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  ( 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 ( – 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. (

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 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.”


My Podcast, II

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Newton Minow testifying before a Senate subcommittee in 1961. Photo: AP

Yesterday I described my idea for a podcast series called The Lives They’re Living,

Long story short: for about two years, I sent my pitch out to podcast companies. Half of them said no; the other half never responded. (I needed the backing of a company because I don’t have audio editing or production skills, and I wanted my episodes to be not just a monologue by me or a Q and A, but a produced story, in the manner of a This American Life piece, and for that I needed lots of help.)

Finally, a company expressed not only interest but enthusiasm, and agreed to back me as I made a pilot episode. The person we chose was Newton Minow, a 93-year-old attorney who is famous for one thing but has, I learned while putting together the episode, has accomplished and contributed so much more.

The company ultimately decided not to go ahead and distribute the series. I understood that — there’s very heavy competition to get podcasts out there in the ether — but I really wanted to get Newt Minow’s story out there, if only as a one-off piece on a public radio show or another podcast. To that end, I cut it from thirty minutes to eighteen, but still no luck.

Therefore, I’m sharing both versions of the piece. Here’s the original version.

And click here to get to the shorter version.

Thanks for giving a listen, and I hope you enjoy it.

Minow getting the Presidential Medal of Freedom from a good friend,

My Podcast


John Milius

Some years ago — never mind how long precisely — I had an idea for a podcast. Then I put together this pitch:

I’m sure I’m not the only person who opens the New York Times and goes straight to the obit section, or whose favorite issue of the Times Magazine is the last one of the year, the all-obit “The Lives They Lived.” I invariably encounter interesting, surprising stories of people I have not heard of, have barely heard of, or forgot I’ve heard of. Consider the ledes of just a few of the obits the Times has run recently:

  • “William J. Lombardy, who was one of the most talented and promising chess players of his generation, winning titles and accolades while he was still a teenager, but who all but gave up the game at the height of his career to become a priest…”
  • “Bob Schiller, a longtime television writer who had a hand in putting Lucy in a vat of grapes, getting Maude memorably slapped, and pitting Edith Bunker against a rapist…”
  • “Arthur Janov, a California psychotherapist variously called a messiah and a mountebank for his development of primal scream therapy — a treatment he maintained could cure ailments from depression and alcoholism to ulcers, epilepsy and asthma, not to mention bring about world peace…”

Another one began: “Tom Alter, an Indian-born character actor of American descent who spent his career playing Westerners in Bollywood films, died on Sept. 29 at his home in Mumbai. He was 67…

“With light skin, blue eyes and blond hair, which later turned bright white, Mr. Alter was an incongruous figure in Bollywood. But he spoke Hindi and Urdu fluently, making him a natural fit for roles like slick diplomats, British colonials, priests and police officers.

“You name it, I’ve played them all,” he told The New York Times in 1989.

As you read each of these obits and others you find irresistible facts and anecdotes, texture, drama, humor, and pathos.

They’re such great stories that, to me, the question is inescapable and obvious: why not tell them before the person has died? That’s what I propose to do in a podcast series, “The Lives They’re Living.” The premise is simple. Find people who, if they died tomorrow, would warrant a Times obituary. Then tell their story today—through interviews, archival audio, and narration.

The selection of subjects would not be quite as simple as I’ve framed it. I would disqualify anybody who’s too famous or claims too much of our attention—the Paul McCartneys, Jimmy Carters, Gloria Steinems on the one hand, the Ted Cruzes and LeBron Jameses on the other. The subjects would not have to be old, but I’d say as a rule of thumb that their claim to fame should have happened twenty or more years ago. And some people who would clear the Times bar—say, from having served in a presidential cabinet—wouldn’t qualify for this podcast, unless there was also some peculiar or distinctive thing about them.

And the premise is a bit more than a series of life stories. There would be an overarching emotional and thematic subtext: what is the meaning of a life, of having made a contribution, of having put one’s imprint on the world? Part of each piece, as well, is the subsequent story of the person’s contribution. In Arthur Janov’s case, for example, that entail charting the fortunes of his primal-scream idea as a therapeutic technique. For some subjects, there would also be the issue of how a singular moment—the claim to fame—resonated through their life, and how they approached Act II.

