Thursday, May 24, 2018

Philip Roth—The Last of the Great American Novelists—Part I

Philip Roth in Newark--ever an inspiration and obsession. 
Word has come that Philip Roth died on Tuesday in New York City at the age of 85.  He was widely considered the last of the Great American Novelists of the late 20th Century the peer of heavy hitters John Updike and Saul Bellow.  Roth himself believed that the novel, which had ruled for a century as the supreme and exalted American literary form, is doomed to becoming a cult niche in the Age of the Internet for a diminishing educated elite, “I think always people will be reading them but it will be a small group of people. Maybe more people than now read Latin poetry, but somewhere in that range…” Ever a realist, Roth was sanguine with the prospect.
Roth was far more prolific than either of the novelists he was frequently lumped with—29 full length novels and a dazzling debut novella over nearly 50 years.  His output was also more diverse in style and topic than either of the other while reaping critical praise, armloads of awards, and commercial success.  Yet at the core of his varied output were common threads—a Jewish identity with which he was not always comfortable but could not deny, a sense of being profoundly American— “if I am not American what am I”—a, a sex drive that was often creepily compulsive, and the world observed by fictional doppelgangers for the author, or sometimes the author himself as a fictional character.
Today the lengthy obituaries are all laudatory.  Tomorrow or the next day I can safely predict that the backlash will begin with harshly critical essays.  Leading the way will be Feminists critics who will denounce the whole cabal of elite white men as the custodians of the literary cannon.  More pointedly they will charge Roth with toxic masculinity and misogyny and will come loaded for bear with plenty of quotes from his work.  They will also have the example and testimony of his two ex-wives, both of whom showed up thinly disguised in his novels—a Margaret Martinson in When She Was Good and actress Clare Bloom in I Married a Communist.  Bloom penned her own bitter exposé of their 14-year-long relationship and four year marriage in he memoir Leaving the Doll’s House.
Not far behind will be some Jewish critics who always found Roth’s portraits embarrassing for their relentless sexuality and discomfort with aspects of the culture that were at odds with his identity as an American.  Others were angered at his voraciously espoused atheism—“I’m exactly the opposite of religious, I’m anti-religious. I find religious people hideous. I hate the religious lies. It’s all a big lie.”  Some Jewish critics hounded him from the beginning of his career.  Rabbi Gershom Scholem, the great kabbalah scholar, said Portnoy’s Complaint was more harmful to Jews than The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.  And Roth was heckled and booed at an early appearance at Yeshiva University which stunned and shocked the author.

Irving Howe, the Jewish intellectual who attacked Roth and was savaged by the author in return.
Roth fought back skewering one of his harshest critics, Irving Howe who he cast as supercilious Milton Appel in 1983’s The Anatomy Lesson with a typically uproarious rant:
“The comedy is that the real haters of the bourgeois Jews, with the real contempt for their everyday lives, are these complex intellectual giants,” Zuckerman snorts. “They loathe them, and don’t particularly care for the smell of the Jewish proletariat either. All of them full of sympathy suddenly for the ghetto world of their traditional fathers now that the traditional fathers are filed for safekeeping in Beth Moses Memorial Park. When they were alive they wanted to strangle the immigrant bastards to death because they dared to think they could actually be of consequence without ever having read Proust past Swann’s Way. And the ghetto—what the ghetto saw of these guys was their heels: out, out, screaming for air, to write about great Jews like Ralph Waldo Emerson and William Dean Howells. But now that the Weathermen are around, and me and my friends Jerry Rubin and Herbert Marcuse and H. Rap Brown, it’s where oh where’s the inspired orderliness of those good old Hebrew school days? Where’s the linoleum? Where’s Aunt Rose? Where is all the wonderful inflexible patriarchal authority into which they wanted to stick a knife?”
Howe never got up off the floor after that screed.
On the other hand, many other Jews found much to admire in Roth’s work which mirrored a broader struggle with assimilation and the retention of a cultural identity distinct from a religious one.
Whatever the criticisms that arise, it is hard to deny Roth’s gifts as a writerhumor, insight, more than a dollop of droll understanding of the very foibles his critics ravish him for, and a fluid, evolving, writing style.
Moreover, the ascendancy of Donald Trump revived interest in Roth’s 2004 alternate universe novel The Plot Against America in which Charles Lindbergh, a shallow celebrity, defeats Franklin D. Roosevelt as an America First candidate for President in the election of 1940, strikes a hands-off-Europe deal with Adolph Hitler, and launches his own campaign of anti-Semitism sweeping up the not-so-fictional Roth family of Newark, New Jersey.  Roth recognized the parallels and told The New Yorker in an interview on the eve his inauguration that Trump was “just a con man… ignorant of government, of history, of science, of philosophy, of art, incapable of expressing or recognizing subtlety or nuance…destitute of all decency… A massive fraud, the evil sum of his deficiencies, devoid of everything but the hollow ideology of a megalomaniac.”
Don’t expect flowers from the Resident at Roth’s memorial service.  On the other hand, a nasty, semi-literate tweet is not out of the question.

