R.I.P. Mr. Frishberg

Frishberg in 2011. Photo by Beth Nakamura, The Oregonian

There are two great things about my job. The first is that you can do it in a room in your house. The second is that you get to call up people like Dave Frishberg and, if they’re agreeable, hang out with them for a while.

Frishberg was very kind and generous to me when I contacted him for an interview for my book The B Side. He met me in a bar downtown Portland, Oregon (we both had coffee), and gave me great stuff, including a word-for-word memory of the advice Frank Loesser had given him about lyric writing, sixty years previously:

“Make every statement in the lyrics that you’re using refer to the concept that’s in the title. Don’t leave the listener hanging. Keep the listener interested and surprised, so he can appreciate it and be ready for your next thought. And when you pull off something flashy that you want the listener to remember, to be impressed by, that’s when you put in a riff, a couple of bars. Don’t pile climaxes or punchlines next to each other.”

“Take Back Your Mink”/”Peel Me a Grape.” QED

At the time he was talking to Loesser, in the mid-to-late 1950s, his songwriting was going nowhere and he was making a living as a (superb) piano accompanist to singers like Dick Haymes and Carmen McRae. (His jazz chops were never in doubt.)

He told me: “I tried to write for what I perceived was the market. I ended up writing shit, on purpose. I was trying to sound like this writer or that. A few country songs, a few folk songs–that was big at the time. After two or three years of futility, I abandoned that. I began to write songs as if it were 1937. The music that I liked to play, the music I liked to listen to, was music from the Gershwins, from Porter. I thought to myself, ‘If that’s the stuff you love so much, that’s what you should try to write like.’ Of course, when I said that, I abdicated from the market. But I began to enjoy songwriting more.”

There followed “Devil May Care,” “Do You Miss New York?”, “Quality Time,” “My Attorney Bernie,” “Van Lingle Mungo,” “I’m Hip” (music by Bob Dorough), “You Are There” (music by Johnny Mandel), and, all the obits remind us, “I’m Just a Bill.”

I talked to him by phone a bit after our Portland interview and he pulled out a postcard sent to him by Johnny Mercer, circa 1969 or ’70. He read it aloud in its entirety: “You are my favorite lyric writer at the moment. Boy are you uncommercial!!!” (Frishberg counted out the four exclamation points.)

When the book came out, Frishberg gave it a great blurb. Ever the mensch, he said he would play the piano and maybe recruit his colleague Rebecca Kilgore to sing if I could arrange a book event in Portland. The worst thing about my job are the regrets, and one of my biggest is that I didn’t do whatever it took to make that happen.

Alphabetical Publication Credits

In the bio at right, I note that I’ve written for publications that that start with every letter of the alphabet but two. Here’s a fairly complete list. A * indicates defunct.


*American Film

American Heritage

The American Journalism Review

The American Scholar

The American Spectator

American Speech

The Atlantic

*Atlantic City Magazine


Baltimore Magazine


*Brill’s Content

*Business Month


*Campus Voice


*Channels of Communication

The Chronicle of Higher Education

*The City Paper

Columbia Journalism Review

Connecticut Magazine


The Daily Beast












*In Health

*Inquirer Magazine


Jewish Daily Forward


[New York] Knickerbockers Program


*Lingua Franca



*Los Angeles Times Magazine


*Mid-Atlantic Country


*New Boston Review

*New England Monthly

New Jersey Monthly

*The New Leader

*New York Observer

The New Republic

New York Times Arts and Leisure

New York Times Book Review

New York Times Magazine

New York Times Metropolitan Section

New York Times Op-Ed Page

New York Times Sunday Review




Nieman Storyboard



Oklahoma Today


Pennsylvania Gazette

Philadelphia Daily News

Philadelphia Inquirer

Philadelphia Magazine

Philadelphia Weekly






Rolling Stone



*Saturday Review




Sports Illustrated

*Stop Smiling

Swarthmore Bulletin


Texas Monthly

*Travel & Leisure

TV Guide


USA Today


The Village Voice



The Wall Street Journal

The Washington Post Magazine

The Week

The Wilson Quarterly



The Yale Alumni Magazine

O. Henry Collected

I’m pleased to announce that the edition of O. Henry short stories I edited for the Library of America has been published and is available for purchase. The early reception has been good, with nice notices in The New Yorker and the Washington Post and an excellent starred review from Kirkus:

A treasure vault of work by a master of the short story form. . . . Yagoda’s well-selected anthology follows O. Henry through all his phases, from Texas bank clerk to fugitive (on account of embezzlement) in Honduras, federal prisoner, and, finally, reasonably successful New Yorker. The volume’s highlight, of course, is Henry’s best-known and much-loved story, ‘The Ransom of Red Chief,’ in which two con men kidnap a ‘boy of ten, with bas-relief freckles, and hair the colour of the cover of the magazine you buy at the news-stand when you want to catch a train,’ who makes their lives a bit of hell on Earth. Most of the stories, ‘Red Chief’ foremost among them, read as if freshly written. . . . The volume provides ample evidence for why one of American literature’s most eminent literary awards should be named for the author. Essential for students of the short story and for fans of Henry’s work.

Reading and evaluating all of O. Henry’s 350-plus works and tracking down every obscure reference for the end notes definitely were time-consuming, but the exercise was always painless and mainly enjoyable. That’s because O. Henry (born William Sidney Porter in 1862) was an excellent craftsman with a lot more tools in his box than the sentimentality and twist ending we know from his most famous story, “The Gift of the Magi.”

I’ll have more to say on this subject in the weeks ahead. So watch this space.

Looks like “looks like me” has arrived

The shirts were the tipping point. After the 2020 election was finally called, they started trickling, then flooding, onto Etsy and other sites. At this point, a Google search for “t shirt” and the rhyming words on the item below yields about 45,000 hits.

Before the phrase was on people’s torsos, some version of it was in their mouths. A lot. To cite a handful of hundreds of published examples, all uttered within a few days of the election:

  • “I’m especially thinking about the little girls of all colors, but in particular, Black and brown girls, because there’s so much power in seeing someone who looks like you.”—ABS News anchor Linsey Davis
  • “So many little girls are waking up across the country saying it is possible. I can be anything I want to be because she looks like me.”—Howard University alumna Wendy Howard
  • “I’m so glad happy to finally have someone in the White House that looks like me.”—Lakhia Day, an official with the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority

Leslé Honoré adapted one of her poems so that the opening lines read:

Brown girl brown girl

What do you see

I see a Vice President

That looks like me

Then videos of little girls reciting it, like this one, made their way across the internet.

Far from springing up out of nowhere, the “looks like me” trope, in reference to racial identity, has been building momentum for years. In past decades, it was a once-in-a-while thing, as when a Spelman University student told Essence magazine in 1993, “I think this environment is kind of a utopia in terms of race and gender. Everybody here looks like me. We’re all just Black women, and that really gives us a unique experience.”

The phrase picked up speed with the election of Barack Obama in 2008. In fact, he inspired two similarly titled books: The President Looks Like Me & Other Poems, by Tony Medina, and Somebody in the White House Looks Like Me, by Rosetta L. Hopkins. Obama himself memorably invoked the trope in his remarks in 2012 after the killing of Trayvon Martin: “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.”

But as with much else, it was probably Michelle Obama who cemented the phrase in the national consciousness. At the opening of the Whitney Museum in 2015, she said: “You see, there are so many kids in this country who look at places like museums and concert halls and other cultural centers and they think to themselves, well, that’s not a place for me, for someone who looks like me, for someone who comes from my neighborhood.”

At the 2019 Oscar awards, Phil Lord, the director of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse—in which the superhero’s secret identity is teenaged Miles Morales—said, “When we hear that somebody’s kid was watching the movie and turned to them and said, ‘He looks like me,’ or ‘They speak Spanish like us,’ we feel like we already won.”

