What I’ve come to count on is the white-coated attendant of memory, silently here again to deliver dabs from the laboratory dish of me. In the days before Carol died, twenty months ago, she lay semiconscious in bed at home, alternating periods of faint or imperceptible breathing with deep, shuddering catch-up breaths. Then, in a delicate gesture, she would run the pointed tip of her tongue lightly around the upper curve of her teeth. She repeated this pattern again and again. I’ve forgotten, perhaps mercifully, much of what happened in that last week and the weeks after, but this recurs.
Carol is around still, but less reliably. For almost a year, I would wake up from another late-afternoon mini-nap in the same living-room chair, and, in the instants before clarity, would sense her sitting in her own chair, just opposite. Not a ghost but a presence, alive as before and in the same instant gone again. This happened often, and I almost came to count on it, knowing that it wouldn’t last. Then it stopped.
People my age and younger friends as well seem able to recall entire tapestries of childhood, and swatches from their children’s early lives as well: conversations, exact meals, birthday parties, illnesses, picnics, vacation B. and B.s, trips to the ballet, the time when . . . I can’t do this and it eats at me, but then, without announcement or connection, something turns up. I am walking on Ludlow Lane, in Snedens, with my two young daughters, years ago on a summer morning. I’m in my late thirties; they’re about nine and six, and I’m complaining about the steep little stretch of road between us and our house, just up the hill. Maybe I’m getting old, I offer. Then I say that one day I’ll be really old and they’ll have to hold me up. I imitate an old man mumbling nonsense and start to walk with wobbly legs. Callie and Alice scream with laughter and hold me up, one on each side. When I stop, they ask for more, and we do this over and over.
After separating from his wife in 1960, Brooks had spent a bleak and insolvent period in an unfurnished fourth-floor walkup on Perry Street, for which he paid seventy-eight dollars a month. He then moved in with a friend called Speed Vogel, who had an apartment on Central Park West and a studio on West Twenty-eighth Street, where he made what Brooks describes as “direct metal sculpture.” Vogel had left his wife shortly before Brooks arrived. The two men cooked for themselves, carried their clothes to the laundromat, rose at conflicting hours (Brooks late, Vogel early), and bickered over practically every aspect of housekeeping—a setup uncannily prophetic of Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple.
One Tuesday in the summer of 1962, Vogel gave a party at West Twenty-eighth Street. Among his guests were Zero Mostel, who had a studio in the same building; Joseph Heller, whose first novel, Catch 22, had appeared the previous year; and Ngoot Lee, a painter and calligrapher of Chinese parentage. These three, together with Vogel and Brooks, enjoyed one another’s company so much that they decided to commemorate the occasion by reassembling every Tuesday for food and talk. Meetings were held at cheap Chinese restaurants selected by Ngoot Lee, who knew where the best chefs worked, and kept track of their movements from job to job. The nucleus, itself a fairly motley crew, grew steadily motleyer as it swelled in numbers. Brooks introduced a diamond dealer named Julie Green, who could do eccentric impersonations of movie stars. Heller contributed a fellow-novelist, George Mandel, who had a steel plate in his head as a result of injuries suffered in the Battle of the Bulge.
“One night,” Heller recalls, “Mandel told us in detail how he had been wounded. There was a long pause, and then Mel did something typical. He said, very slowly, ‘I’m sure glad that happened to you, and not to me.’ He wasn’t being cruel, he was being honest. He just blurted out what we were all thinking but didn’t dare to say.” Mandel, in turn, brought in Mario Puzo, later to become famous as the author of The Godfather. These were the charter members of the fraternity. They called themselves the Group of the Oblong Table or, in more pretentious moments, the Chinese Gourmet Club. What bound them together, apart from revelry in conversation, is best epitomised in a statement volunteered to me by Heller. “I’d rather have a bad meal out than a good meal at home,” he said. “When you’re out, it’s a party. Also, I like a big mediocre meal more than a small good one.”
The membership list has been closed for many years. Approved outsiders, like Carl Reiner and Joseph Stein, are invited to the Oblong Table from time to time, but merely as ‘honoured guests.’ The club has strict rules, some of which I learned from Reiner: “You are not allowed to eat two mouthfuls of fish, meat, or chicken without an intermediate mouthful of rice. Otherwise, you would be consuming only the expensive food. The cheque and tip, and the parking fees, if any, are equally divided among the members. It is compulsory, if you are in New York, are not working nights, and are in reasonable health, to be present at every meeting.” He continued, “The members are very polite. Once, I had a seat facing the kitchen door and I looked through and saw a rat strolling across the floor. They immediately offered me a chair facing the other way.” Anxious to retain his status of ‘honoured guest,’ Reiner begged me to quote Heller and Brooks on the subject at greater length than I quoted him.
Brooks recently told an interviewer that the talk at the Oblong Table mainly deals with such weighty subjects as “whether there is a God, what is a Jew, and do homosexuals really do it.” Reiner has other recollections. “From the sessions I’ve attended,” he said to me, ”I would put that group up against the Algonquin Round Table and bet that, line for line, they were funnier. The speed of the wit is breathtaking. It just flies back and forth.” Brooks’s comment on this: ”I’m sure we’re funnier than the Algonquin crowd, but we’re not as bright.”
Hershy Kay, the composer and Broadway arranger, had a bitter experience that confirmed what Reiner said about the club’s rigorous eating procedure. According to Brooks: “Hershy Kay came once as a guest and took the nicest bits of the lobster and the choicest parts of the chicken, including the wings, which I like. He did not touch his rice. He had to go, and he went.” There may, however, have been another reason for Kay’s rejection. My source here is Heller, who said, ‘Bear in mind that I am the only tall member of the group. At the next meeting after the Hershy Kay incident, Mel made a little speech. “Let’s face it,” he said, “except for Joe, all of us are quite short. Some of us are very short. Hershy is too short.”
Brooks, incidentally, has grave reservations about Heller’s own table manners. “From the very start,” he declares, “we accepted Joe on Speed Vogel’s word that he would behave, and Speed lied to us, because he did not behave. He took the best pieces of everything and laughed in our faces. One Tuesday, we ordered a tureen of special soup full of delicious things, and Joe grabbed it, scooped all the good stuff into his own bowl, and then said, “Here, let me serve this.” We each got a spoonful of nothing.”
Far from denying this story, Heller openly confesses, “I am a greedy man. I’ll eat anything. I even use a fork instead of chopsticks, so I can eat faster. I’m known in the club as the plague of locusts.” Presumably, his physical bulk protects him against reprisals.
Puzo, the only non-Jewish member other than Ngoot Lee, is tolerated because of his limited appetite. “Being Italian, Puzo is no threat to us,” Brooks says. “He doesn’t really like exotic dishes. He prefers noodles and rice—things that remind him of home. He is provincial, and that saves us from the rape of our best food.” A stickler for party discipline as well as a dedicated glutton, Brooks never misses a club meeting when he is in Manhattan. If business suddenly compels him to fly in from the Coast on a Tuesday evening, his first act on arrival at JFK is to ring every eligible restaurant in Chinatown until he finds the chosen venue. Thither he dashes, straight from the airport; and before saying a word, he heaps a plate with whatever is left.
Despite their differences over matters of etiquette, Heller has a high respect for Brooks. He freely admitted to me that he used a lot of Brooks’s lines in his second novel, Something Happened, and that in his next book, Good as Gold, ‘the hero is a small Jewish guy, and there’s a great deal of Mel in that.’ In the early seventies, Heller was teaching writing at City College of New York. He had long been aware that Brooks was vulnerable to practical jokes. One evening, Heller casually lied about his salary, saying that it was sixty-eight thousand dollars a year—more than double the truth. A couple of days later, Heller’s accountant, who also worked for Brooks, called him up and said, “For God’s sake, Joe, what the hell have you done? First thing this morning, Mel was up here screaming, “Why am I in the entertainment business? Why aren’t I teaching and earning seventy thousand a year like Joe Heller?” He was out of his mind!” Having told me this story, Heller went on, “Mel has always had plenty of resentment and aggression that he can sublimate into creativity. He’s usually at his best when he’s envying people more successful than he is. Now that there’s hardly anyone more successful, what will he do?”
I cited a mot attributed to Gore Vidal: ‘It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail.’
“I thought that was La Rochefoucauld,” Heller said. “But anyway it doesn’t apply to Mel. He likes to see his rivals fail, but not his friends. Provided, of course, that he’s succeeding.”
I asked whether, in Heller’s opinion, fame had changed Brooks.
