ELI

“If you’re gonna shoot – shoot. Don’t talk”
Remembering Eli Wallach

On my dining room table is a letter that will never be mailed. I wrote it late Saturday night —four days ago as I write this — and planned take it to the Post Office on Monday. I didn’t make the Post Office on Monday and, on Tuesday the addressee passed away.

Now the odds are that the mailman would not have beaten the reaper to his Riverside Drive door, but I am sad that I did not have one final opportunity to tell Eli Wallach how much his work is cherished by me and countless other fans of film, stage and ultra-fine acting.

The unmailed letter was prompted by a photo I just saw of Eli and Clint Eastwood at the Museum of Tolerance Award ceremony back in 2010. The image is of two grizzled, old pros clearly enjoying the get together and the caption that immediately came to mind was the “The Good, The Bad and the Elderly.”

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The inspiration for the unsent letter: Eli Wallach and Clint Eastwood at the 2010 Museum of Tolerance Award ceremony honoring Eastwood

Eli Wallach was 98 years old when he passed last night. I was first introduced to him by my father who was an early and ardent fan of great acting and hence, Eli’s work. No matter who the top line star of a picture might have been, my Dad would say, “Eli Wallach has a new movie out,” and off to the movies we went…a guys night out sometimes accompanied by my Uncle Abe and cousin Harvey. My Dad’s rationale was simple and as it turns out, quite correct: “If Eli Wallach is in it, then it’s worth the price of admission.”
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Self-Captioned: Eli Wallach as Calvera, in the classic
western “The Magnificent 7” (1960)

So it was that we watched “The Magnificent Seven” on TV back when I was in short pants and so it remained when we went to see that other iconic portrayal of a Mexican bandito by a Brooklyn Jew…”The Good The Bad and The Ugly.” It was as fine an acting performance as one will see and it was largely dismissed because the film was only a “Spaghetti Western.”

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Eli Wallach as Tuco Benedicto Pacifico Juan Maria Ramirez (the “Ugly”) in
“The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (1967)

I say again… It was as fine an acting performance as one will see; at once daring and nuanced, subtle and over-the-top and always spot-on and in character. There is nary a false breath taken in Eli Wallach’s portrayal of Tuco Benedicto Pacifico Juan Maria Ramirez…”alias the Rat,” as Clint Eastwood’s character tells us. And that rat characterization truly fits, as Eli’s beady eyes and rodent like teeth reveal moments of barely pent up avarice, anticipation and lust, followed by frustration, fear, unbridled anger and a string of epithets so vile and insulting that we can best recall them here with his rhetorical catch phrase:

“Blon-deeeeee…you know what you are…”

I only met Eli Wallach once and that was in the very early 1980s at a pro-celebrity tennis match to benefit some no doubt worthy but now forgotten (by me at least) charity.

I recounted the scene at the tennis match to him in a letter I sent back in December 2008. “After all the roles I had seen you in, I confess that seeing a tanned Eli Wallach in tennis whites seemed oddly out of context. I shook your hand, told you I was a big fan and asked if you ever considered playing a Mexican. You laughed as if it was the first time anyone had ever said something like that to you…”

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Carroll Baker and Eli Wallach in Baby Doll (1956)

That 2008 letter to Eli went on for three typed pages, as I could not miss the opportunity to offer another standing ovation from a grateful fan. I recalled his performance in “Baby Doll,” and “The Misfits,” and of course, Calvera in “The Magnificent Seven” and Tuco in “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.”

So many other roles could have been and could still be recited, as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences finally figured out in 2010, when they gave him a life achievement Oscar for his brilliant body of work.

About a month after I sent my letter I received a handwritten reply from Eli. In it he first acknowledged my father’s influence and for his “his love of westerns and his comments about my work in them—I even enjoyed his repeating my line from the good, bad ugly…’if you’re gonna shoot – shoot – don’t talk.’”

Eli’s “salute” to my Dad in his return letter to me evoked a broad smile from Dad, as if he had co-written the original letter, which in a real sense he did.

He concluded telling me. “I have a collection of letters from people that I keep—Your letter goes in there—I’m very happy with what you’ve written. Best wishes –Eli. Into the hand-addressed envelope he placed a color 4×6 photo of himself as “Tuco,” inscribed to me.

There are some well-meaning clichés people use when praising an actor (of either gender). “An actor’s actor” means of course that it takes one to know a really great one. The other is to say that one is a “character actor” which clearly all actors should be. Still it is used most often to describe an exceptional performer who is not considered “a leading actor.”

Language is funny that way.

Eli Wallach was certainly among our leading actors and an extraordinary talent. If he were an English actor Eli Wallach would no doubt be a “Sir” or even a “Lord” as Olivier was. They were certainly peers.

But Eli Wallach was an American actor, a character actor, an actor’s actor, a director’s actor, a writer’s actor and most importantly, an audience’s actor. His directors span a hefty history of cinema including Kazan and Sturges, Huston and Coppola and yes, Leone. His lines have been scripted by the likes of Eugene Ionesco, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller and Murray Schisgal… along with Shaw and Shakespeare and so many others.

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The Misfits (1961) L-R: The film’s author/screenwriter (and Marilyn’s husband) Arthur Miller, Eli Wallach, Director John Huston, Clark Gable, Montgomery Clift and Marilyn Monroe

On stage or on screen, Eli Wallach’s presence is always strongly felt. He was never over-shadowed but never intrusive either. His power and perception as an actor were always in the fore, whether he was playing across from Maureen Stapleton, or Anne Jackson (his wife of 66 years), or co-stars such as Carroll Baker and Karl Malden; Clark Gable, Montgomery Clift and Marilyn Monroe; Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef; Al Pacino and Talia Shire or that “magnificent” assemblage of Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, Robert Vaughn, Horst Buckholz and Brad Dexter.
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Eli Wallach and Marilyn Monroe on the set of “The Misfits” (1961).