Later that year, while facing impeachment hearings, Donald Trump tweeted: “All Republicans must remember what they are witnessing here—a lynching.” Rep. Karen Bass responded: “You are comparing a constitutional process to the PREVALENT and SYSTEMATIC brutal torture of people in THIS COUNTRY that looked like me?”  And Rep. Bobby Rush: “Do you know how many people who look like me have been lynched, since the inception of this country, by people who look like you.”

And then came Kamala Harris. A few weeks after the election, she doubled down on—and broadened—the phrase, lauding President-elect Joe Biden for his “commitment to making sure we selected a cabinet that looks like America.” Biden himself invoked the phrase (mangling the syntax a bit) while swearing in staffers on Inauguration Day: “We ran on a promise that this administration would look like America looks.”

As I write, a Google News search of the phrase “looks like me” yields 122 hits in the last week, from an Ohio professor who said, ““As a woman of color myself, specifically South Asian, I cannot express what it means to have someone who looks like me and has had similar life experiences to me in this position” (seven days ago), to a Missouri student’s comment on Harris’s swearing-in: “It felt good because I saw somebody that looks like me and anything is possible” (19 minutes ago). And that of course doesn’t count variations including “looks like them,” “looks like America,” and many more.

“…who looks like me” belongs to a long history of American terms for racial minorities (itself one of the terms). You could almost distill a history of the country from a list of them: colored, Negro, black, African-American, people of color, black and brown people, Black, BIPOC. And those are only the printable ones. Especially for people who are part of the racial majority, as I am, all the terms are problematic, or at least complicated and not-quite-adequate, in ways that don’t need to be rehearsed here.  

And maybe the most appealing thing about “looks like me” is that it’s not problematic. In fact, it’s immune to the usual carping and criticism—it’s pretty much indisputable.

I’ve referred to “looks like me” and its variations as a trope, in other words, a figure of speech. This particular figure is a form of synecdoche, or the part standing for the whole, as in saying “the postal worker is having a tough year,” when you mean all postal workers. This terminology comes from literary criticism, which suggests another element of the power of “looks like me”: it’s poetry, not a prosaic and reductive label. It powerfully and economically particularizes a clunkier word, “representation.” Good poetry makes us see what we perhaps hadn’t seen before, and so it is here. 

A final attribute of the phrase is that it makes a rather brilliantly concise statement against racial essentialism. That is, it implicitly argues that our differences are a matter of looks, appearances, not something ingrained.

The only potential pitfall I see in “looks like me” is overuse. That wasn’t a worry in the nouns and adjectives that came before, but figures of speech can become cliches at warp speed (to use a cliché). So it might make sense to go easy on using “looks like me.” But maybe that isn’t for someone who looks like me to say.

Journalism’s Greatest Hits

Note circled book, with gold rectangle on the spine, on David Fahrenthold’s shelf.

Twenty years ago, I was honored to be asked by the NYU Journalism School to be a judge for the selection of the greatest works of journalism of the twentieth century. They asked me again ten years ago to help choose the best journalism of the first decade of the 2000s, and again some months back for the years 2010-2019.

The way it worked was that all the judges — comprising the NYU faculty, plus Madeleine Blais, Leon Dash, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, Wesley Lowery, Greil Marcus, Nilay Patel, Dorothy Rabinowitz, Dan Rather, Frank Rich, David Remnick, Walter Shapiro, Sree Sreenivasan, Sarah Stillman, and yours truly — were asked to submit nominations. Then the full list of 122 nominees was sent out to everyone, and we were to vote for our top ten, in order.

My ballot, including the way I ordered my votes, was admittedly strategic. That is I put a couple of selections in high places not because I could or would make an air-tight case that they were the third and fourth best pieces of journalism of the decade, but because I thought they were absolutely great and they hadn’t quite gotten the recognition they deserved. Conversely, I left out a couple of works because I knew they would (deservedly) get a whole lotta love from the other judges.

Beyond that, I valued works that:

*Afflicted the comfortable.

*(Even better) Comforted the afflicted.

*Displayed disciplined, brave and indefatigable feats of reporting.

*Were stylistically excellent or innovative.

*Moved the national conversation.

*Represented work by a person or organization that had been doing great work for a long time and I felt deserved this level of recognition. (You could call this the John Wayne Oscar phenomenon.)

*I was a bit of a hard-ass on definition of journalism, meaning that I sometimes looked askance at works that seemed to belong more to memoir, essay, or history.

Six of the works on my ballot did not make the top ten. So I will list the six here, in alphabetical order, with descriptions provided by the NYU folks, which I’ll in some cases add my two cents to. And then I’ll give the works that did make it.

The six I voted for:

Matthew Desmond, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. “An amazing work of immersion journalism.” “Gripping … offers not only a close-up examination of its subjects lives but a meta-analysis of the larger problem.” “The reader understands profiteering from the ground up.”

One thing that excited me about Desmond’s book was the way he landed it on the precise intersection between journalism and ethnography (with a good dollop of public-policy thrown in).

Glenn Greenwald, Barton Gellman, with Laura Poitras and Ewen MacAskill, Revelations of NSA domestic surveillance based on documents from Edward Snowden, The Guardian US, Washington Post. “Changed the world.”

Glenn Kessler and Fact Checker Team, Database of Donald Trump’s false or misleading statements, Washington Post. “A rigorously reported and continually updated list of false statements by the president, numbering more than 19,000 by June 2020. The project is a sterling example of what journalists should do — holding the powerful accountable by using reporting and facts.”

As of July 9: 20,055.

N.R. Kleinfield,The Lonely Death of George Bell,” New York Times. “A detailed examination of what happens after the death of an obscure hoarder — followed by an account of the man’s life that lifts him out of obscurity. Kleinfield’s article represents the pinnacle of narrative feature writing — scrupulously reported, ingeniously structured, and written with clear-eyed empathy.”

I think I actually wrote that, so I’ll add only that the fact that “Sonny” Kleinfield never won a Pulitzer for feature writing is a scandal and a travesty.

Ira Glass, Julie Snyder, Ben Calhoun, Alex Kotlowitz, Linda Lutton and Robyn Semien,Harper High School,” This American Life. “At Harper High School in Chicago, twenty-nine current or recent students were shot in the span of a single year. Learning of this staggering statistic, This American Life embedded three reporters at the school for five months” — Peabody Awards website.

This was an admirable package–but I wanted to recognize “This American Life” because Ira Glass’s now venerable program really did create a great and new form without which it would be hard to imagine “Serial” and just about any other worthwhile narrative journalism podcast that’s not just one or two people sitting around talking.

Frederick Wiseman, In Jackson Heights. “From-the-ground-up portrait of a Queens neighborhood in transition, from the dean of American documentarians. Wiseman has been doing amazing work for more than half a century.”

In Jackson Heights is a great piece of work, with the rigor, indelible characters, intermittent exhilaration and occasional frustration (10-minute dialogues in Spanish with no subtitles) one expects in Wiseman, but I voted for it in recognition of his amazing body of work.

And here’s the NYU top ten:


Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Case for Reparations, The Atlantic.

“Beautifully written, meticulously reported, highly persuasive …” “The most powerful essay of its time.” “Ground breaking.” “It influenced the public conversation so much that it became a necessary topic in the presidential debate.”


Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.

“It’s a masterwork by one of our greatest writers and most diligent reporters. Exquisitely written as it is researched, embracing breadth and detail alike, essential reading to understand America.” “A masterpiece of narrative nonfiction.”


Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite a Movement. Based on their reporting for the New York Times.

“A chronicle of the #MeToo era.” “A pitch-perfect primer on how to take a hot-button-chasing by-the-minutes breaking story and investigate it with the best and most honorable journalistic practices.” “This is one of the defining issues of our times, one whose impact will be felt for a long time.”


Katherine Boo, Behind the Beautiful Forevers.

