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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."

Neil Simon.

Master of Revels
Neil Simon’s comic empire.
by John Lahr May 3, 2010
“The good mechanic knows how to take a car apart,” Simon said. “I love to take the human mind apart and see how it works.” Photograph by Irving Penn.

At the end of the 1984 play “Biloxi Blues,” Neil Simon’s semi-autobiographical account of his induction into both the Army and adulthood, the wide-eyed nineteen-year-old hero, Eugene, is handed a book as a farewell gift by his first love, Daisy. “It’s blank pages,” she tells him. “For your memoirs.” The playwright, as it turned out, needed more than one book. At present count, Simon, who is eighty-two, has written two volumes of memoirs, thirty plays, more than twenty screenplays, and five musicals, one of the most successful of which—“Promises, Promises” (1968), with music by Burt Bacharach and lyrics by Hal David—is now in revival (at the Broadway).

Although Simon had spent more than a decade in television, pioneering, among other things, the genre of situation comedy—Sid Caesar’s “Your Show of Shows” and “The Phil Silvers Show” were two of his assignments—it took him no fewer than twenty drafts to get his first play, “Come Blow Your Horn,” Broadway-ready, in 1961. “There were very few blind alleys I missed,” he told Playboy in 1979. But he found his theatrical voice soon enough—an audience member actually died laughing on opening night—and since 1970 almost no day has gone by without a professional production of a Neil Simon comedy playing somewhere in the country. Even in the current economy, demand for his plays hasn’t dipped. Last year alone, more than twelve hundred amateur licenses and a hundred and fifty-three professional licenses were granted.

There have been comic playwrights who were more daring (George Kelly), more witty (S. N. Behrman), more rebarbative (S. J. Perelman), and more up-to-the-minute (George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart), but no playwright in Broadway’s long and raucous history has so dominated the boulevard as the softly astringent Simon. For almost half a century, his comedies have offered light at the end of whatever dark tunnel America has found itself in. “I don’t write social and political plays, because I’ve always thought the family was the microcosm of what goes on in the world,” he told The Paris Review, in 1992. “I write about the small wars that eventually become the big wars.” Simon’s characters may attack one another, but he has no interest in smacking down their beliefs. He does not think against society; he thinks with it, observing and recording the sorrows and deliriums of the middle class, like a sort of swami of tsuris. For him and for his avid audience, his plays work as a kind of non-friction. Humor is not a weapon but a wink: a recognition from the stage, according to Simon, of “how absurdly we all live our lives.” In “Broadway Bound” (1986), an account of how Simon and his older brother, Danny, got their start as a comedy-writing team, in the late forties, the boys’ Trotskyite grandfather spouts the left-wing critique that has often been levelled at Simon’s comedies. The routines, the old man says of his show-biz progeny’s début, on a radio variety show, “have nothing to say.” “They’re looking for laughs, not an uprising,” one of the brothers replies.

Nobody has ever gone broke selling escape to the American public. “Funny is money,” one of the jokemeisters observes in Simon’s 1993 play “Laughter on the 23rd Floor.” His spruce entertainments have racked up sensational numbers on Broadway: “Barefoot in the Park” (1963) ran for 1,530 performances; “Brighton Beach Memoirs” (1982) for 1,299; “Plaza Suite” (1968) for 1,097; and “The Odd Couple” (1965) for 966. And the list of fine actors for whom Simon’s plays have been both a platform and a paycheck is very long indeed: included are Walter Matthau, Joel Grey, Jason Alexander, Robert Redford, Woody Harrelson, George Burns, Robert Sean Leonard, Elizabeth Ashley, Art Carney, Jack Lemmon, George C. Scott, Tony Randall, Jack Klugman, Maureen Stapleton, Peter Falk, Lee Grant, Matthew Broderick, and Nathan Lane. Since “Plaza Suite” premièred, Simon has been the sole or main investor in almost all his plays. From 1968 to 1982, he was the owner of the Eugene O’Neill Theatre, where many of his hits débuted. “It was like a negotiation in a mirror—you were talking to yourself,” Emanuel Azenberg, Simon’s long-time friend and frequent producer, said of mounting his plays. In the sixties, at the height of his success, with four plays running on Broadway, Simon was earning about sixty thousand dollars a week. Throw in the royalties from touring productions, foreign productions, and movie deals, and his takings were easily double that. (In an average year, not counting Broadway, Simon’s plays still gross about seven million dollars in the United States; his foreign box-office is ten million.) When Simon went Off-Broadway for the first time, in 1995, with “London Suite,” the Broadway stagehands’ union picketed him for endangering their income.