In the six years between my first correspondence with Eli Wallach and the letter that lies unsent on my dining room table, much has happened. My Dad passed away in 2012 (three weeks shy of his 92nd birthday), but he lived to see Eli take a bow for that lifetime Oscar.

I had some other words to share with Eli and alas, I waited too long and missed my opportunity for one final kudo. (Note to self re procrastination: “If you’re gonna shoot – shoot. Don’t talk”). I hope he would have liked this last letter too and perhaps even added it to that file of saved fan mail.

Eli Wallach was 98 years old when he died yesterday, and gone too soon from the world stage. I can only imagine the magnitude of loss that his wife, family and close friends are feeling at this very moment. My condolences – heartfelt but inadequate – are sent their way.

I’m guessing that the Broadway Theater marquis will dim tonight as they traditionally do at the passing of a giant of the craft. As for me, I will celebrate his career with a tribute of my own tonight: a mini-Eli Wallach film festival . And I will raise a glass to his memory. A good single malt I think. My Dad would approve.

Rest in Peace Eli.

December 7, 1915 – June 24, 2014


Mortality

It begins insidiously, first appearing to be an anomaly then morphing into a trend.  A few years ago  – check that, it was seven years ago, though it seems so much more recent – my dear friend Steve died due to the negligence of the hospital treating him.  He was 63 and I spoke to him the night before he passed.  The next morning his newly minted widow was on the phone breaking the news to me.  At the time of Steve’s passing I was ten years younger than him, nearly to the day.  Our mutual friend David already suffering from myriad ailments had been or was about to be diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.  David would live nearly another seven years, passing away at the age of 55, leaving a wife and two sons among other bereaved friends and relatives.

On reflection, I went through stages like that.  When I lived in the Washington DC area during the Reagan years I lost two dear friends to cancer.  Nasty way to go.  Though older than me, both were young, both had wives and children and both were savaged and ravaged by the disease.

A few years later my cousin Ronni (who was more like a sister than a cousin) was diagnosed with cancer and after what seems like numerous treatments and remissions the disease got her with a vengeance.  She died at 53. Her mother, my beloved Aunt Edie, was the same age when cancer got her. Nasty way to go.  Before Ronni, my cousin April in California was also taken by a variation on the theme.  She was the youngest still.

Some time four days ago, my cousin Harold – age 55 – went to sleep and never woke up.  It was unexpected.  He wasn’t sick with any catastrophic illness like Parkinson’s or cancer…he had no reason to place his life in the hands of incompetent hospital workers…he just passed away, alone in bed.  Did he have some realization as to what was happening to him or did he just slip from one state to another seamlessly?  I suspect we will never know.  I’d like to think he was spared that final “holy shit!” moment, for all the good it would do.  Harold was my cousin and my friend and his passing snuck up on me – on everyone – with the stealth of …of what?  Nothing can be as surprising, as random and out of the blue as unexpected death.  It is the ultimate misdirection:

”Pssst…over here…watch the old people…watch the sick people…Gotcha! “

It’s the very definition of stealth.

Tomorrow is promised to no one,” goes the cliché.  Neither tomorrow, nor later today…not even the next minute.  In the end, none of us finish out the day.

My mother is nearing 92.  My father fell short of 92 years by 21 days.  She is the last one standing – albeit with the help of a walker – of her generation of family and friends.  The peers she grew up with and old with are pretty much all gone.  Friends, and loved ones have gone and she remains, occasionally taking inventory of her memories…double checking who still shares this mortal plane with her.  The roll call is mostly silent and she will tap her forehead sadly and say, “How could I not remember…”

Still, with the exception of an episode spurred by a dream about the whereabouts of my father –her mate for some 70 years – and the disbelief that he was gone, there has been no Groundhog Day revelation; no repeat of the initial shock and trauma of the actual event.  I’m thankful for that because my awareness of that loss is constant.

I used to subscribe to “the theory of the laughing Gods.”  Basically it states that when you finally have it good, particularly after years of trials and false starts, when optimism finally and truly takes hold, something intercedes and takes it all away.  I figured that when something good finally happens to me it will be gone before it can be savored.

When Harold passed a few days ago, it occurred to me that I may be heir to the curse that my mother is now living.  Don’t misunderstand…I don’t wish her gone.  I am grateful to still be able to talk to her, hold her hand, see her smile and give her a kiss…but I can’t help but think in those moments when she is alone with her thoughts, whether she really wanted to be the last of her generation.

I surely do not want to inherit that role.  Increasingly I think that all that the future holds for me is garbage and that longevity only curses me with a hefty span of years filled with the same.  I have no children to rescue from their own miscues as my father did for me; no grandchildren, real or potential, to dote on or bitch about when they don’t visit or send thank you notes for gifts.

Mind you, I’m not complaining about the lack of heirs. Just saying.

But I don’t want to be the timekeeper or time chronicler either, noting each successive passing and placing it into some familial or social context, or calling the roll in my head and hearing only silence.

There’s an old toast – I think it’s Irish but even if it’s not it probably sounds better spoken with a brogue – that proclaims: “May you live forever and may the last voice you hear be mine.”

Thanks…but no thanks.

Is it unseemly to show contempt for longevity in the immediate aftermath of the untimely passing of a dear and valued friend and relative?