“Unbelievably well written and well reported portrait of a slum in Mumbai.” “Vividly reports on the life of this slum’s inhabitants.”


Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.

“The book demonstrates the ways in which the War on Drugs, and its resulting incarceration policies and processes, operate against people of color in the same way as Jim Crow. Powerful on its own terms and crucial as an engine toward transforming the criminality of our ‘justice’ system.”


Julie K Brown, “How a Future Trump Cabinet Member Gave a Serial Sex Abuser the Deal of a Lifetime,” Miami Herald.

“Investigative journalist for The Miami Herald, examines a secret plea deal that helped Jeffrey Epstein evade federal charges related to sexual abuse.” “Brown essentially picked up a cold case; without her reporting, Epstein’s crimes and prosecutors’ dereliction would not be known.” “Great investigative reporting.” “Documenting the abuses of Jeffrey Epstein when virtually everyone else had dropped the story. “What makes this particularly compelling for me is that Brown did the reporting amid the economic collapse of a great regional paper.” “A remarkable effort to empower victims.”


Sheri Fink, Five Days At Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital.

“In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. This is narrative medical journalism at its finest: compelling, compassionate, and unsettling.”


Nikole Hannah-Jones, Matthew Desmond, Jeneen Interlandi, Kevin M. Kruse, Jamelle Bouie, Linda Villarosa, Wesley Morris, Khalil Gibran Muhammad, Bryan Stevenson, Trymaine Lee, Djeneba Aduayom, Nikita Stewart, Mary Elliott, Jazmine Hughes, The 1619 Project, New York Times Magazine.

“Explores the beginning of American slavery and reframes the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.” “A definitive work of opinion journalism examining the lingering role of slavery in American society.”


David A. Fahrenthold, Series of articles demonstrating that most of candidate Donald Trump’s claimed charitable giving was bogus, Washington Post.

“By contacting hundreds of charities — interactions recorded on what became a well-known legal pad — Fahrenthold proved that Trump had never given what he claimed to have given or much at all, despite, in one instance, having sat on the stage as if he had.”


Staff of the Washington Post, Police shootings database 2015 to present.

“The definitive journalistic exploration and documentation of fatal police shootings in America. In a decade defined, in part, by the emergence of Black Lives Matter, this Washington Post project set a new standard for real-time, data journalism and was a vital resource during a still-raging national debate.” “In the wake of Ferguson, newsrooms across the country took up admirable data reporting efforts to fill the longstanding gaps in existing federal data on police use of force. This project stands out both in its comprehensiveness and sustained dedication.

NYU put together a pretty impressive (all things considered) Zoom presentation on the night of the announcements, with almost all the winners on hand to offer appreciation for the honor and heartfelt words about what their projects meant to them.

The photo at the top of the post is a screengrab of David Fahrenthold’s remarks. I was moved to grab it because on his bookshelf (circled in black), I spotted a copy of The Art of Fact: A Historical Anthology of Literary Journalism, edited by Kevin Kerrane and me.

Olive-Picking: The Director’s Cut

Last week, The Wall Street Journal published an article by me, which you can read here. It had to be cut a fair amount; here’s the original version, with the added bonus of a bunch of photos.

Oddly, Tonio Creanza is not familiar with the expression “low-hanging fruit.” It’s odd because although he’s a native of Altamura, in the Puglia region of southeastern Italy (the heel of the boot), he has spent most of his time in Vancouver for years and is completely fluent in English. It’s also odd because the low-hanging fruit is precisely what he is instructing me to get.

On a cloudy but mild mid-November morning, we’re standing under an olive tree outside Altamura—one of 700 his family owns on seven separate plots, and, for six generations, have harvested to produce olive oil. It’s smack dab in the middle of the harvest, which is short (about two weeks) but intense: “non-stop running,” Tonio calls it. The operation is too big for the Creanzas to pick all the olives themselves, but small enough that if they hired workers, an already iffy balance sheet would plunge straight to deep red. So they rely on volunteers, one of whom is me.

Gigi wielding the rastrello.

The technique Tonio’s showing me is pretty simple, and, with minor variations, the way the harvest has been done for millennia. With one hand, grab a hand-rake (rastrello, in Italian). With the other, bunch some branches, laden with that low-hanging purple fruit. Then start methodically brushing the olives out. They come loose easily, landing on appropriately olive-colored netting (reto) spread out under the tree, with satisfying plunks. In fact, they’re so plentiful that after I’ve been at it for ten minutes, Tonio rushes over to gently inform me that as I move about, I have been stepping on the olives and crushing them, spilling the oil and ever so slightly diminishing the yield. “Look where you are putting your feet,” he says. “Work from there, then find a new spot for each foot. It’s a mindset.”

Olives on the netting.

And it’s a lesson I’ll absorb over the upcoming days of work: although the 700 trees will yield about twenty tons of olives, each one is precious.

I first encountered Tonio Creanza, 51, when my wife, Gigi, searching for opportunities to work on art restoration in Italy, came upon his program Messors  (www.messors.com). We signed on, and in July 2018 spend a fascinating nine days working to maintain religious frescoes, some nearly 1000 years old, in the underground caves that dot the Puglian countryside. Over dinner one night, Tonio mentioned that the family relies on volunteers each November to harvest the olives that go into Famiglia Creanza olive oil (which we were at that precise moment generously applying to home-made eggplant parmigiana).

The seed of the idea, thus planted, grew for a year or so, till we finally asked Tonio if he would take us on. Gigi and I don’t fit the mold: in his posting on Workaway (https://www.workaway.info/) – which connects volunteers and hosts worldwide – he asks for a commitment of three weeks in exchange for room and board, and chooses six hardy twenty-somethings out of sixty or more applicants. We are Medicare age, wanted to work for only four days, and preferred finding our own accommodations.

If he had said no, we probably would have signed on to a food-based Messors workshop, held in September, in which participants learn about, and cook with, “the fundamentals of southern Italian cuisine” — olive oil, wine, durum wheat flour, cheese, and seasonal produce, in the process hanging around with farmers, chefs, cheese-makers, and shepherds. (https://messors.com/shepherds-food-culture-cooking-culinary-heritage/)

But he said yes. And so, when November 11 rolled around, we flew to Rome, boarded a four-hour express train to the Puglian seaside city of Bari, rented a car, drove forty minutes to our elegant $55-a-day Airbnb in the heart of Altamura, a city of 70,000, then took a ten-minute walk to the Creanza house for dinner.

We were buzzed in and ascended to the second floor, where we found Tonio’s 85-year-old mother, Grazia, hard at work grating cheese. (In our experience, she was always hard at work, always wearing black, always, despite the barrier of her not speaking English and us not speaking Italian, making it clear we were welcome in her home.) At the stove was his sister-in-law Rosanna, who lives upstairs with Tonio’s brother Peppe and their two grown daughters. Tonio and the volunteers drifted in. There was Faith, on sabbatical from the food industry in New Orleans; Dylan, on sabbatical from construction work in Ontario; Marie, a native of Switzerland on sabbatical from her work as a chocolatier in Vancouver …. everybody seemed to be on sabbatical from something

They’d been together long enough to develop multi-lingual in-jokes and patter. Tonight, they were figuring out how to say “Sorry, not sorry” in Italian. (“Mi dispiace, non mi dispiace.”) Dylan – soft-spoken, tight-end-sized, and, we’d discover, the volunteer who took on the heaviest labor and never tired – had been consuming maybe a few more calories than the prodigious number he expended, and had developed a commensurate belly. His friends decided he looked “otto messi” – eight months pregnant. But despite our advanced age and newcomer status, the group immediately took us in as equals.

The day before, this olive oil was olives.