Just about the only thing that Simon’s playwriting hasn’t earned him in America is the honorific of “artist.” “I didn’t write Art,” Simon noted in his 1996 memoir “Rewrites.” Comedy is often relegated to the kids’ table of American theatre, and critics have rarely given Simon his creative due. In this regard, he is one in a long list of comic maestros of the mainstream, including Georges Feydeau and Noël Coward, whose artistry could be distinguished from their popularity only with the passage of time. “He doesn’t have his credentials,” Mel Brooks once quipped. “And he will not be allowed into Serious Land.”

Simon has always felt that every play he writes is a drama with “comic moments.” He doesn’t write jokes or particularly like telling them. (On occasion, however, he doesn’t mind borrowing them. “My wife’s a woman”—a joke in “Laughter on the 23rd Floor”—can also be found in works by Oscar Wilde and Joe Orton.) His laughs are character laughs: they emerge from the distilled reality of personality. “The good mechanic knows how to take a car apart,” he told The Paris Review. “I love to take the human mind apart and see how it works.” Simon said that when he started writing he was warned by people like Lillian Hellman not to mix comedy with drama. “But my theory was, if it’s mixed in life, why can’t you do it in a play?” he said. The characters in his works face challenges worthy of any tragedy: Evy Meara (“The Gingerbread Lady”) struggles with alcoholism; Willie Clark (“The Sunshine Boys”) with desolation and revenge; Felix Ungar (“The Odd Couple”) with loneliness; Mel Edison (“The Prisoner of Second Avenue”) with disillusion and unfulfillment. “I find that what is most poignant is often most funny,” Simon said. When he was writing his masterpiece “The Odd Couple”—which was turned into a movie and a TV series that ran from 1970 to 1975—Simon thought it was “a grim, dark play about two lonely men” that “would probably be the end of my career.”

Simon’s comedy lies as much in structure as in dialogue. His setups have what Mike Nichols, who has won four Tony Awards for directing Simon’s comedies, calls “recognizability”: hilarity is teased out of the ordinary. Simon often notices audiences sighing in recognition at certain lines in his plays. “You’d hear an ‘aah’ from the audience, a sound of ‘My God, that’s me,’ ” he told me. “ ‘That’s me, that’s you, that’s Uncle Joe, that’s Pop.’ ” In “The Prisoner of Second Avenue” (1971), for instance, the dyspeptic Mel Edison, demented by the pressures of city living, flops down on a sofa stacked with pillows. “You can’t even sit in here,” he bellows at his wife, pulling a puffy pillow out from behind him and throwing it on the floor. “Why do you keep these ugly little pillows on here? You spend eight hundred dollars for chairs and then you can’t sit on it because you got ugly little pillows shoved up your back.” “There is no joke there,” Simon said. “Yet, it was an enormous laugh—because the audience identified. That, more or less, is what is funny to me: saying something that’s instantly identifiable to everybody. . . . It’s a shared secret between you and the audience.”

