Monday, January 8, 2018

Celebrating a Life Well Lived

Liz as an infant.
Celebrating a Life Well Lived!! Also — “Fire and Fury” and What’s Really the Point? And Recommended Magazine Browsing.
by Denis Ferrara

“AMERICA and Liz Smith entered the 21st century in a schizophrenic manner.  With one hand in the past, some of us still ‘wrote with a feather.’ With the other hand, we now tap the keyboard and use the mouse technologies almost too advanced to imagine.  We are afflicted at every turn with a permissive, overly sexualized, materialistic culture that seems out of control ... but it seems more important to perhaps become semi-civilized, more cultured, better educated, benignly tolerant, fully forgiving and free in spirit.

“I begin to share a theory with Gore Vidal, whose mind and genius I so much admire.  According to his biographer, Fred Kaplan, Gore believes that Federico Fellini’s famous film, “La Dolce Vita,” which exploited Anglo-Saxon Puritanism, pretended that “this was decadence when it was only life as it is lived.”
“I hate to brag, but some years ago the Reverend Jerry Falwell named Bill Moyers and Liz Smith as the two people raised in a Southern Baptist religious background who had fallen the furthest and disappointed him the most.”

Well, Reverend, I’m sorry.  But it wasn’t sinful decadence; it was only life as it is lived.”

That’s the late, great Liz Smith, in the introduction of her memoir, “Natural Blonde.” 

Liz with Lady Liberty.
This is the Liz I knew.  One of them, anyway.  She was the living embodiment of Walt Whitman’s famous “Do I contradict myself?  Very well then, I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”  In our long relationship, she taught me, perhaps inadvertently, that I wasn’t crazy, indecisive, or, in political jargon, a flip-flopper.  I, too, contained multitudes. (Well, I felt that way on a good day, once every three years. Otherwise ...)

I have quoted so liberally from Liz’s book because on Friday, February 2nd, which would have been her 95th birthday, my friend, mentor and employer’s life will be celebrated at noon, at the Majestic Theater. (245 West 44th Street.) 

Liz herself didn’t want a fuss. She’d complain about this — no doubt she already is. (What — you missed the “bomb cyclone” of frigid weather?) Among other things, she’d deride being feted in memoriam at anything called “majestic.”  Oh, she’d carry on.  But, in truth, I know she’ll love it.  She adored her fame, and she loved a good compliment.  (Like all of us, she took criticism to heart, and agonized.  And then she got over it.)

I often worry how I’ll begin this now ancient pillar, so far from its “breaking news” days.  What’s news? What’s “the lead story” in a world where Twitter rules for 24 hours and is forgotten even faster? Well, today I didn’t have that problem.  Liz Smith was, is and will forever be a lead story. For me, anyway.  And now that I am at last on my own, and can do as I wish, what is “for me” will have to be for all of you, too.  Another lesson learned from “Madam” as she was known among her small staff.

P.S. I recall when Liz returned from being photographed by Annie Leibovitz, for the photo you see here. It was taken very early in the morning.  Liz had been up since dawn, preparing.  She returned from the shoot in high spirits. “God, I loved that horse!  He was so sweet.  No problem at all.”  She glanced at me. We had argued before she left about something in the column.  “If only that horse could write.”  Another pause. “But I’ve handled worse.” 

Oh, Liz, you minx of multitudes, we’re going to celebrate your life, whether you want it or not.  The invite to the horse got lost.
RSVP to  Or call 917-579-1000.  
SPEAKING of “breaking news” I saw something on MSNBC had had me rolling on the floor.  I’m assuming it was a joke.  It was during Joy Reid’s show. (Formerly so very good, Joy has imbibed the MSNBC Kool-Aid — just as  almost everybody at Fox News partakes of their particular partisan draught.  Joy now sounds, in cadence and attitude, just like Chris Hayes and Rachel Maddow.) 

