Wednesday, July 24, 2013

It’s Summertime

New York Life Building and The Empire State Building. 9:00 PM. Photo: Jeffrey Hirsch.
Wednesday, July 24, 2013. Temperatures in the 80s, but it’s Summertime, and not so humid, thankfully. A beautiful day, yesterday in New York.

I went down to Michael’s to have lunch with Brooke Hayward who came in from Connecticut for the occasion. Liz Smith came by the table and as she left, she said to Brooke: “Write another book,” referring to a sequel to her best-selling “Haywire” which was re-published last year. Brooke responded by shaking her head and waving her hands as if to say: I don’ wannit!

Unbeknownst to me she planned it as a birthday lunch, as mine is coming up on Friday. For this we had the “cake” which in this case was two scoops of coconut ice cream and a slice of coconut cake. Steve Millington somehow remembered I liked coconut ice cream. And cake. Brooke didn’t want but one taste so I had to eat it all.
Old Wild-Eyes at table with Brooke Hayward, who arranged for and surprised me with the birthday dessert yesterday at Michael's.
Close-up of the plate, designed by Michael's General Manager Steve Millington, who also took these pictures.
On Monday Al-Jazeera, the Qatar-based international broadcaster privately-owned by Al Jazeera Media Network, named Kate O’Brian, the 54-year-old, former ABC News senior vice-president, as president for the new Al Jazeera America, which will go on-air August 20th.

I don’t watch television very much, and I never watch any of the news shows. I got out of the habit a long time ago. I used to watch news, especially network news a long time ago from the days of Huntley-Brinkley, Walter Cronkite and even early Dan Rather. I don’t know why I stopped. I must have been without a tv somewhere in my travels and didn’t have access.

Edward R. Murrow.
In their inception and early years, tv had to compete with print and the only way was to inform the public. They worked hard at it. I remember when Ted Turner changed everything on tv news with his 24-hour programming. Mr. Turner was a real media tycoon in that he changed our habits and even our thinking at times. NPR was popular but was only on public-funded stations. They reported stories you didn’t get on network, but because of their outlets, had a smaller audience.

Network news in the days of radio and early television was as competitive as print. CBS led the pack. But as late as 1960, New York had seven dailies. Reporters fought for stories. Radio naturally morphed into television and its early newscasters and news directors also competed for stories and exclusives. America watched Edward R. Murrow’s “See It Now” and his documentaries on the state of the nation and its health and learned.

Then two things happened that ultimately changed the approach to news in both TV and print: the war in Viet Nam War, and then Watergate. After the Viet Nam exit, so too went a lot of hard reporting and news.

It was the Viet Nam War news on television that turned the public against the war itself. Because of what they were seeing in their living rooms nightly -- the casualties, and the blood and human catastrophe. Many millions marched in the streets across the land in protest, and for a long time. The protest seemingly did not affect government policy as the war escalated. But eventually it wore down the policy so that the leadership began to look for a way out to keep its power. Lyndon Johnson forsook a re-election because of the public sentiment.
Nixon visting the troops in Viet Nam. This photo was taken at the beginning of his Presidency when the war was still escalating although people were hopeful because he was assuring the nation that he had a plan to end it.
Then along came Richard Nixon and the Watergate scandal – which is largely unknown to our young adult population but which had the entire nation riveted to the television for weeks in the middle of the summer, with the Senate Watergate Hearings. We learned what has and had oft been said: politicians (among others) lie and cheat and steal and even do a few other things that the citizens would not condone. It was the first time in the history of the nation that the President had to resign from office – or face an impeachment trial.

After Richard Nixon resigned, he granted an on-camera interview to David Frost who was known for his trenchant questioning of his guests. This was a big “get” for Frost (and Nixon was handsomely compensated) since the “disgraced President” as he was often referred to in the media, had become reclusive.

Frost and Nixon.
The appearance turned out to be a good move for Mr. Nixon, not unlike the way one can let some fresh air into a room by opening the doors and windows. He was still as compelling a national political figure, as he had been since his early days in Congress.