Simon’s characters don’t analyze themselves; their psychology is evident in their behavior, and the audience gets the pleasure of connecting the dots. In “The Odd Couple,” Felix, devastated by the news that his wife, Frances, is done with their marriage, is talked out of committing suicide by his poker-playing friend Oscar, with whom he decides to move in. “Oscar! I’m going to be all right! It’s going to take me a couple of days, but I’m going to be all right,” Felix says. “Good!” Oscar says. “Well, good night, Felix.” “Good night, Frances,” Felix says, as the curtain falls on Act I. The precision of Simon’s characterizations invites laughter. “When people care, even the slightest joke will get a big laugh, for they’ll be so caught up in what’s going on,” he told Playboy. “If they don’t care and are not caught up, you need blockbusters every two minutes and even that won’t fulfill an audience.” In “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” for instance, the teen-age narrator, Eugene, is forbidden to eat cookies by his put-upon mother, Kate. He bounds past her on his way out of the kitchen. “Good night,” he says. Without turning around, Kate says, “Put the cookie on the table.” There is no joke on the page; on the stage, it’s a huge laugh. “I asked him, ‘Did you know that was funny when you wrote it?’ ” Azenberg said. “He said, ‘Yes—it’s an organic moment.’ ”

The notion that comic drama is created by the friction between opposites is Simon’s greatest theatrical legacy. “Dilemma is the key word,” he has said of writing character-driven comedy. “It is always a dilemma, not a situation.” In Simon’s comic calculus, the greater the pressure of the dilemma the more outrageous the behavior. “By the time you know the conflicts, the play is already written,” Simon said in The Paris Review. “All you have to do is put the words down. . . . One thing follows the other. But it all starts with that first seed, conflict.” When Simon finds himself at a narrative impasse, he goes back to a play’s opening scenes, where he has mapped out his landscape of opposites. “The foundation of the play is set in those first fifteen or twenty minutes,” he said. “The answers always lie there.” In his weaker work, this trope can seem glib and schematic. In “Last of the Red Hot Lovers” (1969), for instance, the repressed, married restaurateur, Barney Cashman, full of Weltschmerz and lust, contends in vain with three potential hookups at his trysting pad, his mother’s apartment. Cashman’s dilemma never changes; only the eccentricities of the women do. His itch to get laid fights a series of losing battles against clear-eyed rapacity, ditzy psychopathy, and corrosive depression, allowing Simon easy laughs at the expense of his cartoon Lothario. One woman speaks of physical cravings that need immediate satisfaction. “You mean like after an hour of handball, a cold Pepsi,” Cashman says.

In the best plays, however, Simon’s schema enables him to dole out the contradiction of personality in small hints, keeping the conflicts surprising until they attain a critical mass. At that point, toward the end of the evening, a character will often explode in a comic summation of events, a sort of aria that Simon calls his “fingerprint.” “The character has reached the point where he can’t contain himself anymore, and everything comes spurting out . . . a cascade of irritations,” Simon said. “Just mentioning one of them wouldn’t be funny, but to mention all the irritations wraps up a man’s life in one paragraph.” In “Plaza Suite,” Roy, the father of a bride who locks herself in a hotel bathroom and refuses to come out for her wedding, finally erupts at his wife:

Do you know what I’m going to do now? Do you have any idea? I’m going to wash my hands of the entire Eisler-Hubley wedding. You can take all the Eislers and all the hors d’oeuvres and go to Central Park and have an eight thousand dollar picnic. . . . I’m going down to the Oak Room with my broken arm, with my drenched rented ripped suit—and I’m gonna get blind! . . . I don’t mean drunk, I mean totally blind . . . because I don’t want to see you or your crazy daughter again, if I live to be a thousand.

In “The Odd Couple,” Oscar is a carefree, sloppy, fun-loving, louche spendthrift; Felix is a nervous, fastidious, compulsive, bourgeois penny-pincher. Once Felix takes up residence in Oscar’s West Side pigsty and starts trying to transform it into House Beautiful, their differences quickly lead to a war, which is summed up in Act III:

OSCAR: I’ll tell you exactly what it is. It’s the cooking, cleaning and crying. It’s the talking in your sleep, it’s the moose calls that open your ears at two o’clock in the morning. I can’t take it anymore, Felix. I’m crackin’ up. Everything you do irritates me. And when you’re not here, the things I know you’re gonna do when you come in irritate me. You leave me little notes on my pillow. I told you a hundred times, I can’t stand little notes on my pillow. “We’re all out of Corn Flakes. F.U.” It took me three hours to figure out that F.U. was Felix Ungar. It’s not your fault, Felix. It’s a rotten combination.
FELIX: I get the picture.
OSCAR: That’s just the frame. The picture I haven’t even painted yet.

