation.”

Slaying Dragons, Author Richard Dooling’s Sharp Satire Cuts Deep and Quick

May 18, 2010 1 comment

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Rick Dooling is yet another immensely talented Nebraska author, one who left here but came back and continues to reside here. His work exhibits great range, but at its core is a sharp wit and a facility for making complex subjects compelling and relatable. His books include White Man’s Grave, which was nominated for the National Book Award, Critical Care, Brain Storm, and his latest, Rapture for the Geeks. He’s also a great guy. This is the first of a few stories I’ve written about him, and it is by the far the most in-depth.  It orignally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com).  Look for more of my Dooling stories to be added to the site.  I strongly recommend anything by Rick, who also writes essays on societal-cultural matters for the New York Times and other leading publications.

One of Rick’s books, Critical Care, was made into a feature film by the same title directed by Sidney Lumet.  Rick was working with filmmaker Alan Pakula on another big screen adaptation when Pakula was killed in a freak highway accident.  Since this article appeared, Rick has collaborated with Stephen King on the television series Kingdom Hospital and adapted King’s short story Dolan’s Cadillac for a feature film by the same name.  He’s currently producing-writing a TV pilot.

Slaying Dragons, Author Richard Dooling’s Sharp Satire Cuts Deep and Quick

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

Since 1992 Omaha native Richard Dooling has gone from being just another frustrated writer to a literary star, creating a body of work distinguished for its dizzying array of ideas, sharp satirical assault on cherished dogma and sheer mastery of language. In three acclaimed novels — Critical CareWhite Man’s GraveBrain Storm — this writer-provocateur skewers American mores, trends, fads and sacred cows, reserving his most cutting remarks for two fields he once worked in, the law and health care. Easy targets, yes, but Dooling doesn’t settle for tired old broadsides or cloying jokes worn thin. Instead, he uses the hubris and cynicism endemic in the law and medicine as a prism for critically examining issues and raising questions that vex us all.

Dooling, who would make a great teacher, doesn’t presume to provide answers so much as prod us to think about how once basic human yearnings and immutable beliefs are foiled in this world of modern ambiguity and conditional ethics. His work is funny, dramatic, analytical and literary. The attorney-cum-author uses his knack for research to glean telling details that, as in building a good case, lend added weight to his tales.

“I do a lot of research,” he says. “You’ve got to get your facts straight, and then you can do anything you want with them later.”

From 1987 to 1991 he was an associate (specializing in employment
discrimination law) with St. Louis’ largest firm, and before that a respiratory therapist in the intensive care unit at Clarkson Hospital. From working in the legal-medical arenas to holding odd jobs as a cab driver, house painter and psyche ward attendant (“to share some of those patients’ vivid delusional systems is an interesting experience”) to traveling across Europe and Africa, Dooling has a deep well of living to drawn on for his fiction. His stories feature naive white middle-class professionals, all animated extensions of himself, enmeshed in fever-pitch moral dilemmas not patently resolved by the end. Like a lawyer, he argues both sides of an issue in his narratives.

In addition to his novels he has penned a well-received volume of essays (Blue Streak) defending the use of offensive language and op-ed pieces for major publications that poke fun at the latest excesses on the social-cultural front, including a rip-roaring send-up of the President’s imbroglio with Miss Monica. He is currently writing screen adaptations of two of his novels for planned feature films.

In person, Dooling exhibits the same penetrating wit as his prose, although he seems too normal to be the voice behind the scathing black humor he relishes. Married with four children, he is a practicing Catholic. His wife, Kristin, is converting to the faith. The family drives from their southwest Omaha home to worship at a near north side church. Dooling writes from an office in the Indian Hills business district.

 

 

If ever a wolf, albeit an intellectual one, in sheep’s clothing it is the 44-year-old author. He has the jowly, post-cherubic face of an altar boy (he was one) flirting with middle-age debauchery. Look closely and his hail fellow-well met facade reveals a gleam in the eye and curl of the lip that betray the bemused, wry gaze of a born agitator who likes pricking the mendacity he sees all around him.

Why satire? “More than anything, I like to make people laugh,” he says. “I don’t want cheap laughs. I want you to discover something new about yourself you didn’t understand before. What interests me as a writer is people on the threshold struggling to organize the flawed parts of themselves into a good person.”

What sets him off on a satirical jag? “Hypocrisy. That’s probably the first thing that provokes me. Somebody saying one thing and doing something else,” he says. “When law and medicine pretend to be helping patients or clients and really it’s raw self-interest, than that’s satirical material. Medicine and law are perfect targets for satire just because they exercise so much control in our lives, and people resent it in a way. You want to bring down the high and mighty and make them just like everybody else. Satire is the great leveler.”

He especially likes deflating any pretensions litigation is a sedate reasoned process for resolving disputes. “It’s combat. It’s a contest and just because it’s essentially bloodless doesn’t make it any less violent. I’m not a big fan of litigation. I think it should be avoided at all costs.”

The looming monster of political correctness is among the trends raising Dooling’s hackles these days. “Because, again, it’s a hypocrisy of a kind,” he says. “The claim is you want diversity in everything, but the central paradox of political correctness is that proponents demand diversity in everything except thought. You have to think the same way as they do or else you’re the enemy. And also the notion you can control people’s thoughts by changing their language just repels me. As a writer, language is the most important thing in your life, and when people start telling you what you should say or not say, it makes you want to say exactly what they don’t want to hear. It makes you want to rebel.”