Philip Roth with his mother at the beach, 1935.
Roth was born on March 19, 1933 in Newark.  His parents, Herman and Bess were second generation Eastern European Jews who had largely assimilated.  The family, which included an older brother, lived in a comfortable five room apartment in the middle class Weequahic neighborhood.  His father was an insurance broker and executive for Metropolitan Life who was resentful that his advancement in the company was blocked by WASP top management.  Yet he made a comfortable living and the family was relatively untouched by the Great Depression which scarred the childhood of others of Philip’s generation.  In his autobiography Roth described his father, “His repertoire has never been large: family, family, family, Newark, Newark, Newark, Jew, Jew, Jew. Somewhat like mine.”

Despite strains with his father as he was pulled into an evermore “American” life experience, Roth looked on his childhood and youth in Weequahic as in many ways nearly idyllic.  He enjoyed a robust childhood and was poplar in high school where he was a bright student but not quite diligent enough in his studies to win a prized full scholarship to Rutgers where he wanted to study law.  Years later he would specifically name Weequahic High School and his Newark haunts in his breakthrough novel Portnoy’s Complaint.  Both the author and his fictional creation graduated in 1950.  Both had also missed the direct horrors of the Second World War and instead came of age during the optimistic post-war boom that was ominously shaded by Red Scare witch hunts which seemed to find a hell of a lot of Jewish witches.
Less prestigious Bucknell University in Pennsylvania was Roth’s fallback school.  There he abandoned his vague dreams of becoming a lawyer for the underdog and turned his attention to writing.  He did very well indeed graduating suma cum laude in English with a Phi Beta Kapa key.  He became one of the generation of post-war writers to pursue his literary career in tandem with post-graduate education and the life of academia. He missed the hard knocks and hustling work as a journalist or freelancer that was typical of the generation of heavy weights that came of age during and after World War I.
It was on to the University of Chicago for graduate work.  It was a yeasty environment for a young writer.  Saul Bellow was a contemporary and with some what similar backgrounds and interests they could not avoid being rivals.  There was also a lively left political scene and the emergence of new and unconventional art forms.  In the year that Roth earned his MA, 1955, the Compass Players, forerunner of Second City launched their improvisational comedy reviews.  Roth, a natural comic himself, absorbed it all. 
One of Roth's earliest appearances in print was a short story in this local Chicago magazine.  He didn't even make a cover mention.
Roth enlisted in the Army that year to avoid being drafted and assigned to unpleasant duty like the infantry.  The Cold War Army was said to be a democratizing experience bringing together young men of different backgrounds for the first time in their lives.  If so, Roth was not enthralled with the experience.  He injured his back during Basic Training and ultimately was given a medical discharge.
The experience became fodder for an early short story, Defender of the Faith, about a tough Jewish Drill Sergeant faced with goldbricking recruits from the Tribe.  Implicit was the suggestion that he himself was one of the malingerers and that perhaps the back injury which was his escape ticket may have been exaggerated.  It was this story in particular that drew the early wrath of his Jewish critics.  

Roth as a young writer and academic.
Back in Chicago in 1956 he resumed studies for a doctorate while teaching writing to undergrads. During that year he met a lovely shiksa waitress Margaret Martinson, a single woman with a small child.  He was smitten.  An intense, but often troubled relationship ensued.  At the end of the year he dropped out of the U of C and headed to the University of Iowa to teach in its creative writing program, then emerging as a national flagship for academic instruction of promising young writers.  None the less, Roth was not happy there, perhaps because the semi-rural Midwesterness of Ames was alien to him.  After a while with Martinson in tow he moved on to a similar position at Princeton, another WASP bastion but one with even more prestige.  Everyone who knew him recognized Roth as a comer.
During these years he polished his early short stories and finished his first novella while publishing fiction and reviews in publications including The New Republic.  In 1959 he finally married Martinson, although he would later claim to have been emotionally blackmailed into the wedding.  The same year Goodbye, Columbus and Five Short Stories was published to critical acclaim.  It won the National Book Award for 1960, a notable achievement for a freshman outing and one that put Roth on the literary map.

