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Friday, October 1, 2010

R.I.P. Tony Curtis

Tony Curtis as magician and escape artist Harry Houdini in the 1953 Hollywood movie "Houdini."The first time I met Tony Curtis in Los Angeles to discuss co-writing his autobiography, I told him -- by way of clumsy introduction -- that at age 11, my best friend and I went to see his 1958 action film "The Vikings" three times in two days, adding, "We desperately wanted to BE Tony Curtis."
He nodded and replied: "So did I."
It was a typically wry, self-effacing, truthful thing to say. He was, after all, not really "Tony Curtis." He was Bernie Schwartz of the Bronx, born to Hungarian Jewish immigrants Manual and Helen on June 3, 1925.
He died Wednesday, at 85, of cardiac arrest at his home near Las Vegas. Being and becoming "Tony Curtis" would be a lifetime process that took him from the depths of poverty in the Depression to the heights of Hollywood stardom, and more fine performances than he was ever given credit for in some 120 films.
Mr. Curtis joined the Navy in 1943, serving in the South Pacific. After the war, he took acting classes at the Dramatic Workshop of the New School, where fellow students included Walter Matthau, Harry Belafonte and Bea Arthur. Spotted in an off-Broadway production, he was signed by a talent agent to a contract with Universal Pictures, who changed his name, taught him how to fence, and gave him the courage to approach starlets with the line, "I've been assigned by Universal to teach you how to kiss."
His pictures would generate bigger audiences and more money than all the "highbrow" actors combined. But he never won an Oscar. He was just too -- too what?
Too popular.
Mr. Curtis also was intensely emotional and great fun, as was my experience of working with him intimately for two years. Once at dinner in Manhattan, he introduced me to Bill Cosby with deadpan solemnity: "I never travel without my biographer -- in case I say something significant."
Another time, when I inquired about the young ages of the five women he married, his response was, "I'd never marry a woman old enough to be my wife."
The first of them was Janet Leigh, best known for her demise in the shower during Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho" (1960). They became one of the Hollywood's most glamorous couples, parenting actress-daughters Jamie Lee and Kelly. His issues with subsequent wives Christine Kaufmann and Leslie Allen helped fill the pages of our book. Drug and alcohol addiction comprised other issues.
But the most -- and best -- of his issues were the movies, those marvelous pieces of action entertainment: "Houdini," "The Great Imposter," the silly "Son of Ali Baba" (in which his line "Yondah lies the castle of my faddah, da caliph!" was much mocked), "Trapeze" with Burt Lancaster, "Operation Petticoat" with Cary Grant, "Taras Bulba" with Yul Brynner, "The Great Race."
Everyone has his or her favorite Tony Curtis films. Mine was his brilliant, terrifying performance in "The Boston Strangler" (1968) as serial killer Albert DeSalvo. He was deeply upset when overlooked for an Oscar nomination for it.
The rest of the world most remembers "Some Like It Hot," designated by the American Film Institute (and most public polls) as the "funniest American film of all-time." It's the 1959 classic in which two hapless musicians join an all-girls band to escape the Chicago Mob. Producer David O. Selznick told director Billy Wilder, "You want machine guns and dead bodies and drag gags in the same picture? Forget it, Billy. You'll never make it work."
With Marilyn Monroe singing and Mr. Curtis and Jack Lemmon in drag, it worked. Under Wilder's inspired direction, the stars gave the performances of their lives.
Curtis: "You play the market?"
Monroe: "No, the ukulele."
Marilyn got the raves, but the unsung hero of that film's success was Mr. Curtis, who played his drag "straight" (and does a brilliant Cary Grant imitation -- his own idea), while over-the-top Lemmon mugs and cavorts. But Lemmon got the Oscar nomination.
Mr. Curtis was never much recognized by Hollywood, in general. The Academy, in particular, never stopped thinking of him as a light-comedy leading man. But in fact, Mr. Curtis could and did do it all. Anyone who still doubts his abilities as a serious and versatile dramatic actor has never seen his amazing performances in "The Boston Strangler" or "Sweet Smell of Success" (1957) with Burt Lancaster, a box-office failure now acknowledged as an American noir masterpiece. Mr. Curtis played Sidney Falco, a sleazy publicist in service to Lancaster's corrupt newspaper columnist, modeled on Walter Winchell.
Mr. Curtis -- in and out of the Rat Pack -- was also on the cutting edge of the Civil Rights movement. In 1958, he co-starred with Sidney Poitier in "The Defiant Ones," as the escaped convict-heroes of a powerful "message" film for which they both received Best Actor nominations. At Curtis' insistence, Mr. Poitier was given co-equal billing in the credits -- the first black actor so credited.
"That's how I got top billing for the first time in my life," Mr. Poitier told me. "I think that speaks a lot of Tony."
His personal and professional nadir came in 1984, when -- after a family intervention -- he entered the Betty Ford Center for substance abuse. Soon after, he was nobly and successfully recovering for the rest of his life. His last and happiest marriage, in 1998, was to "Sweet Jilly" -- Jill VandenBerg, the statuesque blonde who delighted him and made his life cozy in their scenic ranch home outside Vegas.
A lifelong artist, Mr. Curtis painted colorful Matisse-like acrylic canvases and assembled brilliant box constructions inspired by Joseph Cornell (whom he befriended and supported in the 1950s). He attributed his recovery in large part to the energy he put into his art.
You can tell a classy one from a boorish one by the way he treats his fans: One day on our book tour in Chicago, Mr. Curtis and I went for a walk down Michigan Avenue and halted at a big intersection, waiting for the traffic light to change. I pointed over to a huge chartered bus -- also stopped for the light -- in which dozens of excited tourists were jammed up against the windows, waving at him and mouthing his name.
Without a moment's hesitation, he went up to the door of the bus, the driver opened it, everybody cheered, Mr. Curtis stuck his head in and said: "Good afternoon! You must thank your tour guide for arranging this nice meeting for us."

Saturday, September 25, 2010

At MadCon, an ailing Harlan Ellison will say goodbye

At MadCon, an ailing Harlan Ellison will say goodbye
Farewell to the fans
Josh Wimmer on Thursday 09/23/2010,
Ellison: 'The truth of what's going on here is that I'm dying.'

Fans of fantastic fiction -- or just some of the finest damn writing to be put on paper -- take heed: If you've ever wanted to talk to Harlan Ellison, this weekend's MadCon 2010 is your last chance.

The 76-year-old writer, cultural critic and longtime den mother of the genre he'd prefer you didn't call "science fiction" is the guest of honor at the convention, happening Sept. 24-26 at the Crowne Plaza Hotel. Ellison is the winner of multiple Hugo, Nebula and Edgar awards and the author of such oftreprinted short stories as "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman" and "The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore," as well as the mind behind the original screenplay for what many consider Star Trek's best episode, "The City on the Edge of Forever." Other scheduled notables at MadCon include writers Gene Wolfe, Peter David and Patrick Rothfuss, and Doctor Who's Sophie Aldred.

Due to his failing health, there had been some doubt about whether Ellison would show up in person or participate in panels, readings and other events by telephone from his home in Sherman Oaks, Calif. But at press time he affirmed he was coming. He is also adamant that MadCon will be the final convention he ever attends, in any fashion.

"The truth of what's going on here is that I'm dying," says Ellison, by phone. "I'm like the Wicked Witch of the West -- I'm melting. I began to sense it back in January. By that time, I had agreed to do the convention. And I said, I can make it. I can make it.'"

Besides giving several talks and sitting on panels, Ellison has a book signing with David scheduled for 3 p.m. Friday at Frugal Muse's west-side location. His Sept. 26 event at the Barrymore Theatre is up in the air; check for updates.

The legendarily opinionated author says there is no question he will not answer. (Although he'd prefer not to hear the one about whether he threw a fan down an elevator shaft -- answer: he didn't -- again. "That will follow me to my grave," he mutters.) And he strongly encourages fans to attend.

"This is gonna be the biggest fucking science-fiction convention ever," Ellison says, "because no con has ever had a guest of honor drop dead while performing for the goddamn audience. The only comparison is the death of Patrick Troughton, at a Doctor Who convention. And I don't think he was even onstage."

Never one to hold back, Harlan Ellison shared his thoughts and feelings freely in a 90-minute conversation from his California home, the Lost Aztec Temple of Mars.

On how he knows he's dying

"An old dog senses when it's his time -- dogs have that capacity; nobody doubts that. Nobody. But everybody doubts when you say, 'I'm dying.' They think you're being a Victorian actress. They think you're doing Bernhardt."

On mortality

"I'm not afraid of death, and there is not one iota of suicide in me. All I want to make sure is that when the paper comes out, it says, 'Harlan Ellison died in his sleep.' You're talking to, essentially, a pretty happy guy. No, not 'pretty' happy -- that's television talk. I am inordinately happy. I am wonderfully happy. I am Icarus-flying-to-the-sun happy. I have led a magical life. I have led exactly the life I would wish to lead. I have led the life I guess that everybody in their heart of hearts wants to lead."

On days gone by

"I loved writing. I loved the word. I loved movies, and we had no television when I was a kid, but I loved books, and I read book after book after book after book. Unlike many another writer who was educated and had college, I was on the road at age 13. Not because of anything bad with my family -- it was just, I had a wanderlust. I was like the great writer Jim Tully or Jack London. I stood there at age 10 in Paynesville, Ohio, and I said, 'This is all mine! All I gotta do is go and get it.' And so I started running away. After a while, my mother said, 'I'll pack you sandwiches. Would you like peanut butter-and-jelly?' Sometimes I'd get as far away as Kansas City and wind up working as carny and then wind up in jail, and get sent home. And I'd go back to school and I'd do very well, and then I'd run away again, and I'd run away to way up into Canada and work in a logging camp."

On current projects

"I just finished my last piece, which is an introduction to a book called The Discarded, based on the short story I wrote and then the teleplay I wrote with Josh Olson, the Academy Award nominee for The History of Violence, the film directed by Cronenberg. Josh and I wrote the script and then they did it on Masters of Science Fiction, and that'll be available for sale -- dun-unh, he said, hustling -- at the convention. Josh wrote a little introduction, and then I was going to write a little introduction. Well, I got into it in May, and it took me through August to finish it, and it's 15,000 words. It's the longest piece I've written in a long while, and it's called 'Riding the Rails in Atlantis.' And somehow, somehow or other, the book is all together. And The Discarded is going to be my last book."

