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Blonde Knockout

click for larger imageOkay, contestants. For $64,000: What distinguished Columbian won big on a 1950s quiz show and has been a famous public figure ever since?

Did someone say Charles Van Doren? The dashing Columbia English teacher and scion of New England literary royalty, who became the fair-haired boy of television and landed on the cover of Time? Let’s check with our judges.

Bzzz! I’m sorry. Mr. Van Doren was, of course, a big winner on Twenty One in the winter of 1956–57, but after admitting to Congress and a stunned nation that he was involved in the rigging of that ill-fated show, he withdrew to his books and can no longer be called a public figure.

What’s that, ma’am? Vivienne Nearing? The Greenwich Village attorney who defeated Van Doren on March 11, 1957, before an audience of millions? Well, not defeated , exactly — Van Doren took a dive on the orders of the show’s producers, who had promised him a cushy gig on The Today Show. Judges?

Bzzz! I’m sorry. Vivienne Nearing is incorrect. You lose all your money, of course, but you will receive the new Encyclopedia Britannica . Thanks for playing! Okay, contestants, here’s your final set of clues: The show was The $64,000 Question ; the contestant, like Mr. Van Doren, taught at Columbia, and was, like Ms. Nearing, a petite and telegenic blonde. And the time, ladies and gentlemen, was that innocent, prelapsarian year of 1955 — a twelvemonth before Van Doren’s scripted victory on Twenty One over eventual whistleblower Herb Stempel, and four years before the “whole mess,” as President Eisenhower called it, was brought before the House Committee on Legislative Oversight. Anyone? No?

Why, it’s Dr. Joyce Brothers, of course! And here she is!

(Applause )

Dr. Brothers, thank you for taking time out from your incredibly busy schedule to talk to us. You look fantastic. Now, most people don’t know this, but you yourself were nearly victimized by an early specimen of quiz-show chicanery. There you were, a young married woman, struggling financially, looking to make some extra money —

“Yes, but I wasn’t counting on winning $64,000. You see, if you lost, you still got a new Cadillac as a consolation prize. So my husband and I thought we’d just sell the car and live on that for a while.”

A wise plan, Doctor. But first you had to get yourself on the show. Given that the producers preferred dramatic contrasts — the Marine officer whose subject is cooking, say, or the shoemaker who knows opera — you decided to invent yourself as the female psychologist who is an expert, of all things, on boxing. How did you do that?

“My husband and I went to the publisher of Ring magazine and got every issue they’d ever printed. Then we went to the producer of the Great Fights of the Century films, and he lent us the reels. The show gave me six weeks to study, and I just read everything.”

You certainly must have, because at one point, the show’s producers tried to knock you out with a sucker punch. Can you explain?

“Well, the show’s sponsor was Revlon, which was headed by Charles Revson. And Revson wanted me to wear makeup on the air. But I didn’t wear makeup. I didn’t want to wear makeup. So when I got to $16,000, Revson told the producers, ‘Get that bitch off the show.’”

(Laughter )

Good heavens, Doctor! You couldn’t say that on TV in 1955! So what happened?

“Suddenly the questions got a lot harder. Everything was aimed at getting rid of me. At one point, instead of asking me about boxers, they asked me a question about referees. And I got it right.”

Ah! Talk about a counterpunch!

“Then they called some sportswriters and asked each of them to come up with six questions that no one could answer. The actual $64,000 question had 16 parts! The show ran over its scheduled time, into Heidi . But I won.”

Fantastic!

“Yes, but then I was told that I’d have to wait a few weeks for the money. Apparently the show didn’t have it — they had counted on my not winning. I was very nervous. So I waited. Then I got a call telling me to come down to the bank. There, I was presented with the money and one of those big, oversize checks, which I gave to my mother. She kept it on the wall above her bed till the day she died.”

Extraordinary. And the real check? What did you do with it?

“I bought my mother a dishwasher, I bought my mother-in-law a dishwasher, and I bought my sister-in-law a dishwasher. Then I bought myself a dishwasher. With the rest, my husband was able to open his practice.”

Quite an auspicious beginning, Doctor!

“I became famous overnight from winning that show, and I’ve been on the air every day since.”

Indeed you have — including 90 appearances on The Tonight Show, and continued regular appearances in television, radio, film, and print. As I often say, without you, Dr. Brothers, there’d be no Dr. Phil.

So there you have it, ladies and gentlemen — a real American success story. Thank you, contestants, and thank you, Dr. Brothers.

(Applause )

Oh, and by the way, Doctor. What man refereed the comeback attempt of an ex-champ against Jack Johnson at Reno, Nevada?

“Tex Rickard.”