In a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed he ridiculed attempts at removing certain offensive words from Merriam-Webster dictionaries. One of those petitioning for the excision of hateful language, Kathryn Williams of Flint, Michigan, defended her position by saying, ‘If the word is not there, you can’t use it.” In response, Dooling wrote, “Following…Ms. Williams’s reasoning, we could also remedy the drug problem if we simply removed the words cocaine and heroin from our nation’s dictionaries, for then junkies would be unable to use them. How nice if ancient hatreds could be remedied with a little word surgery, a logos-ectomy to remove offensive words and the hateful thoughts lurking behind them.”

If it weren’t for his dead-on observations, Dooling could easily come off as a smart aleck who is clever with words but short on substance. He is, however, that rarest of commodities: A Swiftian satirist whose barbed, elegantly phrased comments are both funny and thought-provoking. Even when his points are made with dark humor, he avoids sounding contemptuous because he infuses his work with glints of his charming guile and frames his skepticism within a moral context. It makes perfect sense when you learn he grew up in a middle-class Catholic family of nine children and is the product of Jesuit educators. His father was an insurance claims adjustor. His mother, a nurse.

If nothing else, he’s proof “it’s possible to be Catholic and still be satirical,” he says, unloosing his hyena cackle laugh. Growing up in the Bemis Park area, he graduated from St. Cecilia Grade School and received his Jesuit “indoctrination” at Creighton Prep and later at St. Louis University, where he earned his bachelor’s in English and art history and his law degree. He credits the Jesuits for instilling in him “a disciplined approach to any field of knowledge.” Even a quick read of his work reveals both a complete grasp of a subject and a deft handling of it.

An avid reader since childhood, his love for writing began at Prep.  There, a priest got him in the habit of keeping a vocabulary notebook, which he still maintains today. His ardor grew deeper in college, where he won a short story contest. “That was a big deal,” he says. “I just assumed I was going to be a writer by that time. That I was going to graduate and be getting published left and right.” It didn’t quite work out that way. He graduated, all right, supporting himself with day jobs while completing a novel and short stories, but “nothing was getting published.”

Frustrated, and desiring a change of scenery, he saved up for a year-long trip overseas. His 1982 travels across Europe and Africa served as the writer’s requisite expatriate adventure abroad. “I just had a feeling I wanted to see something besides this,” he says of America, “because this is an artificial world compared to the rest of the world.”

He wrote while away and returned with Critical Care partially completed and the idea for White Man’s Grave in embryo.

His seven-month stay in the West African nation of Sierra Leone, where he visited a friend working in the Peace Corps, “changed” Dooling and his take on America. “Somebody said, You don’t travel to see foreign countries, you travel to see your own country as a foreign country. That’s what I think a lot of writers have in the back of their minds when they travel. It just shakes everything up,” he says. “All of your assumptions about how life is lived are subverted. In the Third World people eat out of a bowl with their hands and squatting on a floor. No electricity, no running water. Everything you’ve arranged your life around back here is gone. It’s a valuable experience, especially for a young person. It’s very healthy.”

When he returned to the vulgar excess of the U.S. the dislocation was so intense that home seemed unreal, like a garish nightmare. He used his experience as the jumping-off point for a New Yorker-published short story, Bush Pigs. “Everything here looks obscene when you come back. It’s overpowering. Bush Pigs tells exactly what it’s like. It’s about a Peace Corps volunteer who comes back home after three years..and in the course of 24 hours has a psychotic breakdown, and it’s funny. It’s kind of a cult favorite among Peace Corps volunteers because they all feel a bit unsettled when they come home.”

In Dooling’s case he was unhinged, broke, and hungry for a new challenge, so he applied and was accepted to law school. Why the law?

“I knew that I liked to read and write and I thought if I went to law school I could at least make my living reading and writing.”

Preparing briefs and motions became his forte. Despite disparaging the law now, he says he enjoyed the profession and would return to it should his writing career falter. Fat chance.

Writing in his spare time, he finished Critical Care and, after years of trying to get somebody interested, finally sold it — to William Morrow — and upon its 1992 publication found himself both published and celebrated.

His long struggle should be a lesson in perseverance. “I always urge young writers to, as soon as they can, write a novel, even it it doesn’t get published, just so you get used to thinking that way. Send out a chapter with a query letter to 20 or 30 agents. You’ll get rejected, by all of them usually, but you might just get one or two who’ll say, ’Let me see the whole book.’ To be able to write a novel you have to have supreme self-confidence.”

His overstuffed office is evidence he saves “everything” he writes and will rummage through boxes and cabinets full of files to “plunder stuff.”

With the success of Critical Care he faced the decision of spending another four or five years shaping White Man’s Grave in between his law duties or quitting the practice to write full-time. He had a family. A mortgage.  In the end he gave up a secure career for the mercurial world of writing, promptly moving his family from St. Louis to Omaha. “Realistically, I just didn’t feel I would be able to serve clients with all the time my writing career entailed, so I decided to take the plunge.”  Besides, the compulsion to write was overwhelming. “I didn’t really have a choice. It’s not something I really have any control over. I don’t recommend people become writers unless they can’t help it.”