Such questions emerge, and become more pressing, over the course of one’s own life. For those of us in the Baby Boom (at 65, I’m smack dab in the middle), they’re more and more on our mind.

The lives would form themselves into themes, which might correspond to episodes (say, an hour containing three stories) or, to think optimistically, seasons of the series. Below are four such themes. I imagine that on average the real lineup of subjects will be less well-known than the examples given below, but they give a taste of the idea.

Innovators. People who started something big, and aren’t as known for it as you might think.

  • Aaron Fechter, who may or may not have invented Whac-a-Mole (Barack Obama’s favorite foreign-policy metaphor) but definitely invented the life-sized singing animals of Showbiz Pizza and Chick E. Cheese’s. (
  • Maury Wills, the modern master of the stolen base.
  • Aaron Beck, who invented what’s generally considered the most effective form of psychotherapy, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and who, at 95, is still practicing in Philadelphia.
  • Speaking of Philadelphia, Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, who invented The Philadelphia Sound.
  • Alan Kay, who among other contributions developed the technology that led to the laptop computer, the tablet, and the e-book.

One Shining Moment. People known for one big event, usually relatively early in their lives.

  • Felix Rohatyn, who in 1975 played a central role in preventing the bankruptcy of New York City as chairman of the Municipal Assistance Corp. (MAC) and chief negotiator between the city, its labor unions and its creditors
  • Charles Portis, who wrote the acclaimed novel True Grit in 1968 and then pretty much disappeared from public view—the Arkansan Thomas Pynchon (who I would say would not be a good subject for a show—people talk and speculate about him too much already).

Third Wheels and Fifth Beatles. They were overshadowed by their comrades and colleagues, but they have persisted, and have their own stories to tell.

  • Freddy Cole, Nat King Cole’s brother, overshadowed for most of his life, who has come into his own as an interpreter of American standards.
  • Bernie Taupin, who for forty-six years has provided the lyrics to every Elton John song.
  • John Milius. In a 1978 interview, Steven Spielberg said that Milius was the key member of the group of young filmmakers that included himself, George Lucas, Martin Scorsese, and Francis Ford Coppola: “John is our Scoutmaster. He’s the one who will tell you to go on a trip and only take enough food, enough water for one day, and make you stay out longer than that. He’s the one who says, ‘Be a man. I don’t want to see any tears.’ He’s a terrific raconteur, a wonderful story teller. John has more life than all the rest of us put together.” But with the exception of Jeremiah JohnsonConan the Barbarian, and a handful of other notable films, Milius’s career has never reached the peaks of the others. In fact, he’s had more influence in the movie characters that were inspired by him: John Milner (Paul La Mat) from American Graffitiand Walter Sobchak (John Goodman) in The Big Lebowski.

The Long and Winding Road. If icons weren’t a cliché, that’s what I’d call them. So we have to come up with another word.

  • Lee Friedlander, the documentary photographer who emerged with Garry Winograd and Diane Arbus, outlived them by thirty years or more, and is still doing innovative work at the age of 83.
  • Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, who wrote as many great Brill Building songs as Carole King and Gerry Goffin but somehow didn’t get the fame.
  • Lalo Schifrin, who personified the arrival of jazz into television and film scores and wrote the most iconic TV theme of all time: Mission Impossible.
  • W. S. Merwin, who, with the recent passing of Richard Wilbur and John Ashbery (both of whom would have been fine “The Lives They’re Living” subjects), is the last living poet of a splendid generation.
  • Sandy Koufax. Period.
  • Elizabeth Spencer, Southern short story writer and novelist, author of The Light in the Piazza, who published new work between 1948 and 2014.  (

I’d like to get moving on this as soon as possible, since time is a-passing.

And that was the pitch. Time indeed a-passed: since I wrote that, some of the people mentioned as possible subjects have died.

