Looking back on a genuine piece of late 20th-century Americana

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A bouquet of roses frozen on The Lake, outside the Boat House in Central Park. Photo: JH.

Monday, February 22, 2021. After a cold but sunny weekend in New York, the weatherman is predicting a little more snow (but “no accumulation”) and then higher temperatures — high 30s and into the 40s — for a few days.

On Friday, and over the weekend on Insta, we ran a video that JH took while visiting his mother-in-law over the weekend in New Jersey where they were having a big snow — much greater than what we were experiencing in the city. The video included a sweet scene of an older man walking his dog in the snow. Last night Jeff learned that the man had two sons, both of whom served in the United States Armed Forces in Afghanistan. The dog the man was walking in the snow was rescued by one son in Afghanistan. His other son brought home a cat. Good all-American boys.

On another biting cold day in New York, fifteen years ago, with the snow moving in to new blizzard conditions by late evening, we wrote a Diary on the passing of a television legend of the late 1950s and ’60, Jack Paar, who had died earlier in the day at his home in Greenwich. 

The words “talk show” came into the language because of him and he fostered a cottage industry of “talk show hosts,” not one of whom would ever be his peer. I have never seen another achieve the intimacy with his audience that Jack Paar did. It was the first time the American audience stayed up to watch television around the midnight hour. He was a performer with a genius understanding of his medium which was brand new in our world.

Paar at the height of his fame.

When I was in college in the early 60s, Jack Paar and his Tonight Show (“live from New York …”) were the hottest thing on television. At 11:15 I’d stop whatever I was doing and go down to the television room in the fraternity house to watch him.

It was probably the first time (and probably the closest) America ever got to sitting in a celebrity’s living room surrounded by other celebrities.

The college kid always fantasized the tourist’s notion of being a guest at Jack Paar’s dinner table where I could luxuriate in his witty conversation and story-telling, and then grow up and go out into the world and be clever and funny and smart like him.

Years later, at just about this week of the year, in 1975, I did meet him, in Pound Ridge, New York, where I had a small retail business. He came into the shop one day with his daughter Randy to look for a birthday present for Miriam. A few months later I met him, through Randy, and was invited to lunch.

The off-camera Jack was pretty much like the one on TV. He’d been away from the spotlight for a few years, with the brief exception of a kind of “comeback” one week a month on ABC which he later regretted. He’d been lured against his better judgment by the big money the network offered for so little time.

He was a man who loved information, knowledge, and wit. Those without it bored him. Almost instantly. After his great success gave him access to so much of it, his life was, in many ways, like that of a kid in a candy store. That is, whenever he wished to visit the candy store. Because at the core, he was a homebody.

Lunches and dinners at the Paars, be it three or four or fourteen, were dominated by his presence just as it was on the show. It was impossible not to be: it was a big, energetic presence. There was always a handsome sofa flanked by two chairs, in one of which sat Jack. If you were invited for noon, it was expected you be on time. In the broadcasting business, time is money; time is everything. Jack was never late.

Jack and daughter Randy in the Rotunda of the National Archives during a production pause in the filming of “The Kennedy Wit,” 1966. (Records of the National Archives)

On arrival he’d be sitting in his chair, with a glass of white wine and Miriam, small, blonde, with a lovely serene countenance and blue eyes, would be in the opposite chair. We’d start out discussing books we were reading or wanted to read. Or something we’d seen or heard in the past couple of days. Which would lead in to anecdotes and recollections, and Hollywood stories and Washington stories, and television stories, and forelore and gossip, all scintillating, all of which were dessert for these hungry ears. And most of which was provided by the host’s uniquely brilliant conversation.

It was a high demonstration of the art of the anecdotalist.

Like many men and women in his profession, he knew that all good stories were created for the denouement. “Where’s the denouement, kid?” he’d clap his hands and ask, interrupting a story that was malingering. “The denouement!”

Then when the luncheon or dinner was over, Jack got up and left the room, and it over.

His life was really Jack-and-Miriam. They were as close to being one as I have ever seen in a marriage. Miriam, nee Wagner, a little girl from Hershey, Pennsylvania (which was founded, along with the chocolate business, by her uncle Milton Hershey) was the cosmic ingredient in the great success of her husband.

A photo of Jack and Miriam Paar and their dog Leica strolling on Trinity Pass in Pound Ridge, New York, circa 1975, a gift of their daughter Randy who took the picture.

