Return of the Country Mouse

George

I recently spent 24 hours in New York City.

My main purpose was to attend the Peabody Award luncheon on Monday, May 20. The Peabodys, administered through the University of Georgia, were originally founded to honor excellence in radio. Now they encompass all forms of electronic communications.

I wish I could tell you that I went to the Peabodys to accept an award! Not yet.

I went because this year is the final one in which my former graduate-school professor, Horace Newcomb, will serve as the director of the Peabodys. Once he moves back from Athens, Georgia, to his home in Austin, Texas (and stops making Peabody-related trips to New York City), I’ll be unlikely to see him.

So I decided to attend the ceremonies, to which Horace has invited me every year for more than a decade. I knew I wouldn’t have a lot of time to talk to Horace or his wife, Sara, in the hubbub of awards, congratulations, and food. I didn’t. But I wanted to talk to them one last time. I did.

From left to right: Peabody Awards host Scott Pelley, Sara Newcomb, Horace Newcomb (Anders Krusberg/Peabody Awards)

From left to right: Peabody Awards host Scott Pelley, Sara Newcomb, Horace Newcomb (Anders Krusberg/Peabody Awards)

My father always said that if one is truly lucky in higher education one will find at least one professor who really matters, who teaches one to think and encourages one to do one’s best work.

For me, Horace was one of those professors.

He is pretty much the founder of television studies in the United States. He began by teaching in an English department, in fact, since early in his career few official departments existed in which one could study or teach television.

By the time I got to the University of Texas, where I got my Ph.D. in American studies but specialized in media history, he was a well known figure in the university’s Radio-TV-Film department.

He never completely shook off his English department roots, however, which meant that in a pinch I could discuss my American literature reading list with him as well as the one for television studies. He taught me to appreciate Walt Whitman and Theodore Dreiser as well as Stephen J. Cannell and Tom Selleck. (Okay, I admit I didn’t need a lot of teaching to appreciate Tom Selleck, but Horace helped me understand WHY I appreciated him beyond his good looks.)

I wasn’t Horace’s best or even favorite student. He was always generous with his time, however. He inspired me to hone my writing and my analysis of stories told in any medium.

And he occasionally talked me down from the metaphorical ledge when I was feeling stressed out by life as a Ph.D. candidate.

When I decided to ask outside readers to give an honest appraisal of my new memoir, Pulling Taffy, Horace was one of the few people to whom I sent the manuscript. He offered insightful suggestions for reshaping the book. I didn’t implement them all, but they set me on the path I ended up taking.

I was happy to hand a copy of the book to him and Sara after the Peabody luncheon.

I was also happy just to be there for the awards, which went to a remarkable bunch of people and radio/TV/web productions. Some of these (Lorne Michaels, HBO, Doctor Who) were known to me. Others were new. These included Filipinos who had created a video exposé of child malnutrition in their country and a Phoenix news station crew whose in-depth reporting on the cause of a local automobile accident eventually led to a federal inquiry and the recall of hundreds of thousands of vehicles.

I left with a happy feeling from having encountered Horace and Sara; a few celebrities (I saved a departing elevator for Judd Apatow!); the glorious art-deco palace that is the Waldorf Astoria Hotel; and the hustle and bustle of New York, which always invigorates me.

Judd didn't offer me a part in his next film, but he said thank you! (Anders Krusberg/Peabody Awards)

Judd didn’t offer me a part in his next film, but he said thank you! (Anders Krusberg/Peabody Awards)

I also left with a piece of chocolate shaped like a Peabody Award and a bouquet of aromatic flowers that survived the bus ride back to Massachusetts and graced my table here for more than a week.

Most importantly, I left with inspiration. All the people accepting Peabody Awards were passionate about their work, and all of them had told stories that mattered.

I hope that my next big story will matter, too. I’m not sure what that story will be, of course; I’m running around like a crazy person publicizing my current book! But I’m cogitating. Stay tuned….

waldorf

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Autumn in New York

I know, I know, it’s not QUITE autumn. But I found myself humming the song “Autumn in New York” last weekend—even singing it at one point, to the huge embarrassment of my young nephew Michael!—as my family and I spent a couple of whirlwind days in the Big Apple. The whirlwind applied to the emotions involved as well as the pace of the days.

The main purpose of our sojourn in the city was to attend an auction at Sotheby’s. In April my brother David contacted the auction house about selling several items from our parents’ collection of Indian art. We were/are in need of money, and we were also a bit nervous about having a lot of art in our homes without being able to afford to insure it adequately.

Since our initial contact, we have spent a lot of time talking on the phone with the wonderful staff at Sotheby’s, saying goodbye to paintings (I will particularly miss the toy that used to hang on my wall here in Massachusetts), and working on the catalogue essay about our parents.