Probably so.

Will it change my feeling?

Unlikely.

Provoked by the passing of Harold Richland

A.K.A. Calvin B. Streets

“The Brooklyn Blues Man”

November 6, 1957 - January 12, 2014


A Voice Silenced But Not Lost

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The day after my 60th birthday (which I celebrated with my usual non- aplomb) a news item appeared on my computer screen.  It said that Linda Ronstadt, the country rock diva I fell in love with in the 60s had lost her singing voice to Parkinson’s disease.  According to the article, the dreaded Parkinson’s had also taken a chunk of her mobility, causing her to steady herself using poles when walking on uneven ground and utilizing a wheelchair at other times.

I am saddened by this news for lots of reasons that I will go into, all at least a little selfish.  The last time I saw Linda perform live was back in June, 2006 at what had been the Westbury Music Fair on Long Island and was then called the Capitol One Bank Theatre.  Sounds a little heavy-handed but, hey it was the W. Bush years and Linda had already gotten in trouble in Vegas for making critical comments about our then leader of the free world.  Unchastened she made a few more comments that night in Westbury, prompting only one boorish outburst from a guy in the audience obviously enamored with W. and presumably dragged to the show by his wife.

The sex symbol of rock n roll was gone but that blessed voice remained.  And while any Ronstadt show is too short, her body of work has become so extensive and diverse that one would always be disappointed by what was left out of the show, though never by what was included.

How things had changed over the years.  The first time I ever heard of Linda Ronstadt she was this sexy young thing performing on one of those Saturday afternoon TV music shows with a band called the Stone Poneys.  They did a song called “Different Drum” which would become their first hit.  I was probably 14 at the time (making Linda an unattainable 21) but I was smitten.

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The choice of the song alone made a statement about Linda Ronstadt though I don’t know if it was consciously selected for that reason.  The song is a brush off (in the clichéd “it’s not you it’s me” tradition) that guys routinely dispensed to their wannabe (or soon to be ex-) girlfriends.  In fact the song was written by Mike Nesmith (of Monkees fame) probably for himself or some other male singer.  Can’t you just picture Mike trying to let her down easy singing, “I ain’t sayin’ you ain’t pretty, I’m saying I’m not ready for any person, place or thing, trying to pull the reins in on me.  So Goodbye, I’m leaving. I see no sense in crying or grieving…”

Typical sleazy guy, right?

But that lyric in the hands of a woman with a powerful voice and a Daisy Mae sex appeal was revolutionary.  Here was a hot, sexy woman telling her guy, “I ain’t sayin’ you ain’t pretty…”

Pretty?

Guys are not pretty…that’s not masculine.  Yet Linda had begun to establish her rock music street-cred as an equal to the boys, at a time when feminism was just finding its voice.  She could stand there all cute, giggly and typically barefoot, and guys would melt. But she would still be standing.

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Over the years as her star rose first to cult status within the music industry and among the early generation of “rock critics,” and then to superstar sex symbol gracing the coveted cover of the Rolling Stone at least four times that I can recall, along with the cover of Time Magazine and countless other pubs, Linda’s rep, fairly or unfairly, seemed to reflect that self-possessed woman who lets the guy down easy as she is walking out the door.

Sometimes –perhaps even most often – the guys were other musicians…sometimes they were stars in other fields like movies or politics.

In fairness it was a time known for “sex, drugs and rock n roll,” and Linda was a rock star.  Still, Linda never lost her sense of self or of the music, at least not from where I was standing.  And from where I was standing, that voice never failed to give me goose bumps.

Funny thing is, for all the talk of sex-symbol this or that, she really did break the mold image wise.  Over the years lots of female singers went by one name: there was Cher, Madonna, Odetta, Annette (back in the day) and nowadays Adele, but only two female singers that I can think of have the distinction of being tagged by their last names alone, like the Chairman himself…As it was with Sinatra (Frank not Nancy) and Streisand, she is Ronstadt.

I first met her in 1969 at what was then the Academy of Music on 14th Street in Manhattan.  She was the opening act for Tim Buckley and “Special Guest Star Van Morrison.”  Near as I can tell from the historical data, some of the members of her backup band that night went on to form the Eagles.  The night was historic musically because Tim Buckley put on a very freakin’ strange show which I described at the time as making animal sounds.  Others in the audience seemed as puzzled as I was, but fortunately Van Morrison was his typically brilliant self.  And that opening act…and the reason I was there at all (sorry Van), was barefoot Linda and her band.  She sang “Long, Long Time” that night and it gave me those goose bumps for the first time.  It would never fail to elicit the same reaction from me whenever I heard her perform it live.  The encore was “Different Drum,” and it remains the only time I ever heard her perform it live.

The ticket to the show was around $3 as I recall and I could not afford to buy another for the second show.  I figured to lay low in the bathroom between shows so I didn’t get tossed out, and then mix in with the late show crowd and watch the second show too.  As I was passing the candy concession in the theater enroute to my hideout, there was Linda Ronstadt looking to get a snack.  The young guy working the candy counter gave her whatever candy bar she had picked and refused payment when she offered. She kind of half-giggled and said thank you. I watched and said nothing (or perhaps Hi) and proceeded on my way.  Got to see the second show (though I think I left after Linda’s set).  It was late after all, and if I was lucky I was facing a two-hour trip back to Queens…F train from 14th Street and Union Square to Kew Gardens Union Turnpike Station followed by the Q44A bus to the “City Line” that divided Queens and Nassau Counties.