On discovering his destiny

"When I was a little kid, and I was going to East High in Cleveland -- my dad had died in '49, and my mom and I were living there -- I cut school one morning and I went to, I think it was Halle Brothers, down in the public terminal, the Cleveland Terminal Tower. And John Steinbeck was on tour, and he was speaking. And I was this little bitty kid clutching my schoolbooks, and I couldn't get through the crowd -- it was deep. John Steinbeck was standing on a little riser, and I crawled through people's feet, and I got to, literally, the feet of John Steinbeck.

"And I listened to him, and then I turned and looked at the faces, and I said, 'Oh. Boy. Now I know what famous is. Now I know what it is to be a mensch.' Because there stood John Steinbeck, who was an ex-prizefighter -- I mean, he looked like a fire plug! He was a tough guy. He worked like I had worked! I had ridden on boxcars, worked on demolition teams, and driving truck, and crops, and all that shit. But I was a little skinny squirt of a thing.

"And it was an epiphany. If I had stood under the Sistine Chapel ceiling, if I had finally reached Petra, a crimson city half as old as time, as they said of it, I would not have been more impressed. And that set the first part of my destiny. I was on the road, and I was doing my job, and my job was to tell stories."

On conventions

"I had withdrawn from conventions, not because I didn't like seeing my friends -- I did. But goddammit, man, when you're up in your 70s, you don't need to keep being trotted out like an old warhorse. Like, they trotted out Lionel Richie on America's Got Talent last night, and I felt sorry for him."

On being nominated for his second Grammy, for Best Spoken Word Album For Children, earlier this year

"I was up against Ed Asner, David Hyde Pierce, Nelson Mandela, another very, very fine reader and a guy named Buck Howdy. And if you're in the audience at MadCon, you can ask me, 'Who did you lose to?' And I'll say, 'Very short story, interesting story.' See, how I lost my first Grammy -- the first time I lost, I lost to Sir Ralph Richardson and Sir John Gielgud doing a Harold Pinter play, and people say, oh, yeah, boy, that's good. I lost! But I was on the royal robe with both feet, and I was dragged a bit by having lost to them.

"But with this one, people say, my god, you were up with Mandela? Who did you lose to? And I say, 'Uh, Buck Howdy.' And they go, 'What?!' [Mumbles.] 'Who? What?' 'Buck. Howdy.' They say, 'Who the fuck is Buck Howdy?'"

On his present appearance

"I weigh 154 now. I look like Gollum. I was great-looking when I was younger -- I was hot. All the pictures of me, they're very hot."

On his unfinished work

"My wife has instructions that the instant I die, she has to burn all the unfinished stories. And there may be a hundred unfinished stories in this house, maybe more than that. There's three quarters of a novel. No, these things are not to be finished by other writers, no matter how good they are. It could be Paul Di Filippo, who is just about the best writer in America, as far as I'm concerned. Or God forbid, James Patterson or Judith Krantz should get a hold of The Man Who Looked for Sweetness, which is sitting up on my desk, and try to finish it, anticipating what Ellison was thinking -- no! Goddammit. If Fred Pohl wants to finish all of C.M. Kornbluth's stories, that's his business. If somebody wants to take the unfinished Edgar Allan Poe story, which has now gone into the public domain, and write an ending that is not as good as Poe would have written, let 'em do whatever they want! But not with my shit, Jack. When I'm gone, that's it. What's down on the paper, it says 'The End,' that's it. 'Cause right now I'm busy writing the end of the longest story I've ever written, which is me."

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Mitch Miller, Maestro of the Singalong, Dies at 99


Mitch Miller, an influential record producer who became a hugely popular recording artist and an unlikely television star a half century ago by leading a choral group in familiar old songs and inviting people to sing along, died on Saturday in Manhattan. He was 99.

His daughter Margaret Miller Reuther confirmed the death Monday morning, saying her father had died after a short illness at Lenox Hill Hospital. Mr. Miller lived in Manhattan.

Mr. Miller, a Rochester native who was born on the Fourth of July, had been an accomplished oboist and was still a force in the recording industry when he came up with the idea of recording old standards with a chorus of some two dozen male voices and printing the lyrics on album covers.

The “Sing Along With Mitch” album series, which began in 1958, was an immense success, finding an eager audience among older listeners looking for an alternative to rock ’n’ roll. Mitch Miller and the Gang serenaded them with chestnuts like “Home on the Range,” “That Old Gang of Mine,” “I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen” and “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary.”

When the concept was adapted for television in 1961, with the lyrics appearing at the bottom of the screen, Mr. Miller, with his beaming smile and neatly trimmed mustache and goatee, became a national celebrity.

By then he had established himself as a hit maker for Columbia Records and a career shaper for singers like Tony Bennett, Rosemary Clooney, Johnny Mathis, Doris Day, Patti Page and Frankie Laine. First at Mercury Records and then at Columbia, he helped define American popular music in the postwar, pre-rock era, carefully matching singers with songs and choosing often unorthodox but almost always catchy instrumental accompaniment.

Mr. Bennett’s career took off after Mr. Miller persuaded him to record the ballad “Because of You,” backing him with a lush orchestral arrangement by Percy Faith. It reached No. 1 on the pop charts in 1951.

Ms. Clooney was making a mere $50 a recording session when Mr. Miller asked her to record “Come On-a My House,” an oddity based on an Armenian folk melody written by the playwright and novelist William Saroyan and his cousin Ross Bagdasarian, who later went on to create Alvin and the Chipmunks. Ms. Clooney was dubious. “I damn near fell on the floor,” she recalled.

They had a heated argument. But in the end Ms. Clooney agreed to record the song, and it became a giant hit, establishing her as a major artist.

“Nothing happened to me until I met Mitch,” she later said.

By the end of the 1950s Mr. Miller’s eye and ear for talent and songs had been critical in making Columbia the top-selling record company in the nation.

Mr. Miller was the Midas of novelty music, storming the charts with records like Jimmy Boyd’s “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus and providing singers with unusual instrumental backing: a harpsichord for Ms. Clooney, French horns for Guy Mitchell. One of his earliest hits, “Mule Train,” was recorded by the muscular-voiced Frankie Laine with three electric guitars, and Mr. Miller himself using a wood block to simulate the snapping of a whip.

Mr. Miller was a studio innovator. Along with the guitarist Les Paul and a few others, he helped pioneer overdubbing, the technique by which different tracks are laid over one another to produce a richer effect; he employed it memorably with Ms. Page, whose close-harmony “duets” with herself became her signature. He also achieved what he called a sonic “halo” on numerous recordings by the use of what came to be called an echo chamber — actually an effect an engineer produced by placing a speaker and a microphone in a tiled restroom.

One Miller specialty was developing crossovers from country to pop. He had particular success with Hank Williams’s songs: he transformed “Hey, Good Lookin’ ” into a hit for Mr. Laine and Jo Stafford and did the same for Mr. Bennett (“Cold, Cold Heart”), Ms. Clooney (“Half as Much”) and Ms. Stafford on her own (“Jambalaya”).

His touch was not always sure. When he had bagpipes accompany Dinah Shore on a song called “Scottish Samba” the result was, in Mr. Miller’s own words, “a dog.” And probably the nadir of Frank Sinatra’s recording career came after Mr. Miller left Mercury and took over pop production at Columbia in 1950.

Sinatra complained that Mr. Miller forced him to record inferior material like “Bim Bam Baby,” “Tennessee Newsboy” and, perhaps most notoriously, “Mama Will Bark,” a 1951 novelty duet with the television personality Dagmar that included dog imitations. Sinatra even sent a telegram to a Congressional subcommittee complaining that Mr. Miller had denied him “freedom of selection.” (Sinatra did sometimes veto Mr. Miller’s song choices. When he refused to record “The Roving Kind” and “My Heart Cries for You,” Mr. Miller replaced him in the studio with a young singer named Guy Mitchell. Mr. Mitchell’s versions of both those songs became hits and made him a star.)

Interviewed by Time magazine in 1951, Mr. Miller was less than enthusiastic about the kind of gimmicky pop records that had become his specialty. “I wouldn’t buy that stuff for myself,” he said. “There’s no real artistic satisfaction in this job. I satisfy my musical ego elsewhere.”

Mr. Miller came up with the idea for his singalong albums in 1958, drawing on a repertory that ordinary people had sung in churches and parlors for decades. By the time he recorded the first “Sing Along With Mitch” album, he had already had success with this approach on the singles chart, scoring a No. 1 hit in 1955 with an arrangement of “The Yellow Rose of Texas.”

Mitch Miller and the Gang eventually recorded more than 20 long-playing discs, many of which made the Top 40. By 1966 they had sold about 17 million copies.

In 1960 his singalong concept was given a one-time television test on NBC. The response was so favorable that “Sing Along With Mitch” became a mainstay of family television, running — every other week at first, then weekly — from 1961 to 1964, then returning in reruns in the summer of 1966. Viewers were encouraged to sing along and instructed to “follow the bouncing ball” — a large dot that bounced from word to word as the lyrics were superimposed on the screen. Among the singers featured, in addition to the male chorus, was a young Leslie Uggams.

The ratings were good, but the critics were mostly unimpressed. Brooks Atkinson, writing in The New York Times, suggested in 1962 that “Sing Along With Mitch” might best be viewed with the sound turned off.

Even at the singalongs’ height, many Americans considered them hopelessly corny. That sense only intensified as a younger generation came of age in the 1960s and musical tastes changed. There were news reports that shopping malls had begun piping Mitch Miller music on their sound systems as a way to discourage teenagers from congregating. Years later, in 1993, when David Koresh and members of his Branch Davidian cult were holed up in their compound in Waco, Tex., F.B.I. agents tried to flush them out by blasting “Sing Along With Mitch” Christmas carols.