Simon struggled with this rant, especially the note about Corn Flakes. “I said to myself, ‘How would he sign it? I know he’d do something that would annoy Oscar,’ ” Simon recalled. “So I signed it ‘Mr. Ungar.’ Then I tried ‘Felix Ungar.’ Then I tried ‘F.U.’ and it was as if a bomb had exploded in the room.”

“The Odd Couple” is a classic of American comedy. Two other Simon works—“The Sunshine Boys” (1972) and the underrated “Laughter on the 23rd Floor”—match its exquisite precision and, it seems to me, share the same pantheon: “The Sunshine Boys,” which pays homage to vaudeville comedians, and “Laughter on the 23rd Floor,” which gives us a fictionalized look at the talented zanies who worked on Sid Caesar’s “Your Show of Shows” in the early fifties: Simon, Mel Brooks, Larry Gelbart, Mel Tolkin, and Mike Stewart. (It was “like a cocktail party without cocktails,” Simon said.) In these inspired and brilliantly structured comedies, the inciting incidents are strong, the characterization is meticulous, even uncanny, and the aggression is allowed to let rip. The hostile outrageousness of all three plays lifts them beyond the geniality and the safety of Simon’s other work, calling out of him a different kind of license, something deeper, darker, and more thrilling. They chronicle the fierce heart, not the winded one.

“Laughter on the 23rd Floor” is one of the rare Simon plays in which politics encroaches on the comedy. Into the happy melee of the writing room Simon introduces the unhappy facts of the day, and shows how the anarchic enterprise of the writers deflects them. “How do you feel about McCarthy, Max?” Val, one of the writers, asks the star of the show. Max turns and smashes his fist through a wall. “There! That’s how I feel,” he says. When Val asks him if he can get his hand back out of the hole, Max shouts, “LEAVE IT THERE!! Get a knife. Cut it off. Send it in a box to that no good bastard. Let him know what I think of him.”

In “The Sunshine Boys,” the pigheaded and ancient Willie Clark is persuaded to reunite for a TV special with his former vaudeville partner, Al Lewis, who put him out of business by retiring eleven years earlier. Of Simon’s many running gags, the argument between these two bickering old-timers over whether to say “enter” or “come in” as they perform a doctor sketch from their act is Simon’s best, acquiring metaphoric weight right up to the end of the play. “ ‘Come in’ I’ll stay. ‘Enter,’ I go,” Al tells Willie, ready to walk out of the seedy hotel room where they meet to rehearse at the end of Act I:

AL: Don’t fool around with me. I got enough pains in my neck. Are you going to say “Come in”?
WILLIE: Ask me “Knock, knock, knock”!
AL: I know you, you bastard!
WILLIE: (Grinding it in) EN-TERRR!
(He starts to run out)
(The curtain starts down)
AL: (Heading for the door) LUNATIC BASTARD!

The battle continues even as they run through their routine in front of the TV cameras. Apoplectic in the midst of the argument, Willie collapses, and, in a masterly piece of comic construction, the next time Al knocks on Willie’s door real doctors are involved; Willie has had a heart attack. “Aha! This is it! . . . This was worth getting sick for!” he says, hearing Al outside his door. “Come on, knock again. En-terr!” Willie has had his chair pushed to the farthest corner of the room. “I want that son-of-a-bitch to have a long walk,” he says, envisioning a pageant of humiliation for Al, whose expected apology, of course, never comes. Willie, with his fragility and his fury, has a terrific humanity; he is coming to the end of both his career and his time on earth.