“Not a bit. He’s just as nasty, hostile, acquisitive, and envious today as he ever was. Please be sure to quote me on that,” Heller said warmly. He went on, “You have to distinguish between Mel the entertainer and Mel the private person. He puts on this manic public performance, but it’s an act, it’s something sought for and worked on. When he’s being himself, he’ll talk quietly for hours and then make a remark that’s unforgettably funny because it comes out of a real situation. You might say that he’s at his funniest when he’s being most serious. He has a tremendous reverence for novelists and for literature in general, because it involves something more than gag writing. In his serious moments, I don’t think he regards movies as an art. For Mel, the real art is literature.”
Brooks staunchly challenges this view: “When Joe says things like that, he’s just electioneering for the novel, because that’s what he writes. I think La Grande Illusion is as good as Anna Karenina, and Les Enfants du Paradis is in the same class as La Chartreuse de Parme. If we’re talking about art at the most exquisite level, Joe may conceivably have a point. But I’m a populist. I want color, I want visual images, I want the sound of the human voice.”
There are a few compelling stories in the New Yorker’s food issue this week. Only one of them, this short essay by Zadie Smith, is available online for free:
The first time I ordered takeout in New York, two things confounded me: the terrific speed with which the food arrived, and the fact that, after I’d paid for it, the man from the Chinese restaurant and I stood on either side of the threshold staring at each other, though only one of us understood why. After a minute of this, I closed the door. An American friend sat on the sofa, openmouthed:
“Wait—did you just close the door?”
In London, you don’t tip for delivery. A man on a motorbike arrives and hands over an oil-soaked bag, or a box. You give him the exact amount of money it costs or wait and look at your shoes while he hunts for change. Then you close the door. Sometimes all this is achieved without even the removal of his motorcycle helmet. The dream (an especially British dream) is that the whole awkward exchange pass wordlessly.
More from John Lardner. Originally published in 1949 in the New Yorker and reprinted here with permission of Susan Lardner.
“The Battling Siki”
By John Lardner
Hell’s Kitchen, the region west of Eighth Avenue around the Forties, won its name many years ago and continued to deserve it until about the time the Eighteenth Amendment was repealed. Things are different there now. So its residents will tell you, and so you can see for yourself if, having known the neighborhood a little during Prohibition, you visit it even briefly today. Once it was carpeted, for nearly all its length and breadth, with low, swarthy brick tenement houses containing a warren of flats, speak-easies, six-table cellar “cabarets,” hole-in-the-wall stores and restaurants, back-room stills, and “social clubs,” where a portion of the manhood of the district stored guns and ammunition and planned stick-ups and highjackings. Right along the equator of Hell’s Kitchen ran the Ninth Avenue “L” tracks, throwing a grim, significant shadow by day and night. Other parts of town had clip joints, or “buckets of blood,” scattered through them, but the Kitchen, as a detective friend of mine used to say, was one big bucket of blood. Nowadays the Kitchen is a bit more shiny and much more respectable. Neon lights and modern shops and garages have pushed their way into it. The McGraw-Hill Building has gouged out half of what was considered one of the hottest blocks in Hell’s Kitchen in the nineteen twenties—the block bounded by Eighth and Ninth Avenues and Forty-first and Forty-second streets. The Lincoln Tunnel approaches have formed an asphalt plaza west of Ninth Avenue. The sleek New Jersey buses and automobiles bound for and away from the West Side Highway plow across the old badlands in steady procession. The retail liquor traffic thereabouts has become negligible; the city’s center of gravity of crime has shifted elsewhere, perhaps to Brooklyn. Broadly speaking, Hell’s Kitchen is not a frontier community any more but a sort of vehicular gateway to the heart of Manhattan. However, if you want to conjure up the atmosphere of earlier times, you can still find islands of squat tenement houses here and there to help you, many of them boarded up and condemned, and the empty shells of many basement grogshops. In the unlikely event that you want to visit the scene of the murder, twenty-four years ago, of a man called Battling Siki, which is what I did one day recently for no useful reason, you will come across a few surviving landmarks. You can pace off distances in the same gutter and seamy street—Forty-first—down which Siki crawled forty feet west toward Ninth Avenue, with two bullets in his body, before he collapsed and died. He crawled in the direction of the “L,” the cave of shadows that no longer is there. His killer threw away the gun in front of a grimy old house that is now gone; the McGraw-Hill Building is there instead. These changes make the setting less sinister than it used to be, but even now there’s plenty to show that it was a drab and lonesome place to die.
Siki who held the light-heavyweight boxing championship of the world for six months in 1922 and 1923, was born in Senegal, in French West Africa, in 1897 and was killed in Hell’s Kitchen twenty-eight years later, in 1925. He was the Kitchen’s most turbulent citizen in the short time he lived there. He was thought by neighbors who knew him to have an honest heart and a generous soul, but when he drank the newly cooked liquor of the parish, as he often did, the cab drivers, cops, bartenders, and hoodlums whom he chose, with impeccable lack of judgment, to knock around, found it hard to take him philosophically. Rear-line observers, on the other hand were usually able to be philosophical about Siki. During the three years of his life in which he received international publicity—the last three—he was referred to repeatedly as a “child of nature,” a “natural man ” and a “jungle child,” and at least once as “the black Candide.” After his murder, the New York World said editorially, “What is all this [Siki's physical strength, his brawling and dissipation] but the sulks and tempers of Achilles, the prank of Siegfried and the boars, the strutting of Beowulf, the armours of Lemminkaïnen? We have had a walking image of our beginnings among us and did not know it. . . . He had, it is true, the mentality of a backward toad… But he had the soul of a god.”
It strikes me that tributes paid by civilized people to a “natural man,” especially one who has walked among us, are apt to sound either patronizing, like the World’s, or uneasy, like some delivered by American correspondents when Siki won his boxing championship in Paris in 1922 and was first interviewed. After praising Siki’s strength and simplicity, one reporter wrote apprehensively, “He is very black and very ugly.” Siki’s manager at the time, a M. Hellers, was quoted as saying that Siki was a fine lad but “just a little bit crazy.” I can discover no support among those who were acquainted with Siki in America later on for the idea that he was crazy, except when he drank, or the idea that he was mentally toadlike. He was illiterate, never having been to school, but he could make himself understood in several languages including English, French, Spanish, Dutch, and German. As far as Candide is concerned, Siki resembled Voltaire’s hero in that he had a sheltered boyhood, was thrown suddenly into the thick of the best of all possible worlds, and found society both violent and larcenous. At seventeen, he was involved in a civilized world war. At twenty-five, he was permitted to box a champion on the condition that he lose the match. Having ignored the condition and won the championship, he insured his loss of that title, in all innocence, by fighting an Irishman in Dublin on St. Patrick’s Day. He entered American life in the heyday of the Volstead act. He could not master the strong waters or the social customs of the West Side of New York City. He was killed by gunfire, after surviving a stabbing earlier in the same year. It may seem, offhand, that Hell’s Kitchen was a curious place for the curtain to fall on a twenty-eight-year-old Mohammedan born in St. Louis de Senegal on the fringe of the Sahara Desert, but Voltaire has shown that when civilization gets its hands on one of these natural men, it pushes him about at random from curious place to curious place. Candide was lucky to wind up safely cultivating his garden. He came close to meeting his end in an auto-da-fé in Portugal and, another time, on a roasting spit in Paraguay. Siki’s story is perhaps more realistic. He failed to last out the course.
The newspaper writers of the 1920s were merely being wishful when they called Siki a jungle child. St. Louis, his African home, is a seaport ten miles above the mouth of the Senegal River, on a bare plain that marks the Sahara’s southwesternmost edge. It’s doubtful whether anyone in Europe or America today knows what Siki’s real name was. Legend has it that when he was ten or twelve years old, a French actress touring the colonies saw him in St. Louis, was impressed by his appearance, and took him into her personal service, giving him, for reasons based on classical Greek, the name of Louis Phal. Whatever its origin, this, Anglicized as Louis Fall, was his legal name when he was married, and when he was murdered, in America. He did not become known as Battling Siki until he began to box professionally, in 1913; apparently the word “Siki” was coined or borrowed by French fight promoters, to whom it had vague “native” or colonial connotations. The tale about the actress was told widely in Paris in the days of Siki’s first fame, when he knocked out the celebrated Georges Carpentier, but it was never, so far as I know, closely checked up on. It accounts, plausibly enough, for the abrupt shift of Siki from dusty African streets to the perils of Western civilization. The lady is said to have taken him to her villa on the French Riviera and dressed him in a page boy’s uniform of bottle green. Subsequently, he worked in one town and another as a bus boy. He was fifteen when he started boxing.