By the time Mr. Miller’s television show left the air, his era of popular music had largely ended with the emergence of rock. He was sympathetic to blues and folk music and had one of his biggest hits in 1951 with Johnnie Ray’s “Cry,” a histrionic performance often cited as a rock ’n’ roll precursor. He had also tried to sign Elvis Presley for Columbia before being outbid by RCA. But he turned down an opportunity to sign Buddy Holly, and he was outspoken in his dislike of rock ’n’ roll in general. “It’s not music,” he was quoted as saying, “it’s a disease.” When Bob Dylan, soon to become one of rock’s most influential artists, joined the Columbia roster in 1961, it was not Mr. Miller but another label executive, John Hammond, who signed him.

Mr. Miller told Audio magazine in 1985 that his opposition to rock ’n’ roll had been based more on principle than on taste. The so-called payola scandal, in which record companies were found to have paid disc jockeys to play rock ’n’ roll records, had dismayed him, he said. He also complained about “British-accented youths ripping off black American artists and, because they’re white, being accepted by the American audience” — although that hardly explained his opposition to rock ’n’ roll in the ’50s, a decade before the advent of the Beatles and other British bands.

His wife of 65 years, the former Frances Alexander, died in 2000.

In addition to his daughter Ms. Miller Reuther, Mr. Miller is survived by another daughter, Andrea Miller; a son, Mitchell; two brothers, Leon and Joseph; two grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Mitchell William Miller was born on July 4, 1911, in Rochester, one of five children of Abram Calmen Miller, an immigrant from Russia and a wrought-iron worker, and Hinda Rosenblum Miller, a former seamstress.

Mr. Miller’s own musical career began with the oboe. The composer Virgil Thomson called him “an absolutely first-rate oboist — one of the two or three great ones at that time in the world.”

He took up the oboe almost by chance. Seeking to join the orchestra at Washington Junior High School in Rochester, he showed up late for the tryouts and found it was the only one of the instruments, offered free to students, that had not been claimed.

By the age of 15 Mr. Miller was playing with the Syracuse Symphony. After high school he went to the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, graduating cum laude in 1932.

He played with the Rochester Philharmonic and then made his way to New York City, where he played oboe for a season under David Mannes in concerts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He later got a job with the CBS Symphony, performing with it during the notorious Orson Welles “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast in 1938.

He also played in orchestras under Andre Kostelanetz and Percy Faith and performed in another that accompanied George Gershwin on a concert tour as a pianist. When Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” opened on Broadway in 1935, Mr. Miller was in the pit orchestra. He continued to play the oboe after he became a record producer, most notably on the recordings the great jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker made with a string orchestra.

Mr. Miller went to work for Mercury Records in the late ’40s, initially as a producer of classical music and then as head of artists and repertory in the pop division. In 1950, at the invitation of a former Eastman classmate, Goddard Lieberson, executive vice president of Columbia Records, he took the equivalent position there. In the early 1950s he was also musical director of Little Golden Records, which made widely popular recordings for children.

After rock came to dominate the record business and the singalong craze ran its course, Mr. Miller left Columbia and ventured into the Broadway theater, with limited success. He produced “Here’s Where I Belong,” a 1968 musical based on John Steinbeck’s “East of Eden,” which closed after one performance. He was later involved in the production of several other Broadway shows, few of them hits. In the 1980s and ’90s he was a frequent guest conductor of symphony orchestras.

“What pleased me the most,” he said in an interview with The Times in 1981, “was a fellow who came up to me after a concert in Chicago and said, ‘You know, there’s nobody in this whole country who hasn’t been touched by your music in some way.’

“That really made me feel good.”

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Sammy Davis, Jr.

John H. McWhorter
Mr. Mimic
The extraordinary gifts and fleeting legacy of Sammy Davis, Jr.
Spring 2010

I never quite got the Sammy thing. Back in the 1970s, “Mr. Sammy Davis, Jr.!” would pop up on television shows singing cheesy songs and making lame jokes about being black, Jewish, and one-eyed. TV Guide always trumpeted these appearances; the implication was that the experience would be a special privilege. I could never tell why.

The archives shed some light on what sparked the legend. On Eddie Cantor’s Colgate Comedy Hour in 1952, after some hoofing and singing, a coltish young Davis launches into an imitation of Cantor so dead-on that it’s almost eerie when Cantor prances in, with his clapping hands and trademark “banjo eyes,” to finish the number with him. Davis steals the episode, leaving us wanting more even now.

Perhaps we can explain the contrast between Davis’s prodigious talents and his ephemeral legacy by observing that his life and work were all about mimicry. Not many years before the Colgate appearance, Lionel Hampton, one of Davis’s early mentors, had advised him, “Don’t imitate nobody. Go be Sammy Davis.” But just who was Sammy Davis? A look at his life shows that he was, as Gary Fishgall put it some years ago in the best biography to date, “an ill-formed polyglot.” Before the sixties, Davis imitated whites; afterward, as he tried to go with the times, the best he could do was to imitate being black.

Davis was born in Harlem in 1925 but grew up on the road during the waning days of black vaudeville. His mother, caught up in seeking her own fortune as a chorus girl, barely knew him. This left him available to shore up the hoofing routine of his father, Sammy Davis, Sr., and small-time producer Will Mastin. The Will Mastin Trio was one of hundreds of now-anonymous race acts in the thirties and forties. Trotting out a poor man’s version of the “flash dancing” that the Nicholas Brothers dazzled at—fancy jumps, splits, and circular maneuvers on the floor, some familiar today from break-dancing—the trio would have become a historical footnote but for Davis. Mastin and Davis’s father had brought the kid aboard when they caught him parroting the show at the tender age of three, and when Davis started doing impressions in the middle of the act, the trio’s fortunes started climbing. By the late 1940s, the group was getting choice bookings.

Davis’s singing was fine and his dancing was better, but it was as the black kid who imitated white stars that he attracted national attention. This has been easy to forget because there are no filmed records of the nightclub appearances on which he rode to stardom and because he largely stopped doing the imitations after the 1960s. But the scattered recordings that catch him at the craft reveal a Rich Little times two. On an album recorded at a Chicago club in 1962, Davis captured Marlon Brando, Jimmy Stewart, and Louis Armstrong so precisely that you’d swear they had walked onstage. He dazzled as well with spot-on renditions of Cary Grant, James Cagney, Billy Eckstine, Nat “King” Cole, and Jerry Lewis. Once, while he was performing on Ed Sullivan’s show in the 1950s, the picture feed went out temporarily and left the audience with only sound. Davis was so good that some people thought the celebrities he was mimicking were actually appearing on the show.

But Davis had little interest in burnishing his other talents. Singing, for example: for all the LPs he recorded, he charted few Top Ten hits, having none of the obsession with detail and nuance that Frank Sinatra lavished on his Capitol recordings. Sinatra tried to teach Davis the finer points of singing by playing him opera and the better pop singers, but Davis just wanted to go out and perform.

Some recent critics suggest that Davis’s singing is underrated, but they protest too much. It is certainly smooth and professional, but in the end, Davis’s recorded oeuvre is—again—mimicry rather than self-expression. (He once said that while it was easy to imitate other singers, he had trouble finding himself when he sang.) His “Something’s Gotta Give” is a cute Sinatra imitation. At the beginning of “As Long as She Needs Me,” he does an ornamental swoop down a third on “she” that stretches the word into two syllables, a frequent trick of his that channels Eckstine but has no connection with the lyric’s claims of selfless devotion. When he tackles “Soliloquy” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel, he manages a fine imitation of a Broadway baritone—but not an actual statement. It’s one thing to listen to Davis’s recordings in isolation and another to compare them with the work of singers like Sinatra and Rosemary Clooney. Wil Haygood, in another recent biography of Davis, puts it well: “Sammy sang from the neck up, Sinatra sang from the heart up.”

As Davis rose to the top of the business in the fifties, even his father and Mastin reinforced a certain formulaic quality in his performances, preserving the fiction of a trio long after he had hit it big as a solo. On the cast album of his first Broadway show, Mr. Wonderful, Davis introduces the number “Jacques d’Iraque” by saying, “Dad and Will, let’s get together and tell the folks about Jacques d’Iraque.” But it’s Davis who tears up the house, surely not needing two old guys shuffling at his side singing backup. Mastin insisted on keeping Davis under contract as part of the trio—so even in his most triumphant gigs, he always had two aging hoofers behind him. On the Cantor show, they both take quick solos but are too old to pull off the moves.

As Davis started gamboling in nightclubs with Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Peter Lawford, and Joey Bishop, even his imitations became formulaic—in quotation marks, so to speak. Part of the Rat Pack act entailed Davis trying to do imitations, only to be cut off by the boys muscling in with their own self-consciously lame attempts at impersonation. By the seventies, the impersonations were history: Davis was known as a singer and “personality,” a weak abbreviation of the performer who had first attracted serious attention as a crack impressionist.

But Davis’s copycat essence prevented him from passing from personality to artist. David Denby once wrote in The New Yorker that “to become a movie star, an actor needs a certain density, a stubborn, immovable mass of being that an audience can rely on.” But as Fishgall observes, “there was no real Sammy”; Davis simply “became whatever people wanted him to be.”

Davis’s ill-fated television variety show in the mid-sixties was a case in point. A competent example of the genre of the period, the show had a hole in its middle, and it was Sammy himself. He had no individual essence to anchor the proceedings the way Dean Martin, with much less talent, could on his own variety show by just meandering out with a cigarette, a drink, and a grin. Sammy opens one episode singing an “Ol’ Man River” intended to be ruminative; it comes off instead as mannered. In a medley duet by Davis and Mel Tormé, only Tormé communicates something and comes off as a serious talent. In the same episode, we see Gordon MacRae singing through a head cold; his wife, Sheila, doing the worst imitation of Carol Channing in recorded history; and bug-eyed black comedian Timmie Rodgers doing a chitlin’-circuit act hinging on frequent interpolations of “Oh yeah!” Yet all these performers register more strongly than Davis, who seems more like a guest himself.

For Davis, performing was about the audience’s approval, nothing more. Performers like this do not stand the test of time. Watching a similar case, Al Jolson, strutting and bellowing through his films, we strain to comprehend why he was once billed—as Davis often was—

as the World’s Greatest Entertainer. Once fashions in humor and music change, a performer with little inside but hunger for applause leaves nothing to speak to the ages.