The world of “The Sunshine Boys” and “Laughter on the 23rd Floor” is wittier, freer, crueller, and more original than that of the stranded bourgeois souls in most of Simon’s other comedies. The freewheeling sharpshooters in these works are an antidote both to Simon’s sentimentality and to his habit in his later plays—“Brighton Beach Memoirs,” “Biloxi Blues,” “Broadway Bound”—of using a narrator to make his themes explicit and to take the edge off the pain. The life we see onstage in those plays may be uncomfortable, but we never are; we never have to work for meaning, which is half the fun of theatre’s game of show-and-tell. The device curries favor with the audience and insures that Simon’s words, like a fly line, go below the surface but only so far.

When I first saw “The Sunshine Boys,” on Broadway, in 1972, Willie’s combination of hurt and hostility felt eerily familiar to me. At the beginning of the play, Willie tells of going up for a potato-chip commercial and being unable to remember the name of the brand, Frito-Lay. “Because it’s not funny,” he explains to his nephew, an agent, who sent him up for the job. “If it’s funny, I remember it. Alka-Seltzer is funny.” Willie didn’t get the commercial, but, as it happens, my father, Bert Lahr, a former vaudeville headliner in a famous double act, did. I wrote to Simon back then to ask about the source of his inspiration. He replied:

My father who prided himself in the fact that no one could make him laugh (which any Freudian will tell you was the reason that I have been hell-bent on trying to make the whole world laugh) succumbed to only one man’s talents: Bert Lahr. Bert was physically very much like my father and when I watched him on the stage or screen I both loved and feared him at the same time—(father transference, if I’ve ever seen it).

Simon, who had once worked with my father, on a TV special, went on:

I couldn’t help noticing . . . how little joy Bert “appeared” to be getting for himself as the rest of us were convulsed. It is not difficult to see therefore, where much of the heart of “Sunshine Boys” springs from . . . especially the line late in the play where Sam Levene says, “Willie, you’ve done comedy on the stage for 45 years and I don’t think you’ve enjoyed it once.” To which Willie replies, “If I were there to enjoy it, I would buy a ticket.”

Simon, too, works out of a melancholy climate, which his therapist called “sad enough to be sad, but not happy enough to be happy.” “I always need that escape hatch,” he told The Paris Review, “that place to go that’s within myself.” From an early age, he found in laughter a refuge from his impoverished and impoverishing family. He and Danny, who was almost nine years older, grew up in the vortex of their parents’ stormy marriage in a two-bedroom apartment on 185th Street in Upper Manhattan—“the squalid world of [my] unhappiness,” as he called it. Simon’s father, Irving, an unworldly piece-goods salesman, made frequent traumatic exits from the family for “anywhere from a month to a year at a time.” “It was like coming from five broken families,” Simon said. “That pain lingers.” Simon’s mother, Mamie, had no skills and no means of earning a living. “We never knew where our next meal was coming from,” Simon told Playboy. To keep Danny from quitting school in order to support the family, Mamie slept on the sofa and rented her bedroom to two local butchers, “who paid most of their rent in lamb chops and liver.” For an extra six or seven dollars, she also rented out her kitchen for a ladies’ card game. Mamie was often at a loss in difficult situations. “It was when she felt helpless, as when my fever rose to a hundred and five, that I felt my own helplessness,” he remembered in “Rewrites.” “She would curse my father for his absence and run out to the hallway, banging on the doors of neighbors to help her find a remedy, screaming up to a God who had once again abandoned her. . . . Listening to her . . . frightened me more than my own illness. . . . I vowed, even at that early age, that if I could take care of myself, I would spare such painful remorse.”

