Last month, I gave a talk about subway photography at TEDxHCCS — an event at Hunter, where I went to school.
Last month, I gave a talk about subway photography at TEDxHCCS — an event at Hunter, where I went to school.
On the way to 29th Street Wednesday morning, I saw a woman looking through a book titled God Moves the World with a drawing of President Obama on the cover. As part of my subway photography project, I pay attention to the reading habits of religious commuters. Their texts rarely descend to worldly matters such as Presidential politics, so I asked about this one.
The reader pointed to the woman sitting next to her: Marie E. Pierre, the author of God Moves the World: Prayers and Contemplations for Barack Obama:
All her life, Marie has had periods of dreams centered on a common theme. During the  election and in the early days of the Obama presidency, Marie experienced a series of recurring dreams seeking expression. With a pen and notepad next to her bed, Marie would awaken and remain as suspended in her dream-state as possible while she wrote down the thoughts and images streaming into her consciousness.
Marie published God Moves the World in August, so I’m guessing she still sees in the President, as she put it, “a potential similar to that of Moses – the ability to lead the people of America out of darkness.”
Sweet dreams, Marie!
Nineteen-year-old Stanley Kubrick explains how he took these photographs:
“I wanted to retain the mood of the subway, so I used natural light,” he said. People who ride the subway late at night are less inhibited than those who ride by day. Couples make love openly, drunks sleep on the floor and other unusual activities take place late at night. To make pictures in the off-guard manner he wanted to, Kubrick rode the subway for two weeks. Half of his riding was done between midnight and six a.m. Regardless of what he saw he couldn’t shoot until the car stopped in a station because of the motion and vibration of the moving train. Often, just as he was ready to shoot, someone walked in front of the camera, or his subject left the train.
Kubrick finally did get his pictures, and no one but a subway guard seemed to mind. The guard demanded to know what was going on. Kubrick told him.
“Have you got permission?” the guard asked.
“I’m from LOOK,” Kubrick answered.
“Yeah, sonny,” was the guard’s reply, “and I’m the society editor of the Daily Worker.”
For this series Kubrick used a Contax and took the pictures at 1/8 second. The lack of light tripled the time necessary for development.
— “Camera Quiz Kid: Stan Kubrick,” The Camera, October 1948
On Thursday night, I arrived in Austin to attend the 13th annual International Symposium on Journalism, at the University of Texas. A couple of hours earlier, the college of communication named a cactus-and-concrete plaza after Walter Cronkite, who spent a couple of years there on his way to becoming the most trusted man in America, and premiered “All the News That’s Fit to Print,” a projection by my neighbor Ben Rubin. At the four corners of the plaza, plaques extol four virtues he embodied: Accuracy, Courage, Independence, and Integrity. Each plaque has a bas-relief of Cronkite and a paragraph of commentary. On the Integrity plaque, for example, it says. “Walter Cronkite held firm to a strict code of moral values.”
On Friday afternoon, after my panel on the mobile revolution, I headed down to the corner of Second and Lavaca for the unveiling of a statue of Willie Nelson, who came to Austin forty years ago. Through a diaphanous khaki tarp, all you make out was the neck of the guitar.
Both Second (now known as Willie Nelson Boulevard) and Lavaca were closed to traffic, and two vehicles parked in the middle of Lavaca: a flatbed truck to give camera crews a better view, and an blue-and-red Airstream with Shiner Bock, Tito’s Handmade Vodka, and other refreshments for working press.
Katherine Stolp, the weekend anchor for Austin’s CBS affiliate, was on hand to cover the ceremony, which was streamed live on the KEYE Web site and would lead the 6 p.m. news. She hadn’t covered the Cronkite event, but KEYE had. When asked who she admired more, the anchorman or the outlaw country-music pioneer, Stolp at first said Cronkite, but then said, “It’s really a toss-up.” Cronkite, she said, “was always genuine. You felt like could believe him. Kind of like I feel about Willie Nelson when I watch him.”
Josh McHenry and Allyson Stephens took the day off—she’s the assistant manager at an apartment complex, he does maintenance—to attend the unveiling. “I was supposed to be in California today, but this took precedence,” added McHenry, who wore a red bandana and a pair of yarn braids, in tribute to his musical idol.
So did Eddy Wilson, who is almost four months old, according to Kacie Case, who was wearing Eddy, facing inward, in a sling.
Even the sans-serif W of Austin’s new W hotel, which is right next to the statue, dressed for the occasion.
The ceremony was scheduled for 4:20 pm on April 20th—a numerologically significant moment for Nelson and other supporters of legalizing marijuana. It began a few minutes after four, and the emcee introduced Lawrence Wright, the president of Capital Area Statues, Inc., the nonprofit organization which raised the money for the statue, its third. (Read about the first and second.)
Then Mayor Lee Leffingwell took the podium. As he thanked various municipal officials, three guys upwind of me started passing around joints. (Can you imagine Mayor Bloomberg helping a weed-friendly crowd to canonize one of their idols on their high holiday?) To the right, someone looked at his phone and noticed that it was already 4:22. “They blew it on the timing,” he grumbled. “Maybe they got stoned earlier.”
At 4:27, the khaki tarp was removed, and the crowd cheered. Willie Nelson looked at the larger than life bronze of himself. He felt the smiling statue’s arm, then the guitar neck. He posed for a photograph with the sculptor, Clete Shields. Nelson thanked the Austin, then said, “While I’ve got this guitar…” and the whooping crowd drowned out the rest of his sentence. He sang “On the Road Again,” with help from the audience, then “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die” before slowly making his way to the pastel-painted tour bus with indian chief on the side.
He sang both songs again on Saturday night at the Backyard, out in Bee Cave, plus a whole lot more—but not my favorite, “Sad Songs and Waltzes.”
With a desktop at home, I’m trying to see whether I can make do with the iPad (first version) plus a $60 wireless keyboard instead investing in a new laptop. Even with the on-screen virtual keyboard, writing on the iPad was as easy, if not easier, than on a full-featured computer. The iPad is getting better at multitasking, but it’s still easier to focus on doing one thing at a time, and distractions such as Growl or Twitter aren’t in the picture plane. Plus I’m working in the cloud, using PlainText, which lets me use my Textexpander shortcuts, so I can resume anywhere.
Mail recognizes keyboard shortcuts for cut, paste, and undo, but it could easily use basic keyboard commands for replying to messages. And Safari could also support keyboard commands that send me to the status bar or search box. And neither application supports Textexpander, unfortunately. (MarkdownMail lets you write e-mail using Textexpander, but it’s not a mail client.) Although they probably could; the Settings have an option for shortcuts. So I’m writing this post in the Web browser without the benefit of my own personal shorthand.
Also, power is a problem. With Bluetooth enabled, the iPad battery drains much more quickly, even when you’re not using the keyboard. So you have to remember to disable Bluetooth before you put the machine back in your bag.