Around the time of his variety-show stint, Davis wooed audiences with jokes about his being black and Jewish. “Can you imagine each morning getting out of bed never knowing whether you want to be shiftless and lazy or smart and stingy?” he asked. “And you ain’t lived ’til you’ve tried kosher watermelon.” By 1967, anyone who found that funny was behind the times: black comedians like Dick Gregory and Redd Foxx had already pushed black humor into realms of irony and pathos foreign to Davis. “I never heard a sardonic word come out of Sammy’s mouth,” actor Ben Gazzara once said.

That absence of irony was the root of what many blacks viewed as Davis’s principal failing: coming up short on “black identity.” In post–civil rights America, maintaining this “identity” has often been a layered, ironic affair. As you contemplate a nation with an ever-larger black middle class, more and more interracial relationships, and biracial people as commonplaces (and today, a black man in the White House), thinking of yourself as a member of a race barred from meaningful participation in society requires a certain amount of elision and doubletalk. Davis, so ingenuous as to believe that he was “dancing down the barriers between us,” was not equipped for the subtle equipoise between rebel and joiner that many blacks since the 1960s have adopted as a sign of informed racial consciousness.

To be sure, one must also take Davis’s times into account. In the fifties, he was proud to dismiss the charge that he wasn’t a “corner guy,” to acknowledge that he openly aspired beyond the working-class black world. This sounds potentially elitist and “un-black” today, when successful blacks are not unknown to signal as much allegiance with the corner as possible to earn their authenticity stripes. (Witness Barack Obama’s displaying a relationship with hip-hop during his campaign.) But before the 1960s, the idea that the street was the quintessence of blackness had yet to become a mainstream conviction; it was a notion that wasn’t yet dominant on the street itself.

Davis did have some indications of what we now know as race consciousness. He moved through a world in which he couldn’t attend many of the clubs he played—even in New York—but after the mid-fifties, he refused to play whites-only clubs, giving up money that he always needed. He participated, albeit with prompting from Harry Belafonte, in a second Selma-to-Montgomery march, two weeks after the first one had resulted in violence that Davis was scared to his socks would be repeated. And the Sammy who kissed Archie Bunker in his famous guest spot on All in the Family chalked one up against old-style bigotry—leaving Archie helplessly appalled and stunned, and the audience howling, before the final commercial break.

Yet Davis’s racial consciousness remained only, as it were, skin-deep. Take the photo of Sammy ardently hugging a grinning Richard Nixon from behind at the Republican National Convention in 1972. Blacks responded to the image with a hailstorm of contempt that Davis never quite lived down: How could he cozy up to a Republican president considered grievously unconcerned with race? The real story was more nuanced. Moments before the picture was taken, Nixon had announced that Sammy Davis could not be bought and that he had come into Nixon’s corner in a sincere quest for the betterment of the black race. Davis did believe that Nixon was more committed to black well-being than his public reputation suggested. Unsurprisingly for someone who grew up in a theater trunk and had little education, he was not a news junkie, equipped to assess the extent to which Nixon’s interest in blacks was more political than heartfelt. Even if he had been, he might have been practical enough to be more interested in results than in feelings.

But even with our historical glasses on, Davis’s cavorting with the Rat Pack is almost unbearable. For all its resonance in legend, the Rat Pack’s act was captured in picture and sound just once, in a 1965 benefit that Sinatra organized in St. Louis and that CBS happened to film. Sinatra and Dean Martin play the big boys, smirkily condescending to Davis, who alternates between playing the wide-eyed acolyte and joshingly threatening protest marches, as if the Selma tragedy just a few months before were something to be joked about. Davis saunters across the stage with a glass of liquor, crowing, “If this doesn’t straighten my hair, nothing will.” Soon afterward, Martin carries him back on in his arms, saying, “I’d like to thank the NAACP for this lovely award.” “Put me down!” Davis objects, but it’s not enough—he let himself be picked up, after all.

For Davis, the important thing was getting to hang around with famous white people. In fact, one inconvenient obstacle between Davis and an engaged black identity was that he wished he were white. That charge is usually leveled by blacks at one another out of malice; but in Davis’s case, it was simple fact. “Damn, I wish I weren’t black!” he reported crying to himself sometimes when he encountered bigotry. He was fond of affecting an English accent. Black performers rarely imitated whites when Davis hit the big time; in his case, it seems that imitation was indeed the sincerest form of flattery.

For the worshipful Davis, Sinatra was a kind of Great White Father figure, though Ol’ Blue Eyes clearly didn’t give a damn about him. After Davis lost his eye in a car accident, Sinatra had to be told to visit him in the hospital. When Davis wanted to opt out of a bibulous evening with Sinatra to see his current beloved, Kim Novak, Sinatra, an occasional flame of hers, called her for a rendezvous right in front of Davis; she readily accepted, breaking the date with Davis and breaking his heart. Yet even in the late sixties, Davis delivered one of his signature songs with the line “I’ve gotta be me—but I’d rather be him,” pointing to the Chairman of the Board. Imagine Don Cheadle—who played Davis in HBO’s Rat Pack movie—saying that about, say, George Clooney today.

The conversion to Judaism was just more of this white fever. “I wanted to be a Jew because I wanted to become part of a 5,000-year history . . . which would give me that inner strength to turn the other cheek,” Davis said. “Jews have become strong over their thousand years of oppression and I wanted to become part of that strength.” Leave aside the question of whether one can become part of a history through conversion. Was black America in the fifties an unpromising place for someone seeking to strengthen himself by fighting oppression?

In a sad statement that defined the rest of his life, Davis commented in the seventies, “You know, I’ve worked all my life to be white, and now black is beautiful.” His response was to add a new impression, the “soul brother,” to the act that was his life. Now he wore his hair natural. He also remarried. His earlier marriage to Swedish actress May Britt had slapped the Uncle Tom label on him, and in this new era of Black Power, the charge acquired so potent a sting that it threatened his career; hence the second marriage, to younger black dancer Altovise Gore. For the rest of his life, Davis mentioned Altovise so obsessively in appearances that I’d bet that more black people over 40 know Sammy Davis’s wife’s name than know what SNCC stands for—despite the fact that the marriage was an essentially open one, short on passion.

Davis’s new imperatives even distorted the facts in the most popular account of his life, Yes, I Can, an autobiography published in 1965. In one memorable section, Davis describes suffering constant abuse from whites he bunked with in the army. But the army was strictly segregated at the time, and while Davis claimed to have been in a special integrated unit, Fishgall checked the records of Davis’s company and found no such unit—besides which, after just one of the beatings Davis described, he presumably would have been transferred to a black unit. Davis might well have had an ugly run-in or two. But he embroidered his army life into a tale of living day and night with racist pigs, hoping to appease the increasingly militant black America that dismissed him as an anachronistic sellout.

One might try, as both Fishgall and Haygood do, to wrest from Davis’s feckless trajectory an idea of him as the embodiment of the races coming together in America. There is a grain of truth in the idea. Davis was a pioneer in engaging white audiences directly, having noticed that black performers tended to address only one another on stage, maintaining a fourth wall between themselves and white audiences.

Also, despite his adulation of white ways, Davis was always a more identifiably “black” performer than, say, Johnny Mathis. At New York’s Museum of Television and Radio, I watched a showing of the St. Louis Rat Pack concert. In the row ahead of me sat two elderly women; and in the row behind, a twentysomething Williamsburg-type couple wearing T-shirts. At one point, Davis did “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” first singing it straight and then launching into an extended scat sequence, chanting rhythmically in a trancelike state, arms extended, fingers snapping, head tilted back, eyes half shut. In other words, Sammy was “getting down” in a style reminiscent of Bobby McFerrin. About halfway through, one of the hipsters behind me said, “Cool!” A moment later, one of the old women said, “Enough of this is enough”—Sammy was too black for those minted in the era of Mad Men. The old ladies were the past; the hipsters, in their embrace of Davis’s beatnik aspect, were the future.

But this is about as far as crossover analysis of Davis can stretch. Fishgall concludes that “his music—redolent with the tunes of Newley-Bricusse, Porter, Gershwin, and Rodgers and Hart—was not the sound of the inner city. His humor, for all the black references and Amos and Andy dialect, worked better with Caucasians than with ‘his people.’ ”

In some ways, Davis’s inability to get with the times looks better today than it did then. For example, despite all the jokes about having the NAACP behind him, Davis didn’t join the celebration of the lowest as the blackest, which is one of the less fortunate ways that the races have come together in a country where 70 percent of the people who cherish thuggish varieties of rap as vibrantly real and political are white. In the 1973 documentary Save the Children, about a benefit concert for Jesse Jackson’s new Operation PUSH, we see Davis—having just endured some booing from the crowd about the Nixon photo—delivering the Black Power salute in what Haygood calls “macho pantomime.” Given the thin and questionable legacy of Black Power politics beyond the early seventies, perhaps Davis was right merely to give it a wink.

The problem was that after a while, he did everything with that wink. His efforts to keep up with the times remained gestural. He indulged in the “turn on, tune in, drop out” fad by doing heavy drugs and engaging in kinky sex with porn star Linda Lovelace. But he continued living in compulsively high style despite the antimaterialism at the heart of the countercultural movement. He became a serious alcoholic. In 1973, at a Caesar’s gig, he could barely get through a hot tap routine. His hip gave out, and by the early eighties, one reporter described a “tiny, wraith-like” figure carrying a full line of Campbell’s soups on his tours. Finally, his four-pack-a-day smoking habit led to throat cancer, which killed him, 20 years ago this spring, at 64.

Haygood eloquently captures the essence of Davis by quoting the biological definition of mimicry: “The resemblance of one organism to another or to an object in its surroundings for concealment and protection from predators.” When the predators were whites in pre–civil rights America, Davis aped them frantically and eagerly served as the Rat Pack’s colored mascot. When the times changed and blacks became his predators as much as whites, Sammy, a chameleon to the end, bought some dashikis and got himself a black trophy wife. Far from reflecting the unfolding story of race in America, all this was no more than a series of encores by the talented lad who once became Eddie Cantor before our eyes.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Dennis Hopper Creator of hit 'Easy Rider,' dies

By CHRISTOPHER WEBER, Associated Press Writer


Dennis Hopper, the high-flying Hollywood wild man whose memorable and erratic career included an early turn in "Rebel Without a Cause," an improbable smash with "Easy Rider" and a classic character role in "Blue Velvet," has died. He was 74.