Similarly, he describes his penchant for satire as “an impulse” he cannot suppress, like being nervous or shy.  “It’s not something I intentionally do. It just happens. I can start out writing seriously…and before I get half way through I start getting this risible impulse to tear down or make fun of, and it turns into satire.” If he can ascribe his inspiration to anything, it’s “the kindred spirits” he found reading such satirists as Joseph Heller, Tom Wolfe and Kurt Vonnegut in college.

But as anyone who writes seriously can attest, the process has less to do with heeding one’s muse than with tirelessly learning the craft. “When you’re young and read good writing you don’t realize why you like it better…you just do,” he notes. “But then the older you get, and especially if you’re growing as a writer, you come to realize that most really good writing is good because of the labor involved, not because of inspiration. It’s about taking out all the unnecessary words and making sure it’s in the active voice and all that, so that by the time the reader reads it they don’t even notice what happened or why it’s so appealing.”

That’s not to say he discounts the contributions of the unconscious:  “It’s very important. I find when I am stuck on a bigger project it is because I’m not dreaming about it at night. I find when I’m really into a big project, like the end of a novel or the end of a screenplay, I pretty much dream about it all night and write about it all day.” When things are really flowing, and words just fill the page, he goes into “a kind of trance.”  He says when ideas come to him in his sleep he’ll awaken and rush to get them down on paper, otherwise fearing “they won’t be there in the morning, they’ll be some ghost of what they were.”

 

Richard Dooling's photo.

Richard Dooling

 

Dooling, who composes on a computer, has no fixed writing routine. “Totally irregular. I’ll write for three weeks and then not write at all for two. When I am working, I might write 12 hours a day or I might get up in the middle of the night. You just live to be able to do it.” When stuck, he’ll move on to another project or occupy himself reading, e-mailing, filing, et cetera.

A fact of life for any published writer is working with editors. Dooling relies on editors to tell him “things you can’t  tell yourself. A good editor kind of steers you. I couldn’t live without one.” If he can be faulted for anything, it’s losing the urgency of his stories amid too many ideas and too much word play. He admits a “weakness with plots.”

To date, his fiction has been informed by his experience and leavened with his imagination. He echoes what other authors have long been advising would-be scribes: Write about what you know.

“I always try to encourage young writers, especially, to try and personalize everything first and then hope that you take it up to the next level of art where it appeals to everyone. That’s what art is — when you take a particular experience and render it in such a way that other people read it and say, ‘Oh, I felt like that.’ You establish a relationship with your reader that way. I think the easiest way to get in trouble or to become cliche, and young writers do this a lot, is to base an emotional passage on some TV or movie image of emotion instead of an immediate thing from real life.”

Dooling mined the human misery he saw as a respiratory therapist, along with the savage humor he and his health care cohorts used as a coping strategy, as the basis for Critical Care . Its protagonist is Peter Werner Ernst, a young doctor stuck in a medical, legal, moral, ethical quagmire involving a dying man with two daughters warring over his life and will. Pressured from all sides, Ernst wavers whether to keep the man alive or allow him to die. Meanwhile, vegetative patients on the edge of hereafter confront the limbo of their life and eternal destiny.

 

 

Anyone that’s spent any time in a hospital will identify with this portrait of medical practitioners who view family as the enemy and regard patients as nicknames and numbers, like Orca, the Beached Female or, more cryptically, Bed Five.

The book’s opening passage sets the tone: “Dr. Peter Werner Ernst was the Internal Medicine Resident…presiding over the Ninth Floor Intensive Care Unit…Each pod in the octagonal Death Lab contained a naked, dying person…High in the corner of each pod, a color TV was mounted…The hanging televisions were obviously designed by an architect or a hospital administrator who knew almost nothing about ICU patients. When was the last time somebody had seen one of these stiffs sitting up in bed watching a ball game? Instead of their lives flashing before their eyes, these patients died slow deaths listening to American car commercials, the 2.9 percent financing, the unbelievable buyer protection plans.”

Sarcasm amidst mortality is hardly new. Dooling, though, elevates the death watch and end game of the ICU to new heights, cutting closer to the truth with humor than somber platitudes and hoary dramatics can do.

“What really fascinated me,” he says, “was the defense mechanism of dark humor. There’s this impulse you have to make the patient not human. Otherwise, you’re there all day long saying, ‘Oh, here’s a human being dying right in front of my eyes.’ Well, you can’t even function then, so there’s this tendency to make light of the situation, which enables you to carry on. It’s not an admirable thing, but it was fascinating to me how it works.”

As Ernst digs himself deeper and deeper in the mess, he begins doubting his own omniscience. At one point Dooling speculates on the question in the back of Ernst’s mind: Where is God in the midst of all this human suffering? Dooling’s wickedly funny answer begins:

“In college he (Ernst) had read that God was dead. In medical school, he learned that God was not dead. He was just very sick. God was probably pronounced dead prematurely. Instead of dying or being found murdered, God may have just slipped into a coma or had an attack of transient global amnesia (TGA), during which time He simply forgot He was God and left the universe to its own devices. Instead of announcing his debility to the world, maybe God just went into seclusion, the way ailing Russian premieres do…In the meantime, planet Earth fell apart. Things look bad for the world, but why jump to conclusions and pronounce God dead, when he probably just needs to be transferred to a crackerjack ICU equipped with the proper medical technology? Once God gets to feeling better He can go back to thinking of Himself as a doctor, in much the same way that doctors think of themselves as God.”