Siki had just time for a handful of fights, most of which he won, before the war of 1914-18 broke out and he was conscripted into the 8th Colonial Infantry Regiment of the French Army. His war record was distinguished; in fact, he is reported to have been the bravest soldier in his outfit which saw action on several fronts and gave a strong performance generally. For heroism under fire, Siki won not only the Croix de Guerre but the Médaille Militaire. After demobilization, he could have had his choice of a variety of ordinary civilian jobs; his record guaranteed him that. However, he went back to the prize ring, where the rewards were intermittent but came in good-sized pieces when they came. He barnstormed in France, North Africa, Spain, Belgium, and Holland. From a tour of Holland in 1921 he returned to Paris, where he lived with a Dutch girl who was thought to be his wife and by whom he later had a child. Siki did not work especially hard at his trade. He fought once or twice a month, which is not often for a “club,” or journeyman, fighter, and, while he usually won, he beat nobody of major importance. Between bouts he drank more absinthe than is normal in the profession. American critics were to speak of him three or four years later as a fighter of considerable natural ability who might have been much better than he was. Weighing about a hundred and seventy-five pounds, the maximum for light heavyweights, and standing five feet eleven inches tall, he was a well-muscled young man with a leaping, bounding, lunging style from which he got slapstick effects that amused the galleries, and himself as well. In the early months of 1922, he happened to defeat a couple of men of some slight reputation and thus came to the notice of François Descamps, then the most influential and artful character in French boxing. Descamps offered him a bout for the world’s light-heavyweight championship with Carpentier, whom Descamps managed.
The prizefight business in Continental Europe in those days was an odd blend of laissez faire and team play—laissez faire being understood to mean “Let Descamps do it his way,” and “team play” to mean that all hands share in the spoils. Descamps owned a large stable of fighters and also, it was commonly believed in Paris, a large stable of sports writers. Some of the latter were growing restive in 1922, possibly because of a failure in the team-play system as administered by Descamps. When the Carpentier-Siki match was announced, certain journalists expressed a distrust of it. They suggested that, in Siki, Descamps had laid hold of a small-time, happy-go-lucky trouper with no ambitions beyond getting all the absinthe he could consume, who would be glad to bolster Carpentier’s fortunes—Carpentier had not fought for really big money since his knockout by Jack Dempsey in New Jersey, fourteen months before—without making too much trouble for the champion in the ring. Their hints were undoubtedly read by the public. Carpentier was a war hero, the toast of the boulevards, a boxer still regarded, in spite of his defeat by Dempsey, as peerless in Europe, but though the crowd of 55,000 that came to the new Buffalo Velodrome in Paris on the afternoon of September 24, 1922, to see him fight Siki was the largest in European boxing history, it showed before the day was over that it was on the alert for signs of skulduggery. Its suspicions were inflamed during the preliminary bouts by the work of Harry Bernstein, a referee charged by sports writers with occupying a special compartment in the hip pocket of M. Descamps. In one preliminary, the opponent of a Descamps featherweight named Fritsch was disqualified by Bernstein for hitting too low; in another, the opponent of a Descamps heavyweight named Ledoux was disqualified by Bernstein for not fighting hard enough. Bernstein’s rulings brought a volley of coups de sifflet from the customers, particularly those in the seven-franc seats, who had mustered their sous at a sacrifice and wished for their money’s worth of equality and justice.
The main bout was scheduled for twenty rounds. Carpentier, pale and blond, weighed 173 1/2 pounds, Siki 174. In the first round, Siki fought cautiously and less acrobatically than usual; Carpentier jabbed at him with his left hand. Once, hit lightly, Siki dropped to one knee; Bernstein, who was refereeing this bout, too, did not bother to count. “Get up, Siki, you’re not hurt,” he said. After the round, ringside spectators saw Carpentier smile broadly and heard him say, “I’ll get him whenever I want to.” The champion, boxing easily, won the first two rounds. In the third, Carpentier sent a right-hand blow to Siki’s jaw, and Siki dropped to his knee again, this time taking a count of seven. When he got up, he rushed at Carpentier and hit him violently in the body with a left and a right. Carpentier, looking startled as well as hurt, went down for four seconds. The rest of the fight was all Siki’s. Siki battered Carpentier about the ring in the fourth round while Carpentier hung on to Siki’s arms whenever he could and tried to pinion them with his own. In the fifth, Carpentier fell against the ropes. Siki leaned over him (“I whispered to him to quit,” Siki said later), and Carpentier, pushing himself up, butted angrily at Siki’s belly. Carpentier could hardly stand when the sixth round began. Siki hit him at will. A right uppercut followed by a shower of right and left swings sent Carpentier to the floor unconscious one minute and ten seconds after the start of the round. As he fell, one of his feet became tangled between Siki’s, assisting the fall.
It was plain that Carpentier was completely knocked out, but at that point Bernstein ruled that Siki had lost the fight by tripping his opponent illegally. The third disqualification of the day was more than the crowd was prepared to stomach. It pushed its way to the ring from all quarters of the stadium and stormed around it, yelling furiously. Police were called up to protect Bernstein. Descamps, meanwhile, for whose blood the demonstrators were also shouting, slipped out of the arena behind a couple of gendarmes. Three judges—Victor Breyer, Jean Pujol, and an Englishman, Tom Bannison—who, before the fight, had been appointed by the French Boxing Federation to make a decision in case there was no knockout were now appealed to. After conferring briefly with Federation officials, they announced that they would give a final and formal verdict either supporting or overruling Bernstein’s. They deliberated for three quarters of an hour while Bernstein stood in one comer of the ring among his police guards and practically no one in the audience went home, or even stopped talking unkindly to the referee. The judges, willingly or not, at last did what the crowd wanted: they declared Siki the winner by a knockout and, in the name of the Federation, awarded him the light-heavyweight championship of the world, plus a subsidiary title of Carpentier’s—the heavyweight championship of Europe. Siki said to Hellers, his manager, “Tell America I am ready for Dempsey,” and repaired in triumph to his dressing room. The crowd disbanded. The police saw Bernstein safely to the door of his dressing room.
Siki never got a match with Dempsey, but some offers of lesser opportunities did come to him from America. He was lavishly feted in Pans during the first two days after his victory, and after public enthusiasm subsided, his own continued to run high, especially in the Montmartre neighborhood. “No more absinthe. I will train and fight hard as champion,” Siki had told a gathering outside the office of the newspaper Echo des Sports on the twenty-fifth, the day following the fight. Later that evening, he took a few glasses of champagne, and on touring Montmartre in a rented car with a chauffeur, he reverted to absinthe wholeheartedly at every stop he made. After another week or so he acquired, probably as gifts from fellow colonials, a monkey, which he carried everywhere on his shoulder, and a lion cub, which he led about on a leash. Carpentier was still lying in bed suffering from a sprained ankle, two broken hands, and an unsightly swelling of his nose and lips. Most of the Parisian sporting press was sympathetic toward him but nastily jubilant about Descamps, who, it was implied, had overreached himself and been double-crossed. Rumors to the same effect circulated through Paris for the next several weeks. In early December, the French Boxing Federation precipitated the publication of what was very likely the true story of the fight by suspending Siki—it was charged that while seconding another fighter in the ring, he had struck the manager of his man’s opponent. Siki, deprived of a chance to make a living in France, went for help to M. Diagne, the representative for Senegal in the French Chamber of Deputies. Diagne asserted before the Chamber that the Boxing Federation was discriminating against colonials in favor of Parisian city slickers who wanted Siki out of the way, and in support of this theory he gave the deputies the account of the Carpentier bout that Siki had given him. When the Chamber appeared unwilling to take any action, Diagne called a press conference and had Siki repeat his story to reporters. It ran as follows: A fix had been arranged fifteen days before the bout took place, with Descamps dictating procedure to Siki’s manager. As a sign of good faith, Siki was to take a short count in the first round and another count in the third. He was to get himself knocked out early in the fourth. Siki followed the scenario through the third-round knockdown—”I stayed down for seven the first time Carpentier hit me hard enough to give me an excuse,” he said—but as he knelt on the floor at that point, he decided not to go through with the frameup. It was his pride, he said, and his loyalty to the public that made him change his mind. When he got up, he began to fight in earnest. He ignored a sharp reminder from his manager, between the third and fourth rounds, that his end was expected momentarily. (This detail in Siki’s narrative gave Hellers a clean bill of health, in a left-handed way; Descamps had been so suspicious of treachery by Hellers that he quarreled with him in public after the bout.) Siki surprised Carpentier with his counterattack and soon demolished him.