Hopper died Saturday at his home in the Los Angeles beach community of Venice, surrounded by family and friends, family friend Alex Hitz said. Hopper's manager announced in October 2009 that he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer.

The success of "Easy Rider," and the spectacular failure of his next film, "The Last Movie," fit the pattern for the talented but sometimes uncontrollable actor-director, who also had parts in such favorites as "Apocalypse Now" and "Hoosiers." He was a two-time Academy Award nominee, and in March 2010, was honored with a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame.

After a promising start that included roles in two James Dean films, Hopper's acting career had languished as he developed a reputation for throwing tantrums and abusing alcohol and drugs. On the set of "True Grit," Hopper so angered John Wayne that the star reportedly chased Hopper with a loaded gun.

He married five times and led a dramatic life right to the end. In January 2010, Hopper filed to end his 14-year marriage to Victoria Hopper, who stated in court filings that the actor was seeking to cut her out of her inheritance, a claim Hopper denied.

"Much of Hollywood," wrote critic-historian David Thomson, "found Hopper a pain in the neck."

All was forgiven, at least for a moment, when he collaborated with another struggling actor, Peter Fonda, on a script about two pot-smoking, drug-dealing hippies on a motorcycle trip through the Southwest and South to take in the New Orleans Mardi Gras.

On the way, Hopper and Fonda befriend a drunken young lawyer (Jack Nicholson, whom Hopper had resisted casting, in a breakout role), but arouse the enmity of Southern rednecks and are murdered before they can return home.

"'Easy Rider' was never a motorcycle movie to me," Hopper said in 2009. "A lot of it was about politically what was going on in the country."

Fonda produced "Easy Rider" and Hopper directed it for a meager $380,000. It went on to gross $40 million worldwide, a substantial sum for its time. The film caught on despite tension between Hopper and Fonda and between Hopper and the original choice for Nicholson's part, Rip Torn, who quit after a bitter argument with the director.

The film was a hit at Cannes, netted a best-screenplay Oscar nomination for Hopper, Fonda and Terry Southern, and has since been listed on the American Film Institute's ranking of the top 100 American films. The establishment gave official blessing in 1998 when "Easy Rider" was included in the United States National Film Registry for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."

Its success prompted studio heads to schedule a new kind of movie: low cost, with inventive photography and themes about a young, restive baby boom generation. With Hopper hailed as a brilliant filmmaker, Universal Pictures lavished $850,000 on his next project, "The Last Movie."

The title was prescient. Hopper took a large cast and crew to a village in Peru to film the tale of a Peruvian tribe corrupted by a movie company. Trouble on the set developed almost immediately, as Peruvian authorities pestered the company, drug-induced orgies were reported and Hopper seemed out of control.

When he finally completed filming, he retired to his home in Taos, N.M., to piece together the film, a process that took almost a year, in part because he was using psychedelic drugs for editing inspiration.

When it was released, "The Last Movie" was such a crashing failure that it made Hopper unwanted in Hollywood for a decade. At the same time, his drug and alcohol use was increasing to the point where he was said to be consuming as much as a gallon of rum a day.

Shunned by the Hollywood studios, he found work in European films that were rarely seen in the United States. But, again, he made a remarkable comeback, starting with a memorable performance as a drugged-out journalist in Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 Vietnam War epic, "Apocalypse Now," a spectacularly long and troubled film to shoot. Hopper was drugged-out off camera, too, and his rambling chatter was worked into the final cut.

He went on to appear in several films in the early 1980s, including the well regarded "Rumblefish" and "The Osterman Weekend," as well as the campy "My Science Project" and "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2."

But alcohol and drugs continued to interfere with his work. Treatment at a detox clinic helped him stop drinking but he still used cocaine, and at one point he became so hallucinatory that he was committed to the psychiatric ward of a Los Angeles hospital.

Upon his release, Hopper joined Alcoholics Anonymous, quit drugs and launched yet another comeback. It began in 1986 when he played an alcoholic ex-basketball star in "Hoosiers," which brought him an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor.

His role as a wild druggie in "Blue Velvet," also in 1986, won him more acclaim, and years later the character wound up No. 36 on the AFI's list of top 50 movie villains.

He returned to directing, with "Colors," "The Hot Spot" and "Chasers."

From that point on, Hopper maintained a frantic work pace, appearing in many forgettable movies and a few memorable ones, including the 1994 hit "Speed," in which he played the maniacal plotter of a freeway disaster. In the 2000s, he was featured in the television series "Crash" and such films as "Elegy" and "Hell Ride."

"Work is fun to me," he told a reporter in 1991. "All those years of being an actor and a director and not being able to get a job--two weeks is too long to not know what my next job will be."

For years he lived in Los Angeles' bohemian beach community of Venice, in a house designed by acclaimed architect Frank Gehry.

In later years he picked up some income by becoming a pitchman for Ameriprise Financial, aiming ads at baby boomers looking ahead to retirement. His politics, like much of his life, were unpredictable. The old rebel contributed money to the Republican Party in recent years, but also voted for Democrat Barack Obama in 2008.

Dennis Lee Hopper was born in 1936, in Dodge City, Kan., and spent much of his youth on the nearby farm of his grandparents. He saw his first movie at 5 and became enthralled.

After moving to San Diego with his family, he played Shakespeare at the Old Globe Theater.

Scouted by the studios, Hopper was under contract to Columbia until he insulted the boss, Harry Cohn. From there he went to Warner Bros., where he made "Rebel Without a Cause" and "Giant" while in his late teens.

Later, he moved to New York to study at the Actors Studio, where Dean had learned his craft.

Hopper's first wife was Brooke Hayward, the daughter of actress Margaret Sullavan and agent Leland Hayward, and author of the best-selling memoir "Haywire." They had a daughter, Marin, before Hopper's drug-induced violence led to divorce after eight years.

His second marriage, to singer-actress Michelle Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas, lasted only eight days.

A union with actress Daria Halprin also ended in divorce after they had a daughter, Ruthana. Hopper and his fourth wife, dancer Katherine LaNasa, had a son, Henry, before divorcing.

He married his fifth wife, Victoria Duffy, who was 32 years his junior, in 1996, and they had a daughter, Galen Grier.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Martin Gardner, Puzzler and Polymath, Dies at 95


Martin Gardner, who teased brains with math puzzles in Scientific American for a quarter-century and who indulged his own restless curiosity by writing more than 70 books on topics as diverse as magic, philosophy and the nuances of Alice in Wonderland, died Saturday in Norman, Okla. He was 95.

He had been living in an assisted-living facility in Norman, his son James said in confirming the death.

Mr. Gardner also wrote fiction, poetry, literary and film criticism, as well as puzzle books. He was a leading voice in refuting pseudoscientific theories, from ESP to flying saucers. He was so prolific and wide-ranging in his interests that critics speculated that there just had to be more than one of him.

His mathematical writings intrigued a generation of mathematicians, but he never took a college math course. If it seemed the only thing this polymath could not do was play music on a saw, rest assured that he could, and quite well.

“Martin Gardner is one of the great intellects produced in this country in the 20th century,” said Douglas Hofstadter, the cognitive scientist.

W. H. Auden, Arthur C. Clarke, Jacob Bronowski, Stephen Jay Gould and Carl Sagan were admirers of Mr. Gardner. Vladimir Nabokov mentioned him in his novel “Ada” as “an invented philosopher.” An asteroid is named for him.

Mr. Gardner responded that his life was not all that interesting, really. “It’s lived mainly inside my brain,” he told The Charlotte Observer in 1993.

His was a clarifying intelligence: he said his talent was asking good questions and transmitting the answers clearly and crisply. In “Annotated Alice” (1960), Mr. Gardner literally rained on the parade of his hero, Lewis Carroll.

Carroll writes of a “golden afternoon” in the first line of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” a reference to an actual day rowing on the Thames. Mr. Gardner found that the day, July 4, 1862, was, in truth, “cool and rather wet.”

Mr. Gardner’s questions were often mathematical. What is special about the number 8,549,176,320? As Mr. Gardner explained in “The Incredible Dr. Matrix” (1976), the number is the 10 natural integers arranged in English alphabetical order.

The title of a book he published in 2000 was calculated to tweak religious fundamentalists — “Did Adam and Eve Have Navels?” — suggesting that the first man and woman had had umbilical cords. This time he gave no answer.

“Gardner has an old-fashioned, almost 19th-century, Oliver Wendell Holmes kind of American mind — self-educated, opinionated, cranky and utterly unafraid of embarrassment,” Adam Gopnik wrote in The New York Times Book Review in 1999.

Martin Gardner was born Oct. 21, 1914, in Tulsa, Okla., where his father, a petroleum geologist, started an oil company. As a boy he liked magic tricks, chess, science and collecting mechanical puzzles.

Unbeknownst to his mother at the time, he learned to read by looking at the words on the page as she read him L. Frank Baum’s Oz books. As an adult, he wrote a sequel to Baum’s “Wonderful Wizard of Oz” called “Visitors From Oz,” in which Dorothy encounters characters from the “Alice” books and Geraldo Rivera.

Mr. Gardner majored in philosophy at the University of Chicago, from which he graduated in 1936. In 1937 he returned to Oklahoma to be assistant oil editor of The Tulsa Tribune at $15 a week. Quickly bored, he returned to the University of Chicago, where he worked in press relations and moonlighted selling magic kits.

He joined the Navy and served on a destroyer. While doing night watch duty, he thought up crazy plots for stories, including “The Horse on the Escalator,” which he sold to Esquire magazine.

After a stint as editor of Humpty Dumpty, a children’s magazine, Mr. Gardner began a long relationship with Scientific American with an article in 1956 on hexaflexagons, strips of paper that can be folded in certain ways to reveal faces besides the two that were originally on the front and back. When the publisher suggested that he write a column about mathematical games, he jumped at the chance.

By his account, Mr. Gardner then rushed out to secondhand bookstores to find books about math puzzles, an approach he used for years to keep just ahead of his monthly deadline. “The number of puzzles I’ve invented you can count on your fingers,” he told The Times last year.