In White Man’s Grave Dooling draws on his African sojourn to explore  the conflict arising when neurotic American culture meets mystical Sierra Leone culture. A character sums up the conflict with: “Back in America, demons inhabit the mind. Here, they inhabit the bush.” At first struck by the differences between the two worlds, Dooling became intrigued with the similarities after starting law school, particularly the parallels between the law and witchcraft.

“I encountered the phenomenon of bad medicine (hale) there, what we call witchcraft here. If you have an enemy and you want to seek revenge on him, but you can’t do it by, say, hitting him with a stick or something, then you go and you put a swear on him. If he hears about it, he’ll go and put a counterswear on you. Then you each have a witch person working on your behalf in the same way we hire lawyers here to resolve our intractable disputes. The impulse to litigate the lawsuit is to destroy the other person — not physically — but to destroy their life, to take all their money, to ruin their name. The same sort of thing with witchcraft. When I got a front row seat in the process called litigation I realized litigants hated each other every bit as much as villagers who decide to consult a witch.”

Like the ritual and gobbledygook that accompany a swear, he says, “the law is very much incantation. It really is.”

In Grave, an obsessive American lawyer, Randall Killigan, is a warrior-wizard whose fierce bearing and awesome power strike fear in opponents’ hearts. His well-ordered world unravels however when his son, Michael, a Peace Corps volunteer, goes missing in Sierra Leone and a totem-like bundle sent from Africa causes disturbing events/visions.

The novel, a 1994 National Book Award finalist, follows the dual odyssey of Randall, who battles combatants he can’t comprehend, and of Boone Westfall, a friend of Michael’s who goes to Africa in search of him. Michael’s disappearance, rumored to be linked to witches or rebels or both, brings the blundering Westfall in contact with things he can’t grasp. As the two disparate worlds merge, a surreal adventure unfolds that finds protagonists seeking remedies based in faith, myth, fact.

Like Westfall, Dooling arrived in Sierra Leone woefully ignorant of the place. Beset by violence in recent years, the nation was peaceful when Dooling visited but plagued by corruption and poverty. And like Westfall he was appalled by the sickness he found, dismayed by the stock villagers put in sorcery, weakened by malaria and dysentery and, yet, still charmed by the people’s unfailing generosity and the landscape’s stark beauty.

Grave offers many views of Sierra Leone, ranging from the cynical to the rapturous. In Aruna Sisay and Michael  Killigan, Dooling gives us Westerners fluent in native languages and customs who upbraid Westfall, a typical poo-mui (white person) for his ethnocentrism. The model for Sisay and Killigan was Dooling’s friend, Michael O’Neill, who spoke like a native, owned the respect of village elders and disabused Dooling of his prejudices.

After the book’s publication, some real life events ended up mirroring fictionalized ones when O’Neill, like Killigan, was captured and held by rebels and was the target of apparent witchcraft.

While never branded a witch, as Westfall is in the book, Dooling did come under suspicion for breaking various taboos. “As a writer and reader I was used to spending time alone,” he says, “and anybody who keeps spending time alone is a little suspect because it’s such a social place. And the more I asked about bad medicine the more suspicious they became, like, ‘You must have a reason to be asking these questions. You must want to use some witchcraft.’ I was never accused of witchcraft — nothing close to it — but it was easy to imagine.”

 

 

Another form of black magic — brain research — next drew Dooling’s attention and resulted in his latest novel, Brain Storm, published last spring by Random House. Specifically, he became fascinated with how new insights are challenging “the assumption that something’s in control of your brain besides your brain. Everybody calls it something different,” he says. “In psychology, it’s ego. In the law, free will. In religion, the soul. But the more we learn about the brain the question becomes, Is your mind anything more than your brain? Is consciousness just cellular activity or do you have a soul? So then I started thinking about dramatizing this somehow.”

He investigated how the latest brain findings might color a basic tenet of the law —  intent — in a criminal case. The possibilities intrigued him.  “Let’s say you come home one night and suddenly, totally out of character, you start swearing and being violent to your mom or wife or whoever, and a week later you go on a rampage. And let’s say it’s found a huge tumor is pressing on the part of your brain that makes you violent. Think about that trial. How much are you responsible? It doesn’t seem like a very complicated question if you stay with the older technologies, but it does the more you use today’s enhanced measures of brain metabolism. If blood flow is reduced to certain parts of the brain — the frontal lobes for instance, which exercise self-control — it might explain why someone has such a terrible temper. Does he get punished the same as everyone else?

“Free will is a fundamental assumption in the law and if neuroscience keeps going in the direction that it’s going, they’re going to collide.”

That’s precisely what happens in Brain Storm . Set in the near future, the book follows attorney Joe Watson preparing his first criminal defense case. His defendant is a virulent white racist, James Whitlow, accused of murdering a black man and facing execution under a hate crime statute. In a Faustian bargain Watson teams with Rachel Palmquist, a neuroscientist temptress, to build a defense even he doesn’t believe that posits a cyst caused Whitlow’s hate-tinged violence. As Watson presses for a reduced count, Palmquist pursues surgically-repairing Whitlow’s hate-filled brain.