She married Jack in 1943 just before he went off to the South Pacific to entertain the troops. She was the Executive Producer in their lives — his rock, his helpmeet, bookkeeper/financial adviser, chief-cook-and-bottlewasher, mother of his child, and his faithful, loyal, unswerving audience. Devoted barely describes it. And she carried out everything effortlessly and well, including all the cooking for their frequent entertaining (her food was superior).

He was an avid reader of newspapers, magazines, and popular literature especially non-fiction. Their life was quiet and orderly. They traveled. They came to the city for dinners with friends (although he liked to eat early – five-thirty, six). They’d go to theatre, to movies, see what was new in town. After he retired permanently, he’d often be in bed as early as eight-thirty or nine, maybe even earlier if they weren’t having dinner guests. He’d also be up at the crack of dawn.

He loved puttering around the house. He loved gadgetry, especially electronic. He watched a fair amount of television and saw a lot of movies. He loved cars and often indulged himself in changing models, trying everything from Rollses on down. He also liked the occasional visit to Hollywood with perhaps an “appearance,” such as the annual visit on one of Merv Griffin’s Specials.

Jack Parr with his idol Jack Benny in 1959. Everett Collection Historical / Alamy Stock Photo

As much as he was naturally drawn to performing, the actual going “on” created enormous inner tension. The moments that led up to the delivery were excruciating for him. That tension played itself out compellingly before an audience and was part of his magic. The other part was: he knew what he was doing. His personality was his art.

It was a meteoric career in retrospect, but long in the coming together. The first twenty years were a struggle. He started out in radio in Ohio. His career got its first boost in the Pacific during the War, performing stand-up. His idol was Jack Benny but with the brashness and bravado of youth. The gigs in the Army led to a movie contract with RKO and radio work in Hollywood.

However, it was all promise. Nothing took; the career was going nowhere. They went back to New York. It was the mid-50s and daytime television was just flourishing. Jack was hired to host the CBS Morning Show, replacing a young man named Walter Cronkite who then went into the television news business. The Paar talent with all its amusing, astonishing quirks came into the bright light. And it shone. But the show went nowhere. The attention, however, brought him to the Tonight Show and suddenly the world was at his feet.

He did the Tonight Show (eventually called the Jack Paar Show) for five years and sometime in there became the most famous man on television. In that time he leveled the enormous decades-long power of Walter Winchell (in a feud, his side of which was conducted on air); met Fidel Castro when he first came to power in Havana, interviewed Kennedy and Nixon before the election of 1960, went to the Berlin Wall, visited Albert Schweitzer in Africa, saw the world (always with Miriam and Randy — and making home movies to bring back for the show) all the while entertaining late-night America with comedy, music and laughter and Jack Paar.

Paar with John F. Kennedy on The Tonight Show in 1959.

At the peak of his career, he had a reputation for being volatile,difficult and hard to predict. He could be impatient and turned off by people who did not provide some interest for him. Away from the pressures of his work, much of that eased, (except those who bored him) although that “edge” that the world saw, was still there. Years later he told me in amazed reflection: “There was a time in those days when I’d would sit up there in my office at 30 Rockefeller Center and actually think the world revolved around me!”

My luncheons and dinners with Jack and Miriam’s
in New Canaan were fun and interesting for the same reason his show was. Jack held forth. Conversation was lively, informative, amusing. There was a coterie of old friends and new, old staff and performers, friends made early on in his broadcasting career and even Sidney Carroll who first wrote about Jack in Esquire during the War years, and garnered him important notice. There were often people passing through who wanted to meet or to see the great man again, as well as new friendships yet to come.

In 1979, I moved from Connecticut to California, setting out on a new life path as a writer. I got the feeling Jack didn’t think much of the idea of giving up a nice business for a new pursuit in a new place. The night before I left, I went to dinner at their house. “Well kid,” he said as we were saying our goodbyes, “Hollywood’s a great place to be a star but an awful place if you’re a failure.” His tone had the kindly but regretful concession of a wise uncle. I knew he was also reflecting on his own experience – he’d found his stardom in New York.

The move effectively marked the end of our relationship. There were occasional but rare correspondences between me and Miriam, exchanging of cards, but in time, over distance, that was dispelled too. This, as we know, happens in life, and especially on the higher, faster tracks, which are far more transient. Hermes Pan had phrase for it, which he always recalled with a chuckle: “I loved ya honey but the show closed.”

Jack Paar was one of the most remarkable media personalities of his time, a power still reflected, indeed, even ingrained in our culture. He was also a genuine piece of late 20th-century Americana, a blessed pleasure for me to know, and for many many millions of others too. In the words of Noel Coward as sung by one of Jack’s favorites, Bea Lillie, I went to a mah-velous party. It was his. And Miriam’s.

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