When we sat down to eat, I began to understand what happened to Dylan. The meal was fresh, local, and fabulous: pasta with cabbage (a Puglian specialty), dressed with home-made croutons and that grated cheese; delicately fried slices of zucchini; the characteristic yellow-hued bread Altamura is famous for; red wine from a neighbor’s vineyard; and, for dessert, caramelized onions and a local melon called gialetto. On everything but the dessert, we poured olive oil that had been pressed the night before from olives picked the day before. It was green, nutty in taste, and invitingly pungent. Tonio explained that while the oil the family bottles and ships at the end of the harvest is a mix of the different varietals found in their groves, Mrs. Creanza insists on bottles entirely from the Ogliarola trees. “The minerals in the limestone give it a special taste,” he says.

We drove to the Creanzas’ the next morning at 7:30, and followed two white vans to the Ogliarola groves about twenty minutes outside of town. The group, with a scant week of experience, worked like a well-oiled machine. Within minutes, the reti were laid under a group of four or five trees and the labor was wordlessly divided. Tonio, Dylan, and Faith poked the higher branches with long-handled pneumatic devices with two flapping rakes at the end (abbacchiatore); the rest of us took up rastrelli and started raking branches. It took fifteen or twenty minutes to denude a tree. At that point, a couple of people would pick up the reto at the corners so that the olives were bunched in the middle; kneel down to discard any sticks or small branches; then pour the fruit into crates. When three or four crates were full, four or five of us would form a “train” to pick them up and carry them to the vans. (Each one weighed about 30 kilos, or 66 pounds.) Then repeat.

The work was absorbing in the way repetitive but mindful labor can be, and before I knew it, it was lunchtime. Ah, lunchtime. The meal was laid out on a table cloth and served on china: a bread and tomato salad called cialledda, ratatouille-like caponata, a cold peppers dish called composta, olive oil, bread, wine, cookies, and local oranges. (The Creanzas aren’t vegetarian, but Puglian cuisine is sparing in its use of meat.)


Two separate cars slowed as they passed us, and the drivers each shouted something in Italian. Tonio told us, “They’re saying, ‘This is the way you work??’”

The answer to that rhetorical question is yes: the sit-down lunch is of a piece with Tonio’s feelings about maintaining and celebrating the ways of his region. Thus he doesn’t miss a moment to give Gigi, me, and the others deep background on what we’re eating, doing, or seeing. And he doesn’t just use the volunteers for labor, but, after the harvest is done, spends a week shepherding them to cultural attractions in the area, including the city of Matera, a UNESCO historical site because of its sassi, or caves.

With that in mind, it’s not surprising to learn that the his approach to the olive oil business is curatorial as much as entrepreneurial. He does sell the oil in boutique food shops in Vancouver, and worldwide via the Messors.com website, but 2500 liters (this year’s eventual output, making it an excellent year) isn’t going to make for a financial bonanza. When I asked him some bottom-line questions over e-mail, he replied, “Doing the numbers on this operation doesn’t really make sense because we can’t really count the number of hours spent by my brother and my dad in tending to the trees all year long. The olive oil production is more a mean for preserve a culture, connecting people and a vehicle to spread values of integrity about food.”

On site, he was more succinct: “Even if we had a ton more, it would be an economic disaster.”

Our final three days went much as the first. At the groves by 8, harvest and gather, great lunch, harvest and gather some more, work till it’s dark, go home for a shower and change of clothes, then reconvene for an astonishing dinner at the Creanzas.  A couple of times, I got to wield the abbacchiatore, which was satisfying but wearying, and made me appreciate the younger people’s muscular fortitude.

Me with the pneumatic rake.

One night Gigi and I went to the local press with Tonio and the 1000 kilos of olives the group had picked that day. When we walked in we were nearly bowled over by the rich and inviting smell. As Blanche DuBois says about the odor of cheap perfume, it was penetrating. We watched the Rube Goldberg process whereby the olives were crushed and oil extracted in a series of spotless stainless steel machines. Most of the Creanza oil went into storage, to be put into bottles and tins before Christmas, but Tonio brought home a few liters for home use.

Olives being processed.

Our last night, a Sunday, Grazia and Rosanna outdid themselves, with a meal of lasagna, porchetta (roast pork), and tiramisu. We finished with two kinds of home-made liqueur—limoncello and padre peppe, an Altamura specialty made from infusing green walnuts and spices in alcohol.

Before we said our goodbyes to Dylan, Faith, and the rest of the crew—who still had a week of work to go and were angling (unsuccessfully) for a day off, Tonio waxed philosophical about the annual olive rite.

“For me, it’s a regenerative process,” he said. “I regenerate my soul.”

I knew exactly what he meant.

The Hitchcock Project

alfred_hitchcockAs a coronavirus project, I decided to watch all the movies I hadn’t yet seen by my favorite director, Alfred Hitchcock. There were fifteen of them, here listed in chronological order.

  • The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (silent, 1927)
  • Blackmail (1929)
  • Murder! (1930)
  • Rich and Strange (1931)
  • Young and Innocent (1937)
  • Jamaica Inn (1939)
  • Rebecca (1940)
  • Lifeboat (1944)
  • The Paradine Case (1947)
  • Under Capricorn (1949)
  • Stage Fright (1950)
  • I Confess (1953)
  • The Wrong Man (1956)
  • The Birds (1963)
  • Marnie (1964)

Hitch buffs will probably immediately wonder why some other titles aren’t on the list. And so I’ll immediately acknowledge that I still haven’t seen any silent films other than The Lodger, or these early sound ones: Juno and the Paycock (1930), The Skin Game (1931), Number Seventeen (1932), and Waltzes from Vienna (1934). None were readily available on Amazon Prime (which has the most Hitchcock films of any platform) or anywhere else I could find, though I have to admit I didn’t try that hard to seek them out.

My list of fifteen is to some extent a predictable one, consisting of relatively obscure or not-well-thought-of films, with two and a half exceptions. The half is Lifeboat, which I think is pretty high in the canon, though it’s probably most often referred to for the ingenuity of the directorial cameo. But it’s surprising that I’d never seen Rebecca, which won Hitch’s only Best Picture Oscar. All I can say is that it apparently never played at the college film society that supplied most of my movie education, or, to my knowledge, on television any night since I got my first TV in 1978. And there does seem to be something funky going on with the rights to the movie. It’s currently not streaming or for rent from any platform, not even the Criterion Channel, and I ended up watching it via a good-quality bootleg copy on YouTube.

The other surprising one on the list is The Birds. It’s famous and shown quite a lot, including currently on the free tier of NBC’s Peacock service. I haven’t seen it for a simple reason that I’m very scared of it. In fact, I wasn’t even sure I could brave myself to watch it for this project. No spoiler: by the end of this article you’ll find out if I mustered the courage.

In any case, the watching is done and I am ready to rank the movies, from very bad to very good, and give some comments. Before getting to the list, I’ll share a subjective list I compiled of elements that generally augur well for a Hitchcock film

  • Busybodies, especially English ones
  • Black and white
  • George Sanders
  • Dolly or tracking shots
  • High-angle shots (often used, according to the blog linked to, when a “character come to a realization of some terrible truth”)
  • Staircases (though ubiquitous enough to sometimes be a bad sign too)
  • Female protagonist


High-angle shot from “The Wrong Man”

And ones that are worrisome or worse:

  • American children
  • Music (this is admittedly complicated)
  • Rear projection and/or matte shots
  • Normative love relationships, that is, a boy-girl romance absent any suggestions of deviance or obsession
  • Michael Wilding
  • Hairpieces
  • The Mid-Atlantic accent (the not-quite-English, not quite American way of speaking best personified by Grace Kelly)

In describing the films, I’ve tried to avoid spoilers, especially as we move up the list. I did a minimum of research, mainly checking names, credits, and other basic facts on Wikipedia or IMDB, though I’ve passed along a few tidbits I picked up on those sites and elsewhere. All of the movies are available for rental or streaming on Amazon Prime, iTunes, YouTube or other platforms. And while on the subject of access, the app and website JustWatch is a helpful guide to where to find Hitchcock films, and indeed any available movie or TV show, though it properly doesn’t list YouTube bootlegs.