Frost finally asked him “what” he (Nixon) thought caused “Watergate.” It’s important to know that by then (a year or more after Nixon resigned), Watergate was now being referred to in the media as “a second rate burglary.”

So, what did Mr. Nixon think was the “cause” of the Watergate scandal (and the man’s personal political tragedy)? Without skipping a beat, the former President responded “Viet Nam.”

Viet Nam changed not only Richard Nixon’s life but it changed the news. We don’t see carnage anymore on network news. Which is fine with me. Although, ironically, we see more and more and more of it in film and television entertainment for the mass audience.  Even the news for many has become an entertainment or a kind of reality show. And we don’t learn anything that the Powers That Be, whoever they are, be they corporate or politics, don’t want us to know.

Al Jazeera evidently is not that. I know several people – none of them left-wing or hardliners about anything political – who only watch Al-Jazeera for news. And why: “it’s the only television news that really tells you what’s going on and doesn’t soft-pedal it.”

In other words, it’s ambitiously competitive. The old fashioned way.

The young columnist Jack O'Brian, circa 1950, at the Stork Club.
His daughter Kate O'Brian, who is the new president of Al Jazeera America, which debuts on August 20.
When I saw the news that Ms. O’Brian had been appointed, I suddenly thought of Jack O’Brian, a columnist and journalist for the Hearst papers and later a radio talk show host on WOR for decades. O’Brian was in the thick of his career in New York from the 1960s through the 1980s. I happened to meet him when I first came to New York because he was a close friend of the stepfather of a girl who was a friend of mine.

Hearing about Kate O’Brian’s new position, I could only wonder if there were a connection with Jack O’Brian I knew. I recalled once visiting him and his wife Von with my friend at the O’Brians. They lived on the Upper East Side with their two very young daughters. One was named Kate. After that initial meeting, I never knew what happened to either of the girls.

So I Googled Kate O’Brian on Monday and got this picture. She doesn’t look like her father if you compare the photograph we have of him in his thirties, but she sure looked like she could be his daughter. A chip off the old block maybe.

Now that was interesting. Because there was a clear resemblance. The “old block” was a hardnosed newsman and columnist. And with legendary ambition. He started out as a cub reporter working for the local paper in his hometown of Buffalo. When he got to New York by the late 1930s, he somehow fell in with, insinuated himself with, Walter Winchell -- the one-and-only-and-never again. Talk about competitive.

Winchell wrote a daily Broadway column that was read daily by 30 million people.  In the world of New York and Broadway and politics, no one had such power that Winchell had over public opinion. No one, in print or on camera ever topped his readership number – and the population of the country then was less than half what it is now. Farmers out in Iowa read his “gossip” every day.

J. Edgar Hoover and Walter Winchell.
Winchell could make or break. He was a big booster of FDR. He was palsy with J. Edgar Hoover, the most feared man in America. He was a lot of things, including a reporter who trolled the clubs, the New York nightlife which was a thousand times what it is today, and regularly cruised around New York nightly with the cops responding to calls.

The story “Sweet Smell of Success,” written by Ernest Lehman for the old Cosmopolitan Magazine  (Hearst) was a kind of roman a clef of Winchell and his ways published in 1950. Years later the man who bought the story for the magazine, then story editor David Brown, brought it to 20th Century-Fox and Burt Lancaster played the brutally tough Winchell character and Tony Curtis played his brutally tough/stop-at-nothing cohort. That character was said to have been based on two of Winchell’s henchmen, a press agent named Irving Hoffman, and Jack O’Brian.