Thinking funny was part of Simon’s campaign of self-sufficiency. “I’m usually funniest when there’s trouble,” he said in “Rewrites.” His comic impulse was the opposite of iconoclastic: instead of smashing, it wanted to bind; instead of subverting, it wanted to contain. Laughter served Simon as a kind of “nourishment,” engineering in public the embrace he rarely received from his parents. “When an audience laughed, I felt fulfilled,” he wrote in “Rewrites.” “It was a sign of approval, of being accepted.” At the same time, like most comedians, he used comedy as a kind of armor that allowed him to maintain a certain distance from others and from himself. At one point during his first marriage, his wife, Joan Baim, in the middle of a vicious argument, picked up a defrosting veal chop and threw it at his head. “I was so stunned I could barely react; stunned not by the blow nor the intent, but by the absurdity that I, a grown man, had just been hit in the head with a frozen veal chop,” he wrote. “A faint flicker of a smile crossed my face. Suddenly the anger and hostility drained from me and I found myself outside the situation looking in, no longer involved as a man in conflict but as an observer, an audience so to speak.”

Simon’s ability to stand outside himself and to observe the folly of Homo sapiens is both his honey and his cross: instead of working through the emotion he sets up in some of his plays, he deflects it with laughs. “Do you know what you are?” the newly married Corie says, indicting her workaholic husband, in “Barefoot in the Park.” “You’re a Watcher. There are Watchers in this world and there are Do-ers. And the Watchers sit around watching the Do-ers do.”

Framed on the wall of Azenberg’s office on the top floor of the Neil Simon Theatre are two notes that Simon passed to Azenberg during read-throughs of his plays. One says, “Don’t worry, I know how to fix it,” the resulting “it” being the most memorable scene in “Broadway Bound.” The other note says, “Worry—I don’t know how to fix it,” which signalled the collapse of a musical based on the Gershwin catalogue. Revising is a lifelong habit for Simon, one he learned from his brother in their early sketch-writing days. “Danny was a relentlessly, compulsively dissatisfied person,” Woody Allen, who started writing with Danny when he was nineteen, after the brothers broke up, in 1954, told me. “He was constantly starting over, constantly rewriting, always explaining to me helpful things, like, The punch line is not what makes the joke, it’s the straight line. What you have to have is a great straight line—completely natural, what the character would say—then your obligation is to find the joke within that line.” (With a few notable exceptions, Simon’s plays are also an ongoing rewrite of his own story, and he considers it his greatest weakness that he is unable “to write outside my own experience.” It’s no coincidence that his latest play, like his first memoir, is called “Rewrites.”)

“He rewrote and rewrote and rewrote because he wanted to,” Mike Nichols recalled. “For ‘The Odd Couple,’ we had so many endings I don’t remember how the play ends. Walter [Matthau] kept saying, ‘What do you care? It’s gonna run for years anyway.’ It was that he knew he could do better.” In the case of “The Gingerbread Lady” (1970), a play about Maureen Stapleton, in which she starred, the notices were so bad in Boston that the producer decided to close the show. “This is a potentially wonderful play,” Stapleton told Simon. “It needs work, but don’t walk away from it.” Simon took the challenge. Within a week, he’d written thirty-five new pages, and the play subsequently ran for more than five months on Broadway, won Stapleton a Tony, and was turned into the movie “Only When I Laugh,” which was nominated for three Academy Awards in 1982.

Simon’s gifts for construction and for reconstruction make him an ideal collaborator for the Broadway musical, the epitome of the business of show. With the exception of “A Chorus Line,” some of which he punched up without credit, Simon has never collaborated on an innovative musical; nonetheless, he’s written the books for a number of slick, successful ones—“Sweet Charity,” “Little Me,” “The Goodbye Girl,” “They’re Playing Our Song.” The job of the librettist is to throw soft pitches to the musical team, to toss dramatic scenes to the songwriters so that they can belt the most emotional moments into the stands. “I wouldn’t want to write musicals all the time,” Simon told the Chicago Tribune. But when, in the late sixties, the producer David Merrick asked him what musical he’d like to make, he chose the elements that became “Promises, Promises.”