This toy (pictured on my wall) has now gone to a new home.

I wasn’t sure I actually wanted to be at the auction, watching paintings I had lived with all my life go out into the wider world, but David and his wife Leigh convinced me that it would be an interesting experience. So on Saturday I boarded the Megabus in Hadley, Massachusetts, and sailed down the highway toward the metropolis.

The bus ride was delightful, particularly the spectacular drive down Fifth Avenue when we finally reached the city. From my perch in the front of the bus’s upper story I could see women promenading in colorful African-inspired costumes in Harlem, crowds clustered in front of the Guggenheim and Metropolitan Museums, the lush greenery of Central Park, and the lively windows of elegant department stores and boutiques.

The View from the Bus

We all stayed in a tiny suite in a hotel near Times Square; the windows seemed almost brighter at night than by day thanks to the area’s signature neon. I do love New York. It’s like a giant nightlight. On Saturday evening we ate fabulous Brazilian food.

Before dinner, however, we stopped in at the reception for Asia Week at Sotheby’s. There we saw our art in a new context. We also had the opportunity to look at exquisite Chinese scrolls, fans, and furniture that were to be offered at auction later in the week.

On Sunday morning we went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We’re trying very hard to convince Michael that New York is a place to absorb culture, not just shop at Nintendo World and FAO Schwartz. Being a 12-year-old boy, he was particularly taken with the displays of weapons and armor, although we did manage to sneak in a little art along the way.

Michael and David survey armor.

Sunday afternoon we saw the comedy Peter and the Starcatcher. I hadn’t seen a show in New York in years so I had convinced the family to book discount tickets in advance. When I discovered that David, Leigh, and Michael had dinner plans with friends for Sunday evening, I quickly ran to another theater and bought myself an orchestra seat (full price—ouch!) for the evening performance of An Enemy of the People. A girl can always use a little Ibsen in her life.

The auction itself, which took place on Monday afternoon, was fascinating. Most of the art was displayed via video, but a few key pieces (including a couple of ours) were brought to the auction room. Just before the auction a man in a cherry picker zoomed about the room to point spotlights at the works.

Bidders were “present” in three ways: in the room, on the other end of several phones monitored by Sotheby’s employees, and on the internet. The auctioneer, Henry, could see the web bids on a special screen in the back of the room; he was very suave and smart keeping all the different types of bids straight.

The screen at the front of the room showed a picture of the piece or pieces up for bid at the moment, along with the amount of the current bid in a variety of currencies. I was a little weepy as we said goodbye to the lovely lady pictured below, but watching the bidding distracted me from my tears.

Some of our pieces did very well, exceeding the amounts our team—Priyanka, Laurie, Jackie, and Henry—had predicted. Some attracted a little less attention (and money!) than they and we had hoped.

Apparently, the rupee isn’t doing well vis-à-vis the dollar at the moment. So Sotheby’s had trouble finding bidders for the centerpiece of the collection, a large canvas by the late M.F. Husain.

We talked to Priyanka about it just before the auction and decided that we didn’t want to lower its minimum price too much. We are fond of the painting, which my father acquired in the early 1970s because the artist wanted it to go to a good home and didn’t want to sell it to anyone else.

In the end it will come home to us, as will a couple of other pieces that didn’t meet their minimum bids. We’re actually thrilled about this. We could have used a little more money. Who couldn’t? I’m still trying to figure out how I’ll pay all my bills going forward. But we also love the art, both for itself and as a link to our late parents.

This large piece will return to David and Leigh’s house.

Happily, that link actually grew stronger through the process of consigning the rest of the art for sale. Leigh and David threw themselves into the task of doing research on the art and our parents’ reasons for collecting, and I wrote the essay about Jan and Abe that opens the catalogue. The photo below, which we found while going through boxes of old papers, illustrated the essay. We think it was taken around 1960.

Jackie, who did the rest of the writing for the catalogue, told us that she, Laurie, and Priyanka fell in love with the photo when I sent it in. (They all watch Mad Men and love the 1960s.) She ran into Priyanka’s office with the image and said, “Meet the Weisblats!”

Left to right: Laurie, Priyanka, and Jackie in front of one of our (former) paintings by Ram Kumar

As I wrote the essay and my siblings and I edited it together, we gleaned new information about our parents. I now actually know what my father did for a living … more or less. (When asked in my youth, I always responded that his profession consisted of talking on the telephone.)

We have a renewed appreciation for their energy, their openness to new experiences, and the ways in which they reached out to people all over the world.

And of course we appreciate their taste in amassing such a lovely collection of art … and in producing such a wonderful family. They were with us in spirit at Sotheby’s, and much of their art will continue to adorn our walls for years to come.