It wouldn’t take much for Apple to make the iPad plus keyboard a better laptop replacement. But then fewer people would need to buy laptops?
Many of his familiars called him a “happy warrior,” but worried about his health because he never seemed to unplug.
This short paragraph, from David Carr’s Sunday Style piece gets closest to what I’ve been wanting to read about Andrew Breitbart, who died at 43. But then the story returns to the prevailing narrative: that bile, especially right-wing bile, is poisonous, and for Breitbart the toxicity finally reached fatal levels.
“If Twitter ever killed anyone, it was Andrew,” said Mr. Labash of The Weekly Standard. “Andrew was a magnet for hatred, and he used Twitter for a full frontal assault, a tool of combat,”
I’m surprised that opponents of Breitbart believe in divine justice. Maybe the man—who had a history of heart ailments, his father-in-law says—just worked himself to death on the hamster wheel of online news?
But that’s speculation, too:
(A final coroner’s report, with the official cause of death, is expected this month.)
When I started working in radio twenty years ago, I just instantly loved it. And it gives you so much creative freedom, because you can pretend so much on the radio. You can pretend like a lot is going on, even if it’s not, you know? Which you cannot do if you have a camera.
Reykjavik mayor Jón Gnarr to Benjamen Walker on Too Much Information, 42:34.
Perhaps you’ve seen this guy on the train. He carries a folded newspaper and tells a story about his 4-year-old granddaughter, who was accidentally shot and killed in the Bronx. He needs to raise nineteen dollars for the funeral, at “St. Mary’s on Gun Hill Road.”
I saw him twice in the past two weeks. My suspicions that this was a scam were raised the first time—I’ve heard my share of false testimony—but my 7-year-old son couldn’t stop watching him; he thinks people die when they are old, and was shaken by the story of this 4-year-old girl. Which was why I was so bothered the second time, a day after he said the funeral was supposed to happen. Now it was supposed to happen “tomorrow.” I held up my camera to take this picture, so he could see me doing so, then said in front of the rest of the car that I’d heard him tell this story before. “That’s what I said last week,” he said, and started at me. I stared back. A man gave him a dollar.
POSTVILLE: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America, by Stephen G. Bloom. Harcourt, 338 pp., $ 25.
Newsday, November 5, 2000
STEVE BLOOM gets his first glimpse of the Hasidic Jews of Postville, Iowa, on a Friday evening. He drives to this rural town of 1,500 souls from his home in Iowa City and parks across the street from the synagogue. Instead of introducing himself as a Jewish visitor away from home on the Sabbath, Bloom observes the Lubavitch men from afar. As they erupt into exuberant song, Bloom leans on his car and munches on a sandwich, a salami-and-cheese on white.
Postville was a withering hamlet surrounded by failing family farms in 1986 when Aaron Rubashkin of Brooklyn bought a defunct slaughterhouse on the outskirts of town. The Hasidim bought homes, and they banked and shopped on Main Street, but in other ways they behaved as if they had no neighbors, ignoring sidewalk greetings from non-Jews and shunning local schools. By the time Bloom arrives in Postville, the Rubashkins’s factory is grossing $ 100 million a year and the Iowans have traded in the welcome wagon for a pickup truck full of resentment.
In “Postville,” Bloom, a journalism professor at the University of Iowa, explores the tensions between the Hasidic newcomers and the largely Lutheran old guard, whose families emigrated to northwest Iowa from Germany generations earlier. Locals, who, Bloom says, “by and large, were tolerant,” complain that the Postville Hasidim are secretive, wealthy, ostentatious, deceitful, chauvinistic, unassimilable and disrespectful of local customs. “The complaint I hear most is that they need to live by the same rules as all of us,” says city councilman Leigh Rekow. “It’s not such a great religion if they don’t want to be part of the community.”
The gentiles’ gripes echo anti-Semitic calumnies that predate Iowa, but as Bloom talks to dozens of Postville residents, he finds that many complaints have a basis in reality. The Hasidim don’t say hello to Christians on the street. They don’t attend the annual street fair, and they don’t maintain their lawns. The owner of a shoe store, who at first prospered due to large Hasidic families, extended credit to her Hasidic customers, and they never settled their accounts.
One Hasidic man admits this is just how he does business, telling Bloom about a shipment of computers he bought on credit. Let the vendor sue, says Lazar Kamzoil: “We’ll pay him-eventually-but on our terms, not his.” Kamzoil adds that bargaining is “part of being a Jew” and that Hasidim never had any interest in mingling with the goyim. “It’s the place and the people who have to adapt to us,” he says.
Kamzoil reveals himself while playing host to Bloom and his young son for the weekend. The reporter had a much harder time penetrating Hasidic society than he expected (on the other hand, the longtime Iowans were relatively open with him), and Bloom’s easiest point of entry was to let the Lubavitchers, known for urging assimilated Jews to become more observant, proselytize to him. One of the Rubashkins gets Bloom to strap on phylacteries, and Kamzoil makes sure Bloom participates in a Saturday service. Once the Hasidim figure out that Bloom is only playing along, however, they treat him like a pork-eater.
“Postville” is told in the first person, and the “clash of cultures” mentioned in the subtitle refers not only to the divide between Christian Postville and the Hasidic outpost, but also to Bloom’s relationship to each. A New Jersey-bred, Berkeley-educated reporter who moved to Iowa from San Francisco, Bloom is a creature of the speedy, modern life of the coasts, and his Jewishness manifests itself mostly as a longing for pastrami and a revulsion at the mention of Jesus during Cub Scout meetings. He feels himself as much a fish out of water in Iowa as he imagines the Lubavitchers would be. In fact, they have brought their way of life with them, whereas Bloom feels somewhat rootless.
Bloom writes about his own struggles, at times affectingly. He also shows himself to be a valiant reporter. He is at his impersonal best in a long tangent about a pair of disgruntled Hasidim who go on a crime spree through the Iowa countryside; one, a convert, is severely punished, and the other, from a renowned rabbinic lineage, gets a slap on the wrist.
One area Bloom did not master, however, is Judaism, particularly in his mistaking the whole-hog observance of the Hasidim for complete authenticity. He brings his son to the Kamzoils’ so Mikey can have a “thoroughly Jewish experience,” as though it were impossible to have one at home.
The reporter in Bloom does not judge the Rubashkins for hiring illegal immigrants and flouting labor regulations, much as he bends over backward not to accuse the Postville Christians of anti-Semitism. However, by the end of the book Bloom, whose sense of kinship with the Hasidim brought him to Postville, feels as stung as the Iowans did, and he himself describes the Hasidim of Postville as secretive, chauvinistic and deceitful.
Bloom makes a convincing case that they are, but unfortunately he extrapolates from his experiences to make unsupportable broad generalizations, much as the Iowans do. Bargaining is not “an undeniable part of Bloom’s own culture” just because the Iowans and Kamzoil both say so, and if it is, so is a respect for workers’ rights, which was championed by the secular Jewish labor movement.