In the years that followed I got to see Ronstadt perform maybe two dozen times on various tours and even managed to chronicle part of her tour with Jackson Browne for a feature in a rock paper I was writing for.  I had back stage and even dressing room access at Carnegie Hall on that tour, at a venue in Philly…at a show at Seaton Hall University in New Jersey, got to know some in her band and crew and managed mostly to be a fly on the wall…though occasionally a very stoned fly, as some very fine weed would make its way around the dressing room.  Truth be told, I never saw Linda take a toke…not to say she didn’t or she did. Just, I never saw it.

I saw her again in New Jersey at the Capitol Theater the night Jimmy Page stopped by the dressing room to say hello.  I wasn’t on assignment then, just welcome to be there.

She was playing the old Tennis Center in Forest Hills around “When Will I Be Loved” time, and making headlines for her romance with California Governor Jerry Brown.  Her star had risen and those in the business who were not early fans were flocking around her.  The same publisher that printed the “On the Road with Jackson Browne and Linda Ronstadt” feature, turned me down cold when I asked to be assigned to write the review for Ronstadt’s upcoming gig at My Father’s Place, an iconic music club in the Village of Roslyn on Long Island.

When I asked him why I couldn’t have the assignment he said to me, “Altman, I’ll give you two reasons…first, letting you review Ronstadt would be like letting you review your own Bar Mitzvah and second, because I’m doing it myself.”

Sooooo…with no tickets for any of the sold out shows at My Father’s Place – and there were three sold-out shows that night – I went down to the club with my buddy Evan.  The doors had not yet opened for the first show and the line of ticket holders stretched down the street, waiting to get in.  Half way down the line was my publisher who nodded as he saw me bypass the line and head for the front door of the club. I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to do when I got  to the door, but as I approached providence stepped in.  There was Ed Black…Linda’s brilliant pedal steel guitarist whom I had come to know from all those previous shows.  After an exchange of “Hey mans” and “how ya beens,” Ed turned to the guy on the door and pointing to us said, “him and him, guests of Ronstadt, let ‘em in.” 

And in we went and in we stayed for all three shows…no longer hiding in the bathroom…welcome in the backstage/dressing room area.  Between shows, Linda and the band had a poker game going…not sure who was winning but her musical director and keyboard player Andrew Gold seemed no worse for the wear.  The first show went off without a hitch, as did the second. Between the second and third show, the pace seemed to be taking its toll and the band and Linda started goofing around with some favorite songs not in their show.

Someone started playing “Heat Wave” and before long the whole band was jamming a cover version of the old Martha Reeves and the Vandellas hit, with Linda on lead vocals (naturally).  They rolled through the third set, with Linda confiding to the audience that she felt like “a big Wurlitzer” up there.  Apparently losing track of what they had already played that set, they realized they needed a rousing number to close the show.  With nothing left on the set list, they went with the impromptu rendition of “Heat Wave” that they had horsed around with between shows.  No set arrangement meant no set ending to the song, so the band huddled up on stage and and told Linda to finish with a “superstar exit.”   After her final note, Linda raised her arms in the air like Ali after a knock out, said thank you to the audience and walked off stage to cheers.  And the band rocked on till the house lights came up.  Not long after, Linda released a single of “Heat Wave” which charted at number five on the Billboard Hot 100.

Later on Linda did the series of big band albums with Nelson Riddle, performed on Broadway as Buttercup in “Pirates of Penzance,” recorded albums of canciones celebrating her Mexican roots, collaborated with her friends Emmy Lou Harris and Dolly Parton and did some notable duets with Aaron Neville and also with James Ingram.

Watching Ronstadt perform was a treat, not simply because of her exquisitely powerful voice and ability to phrase a song to maximize its meaning and its impact; not even because of the visual package this beautiful, sexy woman presented that kept audiences transfixed on her.  No, the power of the live performance was in the way she performed. The way she seemed swept up by the music and lyrics, closing her eyes and almost seducing the microphone.  Not overtly sexual…more sensual and sensory. Or celebrating the hip swinging joy of a rock standard like “That’ll Be the Day.”  And hitting and sustaining those gorgeous, goose bump-provoking notes.

Those selfish reasons I mentioned at the outset are by now apparent. There will be no more Linda Ronstadt concerts to go to, no new recordings to soak in. Still, listening to Ronstadt sing is a gift that will never go away. The recordings exist for all to hear for generations to come.  There are even some pretty compelling performance videos on You Tube.  And in a couple of weeks, Linda Ronstadt’s own memoirs will be published.  We are told they don’t mention the Parkinson’s diagnosis.  Perhaps that will be for another book or perhaps it’s simply too personal to share.  I cannot imagine what it must be like for a person who clearly took so much joy from singing and gave so much joy by singing to find out that she can no longer perform in that way.

I will read her memoirs and try to juxtapose her recollections and her vantage point with my own limited though fortunate memories of her.  And I will send kindly vibes of thanks over the ether for all that she brought into my life in the 46 years since I first heard her sing.


So You Wanna Be a Thriller Writer

“Dear Sir or Madam will you read my book,

It took me years to write, will you take a look?”

Paperback Writer by John Lennon and Paul McCartney

OK, ‘wanna be’ is a little unfair.  The population of attendees at the International Thriller Writers Annual “ThrillerFest” convention in New York City is — at least by a show of hands — people who had written or were writing books of the “thriller“ genre.

At first blush, the name ThrillerFest may seem a bit garish, conjuring up images of costumed FWLs (Fans Without Lives) wandering through aisles of arcania: props, posters, comic books, bootleg DVDs, CDs and of course action figures. 

Well…to borrow the old adage about telling a book by its cover, you can’t tell a convention by its name.