Palmquist sums up Whitlow with the chilling appraisal “he’s a big mouse with an advanced brain” that’s “malfunctioned” and needs repair. Short of repair, she disdains execution as “a waste of money” and instead advocates “vivisecting” him and his ilk “like guinea pigs, if necessary, to find out why they short-circuited. Killing only puts them out of their misery.”

Watson, a nerd more at home in cyberspace than a courtroom, is a conflicted Catholic in turmoil over: Defending a client he detests yet feels is being railroaded by hate-crime hysteria; his superior’s desire to have him plead Whitlow out; his partner’s specious ethics; and his own guilty attraction to Palmquist, who tests his marital fidelity and shakes his faith.
For the record, Dooling is, like Watson, “just trying to function in a world of science while believing that you have a soul and free will.” He says Brain Storm is in part a cautionary tale reminding us that perhaps the reach of brain scanning technology “exceeds our grasp” of what human consciousness is or is not when applied to the law, religion and the like.

Dooling’s caustic, rather cinematic novels are proving attractive to Hollywood. Critical Care was made into a feature by Sidney Lumet. Dooling was working on an adaptation of Brain Storm with noted producer-director Alan J. Pakula, but after the filmmaker’s recent death is unsure where it sits. He is adapting White Man’s Grave for Quentin Tarantino’s producing partner, Lawrence Bender. A newcomer to screenplay writing, Dooling says, “It’s harder than I expected. You’re constantly compressing, throwing things out…selecting crucial plot points from your book and visualizing them into short visual images. I’m just learning how to do it.”

He is undecided what his next project will be. “I have ideas and so on, but I’m not sure if I will do another novel, an original screenplay or what.” A dream project he’d like to see realized is the publication of his collected short stories. Meanwhile, what’s catching his satirist’s eye? “Genetics. Especially with the announcement they’re going to be growing human stem cells in cow eggs. Are we going to have cows with human heads or what? This is pretty scary stuff. That’s the fun part.”

Culturalist Kurt Andersen Wryly Observes the American Scene as Author, Essayist, Radio Talk Show Host


Although he’s lived in New York longer than he lived in Nebraska, author Kurt Andersen was born and raised here and maintains close ties here.  He is best know to some as a journalist and to others as a public radio show host, but he’s lately established himself as a fine author as well.  If you have not read his work I encourage you to do so.  It is thoughtful and entertaining.  He is another in a long line of superb literary talents from Nebraska.  His books include The Real Thing, Turn of the Century, Heyday, and last year’s Reset, a meditative piece on the current American crisis of confidence he adapted from an essay he wrote for Time.  He is a much-in-demand essayist for leading publications.  Andersen is also a top-rate journalist, pundit, and interviewer. He’s a great interview himself.

The following piece appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com) soon after the publication of his second novel, Heyday. I eagerly await his next.

 

 

 

Culturalist Kurt Andersen Wryly Observes the American Scene as Author, Essayist, Radio Talk Show Host

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

The world is Kurt Andersen’s oyster.

In a media career of dizzying variety this Omaha native, who co-founded the irreverent Spy magazine and was fired as editor-in-chief of New York magazine for being a provocateur, has become a hip observer of the American cultural scene. He dishes up his wry musings as a columnist/essayist for haute New York pubs, as a novelist, as host/reporter for Public Radio International’s Studio 360 and as a co-founder/contributing editor for the new online content site Very Short List. His earlier cyber foray, Inside.com, was short-lived.

Two new projects find him fixing his discerning eye on an epoch in the nation’s past and on a watershed moment for his hometown. His new novel Heyday (Random House) explores America at a threshold moment in history and his March 25 New York Times magazine piece examines the cultural boom underway in Omaha.

Whatever the medium, he displays a deep curiosity for and broad knowledge of subjects across the cultural landscape. His vantage point is the center of all things — New York. He’s been there now nearly twice as long as he lived in Omaha, which he left soon after graduating Westside High School for an Ivy League scroll.

“Kurt is a cultural journalism icon in New York City. I can’t think of anyone who’s thought of more highly in the realm of cultural commentary,” said Film Streams Director Rachel Jacobson, who got to know Andersen when they both worked at WNYC in New York. “He’s certainly brilliant, but he’s also incredibly easy-going and wonderful to talk to.”

His brilliance long ago marked him as one of those most-likely-to-succeed types. The magna cum laude Harvard grad soon made good on his promise by rising fast up the journalistic ladder in the ‘80s-‘90s, as a Time magazine writer, critic and editor, as a New Yorker columnist, as editor-in-chief of Spy and New York magazines. He’s been a contributing writer to the New York TimesAtlantic MonthlyVanity FairRolling Stone. He still does a weekly column for NY magazine.

With its look at the excesses of the 1980s, from New York’s garish party scene to bogus health gurus to the elitist Bohemian Grove camp’s weird goings-on, Spy tapped into the ironical Zeitgeist of the time. Its success was a rush.

“Very heady indeed,” he said. “We didn’t know when we started Spy quite how tough it would be to do, and how long the odds against such a thing working were — the classic too-stupid-to-know-better situation. It was heady and intensely fun, but also draining and occasionally terrifying.”