Tomorrow, I’ll tell you what happened to the pitch.

Movies in Other Movies

For a year and a half or so, I’ve been writing a blog called Movies in Other Movies: about films and TV shows with scenes in which characters watch other films in TV shows. This has long been a strange obsession interest of mine, and it’s been fun to deeply dive into it. I view it as a sort of (unpaid) book in progress, with forty posts written so far and probably about the same number to go. (Once you start looking, you find almost no end of movie-in-movie scenes.) The blog has one advantage over an actual book. At the start, I made a rule that each post has to contain at least one viewable clip, and it’s also been satisfying to obtain the (modest) technical know-how to make this happen. Unfortunately, doesn’t support video, so to see the clips, head on over to the movie site.

Here’s my latest post.

Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water (2017) is soaked, saturated, inundated with movie love and consciousness, pun definitely intended. The look of the underwater creature around whom the plot revolves, identified in the credits as “Amphibian Man,” is copied from The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). The beauty-and-the-beast story is a King Kong update. Amphibian Man and Elisa (Sally Hawkins), the heroine, do an imaginary (?) black-and-white dance number that’s based on the Astaire-Rogers “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” from Follow the Fleet. (The song they dance to, “You’ll Never Know,” first appeared in the 1943 musical Hello, Frisco, Hello and is more or less the theme song of Shape of Water.)

A gif of the big dance number, thanks to

Elisa’s close friend Giles (Richard Jenkins), an artist, has an in-progress drawing of Audrey Hepburn on an easel in his studio. He and Elisa live in apartments above The Orpheum cinema, and del Toro gives us to understand that the movies being projected seep through the floorboards and cast a spell on them.

As the film opens and the credits roll, we get a glimpse of one part of the double bill, the 1960 biblical epic The Story of Ruth (Shape of Water is set in 1962), playing to a near-empty house.

An article on the website Vox finds significance in the director’s choice of this film.

The most famous passage from the Book of Ruth is when Ruth, who is a Moabite, entreats her Jewish mother-in-law, Naomi, to let her come to Israel with her, even after Ruth’s husband (Naomi’s son) has passed away. “Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you,” Ruth says. “For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the Lord do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.”

The words are spoken between a widow and her mother-in-law, but most people know the passage as a familiar reading at weddings. The devotion it expresses — love that transcends the speaker’s home, family, and beliefs about the world — is the purest distillation of what it is to fall in love and give oneself over to the commitment that entails.

It can’t be an accident that The Story of Ruth is invoked in The Shape of Water, a film about the kind of love in which we both abandon ourselves and discover our true selves in the same moment. And del Toro imbues that idea with an additional insight: To love another, we have to learn to see the ways they’re different from us as well as the ways we’re profoundly the same.

I can’t argue with any of that but I prefer to heed the filmmaker’s own words, regarding  all the films seen in The Shape of Water. That sizable list includes Mardi Gras (1958), a Pat Boone musical that makes an unlikely Orpheum double bill with Ruth, and four ’40s and ’30s musicals all seen at various times on Giles’s apparently never-turned-off television: That Night in Rio; Sun Valley Serenade; Hello, Frisco, Hello; Coney Island; and The Little Colonel, featuring yet another unlikely couple, Shirley Temple and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. They inspire Elisa to do her own lovely impromptu dance.

Interviewed by Jason Garber shortly after the film’s release, del Toro said,

I spoke to [his friend director Alejandro Iñárritu] and he said to me I think it would be wise that the more obscure the movie, the better it is. The only one that is sort of famous is Little Colonel with Shirley Temple; the rest are really not well-known. Alejandro said that gives the movie a reality even in the fantasy. If everything is heightened, then tonally you’re screwed. I followed his advice and looked for specific movies that were in some instances kind of crappy, like the dancing horse number with Betty Grable or the beautiful but cheesy stuff in The Story of Ruth and the [truly goofy] bouncing giant ball in Mardi Gras.

In other words, sometimes a toga is just a toga. One more thing: Shape of Water was a Fox Searchlight production, and all the movies shown came from its predecessor company, Twentieth Century Fox, making it easier and cheaper to secure permissions.