This Girl’s Notes on “That Girl”

I have watched several episodes of That Girl (1966-1971) in the past week as research for my (extremely) forthcoming book of recipes from classic TV shows.

I realize that watching television may not exactly sound like work. Sometimes it feels like work, however. I viewed scores of episodes of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet for my doctoral dissertation—no easy task. Ozzie’s insecurities and Babbitt-isms can wear on a person very quickly.

That Girl was a lot easier to watch–but challenging in its own way.

As older viewers and Netflix addicts may recall, That Girl followed the adventures of Ann Marie, an aspiring young actress striking out on her own in New York City.

Marlo Thomas, who served as the producer of the show as well as its star, apparently originally wanted to name the series Miss Independence. Her father, entertainer Danny Thomas, had often applied this nickname to his eldest child.

In later years Marlo Thomas made claims for her show that were perhaps a little farfetched. “’That Girl’ threw the hand grenade into the bunker and everybody else got to walk through,” she told a fan website in 2010, making it sound as though Ann Marie was television’s first and most important single female protagonist.

She wasn’t. She was one of the most memorable and most assertive female characters of her era, however. Ann is a social creature who experiences her life and career in partnership with her boyfriend, Donald Hollinger (Ted Bessell), and her loving but slightly disapproving parents, Lew and Helen (Lew Parker and Rosemary DeCamp).

Thomas and Ted Bessell

Nevertheless, she is financially independent of all three—and although she cares about their opinions she charts her own path. She is often outspoken, although always charmingly so.

Watching this character cavort through New York City this past week has made me want to BE Ann Marie.

Certainly, I’d love to have her postitive attitude, not to mention her plain old gumption. I have wanted to live in New York all my life but never believed that I could make enough money to go out and rent an apartment there. In the pilot Ann just packs her bags, gets on a train, and starts living in the city.

I’d also love to have her figure and wardrobe. True to type, Ann is a slender and attractive creature, with extraordinarily chic clothes.

I haven’t seen this episode so I have NO IDEA what a turkey is doing with Ann Marie. But her dress is predictably fab.

Her bright, mod wardrobe embodies ABC’s move away from black-and-white broadcasting; when That Girl debuted the network had been showing most of its programs in color for only a very short time.

Ann Marie’s eyes have eyelashes that, in my friend Alice’s words, resemble the business end of yard rakes. These enormous fringed eyes seem to take in everything that New York and life have to offer. Ann is a positive and joyful figure, trying, in the words of Marlo Thomas, “to get a bite out of life.”

The part of me that wants to be Ann Marie also knows that facets of her identity may be slightly disturbing for me as a feminist.

First, her job is acting (a career to which I aspired when I was little and watching reruns of That Girl), hardly a ground-breaking line of work for a female.

Second, her extreme adorability could be a problem for a person who wants the world to take her seriously. Often Ann gets her way not because her arguments are strongest but because she is so darn cute that people in power can’t resist her.

I love getting my way, and I even enjoy being cute. I’m not sure that being cute should be my preferred path to success, however.

Finally, I’m a little bothered by Ann’s ethnic identity … or lack thereof. Her truly lovely face–with its big eyes, tiny nose, and huge smile—and her fetching flip hairstyle (the show was underwritten by Clairol) are bland yet hugely appealing; it’s easy for any girl to identify with Ann and her perspective.

But … Marlo Thomas was her Lebanese-American father and Italian-American mother’s daughter. Pictures of the young Marlo show a nose that was definitely prominent, although it couldn’t quite compete with her father’s famed beak.

Two Thomases

That young Marlo is striking. She’s ethnic. She’s not drop dead gorgeous according to popular standards, however, not the Marlo of later years. She’s not “That Girl.” And so … clearly, somewhere along the way, her nose (at the very least) mutated.

Wanting to be Ann Marie, then, makes me a little nervous about the thought of abandoning my own sizeable nose and my own ethnic identity. And it makes me wonder whether Marlo Thomas, a noted feminist, ever doubted her own choices in recreating herself as Ann Marie.

I’d still love to live in New York. Maybe one of these days I’ll just get on that train and see what happens. I’ll try to be my own girl if and when I get there, however.

By the way, in case anyone was wondering what I’m planning to cook from this series, I’m taking my cue from the second season opener of That Girl, which aired in September 1967.

In it Ann Marie gets a walk-on part in a week-long revival of the musical Gypsy, starring the legendary Ethel Merman. In a silly but (yes!) cute plot twist, Ann and Donald end up inviting La Merm to dinner at Ann’s apartment—and Ethel herself volunteers to prepare her favorite dish, stuffed cabbage.

Hmm … Ethel Merman. Now, there’s someone who might be an interesting role model for this girl.