His firing from NY magazine was “more stunning than painful,” he said, as “it came so entirely without warning — circulation…advertising was up, the magazine was reinvigorated…lots of positive buzz. It felt like getting shot out of a cannon in the middle of Times Square, and I hadn’t even known I was inside a cannon.” He felt better when staffers “quit in solidarity” and press accounts unearthed the reason for his firing. “The magazine’s coverage had pissed off various associates” of then-owner Henry Kravis, “who had asked me to stop covering Wall Street,” Andersen said. “I came out of it feeling OK about the whole affair. Plus I got more than a year’s severance pay. And it made me decide finally that if I was going to write novels, as I’d always thought I ought to do, now was the time to try.”

It’s hard to imagine this one-time enfant terrible is now a doyen in New York media salon circles. Read one of his columns or listen to one of his reports though and you find he’s lost none of his youthful urbane wit or acerbic bite.

 

 

In recent years he’s taken a longer view of things as an author. His first book, The Real Thing, was a collection of humorous essays. With his best seller first novel, Turn of the Century, in 1999, he proved he could apply his smart, funny, insider’s take on social-cultural trends in the digital media age to the extended format of a book and tell a rousing good story in the process.

With his well-reviewed new novel, Heyday, he looks back to the 19th century at a defining moment in America’s past, when, from 1846 to 1848 a remarkable confluence of events unfolded to usher in the nation we recognize today. He looks through the eyes of well-drawn characters swept up in the American Experiment to reveal a world in flux and speeding toward modernity. The story is ostensibly centered in New York, London and Paris. but these teeming, messy capitals of progress are really the launching points for a cross country trek that allows the paths of its main characters to intersect with the currents and movements of the times. The wide open frontier, the spartan utopian communities, the makeshift settlements in Kanesville and the Great Salt Lake, the rough-hewn town of San Francisco and the wild northern California gold diggings all become key locales.

Heyday goes on sale March 7.

Andersen’s also throwing his attention these days to Omaha, where he researched that Times piece about “the cultural moment” the city’s enjoying thanks to some nontraditional movers and shakers. Since the 2004 death of his mother he has no family left here, yet he finds himself drawn back to this place and its people.

He sat down with The Reader at M’s Pub in December to talk about his new book, the radio show, life after mags and his take on Omaha’s urban renaissance. The tall, graceful man cuts a cosmo figure with his stylishly casual attire and suave air. He’s a careful listener who answers questions thoroughly, eagerly. He wears his ironic intellectualism without affect. His connect-the-dots way of analyzing subjects makes for good conversation.

In a 2003 interview Andersen spoke about facing down the fear of making the leap from journalist to novelist with Turn of the Century.

“I was confident I had the basic level of craft to put together sentences in different ways. Not having the tools, foundations, crutches…of journalism was completely liberating, especially the first two months,” he said of this first turn at novel writing, discounting “a feeble effort” years earlier. “But then it was completely terrifying because writing a long form thing of anything is terrifying, but also because it was this thing I had never done before. And, frankly, part of the attraction to me of trying new things is the scariness. I find if I know how to do something too well I get bored or it’s just not interesting.”

Century’s present-day milieu of New York media wheelings and dealings found Andersen on familiar ground. But Heyday’s 19th century setting meant getting-up-to-speed on an era far removed from today.

He said “to write a historical novel has a whole other set of horrible, technical challenges. You know, I’d read ‘em, but I’d never really thought about, What version of 19th century language do you invent?”

He steeped himself in the times.

“I spent about a year-and-a-half doing nothing but research,” he said, “and it was bliss. I never went to graduate school, so I felt like this is what graduate school in its ideal form would have been like. I had the basic idea for the story and everything, so it was work, but it was the best kind of work because I didn’t have to write anything.

“I read a million books, lots of diaries. Especially I found the diaries very useful because it gives you a sense of the colloquial manner of speech rather than the kind of Hawthorne, Dickens formal literary language which is how we imagine everybody spoke in the 19th century all the time. Obviously it wasn’t. And so in…just immersing myself in all kinds of diaries, it gave me a sense more of how the language was actually spoken.”

To commune as it were with some of the places that comprise his novel he trod the very areas in Paris and in northern California he writes about.

Once he got down to writing, he found a sense of period vermisilitude in the upstate New York home he kept until recently. The isolation and tree-lined fields of this country home “fed the dream” of 19th century life, he said, “in a way that living in New York doesn’t quite as easily.” Still, he wrote more than half the book from the office he keeps upstairs in his Brooklyn home. One advantage to being in the city, he said, is that Studio 360 is recorded in Lower Manhattan, “within blocks of where the Five Points were and where all the Lower Manhattan life in my book is set. It was fantastic walking past these things almost every day.”

He tried hard to avoid a pitfall many novelists fall into. “The thing with a historical novel is you do all this research and it’s tempting to show off your research and contrive the story to go here and contrive it to go there,” he said, “and that’s a real thing I found myself having to watch.” He’s happy with the modicum of “celebrity cameos” he integrated into the story, including “plausible” meetings between select characters and such famous personalities as Charles Darwin, Walt Whitman and Alan Pinkerton.