You’re right! — Paul Hond


Colonel of Truth

click for larger imageA left-wing French intellectual is invited by his editor at Random House and by the Nation magazine to come to the U.S. on a speaking tour. He applies for a visa but is turned down by the American consul in Paris because of his political activism. There’s a minor flap in the newspapers, he reapplies, and is given the OK by the State Department. Once in the U.S., he attends dinners in his honor, and makes speeches to liberal organizations and college groups. He talks mostly about the war. He has just returned from the fighting and he tells moving stories of human dignity and civilian suffering. He urges students to learn the truth about what’s going on — and to support the war. The war against Franco.

It is March 1937. André Malraux, 36, the author of La condition humaine (Man’s Fate) and the recently published Le temps du mépris (Days of Wrath), has spent half a year in Spain. Like a good number of Europeans and a smaller number of Americans, he is appalled by the brutality of Franco’s Hitler- and Mussolini-backed rebels, and joins the Republican Loyalists. Not only that, he somehow arranges in a few weeks for airplanes and pilots to be sent unofficially to Spain and then is named, quite officially, colonel of the squadron — the España Squadron. It flies dozens of missions.

Malraux was likely motivated at first by his celebrated taste for adventure, though he was clearly transformed by the hours he spent with his men in their “flying coffins,” as they called their mix of ill-equipped planes. He was also moved to think about his next book.

The invitation to the U.S. allowed Malraux to take care of publishing and political matters. He met with Robert Haas, his editor, and they discussed plans for the book Malraux had started to draft. On his speaking tour, Malraux sought to drum up support for the Spanish Loyalists. That angle had to be handled carefully, though, since the United States was strictly neutral and Stalin’s backing of the Loyalists complicated the picture. Accordingly, Malraux spoke to his audiences less about politics than about art, literature, and fraternité. He asked them not for arms, but for medical supplies. Still, the FBI considered it prudent to keep its eye on the French visitor.

Most magazines and newspapers were less interested. After Newsweek, Time, and the big dailies noted his arrival, coverage was pretty much limited to the Nation, the Daily Worker, and the New Masses. That Malraux didn’t speak English probably kept him off the airwaves, which prevented most Americans from hearing the voice of “one of the most exciting and provocative of living writers,” as Time characterized him.

But there was one intriguing document to surface from Malraux’s visit.

A few years ago the Institut National de l’Audiovisuel in Paris released a CD of Malraux’s major speeches and on it was a 13-minute recording made on March 20, 1937, at Columbia’s McMillin Theater. The amateur recording might have been made by the late Ethel Saniel ’55LS, ’69GSAS, who was Malraux’s interpreter in the U.S., served as a liaison for the Loyalist International Brigades, and later taught French at Hofstra. The great Malraux scholar Walter Langlois says he listened to the original disc at Butler Library in the 1970s, but how it got from New York to France remains a mystery.

Listening to the 70-year-old recording today we hear Malraux speak broadly and allusively about revolution and history, and insightfully about fascism’s glorification of the differences between races, classes, and nationalities. The voice is higher in pitch than it would be in later tapes and films, but the flowing lyricism is Malraux’s.

Halfway through, he describes what happened when, less than three months earlier, one of the planes of his squadron was shot down and crash-landed in the remote, snow-covered mountains of Teruel in northern Spain. Peasants from the scattered villages made their way to the plane, gathered the wounded, placed them on stretchers, and in a long, single-file cortege, slowly brought the airmen down winding mule paths toward the valley. At each village along the way, the inhabitants joined the lengthening procession.

When they reached the first settlement in the valley, Malraux saw something that affected him deeply. The peasants didn’t react visibly to the first injured men, those hit in the legs; they were used to seeing that kind of thing. “But when those wounded in the face began to arrive — flat bandages showing where the noses had been torn off, streams of dried blood on their leather jackets — the effect was completely different, and the women and children began to weep.

“It was the most gripping image of fraternité I think I have ever seen in my life,” Malraux said. “The great silence, the mountain covered from the summit to the base with Spanish people who had followed these men who had come from every country on earth to defend what they believed to be right.”

The descent from the mountain became one of the central points of the Spanish Civil War novel that Malraux had started to write during his New York trip, and Malraux even managed to make a film about it in early 1938. His book, L’espoir, was published in France in 1937, and appeared shortly thereafter in the U.S. as Man’s Hope. Critics found it his best work to date.

But Colonel Malraux’s hope would soon be tested under the bombs that began to fall in September 1939. The Spanish Civil War turned out to be a dress rehearsal for another. — Michael B. Shavelson


Greek Aisles

When George and Effie Soter wanted to open a shop, they had their sights set on a basement space a block from their home on West 113th Street. It was early 1963, and the owner of the space, at 2915 Broadway, offered the Soters a peach of a deal: $75 a month.