There’s an interesting tension in The Shape of Water concerning screens. On one side is the big, enveloping one at the ornate Orpheum movie palace (actually the Elgin Theatre in Toronto), which never seems to have more than four or five patrons. On the other are comparatively tiny TV screens, which, when you look closely, are everywhere in this movie. As mentioned, Giles always has his set on, and so does the family of bad guy Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon). At various times we see his kids watching the TV shows Hong Kong and The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, and the 1959 animated Mr. Magoo comedy 1001 Arabian Nights. (How’s that for obscure and cheesy?)

But that’s not all. As Elisa walks to her bus shop, she passes a TV shop with what appear to be nine sets in the window, all showing different hot-button news events of the early 1960s: JFK speaking, civil rights marchers, Vietnam helicopters. Not only is del Toro collapsing time but the very presence of nine TVs with different content is anachronistic: in 1962 there were only three networks and two or three independent stations in a market like Baltimore (the film’s setting); and they would never all be running news at the same time. Of course, you don’t watch a movie like The Shape of Water expecting realism.

Screen Shot 2019-07-06 at 2.09.06 PM

Television turns malignant when the scene moves to the top-secret research center where Amphibian Man is being kept. Whenever we see Strickland in his office, behind him are banks of monitors on which he keeps watch on everything and everyone in the facility. In a film that’s not infrequently heavy-handed, this is a subtle nod to a future (ours) where the promise of privacy is more and more swiftly starting to recede.

John Hersey Book Book Review

51F3Bl8MpYL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_I wrote this review for the Wall Street Journal‘s April 27 edition. Since non-subscribers can’t read Journal articles, I’m posting it here.

Mr. Straight Arrow: The Career of John Hersey, Author of Hiroshima, by Jeremy Treglown.

It’s barely a quarter century since John Hersey died, at the age of 78, but already his life and his career as a writer feel so old-fashioned as to be antique. Hersey is of course best known as the author of Hiroshima—published as an issue-length article in The New Yorker in 1946 and as a book a year later, and never out of print since then—but he was an old-fashioned man of letters, whose body of work was as capacious and varied as that of an Emerson or a Disraeli. He wrote many other distinguished works of journalism in addition to his profile of six Hiroshima survivors; for example, The Algiers Motel Incident (1968), published when he was deep into his 50s, was a rigorously reported, deeply engaged and structurally inventive account of racial violence in Detroit. And he spoke out in essays, reports and speeches on the pressing issues of his day. Nonfiction was his strong suit, but his third book, the novel A Bell for Adano, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1945, and he always maintained the very 20th-century belief that novels were the gold standard of a writer’s output.

Hersey (1914-93) was also old-fashioned in what might best be described with the old-fashioned word “decency.” The late Gardner Botsford, an editor at The New Yorker, gently mocked him by dubbing him “Mr. Straight Arrow,” a designation borrowed by Jeremy Treglown for the title of his new book. (Botsford was comparing him to the cartoonist Charles Addams, who was a very curved arrow and to whom Hersey’s second wife was previously married.) Hersey came by his rectitude honestly. His parents were Protestant missionaries in China (he lived there till he was ten), and he inherited a reflexive urge to do good works and see the other fellow’s point of view. His civic engagement and high seriousness bore on his fiction, which took up weighty themes—sometimes weighing it down, critics often charged—and even on his reporting methodology. Treglown writes that interview subjects trusted Hersey because they picked up on his “imaginative sympathy . . . He was someone whose decency was recognized by other decent people, so they let him in.”

That Hersey belonged to a different era is also evident in the paper records, notes, and correspondence he accumulated and eventually donated to the library of his alma mater, Yale University. At one point, Treglown tells us, the Hersey archives took up 71 feet of shelving, and they have only grown since then. Even if one could imagine a current-day John Hersey, his collected papers would fit on an 8-gig flash drive.