15. The Paradine Case

Well, it’s in black and white, a staircase is prominent, and Charles Laughton livens things up in his inimitably kooky way (see entry three places below), but this is a dog. There are no twists in the story (indeed, there’s nothing that couldn’t be predicted by any sentient viewer), all depictions of love are unconvincing, and Gregory Peck looks uncomfortable, perhaps mulling the issue of why, since he’s playing an English barrister, he has been directed not to even attempt an English accent. Like Rebecca, it’s available only on YouTube via bootleg.


14. Under Capricorn

Last place was a close call between Paradine and this technicolor period piece. The last three words of the last sentence almost gave Capricorn the nod—in fact, I should probably add them to my “bad signs” list. Plus, it’s dragged down by a weak plot, the insipid Michael Wilding, and Joseph Cotten’s performance and character (coming just six years after his brilliant turn in Shadow of a Doubt) as an Irishman (also no accent attempted) who had been brought to Australia as a prisoner and, after release, become a member of the gentry. Hitch’s direction apparently consisted of one note: “gruff.”

Vaulting it out of last place were, in no particular order, the star presence of Ingrid Bergman (though it’s far from her best performance for the director); Margaret Leighton’s Milly, a creditable creepy maidservant in the tradition of Rebecca’s Mrs. Danvers; the many long takes, which Hitchcock had gotten adept at in Paradine and (especially) Rope and apparently wasn’t done with yet; and one brief affecting moment involving Cotten and a ruby necklace.


13. Murder!

The second through fourth films on the chronological list, above, were all to some extent on the cusp of the transition from silent and sound. I’d judge that two of them successfully negotiated the in-betweenness. Murder! did not. (The exclamation point could be seen as trying too hard, and Hitch wisely eschewed it for his other crime titles, Sabotage and Blackmail.) It starts off great, with a dolly pan of an upper story of a row of flats that almost exults in the potential of sound; we hear screaming, bells ringing, windows opening and closing, people chattering, and an unexplained pounding. And the climactic scene is verifiably creepy. But in between is a lot of talk, livened only by the intriguing question of what cross-dressing actor Handel Fane’s secret really is.


12. Jamaica Inn

One of three Daphne du Maurier adaptations on the list (the others are Rebecca and The Birds), it’s another period piece—set on the Cornish coast of England in around 1820. But at least it’s in black and white. Charles Laughton originally bought the rights to Du Maurier’s novel, and his mincing, scenery-chewing turn as Sir Humphrey Pengallen dominates the film. The actor and his idiosyncrasies and demands apparently gave Hitch agita, but the performance gave me campy entertainment, as did the shiver-me-timbers cut-throatedness of the gang of “wreckers” and Maureen O’Hara’s feisty screen debut. On the minus side, Robert Newton as the love interest is reminiscent of Michael Wilding.

(And speaking of shiver me timbers, I was fascinated to find this on Wikipedia: “Newton is best remembered for his portrayal of the feverish-eyed Long John Silver in the 1950 film adaptation of Treasure Island, the film that became the standard for screen portrayals of historical pirates. He continued to portray pirates in Blackbeard in 1952 and Long John Silver again in the 1954 film of the same name, which spawned a miniseries in the mid-1950s. Born in Dorset in the West Country of England and growing up in Cornwall near Lands End, his exaggeration of his West Country accent is credited with popularising the stereotypical ‘pirate voice.’ Newton has become the ‘patron saint’ of the annual International Talk Like a Pirate Day.” Who knew?)


13. I Confess

It’s attractively short at an hour and a half, and constricted, though unlike the similarly adapted-from-plays Rope and Dial M for Murder, it opens up into the world at large, in this case the atmospheric scenes of Quebec City. The black and white cinematography by Robert Burks is rich and inviting, marked by shadows and angular closeups. Strong supporting cast led by Karl Malden; a lot of nice grace notes, like the crew-cut priest’s noisy bicycle.

The central plot device basically worked, for me, though there are some holes in it, and clearly, the original script, ditched because of Hays Office concerns, would have been better. The main problems are the love story, which never coheres, and Montgomery Clift’s performance as Father Logan. Reportedly, he and Hitch clashed over his Method approach. In any case, I agree with John McCarten of The New Yorker, who wrote that Clift plays Logan “as a sort of bemused juvenile, plainly too abstracted to lead one lamb, let alone a flock.”


10. Stage Fright

Or as I like to call it, Jane Wyman’s bangs versus Marlene Dietrich’s eyebrows. The bangs hold their own, and Wyman’s performance as the protagonist, Eve Gill (as noted, I count a female lead a plus), is one of the enjoyable things about the movie. A year after her divorce from Ronnie Reagan, she must have been feeling her oats.

Also feeling his oats is Hitch, specifically about being back in England after an 11-year Hollywood sojourn. The very best thing about the movie are the London atmosphere and the small but memorable English types: Dietrich’s cockney dresser, all the theater “luvvies” (Eve is an aspiring actress), Joyce Grenfell as a shooting gallery operator with “lovely ducks,” Sybil Thorndike as Wyman’s crusty mother.

On the other hand, Alistair Sim, as her father (and I didn’t catch the explanation of why Eve has two English parents and an American accent) gives one of the worst performances I’ve seen by a well-regarded actor in a major film. He mainly shuffles around uncomfortably and can’t help, as my wife says, smiling under his mustache. Not much better is Michael Wilding, insipid as usual as police inspector “Ordinary” Smith. The love story, of which he is a part, is of course the weak link. As for the suspense plot, I didn’t mind the notorious unconventional move made by Hitch and his screenwriters. But the suspense never really built for me, due in part to several plot holes, including too-easy escapes and Smith’s unexplained withholding of significant information. The biggest hole had to do with the big McGuffin, a certain dress. Let’s just say that the handkerchief in “Othello” worked a whole lot better.


This still suggests just some of the strangeness of “Rich and Strange”

10. Rich and Strange (U.S. title: East of Shanghai)

Something needs to be said about the middle territory of this list, which we are now in. If you’re looking for an evening’s entertainment, you’d probably do better with the previous two title on the list than the 1927-1937 titles that occupy four of the next five slots. That’s because the early movies are dated in a number of ways, the prints aren’t so good, and so on. I ranked them as high as I did for reasons  both historical (in prefiguring Hitchcockean themes and motifs) and intrinsic (standout sequences in camera work, editing or impact), and for intriguing or surprising themes or stories or twists.

The title of Rich and Strange is taken from a speech (sometimes sung) by Ariel in Shakespeare’s The Tempest that’s also the source of an even more familiar phrase:

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes;
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.

That’s right, it’s where “sea-change” comes from.

The wordless opening seems more like a silent than anything we see in the slightly earlier Murder! and Blackmail, as the main character, London office-worker Fred (Henry Kendall), leaves work and takes the tube for the journey home. Furthering the impressions, Kendall is heavily made up, and there are anachronistic title cards, such as “To get to Paris you have to cross the channel.”

Rich and Strange is un-Hitchockian in having no element of suspense. And maybe its unusualness in the canon was part of why I quite enjoyed it. Other reasons: Fred is a pill and a cad all the way through, no suggestion of improvement; Joan Barry’s nice performance as his wife, Emily; the pre-Code-era naughtiness; and the wacko turn the plot takes toward the end. I waited in vain for a title card saying, “No cats were harmed in the making of this motion picture.”


Rear projection makes an early appearance, as Nova Pilbeam and Derrick De Marney go motoring.

8. Young and Innocent (U.S. title: The Girl Was Young)

I simul-watched this with my friend Michael Tisserand, as we made Mystery Science Theater-type snarky comments, as well as some admiring ones, by text. Michael identified and fixated on the theme of littering in the movie and was entranced by the scene in Nobby’s Lodging House, the kind of place George Orwell might have bedded down when he was tramping around England “on the kip.”