Anyway, at the bottom of the screen, under Joy, there was one of those almost-always ridiculous “Breaking News” flashes.  This one said, “MSNBC has obtained an exclusive look at controversial new book. Joy Reid is almost finished reading it.”  It had to be a joke, right? 
The controversial book was Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House” which has eaten up hours of cable news.  I mean, there is real news happening, but instead we get endless panels and discussions about a book that tells us nothing we didn’t already know, or think we know, about our 45th president. Sure, there are some new anecdotes, apparently, and stuff we don’t need to know about his life with his wife, along with the Steve Bannon quotes, which anybody paying attention knew was coming.
Otherwise the man portrayed in “Fire and Fury” is the same man who so many saw in action for years in New York, who the whole world saw during the campaign — his childish insecurity and malignant narcissism on full display.  Those qualities were often remarked upon — often in this space. Yet, he was elected.  This book is another distraction, another reason for the president’s core base to love him more and hate us more virulently; a pointless exercise in overkill. (And Wolff behaves in an awfully sketchy manner, IMO.) 

How about CNN or MSNBC putting together an intelligent six-person panel to discuss, for instance, what the commander-in-chief  did to the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS (PACHA) last week.  But nooooo. Let’s invest time in tales of scalp surgery, McDonalds, separate bedrooms and whether or not the president can actually read?  No wonder we lost.
RECOMMENDED Reading:  Back in the day, when we used to forget to write about certain articles in magazines, and a week or more went by, we usually let it go — the moment had passed.  But now everything is available online, you can refer to something months, even years old, and find it, presto.  Nothing I’m going to recommend is from months ago, just a few things I read and clipped during my vacation. 

First — I loved Adam Gopnik’s “Christmas Stories” piece in the January 1, issue of The New Yorker. So witty, wise and informative.  The magazine should run it every year.  Hell, I’ll run it every year.
Illustration by Tom Bachtell for the The New Yorker.
... In New York magazine, Bill Wyman’s “Of Thriller and Filler,” which celebrates the 30th anniversary of Michael Jackson’s “Bad” album.  This piece reviews every single Michael Jackson solo song (100 of them!) after he split from “The Jackson Five.”  It’s exhaustive, knowing, precise, funny. The longer sidebar reviews are particularly good.

I loved Wyman’s “Billie Jean” take, which begins: “Jackson’s aesthetic development is difficult to encapsulate; he began as a boy acting like a man, then became a man insisting he was still a boy.” Great stuff.
... The December 23rd issue of Billboard warmed my heart with a two-page spread on the long-lasting power of Mariah Carey’s classic 1994 song, “All I Want for Christmas.”  (Mariah’s holiday album, along with “Phil Spector’s A Christmas Gift For You,” blared constantly throughout the season — along with lots of other Christmas chestnuts.)   Vocal coach Liz Caplan,  poet Hanif Abdurraqib and composer Owen Pallett analyzed the various components of the song and how Mariah performed it.  This article made me happy.
... Finally, the January issue of Smithsonian magazine is devoted to the epic, turbulent and tragic year of 1968.

Every article is worthy, but two stuck out for me.  One was about the engineer Douglas Engelbart, a name I had never heard, who in ’68, presented network computing to an audience of 1,000 people in San Francisco, virtually everything he said and demonstrated we use today, and some of his vision has yet to be achieved.  Somehow, his ideas didn’t get off the ground. But he was Steve Jobs before Steve Jobs.  Author Valerie Landau, who worked with Engelbart presents a fascinating and largely unknown tale of technology, genius and disappointment.

Also in the ’68 issue of Smithsonian is Shaun Raviv’s wrenching “The Ghosts Of My Lai,” about the slaughter of hundreds of civilians — men, women and children — in Viet  Nam.  I’d forgotten that William Calley Jr., the man who led the massacre got off essentially scot free — serving only a couple of years of mostly house detention. He is now 74, and has never officially apologized.  It’s the kind of terrible war story that should never fade away; it tells so much about what we call humanity and the dictates of soldiering.
END-PICTURE:  Before all vestiges of the holiday season are lost, let me post this just-before-Christmas photo of The New York Social Diary’s Jeff Hirsch and yours truly at the lively and picturesque Russian Samovar on West 52nd Street.  Jeff is the man responsible for making this column look interesting and impressive, even when it isn’t!   (He does all sorts of marvelous things for the rest of David Patrick Columbia’s NYSD, but, naturally, his toiling for me is what matters most. Selfish — I admit it.)

We toasted — with vodka, natch — the coming new year, friends and family, and since we were among Russians, decided that we were, in fact, colluding! 
Mr. Jeff Hirsch, and me, at Russian Samovar.  We received the secret dossier, but then lost it. Vodka!!    
Contact Denis here.