ITW ThrillerFest is an extraordinarily thoughtful, insightful and generous literary conference that offers its attendees a chance to gain pointers and perspectives and be forewarned of pitfalls from established practitioners of the genre.  Add in(and this is key) sage advice from employed book editors, legit literary agents, PR folks and marketing people (some of whom actually earn their living by enticing readers to purchase a book by its cover art), and you’ve got one valuable learning experience.

While this is no fan fest, it seems that those who write thrillers are also the genre’s biggest fans.  What’s more, for a literary conference there is precious little condescension and backbiting between the authors (academia are you listening?) and nothing but encouragement for those who come to learn or to improve their game from the genre’s current crop of successes and masters of the craft.

So…for four days every July at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Manhattan (this year it’s July 10-13th), the ballrooms, conference rooms, guest rooms and one suspects, local barrooms (after hours of course), are filled with purveyors of the insidious plot, treacherous twists and adrenalin pumping, pulse-racing resolutions.  For these four days each year, the hotel atop Grand Central Terminal marks the treasured spot for thriller writers, becomes the crossroad of the literary world, where popular art and commerce pick each other up and occasionally consummate that meeting with hot, steamy success.  

Before we go further, don’t confuse thrillers with mysteries.  While both are page-turners (at their best), mysteries celebrate the more cerebral solution of a plot (hence its ‘whodunnit’ hang tag).  A thriller typically gives the reader more information than the central characters have and ratchets up the tension and suspense with ticking clocks (or time bombs), truly deadly deadlines and of course, catastrophic consequences should the hero fail to thwart that which they presently know precious little about.  Toss in a few twists of plot, a turncoat or two and a typically fast-paced resolution (cliché car chase optional), and you may well be thrilled.

The names of current (and previous year) guest speakers fairly leap off the best selling booklists nationally and internationally.   This year’s Thrillerfest VIII honorees and instructors include Anne Rice, R.L. Stine (lest one thinks that the thriller genre is reserved for adults and adult subject matter), T Jefferson Parker, Michael Connelly, John Sandford, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child and Steve Berry.   Their descriptions – should they actually need describing – read like the stats on the back of a baseball card and often include data about how many books they’ve written, how many million copies they’ve sold and in to how many languages their works are translated.  

In all, ThrillerFest VIII will present hundreds of thriller writers participating in more than 85 classes, panel discussions, interviews and events over the four-day confab. They will provide insider views of the business side of the genre, from ‘how-to’ tips on perfecting the two-minute elevator book-pitch for editors and agents and, in a twist on speed dating, actual access to those agents called…wait for it…AgentFest.

In Thrillers the sub-genres are legion.  Indeed, the list can seem near as long as Bubba Gump’s methods for preparing shrimp (though in the thriller genre our hero, at great personal peril, would have to prevent those shrimp from being poisoned by say, a catastrophic oil spill perpetrated by powerful international oil interests in cahoots with a consortium of foreign shrimp mongers).  

Much like the hyphenates Americans use to retain some connection to their ancestral culture and perhaps define their current-day point-of-view, the thriller sub-genres cater to far more specific literary tastes and interests. Among the most popular and enduring are the traditional “spy thrillers” like Ian Fleming’s James Bond series (continued by others); John le Carre’s more realistic approach to the world of espionage; Ken Follet’s breakthrough “Eye of the Needle,” and more recently, Robert Ludlum’s Jason Bourne series. 

There are also psychological thrillers, political thrillers, legal thrillers, medical thrillers, romantic thrillers, erotic thrillers and techno-thrillers.  Who knows…in time the “Gump thriller” may well expand that oil-poisoned shrimp scenario with fresh new plot lines featuring radioactive-poisoned shrimp, E. coli-poisoned shrimp and the ever popular, Fugu-poisoned shrimp.

How DO they think of all those nefarious plots?

A few years ago I attended ThrillerFest for the first time in order to cover a panel discussion on writing spy thrillers.  The panel was moderated by James Bond continuation author Raymond Benson and populated by other published spy-thriller authors including the then latest Bond continuation author, Jeffery Deaver.  (Bond “continuation authors” are selected by the estate of Bond’s creator Ian Fleming and to date have included Kingsley Amis, John Gardner, Raymond Benson, Sebastian Faulks and Jeffery Deaver).  The newest one-off Bond continuation author tapped by the IF estate is William Boyd, whose contribution to the Bond canon will go public later this year.

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Together Again For the First Time…James Bond continuation authors Raymond Benson (L) and Jeffery Deaver (R) joined together with other spy-thriller authors for a “how to” panel discussion at ThrillerFest VI, New York City July 2011.  Photo (c) Richard E. Altman

That ThrillerFest marked the first joint appearance by two James Bond continuation authors and was followed by the first joint interview of the two for a lengthy feature on the literary Bond tradition I was working on for Autograph Quarterly Magazine’s September 2011 issue.

That brings us to the first two days of ThrillerFest, designated CraftFest for its attention to the nuts and bolts of thriller writing from concept to contract and beyond.  The folks behind it modestly call it their “writing school.”   There are also those panel discussions, keynote style sessions and interview sessions all designed to give the assembled writers and aspirers (sounds nicer than wannabes) insight into the creative and commercial process of thriller writing.

At one such keynote style session, an affable and eminently approachable Ken Follett takes the podium and gives a remarkable 50-minute talk on how thrillers work, giving a rapt audience of writers – published and not yet published – an insider’s view of the process of thrilling and the business of thrilling. 