In “Promises, Promises,” an adaptation of the screenplay of “The Apartment,” by Billy Wilder and I. A. L. Diamond, Simon buffs up the dominant character of his sixties comedies: the trapped bourgeois soul who finds that almost everything he yearns for is worthless. It’s a good story, and Simon tells it well. “Half as big as life, that’s me / But that’s not the way I always mean to be,” Chuck Baxter, the musical’s hapless and ambitious hero, sings. Baxter is a prisoner of his own inferiority and its corollary, grandiosity. In order to get a leg up on the corporate ladder, he lets company executives borrow his apartment to get a leg over. Baxter’s pad soon becomes so popular that he can hardly gain access to it, but by the finale he has overcome his inadequacy, regained his dignity, and won the girl of his daydreams. (“I don’t think I write happy endings,” Simon said. “I try never to end a play with two people in each other’s arms—unless it’s a musical.”) Simon never compromises the portrait of the naïve Baxter with a crowd-pleasing wisecrack; instead, he meets the show’s commercial requirement—love and goodness conquer all. In this sense, “Promises, Promises,” with its melodic score that includes the hit “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again,” adheres to Simon’s early musical formula: hilarity with heart. It is a sort of accessible irony-free, pre-Sondheim production, in which the big heart still dominates over the atrophied one.

In the past few years, Simon has had bad luck with his Broadway revivals. The 2005 production of “The Odd Couple” was miscast; the 2009 “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” well directed by David Cromer but without a star, didn’t find an audience to sustain it; “Broadway Bound,” which was supposed to play in repertoire with it, was cancelled before it began. “Promises, Promises” (directed and choreographed by Rob Ashford) brings Simon back to Broadway with the added candlepower of Kristin Chenoweth and Sean Hayes and the inclusion in the score of two extra Bacharach-David hits, “I Say a Little Prayer” and “A House Is Not a Home.” Simon told me recently that he doesn’t feel honored in his time. “Only from show to show,” he said. But what do you call someone who, over half a century, has brought millions of people together to tell them bittersweet stories that shed light and laughter on the follies of his small corner of the universe? I say you call him an artist, and the hell with it. ♦

Pierre Bernard

Life in an Awkward Position
How an eccentric guru and charming hustler made yoga popular in America


Several decades ago, you would have received a baffled stare if you had asked a stranger what a "downward facing dog" was. Today most strangers would nod knowingly and point you to their yoga studio, where the "downward facing dog" (feet and hands planted on the ground, torso stretched into an inverted "V") and other poses are common practices for the more than 20 million people who study yoga in the U.S.
[BOOKREVIEW1] Bernard Collection, Historical Society of Rockland County

Doing yogo outdoors in New York.

But yoga wasn't always mainstream, as Robert Love informs us in "The Great Oom," his rollicking and well-researched history of yoga's early days in America. The spiritual discipline that has colonized America's gyms and trendy loft spaces was once a fringe practice, its advocates treated as charlatans and, occasionally, criminals. Yoga's cultural rise is a story of scandal, financial shenanigans, bodily discipline, oversize egos and bizarre love triangles, with a few performing elephants thrown in for good measure.

Mr. Love tells his story through the life of one of yoga's earliest promoters, Pierre Bernard—known as the "Great Oom"—a zany man whose talent for self-invention rivaled that of P.T. Barnum. Born Perry Baker in Leon, Iowa, in 1876, Bernard's early and serendipitous meeting with an Indian tutor in 1889 put him on the path to promoting yoga as his life's work.

The "hatha yoga" that Bernard learned from his tutor emphasized postures (called asanas) as well as controlled breathing techniques and a range of "meditative arts." His education also included "tantric yoga," whose goal is to "merge the individual's soul with the ultimate reality, divinity, or god." Yoga's origins reach back to ancient India, where it developed alongside Hindu and Buddhist traditions.

Becoming yoga's U.S. champion was not an obviously wise career move for Pierre Bernard. (He changed his name around 1896 to give himself a more mystical aura.) Over the course of his lifetime, Mr. Love writes, "yoga was labeled a criminal fraud and an abomination against the purity of American women. It was associated with sexual promiscuity and kicked to the fringes of society."