When Siki’s story was done, M. Diagne explained to the press what it meant: A simple, uneducated man had defended himself and all underprivileged peoples against exploitation by a predatory society. Siki, who was always emotional, wept freely at these words. His tears and his deputy’s arguments got him nowhere. Neither did a court of inquiry appointed by the Boxing Federation to investigate Siki’s statement. The court, with a flashy display of ingenuity, hired two deaf-mutes to watch the motion pictures of the fight and see if they could lip-read certain remarks delivered excitedly by Descamps to Hellers in Siki’s corner during “a critical phase of the battle,” after Siki had begun to knock Carpentier around. The experiment (unique, I think, in boxing history) was later described by the court as “successful,” but Siki remained suspended. He never fought in France again until after he had lost his championships elsewhere. My own opinion is that being champion constituted Siki’s chief sin in the eyes of the Federation. Also, I believe his story of the Carpentier match was substantially correct. A “sign of good faith”—a preliminary fall, or lapse of some other kind, by the loser—is a standard device in the plotting of sports frameups. Eddie Cicotte, a Chicago baseball player, hit the first batter he faced with a pitched ball in the crooked World Series of 1919, as a signal to gamblers that the fix was in. Siki’s tale confirmed the rumors that were current before and after the fight; it was in keeping with the character of Descamps and of Continental boxing methods in 1922, and it is believed by every European and American I know who was familiar in any degree with the time, the place, and the actors.
As it turned out, the Carpentier bout was the only one of importance in Siki’s professional career, except for the next one. The next one was weak and anticlimactic as a show, but it did involve a world’s championship, and it demonstrated in a special way how complicated the civilization of the West can be for an unlettered Moslem with no grounding in our rituals and customs. A fairly good light heavyweight from County Clare in Ireland named Michael Francis McTigue happened to pass through Paris with his staff during Siki’s suspension. Finding Siki idle and nearly broke, the visitors proposed a match between him and McTigue for the title. (The world’s light-heavyweight championship was the one that interested them; the heavyweight championship of Europe had no value in the world market, and has been recognized only sporadically since the day Carpentier lost it.) They spoke of Dublin as a pleasant spot for the Siki-McTigue bout. They mentioned March 17, 1923, as an open date in their engagement book. Siki fell in with these suggestions and met McTigue in the ring in the Irish capital on Saint Patrick’s Day. The operation for the removal of his crown was painless. The decision went to McTigue on points. There was nothing particularly wrong with this verdict, I am told by a neutral eyewitness, except that McTigue did not make the efforts or take the risks that are commonly expected of a challenger for a world’s championship. There was no need to. In the circumstances, nothing less than a knockout could have beaten him, and he avoided that possibility by boxing at long range throughout.
One device by which a civilized man can avoid a predicament like Siki’s in Dublin was illustrated by McTigue himself later in the same year. He went to Columbus, Georgia, to fight a Georgian named Young Stribling before a crowd that was strongly and ostentatiously in favor of his opponent. There was almost no way McTigue could avoid losing within the Georgia state limits, so, to protect his planetary interests, he took along a referee from the North. The referee called the bout a draw. Then, yielding to the howls of protest, he announced that he would deputize the local promoter to give the decision. The promoter called Stribling the winner. The referee, on his way back North by train with McTigue and McTigue’s manager, signed an affidavit that his own true and considered verdict was for a draw. That is how the result has been listed in the record books ever since.
Siki had only two more European fights, both in Paris, after he lost his titles. The last two years of his life he spent in America, disintegrating with headlong speed on bootleg gin and whiskey but nearly always able to make money in the ring when he needed it. When he first arrived in New York, in September 1923, his name had a certain value here, based on curiosity, which it no longer had abroad. He signed on with the stable of a veteran New York manager, Robert (Pa) Levy (Hellers appears to have discarded Siki at the time of his suspension in France), and his first fight in this country was a serious one with a respectable opponent, Kid Norfolk, who beat him in fifteen rounds at Madison Square Garden. From then on, American fight fans were not disposed to think of Siki as a boxer of the top rank, but they liked to watch him. His style was eccentric and funny. He was strong and fast enough to knock out most of the palookas he met, when he felt like it. He was booked as far west as California and as far south as New Orleans, and he earned, according to a fairly reliable estimate I have heard, nearly a hundred thousand dollars between November 1923 and November 1925. He was one of the best spenders, in proportion to income, that the United States has ever seen. In restaurants and speakeasies he sometimes tipped five or ten times the amount of the check. Once, having made five thousand dollars from a fight in New York on a Friday, he was turned out of his rooming house the following Monday for nonpayment of rent. Another time he gave away all the money in his pockets to passengers on a Lackawanna Railroad ferryboat on which he was returning from a fight in New Jersey. Scolded for this by his manager, Siki wept. Most of his cash, however, continued to be spent on gifts, liquor, and clothes. In clothes, Siki’s taste was unusual but rich. In the first part of his New York residence, when he lived and roamed mainly in the Times Square area, he almost always wore full dress when he went out at night. By day, ordinarily, he appeared in a high hat, a frock coat, red ascot tie, striped trousers, spatted shoes, and a monocle, and he carried a gold-headed cane. From time to time he gave away all the stylish clothes he had on and went home by cab in his underwear. He was particularly open-handed with his high hats. One of these, Siki’s gift to the management, hung on a peg in a West Side saloon I used to visit until a few years ago, when the place closed up.
Siki’s New York life was divided into two roughly equal periods, the second of which he passed largely in Hell’s Kitchen. He had been married in the summer of 1924, at the Municipal Building, to a woman from Memphis named Lillian Werner. The event attracted just enough attention to stimulate newspaper inquiries in Paris, where neighbors of the Dutch girl with whom he had lived in the suburb of Lanves said she was still there and was still thought to be his wife. She herself was not interviewed or quoted to that effect then or afterward, so far as I know. Siki and his American bride moved into a flat at 361 West Forty-second Street early in 1925. Siki had begun to go downhill physically and professionally by then. His bookings for fights were fewer than they had been, and he did not fulfill all those he made. He got into trouble, almost simultaneously, with the United States Immigration Service and the boxing commissioners of New York State. Siki had come to America on a short-term permit. In July 1925 he was arrested for felonious assault after slashing at a policeman with a knife, at which the Government began deportation proceedings. In August the Boxing Commission, annoyed by a facetious exhibition Siki had given at a small New York Cityfight club, summoned him and Levy to its office, suspended Siki, and told Levy to make sure that the fighter was somewhere beyond the three-mile limit within thirty days. The order may seem to have been a usurpation of Federal powers, but it coincided with the Government’s view. At this point, France told the United States that it would refuse to receive Siki if he were deported. Siki, who had wept in the Boxing Commission office when he heard the order to his manager, now took advantage of the stalemate and, in November, filed application for his first citizenship papers. Government decision on his deportation case was still pending when he died.
Siki had the reputation in Hell’s Kitchen in 1925 of being dangerous when drunk, mild and affable when sober. As he drank more heavily and fought less in the ring, he fought more in the street, and his opponents were a rough and active group of men. He was known for his favorite joke of hailing a cab, taking a ride, and then challenging the driver to fight for the fare. Occasionally, too, he would invade the Times Square station of the I.R.T. in the early morning in search of amateur boxing engagements. It is characteristic of many boxers that as they lose their ability in the ring they swing their fists more frequently outside it, as a sort of blurred insistence on the claim that they are as good as ever. That, along with the drinks Siki bought or charged up in the bars of the West Side, may account for his pugnacity in his last months. The only instance of Siki’s using a knife that I have found was the time he was arrested for drawing one on a policeman. His wife went to night court to plead for him on that occasion. She made a good impression and got him off with a five-dollar fine. Though he was stabbed in the back himself in August, not long after he had smashed up a speak-easy in the West Forties and spent a few days in the French Hospital on West Thirtieth Street as a consequence, Siki went on using his fists—and now and then a piece of furniture—in nearly all his brawls. He was fined another five dollars on December 6 for slapping a patrolman at the corner of Seventh Avenue and Thirty-fourth Street.