Researchers fantasize about such a paper trail, but Mr. Straight Arrow frequently calls to mind the bromide “be careful what you wish for.” Biographers have always to be mindful of both big-picture forest and individuated trees; captivated by all this material, Treglown spends too much time examining bark. The book slows to a halt with extended discussions about the author’s photo and jacket copy for one of Hersey’s books; about whether Hersey did or didn’t name plants correctly in certain passages of Hiroshima; about negotiations with David Selznick about a never-to-be-realized movie version of the novel The Wall; and about the minutiae of the Yale English Department, of which Hersey was a product and to which he returned to teach from the late 1960s through the mid-’80s.

I’ve just referred to “biographers,” but the designation doesn’t apply to Treglown, at least not in this book. (A former editor of The Times Literary Supplement, he has published proper lives of V.S. Pritchett, Roald Dahl and Henry Green.) It is, he writes, “a study of John Hersey’s career, not a full biography.” I imagine all the manuscripts, royalty statements and editorial back-and-forths on offer at Yale led him to that decision, but it generated a torque that seems to have directed him to library stalls and away from the wider world, to the detriment of the book. Judging by the text, end notes and acknowledgments, Treglown appears to have conducted no more than a dozen on-the-record interviews in preparing Mr. Straight Arrow. Talking to Hersey’s children, to a good sample of his scores of former students (instead of just one), to his surviving friends and colleagues at Yale, The New Yorker and the publisher Alfred A. Knopf not only would have provided anecdotes but also would have helped the author with perspective, sometimes a problem for the book.

Broader reading beyond just the Hersey papers would have helped, too. This was most clear to me in the material relating to The New Yorker: Treglown, who is English, doesn’t have a strong sense of magazine’s unique editorial culture, conventions and procedures and how they shaped Hersey’s work for it, which included not only Hiroshima but dozens of contributions from 1944 till 1988. The founding editor, Harold Ross, had an idiosyncratic approach to journalism and writing more generally, which showed up in the lengthy “query sheets” he attached to drafts of articles. Ross wrote a voluminous query sheet for Hiroshima, bringing up many minor points and some major ones. An example of the latter was prompted by Hersey’s reference, in his first draft, to a fact his characters probably wouldn’t have been aware of. Ross wrote:

Touchy technical point here, and an important one. This is a story throughout of what people see first hand and (except for a few parenthetical remarks) only that. Did this woman see her dead husband and know it that way. If so should be told that way. If not, should be out, as getting ahead of the story.

Hersey cut the line out. And Treglown makes no reference to the query sheet.

The book could also use a fuller and more nuanced sense of Hersey’s place in and ambivalent attitude toward the so-called New Journalism. Hiroshima is often named as pioneering some of the techniques associated with the movement, like dialogue and omniscient narration, yet in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Hersey spoke out what he saw as insufficient regard for facts and excessive self-promotion in some New Journalists. Treglown doesn’t mention an important 1980 essay where he laid out his criticisms, “The Legend on the License.” (“There is one sacred rule of journalism,” Hersey said. “The writer must not invent. The legend on the license must read: NONE OF THIS WAS MADE UP.”) More seriously, he doesn’t seem to be aware that in a 1944 Hersey article about a damaged returning soldier, “Joe Is Home Now,” written in the style of a short story and cited by Tom Wolfe as a New Journalism precursor, “Joe” is a composite character, based on interviews with more than 40 veterans.

It’s annoying when reviewers say authors should have written a different book from the one they produced. But I can’t resist saying that if Treglown wasn’t going to do a full-scale biography he might have been better off writing a critical study of Hersey. His close readings of the author’s work are credible and smart, and he’s especially insightful on the way they reflect the author’s character. He writes of Hersey’s late novels, “Whatever parts of himself he was drawing on in these books, his puritanism encumbers them as fictional elements, and his reticence—surely part of the same apparatus—keeps them largely beyond biographical reach.”

That reticence, that rock-ribbed uprightness and uptightness, was an essential characteristic for John Hersey. It was part of what made him a great journalist, an ambitious and earnest but not first-rank novelist, and someone who, as the subject of this book, has proved frustratingly hard to pin down.