When I came to New York just out of college, Jack O’Brian was television critic for the Journal-American. Television was new, and it was growing fast and changing content quickly. Jack O’Brian could be brutal in his assessments of what he was watching. He had his favorites – people like Cronkite, Bert Lahr (the Cowardly Lion from “The Wizard of Oz” and Perry Como). But he dismissed others by the busloads, often with a single jolt of a quip. Once, when it was announced that actor Franco Nero was taking on the role Robert Goulet created in the original Broadway cast of “Camelot,” Nero’s press agents were flacking that the part would do for Nero’s career what it did for Goulet. O’Brian asked in his column: “What? Turn him to stone?”
Jack O'Brian's "The Voice of Broadway" column (which was the name and layout of his predecessor Dorothy Kilgallen's column), in the New York Journal-American. O'Brian took over the column when Kilgallen died unexpectedly. This was the most prestigious column other than Cholly Knickerbocker in the Hearst newspapers and syndicate. When the paper closed, O'Brian took his talents to WOR where he had a daily radio talk show which was heard all over the country.
Jack O’Brian was one of at least a dozen columnists writing for the Journal-American daily, and he was not the top (that was Dorothy Kilgallen), but he had the savvy to turn his spot into controversy, even very annoying controversy. There was more than one actor, TV celebrity, author, singer who got whacked with one of Jack O’Brian’s asides. And dozens who had tales to tell of their Jack O’Brian jabs in print.

His big break came after the untimely death of Dorothy Kilgallen – he was given her spot and Broadway was his beat. He was well prepared, and occupied that place until the J-A finally closed several years later. Then he moved on to radio where he had a daily show on WOR talking and interviewing celebrity guests. He occupied that spot almost twenty years, and he died eleven years ago in 2000 at the age of 86.

He was a classic Irish-American New York journalist – hard biting, pugnacious, quick-witted, ambitious and – when he wanted to be – warm and friendly, and very sociable.

Because of my friendship with the girl whose stepfather was O’Brian’s friend, he would often invite us to join him and his beautiful young wife Von on Friday nights at the Stork Club. There we would sit at the fabled Table 50 (the corner table) in the fabled Cub Room (the Stork’s version of the VIP room). 

Often we were the only ones occupying the room. It was the final years of the Stork, and it was obvious even to a young kid from the sticks, starry-eyed though I was. It didn’t draw a big crowd, although it was still doing business.

Ernest Hemingway, Sherman Billingsley, and John O'Hara at the Stork Club.
And Sherman Billingsley, its owner founder was on hand every night, and often joined our table for a chat. One night I asked him if there were ever famous people he didn’t like having in his club. “Two,” he answered immediately. “Who?” “John O’Hara and Frank Sinatra.” “Why?” “Because both guys were such bad drunks you never knew what they were gonna do to anybody.”

Table 50 at the Stork with Jack and Von  O’Brian was sometimes joined by two youngish men (although much older than I and my friend) – Si Newhouse and Roy Cohn. The two had grown up together and to this new kid in town, they looked like cousins. I later learned that were lifelong friends sicne boyhood.

Roy Cohn was already famous across America because of his relationship to Senator McCarthy and his witch hunts for Communists. Si Newhouse was not as well known to the public at the time, although I recognized the name because his father Si Sr. had acquired the local Springfield, Massachusetts dailies which were read in my parents’ house.

After the Stork we’d often wander the few up Fifth Avenue to Reuben’s, the famous 24 hour deli-restaurant on the corner of 58th and Fifth across from Bergdorf’s where we’d have a late night famous Reuben’s pastrami sandwich. Some nights we’d walk a few blocks west to Lindy’s, another famous all-nighter where the Broadway crowd came for the famous cheesecake, washed down by a beer or a shot before bedtime. That was the very beginning of my education of New York.

All of this crossed my mind on Monday afternoon when the notable media move of Ms. Kate O’Brian was announced (on the internet). I emailed another friend who knew the O’Brians and asked if she were Jack and Von’s Kate. I wasn’t surprised to learn she was.

I have my doubts that the lady has quite the same temperament as her late father. I don’t doubt that he adored her and must have been very proud late in his life to see the progress she made in his business. I wondered what he would have thought of her going to work for the Arabs, things being the way they are in the minds of those who wear their opinions like badges at times.  In some way, I’ll bet, he would have been proud of that too. He already knew who his girl really was/is. He would have recognized that she had the competitive edge and was prepared to take on the major media outlets and show them What For. A chip off the old block, as I said. This is New York.

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