At about seven o’clock in the evening on Monday, December 14, Siki’s wife met him on the stairs to their flat on West Forty-second Street. The house they lived in still stands, a house of dingy brick with ten walk-up apartments, two on each of its five floors. Siki told Mrs. Siki he was going “out with the boys” and would be back in time to help her pack for a trip they were making next day to Washington, where Siki was to appear in a theater. Shortly after midnight on the morning of the fifteenth, Patrolman John J. Meehan, of the West Thirtieth Street station, walking his beat along Ninth Avenue, had a brief encounter with Siki, whom he knew by sight. Siki, wobbling a little as he turned under the “L” tracks from Forty-first Street, called to Meehan that he was on his way home. The patrolman told him to keep going that way. At 4:15 A.M., Meehan walked past the intersection of Forty-first Street and Ninth Avenue again and saw a body lying about a hundred feet east of the corner in the gutter in front of 350 West Forty-first. Approaching it, he recognized Siki. The body was taken to Meehan’s station house where a doctor pronounced the fighter recently dead from internal hemorrhage caused by two bullet wounds. Detectives examined the deserted block of Forty-first between Eighth and Ninth avenues. In front of No. 346, some forty feet east of where Siki had died, they found a pool of blood on the sidewalk. It seemed to them that Siki might have been trying to crawl home after he was shot. They could not tell just where the shooting had taken place. The gun, a vest-pocket .32-caliber pistol, was lying in front of No. 333, on the other side of the street. Only two bullets had been fired from it. An autopsy showed that these had entered Siki from behind, one penetrating his left lung and the other his kidneys. The autopsy showed something else which surprised Siki’s neighbors a good deal when they heard of it: he had suffered from an anemic condition.
At his wife’s request; Siki was given a Christian funeral service at the Harlem funeral parlors of Effie A. Miller. The Reverend Adam Clayton Powell delivered a eulogy. However, seven Mohammedan pallbearers in turbans carried his body to the hearse, chanting prayers as they did so, while a crowd of three thousand people looked on. The body was clothed in evening dress, as Siki would undoubtedly have wished. His estate, estimated at six hundred dollars, was awarded to his wife in Surrogate’s Court after Levy made out an affidavit in her favor. The words of the affidavit while perhaps not strictly accurate in point of fact told the broad truth about Siki’s place in the world better, I think, than the editorial that spoke of Achilles, Siegfried, and “natural man.” To the best of his knowledge, Levy said, Siki left surviving “no child or children, no father, mother, brother, or sister, or child or children of a deceased brother or sister.” He lived as a man without kin or country, roots or guides, and that, it seems to me, is a hard way to do it.
Siki’s murder was never solved. There was an abundance of suspects, but none of them suited the police at all until one day in March 1926 a young man of eighteen who lived a block or two from Siki’s house was arrested and booked on a homicide charge in connection with the killing. Detectives disguised as truck drivers had heard him making incriminating remarks, they said, over a telephone in a bootleggers’ hangout at Tenth Avenue and Fortieth Street. On being arrested, he allegedly signed two statements which gave two different accounts of the crime. One said that Siki had staggered into a coffee pot at Eighth Avenue and Fortieth Street in the early morning of December 15 and had thrown a chair at the eight men, including the deponent, who were gathered there. Deponent ran out of the place in alarm and heard shots fired in the restaurant behind him. The other statement, which fitted the physical facts of the killing a little better, said that a short while after the throwing of the chair, he, the young man under arrest, lured Siki to Eighth Avenue and Forty-first Street on the promise of buying him a drink. At the corner they were joined by two other men, one of whom, as the party walked west on Forty-first, shot Siki in the back. The young man was held in the Tombs for eight months, until the fall of 1926, and then was released by the court without trial, presumably because the state was not satisfied with its case. I might add that in May 1927 this same young man got five to ten years for second-degree robbery, committed in April in the vicinity of Ninth Avenue and Forty-second Street against a tourist from another state. That was clearly the wrong part of town for a tourist to go to.
“People don’t understand,” Gene told me. “People think of child abuse as a moment in a shower, like Sandusky. They don’t think of it as essentially abducting and brainwashing. This was a cult of art, literature, and music, a cult that was revered in some circles. And being in a cult is seen as a sign of weakness.” Once a week, Gene goes to a meeting of adult survivors of childhood abuse. Others attend for a few months and move on. Five years later, Gene is still going.
Gene wants Berman to be held accountable. Yet he knows that some mystery will always remain. At one of their first conferences, in tenth grade, Berman gave Gene a small bronze Porcellino, Pietro Tacca’s Baroque sculpture of a piglet, which has become a common souvenir of Florence. Despite everything, Gene holds on to that pig. “This meant that somebody loved me, and nobody had ever shown me that before,” Gene says. “It’s a conundrum. Why don’t I just drop it in the garbage right now? It’s part of me, part of my life. I guess I’ll be done with it when I don’t need somebody’s love.”
DC: Did you see the Joseph Mitchell piece last week in the New Yorker?
MH: The lost story—yes.
DC: Last week they had a panel with David Remnick talking to Ian Frazier and Mark Singer and Mitchell’s biographer, who’s quite interesting. And they talked about Mitchell as a writer who’s on the street, who’s connected to the city, who understands the details of the people who live in the city. He would go to the Fulton Fish Market and walk up to the Bronx. The idea of a reporter was about going into the world and observing. It feels like such a different generation. There are a lot of those qualities in your book.
MH: Yes, it’s about reporting. I say this to the young generation at GQ. I learned this from one of my mentors, an editor in Chicago, and he said you’re never going to be a writer if you can’t be a reporter. I worked at this small magazine in Chicago right after college. It had a staff of four. I did everything: I answered phones, I fact-checked, I wrote captions. One day I was sitting there and he walked in and said, “What are you doing here? For the next four weeks I want you out there. I don’t care if you go to the zoo or ride a bus or sit in a diner but I want you to come back at 3 o’clock and I want you to write 800 words about what you did that day. What you saw.” I had from three to four to write it. We were still writing on typewriters and he would edit it for me. It was fantastic training.
It’s so true what you say about Mitchell, you have young people at the office. I ask them about a detail and they “Well, I Googled it.” And I say “Did you at least call and ask David Coggins if it has two G’s?” I think my book is vibrant in many places because I went out and reported it. I went to McCook, Nebraska and went to a small town in Kentucky to meet Natty Bumppo.
We turned the corner and drove down a residential street. Housewives in spandex shorts were jogging on the sidewalk. Simpson glanced at them and said, “I loved the way Nicole looked. If I saw her on that sidewalk right now, I’d pull over and hit on her. If she had a different head.”
Simpson is used to playing the character he created over the years—the genial O.J. we saw in the broadcasting booth, in TV commercials, and in films—and he seemed ill equipped to play a man tormented by tragedy. His features rearranged themselves constantly. His brow furrowed with worry; his eyebrows rose in disbelief; his eyelashes fluttered, suggesting humility; his eyes grew wide with sincerity. All of this was punctuated by an incongruous, almost girlish giggle.
It was Simpson’s will, as much as his talent, that enabled him to become not only a great football player but also one of America’s most beloved black athletes. (“When I was a kid growing up in San Francisco, Willie Mays was the single biggest influence on my life,” Simpson told me. “I saw how he made white people happy. I wanted to be like Willie Mays.”) Over the course of his life, Simpson had gotten virtually everything he has wanted—fame, wealth, adulation, Nicole Brown, and, eventually, acquittal. It was widely reported that Nicole told friends that if her husband ever killed her he’d probably “O.J. his way out of it.” Today, at fifty-three, almost six years after his acquittal, Simpson seems to be free of doubt, shame, or guilt. He refers to the murders of his wife and Ron Goldman, and his subsequent trials for those murders, as “my ordeal.” Now he wants vindication. Only that can erase the stigma that has transformed him from an American hero into a pariah, living out his days in a pathetic mimicry of his former life. And he appears to believe that he will get it, as he got everything—by sheer will—and with it a return to fame and wealth and adulation.
Being a writer for a Yiddish newspaper means wasting half the workday on people who come to request advice or simply to argue. The manager, Mr. Raskin, tried several times to bring this custom to an end but failed repeatedly. Readers had each time broken in by force. Others warned that they would picket the editorial office. Hundreds of protest letters arrived in the mail.