Early on, Bloom makes the claim that Postville “seemed like a social laboratory, perhaps even a metaphor for America.” Perhaps, but a more fitting parallel might be Central Europe, where a changing economy brought religious Jews from the east into German Protestant cities and towns. One hopes the Postville experiment goes better.
WIDE AS THE WATERS: The Story of the English Bible and the Revolution It Inspired, by Benson Bobrick. Simon & Schuster, 384 pp., $26.
Newsday, May 6, 2001
FOR ANYONE WHO has ever spent time in a motel room, it might be difficult to imagine a world in which the average person couldn’t read the Christian Bible. In medieval England, however, books, which had to be copied by hand, were scarce (to say nothing of motels). Few individuals had the ability to comprehend the Old and New Testaments in the accepted form, the Latin Vulgate rendered by St. Jerome in the year 405. Moreover, the Catholic hierarchy prohibited laymen from perusing the Latin and considered the knowledge of biblical verses in the vernacular to be heresy.
When the first full English translation was completed in the late 14th century, “bible reading, even among the clergy, was surprisingly rare,” Benson Bobrick remarks early on in “Wide as the Waters.” By the end of Bobrick’s meandering and intermittently engaging trudge across four centuries and several disciplines, Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan supporters are toting pocket-sized Bibles in their boots as they vanquish forces loyal to King Charles I at the Battle of Naseby. The image of the Bible-carrying soldier encapsulates the sweeping social changes that paralleled the translation and dissemination of the book: the invention of the printing press, the blossoming of written English, the Protestant Reformation, the weakening of the British monarchy and the emergent ideas about individual rights that would inspire reform at home and democracy in the American colonies.
Bobrick is a popular historian whose earlier books have tackled subjects from Siberia to stuttering to the American Revolution. As his lengthy bibliography attests, he is hardly the first to attempt to situate the development of an English Bible within these historical, theological and literary trends. The promise of a book such as “Wide as the Waters” is that by amalgamating and synthesizing earlier research, it will tell a story that is clear and compelling to the curious layman.
To be sure, Bobrick takes on a rich subject, and he approaches it with a genuine enthusiasm. The story begins with John Wycliffe, a 14th century theologian who spoke out against the corruption, politicization and arbitrary judgments of the church. Wycliffe, who rejected indulgences, confession and the infallibility of the Pope, “held that the only way to free the minds of Christians from the corrupt tyrannies of papal rule was to make the text of Scripture available to them directly, so they could judge controversial matters for themselves,” Bobrick writes.
Making that text available posed numerous challenges for the team of translators working under Wycliffe. English had many regional dialects; many ecclesiastical terms lacked equivalents in the vernacular, and volumes of the Vulgate accumulated centuries of copyists’ errors. The translators finished their work in 1382, but that same year the Archbishop of Canterbury convened a group to condemn Wycliffe and his associates for their heretical views. By the early 15th century, the church ordered Wycliffe’s remains exhumed and burnt, his writings destroyed and traveling preachers or anyone in possession of a Wycliffe Bible arrested.
More than a hundred years passed before John Tyndale began to render the New Testament directly from the original Greek. By the 1520s, Gutenberg had printed his Latin Bible and Martin Luther posted his theses, and biblical translation became more perilous. Tyndale had to flee England, and his New Testament was completed and printed on the continent and smuggled back across the Channel. He then set to work on a Pentateuch from the original Hebrew but was executed before he could make his way through the entire Old Testament.
The English Bible finally found acceptance upon Henry VIII’s break with the Catholic Church. “His open repudiation of papal supremacy left him implicitly committed to the Bible’s paramount authority,” Bobrick writes. Several new translations built upon Tyndale’s, including the Great Bible, authorized by Henry; the Geneva Bible, with its Puritan glosses, and the Bishop’s Bible, commissioned under Elizabeth I. Catholics countered with the Douai-Rheims Bible, which was more heavily inflected by Latin words and papist doctrine than Protestant renderings. Finally, King James I brought together a panel of learned scholars to pore over originals and previous translations to produce the version that bears his name.
Bobrick’s discussion of the King James Version, published in 1611 after six years of work, highlights the strengths and weaknesses of “Wide as the Waters.” It is chock-full of diverting tidbits, some of which advance the story; one edition, known as the Wicked Bible, accidentally omitted the word “not” from the commandment forbidding adultery. And the portrait of the erudite but inept James makes him perhaps the most intriguing character in the book.
Other figures come across less vividly, however. Some of this can be excused by a lack of information about what, say, John Wycliffe was like as a man. However, the overlong enumeration of the rosters of the six translating panels assigned to the King James is scarcely more illuminating for the nonspecialist than the extended genealogies in the Old Testament.
Bobrick does point out how the King James Bible, like the Tyndale before it, brought Hebraic syntax into English through possessive constructions like “book of Moses” and superlatives such as “holy of holies.” When comparing the final King James against early drafts or previous translation efforts, however, Bobrick does little more than print the passages one after another and proclaim that “the choices seem unerringly right” or that a given phrase is “just and enduring.” Without further explication, the reader is left to wonder whether Bobrick is basing his judgments on accuracy, poetics or personal taste. Instead, he supplies amusing but arguably relevant digressions about the plethora of ovine idioms (“dyed in the wool,” “homespun”) created in the 16th century.
Less frustrating than the linguistic analysis are the discussions of religious quarrels and political machinations, but how these events influenced, or were influenced by, the English Bible does not always come clear. “Wide as the Waters” explores many fascinating directions, but gives none of its grand themes its full due.
LYING ABOUT HITLER: History, Holocaust, and the David Irving Trial, by Richard J. Evans. Basic, 318 pp., $27.
THE HOLOCAUST ON TRIAL, by D.D. Guttenplan. Norton, 328 pp., $24.95.
Newsday, May 27, 2001
ON APRIL 11, 2000, High Court Judge Charles Gray ruled that Emory professor Deborah Lipstadt had not libeled English writer and publisher David Irving when she labeled Irving “one of the most dangerous spokespersons for Holocaust denial” in her book “Denying the Holocaust.” The British judge’s decision followed a lengthy, tedious and costly trial that could never have happened in the United States, where “Denying the Holocaust” first appeared in 1993 and where libel plaintiffs shoulder the burden of proof.
In the United Kingdom, however, the defense must show that its comments are justified, which put Lipstadt and Penguin Books, her publisher and co-defendant, in the peculiar position of having to demonstrate far more thoroughly than she had in “Denying the Holocaust” that Irving knowingly and repeatedly distorted the historical record well beyond the parameters of reason to advance his sinister agenda. Complicating their task of showing that Irving was not a radical historian but a surrealist propagandist were the positive reviews he had received over the years from academics such as Sir John Keegan and Gordon Craig, who distanced themselves from Irving’s notions about the Holocaust but praised his depth of knowledge of Germany in World War II.