Dr. Hofstadter, who succeeded Mr. Gardner at Scientific American, said Mr. Gardner achieved elegant results by drawing on fields from logic to the philosophy of science to literature. He conveyed “the magical quality of mathematics,” Dr. Hofstadter said.

Mr. Gardner, who lived in Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y., for most of the years he wrote for Scientific American, resigned from the magazine in 1981. Two years later he began a column in Skeptical Inquirer, “Notes of a Fringe Watcher,” which he continued to write until 2002. He had already begun beating this drum, debunking psuedoscience, in his book “Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science.” He helped found the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal.

In The New York Review of Books in 1982, Stephen Jay Gould, the evolutionary biologist, called Mr. Gardner “the single brightest beacon defending rationality and good science against the mysticism and anti-intellectualism that surround us.”

There was much more, including his annotated editions of “Casey at the Bat” and “The Night Before Christmas.” In his philosophical writing Mr. Gardner rejected speculative metaphysics because it could not be proved logically or empirically. He wrestled with religion in essays and in a novel that described his personal journey from fundamentalism, “The Flight of Peter Fromm” (1973). He ultimately found no reason to believe in anything religious except a human desire to avoid “deep-seated despair.” So, he said, he believed in God.

After retiring from Scientific American, Mr. Gardner lived for many years in Hendersonville, N.C. His wife, the former Charlotte Greenwald, died in 2000. Besides his son James, of Norman, he is survived by another son, Thomas, of Asheville, N.C., and three grandchildren. For all Mr. Gardner’s success in refuting those who take advantage of people’s gullibility, he sometimes could not help having fun with it himself. In one Scientific American column, he wrote that dwelling in pyramids could increase everything from intelligence to sexual prowess. In another he asked readers to remember the holiday that begins the month of April.

“I just play all the time,” he said in an interview with Skeptical Inquirer in 1998, “and am fortunate enough to get paid for it.”

Art Linkletter, TV Host, Dies at 97


Art Linkletter, the genial host who parlayed his talent for the ad-libbed interview into two of television’s longest-running shows, “People Are Funny” and “House Party,” in the 1950s and 1960s, died on Wednesday at his home in the Bel Air section of Los Angeles. He was 97.

The death was confirmed by Art Hershey, a son-in-law.

From his early days as an announcer on local radio and a roving broadcaster at state fairs, Mr. Linkletter showed a talent for ingratiating himself with his subjects and getting them to open up, often with hilarious results.

He was particularly adept at putting small children at ease, which he did regularly on a segment of “House Party,” a reliably amusing question-and-answer session that provided the material for his best-selling book “Kids Say the Darndest Things!”

Television critics and intellectuals found the Linkletter persona bland and his popularity unfathomable. “There is nothing greatly impressive, one way or the other, about his appearance, mannerisms, or his small talk,” one newspaper critic wrote. Another referred to his “imperishable banality.”

Millions of Americans disagreed. They responded to his wholesome, friendly manner and upbeat appeal. Women, who made up three-quarters of the audience for “House Party,” which was broadcast in the afternoon, loved his easy, enthusiastic way with children.

“I know enough about a lot of things to be interesting, but I’m not interested enough in any one thing to be boring,” Mr. Linkletter told The New York Post in 1965. “I’m like everybody’s next-door neighbor, only a little bit smarter.”

He was also genuinely curious to know what was going on in the heads of the people he interviewed. “You have to listen,” he said. “A lot of guys can talk.”

Gordon Arthur Kelly was born on July 17, 1912, in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. Before he was a month old he was abandoned by his parents and adopted by Fulton John and Mary Metzler Linkletter, a middle-age couple whose two children had died. It was not until he was 12, while rummaging through his father’s desk, that he discovered he was adopted.

In his autobiography, “Confessions of a Happy Man,” Mr. Linkletter recalled his adoptive father, a one-legged cobbler and itinerant evangelist, as “a strange, uncompromising man whose main interest in life was the Bible.” The family prayed and performed on street corners, with Art playing the triangle.

By the time Art was 5 the family had moved to an unpaved adobe section of San Diego. As a child he took on any job he could find. At one point he sorted through lemons left abandoned in piles outside a packing plant, cleaned them off and sold them for 6 cents a dozen.

After graduating from high school at 16, Mr. Linkletter decided to see the world. With $10 in his pocket, he rode freight trains and hitchhiked around the country, working here and there as a meatpacker, a harvester and a busboy in a roadhouse.

“Among other things, I learned to chisel rides on freight trains, outwit the road bulls, cook stew with the bindlestiffs and never to argue with a gun,” he later recalled. A fast typist, he found work in a Wall Street bank just in time to watch the stock market crash in 1929. He also shipped out to Hawaii and Rio de Janeiro as a merchant seaman.

After returning to California, he entered San Diego State Teachers College (now San Diego State University) with plans of becoming an English teacher. He earned a bachelor’s degree in 1934, but in his last year he was hired to do spot announcements by a local radio station, KGB, a job that led to radio work at the California Pacific International Exposition in San Diego and at similar fairs in Dallas and San Francisco.

With microphone in hand and countless programming hours to fill, Mr. Linkletter relied on ad-libbing, stunts and audience participation to get attention and keep listeners entertained. He was once lowered from a skyscraper in a boatswain’s chair, interviewing office workers on every floor as he descended. “It was the forced feeding of a young and growing M.C.,” he later said of his more than 9,000 fair broadcasts.

In 1936 he married Lois Foerster, a college student in San Diego, who survives him. The couple had five children: Jack, who followed his father into television and died of lymphoma in 2007; Dawn, of Sedona, Ariz.; Robert, who died in a car accident in 1980; Sharon, of Calabasas, Calif.; and Diane, who committed suicide in 1969, an event that spurred her father into becoming a crusader against drug use. There are 7 grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren.

Mr. Linkletter quickly established himself on local radio in San Francisco, but floundered when he moved to Los Angeles in the early 1940s. A radio show picked up by Shell Oil, “Shell Goes to a Party,” was canceled after Mr. Linkletter, reporting on a nighttime beach party, fell over some driftwood and lost his microphone.

He did have one piece of radio luck. With John Guedel, who would go on to create the quiz show “You Bet Your Life” and the comedy “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet,” Mr. Linkletter made an audition tape for an audience-participation show, with contests and gags, that would rely on his ability to ad-lib and coax humorous material from virtually anyone. Mr. Guedel came up with the name “People Are Funny,” and NBC put it on the air in 1942. Enormously popular, it ran on radio until 1960. The television version, which made its debut in 1954, ran until 1961.

Working without a script, Mr. Linkletter sent audience volunteers on silly assignments outside the studio with instructions to report back on their experience. One man was handed a $1,000 bill and told to buy chewing gum. Another was given $15,000 to invest in the stock market. Mr. Linkletter mingled with the audience, asking questions, setting up gags and handing out prizes like a yard of hot dogs or five feet of dollar bills.

On one show Mr. Linkletter spotted a woman’s enormous purse and began rummaging through it, announcing each item in turn: a can opener, a can of snuff, a losing racetrack ticket and a photograph of Herbert Hoover. The handbag bit became a staple of the show. More ingeniously, Mr. Linkletter set a dozen balls adrift in the Pacific, announcing a $1,000 prize for the first person to find one. Two years later a resident of the Marshall Islands claimed the money.

“House Party,” which ran five days a week on radio from 1945 to 1967 and on television from 1952 to 1969, was a looser version of “People Are Funny,” with beauty tips and cooking demonstrations filling time between Mr. Linkletter’s audience-chatter sessions. The highlight of the show was a segment in which five children between the ages of 5 and 10 sat down to be interviewed by Mr. Linkletter, who sat at eye level with his little subjects and, time and time again, made their parents wish television had never been invented.

After one boy revealed that his father was a policeman who arrested lots of burglars, Mr. Linkletter asked if his mother ever worried about the risks. “Naw, she thinks it’s great,” he answered. “He brings home rings and bracelets and jewelry almost every week.”

Mr. Linkletter assembled replies like that in “Kids Say the Darndest Things!,” illustrated by Charles M. Schulz, the creator of “Peanuts,” and its sequel, “Kids Still Say the Darndest Things.”

In 1969 Mr. Linkletter’s daughter Diane leapt to her death from her sixth-story apartment. Her father said that LSD had contributed to her death, and although an autopsy showed no signs of the drug in her body, the personal tragedy became a national event, suggesting to many Americans that drugs and the counterculture were making inroads even into seemingly model families like the Linkletters.

Mr. Linkletter, rather than retreating from the attention, became a crusader against drug use and an adviser to President Richard M. Nixon on drug policy, although, in 1972, he announced that he had changed his position on marijuana. After much thought and study he had concluded that the drug was relatively harmless and that law-enforcement officials should spend their time concentrating on hard drugs.

Much in demand as a public speaker and a fund-raiser for Republican candidates, Mr. Linkletter spent his subsequent years on lecture tours, appearing in commercials and tending to his far-flung business interests, including oil wells and toys. (One of his companies manufactured a version of the Hula-Hoop.)

A former college athlete, he remained remarkably healthy well into his 90s and the ideal front man for the United Seniors Association (renamed USA Next), a conservative organization formed in opposition to AARP and dedicated largely to privatizing Social Security. In keeping with his new role as a prominent elder American, Mr. Linkletter wrote “Old Age Is Not for Sissies.”

When he was well into his 80s and still going strong, someone asked him the secret of longevity. “You live between your ears,” he replied. “You can’t turn back the clock, but you can rewind it.”

Monday, May 10, 2010

R.I.P. Lena Horne

Legendary jazz singer Lena Horne dies at 92


Associated Press Writer

Lena Horne, the enchanting jazz singer and actress who reviled the bigotry that allowed her to entertain white audiences but not socialize with them, slowing her rise to Broadway superstardom, died Sunday. She was 92.

Horne died at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, according to hospital spokeswoman Gloria Chin. Chin would not release any other details.

Horne, whose striking beauty and magnetic sex appeal often overshadowed her sultry voice, was remarkably candid about the underlying reason for her success.

"I was unique in that I was a kind of black that white people could accept," she once said. "I was their daydream. I had the worst kind of acceptance because it was never for how great I was or what I contributed. It was because of the way I looked."