In one case, the person in question didn’t even knock. He threw open the door and before me I saw a tiny man wearing a black coat that was too long and too wide, a pair of loose-hanging gray pants that seemed ready to fall off at any moment, a shirt with an open collar and no tie, and a small black spot-stained hat poised high over his brow. Patches of black and white hair sprouted over his sunken cheeks, crawling all the way down to the bottom of his neck. His protruding eyes—a mixture of brown and yellow—looked at me with open mockery. He spoke with the singsong of Torah study:
After a life of loving the old, by natural law I turned old myself. Decades followed each other–thirty was terrifying, forty I never noticed because I was drunk, fifty was best with a total change of life, sixty extended the bliss of fifty–and then came my cancers, Jane’s death, and over the years I travelled to another universe. However alter we are, however much we think we know what will happen, antiquity remains an unknown, unanticipated galaxy. It is alien, and old people are a separate form of life. They have green skin, with two heads that sprout antennae. They can be pleasant, they can be annoying–in the supermarket, these old ladies won’t get out of my way–but most important they are permanently other. When we turn eighty, we understand that we are extraterrestrial. If we forget for a moment that we are old, we are reminded when we try to stand up, or when we encounter someone young, who appears to observe green skin, extra heads, and protuberances.
People’s response to our separateness can be callous, can be good-hearted, and is always condescending. When a woman writes to the newspaper, approving of something I have done, she calls me “a nice old gentleman.” She intends to praise me, with “nice” and “gentleman.” “Old” is true enough, and she lets us know that I am not a grumpy old fart, but “nice” and “gentleman” put me in a box where she can rub my head and hear me purr. Or maybe she would prefer me to wag my tail, lick her hand, and make ingratiating dog noises. At a family dinner, my children and grandchildren pay fond attention to me; I may be peripheral, but I am not invisible. A grandchild’s college roommate, pulls a chair to sit with her back directly in front of me, cutting me off from the family circle: I don’t exist.
A few years ago I spoke to the writer Arnold Hano on the phone. He was 90. Profane and funny. He told me that something had been written about him in the local paper and the writer had called him spry. “How come you only hear the word spry when people talk about old people?” he said. “That drives me crazy. C’mere, and watch me stick my foot right up your ass.”
Brownstein doesn’t see the contradictions in her work that other people do. Her sexy, roiling presence onstage is one side of her, her wry social portraits on “Portlandia” represent another side, and neither has much in common with her modest, cerebral, nonperforming self. Brownstein said that when playing rock music she’s always conscious that she’s performing; she remains fully in control, no matter how chaotic it looks. “Onstage, I can stop on a dime,” she said. Lately, the “Portlandia” characters had “been seeming more akin to who I really am,” she added. “Or maybe it’s just a safer place for me to go. With music, I get to a much darker place. Where I’m able to go with ‘Portlandia’ has a wider range, but also a brighter range.” Ideally, she’d like to keep her music side and her comedy side separate; she doesn’t really want people to be thinking about her onscreen goofiness when she’s tearing it up with Wild Flag.
Touring with the band kept her away from Portland for most of October and November. But she went home for Thanksgiving, to see her dogs, to take long walks in the mossy, gray-green woods, and to see [Fred] Armisen, who flew in from New York, where he’d been filming “Saturday Night Live.” I e-mailed Brownstein to ask how her holiday had gone. She recalled stopping at a dog park with Armisen. Because it was the real Portland, “the weather was horrible—rainy, windy, cold.” She wrote, “I told Fred he could stay in the car. But he insisted on joining me out on the wet, muddy grass, tolerating not only the elements but a typical dog-park lady who overshared about her pair of jacket-clad whippets. When I saw Fred bundled up in his parka, wearing his brand-new R.E.I. hiking boots, I felt so happy and lucky; there are very few people for whom Fred—a classic New Yorker, not a nature guy at all—would brave the outdoors.
“The dinner itself was spent with the Goldfarbs, a family I’ve sort of adopted as my own; I spend all my holidays at their house. In the decade that I’ve known them, even when I’ve been dating someone, I never bring anyone over. I prefer to keep things separate; perhaps I’m bad at sharing the scant amount of family that I do have, or fearful of giving someone a glimpse of the few people who really know me. But Fred is someone whom I deeply trust, he’s already an extension of what I’d call family.
“We drove home late and I dropped him off at his hotel. Sometimes I get confused and think, Are we supposed to kiss goodnight? But, the truth is, I don’t want us to kiss, I want us to teach each other how good it can be to stick around.”
Bronx Banter: What was your approach in selecting the material for this book? My first impression was that it seemed thin, but then I checked and it is almost 800 pages, anything but thin. Then again, I grew up reading Kael and have all of her books. Is the ideal reader for this book someone who is unfamiliar with her work?
Sanford Schwartz: My first aim in selecting Pauline Kael pieces was to give the range of her thinking and sensibility. As a kid of shadow story, I wanted the selections to give a rough sense of movie history during the years she wrote. I wanted there to be representative pieces on the actors and directors who meant most to her. So there are a number of reviews on Altman, Godard, Scorsese, and so forth. I hoped that the anthology would engage people who already knew her—but unlike you didn’t collect all her books over the years—and also people who, in their twenties and thirties, don’t know who she is. It is always a surprise to run into people who have never heard of her, and I have found that most young people haven’t.
BB. Kael was close to fifty when she started reviewing movies for the New Yorker though she’d been writing for some time. How do you think this influenced her voice as a writer, as opposed to other critics who get their start much earlier?
SS: I’m not sure that it meant a lot. Her having waited so long and absorbed so many movies along the way obviously couldn’t have hurt when it came to writing with authority and conviction. But that certainty was evident in her letters from the late 1930s and early 1940s, when she was in her early twenties—except that her subject was still unclear to her. And it was fortuitous, her coming into the field when she did—an art form was being revitalized.
BB: What did Kael bring to movie criticism in the 1960s and ’70s that set her apart from her contemporaries?
SS: Kael made reading movie reviews a more intimate and personal experience than it had ever been before. Little criticism of any kind conveyed a comparable sense of there being such a powerful, funny, opinionated, scarily shrewd, and common sensical voice there, talking to you. You wanted to know what she thought about everything. You don’t feel this with most journalists, whether they are reviewing an art of doing a political column.
BB: One of the quirks that Kael was famous for was only watching a movie once. She’s been criticized for that over the years, that it suggests a lack of reflection or the possibility that a work of art can change for you. What is it about watching a movie only one time that informed the way she wrote about it?
SS: First off, it should be noted that there were times when she saw a movie more than once. I saw a number of movies with her when it was her second time. But then it was usually because she was checking something. I think she joked about falling asleep during Bresson’s “Diary of a Country Priest” both times she saw it. How many times she saw a movie was conditioned, actually, by her generally tight writing schedule; she usually didn’t have the time to see a movie twice. But the deeper point with this issue concerns the importance of instinct for her. She believed our truest response to a movie (or any art) was our first one, and she wanted to catch that. It was also a matter of temperament. She had on-the-spot judgments about many things. That was how she operated. Movies for her, even the great, complex ones, were about the senses in a way that books were not, and in seeing a movie once and trying to recapture its immediate impact she was, in her thinking, being true to the experience it offered.
BB. Did you re-watch any of the movies whose reviews you included in the collection?
SS: I saw some again, and initially I thought it would be good to re-see many of them. But my sense if that going back to films I loved years ago is hazardous. You re-see Truffaut, Satyajit Ray, or “The Leopard” and part of you must confront ways that the movie, and you, have changed—and altogether the event is more about time than the movie. How movies age is an interesting topic. Kael talked about it in “Movies and Television.”
BB: You’ve included her most famous reviews, ones she was chided about for over-praising like “The Last Tango in Paris,” “Nashville,” and to a lesser extent, “Casualties of War.” How do you think her takes on those movies stand up?
SS: I can’t say how her reviews of those movies hold up because I haven’t seen them recently. My hunch is that she did go overboard on them. I probably felt that then. But of course the reviews had to be in any anthology of her work. They were major pieces for her. They are statements of her belief.
BB: Kael has been ridiculed for her enthusiasm for those movies, but her take on other “classics” of that time period, particularly two “Godfather” movies or “Mean Streets” or “Shampoo” seem spot on. Are there any particular movies that she loved where you feel that her writing is especially sharp?
SS: I wasn’t that interested in whether she was, as you say about some of her reviews, “spot on.” In reviewing an art, reasoning and descriptions count for much more than opinion. As to what I think she was especially sharp on, I hope “The Age of Movies” provides an answer. Are there many more pieces that might have gone in? For sure.
BB: I like that you’ve included her major essays like “Trash, Art and the Movies,” “Why Are Movies So Bad? or The Numbers,” and the long one on Cary Grant, “The Man From Dream City.” And especially an early on, “Movies, the Desperate Art.” But you did not include her celebrated essay on “Citizen Kane.” Is that because it was just too long or because you feel it doesn’t hold up as representative of her talent?
SS: No, the Kane article, as I say in the Introduction, is too long to be included.