With 27 books in print and more than 130-million copies sold, Follet knows from whence he speaks.  He appears to be the epitome of the successful writer.  No, appears to be is not quite fair. He definitely is the successful and ever popular thriller writer who, after a few published misfires, broke through the pop thriller clutter decades ago with “Eye of the Needle.”

The shock of brown hair at 29 is now silver at 62.  The intervening years have been good.  Two dozen best sellers and more than 130-million books sold is an enviable track record.  Follett offers a deferential nod to Ian Fleming in his opening remarks, noting that before Fleming a gun was just a gun.  In the post Fleming world, it had to be a specific gun… like a Walther PPK 7.65 mm carried in a Berns-Martin triple draw shoulder holster. 

Details are important…details make the fantastic seem credible, even believable.  And details mean lots and lots of research, lest the writer fall prey to the dreaded reader-identified error. No one is exempt… not even Ian Fleming.  It seems the Berns-Martin triple draw holster was meant for a revolver and did not accommodate an automatic weapon such as the Walther PPK. 

Armourer…a new shoulder holster for 007. Stat!

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The Key to Ferraris…Best selling thriller author Ken Follett signs one of his books at ThrillerFest VI in N.Y.C., July 2011. Photo (c) Richard E. Altman

 

Follett – perhaps with a nod to those published, early career misfires mentioned earlier – noted too that simply getting published doesn’t buy many Ferraris.

The object is to write a bestseller. 

Crass commercialism one might argue, but oh the joy of those “guilty pleasure” reads on the nightstand, in the john, on vacation, at the beach or on the bus, subway or round tripping on whatever light rail system your commute to work has to offer.

Pace is a key to writing the successful thriller, Follett offers.  And he’s right of course.  As a reader I often try to savor a book that I am enjoying to make it last longer.  That’s a no-no with thrillers…one can’t be precious with a page-turner and hope to preserve the intended impact.

At a certain point you need to bite the bullet and go for it.  After waiting some two years for that last James Bond Thriller (the Jeffery Deaver one), page rationing went out the window and I read the last 175 pages in one sitting, enduring all of the twists, turns and false endings the author is known for. 

Damn it was fun.

On the more mundane side of the thriller business – the business side — the presentations were no less pithy.  Writers advising other writers included such gems as “You’re not the only writer your publisher/editor/agent loves,” “learn how to read the contract,” and it’s corollary, “It’s too late to wonder where your career went when you didn’t think about it being a career when you signed the contract.”

ThrillerFest VIII (www.thrillerfest.com) et al. returns to the Grand Hyatt Hotel New York, July 10-13, 2013. 

 


Appreciating America’s Most Iconic Illegal Alien

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It is an irony too delicious to miss…

Watching the United States Senate finally debate the meaning of “comprehensive immigration reform,” the more draconian responses – self-deportation, electrified fences and rewriting the constitutional definition of who is an American citizen – came back to mind.  While some of those “solutions” are already widely and justifiably discredited, others are merely dormant until a more politically expedient (or intolerant) time arrives, or a more eloquent demagogue steps up to champion their use.  Increasingly, these immigration debates seem to have less to do with the meaning of reform and more to do with the “mean-ing” of America.

Still the media is nothing if not agile and segues seamlessly from who can be an American (or who can even be in America) to introducing a new global generation to the 75-year old pop-culture icon that has come to define or at minimum, idealize America’s values to the world. We find ourselves celebrating the mythology of Superman, America’s quintessential illegal alien.

Like I said…an irony too delicious to miss.

This “Man of Steel” embodies, as symbolically as the Statue of Liberty, our national aspiration to  “truth, justice and the American way.”  Indeed, for some three-quarters of a century those very words have represented America to the world as clearly as Emma Lazarus’ welcoming call to “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Like so many other “aliens” and immigrants, legal and otherwise, Superman’s contribution to the American ethos remains potent at home and important around the world.

So, this summer’s mega-budget, “Man of Steel” juggernaut lands in theaters, reinterpreting, rebooting or at minimum, retelling the story of the infant of steel’s journey from the mythical, long dead planet Krypton to the mythical Middle-American town of Smallville, Kansas.  It was there – before pundits, political handicappers and hacks advanced the notion of “Red States” and “Blue States” – that our future Superman was adopted by kindly farm couple “Ma and Pa Kent,” christened Clark, and taught to champion those American values we claim to hold dear.

The genius of America is that I can rightfully embrace the nation’s history as my own.  I can celebrate its virtues and learn from its mistakes both honest and shameful.  Despite the fact that my “people” came from Russia by way of Canada (at least most recently) and that my family history more closely resembles “Fiddler on the Roof” than it does “How the West Was Won” or even “It’s A Wonderful Life,” I embrace American history as my history, with all the proprietary pride of any other natural-born or naturalized citizen.

My own father Arthur, emigrated in the 1920s at little more than three years of age from the wilds of western Canada– along with his parents Joseph and Rachel, his older sister Clara, older brother Abe and younger sister Esther.   He, like his siblings before and after him, was raised in the back room of a General Store built by my Grandfather. They lived in the town of Wroxton, Saskatchewan, about 230 miles from Saskatoon…and about the same distance from the border with North Dakota, USA.

When the time came to seek new (hopefully better) opportunities in the United States, the family departed Wroxton for North Dakota, traveling part way by horse-drawn wagon and part way by rail.  Then as now, the border crossing from Canada into North Dakota was not exactly a hotbed of illegal immigration.  Still, no lady in the harbor beckoned, no border guard barked for papers.  To the best of anyone’s recollection, there may not even have been a border guard.