But Bernard was a believer. He soon became a lauded hypnotist in 1890s San Francisco. During one demonstration, he used "mind control" to put himself in a trance that he claimed left him immune to pain. As the crowd watched, a doctor pushed pins through Bernard's earlobes and cheeks and rammed a "large ladies hat pin" through his tongue—or so the newspapers reported. A bloodied Bernard awoke and showed his fitness by promptly hypnotizing someone else.
[BOOKREVIEW6] Bernard Collection, Historical Society of Rockland County

Pierre Bernard, yoga's American proselytizer.

As Bernard's reputation grew, he became a sought-after personal guru to wealthy San Francisco residents and established a "Tantrik Order" of disaffected socialites, artists and musicians who lived communally and practiced mystical rites—including yoga, which, Bernard promised, would bring its adherents a direct connection to the divine. Like many a guru before and since, he had his choice of sexual partners, from whom he demanded absolute loyalty and not a little forbearance, given his carefree attitude toward monogamy. Most of the women didn't seem to mind; one 19-year-old declared herself "cured of her heart trouble and in fine spirits" after a months-long involvement with the guru.

But Bernard's open sexual practices eventually cause trouble. In an era when hysteria over "white slavery" and prostitution dominated the news, his conduct fed into a "moral panic" (as Mr. Love puts it) fueled by yellow journalists and the purity crusader Anthony Comstock. In 1910, after relocating with his acolytes to New York City, Bernard was charged with having "inveigled and enticed" a young woman "for the purpose of sexual intercourse." Although the charges were eventually dismissed, the taint lingered, and Bernard—whom newspapers dubbed "the Great Oom" after the common yoga chant "Om"—and his yogic band fled to more bucolic prospects in Nyack, N.Y.

There, with financial support from the Vanderbilt family— especially Anne Vanderbilt, whose daughters studied yoga with Bernard—he established a yoga center on an old Nyack estate. According to Mr. Love, it catered to "the idle wealthy with recreation, parties, and celebrity buzz" and promoted a philosophy of "self-expression, diet, and an attention to inner cleanliness" that included a startling devotion to colonics.

As Bernard's fortunes improved so did his desire to bring his enterprise into the mainstream. He started calling his Nyack property the "Clarkstown Country Club" and sponsoring theater performances, circus-like entertainments (complete with elephants) and even a baseball team. His marriage to a former vaudevillian performer ensured that he had a partner in charming the needy heiresses on whom his fortunes often relied.

Bernard's luck faltered during the Depression, as did his relationship with the Vanderbilts. The club was soon in arrears. Yoga's appeal, however, was just beginning to spread. By the 1950s an increasing number of Americans were practicing yoga, seeing it less as a cultish practice than as a means of restoring one's health in the stressful modern world. Bernard became a Miss Havisham figure, spending his final years alone, wandering around his decaying manse in Nyack. He died in 1955, at age 79, but many of his devotees went on to become teachers themselves and trained a new generation of yoga students who in turn spread the gospel of good health through yoga.

Today yoga flourishes even in the Great Oom's home state of Iowa, and the yoga industrial complex has broadened to include magazines, books, clothing and celebrity followers. Eager students can study Christian yoga (or "Yahweh Yoga," as it is sometimes called) and Jewish Yoga, where students replace "om" with "shalom." What was once exotic is now simply part of America's multicultural mix.

Mr. Love has the gift of the good biographer: He has sympathy for his subject's "flamboyant weirdness" but the rigor to present him for what he was. Although yoga was an import, Pierre Bernard was an example of a fascinating American type: the spiritual entrepreneur. His life reminds us that the appeal of spiritual cures that promise practical results is not a new phenomenon; it is an enduring part of our country's history. If our current pursuit of "wellness" is any guide, it will remain so for the foreseeable future.
—Ms. Rosen is senior editor of The New Atlantis: A Journal of Technology & Society.