In the 1940s, she was one of the first black performers hired to sing with a major white band, the first to play the Copacabana nightclub and among a handful with a Hollywood contract.

In 1943, MGM Studios loaned her to 20th Century-Fox to play the role of Selina Rogers in the all-black movie musical "Stormy Weather." Her rendition of the title song became a major hit and her signature piece.

On screen, on records and in nightclubs and concert halls, Horne was at home vocally with a wide musical range, from blues and jazz to the sophistication of Rodgers and Hart in songs like "The Lady Is a Tramp" and "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered."

In her first big Broadway success, as the star of "Jamaica" in 1957, reviewer Richard Watts Jr. called her "one of the incomparable performers of our time." Songwriter Buddy de Sylva dubbed her "the best female singer of songs."

But Horne was perpetually frustrated with the public humiliation of racism.

"I was always battling the system to try to get to be with my people. Finally, I wouldn't work for places that kept us out ... it was a damn fight everywhere I was, every place I worked, in New York, in Hollywood, all over the world," she said in Brian Lanker's book "I Dream a World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America."

While at MGM, she starred in the all-black "Cabin in the Sky," in 1943, but in most of her other movies, she appeared only in musical numbers that could be cut in the racially insensitive South without affecting the story. These included "I Dood It," a Red Skelton comedy, "Thousands Cheer" and "Swing Fever," all in 1943; "Broadway Rhythm" in 1944; and "Ziegfeld Follies" in 1946.

"Metro's cowardice deprived the musical of one of the great singing actresses," film historian John Kobal wrote.

Early in her career Horne cultivated an aloof style out of self-preservation, becoming "a woman the audience can't reach and therefore can't hurt" she once said.

Later she embraced activism, breaking loose as a voice for civil rights and as an artist. In the last decades of her life, she rode a new wave of popularity as a revered icon of American popular music.

Her 1981 one-woman Broadway show, "Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music," won a special Tony Award. In it, the 64-year-old singer used two renditions - one straight and the other gut-wrenching - of "Stormy Weather" to give audiences a glimpse of the spiritual odyssey of her five-decade career.

A sometimes savage critic, John Simon, wrote that she was "ageless. ... tempered like steel, baked like clay, annealed like glass; life has chiseled, burnished, refined her."

When Halle Berry became the first black woman to win the best actress Oscar in 2002, she sobbed: "This moment is for Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll. ... It's for every nameless, faceless woman of color who now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened."

Lena Mary Calhoun Horne, the great-granddaughter of a freed slave, was born in Brooklyn June 30, 1917, to a leading family in the black bourgeoisie. Her daughter, Gail Lumet Buckley, wrote in her 1986 book "The Hornes: An American Family" that among their relatives was a college girlfriend of W.E.B. Du Bois and a black adviser to Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Dropping out of school at 16 to support her ailing mother, Horne joined the chorus line at the Cotton Club, the fabled Harlem night spot where the entertainers were black and the clientele white.

She left the club in 1935 to tour with Noble Sissle's orchestra, billed as Helena Horne, the name she continued using when she joined Charlie Barnet's white orchestra in 1940.

A movie offer from MGM came when she headlined a show at the Little Troc nightclub with the Katherine Dunham dancers in 1942.

Her success led some blacks to accuse Horne of trying to "pass" in a white world with her light complexion. Max Factor even developed an "Egyptian" makeup shade especially for the budding actress while she was at MGM.

But in his book "Gotta Sing Gotta Dance: A Pictorial History of Film Musicals," Kobal wrote that she refused to go along with the studio's efforts to portray her as an exotic Latin American.

"I don't have to be an imitation of a white woman that Hollywood sort of hoped I'd become," Horne once said. "I'm me, and I'm like nobody else."

Horne was only 2 when her grandmother, a prominent member of the Urban League and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, enrolled her in the NAACP. But she avoided activism until 1945 when she was entertaining at an Army base and saw German prisoners of war sitting up front while black American soldiers were consigned to the rear.

That pivotal moment channeled her anger into something useful.

She got involved in various social and political organizations and - along with her friendship with Paul Robeson - got her name onto blacklists during the red-hunting McCarthy era.

By the 1960s, Horne was one of the most visible celebrities in the civil rights movement, once throwing a lamp at a customer who made a racial slur in a Beverly Hills restaurant and in 1963 joining 250,000 others in the March on Washington when Martin Luther King Jr. gave his "I Have a Dream" speech. Horne also spoke at a rally that same year with another civil rights leader, Medgar Evers, just days before his assassination.

It was also in the mid-'60s that she put out an autobiography, "Lena," with author Richard Schickel.

The next decade brought her first to a low point, then to a fresh burst of artistry.

She had married MGM music director Lennie Hayton, a white man, in Paris in 1947 after her first overseas engagements in France and England. An earlier marriage to Louis J. Jones had ended in divorce in 1944 after producing daughter Gail and a son, Teddy.

In the 2009 biography "Stormy Weather," author James Gavin recounts that when Horne was asked by a lover why she'd married a white man, she replied: "To get even with him."

Her father, her son and her husband, Hayton, all died in 1970-71, and the grief-stricken singer secluded herself, refusing to perform or even see anyone but her closest friends. One of them, comedian Alan King, took months persuading her to return to the stage, with results that surprised her.

"I looked out and saw a family of brothers and sisters," she said. "It was a long time, but when it came I truly began to live."

And she discovered that time had mellowed her bitterness.

"I wouldn't trade my life for anything," she said, "because being black made me understand."

Saturday, May 8, 2010

A woman who made a difference

Devra G. Kleiman, Biologist Who Helped Change Zoos, Is Dead at 67

Devra G. Kleiman, a conservation biologist who reintroduced into the wild the tiny endangered monkey known as the golden lion tamarin, and who learned so much about the lives of giant pandas that scientists could later help them reproduce in captivity, died on April 29 in Washington. She was 67 and lived in Chevy Chase, Md.

The cause was cancer, said her husband, Ian Yeomans.

At her death, Dr. Kleiman was a senior scientist emeritus at the National Zoo in Washington, with which she had been associated for nearly four decades.

A specialist in mammalian reproduction and behavior, Dr. Kleiman was among the first scientists to bridge the longstanding chasm between zoologists and zoos. Her work — which included setting up a cooperative breeding program for tamarins among zoos worldwide and making minute observations of decades of pandas’ social, sexual and gastronomic lives — helped expand the function of the modern zoo from mere exhibition to concerted, scientifically informed conservation.

Dr. Kleiman’s work also included the highly public, always stressful and generally thankless task of trying to coax healthy offspring from the Washington zoo’s first, reluctant giant pandas, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, and having to explain year after year to a disappointed public why none were forthcoming.

Devra Gail Kleiman was born in the Bronx on Nov. 15, 1942. (The family name is pronounced CLY-man.) As an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, she had the chance to work at the Brookfield Zoo nearby and was smitten.

After receiving a bachelor’s degree in biopsychology from Chicago in 1964, Dr. Kleiman earned a Ph.D. in zoology from the University of London in 1969. In 1972 she joined the staff of the National Zoo, part of the Smithsonian Institution; she led the zoo’s department of zoological research from 1978 to 1995 and retired from the zoo in 2001.

Not long after joining the zoo, Dr. Kleiman became involved in the plight of the golden lion tamarin, a Brazilian monkey with an old man’s face and a mane of auburn hair, which was then in imminent danger of extinction.

To the few zoos owning the tamarins, she proposed something radical: renounce title to the animal and consider it a long-term loan from Brazil. The agreement, which took years of negotiation, made it easier to shuffle tamarins around the world for optimal breeding.

With the aid of a computer, Dr. Kleiman then began a breeding project that took into account all known family relationships among zoo tamarins.

“The match is made to maximize the genetic diversity, or to minimize inbreeding,” said Steven L. Monfort, director of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, the National Zoo’s science program. “It’s sort of like eHarmony for endangered species.”

Tamarins born of the project were later reintroduced into Brazil. Dr. Kleiman’s work became the model for more than 100 breeding programs for endangered species — including the California condor and the black-footed ferret — in North America today, Dr. Monfort said.

Dr. Kleiman’s association with pandas began in 1972, after the Chinese government presented Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing to the United States. Ensconced in the National Zoo, they were a wildly popular attraction.

Then as now, the giant panda was endangered, and conservationists, the zoo and the public yearned for offspring. The trouble was, almost everything about pandas, from their diet to their mating habits, was unknown. It fell to Dr. Kleiman to find out.

“They’re a species that came into the zoo unexpectedly and was functionally a black box,” Dr. Monfort said. “She took it and broke it down into the different component parts that made up the species and tried to understand how they fit together in the context of successful reproduction.”

Dr. Kleiman recruited volunteers to record the pandas’ movements around the clock. (“Sleeping,” the log entries quite often read.) For years, her social life was arranged around the panda estrus cycle. Despite her efforts, the couple seemed disinclined to mate. Nor was there a happy outcome when they did: over the years, Ling-Ling bore five cubs, none of which survived more than a few days.

But Dr. Kleiman’s long study of panda reproductive biology paid dividends later on. In 2005 a cub, the product of artificial insemination, was born to the Washington Zoo’s new pandas, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian. By prearrangement, the young panda, a male known as Tai Shan, was later sent to China.

Dr. Kleiman’s first marriage, to John Eisenberg, ended in divorce. Besides her husband, Mr. Yeomans, whom she married in 1988, she is survived by her mother, Molly Kleiman; a brother, Charles; three stepdaughters, Elise Edie, Joanna Domes and Lucy Yeomans; and four grandchildren.

She is also survived by the heirs of her scientific labors. When Dr. Kleiman began her work with golden lion tamarins, there were fewer than 200 alive anywhere; today, according to the National Zoo, about 1,500 live in the Brazilian wild.

Tai Shan, now almost 5, has lived since February at the Bifengxia Panda Base in China’s Sichuan Province.

Presidents and the books they read

For Obama and past presidents, the books they read shape policies and perceptions

By Tevi Troy
Sunday, April 18, 2010; B01

As the battle over health-care reform crescendoed last month, President Obama let slip that he was still making time for some side reading. "We've been talking about health care for nearly a century," the president told a crowd at Arcadia University in Pennsylvania. "I'm reading a biography of Teddy Roosevelt right now. He was talking about it."