The whirlwind period at the heart of the book is one that’s held him enthralled.

“I’d had the very germ of the idea for this book for a long time, before I even wrote the first novel (Century),” he said. “And I think it began when something I read made me realize that in this one month of 1848 so much happened that I’d never seen connected before. In the biggest sense, all these revolutions in Europe, gold discovered in California, our winning the war against Mexico, the Communist manifesto published. Of course, I was already aware of the golden moment in literature of Whitman and Poe and Thoreau and all the rest and the beginnings of modern newspapers and photography and all that.

“So before I even decided to write the book I started researching and the more and more I discovered about this moment — of the telegraph and the railroad and feminism and communes, I thought, Why has no one ever said that this was the threshold — that this was when modern life as we know it began? And once I started going down that route, I just became obsessed and then started inventing a story I could use as the armature to tell that larger story.”

Heyday

If Andersen has his way, scholars and historians will view 1846-1848 in a new light.

“We think of 1776, 1782, 1787 as the birth of America, but I’ve really come to think that in a more holistic cultural, economic, political way this moment bears looking at as when the prototype was getting made,” he said. “I don’t know of any other moment when so much stuff that you can look at from today and say, Yeah, I see where this thing we now experience — the seed of it was there. I mean, beyond the sort of three-branches-of-government-in-civics stuff.”

He said never has America been as swept up in so much change as it was then. The challenge for him as a storyteller, he said, was to “try to make palpable…just the sheer excitement of this and terror of this moment of incredible change and newness.” For him, there’s no comparison between the social-cultural explosion of 1846-1848 and that of, say, Height Ashbury or the digital revolution. The birth of America, the birth of the modern age is a long affair, but I honestly can’t imagine a better couple of years to look at…the sense of world turned upside down.

Andersen also likes the fact he takes on a swath of American history not oversaturated “in fiction or in our popular imagination” the way “the Indian Wars, the Old West and the Civil War” are.

“One of the reasons this period appealed to me, in addition to my thinking it’s an amazing time, “he said, “ is it’s more virgin territory. People saw the Indians were fucked but the Indian Wars were still on the horizon, 20 years hence. It’s the moment before slavery became this thing that busted America apart. Most people didn’t yet have any sense it was the fissure that would explode 10-12 years later. It’s another kind of germ of potential waiting to explode in the same way that all the good things or the new technologies were germs about to explode.”

He also felt pulled into the era by the extant photographs of the time, when the earliest such images on record were produced.

“When I started looking at period photographs I realized that we who live in this highly photographic, video-mediated age today can feel a connection to a period where photography existed in a way we can’t quite feel a connection to ten years earlier, when it didn’t. I just think that’s true,” he said. “When it’s all about drawing, that’s the old days, whereas, when I see these early photographs of the streets in Paris during the revolution, it’s alive. It was amazing to mere there were photographs of that. It gave me this sort of visceral sense of connection because it was real, it was a photograph, rather than simply an account in prose or drawing.”

Then there’s the inventions and innovations the era heralded in that anticipated today’s information age technologies and tools.

“When you look at photography or the telegraph, I mean to me everything from daguerreotype to television, that’s just a refinement,” Andersen said. “This mechanical, instant picture was the big change. The same with the telegraph. The telegraph to the Internet, it’s all just refinements of instant communication.”

There are other reverberations with today he found compelling.

“As I was doing my research about the Mexican War, our first foreign elective war, I was like, Hmmm, what does that sound like? I began writing the book in 2002,” he said, “when Bush was preparing to invade Iraq because they might attack us essentially. That was James K. Polk in 1846. In effect, Polk said, We’ve got to invade Mexico or they’re going to invade us. The Mexican War is a war people don’t know much about today, but so interesting because this was an imperial war…a foreign war…a war we chose to fight. I already had all these other ways in which I thought this time had resonances with that time, but that was yet another.

“It’s just a fresh view of a piece of American history. Not that I made it fresh, but I think by kind of depicting it, people might just realize, God, I never thought of it this way before or I don’t know much about this time.”

The primary characters in Heyday are emblematic of the great enthusiasm and anxiety of the new age dawning.

Ben Knowles is a young, idealistic Brit of means who turns his back on the Old World for the promise of the New Arcadia. His departure for America is hastened by a misadventure in Paris, where he’s both witness and unwitting agent of revolution. In the figure of Ben, Andersen provides a prism for viewing America from a “foreigner’s eyes…seeing “it for all of its ugliness as well as excitement. I wanted somebody who was thrilled about the idea of America and who would then be disappointed or not,” he said. Through Ben we see “this thing being made up as it went along” — what Andersen calls “the early adolescence of America.”

Ben finds an incarnation of the new nation’s spirit in Polly Lucking, an emancipated woman from a luckless family. She, like her late dreamer father, is enamored with all that is new and possible, only more practical about it. As a female of independent persuasions but poor straits she pursues two professions open to feminists then — prostitution and the theater.

Duff Lucking is Polly’s “wounded soul” of a brother. A disgraced veteran of the Mexican War, he’s a fireman with a suspect knack for always smelling out a good blaze. Haunted by the Lucking family’s many tragedies and his own wartime trauma, he sees mendacity all about him and anoints himself avenging angel, like a 19th century Travis Bickle, to cleanse the unholy land.