The David Irving trial (though he was its instigator, he was often mistaken for the accused and thus became, like John Scopes or Puff Daddy, its titular figure) was prodigiously documented. The case itself revolved around several thick reports produced by expert witnesses, scholars called by the defense to present what is known about the Holocaust and to debunk Irving’s retrospective inversions. The international press packed the courtroom; the trial made headlines daily in England and less often in America. (There is also Irving’s daily online journal, but it was about as faithful to the substance and tone of the proceedings as his counterhistorical writings are to the events of the Nazi era.)
A year after the ruling, the first two books to look back at the Irving trial have arrived. “Lying About Hitler” is an insider’s account by expert witness Richard Evans, the Cambridge historian charged with autopsying Irving’s oeuvre and identifying his lies and methodological flaws. D.D. Guttenplan, a contributing editor of The Nation and former Newsday reporter, weighs in from the press gallery with “The Holocaust on Trial.” According to Guttenplan, books by Lipstadt, her solicitor Anthony Julius and at least one other expert witness are on their way.
Guttenplan, who wrote a first-rate preview of the trial for The Atlantic, sets the scene by observing that the London courthouse is “literally as well as figuratively, at the juncture of journalism and the theater district.” He views the trial as a kind of performance, with Irving as its producer and star.
By suing Lipstadt, Irving tried to make her his costar-a strategy he had tried before when he crashed one of her public lectures-but the defense never put Lipstadt on the stand, leaving the focus on Irving and history. (That isn’t to say Lipstadt escapes Guttenplan’s judgment; he has qualms about her expressed opposition to intermarriage and her focus on Jewish advocacy. He would prefer her to be an American version of Pierre Vidal-Naquet, the left-wing French Jewish historian who on principle defended the free-speech rights of French Holocaust denier Robert Faurisson.)
Identifying the audience of this spectacle is more difficult. The trial was dominated by complex discussions of the meaning of German documents, which led all parties to agree to forgo a jury. Justice Gray, who had already pored over thousands of pages of expert reports before the trial opened, announced that his decision would “not depend to a very great extent on the oral evidence.” So Irving, who represented himself in court, found other crowds to play to: the small band of fanatics who share his irrational beliefs, the survivors and others he baited with complaints about how Lipstadt’s words marked him like a “verbal yellow star,” and the disinterested masses whom he hoped to persuade that his “revisionism” represents a plausible alternative to history. And, of course, the many reporters who would be his conduit to these various groups.
The discussion of the hermeneutics of arcane Third Reich paperwork was punctuated by Irving’s chaotic misdirections (he responded to direct critiques of his method with ad hominem attacks on his critics), baffling concessions (as when he justifies one invention about G”ring as “author’s license”), and bizarre eruptions (at one point he called Justice Gray “mein Fuhrer”). These theatrics garnered disproportionate attention amid the hard-to-follow documentary drudgery, making many journalists susceptible to what Evans calls “the fog of uncertainty that Irving tried to spread over the evidence for the Holocaust” and causing them to speculate that he might actually win.
Guttenplan is usually adept at slicing through that fog, but not as good as Evans. As an expert witness, Evans prepared a 700-plus- page catalog of Irving’s “blatant manipulation of the historical record” all the way back to “The Destruction of Dresden,” the 1963 book that first earned Irving his reputation as a popular historian. Irving based his estimate of up to 250,000 people killed by the allies at Dresden on a piece of paper that Evans calls “a carbon copy of a typed-up transcript of another typed-up transcript of a handwritten transcript of an extract from an unknown document, unauthenticated by any distinguishing marks.” As it turns out, an extra zero had been appended to the number on Irving’s paper. But even after admitting his proof was forged, Irving clung to the figure, using it both to equate Dresden with his diminished figure for the Jewish death toll at Auschwitz and to suggest that Jews unaccounted for were killed in Dresden by the Allies.
During the trial, Evans cataloged Irving’s willful abuse of source materials throughout his career and the growth of his anti-Jewish, anti-Allies, pro-Hitler bias as the years passed-sometimes in thick and numbing detail. Guttenplan faults Evans for having come off as “a pedant’s pedant” with a forest-trees problem during the six days he spent under cross-examination by Irving. The Evans-Irving confrontation may not have been much in the way of entertainment-before answering any question, Evans insisted that Irving dig out the relevant documents-but whether or not Irving v. Penguin and Lipstadt had as much drama as an episode of “Rumpole of the Bailey” seems very much beside the point.
Evans, who knows his way around the archives at least as well as Irving does, admits that he may have seemed annoying while in the witness box. But in “Lying About Hitler,” which combines the core of his expert written testimony with observations about the courtroom proceedings, he proves a clear and companionable narrator and a sharp and restrained reporter. In his thorough survey of newspaper dispatches about the trial, for example, Evans provides the kind of context and analysis one would expect from a noncombatant.
In fact, in some ways Evans displays more perspective than Guttenplan, who in a kitchen-sink last chapter digresses to decry the way Jewish organizations wield Holocaust guilt and to rise to the defense of the shrill Norman Finkelstein and what Guttenplan generously terms Finkelstein’s “deliberately provocative tone and occasional exaggerations.” Finkelstein’s only connection to the trial is that his conspiracy-minded tirade against the “Holocaust industry” was published around the same time. After showing readers disdain for one provocateur, it makes little sense for Guttenplan to ask them to sympathize with someone else who puts ideology before fact when writing about the Holocaust.
Guttenplan also regrets the lack of testimony by Holocaust survivors in the Irving trial; without it, he says, there is no way to know the truth. But, much as any trial having to do with the Holocaust evokes the memory of the 1961 proceeding against Adolf Eichmann, calling eyewitnesses here was a strategy that, as Evans puts it, “was not necessary because the trial was not about proving whether the Holocaust happened or not.” David Irving wanted to orchestrate a spectacle along that theme, however, and though he has been financially hobbled by defeat, he will no doubt still assert that a great debate continues.
HOOP ROOTS, by John Edgar Wideman. Houghton Mifflin, 242 pp., $24.
Newsday, October 14, 2001
JUST AS John Edgar Wideman was learning to play basketball, his family moved from Homewood, a poor African-American neighborhood of Pittsburgh, to middle-class Shadyside, Pa. At Peabody High he was president of his class and captain of the basketball team. His intellectual and physical talents won him a scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania and, in 1963, a Rhodes Scholarship; at Oxford he coached his amateur squad to a championship. Wideman wasn’t quite talented enough to realize his dream of competing in the cautiously integrated National Basketball Association, and soon after returning to the United States, he became a professor of English and began writing novels, turning to Homewood and the African-American experience for material. As critics kept praising his work and comparing his voice to Faulkner’s, Wideman played pickup ball well into his 50s, until his aging body forced him to abandon the court. He passed along his love of the game to his children; his daughter, Jamila, spent several years in the WNBA.