BB: One of Kael’s first memorable articles was “Circles and Squares,” a harsh take on fellow critic Andrew Sarris’ ideas about the auteur theory. Why did you not include that one?
SS: I didn’t include the Sarris essay because it is too long for the points it makes. It would have hogged space from livelier writing—writing that meant more to Kael. There are good words in it on what criticism meant for her. If I had excerpts in the anthology I probably would have excerpted those passages. I felt also that readers for whom “auteur” issues mater would already know Kael’s piece, whereas for the wider audience that she wrote for at The New Yorker, and for whom “The Age of Movies” is intended, her deflating this theory—it is really a set of opinions—is not a very engaging issue. And while I think she nails Sarris and the whole approach, she doesn’t do it in a way that opens up the topic to the general reader. Unless you are already familiar with the auteur line, her essay is rather confusing, especially at the beginning. It isn’t an essay that had much long-term meaning for her; she never could take that stuff seriously.
BB: Kael’s review of the documentary, “Shoah,” was famous because she panned it but it’s not here.
SS: I didn’t have a powerful reason to skip the “Shoah” review. Probably, it was a matter of space and also the sense that the reasoning and attitude on display there was already clear from other articles. It is certainly a strong one, though.
BB: During the ’70s, Kael shared her position writing “The Current Cinema” at the New Yorker with Penelope Gilliatt. As a result, there are some classics from that time that she never reviewed properly like “Annie Hall,” “Dog Day Afternoon” (though she does mention this one in a notes column), and maybe especially, “Apocalypse Now.” Were there any movies that you missed her reviewing?
SS: Even with her half-year schedule in the beginning, I believe she managed to encompass the major films of her era (but a movie historian might have another view of this). If a movie was taken seriously or touched hot issues for people—and it came out when she was off—she generally managed to find a way to her her verdict in somewhere. The long articles she periodically wrote during the time she was off let her do just that. She used a piece ostensibly about actors to acknowledge “Jaws” and she let people know where she stood on “2001” in “Trash, Art, and the Movies.”
BB: Kael had her favorites—Peckinpah and DePalma, to name just two—and those who she was famous for blasting, like Kubrick and Woody Allen. But she actually took each movie as it came, and I like that you’ve included “Lolita,” which she adored and as well as “A Clockwork Orange,” which she hated. Same goes for the early Scorsese hits, “Mean Streets,” and “Taxi Driver,” again, which she loved, and “Raging Bull,” which was the first in a long line of his movies that turned her off. Even though she was famous for her prejudices do you feel that she always gave a new movie an equal chance?
SS: Oh, yes. That is one reason I included her review of Bergman’s “Shame.” The piece shows her wrestling with the fact that a director with whom she was often at odds made a movie she had to call a masterpiece. She could always say when someone she admired—Altman, Godard, Bertolucci, Huston, even Renoir—came out flat. Her subject was the film at hand, not someone’s reputation or the credit they might have built up. She didn’t much like Robert Duvall, but after she saw “The Apostle,” which he directed and wrote as well as starred in, she said something like, “You’ve got to hand it to the bastard.”
BB: Kael once said that she never wrote a memoir because, “I think I have” in her reviews. She brought her life’s experience to her reviews, from what she knew about music and books and the theater, but also from what she knew about being a mother, having her heart broken in relationships, everything. Do you think you the story of her life can be found in her work?
SS: Yes, if the story of her life is constituted by her awareness and judgments. I don’t think she was the kind of artist whose life experience mirror or can be seen as a counterpoint to their work. For Agee and Farber, yes; their movie reviews tell us things about each man’s total contribution that we might not know otherwise. Kael, though, put most of what counted in her life in her reviews.
BB: She also once said “In movies, judgment is often not so important in a critic as responsiveness to what a movie feels like, and where it’s heading and what its vision is.” She was very tuned in to the reaction movies had on audiences, especially during her heyday in the early ’70s. Was there any other critic during that time, or any other time, that was as invested in how movies were received by popular culture and what it all meant?
SS: I believe you need a movie historian to answer this one. My feeling is that she got more of the ramifications of movies—their relation to the wider culture and society in general—than most film writers.
BB: This collection is spare toward the last 10 years of her career. Is that because the cultural moment of the movies had passed by the mid ’80s or because you were running out of room? Even though the pieces in her final two collections, “Hooked,” and particularly, “Movie Love,” are terse compared with her earlier writing, I think they had a lovely, compact quality. Were there any reviews that were hard for you not to include?
SS: Kael herself said that her strongest collections were those that covered the films of the 1970s. The movies were richer then. They brought out more of her. And she was first luxuriating in all the space The New Yorker gave her. It is possible that if she had first started reviewing in 1980 her pieces might have been longer and more nuances—even considering the quality of the movies. As it was, by the mid-1980s she had already put forth in some detail her aesthetic and social positions. I agree with you, though, about the “lovely, compact quality” of her reviews of the eighties.
BB: I recall Kael once writing with admiration for the discipline it took Altman to achieve a style that appeared casual and loose. I often think about that when I consider her writing—it is conversational but don’t you think it must have taken a lot of discipline to achieve that effect?
SS: Kael was almost always writing with a deadline, so the words had to come fast, and by nature she was suited to spilling her feelings. But she had to do a lot of work to get the reviews in shape. She could be making substantive changes right to the last minute.
Well, the auteur theory originally meant something quite different from what people understand it be mean now. What it originally said was that a director conferred value upon a film—that if a director was an auteur, all of his films were great. I think the public never understood that, and neither did most of the press. It was an untenable theory, and it fell from sight. It’s now taken to mean that we should pay attention to who directed a movie, because a director is vital to a film, and of course this is true. But it’s something that everybody has always known. I mean, everybody knew that Howard Hawks was terrific. We went to see “To Have and Have Not” and “The Big Sleep” the day they opened, and there was an excitement in the theater, because we all knew that these movies were special. They were smart, and we loved the work of smart directors, because lots of movies were so dumb…But the auteurists considered all of his movies to be wonderful by definition, because he was an auteur. It reached a point where they were acclaiming the later movies of directors who had ceased doing good work years earlier. Hitchcock’s later movies were acclaimed, and they were stinkers—terrible movies. And many routine action movies were praised because they were the work of certain directors.
It’s sometimes discouraging to see of a director’s movies, because there’s so much repetition. The auteurists took this to be a sign of a director’s artistry, that you could recognize his movies. But for all of a director’s movies to be alike in some essential way can also be a sign that he’s a hack.
We both loved movies. We had that in common, and I enjoy reading him as I enjoy reading very few critics. He has genuine reactions to movies, and many critics don’t. He picks things up and points things out…The big difference between us is that our taste in movies is so radically different. He really likes romantic, classically structured movies. He had very conservative tastes in movies; he didn’t love the farout stuff that I loved. He’s a man who likes movies like “Waterloo Bridge,” movies that drive me crazy with impatience. It’s funny that he should have been at the Voice, and the voice of an underground paper. I think I would have been much more suitable to the Voice, yet for years I got dumped on brutally by the paper. That always amazed me, because I thought, I’m praising movies you should love, so what’s going on here? He and I were at the wrong places—it’s one of those flukes of movie history.
Also this on eroticism in movies and not being able to review “Deep Throat” for the New Yorker:
It wasn’t a good movie. But I very badly wanted to write about it, because for all that was being written about it, nobody was really dealing with what was on the screen. I think half of the reason that people become interested in movies in the first place is sex and dating and everything connected with eroticism on the screen. And I felt that not to deal with all of that in its most naked form was to shirk part of what’s involved in being a movie critic.
I’d love to have written about more eroticism in the movies. I think it’s a great subject, and I dealt with it a little bit in my reviews of “Last Tango in Paris,” “Get Out Your Handkerchiefs,” and a few other movies. Bertrand Blier I loved writing about, because he dealt so much in sexual areas. But it was tough to write about it all with [New Yorker editor, William] Shawn. I had a real tough time with him when I wrote about “Tales of Ordinary Madness,” The Marco Ferreri version of Charles Bukowski, about a girl who’s virtually a mermaid, with Ben Gazzara as the Bukowski, more or less. It’s an amazing movie, with some scenes that are quite erotic. I had to put up a terrible fight to get it in. Shawn wanted to know if the critics for other magazines were covering it. I said that shouldn’t be our standard for what we covered at The New Yorker. But it was hard to convince Shawn that I wasn’t pulling some sort of swindle by sneaking material into the magazine that he felt didn’t belong there. He felt he was holding the line against barbarians, and to some degree I was a barbarian.