Timothy Skaggs is a bohemian, bon vivant, journalist, daguerreotyper and would-be astronomer. This cynical commentator on his times, is also a hedonist who indulges his huge appetites for life. The oldest of the bunch, he is at once friend, mentor, devil’s advocate and surrogate father figure to the others.

There are Dickensian overtones to the book, from the harsh class system to familiar types that embody the best and worst of human kind. Among these archetypes are sweet urchin Priscilla Christmas, repulsive b’hoy Fatty Freehorn and the sinister aristocrats, the Primes.

The villain of the piece is Gabriel Drumont, a Corsican whom we meet serving in the Paris national guard. An ugly encounter at the start of the book propels Drumont on a journey half way around the world to avenge his brother’s death. Each character is escaping some aspect of his or her past. Each is pursued by a specter of fate. Drumont is that Angel of Death. He also serves as the old guard counterpoint to what he considers the anarchic, libertine, insurrectionist actions of Ben and Co. A restorer of order to a “disordered world.”

“He (Drumont) is a very different human being than the rest,” Andersen said. “A hard person, driven by honor and duty. To an extreme degree. But I don’t regard him as mad or even evil. As I read and read and read into the period I came to believe this idea of honor and duty was a much more potent presence thing in life 160 years ago than it is today. I just think that’s true.”

Andersen spent three years writing and another year revising his “big tapestry” of a novel. He’s now “trying to figure out” what he’ll make the subject of his next. “I had given myself until the end of the year, (2006)” he said. I have a couple of different novel ideas…I will be onto.”

Meanwhile, he’s busy with Studio 360, the omnibus program that works from the digressive edges to tie the threads of complex subjects. An installment of its “American Icons” series, which explores American works of art, won a 2005 Peabody Award. The honored show considered the search for the Great White Whale in Herman Melville’sMoby Dick. An upcoming “Icon” looks at the Midwestern perspective of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s melancholic The Great Gatsby.

He swears he doesn’t miss the magazine game. “No, I really don’t get a twinge to do that. Various things, including Studio 360, slake that appetite,” he said. “I had ten years of kind of like an unbelievably fantastic magazine-making experience, so I feel like, Why push my luck? Maybe I could do another magazine gig that would be fun, but I kind of don’t think so. No, I’m very happy writing books, doing the radio show. And I’m involved in this little Internet thing….called Very Short List (www.veryshortlist.com). We recommend one movie or one book or one piece of music or one web video a day…”

 

1848: The Year that Created Immigrant America

 

He also doesn’t miss being the boss. “I’m happy frankly not managing a lot of stuff and people,” he said. “You know, I get to have my ideas, talk to artists and filmmakers for radio and write my books, and other people are sort of in charge of the operations. I like having as small a part of my life as possible be about management, deciding how much people should get paid and all that crap.”

He has the freedom to discover his hometown’s emerging new face and persona. “I find it really heartening and hopeful about urban life in a frankly improbable place like this one,” he said, “where like a real vital set of scenes are happening. You know, there’s the Bemis art thing happening…the Old Market-retail-condo gentrification thing…the film scene…the music scene with Saddle Creek Records, Timothy Schaffert’s Lit Fest…It seems as though there’s a kind of critical mass of this stuff developing. I think it’s fantastic. I’d find it delightful and charming if it were in Dayton, but I didn’t come from Dayton, so I find it really nice this sense of it being a really livable place.”

He has more than a passing interest in Film Streams as a member of its advisory board. FS director Jacobson got to know Andersen when she worked at WNYC, which co-produces his radio show.

He has been such a great friend both to me and to Film Streams,” she said. “I’ve felt like I can call on him to ask his opinions about anything, from lobby décor to press ideas to programming choices. He’s also planning to curate a series of regional movies…in the fall…I am thrilled that he’s still interested in having a connection to Omaha, and couldn’t feel more fortunate that his affiliation with Film Streams might play some role in that. ”

What his Times piece and a recent Studio 360 segment reveals is that Omaha’s cultural boom is driven by a new matrix of artists-entrepeneurs, not the Great White Fathers of the past.

“It’s this literally alternative history that I think is important for making it a city that feels pleasant and interesting and civilized to me. I mean, yeah there is the canonical history of Omaha and then there’s this other one, and I find it’s this other one not decided in board rooms…necessarily that’s key.”

“You can point to a relatively small group of individuals starting in the late ‘60s, with the Mercers and Ree Schonlau, up through Robb Nansel and Rachel Jacobson today, who for whatever combination of altruistic, aesthetic reasons made certain choices that made things to my eye and taste nicer here than they could have been. This could all have been knocked down as well as Jobbers Canyon,” he said, meaning the Old Market. “I could point to other cities around America where that is what’s happened.”

Omaha’s emergence as a cool urban center, he said, proves “individuals actually can make a huge difference and that’s part of the story. I’m really happy it happened the way it did and I’ll tell you, it has worked out better for Omaha than probably anyone would have predicted. I think Omaha is very fortunate.”

The Omaha model reinforces a lesson he said he’s learned: “That large risk-taking can work out OK if you really have a singular vision and stick to it and work hard and have fun doing it.”

Studio 360
is carried by many public radio stations. Check your local listings.  Heyday is now in fine bookstores everywhere.

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