The novella and all of the stories dealt in some way with the struggles of second and third generation Jews with assimilation, class bias within the Jewish community, and various crises of identity.  All would be themes that Roth would continue to engage throughout his career.
He followed up in fairly rapid succession with two novels, Letting Go in 1962, set in the academic world he knew well at U of C and Iowa and When She Was Good in 1967.  Both novels feature characters inspired by Martinson.  The couple separated acrimoniously in 1963 and she subsequently refused to divorce Roth.  They seemed to have continued to mutually torment each other even over disentrances.  When She Was Good was the only time Roth employed a female main character and the only time the main character was a Goy.  While generally well received, neither of these books were initially commercially successful. 

An extremely rare photo of Roth first wife Margaret Martinson.  A mutually tormented relationship.
Martinson died in a car wreck in 1968, emotionally devastating Roth who was both grief stricken and mortified that an initial reaction was one of relief.
Taken together Roth considered these three books to be apprentice efforts.  Although artfully executed and dealing in the themes that would engage Roth throughout his life, they were the product of his years as a student and academic.  However, daring in subject, they remained shackled to the ideals of the novel that he both learned and taught—especially the restrictions of a so-called objective narrator.  His next novel, Portnoy’s Complaint would defiantly smash convention and plunge into an earthy froth of libido, and language as liberated and challenging as the shockingly unconventional coming of age tale it told.  It also became an instant commercial success, a pop icon, and turned the academic writer into a ‘60’s superstar.
To meet an insatiable public demand, Roth’s earlier work was rushed into print in popular paperback formats and became hits themselves, especially to college students and counter cultural youth who stuffed them into their back jeans pockets. 
Goodbye Columbus was made into a successful film starring Richard Benjamin and Ali McGraw in 1969.  Three years later Portnoy’s Complaint made it to the screen again with Benjamin but was a failure due to both a ham handed script and the inability of a commercial film to “go there.”  In some ways the true film heir to Roth’s book was the raunchy 1999 teen comedy American Pie.
Tomorrow—Portnoy and after.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

The Johnny We Hardly Knew

Johnny Carson on his last Tonight Show.

May 22, 1992 was the last broadcast of The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson on NBC.  It ended a thirty-year run that began in New York as the young comedian and game show host took over the reins of the Tonight Show from Jack Parr.  Critics called him likable but bland and predicted quick failure in the wake of the mercurial Parr. 

Carson was Midwestern to the core.  Born in Iowa on October 25, 1925 and raised in Norfolk, Nebraska from the age of eight, his background could not have been more different that the mostly Jewish comics who dominated stand up from the 1950’s on.  But to the network, that might have been an advantage—his predecessors Parr and Steve Allen also had Midwestern roots—Ohio and Michigan for Parr and Chicago for Allen.

Teen age magician The Great Carsoni.

He showed interest in performing from an early age.  By 12 he was doing a magic act as The Great Carsoni.  As soon as he graduated from high school, he hitchhiked to Hollywood.  He later claimed to have been arrested and fined for impersonating a Navy midshipman, a tale some believe may have been invented.

But it was war time and the Navy was in his future.  He joined the service at age 18 in June 1943.  He qualified for the V-12 Navy College Training Program and took classes at Columbia University in New York and Millsaps College in Mississippi before being commissioned as an ensign late in the war.  He was assigned to the battleship USS Pennsylvania as a communications officer in the Pacific.  While on board he fought and won 10 amateur boxing matches and frequently performed his magic act for the crew.  He once even entertained and charmed notoriously crusty Secretary of the Navy James Forestall.

Carson in the V-12 Navy College Training Program.

Carson never saw combat.  He had been transferred to a troop carrier on its way to a planned invasion of Japan when American atomic bombs ended the war.

Thanks to the GI Bill Carson completed the college credits he had amassed in the V-12 program at the University of Nebraska where he switched majors from journalism to speech when he decided he wanted to become a radio comedian.  His senior thesis was How to Write Comedian Jokes.  Meanwhile his magic act, now salted with patter and jokes, helped pay the bills.  He graduated after three years on campus in 1949.