This version of Wideman’s life in basketball belongs to a common narrative, the one that gives drama to NBA halftime shows, the one that fueled Bill Bradley’s presidential campaign, the one that props up the hopelessly corrupted collegiate athletic system. It is decidedly not the framework Wideman, author of the memoirs “Brothers and Keepers” and “Fatheralong,” chooses for his latest autobiographical exploration. In fact, some of the details above can be found in the brief sketches in “Contemporary Authors” or “Current Biography,” but not in “Hoop Roots,” Wideman’s fluid, wide-ranging and deeply personal meditation on family, race, storytelling, eros, play and sometimes basketball.
At the outset, Wideman warns that “Hoop Roots” may defy his readers’ expectations. “Whatever you make of this book, I need it,” he writes. “What’s more important than any product this project achieves is for the process to feel something like the game I can’t let go.” Wideman mourns the loss of one cherished form of playful expression while trying to revisit it through another. Writing and basketball pose some of the same challenges – both make one wonder, “If I take a chance and turn the sucker out, will he be worth a hot damn,” as Wideman writes – but the former can’t capture the immediacy of the latter. “Writing autobiography, looking back, trying to recall and represent yourself at some point in the past, you are playing many games simultaneously. There are many selves, many sets of rules of jostling for position. None offers the clarifying, cleansing unity of playing hoop.”
Wideman refers to other types of creative play, music and visual arts rooted in African traditions, that are analogous to writing and “hoop.” According to one scholar of Yoruba art cited by Wideman, “The bead artist continually changes perspective … The direction of strands shifts throughout the work.” The same can be said of the style and substance of the prose in “Hoop Roots.” This uneven but often engrossing book includes an imagined dialogue with a long-lost lover; a fable about an orphan, the only dark- skinned resident of his town, when the barnstorming Harlem Globetrotters pass through; a disquisition on how professionalization degrades basketball; and a Proustian probe of the origins of the author’s attraction to the court.
Wideman’s trips to the playground on Finance Street in Homewood, which at first lasted only a few minutes, represented his earliest steps beyond the watchful eye of the female relatives who populated his grandparents’ home and into the world of men. A group of white players offered him his first shot, but in Westinghouse Park, Wideman generally found himself as one “brown body” among many. Looking back, he wants to name the park after two of the fallen from Homewood: Maurice Stokes, a local hero and NBA rising star whose career and life were cut short by encephalitis neglected by team doctors; and Eldon “L.D.” Lawson, a talented but undisciplined peer who left college and ended up a diabetic amputee in the same prison as Wideman’s brother Robby. Just as “Brothers and Keepers” presents the author and Robby as two poles of the African-American male condition, Stokes and L.D., two men who took different paths but were held back by infirmities, stand for many others.
After Wideman’s mother moved to much whiter Shadyside, he returned to Finance Street for a summer to look after his grandmother, who had been paralyzed by a stroke, and to play ball in Westinghouse Park. The writer’s attempt to reconstruct his exploits on the court that summer also leads him to dredge up his budding erotic curiosity and confess, “I never touched my grandmother, but I did something just as bad. I imagined her to be someone else. A woman I desired. … I wanted her to die because I believed she heard everything I thought.”
When he does turn his attention to basketball, Wideman takes the approach of a social scientist or a dance enthusiast, not a sportswriter. He analyzes the fluctuating fashions in basketball shorts, and his descriptive passages focus on motion and mood, observing the player’s pleasure in the moment instead of treating him as a character in a larger drama. Wideman downplays the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, and he rejects the cliches – Larry Bird as “bedrock symbol of mainstream values,” Magic Johnson as “the wild hair … whose act is entertaining” – that in his view transform the NBA into a racial masquerade, a modern minstrel show reenacted in playgrounds everywhere.
Wideman largely ignores team dynamics, which are admittedly a smaller part of the schoolyard game, and dwells on the individual. From his childhood games of 21 to watching the showboaters on Sixth Avenue in Greenwich Village, he writes about hoop as if it’s played every man for himself. One wishes he had heeded his own critique of the NBA, which downplays how teammates and opponents alike inspire each other. As Wideman says, “The media could have examined how Magic and Bird created each other, how they are inseparable, an amalgamation, how together they achieved something more, probably better than either could have managed alone.”
YIDDISH: A Nation of Words, by Miriam Weinstein. Steerforth, 303 pp., $26.
THE NEW JOYS OF YIDDISH, by Leo Rosten. Revised by Lawrence Bush. Crown, 458 pp., $35.
Newsday, October 22, 2001
IN THE PREFACE to “The Joys of Yiddish,” Leo Rosten wrote, “Never in history has Yiddish been so influential – among gentiles. (Among Jews, alas, the tongue is running dry.)” Rosten’s assessment is as apt now as it was back in 1968. Kentuckians and Korean-Americans alike build their English vocabularies by watching “Seinfeld” and “The Nanny” in syndication, young Germans flock to festivals of Yiddish song, and one chain of cafes is touting a new species of baked goods called a squagel. I can’t be the only New Yorker who has as much use for a square bagel as for a four-cornered bicycle wheel.
Meanwhile, Yiddish is still running dry among those who can claim it as their own. These days, two young Ashkenazic Jews would be more likely to have Hebrew, English or Russian in common than they would Yiddish. The passing of generations who spoke mameloshn at home outpaces the earnest efforts of Jews, many of whom were conceived after Rosten’s lexicon was, who’ve taken up Yiddish because they want to sing klezmer tunes, reinvigorate moribund left-wing movements, introduce neglected women poets to modern readers, or simply because they don’t want to see the language die.
Yiddish has been dealt blows from the internal and external pressures of assimilation in America, Soviet anti-Semitism and the hostility of Israelis and other Zionists, but most devastating was the Holocaust, which wiped out half of the world’s 11 million Yiddish speakers. Nevertheless, though greatly diminished, Yiddish postpones its demise like an aging operatic diva privy to the secret of circular breathing. Just when you are setting out to review two books about an all-but-dead language, you see a fresh-faced Hasid on the F train perusing a Yiddish newspaper.
There is undoubtedly a Yiddish aphorism befitting the ironic happenstance reported in the previous sentence, and if I were Miriam Weinstein, I would use it. Her “Yiddish: A Nation of Words” is peppered with such phrases, which she uses as punctuation at the end of a paragraph: A peeled egg doesn’t leap into the mouth by itself, for example. Or: If everyone pulled in one direction, the world would keel over. They are vivid and pithy, a testament both to the vibrancy of Yiddish and to Weinstein’s deep affection for the language that surrounded her growing up in the postwar Bronx.
