Tuesday, October 19, 2010


Occupational hazards

Just as there is no reason to start blogging, there is no reason to stop. So I'll get rolling again with two savory snippets. First, an observation: there are moments when the writing life seems like a parade of small degradations. Can any other profession take such a toll on the ego? Well, yes. This is from William Knoedelseder's I'm Dying Up Here: Heartbreak and High Times in Stand-Up Comedy's Golden Era. The year is 1977, and Richard Lewis is on the road, opening for Sonny and Cher. The golden duo is paid up to $175,000 per night, while Lewis is on a weekly salary of $500. No, that's not the degrading part. This is:
At the state fair in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, he had to perform outdoors at 4:00 PM with a roller coaster running full bore behind him and circus animals being paraded around a race track between him and the audience. He was supposed to do thirty minutes, but the distractions were so extreme that he raced through his routine and bolted from the stage after ten minutes, sure that it meant the end of his career. He was consoled by a grizzled patron who told him, "Trust me, kid. Bill Cosby was here last week, and he only did fifteen minutes."
Next up, E. Howard Hunt. To be honest, I'm not shedding any tears for this fixture of Richard Nixon's Praetorian Guard and goon squad. I don't really care about his self-esteem. Yet I experienced just a hint of fellow feeling when I read about his 1972 visit to ITT lobbyist Dita Beard, who had implicated the Nixon Administration in some antitrust monkey business. Beard was in a Denver hospital, being "treated for a heart ailment" (if you believe Time) or simply keeping her head down. Hunt's mission was to pressure her into retracting her story. Here's the account from Mark Feldstein's Poisoning the Press: Richard Nixon, Jack Anderson, and the Rise of Washington's Scandal Culture:
Hunt was warned to approach Beard in a physical disguise with a phony ID because "we don't want you traced back to the White House." To pay for his expenses, he was handed an envelope filled with cash from Nixon's reelection campaign: his flight to Denver was booked by a White House secretary. Hunt arrived at Beard's hospital room near midnight wearing makeup and an ill-fitting reddish brown wig, his voice disguised by an electronic alteration device provided by the CIA. The not-so-covert operative looked "very eerie," Beard's son remembered, with his hairpiece on "cockeyed, like he put it on in a dark car."
Actually, the cockeyed toupee would seem to be the most normal part of Hunt's outfit. Reading about these Keystone Kops antics, you don't know whether to be amused or horrified--this was the so-called unitary executive in action. Hunt went on to serve 33 months in prison for his role in the Watergate burglaries, then wrote a gazillion spy novels after his release. (Gore Vidal reviewed a baker's dozen of Hunt's novels in this 1973 essay, along with, uh, related titles by Arthur Bremer and Tad Szulc. NYRB subscribers only, alas.)

And now for something completely different. My review of We Were There: An Eyewitness History of the Twentieth Century recently appeared on the The Book, a literary blog launched last year by The New Republic. I enjoyed this composite portrait, but grumbled about the editor's U.K.-flavored favoritism:
It is also no surprise that Fox views the century through a British lens. There is no need to complain about the preponderance of English voices, not when the likes of Robert Graves, Evelyn Waugh, Robert Byron, Ronald Blythe, Gertrude Bell, George Orwell, and James Fenton are in the choir. Still, it is a little strange to see Britain’s reconquest of the Falkland Islands in 1982 trotted out as a major event of the century and "the last of the British imperial wars." Why not include the American invasion of Grenada the following year, or the toppling of Manuel Noriega and his capture as part of Operation Nifty Package (really) in 1989?
You can read the whole thing here.

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