The companion to Young and Innocent is obviously The 39 Steps (1935), as both are early examples of Hitch’s greatest plot, the wrongly accused person on the run. (He’d introduced it in 1927 in The Lodger, would bring it to America in Saboteur, and would knock it out of the park in 1955 with  North by Northwest.) There’s no doubt that 39 Steps is the better film. The set pieces are amazing instead of good; Robert Donat>Derrick De Marney. The love story (repeat after me) in Y and I is the weak link, and in addition is treated with a comical touch I found jarring.

That said, I enjoyed the movie. So many eccentric minor characters and tasty set pieces: the meeting with the nearsighted lawyer; dinner at Erica Burgoyne’s house, with her hilarious seven-dwarfs brothers, all dressed in suits; the fistfight at Tom’s Cafe, which gets as crowded as the Marx Bros. stateroom scene; the kids’ birthday party and Erica’s busybody aunt; and the scene at the “mine workings,” which has the first (I think) use of a Hitch trademark, seen later in Saboteur and N by NW: someone in danger of falling a great distance and being pulled up (or not) to safety, the money shot a high-angle closeup.

The best set piece is the last, which combines hot jazz, a creepy somatic “tell,” and an amazing crane shot. However, for reasons that will be clear if you watch the movie, the last scene is also the reason why Young and Innocent can’t really be shown in public anymore.


7. Lifeboat

Since the title is Lifeboat, I don’t count it a spoiler to say that the entire action takes place on one, after a Merchant Marine ship is sunk by a German U-Boat in the Atlantic. Ending up onboard is the usual Hollywood microcosm, including William Bendix as a regular mug from Brooklyn; Tallulah Bankhead as an Dorothy Thompson/Martha Gellhorn-type journalist; John Hodiak as a Marx-reading engine-room crewman who seizes leadership of the motley bunch; Henry Hull as a wealthy industrialist; and Walter Slezak as a German who’s hauled aboard from the sea and occasions heated ethical and strategic debates. All the performances are good (with the exception of Hume Cronyn, who offers the least convincing English accent this side of Dick Van Dyke), there’s ample suspense and emotionally affecting moments, the philosophizing (screenplay by Jo Swerling from a story by John Steinbeck–who later disavowed the movie) is for the most part food for thought rather than windbaggery, and even the rear projection of the ocean isn’t a distraction. Bottom line: Hitchcock pulls off this tour de force.


Ivor Novello as the Lodger: a bit over the top.

6. The Lodger: A True Story of the London Fog

This late silent, starring Ivor Novello as a mysterious lodger who bears a striking resemblance to  a Jack-the-Ripper-style murderer of young blonde girls, is another one I simul-watched with Michael Tisserand. Here are some excerpts from our text exchanges about Novello’s performance:

Yagoda: I know it’s 93 years later and styles change but I can’t help thinking the lodger is a bad actor

Y: The other acting by contrast is good

Tisserand: Thinking the same esp Marie Ault as the mum

T: The lodger guy was directed to be zombie-like

Y: Hitch’s note: seethe

T: “Look at each chess piece as you would a lost lover”

Except for Novello’s overheated performance and heavy makeup (and what I found to be excessive music in Amazon Prime’s print), the film plays well all these years later; at age 28, Hitchock’s ambition and chops are pretty amazing. But the main reason I ranked it as high as I did is the uncanny way it introduced so many themes and motifs that the director would return to again and again: gruesome crimes, the innocent (?) man on the run (albeit confined to a scant fifteen minutes here), pursued man hiding in plain sight, ineffective police, scary mobs, blondes.


5. Blackmail

This is a curiosity, in that Hitchcock filmed both a sound and silent version, and that lead actress Anny Ondra’s lines were dubbed by Joan Barry because Ondra had an accent. But it’s also a great film. The cinematography, mise en scene and editing represent the high-water mark of silent cinema. And it’s positively bursting with Hitchcockian themes and elements: a blonde, suspense, edge-of-the-seat moments (including a climactic chase involving a landmark), not one but two MacGuffins (a painting and a glove), all sorts of ambiguity, and ambient kinkiness. There’s a line from Cyril Ritchard’s (that’s right, Captain Hook) twisted bad guy, Mr. Crewe, all the way up through Bob Rusk in Frenzy (1972). When Crewe goes to the piano and sings the kitschy “Miss Up-to-Date,” with all sorts of bad tidings in the air, you are riveted. Or I was, anyway.


4. Rebecca

Now we get to some really hard choices. Ranked purely as a piece of cinema, Rebecca would be in the top spot, or at lowest number two. After all, it won the Academy Award for Best Picture—Hitchcock’s only win in the category. But I found the other three simply affected me and stayed with me more.

That said, Rebecca is a pip. After all, it has George Sanders, beautiful black and white (George Barnes won an Oscar for his cinematography), a nearly omnipresent staircase, and problematic relationships up the wazoo. The leads, Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine, were both nominated for Oscars and both are great, though I thought the direction of Fontaine was a bit too heavy on the meekly awkward in the first half or more of the film; I picture her with her head constantly tilted at a 45-degree angle, as if the second Mrs. de Winter felt that holding it straight would be too assertive. But I guess Hitch judged that was necessary to set the groundwork for the developments at the end. I thought there was one significant plot hole involving the creepy Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson, also justly nominated). And, as has been noted by others, the change to du Maurier’s novel necessitated by the Production Code was unfortunate.


3. Marnie

To start with not the most important point, I liked that this movie was in color, for the sort of documentary reason that it brought me back to how things looked in 1964, when I was first starting to notice them. I also liked the exterior shots of Philadelphia, outside of which I live, and I even admired the matte background of a supposedly Baltimore waterfront location.

But not to bury the lede, I believe Marnie is most famous, or notorious, for two things. The first is a scene in which Mark Rutland (Sean Connery), who has married the very troubled Marnie Edgar (Tippi Hedren) for reasons that are rather puzzling to begin with and don’t quickly become clearer, rapes her. The incident takes place in the source material for the film, a novel by Winston Graham, but in the film it is shocking and troubling to a 2020 viewer in a way Hitchcock surely didn’t intend. The terrible act has an immediate consequence, but afterwards is more or less brushed aside, and that is certainly a legitimate reason to shun Marnie. As is the second notoriety, Hitchcock’s abusive behavior towards Hedren, as described by her in interviews and a memoir.

But I stuck with the movie and am glad I did. It is just such an strange and unusual film. Granted, one can’t forget the rape scene, and granted, Mark is a flawed character: except for that scene, and in contrast to the Graham novel, the darker elements in his character are either merely implicit or are air-brushed out. But my main takeaway is that Hitchcock and screenwriter Jay Presson Allen really and messily and honorably grappled with (in the title of a book we see Mark reading) Sexual Aberrations of the Criminal Female. I thought Hedren’s performance was brave and strong, with the occasional distraction of her Kelly-esque Transatlantic accent, the Mad-magazine-worthy moments bits when she has sensory triggers, and her architectural beehive hairdo, complete with multiple nooks and crannies. Louise Latham as her mother is affecting as well. There’s a great set-piece early on in a silent office, and two shocking ones later, the first featuring a horse, the second a scary and very young Bruce Dern.


2. The Wrong Man

I loved this movie. It made me wonder what would have resulted if Hitchcock had used Henry Fonda a little bit more and James Stewart a little bit less. Not taking anything away from Stewart, but his good friend Fonda, through his hollow eyes, his slightly stooped posture, and minimalistic approach, brings another level of emotional depth and, at moments, pain, to the proceedings. Even his thinning hair helps with the naturalism and authenticity; no toup for Hank.