 By early 1950 Carson was working on Omaha’s WOW radio and television where his duties included a morning TV sketch comedy show that featured a schtick about pigeons on the roof of the local courthouse chatting about the political corruption they had seen.  This early foray into topical humor was done with enough charm to entertain even the targets of his barbs at local banquets and civic events.  The wife one of them who was also a part owner of WOW recommended Carson to her brother who was working in TV in Southern California.  Perhaps she just wanted to remove the embarrassment.

Carson leapt at the chance and was soon toiling on CBS-owned Los Angeles TV station KNXT where he hosted a variety of programs, notably a bargain basement sketch comedy show Carson’s Cellar, a not-so-subtle tip-o’-the-hat to Fred Allen’s popular Allen’s Alley.  The show became something of a cult classic and attracted the notice of CBS’s biggest comedy star, Red Skelton who hired Carson as writer as a side job.  When Skelton, a physical comic, knocked himself out practicing a prat fall just before a live broadcast, Carson successfully stepped in for his network debut.

Carson's spot-on imitation of Jack Benny earned him an appearance on Benny's top rated comedy show. in 1955,

That was just the kind luck that seemed to follow the young comic on his rapid rise.  In 1955 Jack Benny on his TV show where Carson famously matched Benny’s gestures and timing—a bit he would continue to use through his long career.

Carson never seemed to be out of work.  He first hosted a game show, Earn Your Vacation in 1954 and had a weekly CBS variety show, The Johnny Carson Show in 1955 and 1956.  After that show failed, he moved to New York City to host Who Do You Trust?  from1957 to 1962. He was a guest panelist on the original To Tell the Truth starting in 1960, becoming a regular in 1961 and 1962.

For five years Carson's ABC game show romp Ho Do You Trust? was the hottest program on daytime TV..

Who Do You Trust?  first teamed him with Ed McMahon and had a loose enough format so that he could combine interviews with contestants with ad libs, in the manner of Groucho Marx on You Bet Your Life.  In its five-year run on ABC TV the show became “The hottest item on daytime TV.
That success got the attention of NBC brass who began to woo Carson while the unhappy Parr was still on the air.  Carson at first demurred, but when Parr actually departed took the offer.  He still had six months to run on his ABC contract, so NBC had to use fill-in guest hosts like Merv Griffin, Art Linkletter, Joey Bishop, Arlene Francis, Bob Cummings, Jerry Lewis, Groucho, and Donald O’Connor until Carson could step through the curtains for the first time.

The Tonight Show his watch, the first ten years from New York then from NBC’s Burbank, California studios, became an American late night tradition.  His opening monologues traced the history of his times.  Even when the jokes sometimes failed his self-depreciating demeanor kept the studio audience roaring with laughter.  Carson famously showcased and encouraged the careers of many comedians and his invitation to join him on the couch after a monologue was the cue of approval for a generation of comics. 

Carson with Muhamed Ali  from his New York studio early in the run of  The Tonight Show.

The show was also famous for occasional sketch comedy bits by the Mighty Carson Arts Players, set-piece routines like Carnac the Magnificent, and forays into the audience for silly games like Stump the Band. 

Carson brought back bearded Skitch Henderson from Steve Allen’s tenure as host to lead the on-stage NBC Orchestra.  After a brief tenure by Milton Delugg in 1966 jazz trumpeter Doc Sevrensen took over as band leader and a foil of many Carson jokes.  The familiar Tonight Show theme was adapted from Paul Anka’s Toot Sweet. 

Carson and long-time announcer/sidekick Ed McMahon do their signature Carnac the Magnificent mind reading act.

Throughout the entire run Carson’s announcer/side kick was Ed McMahon, who had been with him for five years on his daytime quiz show Who Do You Trust.  The burley McMahon was a comic foil and straight man.  Much of his job was simply reacting to Carson and cuing the audience that, “this is funny.”  His signature introductionHeeeeeer’s Johnny!” may be the most famous tag line in television history. 

Through its long run audiences watched the boyish Carson’s dark hair go salt-and-pepper to silver and his clothes from the narrow tie with two button skinny suits of the early ‘60’s through the gaudy plaid and patterned polyester sport coats and super wide ties of the ‘70’s to the blue and gray blazers and khaki slacks of the later years.  But Carson himself seemed timeless. 