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Country Mouse in the Big City

My city hostess Bobbie and I are both hams.

City folk—particularly New York City folk—may want to avert their eyes from this little essay.

I’m writing about how much I ADORE the city. I know those who live there may sometimes take their environment for granted. I don’t, however.

Last week I spent a few days in New York at a cookbook conference. I’ll write more about the conference itself once I finish going through the copious notes I took. When that time comes I promise not to subject readers to a blow-by-blow (bite-by-bite?) description.

For now, I thought I’d just share my excitement about New York.

When I was small going to New York was a big deal. I’m old enough (shudder!) to recall putting on a hat and white gloves to go into the city as a little girl. In my mind’s eye I can still see my reflection in a department store window—shiny patent-leather shoes, pink dress and matching coat, white gloves, white bonnet, big smile.

Times have changed. This time around I arrived in jeans, although I did wear a little makeup. Despite my casual wardrobe I was again smiling as I stepped off the bus at 33rd Street. Going to New York is still a big deal, even without the gloves and hat.

Within my first five minutes in the city I saw more people on the street than live in my hometown of Hawley, Massachusetts.

My friend Peter and I sped through traffic in taxis—first to my friend Bobbie’s house to drop off my luggage, then to Peter’s high-rise apartment, where his dogs Lucca and Marco greeted me and led me to the window to admire the view.

Over the next few days, in between conference sessions, I spent time with old friends. Peter and his partner Ken took me out to a cozy yet elegant Indian dinner.

I shared onion soup and show-business gossip with Jani, my former colleague at the Paley Center for Media, who spent much of our time together looking up potential publishers and agents for me. (Jani is the Paley Center’s head of research and never stops thinking about how to use her knowledge to help friends and colleagues.)

And I received love, food, and a little too much motherly advice from my hostess, Bobbie.

My college roommate Amy used to say that Bobbie and her late husband Buddy were the best excuse for New York City that she could think of. This was at a time when New York’s image was slightly tarnished in the public eye. Buddy and Bobbie imbued the city with humor and restored its glamour.

They dressed well, talked loudly, laughed and sang infectiously, and were intensely interested in the people around them. It would have been hard to find people more colorful or charming.

If New York still needed an excuse today, Bobbie would provide it even without Buddy, who has been dead for 20 years. She is a passionate city dweller, going to theatrical or musical events just about every day (sometimes twice a day) and expressing her opinion of every one with gusto.

Staying with her was both fun and maddening since Bobbie likes to express her opinions about people as well as performances. My coat was too light. My shoes were unsuitable for snow (of which we had but a few flurries). I drank unhealthy beverages. (Diet soda is my only real vice.) My luggage was disorganized.

When I told her that I was trying to revive my career and make more money this year she said flatly, “You don’t have a career, and you’re too old to start one.” Ouch.

Somehow—probably because I wasn’t staying with her permanently—I managed to ignore her criticisms and even find them slightly endearing. They came from love, after all, and were intended to be constructive. And I enjoyed catching up on her family’s news, talking about the theater, and hearing her sing Stephen Sondheim tunes as I was dressing in the mornings.

To and from my destinations in the city I generally walked or rode the bus. I know the subway is faster, but when one is only in New York for a little while one likes to see everything.

During one late-night bus ride I marveled at the diversity of the city. My fellow passengers were a very large man in a wheelchair, singing off key at the top of his lungs; a woman in a red coat talking in Chinese on her cell phone; and a fur-clad woman discussing job prospects (in English) on another cell phone.

I was the only one looking out the window at the people, dogs, and lighted buildings we passed. I was tickled at my own silence.

And I loved the fact that at any hour of the day or night people are bustling about in the city.

I remember only one exception to this activity. I was working in Manhattan on September 11, 2011, commuting back and forth from my mother’s house in New Jersey.

No one was allowed to enter or leave Manhattan on the night of the 11th so I stayed with my brother and his wife in their apartment.

The next day my office was closed. I learned that a few trains were running from Penn Station to New Jersey so I hoofed it down Seventh Avenue to catch one.

As I walked down the long street I heard absolute silence. I saw no one else walking. No buses or taxis passed me.

I got to Times Square—Times Square, which is filled with people even in the middle of the night!—and saw nothing but bare pavement and a few pieces of paper fluttering in the breeze. Storefronts had their grills firmly shut. I felt as though I had stepped into a post-Apocalyptic science-fiction film.

It took days for people to start moving in the city again. And it took months for Times Square to regain its bustle.

So now when I see people, cars, and buses moving about Manhattan I can’t take the city’s activity for granted. It is something to be savored and celebrated.

I’m still smiling as I type this, and I’ve been home for two days.

My soon-to-be kitten and I wish everyone a Happy Valentine's Day. Be ours!