Around the time that my then-toddler father and family were making the trek from Western Canada to North Dakota, young Joseph Shuster and his family left Toronto, Canada for the U.S. Midwest, settling in Cleveland, OhioAccording to available biographical information, his father – a Jewish émigré from Rotterdam in the Netherlands – had been a tailor in Toronto; his mother had come to Canada from Kiev in the Ukraine.

It would be in Cleveland that Joseph, an aspiring artist met Jerome Siegel, an aspiring writer and avid science fiction fan. Born in Cleveland, Jerry Siegel was also the son of working class Jewish immigrant parents.   By the age of 16, Jerry and Joe had embarked on a collaboration destined to alter popular culture for all time. They would create not simply a new genre and a new archetype, but a new industry.

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Creators of Steel:  Superman writer/creator Jerome Siegel (standing) confers with his partner and co-creator, artist Joe Shuster in an undated promotional photo from the author’s  collection.

Superman 1.0

Ironically, Siegel and Shuster’s initial incarnation of the character was an evil Superman who actually bore a striking resemblance to the pair’s latter day villain (and Superman’s evergreen arch nemesis), Lex Luthor.  Their first foray into Super fiction  –memorialized in their self-published fanzine — was firmly rooted in the Germanic literary tradition of “the Ubermensch.”  Ultimately of course, Jerry and Joe rethought the character and disposed of the amoral imperatives in favor of a benevolent hero who championed the marginalized and the weak (or at least the less powerful and connected).

When the world first caught glimpse of Superman in 1938, his powers were neither as pervasive nor profound as they are today.  He could “leap 1/8-th of a mile; hurdle a twenty-story building…Raise tremendous weights…Run faster than an express train…and…nothing less than a bursting shell could penetrate his skin!”

This Superman would set his sights on a variety of villains, not the least of which are those who claim to defend our values at the expense of our values.

His debut mission in the June 1938 issue of Action Comics was to save a woman wrongly convicted of murder from imminent execution by busting into the Governor’s residence with proof of innocence minutes before she was to go to the chair, delivering the truly guilty party to the Governor in the process.  From there our hero was off to break up a “wife-beating at 211 Court Ave” and to give the abuser a taste of his own brutal medicine while telling him, “You’re not fighting a woman now!” And then – foreshadowing the theme that would recur for much of the next 75 years – Superman rescues reporter Lois Lane from the clutches of the “hoodlums” that had kidnapped her.  In 1938 values, a paternalistic instinct to protect the fairer sex proved to be the perfect introduction.

Next stop on the Superman express was the busting of a corrupt US Senator in Washington D.C. The Senator was in the thrall and on the payroll of a ruthless munitions manufacturer and war profiteer who was seeking to embroil the United States in Europe’s “problems.” (This was 1938 after all.)  Our villainously enterprising warmonger was simultaneously fomenting a war in a fictional South American Republic, selling arms to both sides in the process.  Before the calendar turned from ’38 to ’39, Superman rescued miners trapped in a cave-in while showing the big bucks mine owner the error of his ways, thwarted a crooked college football coach’s attempt to beat his rivals by stocking his team with ringers and thugs, and saved thousands from being killed and their town from being washed away by a collapsing dam.

Damn he was good!

“Superman is a Jew!”

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Siegel and Shuster depiction of Superman choking Hitler as published in a 1940 strip created for LOOK Magazine.  Image from author’s collection.

Still, the message of this new, distinctly American Superman began to have an impact on the war effort even before the U.S. entered it.   While the character’s popularity fairly exploded once it was introduced in Action Comics’ first issue in June 1938, the “Man of Steel” was battling Hitler and the Nazis as early as 1940. Indeed, Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels reportedly attempted to discredit the images of “our” Superman throttling Hitler by declaring,Superman ist ein Jude!”

Like that other illegal alien who landed in American consciousness in 1938 (the one who could leap tall buildings in a single bound), my grandparents did not first settle in the Northeast urban stew of immigrants, but in the heartland of the Midwest: Chicago.  While it was not exactly “Smallville,” there were really no familiar, cultural smells of the transplanted shtetl (Yiddish for “barrio”) that so typified the classic lower east side immigrant experience in New York City.    In the end, the family did move east, settling first in Harlem and later, the Bronx.

In fairness, my father and his family became legal, registered aliens as was required in those days by a host of ever-changing and increasingly restrictive laws designed to inhibit or outright prohibit one or more ethnic or racial groups from calling America home.  Still, from 1923 on, the family did not have to hide from authorities or live under assumed identities due to the circumstances of their entry into the United States.  Their “pathway to citizenship” resided in their willingness to be good neighbors and good citizens even without the official papers.  That pathway was paved by the willingness of the government and others to allow them to be good citizens and good neighbors without fear of deportation.

Assimilation was not a problem.  As a teen, my father ran track and field, collected the Street and Smith Adventures of “The Shadow” along with autographs of movie stars and athletes. On one memorably fine fall day, he legged it the mile or so from his home on East 169th Street and College Avenue to Yankee Stadium where he watched Gehrig, Dickey and a rookie named DiMaggio lead the Yankees to a game-three victory in the ’36 World Series over the N.Y. Giants.  (The Yanks went on to take the 1936 series, along with the ‘37, ‘38, and ‘39 contests).