The movie starts with an appearance by Hitchcock, shot in silhouette, who tells us, “This is a true story, every word of it.” Hyperbole, to be sure, but the movie has a documentary feel (black and white of course) and reflects the real-life experiences of Manny Ballesteros, a bass player at the Stork Club in New York who was arrested for a crime he didn’t commit. (Not a spoiler since that’s established by the title and early scenes.) I loved the musical elements of the movie, in two ways. First, what must be Bernard Herrmann’s most restrained score cleverly and effectively is characterized by jazz-inflected bass lines. Second, as opposed to the typical romanticized portrayal of jazz musicians, The Wrong Man opens with Fonda and his bandmates playing corny mock-Latin arrangements to mainly uninterested patrons, at the end of which he has to take the subway home to Jackson Heights. It’s a job like any other, with elements of craft and tedium.

The first half of the film is brilliant and claustrophobic, showing the Kafka-esque ways the walls keep relentlessly closing in on Manny. And at the end there is an indelibly haunting moment, which I won’t spoil. The rest of the second half is colored by a plot element that was taken from life but that never really worked for me, whether because of the screenplay or the direction and/or performance of Vera Miles as Manny’s wife. Two minor carps: Anthony Quayle is wasted as Manny’s lawyer; his accent was last spotted in the middle of the Atlantic. And the movie grinds to a halt whenever Manny’s two little kids are on screen.


1. The Birds

Reader, I watched it—though admittedly, when things got too intense I had to parcel it out in twenty-minute segments. An amazing film, and Hitchcock’s last masterpiece; Evan Hunter’s screenplay makes a major contribution and is probably underrated. To me, it’s much better than Jaws in depicting malevolent nature in a horror-movie format.

It was actually Hedren’s first role after being discovered by Hitchcock in a TV commercial, and her performance as Melanie Daniels holds us all the way through. She’s got a similar beehive hairdo as in Marnie, though both she and it eventually get undone by the terrible events that ensue. Books can be and have been written about The Birds, and I can’t do it justice in a couple of paragraphs, so I’ll just share some of my notes.

  • Everybody lies in this movie. Is that what nature is punishing?
  • Melanie: “And on Tuesdays, I take a course in General Semantics at Berkeley, finding new four-letter words”!!
  • I think there’s no music, except the amazing scene when Melanie is outside the schoolroom listening to the children singing. The use of silence and muted sounds is brilliant.
  • Mitch (Rod Taylor) always calls his mother “dear” or “darling” and is constantly kissing her on the cheek. Hmmmm.
  • “Mitch, this isn’t usual, is it?” You got that right, sister.
  • All the shots from above.
  • Suzanne Pleshette is great as the brunette foil, better than Diane Baker in
  • Broken eyeglasses on the ground—Strangers on a Train
  • The busybody ornithologist in a tweed suit!
  • The Shirley Jackson “Lottery”/witchhunts from the all-female chorus in the diner are maybe a bit much.

The Birds takes us on a truly horrifying ride. I only felt the spell breaking a couple of times, when the characters seemed to be under-reacting to that they and we just witnessed. Maybe oddly, the thing I found moving about it was Hitchcock and screenwriter Hunter’s rigorous insistence not to try to cogently explain, for lack of a better word, evil.










Talkin’ Bouton

Last week, through the offices of the Radnor (Pennsylvania) Memorial Library, I had the pleasure of Zoom-interviewing Mitchell Nathanson, author of a great new biography of the pitcher (New York Yankees and a few other stops), author (Ball Four) and, briefly, actor (The Long Goodbye) Jim Bouton. It was lot of fun, and, rest assured, we got deep into the Phil Linz harmonica incident. Here’s the interview.


A Matter of Repose

In the light of the coronavirus, there has been much talk of face-touching, which we have been repeatedly told is a way the virus can get into our system and thus is to be avoided. I went to a concert Sunday night by the great country singer and guitarist Robbie Fulks, where he talked about trying not to touch his face. Then he touched his face, repeatedly.


Fulks with his hand where it shouldn’t be.

He’s not alone. The New York Times recently reported on a 2015 study which filmed a group of medical students and found they touched their faces an average of twenty-three times an hour. Nearly half of the touches were to the so-called T zone—the eyes, nose, and mouth—through which a virus can most easily enter the body.

The Times also offered some tips on how to avoid or reduce the damage from this reflexive habit, including draping your hand in a tissue when face-touching, keeping your hands busy with a stress ball or some other activity, and, more generally reducing stress and cultivating calm.

The last item reminded me of the only literary passage on this topic I am aware of. I encountered it when I read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel Tender Is the Night (1934) fifty years ago, as a summer reading assignment for high school. (It must have made a big impression on me, because it’s the only part of the book I remember.) The scene is a club in the south of France, and the character Dick Diver (based on Fitzgerald’s friend Gerald Murphy) thinks that such behavior reveals American men’s lack of “repose.” The relevant  Oxford English Dictionary definition for that term is “The state of being quietly inactive or relaxed, or of being free from care, anxiety, or other disturbances; ease, serenity.” In other words, the very qualities recommended by the Times.

Dick is willing to put his money, if not his hand, where his mouth is.


They were at Voisins waiting for Nicole, six of them, Rosemary, the Norths, Dick Diver and two young French musicians. They were looking over the other patrons of the restaurant to see if they had repose — Dick said no American men had any repose, except himself, and they were seeking an example to confront him with.

Things looked black for them — not a man had come into the restaurant for ten minutes without raising his hand to his face.

“We ought never to have given up waxed mustaches,” said Abe.

“Nevertheless Dick isn’t the ONLY man with repose —”

“Oh, yes, I am.”

“— but he may be the only sober man with repose.”

A well-dressed American had come in with two women who swooped and fluttered unselfconsciously around a table. Suddenly, he perceived that he was being watched — whereupon his hand rose spasmodically and arranged a phantom bulge in his necktie. In another unseated party a man endlessly patted his shaven cheek with his palm, and his companion mechanically raised and lowered the stub of a cold cigar. The luckier ones fingered eyeglasses and facial hair, the unequipped stroked blank mouths, or even pulled desperately at the lobes of their ears.

A well-known general came in, and Abe, counting on the man’s first year at West Point — that year during which no cadet can resign and from which none ever recovers — made a bet with Dick of five dollars.

His hands hanging naturally at his sides, the general waited to be seated. Once his arms swung suddenly backward like a jumper’s and Dick said, “Ah!” supposing he had lost control, but the general recovered and they breathed again — the agony was nearly over, the garçon was pulling out his chair.

With a touch of fury the conqueror shot up his hand and scratched his gray immaculate head.

“You see,” said Dick smugly, “I’m the only one.”

Maybe we can all learn a lesson from Dick Diver, and cultivate our repose.


The Cyclone and the Trust-Buster

For today’s Wall Street Journal, I reviewed Citizen Reporters: S.S. McClure, Ida Tarbell, and the Magazine That Rewrote America. Here’s the review:

Samuel Sidney McClure once said to his wife: “I would rather edit a magazine than be president of the United States.”

Today, that remark might elicit the response, “What’s a magazine?” But in the 1890s, it was a credible sentiment. Presidents, after all, had to contend with Congress, the press and the Electoral College. But to helm a magazine was to conduct an enterprise, as McClure wrote in ads for the one he launched in 1893, “designed to reflect the moving spirit of the time.”

It was indeed a moment when magazines were at the center of American culture. Part of the reason was a new literate audience. In Citizen Reporters, Stephanie Gorton tells us that at the time of the Civil War, 6% of the population had attended high school; by the turn of the century, the figure was more than half. This big chunk of the public not only could read but was able to stay in a chair and pay attention. Writing decades after his time on magazines, Ray Stannard Baker, a pioneer of long-form journalism, observed that in the turn-of-the-century period, readers “would swallow dissertations of ten or twelve thousand words without even blinking—and ask for more.”

Technology boosted magazines as well: The arrival of electricity, halftone reproduction, the linotype machine, photography, the telephone and the typewriter allowed for the speedy production of a high-quality product at a reasonable price. (McClure once showed off a spiffy new printing press to his friend Mark Twain. The writer remarked, “Can that thing vote, too?”)