He often battled the network over scheduling and control of the program.  From an original 104 minutes five nights a week, he eventfully did four sixty-two minute programs with a Best of Carson on Monday nights.  When he took time off, he tapped a pool a regular guest hosts including Joey Bishop, Bob Newhart, John Davidson, David Brenner, Burt Reynolds, and David Letterman. 

Three people were made permanent guest hosts—Joan Rivers, Gary Shandling, and Jay Leno.  Each was rumored to be considered a potential replacement for Carson when he would retire.  When Joan Rivers, who was chaffing at the wait, accepted an offer from the new Fox Network for a late night show opposite him without even personally informing him, Carson angrily fired her from her remaining scheduled dates and permanently banned her from the show.  Her own show quickly failed and Rivers’s career was severely damaged. 

Others who offended him for one reason or another were more quietly excluded, but Carson, although personally aloof and not a close friend of many of his guests, was widely liked and admired by most of the celebrities who sat on his couch.  Carson was a generous interviewer and if a guest had any comic chops he enjoyed feeding him or her or even playing straight man himself. 

Carson reputedly favored David Leterman over Jay Leno to succeed him.  When Leno got the nod from NBC, Carson fed Letterman monologue gags when he went on the air with his CBS show opposite Leno.

As Carson wound down his last year, an epic battle to replace him broke out behind the scenes between his two leading protégés—Leno and Letterman.  Leno was a sharp monologist and had been tapped as Carson’s last permanent guest host.  Letterman was quirkier, but Carson admired that and produced Letterman’s Late Show which followed the Tonight Show.  Letterman believed NBC had promised him Carson’s slot.  Leno felt that Carson had given him the nod.  The maneuvering became the subject of a bestselling book and an HBO movie.  Carson evidently favored Letterman, but the NBC brass thought Leno was more mainstream. 

The final weeks before Carson’s final shows were a parade of favorite guests sharing memories and of clips from the program—at least surviving clips.  NBC had outraged Carson by taping over almost all of his shows before 1970 so that the only surviving clips of that era came on kinescopes kept by some guests. 

Many people falsely remember the next to the last program as the last one.  Guests were Robin Williams at his manic finest, and Bette Midler.  Midler got Carson to sing an impromptu duet with her at the desk and then took to the stage to sing One for My Baby (and One More for the Road) to him as Carson wiped away tears.  Midler won an Emmy for the appearance. 

There were no guests the next night, Carson’s final show 50 million viewers tuned in to see the farewell.  Carson reminisced with Sevrensen, McMahon, and long-time producer Fred de Cordova.  The program ended, as Jack Paar’s final appearance did, with Carson sitting alone on a stool giving an emotional good-by to his audience. 

Although Carson told his audience he planned to return to television some time later and NBC announced a development deal, he never did.  He quietly retired to play tennis and declined almost all interviews—he gave only two the rest of his life.  He told friends he did not feel that he could match or top what he had accomplished on the Tonight Show. 

In his personal life, Carson was painfully shy and had few close friends.  Actor Michael Landon, a tennis buddy was one of the few performers in his tight inner circle.  He had famously troubled marriages.  In while still in college 1948, Carson married Jody Wolcott. Their relationship was volatile, with mutual infidelities, and ended in divorce in 1963 just as his tenure at The Tonight Show was getting underway.  Jody was the mother of all of his three sons, Chris, Cory, and Richard.  Richard, a gifted photographer, died in a traffic accident in 1991 and deeply affected his father.  In fact, the loss may have accelerated Carson’s decision to retire. 

Carson married Joanne Copeland the same year as his first marriage ended.  The match lasted until 1972 and ended in a protracted divorce case with a generous settlement.

In 1972 Carson married model Joanna Holland in a characteristically secret wedding ceremony.  There was much joking about Carson’s marrying women with nearly identical names.  The couple filed for divorce in 1983 and the bitter contested action dragged on for more than two years and ended with Carson paying his former wife more than $20 million which left him bitter.

Finally, in 1987 Carson broke the string of like named wives by wedding Alexis Mass who remained with him for the rest of his life.

Carson died of complications of emphysema, the result of a lifetime as a heavy smoker, on January 23, 2005 at the age of 73.  His remains were cremated and at his request there was no funeral service or memorial.  Accolades and salutes came from all sides.  David Letterman, who Carson had secretly been sending monologue jokes, summed it up—all subsequent late night hosts were just trying to do Johnny.