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My Super Dad…Age 16, The Bronx, NY

By the time Pearl Harbor happened, my father was the typical, urban all-American young man of 21.  After graduating Morris High School in the Bronx, he worked as a carpenter alongside his father, dated the neighborhood girl who became my Mom and reported for the draft in January 1942.  As he recalled years later, after lining up at the draft center, whoever was in charge of the assembled throng instructed anyone who was not a citizen of the United States to step out of line.  As ordered, my father stepped out of line.  The voice of authority then announced, “If any of you want to be citizens of the United States, step back in line.”  My father stepped back in line.  Nine months later, while stationed in Fort Riley Kansas, just outside of Junction City, Corporal Arthur Altman took the oath as a naturalized American citizen and shortly thereafter was shipped to war in the South Pacific.  By 1943, the entire Altman family had become naturalized American citizens and my father was island hopping from the Philippines to New Guinea and lesser-known points along the way.

When “Little Boy” and “Fat Man” were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, the tide of the war had turned.  Germany and Italy’s surrender in Europe focused allied attention on Japan, and Arthur, all of 25 years old and now a Lieutenant in the U.S. Army, was on board a troop transport headed for the invasion of the Japanese mainland.  The nuclear devastation effectively brought the war to a halt, though the official surrender would not be signed until September 2, 1945.  Despite uncertainty as to what level of resistance would be encountered once the troops landed in Japan, the “invasion force” had become an “occupation force.”

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Kobe Beefcake… Vintage snapshots of “Superman” A.K.A Lt. Arthur Altman coming in for landing and striking a super pose during the U.S. Army occupation of Kobe, Japan 1945.  Photos from author’s collection.

History records that Japanese resistance to occupation was virtually non-existent.  Stationed in Kobe, Japan until 1946, Lt. Arthur Altman had enough spare time for a little fanciful fun and photos.  He fashioned a Superman costume, creating a cape appropriately enough, from a discarded parachute.  A hand-drawn “S” shield emblazoned on the chest half of an army  “union suit” (with the pants portion tucked into a pair of combat boots) made for a surprisingly convincing live-action “Man of Steel.”  Snapshots of that adventure complete with handwritten captions on the back of each picture made their way into one of our family photo albums upon his return to the States in 1946.  It was in that photo album that I discovered my Dad’s secret identity. As a child in the 1950s, I was  already convinced that television’s George Reeves was the “real” Superman, so I was amazed and delighted to see my Dad dressed in the suit on a roof with a soldier under one arm…or leaping from that roof with his cape dramatically flaring up behind him.

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Stop acting like Nazi storm troopers…” Lobby card for Lippert Pictures’ “Superman and the Mole Men” (1951), starring George Reeves as Superman/Clark Kent and Phyllis Coates as Lois Lane.  Image from author’s collection.

Back in 1951, Lippert Pictures made a low budget, live action Superman film called “Superman and the Mole Men.”  Starring George Reeves as Superman/Clark Kent and Phyllis Coates as Lois Lane, the film is a refreshingly frank allegory against xenophobia and intolerance. The ”illegals” in this case were hairy but harmless munchkins who came up from the center of the earth courtesy of an oil well shaft sunk into their world by us surface dwellers.  As the increasingly violent, small town lynch mob attempts to “string up” the little critters, Superman steps up and tells the menacing crowd, “I’m giving you one last chance to stop acting like Nazi storm troopers…” As shots are fired, narrowly missing “Miss Lane,” our hero wades into the mob and confiscates their weaponry since they “obviously can’t be trusted with guns.”

“Deadly Legacy”

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Saving the Children of War:  United Nations commissioned Superman comic warning children against picking up unexploded ordinance and live land mines.   Published in Latin/Roman, Cyrillic and English editions the comic’s back cover declares: “Superman Has Come to Help the Children of Bosnia-Herzogovina!  But even when he can’t be here, you can keep yourself safe from landmines!  Mines Kill Kids!”  Images from author’s collection.

Of course, xenophobia, racism and “ethnic cleansing” (that ever-popular euphemism for genocide) are not exclusive to any region or peoples.  Still, when the war in the Balkans wound down, the countryside was littered with unexploded ordinance and still active landmines.  Children, unknowingly playing in those mine fields or scavenging for trinkets and remnants, were being maimed and killed by those abandoned, deliberately placed surprise packages.  In order to alert all children to avoid those very real dangers, UNICEF commissioned a comic book featuring one universally recognized and trusted hero: Superman.  Printed in English, Cyrillic and Latin/Roman scripts for the Serbo-Croatian population, the comics depicted Superman warning the children of the “Deadly Legacy” in and around their neighborhoods.

After returning home from Japan in 1946, my father remained in the service, transferring to the Army Reserves.  After some 30 years of service to the United States of America, this one time “illegal” retired with the rank of Lt. Colonel.

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A Farewell to Arms…Lt. Colonel Arthur Altman on the day of his retirement from the United States Army Reserve, following 30 years of service.  Parade Ground, Fort Hamilton, NY. Photo: Richard E. Altman

In 2005, after acquiring a Christopher Reeve style Superman costume, accurate down to the leather boots, I asked my 85 year old Dad if he’d like to put his “uniform on again, for old time sake.”  Still in remarkably good shape for his age and with the same sense of fun that inspired him to don the suit 60 years earlier, he slipped into the old red, yellow and blue and posed for a new series of snaps.  This time, my Mom was around to do her very best Lois impression, sitting in his lap and planting a kiss on her very own Superman.

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Up, Up and Away…60 years after posing for the first Superman pictures in Kobe, Japan, Arthur Altman, age 85, dons an updated Super suit and prepares “to take to the skies” over his home in Swan Lake, NY.  Photo: Richard E. Altman

About the author: Richard Altman is a New York-based writer, Superman collector and quasi-historian of most, if not all things “Man of Steelish.”  He is also a second-generation Superman fan…His father first donned the iconic costume in December 1945 while serving with the U.S. Army’s occupation of Kobe, Japan.

 


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