“For a subject that has been so close to so many people’s hearts,” Weinstein observes, “the number of books on the language itself is quite small; most are jokey-cozy or scholarly.” “Yiddish: A Nation of Words,” which purports to be the first popular history of Yiddish, falls more in the former category, and less jokey than cozy at that. Rather than delving into the complexities of linguistics, Weinstein explains that “Yiddish simmered slowly, like cholent” and elsewhere that its expansion was “sweet and light as a New Year’s honey cake.” As she then recounts, the development of Yiddish from medieval Judeo-German jargon into a language of woman’s prayer, Talmudic disputation, political protest and secular literature wasn’t exactly sweet or light. For all of its grandmotherly charms, Yiddish was sustained by centuries of isolation and oppression.
This well-meaning book, which focuses on the rise and fall of Yiddish culture in the 19th and 20th centuries, is full of half-baked heymish similes. Instead of explicating for the post-ideological 21st century reader the confusing array of late 19th century radical movements that agitated for their causes in Yiddish, Weinstein offers up another saw: “Every man has his own mishegas.” And she forgoes chronology and other historical detail for anecdotal sketches of figures from Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer to bundist Esther Frumkin, who joined the Yevsektsia, the Jewish section of the Soviet Communist Party, and was shipped to Siberia in 1938. Those interested in the fate of Yiddish in the Soviet Union would do better to check out Joshua Rubinstein’s introduction to “Stalin’s Secret Pogrom: The Postwar Inquisition of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee,” out earlier this year from Yale University Press.
Most disappointing, however, is that a book about a language as versatile and arch as Yiddish would be so sallow and tone-deaf. Weinstein’s frequent use of the first-person plural and culinary metaphors establishes a folksy vibe, but casual can come off as flippant, as in her reference to Jews and Germans as “siblings from hell.” Weinstein’s verbose imprecision (“The fact that Jews have written a great variety of Jewish languages using the very same letters across continents and millennia is tremendously important”) makes her seem uninformed and makes the reader yearn for a writer with a strong voice, a sharp wit and a knack for le mot juste.
Which brings us back to the late Leo Rosten, whose tome of popular lexicography has just been revised and reissued. His posthumous collaborators are R.O. Blechman, whose skittish line drawings make a fitting accompaniment to the definitions, and Lawrence Bush, a Reconstructionist rabbi whose redactions and glosses are meant to usher Rosten into the new millennium. No new entries have been added, but there are hundreds of additional spellings, most of them following the transliteration standard endorsed by YIVO, the Yiddish research institution founded in Vilna and now based in New York.
While this is a responsible gesture, it is not always a useful one (for connoisseurs who thought they’d seen every possible permutation for the eight-day Festival of Lights, the folks at YIVO spell it “khanike”), and it contravenes Rosten’s intentions. He insisted that his “is not a book about Yiddish,” but a catalog of the Yiddish (and Yiddish-ish) words that have wended their way into English. Nevertheless, he has been criticized over the years for treating Yiddish as a language of shtick but not of politics, literature or faith. With more Yiddish writing available in translation and the blossoming of scholarship on all manner of Yiddishkeit since 1968, “The New Joys of Yiddish” may have an easier time of being taken on Rosten’s terms.
Many of the changes Bush makes speak to the passage of time. Humorist Harry Golden and L’il Abner cartoonist Al Capp didn’t need to be identified in 1968, but they do now. Where Rosten wrote that the Lithuanian strain of Yiddish “predominates” in now-defunct Yiddish periodicals, Bush shifts into the past tense. He also adjusts for inflation; the husband of the yidene (akin to a yenta) who boasts of being the primary subject of his therapy sessions now pays $100 a session, up from $25. A discussion of the Babylonian exile alludes to Bob Marley, and a note at “putz” recounts former Sen. Al D’Amato’s Waterloo.
“The New Joys of Yiddish” also reveals how American and American Jewish social sensibilities have evolved since 1968. Where Rosten uses subtle humor (arguably too subtle) to point out the servile and derogatory connotations of shvartze, Bush delivers a sermon on code words. The entry on shikker once began “Jewish drunkards are exceedingly rare,” but Bush cut that sentence and added a sober note about a 12-step organization called Jewish Alcoholics, Chemically Dependent Persons and Significant Others. Similarly, a joke about a shadchen, or matchmaker, with the punch line, “Is it my fault you don’t like Picasso?,” is explicated with the statistic that more than 30 percent of Jews experience some form of domestic violence.
At times Bush comes off as a preacher, at other moments a party-pooper, and he doesn’t have Rosten’s way with words. To be fair, revising a book like “The Joys of Yiddish” is a thankless task, since devotees usually consider the current edition authoritative (even when purists don’t) and any alteration seems a heresy. Think of the complaints of disappearing recipes that dogged “The New Joy of Cooking,” or the outcry from grammarians that R.W. Burchfield fouled up the third edition of Fowler’s “Modern English Usage.” Bush’s approach seems to be to add rather than subtract, and he leaves most of Rosten’s playful definitions, anecdotes and pronunciation aids (“bar-mitz-vah, to rhyme with ‘car hits ya'”) intact. The joys of “The New Joys of Yiddish” are largely the old ones.
THE GATEKEEPERS: Inside the Admissions Process of a Premier College, by Jacques Steinberg. Viking, 292 pp., $25.95.
Newsday, September 1, 2002
Reality television puts ordinary people in contests of survival, popularity and sex appeal. We like to fantasize about making the band or the cover of Entertainment Weekly, but a college degree can be a more realistic path to the American dream. So it’s only a matter of time before network executives devote a half-hour to a competition for quality higher education.
Such a program – let’s call it “The Fat Envelope” – would have all the elements of success: ambitious young contestants ready to jump through any hoop and, between tests, confess their heightened emotions; structured and often contentious deliberations about whom to eliminate; host institutions seeking to highlight their brand name in the national market; and a core audience that would reliably tune in to glean hints about how to proceed when it comes time for them, or their children, to apply to college. Moreover, the applicant pool would be broad enough to generate footage of both taut abdominal muscles and unconventional grilled meats.
For the time being, potential viewers might enjoy “The Gatekeepers,” Jacques Steinberg’s brisk and revealing account of how Wesleyan University, a prestigious private liberal-arts institution in Middletown, Conn., assembled its Class of 2004. Steinberg, a national education correspondent for The New York Times, spent eight months following Wesleyan admissions officer Ralph Figueroa and his overworked colleagues as they cast their nets widely for prospective students and then whittled down 7,000 hopefuls to a class of 715. Later, Steinberg circled back to talk to a half-dozen Wesleyan applicants and discuss the college choices they made and the ones that were made for them. “The Gatekeepers,” which for better or worse reads like an extended newspaper feature, offers ammunition to all sides of debates over merit and diversity.