He made it very hard to write about certain aspects of movies. Nobody, really, has done a very good job of writing on a sustained level about the way movies affect people erotically, and about the fact that they became popular because they’re a dating game. People love movies that reason, because they excite them sexually. They go to them on dates, and they go to learn more about how to behave. I never got a real crack at writing about that.
Mandate: Why do you hit so many nerves among the common readers? Why do you stir up such antagonism as well as such passionate devotion?
Kael: In my writing, I was trying to get at what I actually responded to at the movies, and I couldn’t do in formal, scholarly language. I worked to loosen my style—to get away from the term-paper pomposity that we learn at college. I wanted the sentences to breathe, to have the sound of a human voice. I began, for example, to interject remarks—interrupting a train of thought, just as we do when we talk, and then picking it up again. And when I began to feel the freedom to write as easily as I spoke, the writing itself became pleasurable.
Maybe part of the resentment I stir up among critics who suffer when they write is that they can tell I’m having a good time. My guess is that just as my slangy colloquial style appeals to some readers because it is sometimes enables me to get right at what I think the emotional substance of a movie is, it turns off other readers, who prefer more literary, distanced criticism. For example, I’m frequently disparaged as ‘opinionated’—I think what this comes down to is that often I don’t share in the consensus that builds up on certain movies. Sometimes, it builds up even before the critics have seen a picture, as it did on “Sophie’s Choice”—I suspect that a lot of readers are snowed by big themes and advance articles in the New York Times. And then, if they read me making fun of the picture, they’re outraged and think I’m irresponsible, and especially so because I don’t couch my review in the language that has come to be equated with ‘objectivity.’
photo by Chris Carroll
And from a Q&A by Marc Smirnoff in the Oxford American (Spring 1992) after Kael had retired from the New Yorker:
Q: Is a person lucky to be a movie critic?
Kael: It is really a wonderfully exciting field to write about when the movies are good. When they’re not good, it’s to despair. The really bad movies you can write about with some passion and anger. It’s the mediocre ones that wear you down. They’re disgusting to write about because you can feel yourself slipping into the same mediocrity and stupidity. And you feel you’re boring the readers and yourself. When you starting falling asleep while you’re writing a review, you know how dull the movie is. The danger for criticism is that people will want to become critics in order to become television celebrities, rather than enjoying the pleasure of writing and the excitement of trying to define and describe what you’ve seen.
Q: Do you miss writing reviews?
Kael: Yes, but I know I’ve got to adjust to it. That’s part of adapting to getting older. You’ve got to recognize that the time for certain things has passed and, I’m not an idiot, I know I would not write at my best if I went on. You know, you start repeating yourself—you write the same phrase, you write the same descriptions. I’ve already had the problem of working on a paragraph that I thought was pretty good and looking up what I said about that director’s work the last time I wrote about him and finding out it was almost exactly the same paragraph. Well, you know, it’s time to quit.
Books, and the stories they contained, were the only things I felt I was able to possess as a child. Even then, the possession was not literal; my father is a librarian, and perhaps because he believed in collective property, or perhaps because my parents considered buying books for me an extravagance, or perhaps because people generally acquired less then than they do now, I had almost no books to call my own. I remember coveting and eventually being permitted to own a book for the first time. I was five or six. The book was diminutive, about four inches square, and was called “You’ll Never Have to Look for Friends.” It lived among the penny candy and the Wacky Packs at the old-fashioned general store across the street from our first house in Rhode Island. The plot was trite, more an extended greeting card than a story. But I remember the excitement of watching my mother purchase it for me and of bringing it home. Inside the front cover, beneath the declaration “This book is especially for,” was a line on which to write my name. My mother did so, and also wrote the word “mother” to indicate that the book had been given to me by her, though I did not call her Mother but Ma. “Mother” was an alternate guardian. But she had given me a book that, nearly forty years later, still dwells on a bookcase in my childhood room.
Our house was not devoid of things to read, but the offerings felt scant, and were of little interest to me. There were books about China and Russia that my father read for his graduate studies in political science, and issues of Time that he read to relax. My mother owned novels and short stories and stacks of a literary magazine called Desh, but they were in Bengali, even the titles illegible to me. She kept her reading material on metal shelves in the basement, or off limits by her bedside. I remember a yellow volume of lyrics by the poet Kazi Nazrul Islam, which seemed to be a holy text to her, and a thick, fraying English dictionary with a maroon cover that was pulled out for Scrabble games. At one point, we bought the first few volumes of a set of encyclopedias that the supermarket where we shopped was promoting, but we never got them all. There was an arbitrary, haphazard quality to the books in our house, as there was to certain other aspects of our material lives. I craved the opposite: a house where books were a solid presence, piled on every surface and cheerfully lining the walls. At times, my family’s effort to fill our house with books seemed thwarted; this was the case when my father mounted rods and brackets to hold a set of olive-green shelves. Within a few days the shelves collapsed, the Sheetrocked walls of our seventies-era Colonial unable to support them.
What I really sought was a better-marked trail of my parents’ intellectual lives: bound and printed evidence of what they’d read, what had inspired and shaped their minds. A connection, via books, between them and me. But my parents did not read to me or tell me stories; my father did not read any fiction, and the stories my mother may have loved as a young girl in Calcutta were not passed down. My first experience of hearing stories aloud occurred the only time I met my maternal grandfather, when I was two, during my first visit to India. He would lie back on a bed and prop me up on his chest and invent things to tell me. I am told that the two of us stayed up long after everyone else had gone to sleep, and that my grandfather kept extending these stories, because I insisted that they not end.
Fred Wilpon and Saul Katz were in their conference room, in Rockefeller Center, talking baseball, continuing a conversation that has gone on for about fifty years. The subject was Mariano Rivera, the Yankees’ great closer, who owes his success to a single pitch, the cut fastball.
“One pitch,” Wilpon said.
“I don’t get that,” Katz replied.
“What do you mean?” Wilpon answered. “You can’t hit that pitch.”
“But they know it’s coming.”
“Still can’t hit it.”
“I don’t get it.”
Wilpon took out a baseball—there is often one within reach—and demonstrated how Rivera grips the ball. (“I don’t claim to know everything about baseball,” Wilpon said to me at one point. “But I do know pitching.”) Wilpon demonstrated how the ball rolled off Rivera’s fingers. “It can break either way,” he said.
“Still don’t get it,” Katz replied.
The beauty part is that it doesn’t make any practical sense. It’s a beautiful mystery, another reminder that sports are closer to art than science.
Mariano uses one pitch, a cut fastball thrown between 90 and 94 miles per hour. There’s nothing soft, no off speed pitch to fool the batters. The cutter does it well all by itself.
Rivera induces swings. Batters swung at 49.4 percent of his pitches, which puts him in the 94th percentile among all pitchers in the majors in that time. Look at what they are swinging at, however. Batters swing at 38% of the pitches that should be called balls. That is the 100th percentile, the best in the majors. Rivera gets batters to see balls as strikes, and swing at them. In general, batters tend to get worse results when they swing at balls.
That’s not the only effect of the cutter, however. Of the pitches batters take, 36.1% of them are strikes. That may not seem like much, but the major league average is 31.8%, and Rivera’s number ranks in the 95th percentile. Not only is Mariano great at getting batters to swing at balls, he’s almost as good at getting them to take strikes.
And he does it all with one pitch.
Rivera’s one pitch is a daydream fantasy about sustained pleasure. There will never be another one like him. Not only because of the results but because how he gets them.
At one point in the book, you write, “I have spent most of my adult life imagining and reimagining the past and now I never know beyond a shadow of a doubt what actually happened.” Could you elaborate a little on that? Did that make it easier or harder to write “Cardboard Gods”?
I’ve written incessantly about the past for over two decades in any form I could manage—in notebook rantings, in poems, in letters, in essays, most recently in blog posts, and most extensively in fictional form. I am trying to get at certain emotional truths, I guess, and after a while any certainty I once had about how things actually occurred eroded. One thing I do remember for sure is that when I was a kid, I made a vow to myself to remember everything. But in trying to keep this vow I actually broke it, going over the same ground again and again until the ground had changed. It didn’t make it any easier or harder to write “Cardboard Gods.” The challenge of the writing of the book was the same challenge I’d always faced, which was to try to get the thing to feel true. I wanted the details to be honest, as honest as I could manage, and I certainly didn’t fabricate anything that I know didn’t happen, if that makes any sense, but I know my memory is faulty and that it long ago became subservient to my ruinous and sustaining need to narrate.