As for the competition, newspapers were partisan and (increasingly) sensationalistic, a 400-page book could be daunting, and movies had not yet begun to talk, emote or exceed a couple of minutes in length. And so magazines took up the task of informing and entertaining and sometimes provoking, among them the Century, Cosmopolitan, and the one that McClure, with characteristic immodesty, named after himself. (“Ah, Wagner,” he once mused. “He was the McClure of music.”) The publications were in everyone’s parlor, their writers’ names on everyone’s lips. After one of the muckraking writers McClure discovered, Lincoln Steffens, wrote an attention-grabbing series of articles called “The Shame of the Cities,” the boss was so impressed that he gave Steffens a 20-foot boat. Meanwhile, a cigar company approached the writer about endorsing its product. Reader, I will give you a cigar if you can name me even two current magazine journalists besides Malcolm Gladwell.

Outsize confidence was a lifetime characteristic of S.S. McClure, and Ms. Gorton’s book makes clear that it helped to fuel his Horatio Alger rise. (It was not unrelated to what today would probably be diagnosed as bipolar disorder. Rudyard Kipling, whose work McClure popularized in America, called him, in manic phases, a “cyclone in a frock-coat.”) Born in Northern Ireland, McClure grew up in Indiana, always one step from poverty. He couldn’t afford adequate outerwear and in the wintertime ran to school to keep warm. “Speed was my overcoat,” he said. It took him eight years to graduate from Knox College because every time he ran out of money, he’d withdraw from his studies and take up a route as a rural peddler.

After college he found his way to a series of positions in the publishing field and one day had a brainstorm that appeared to him, he later recalled, as “huge transparent globes like soap bubbles. I saw it, in all its ramifications.” His thought was to create a literary syndicate, acquiring stories and articles and placing them in newspapers all over the country. This was novel but not new; Charles Dana of the New York Sun had already embarked on a similar endeavor, selling stories by Bret Harte, Henry James and others. McClure took the Steve Jobs tack, polishing and expanding the idea and then acting as if it were his. “The proper policy of doing business is never originate if you can imitate,” he said.

All great editors have an eye for talent. After reading Citizen Reporters, I’m convinced that McClure had the greatest eye of all time. At the syndicate, he published—in most cases for the first time in the United States—Kipling, Robert Louis Stevenson, Wilkie Collins, Joseph Conrad, Arthur Conan Doyle and H.G. Wells. He sent Stephen Crane to report on Pennsylvania coal mines and, after reading a short story by a young California writer, commissioned Jack London to write his first novel.

The editors and writers he spotted and hired at McClure’s included (besides Baker and Steffens) William Allen White, Frank Norris, Willa Cather and Viola Roseboro. The last name is probably not familiar to you, but as the editor in charge of unsolicited manuscripts, she plucked from the slush pile work by the until-then-unknown Booth Tarkington, Damon Runyan and William Sidney Porter. (Porter would carve out a pretty good career as a short-story writer using the pen name O. Henry.)

But McClure’s greatest hire was Ida Tarbell. The two were born in the same year (1857), came from the heartland (western Pennsylvania in her case) and, rare among Americans at the time, had formative experiences in college. But the bond between them was even deeper than that, and Ms. Gorton appropriately and deftly structures her book as a dual biography.

Two years after Tarbell’s birth, oil was struck near her home, an event that would have profound consequences for the region, the country and Tarbell herself. Her father became an oilman, and the move initially pulled the family from poverty. But soon the cost of the industry became apparent, not only in damage to the landscape but in fires and accidents that took the lives of friends and neighbors. Tarbell wrote in her autobiography: “No industry of man in its early days has ever been more destructive of beauty, order, decency, than the production of petroleum.”

In time, her father’s fortunes suffered as a result of a secret plan devised by the railroads and the larger oil interests—dominated by John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil—to put the small oilmen out of business. Tarbell never forgot, and the experience ultimately led to her greatest work: a series of investigative articles on Rockefeller and his monopoly, published in McClure’s starting in 1902 and two years later forming a book, The History of the Standard Oil Company. In its journalistic standards and rigor, doggedness, and clear writing style, the book could be said to have invented modern investigative reporting. In 2000, a blue-ribbon panel named it the fifth-greatest work of journalism of the 20th century. (No. 1 was John Hersey’s Hiroshima, and in sixth place was Steffens’s 1904 collection The Shame of the Cities.) Tarbell could not have written it without the time, resources and moral support supplied by McClure.

Editor and writer had met cute, a decade earlier. Tarbell—whose lifelong quiet refusal to follow convention is inspiring—had moved to Paris with the idea of supporting herself as a writer. One day, about a year later, she opened her door to find that the person knocking on it was McClure, then in the middle of one of the frequent continental trips he took in equal parts to scout talent and draw down his alarming energy reserves. He said he had admired one of her recent submissions but had only 10 minutes to talk before his train left for Switzerland. He kept talking for three hours. When he finally left, he asked her if he could borrow $40. Surprisingly enough, she had it, and maybe even more surprisingly, she gave it to him.

Not long afterward, she joined the McClure’s staff in New York, just as the magazine was entering its golden period. A little more than a decade after its founding, circulation reached 400,000 and its journalism was driving the national debate. According to American National Biography, the January 1903 issue “has been called the most important single issue in the history of early twentieth-century periodical publication.” It included the third installment of Tarbell’s Standard Oil series, Steffens’s “The Shame of Minneapolis,” a piece by Baker investigating labor unions, and, it must be said, several works of genteel fiction and poetry that have not aged well.

Citizen Reporters, which is Ms. Gorton’s first book, doesn’t start auspiciously. There’s both a preface and a prologue, which is a little throat-cleary. Writing about the 1870s, she refers to Cornell as being in the Ivy League, a term that didn’t exist till the 1930s. Worst of all, she takes two separate occurrences and presents them as one composite scene. That isn’t an acceptable thing to do, least of all in a book about journalism, and her editor should have laid down the law.

However, as the book proceeds, one feels her gaining authority as a writer, and when she gets into the story proper, Citizen Reporters is solid, well-crafted and readable. It should be noted that much of the book traverses familiar ground, and Ms. Gorton’s notes cite many previous works. But she has also discovered letters and manuscripts from her subjects and effectively quotes them in the service of nuanced character portraits. Happily, none of her portraits are fuller than those of her principals, McClure and his creative other half, Tarbell. He was the undisciplined idea man who “valued accuracy and timeliness above all else”; she, as his editorial sounding board and star staff writer, was “the realizer of his visions.” They were never lovers but were something more than colleagues: Ms. Gorton calls them, at the height of their complementary powers, “a neatly effective symbiotic unit.”

The glory years at McClure’s ended abruptly. The boss’s confidence swelled into hubris as he schemed to start a second periodical, a bank, an insurance company, an entire Utopian town. Meanwhile, his infatuation with a female poet (and insistence on publishing her mediocre verse in the magazine) threatened his marriage and embarrassed his associates. In 1906 most of the senior staff, including Steffens, Baker and, yes, Tarbell, walked out to help launch a rival monthly, the American Magazine.

Both McClure and Tarbell lived a long time, into the mid-1940s. She wrote and lectured widely, but McClure suffered a series of business failures and ultimately became known as a remnant of a lost age, always good for an interview but difficult to shut up.Back in 1907, he had written Tarbell a letter that poignantly reflected not only how much he relied on her calm competence but also how painful the end of their partnership felt. It read in part:

“I dreamed of you a day or two ago. I often dream of you.

“I thought I was telling you how I found out that by speaking slowly & calmly & acting calmly I found I had much greater influence on people . . . & I thought that I was standing by your chair & you drew me down & kissed me to show your approval.

“When you disapproved of me it nearly broke my heart. . . .

“I wish you had not turned away.”