Like the cast of MTV’s “The Real World,” the students Steinberg chose to follow are a mixed group of enterprising youths with intriguing back stories. They include a Jewish boy from Staten Island whose early attempts at creative writing caught the eye of novelist Richard Price; a Dominican-American girl from Washington Heights elected president at the all-girls academy she attends on scholarship; a film buff from Bemidji, Minn., whose grades rebounded when he enrolled in an innovative boarding school for American Indians; and a Chinese-American from Palo Alto, Calif., with a death-row pen pal. There are also two girls from a leading Los Angeles private school: an academic standout and gifted performer whose multiracial family struggles to pay her tuition, and a more affluent Jewish class president whose credibility on campus derives, among other things, from being the only student to come clean about sampling a pot brownie. (Missing from the lineup is a representative of the Protestant establishment that, two generations ago, flowed smoothly from prep schools to elite universities and, though their presence is no longer dominant, remains a constant at places like Wesleyan.)
There’s plenty of potential for drama here, even if the six seniors compete only indirectly. Unlike public universities where computers apply strict formulas to evaluate applications, Wesleyan relies on rough guidelines and judgment calls. The school assigns two officers to evaluate each student’s portfolio, taking into account everything from the rigor of their high school coursework to whether their parents attended college; race, gender, geography and previous ties to Wesleyan are also considered in unspecified amounts. (As with an old family recipe, the proportions are generally known but never articulated, and vary depending on who’s at the stove.) If the two evaluators’ assessments differ, then the entire committee debates the case and the majority rules.
“The Gatekeepers” re-creates some of these committee meetings, but admissions work is largely solitary, so much of the action transpires inside the head of Ralph Figueroa. Steinberg sounds a bit overheated when he writes that “Given what is at stake, or at least perceived to be so, the job of an admissions officer at an elite private college has become one of the most powerful, stressful and least understood occupations in the nation,” but Figueroa approaches his work with a sense of social mission and institutional responsibility. An earnest Mexican-American with a law-school degree, Figueroa knows that, for some applicants, a Wesleyan education can transform their lives, which is why he takes a long detour to recruit at the Native American Preparatory School. He’s also more sympathetic to Aggie, the Latina from Washington Heights – her drive and charisma mitigate her middling grades and test scores – than to the daughter of Taiwanese immigrants, whose academic record is stronger than Aggie’s but
nevertheless strikes Figueroa as an underachiever. It’s not just that Wesleyan has more Asian-Americans than Latinos applying, Steinberg says; Figueroa responds more to applications in which he can find some human detail he identifies with, whether it’s ethnicity or a personality trait or playing the handbells in church. “In gazing into the admissions pool, and being excited to see a familiar reflection staring back, Ralph was hardly alone,” he writes. “In the end, the diversity of interests and backgrounds of the committee members helped ensure the diversity of the incoming class.”
Thanks to sharp, smooth and detail-rich writing, Steinberg manages to build considerable tension, even when Figueroa is poring over file folders, while exposing much of this secretive process. Perhaps even more illuminating than how colleges pick students is his portrait of how Wesleyan relentlessly vies with other colleges for applicants. Like traveling salesmen, Figueroa and his colleagues spend a couple of months a year on the road trying to plant the seed in the heads of high school students that Wesleyan could be the place for them. And, at least in Steinberg’s telling, they are always attuned to how every decision affects their U.S. News & World Report ranking, and want higher average SAT scores, greater minority enrollment and more applicants every year. Then, after all the admissions officers’ careful if subjective deliberations, an adolescent’s decision on where to enroll can turn on how the cafeteria French fries tasted or how their on-campus student host brought them to a meeting where women learned how to use sex toys.
Even if Steinberg misses an opportunity to weigh in on the larger social questions raised by Wesleyan policy, “The Gatekeepers” will probably find its place alongside “The Fiske Guide to Colleges” and Princeton Review workbooks on the shelves of anxious teens and their parents. But the best lesson for those worried about college may be in Steinberg’s own unscientific selection process. He says he ended up writing about Wesleyan because it was within a two-hour drive of New York and agreed to grant him the access he wanted; the allergy-prone reporter picked Figueroa because he was the only experienced admissions officer there who didn’t have a pet at home. Other paths might have also seemed promising, but once the reporter settled in, he found vibrant characters, emblematic situations and everything else a reporter needs. And, in the end, it all worked out fine.
LEADERSHIP, by Rudolph W. Giuliani with Ken Kurson. Miramax, 407 pp., $25.95.
Newsday, October 6, 2002
One of the few revealing stories in “Leadership,” Rudolph W. Giuliani’s overstuffed political memoir in the guise of a management treatise and the first installment in his multimillion-dollar, two-book deal with the Miramax division of Disney, takes readers back to the Brooklyn of his youth, to the celebrated prosecutor-turned-mayor’s first memorable showdown. At 5, Rudy already looked up to men in uniform, and particularly to his Uncle Willie, a cop who was his godfather and who lived downstairs. Uncle Willie promised Rudy a recent issue of one of his policing magazines if he beat up the boy next door, a “big fat kid” who was two years older and had a reputation for picking on younger children. Giuliani can’t recall how the confrontation began, but he does remember bloodying the boy’s nose and then explaining to his own mother, “Albert was bullying people around and I decided to stand up to him.”
Giuliani re-creates this scene to introduce “Stand Up to Bullies,” one of the 14 chapters in “Leadership” that explores an eat-your-vegetables principle central to his success. (“Prepare Relentlessly,” “Surround Yourself With Great People” and “Be Your Own Man” are some of the other platitudes he explicates.) As the chapter on bullies progresses, he recounts other showdowns with adversaries he views as echoes of Albert, from the muggers who prowled Times Square until he took office to the Legal Aid Society, the private nonprofit agency that represents many of the city’s indigent defendants and that his administration locked horns with after its unionized lawyers called a strike during his first year at City Hall.
Those New Yorkers who see Giuliani as a bully – their ranks include the folks over at Legal Aid, which is suing him for a pattern of illegal retribution since the 1994 strike, and myriad other targets of his wrath, but also many citizens who admire his transformation of the city – won’t be rushing out to buy “Leadership” to hone their interpersonal skills, but his account of the boyhood fight might offer them some insight into the formation of his character. As Giuliani tells it, his mother forced him to apologize and then sent him to his room. However, much to her consternation, he received mixed messages: Uncle Willie sent his daughter upstairs to drop off the magazine reward, and Rudy’s proud father, an ex-boxer intent on passing down his fistic knowledge to his son, only wanted to hear the blow-by-blow. This domestic-policy divide persisted after the Giulianis moved out to Garden City. “When my mother demanded that my father discipline me, he would take me off to the basement and pretend to whack me. My mother would stay upstairs, and never knew that my father spent the time teaching me how to box,” he says.
On one level, “Leadership” is an episodic history of how Giuliani learned to fight. Teachers outside his family include Lloyd MacMahon, the ornery federal judge for whom Giuliani clerked, and Ronald Reagan, who appointed Giuliani to be associate attorney general, the third-ranking position in the Department of Justice. Giuliani praises Reagan for carrying through on his threat to fire thousands of striking air-traffic controllers, because one aspect of being a leader is that “people need to understand that you mean exactly what you say.”