One of the reasons the country's intellectual class has taken so gleefully to Obama is precisely that, in addition to writing bestsellers, the man is clearly a dedicated reader. During his presidential campaign, he was photographed toting around Fareed Zakaria's "The Post-American World," the it-book of the foreign policy establishment at the time. A year ago, in an interview about economic policy, he told a reporter that he was reading Joseph O'Neill's post-Sept. 11 novel "Netherland," which had recently won the 2009 PEN/Faulkner Award.

In a historical sense, Obama follows a long line of ardent presidential readers, paging all the way back to the founders. John Adams's library had more than 3,000 volumes -- including Cicero, Plutarch and Thucydides -- heavily inscribed with the president's marginalia. Thomas Jefferson's massive book collection launched him into debt and later became the backbone for the Library of Congress. "I cannot live without books," he confessed to Adams. And it's likely that no president will ever match the Rough Rider himself, who charged through multiple books in a single day and wrote more than a dozen well-regarded works, on topics ranging from the War of 1812 to the American West.

Obama's mention of the Roosevelt biography -- it turned out to be Edmund Morris's "The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt" -- may have been a calculated move to convey Teddy-esque toughness and a reform-minded spirit, but it also made clear an interesting notion: Reading lists don't only give presidents a break from the tedium of briefing documents; they can also inform their politics and policies, reaffirming, creating or shifting their views. White House watchers obsess over which aides have the ear of the president, but the books presidents read also offer insight on where they want to take the country -- and how history will remember them.

Consider Harry Truman. He was the last American president not to have completed college, but he was a voracious reader and particularly interested in history and biography, once musing that "the only thing new in this world is the history that you don't know."

Truman's support for establishing the country of Israel -- over the objections of his own State Department -- has been credited to his boyhood reading, both of the Bible (which he read at least a dozen times) and of the multivolume history "Great Men and Famous Women," edited by Charles F. Horne. The collection featured Cyrus the Great, the Persian king who let the Jews return to Jerusalem and rebuild their temple. Shortly after leaving the White House, Truman was introduced to a group of Jewish leaders as having "helped create" the state of Israel. "What do you mean 'helped create?' " Truman bristled. "I am Cyrus."

Books played an especially significant role in the John F. Kennedy White House. Kennedy's Pulitzer Prize-winning "Profiles in Courage" -- possibly ghostwritten by speechwriter Ted Sorensen -- had helped cement his reputation as a big thinker, and the White House's resident intellectual, Arthur Schlesinger, not only recommended books to Kennedy but also penned "A Thousand Days," which posthumously glorified the Camelot era.

But it was a book review, rather than a book itself, that helped launch one of the major policy initiatives of the 1960s. Walter Heller, chairman of Kennedy's Council of Economic Advisers, gave his boss Dwight MacDonald's influential 13,000-word New Yorker essay on Michael Harrington's "The Other America," which chronicled poverty in the nation. Inspired by the piece (and feeling vulnerable on the left after pushing for an across-the-board tax cut), Kennedy asked his staff to look into the problem. They came up with a plan for an "attack on poverty," which Heller discussed with the president a few days before Kennedy's fateful trip to Dallas in November 1963.

His successor, Lyndon Johnson -- who was influenced by British economist Barbara Ward's "The Rich Nations and the Poor Nations," which he said he read multiple times -- turned the attack into a War on Poverty. Future editions of Harrington's book had "the book that sparked the War on Poverty" on the cover, but the New Yorker deserves at least some of the credit.

Richard Nixon -- who in his memoirs noted that he read Tolstoy extensively in his youth, even calling himself a "Tolstoyan" -- often sought out books with links to the big issues of the day. After a summit with the Soviets, for instance, he bought a copy of Winston Churchill's "Triumph and Tragedy" so he could reread Churchill's recollections of the Yalta conference. And leading into his second term, Nixon was reading Robert Blake's biography of British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli and was struck by Disraeli's description of William Gladstone's cabinet as "exhausted volcanoes." The phrase inspired him to call for the resignation of his own White House staff and Cabinet, a move he later described as a mistake.

In his farewell speech to his staff on Aug. 9, 1974, Nixon offered a self-deprecating line: "I am not educated, but I do read books."

Presidential reading backfired on Jimmy Carter as well. In the summer of 1979, with the economy struggling and the presidency shaken by the Iran hostage crisis, Carter delivered his infamous speech proclaiming a "crisis of confidence" in America. It became known as the "malaise" speech and is widely regarded as a major political mistake. The address, written mainly by adviser Pat Caddell, was inspired by Christopher Lasch's best-selling book "The Culture of Narcissism." Lasch had come to the White House for a dinner about six weeks before the address, and his ideas apparently stayed behind. Two days after the July 15 speech, Carter fired several Cabinet members, adding to the sense of drift that seemed to define the era. (In 1993, during the fourth season of "The Simpsons," Springfield unveiled a Carter statue; the inscription at the base read "Malaise Forever.")

It is unclear whether Carter read Lasch's book, but he was a prolific reader. In February 1977, he took a speed-reading class with his 9-year-old daughter, Amy. This skill helped him read a reported two books a week as president and three to four books weekly in his post-presidency. He has also written 24 books, a record for former presidents.

Despite having been dubbed an "amiable dunce" by longtime White House adviser Clark Clifford, Ronald Reagan loved books, including (there we go again) Morris's works on Theodore Roosevelt. So much so, in fact, that Reagan selected Morris as his official biographer, resulting in Reagan's odd, semi-fictional portrayal in "Dutch," published in 1999. Reagan was the first president to consciously highlight the works of conservative intellectuals, citing Milton Friedman's "Free To Choose" and George Gilder's "Wealth and Poverty" to advance his economic policy agenda. The New Yorker's Larissa MacFarquhar has written that Gilder's book was one of Reagan's favorites and that Gilder was "the living author Reagan most often quoted."

Bill Clinton read widely and often -- his favorite authors included Maya Angelou, Ralph Ellison and Taylor Branch -- and was well aware that presidential reading merited attention in the media and in intellectual circles. As a result, he took steps to flatter intellectuals by touting their books. Clinton once placed Yale law professor Stephen Carter's "The Culture of Disbelief" on his Oval Office desk so that reporters would see what he was reading, and they dutifully reported it. Carter was one of a select few who recommended books to Clinton, as did Labor Secretary Robert Reich, Vice President Al Gore and Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott. Clinton also devoured mysteries, calling them a "little cheap-thrills outlet."

Clinton's reading affected his approach in the early 1990s to the crisis in the Balkans, a fierce and bloody struggle for control of Bosnian territory that had once been part of Yugoslavia. At the time, the president read Robert Kaplan's "Balkan Ghosts" and was struck by Kaplan's description of the region's long-standing ethnic hatreds. The book apparently set him against intervening in Bosnia. A panicky defense secretary, Les Aspin, told national security adviser Anthony Lake that Clinton was "not on board" with their proposals. Years later, journalist Laura Rozen wrote that "some can't hear the name Robert Kaplan without blaming him for the delay in U.S. intervention."

George W. Bush, though perhaps only the second-most-avid reader in his home behind librarian Laura Bush, was a dedicated reader who liked to count the titles he conquered. During his second term, an offhand comment by adviser Karl Rove led to annual competitions to see which of the two would tally the most books. And even though the books Bush and Rove consumed were usually quite meaty -- mainly histories ("A History of the English Speaking Peoples Since 1900"), cultural works ("Nine Parts of Desire") and biographies (the titanic "Mao") -- when the competition became public, derision followed.

"The caricature of Bush as unread died today -- or was it yesterday? But the reality of the intellectually insulated man endures," wrote Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen. And the revelation that Bush had read Albert Camus's "The Stranger" elicited howls from the news media. "George Bush reading a French Existentialist is like Obama reading a Cabela's catalog," sniffed Slate's John Dickerson.

Bush was well aware of this contempt, once telling a White House colleague of mine that he was enjoying Juan Williams's book "Enough," on the plight of black America, but preferred to keep it quiet so as to not spoil the book's potential impact on policy debates.

Sneers aside, Bush's reading certainly informed his worldview and policies. New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani observed that Bush "favored prescriptive books" such as Natan Sharansky's "The Case for Democracy" and Eliot A. Cohen's "Supreme Command," which argued that politicians should drive military strategy. Bush often met with the authors of books that resonated with him. Shortly after his reelection, he had Sharansky in for an hour-long Oval Office meeting to discuss democracy and ways to advance it around the world. Inspired in part by the author, the president went on to outline a global freedom agenda in his second inaugural address. "Not only did he read it, he felt it," Sharansky told The Post.

And then came Obama. As a writer, his autobiography helped launch him from relative obscurity to national prominence. As a reader, he made Doris Kearns Goodwin's "Team of Rivals," about Lincoln's Cabinet, into a media-friendly metaphor for his transition to the White House, especially when he selected Hillary Rodham Clinton as secretary of state.

Early on, Obama also cultivated the analogy to Franklin Roosevelt's first 100 days -- a period regarded as the quintessential government mobilization in the face of an economic crisis. In his first post-election interview, on "60 Minutes," Obama noted that he had read "a new book out about FDR's first 100 days." (A spokesman later clarified that the president-elect was referring to two books: Jonathan Alter's "The Defining Moment: FDR's Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope," and "FDR" by Jean Edward Smith.) The move worked: Media comparisons to Roosevelt's first 100 days proliferated.

Obama, like Kennedy and Clinton before him, seems keenly aware of the power of books to shape public perceptions. The world may not be reading, but it is watching -- if a book can send a signal you want to convey, toting it as you walk to Marine One or casually mentioning it in an interview can be more effective than delivering yet another policy speech.

Other heads of state have also recognized the power of a book in the American president's hands. At a summit of Western Hemisphere nations a year ago, President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela ambushed Obama with a copy of "The Open Veins of Latin America" by Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano, a left-wing tract decrying centuries of European and American exploitation and political domination of the region. Obama still held out hope that his own writing could turn the guy around. "I thought it was one of Chávez's books," the president later quipped. "I was going to give him one of mine."