The Soters were new to selling; George was creative director at a Midtown advertising firm, and Effie had a master’s in social work from Columbia. Sometimes the Soters took their small sons to the playground at 112th Street and Riverside Drive, and it was there that they met their eventual business partners, three young professional couples who, like the Soters, were looking to do something different. The Soters, both of Greek ancestry, had made numerous trips to Greece, and fell in love with the fabrics and dresses of the Greek islands. It was their idea to import these items and sell them in New York. The timing seemed right: Greece had come into vogue lately, with the success of the Jules Dassin film Never on Sunday (1960), starring Melina Mercouri. And with rent so low, how could they go wrong?

Full of optimism, the Soters went on their first buying trip to Greece in the summer of 1963. But when they returned with their crates of merchandise, they were dealt a blow: The landlord reneged on their deal. Desperate, the Soters hustled to find another space. Their search soon led them to a big empty storefront on East 49th Street. The property, which included five 19th- century buildings and a charming passageway-cum-garden, was owned by James Amster, a prominent interior designer whose commissions included Peacock Alley at the Waldorf-Astoria.

“Amster asked us what kind of store we wanted to open,” says George, an elegant and sociable man of 82 who speaks with the deep, polished intonations of a venerable stage actor. “We told him, and he said, ‘You’re just what I wanted: chic Greek.’” The rent was settled at $375 — not exactly the too-good-to-be-true bargain on Upper Broadway, but reasonable enough on a block whose residents included Katharine Hepburn and Stephen Sondheim. And so the Soters and their partners set up the store, called Greek Island Limited. The wives kept shop, alternating their days, while the husbands worked at their office jobs in Midtown. Sometimes George took over on weekends, bringing along a reel-to-reel tape player on which he’d play Greek folk music by artists like Mikis Theodorakis and Manos Hadjidakis.

“Katharine Hepburn would come in and say, ‘Turn down the music, I can’t concentrate,’” George says with a laugh. “But otherwise, she was very nice.” Hepburn wasn’t the only celebrity to visit Greek Island Limited. There was Marcello Mastroianni, Faye Dunaway, and the first Mrs. Rockefeller. Most memorable, though, was the day Jackie Kennedy Onassis dropped in. As First Lady, Jackie had famously sojourned in Greece in the early autumn of 1963 following the death of her infant son Patrick, and now, a few years later, she was married to the world’s most famous Greek shipping magnate. “When she came into the store, my wife, who was very cool, said, ‘What took you so long?’” George recalls. “And Jackie said, ‘I’ve been very busy.’”

As Greece developed economically in the 1970s and ’80s, the cost of importing Greek products became more expensive, and after some 20 years of business, Greek Island Limited was dissolved. Meanwhile, the Soter apartment had been filling up with the collected treasures of a life of foreign travel: art, jewelry, fabrics, posters — in addition to what was left over from the shop.

George retired from advertising in the early ’90s, and about 10 years ago, Effie developed Alzheimer’s. Much of George’s valued social life had disappeared.

In 2002, Peter Soter, George and Effie’s youngest son, took over as owner of Morningside Bookshop, formerly known as Papyrus. The store had a subterranean annex just around the corner on West 114th Street, where Peter stocked computer and business books. But the downstairs location made the annex difficult to see from the street, and the books just sat. That’s when Peter got an idea: Why not let George use the space to sell the stuff that had piled up in the apartment?

George jumped at the opportunity. The books were removed, replaced by tables and shelves that hold a good deal of the Soters’ personal possessions: century-old Turkish embroideries, Greek jewelry, Chinese gaming chips, handmade shepherd’s crooks, vintage European posters, original bird engravings by the 18th century artist Francois Martinet. The new shop, christened George’s Underground Bazaar, opened in September 2006, at 2915 Broadway — the exact space the Soters had tried to rent in 1963.

And while the rent is now higher than $75, George is on decidedly better terms with the current landlord, Columbia University.

“The Columbia community has been very positive,” says George, who benefits from the traffic upstairs at the bookshop, where Columbia and Barnard professors give readings. “It’s just good to be back where I almost started.” — Paul Hond


Innocent Times

When doctors puffed their cigarettes and fat
Advanced unchecked, invading hordes of hearts,
When cheap thermometer and thermostat
Leaked jets of mercury like poison darts,
When every shoe store’s miracle machine
Displayed the bones x-rayed inside your shoes,
When like a knight in armor Listerine
Slew dragon Halitosis, clear heads chose
Calvert, and loving housewives loaded pies
With sugar (as “your family deserves”),
When soothing syrup smothered babies’ cries
And Sanka vanquished Mister Coffee Nerves,
When toothpaste came in squooshy tubes of lead,
And safety belts in cars seemed passing fads,
How in the Sam Hill could you end up dead?
Hadn’t you lived according to the ads?

X. J. Kennedy ’51GSAS

“Innocent Times” will appear in In a Prominent Bar in Secaucus: New & Selected Poems, to be published in September by Johns Hopkins University Press.