“Leadership” also serves as a catalog of Giuliani’s achievements (the chief mayoral ones are summarized in an appendix full of statistics and bullet points), a list of shout-outs to the loyal members of his administration and campaign staffs, an opportunity to deliver an official version of heavily covered events (his tossing of the uninvited Yasir Arafat from a private gala celebrating the United Nations’ 50th anniversary, his decision not to run for the U.S. Senate) and a statement of his political convictions, seemingly with an eye to some higher office. In contrast to his approach while governing a Democrat-dominated town, “Leadership” pushes Giuliani’s Republican credentials, and it gives his reputation for hostility to journalists a timely spin. “Probably the majority of those who cover any government – and most corporations – have a bias against the organization,” he says.
Giuliani had been working with financial journalist Ken Kurson on “Leadership” in the months leading up to Sept. 11, and their book has been larded with anecdotes concerning Giuliani’s deft response to the crisis and bracketed by his first-person accounts of that tragic day and the remainder of his term. “It was as if God had provided an opportunity to design a course in leadership just when I needed it most,” they write. This seems disingenuous, however, since what was so impressive and reassuring about the mayor’s press conferences that day – hours after he was temporarily trapped in a building right near the collapsing towers and hours after he lost close colleagues and friends – was that his plea for calm, unity and resolve was utterly unstudied.
It’s probably unfair to expect the voice of Giuliani in a co-written book to have the same immediacy of his extemporaneous speeches in the hours and days following the attack, but “Leadership” is a varnished and repetitive read. This is true of its case histories, which often have only tenuous connections to Giuliani’s themes, as well as its evocation of his personality through frequent references to the Yankees, opera, the “Godfather” films and Winston Churchill during the Blitz. “Leadership” is destined to become a popular totem for Giuliani fans, but it violates its own edict to Be Direct and Unfiltered.
MONEYBALL: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, by Michael Lewis. Norton, 288 pp., $24.95.
Newsday, June 1, 2003
When Paul DePodesta talks about major league baseball as “a game of skill,” he doesn’t mean the fundamentals of hitting, pitching and fielding.
For DePodesta, the Harvard-educated assistant general manager of the Oakland Athletics, the true skill isn’t physical but cerebral, akin to coming from behind in Monopoly: the ability to best the competition with only a fraction of your opponents’ cash reserves. Likewise, author Michael Lewis, who made his reputation with “Liar’s Poker,” a worm’s-eye view of the ’80s boom on Wall Street, spins a zippy tale about the great American pastime – business – in which the commodities happen to be baseball players and the product happens to be wins.
Just as pork-bellies traders won’t stop to consider each pig whose futures they buy and sell in bulk, the A’s management does its best to look beyond individuals and distill everyone to a set of numbers. First, of course, come the salary figures. Oakland, like most small-market teams, can’t pay the multimillion-dollar wages demanded by proven veterans on the open market. Faced with a situation where the flushest team can spend three or four times more than the poorest, the A’s refuse to forfeit. Instead, they lean on hybrid statistical measures developed in the field of sabermetrics, which takes its name from the Society for American Baseball Research.
Sabermetrics began as a grass-roots effort by Kansan Bill James and other obsessive, highly numerate fans seeking statistical patterns (and a way to participate) in the game they loved. Through trial and error, it has matured beyond pseudoscience to produce complex ratios that predict the number of runs a hitter will create and measure a pitcher’s quality while factoring out the fickle behavior of the defense behind him. Still, the sabermetric approach caught on faster among hobbyists involved in rotisserie leagues than on the professional level. The traditional appraisers of talent – scouts, managers, broadcasters – earn their keep by trusting their gut and speaking of “intangibles,” and the executives, as in most businesses, prefer clinging to received wisdom, even if it guarantees mediocrity, rather than take a risk on the predictions of outsiders – especially when those outsiders were probably benchwarmers back in Little League.
Enter DePodesta’s boss, A’s general manager Billy Beane. A first-round draft pick who passed up a Stanford scholarship to join the Mets organization in 1980, Beane never fulfilled his athletic promise and hung up his cleats a decade later. It took a scholar manque with a small allowance and incontrovertible jock credentials to read all of Bill James’ Baseball Abstracts and to rely on DePodesta’s number-crunching, which ran counter to the wisdom of the scouts. “[W]hat set him apart from most baseball insiders,” Lewis writes of Beane, “was his desire to find players unlike himself … young men who failed the first test of looking good in a uniform.”
The A’s took on unshapely prospects and club-footed journeymen; since nobody else wanted them, they got good value for their money. After winning 102 games in 2001, Oakland lost key personnel – the leadoff man, the closer and franchise player Jason Giambi to free agency. Beane couldn’t replace them with other marquee players – if he could have, he wouldn’t have lost that trio in the first place – so he went looking to replace their statistical ability to create runs. With Giambi, it took several players, including his younger brother, Jeremy; David Justice, who’d been written off as over the hill; and Scott Hatteberg, a catcher who’d blown out a nerve in his throwing arm. What they shared, beyond their precarious position on the cusp of major-league employability, was an uncanny patience at the plate, which gets them on base and wears out opposing pitchers. In 2002, the A’s won 103 games and made the playoffs but lost in the first round to the Twins.
Anyone but a Yankee fan spoiled by their regular World Series appearances and George Steinbrenner’s bottomless bank account would consider Beane a success. Besides, it’s hard not to be impressed with a dealmaker cold-blooded enough to offload ineffectual manager Art Howe on the Mets. But Lewis also paints Beane as an object-throwing autocrat who can’t take pleasure in watching his team play and who never has a kind word to say about Miguel Tejada, the A’s free-swinging shortstop and last year’s Most Valuable Player in the American League. Why, then, is Lewis so smitten with this audacious businessman who recalls the heartless bond traders he encountered on Wall Street? Lewis would surely have struck a different tone if he’d been a prospect with the A’s instead of Salomon Brothers; perhaps it’s the fan’s attraction to the athletic executive who would still look good in a uniform.
Or maybe it’s the intangibles. As Sandy Alderson, who preceded Beane as general manager, tells Lewis, “Billy has the gift of making people like him.” Lewis has that gift, too, and while he sometimes offers more windup than payoff, he explains difficult ideas with the skill of the smoothest color commentator. “Moneyball” ties together many threads – athletics, business, statistics and culture – in a fast-paced story that, even if you already know how the A’s finished the 2002 season, offers more drama and excitement than most major league games.
AND THE DEAD SHALL RISE: The Murder of Mary Phagan and the Lynching of Leo Frank, by Steve Oney. Pantheon, 742 pp., $35.
Newsday, November 16, 2003
On the morning of Aug. 20, 1915, Leo Frank’s widow, his parents and a couple dozen friends joined the family rabbi at Mt. Carmel Cemetery in Cypress Hills, Queens, to bury the 31-year-old pencil-factory superintendent. The private funeral came two years after Frank was accused of killing Mary Phagan, a 13-year-old employee at the Atlanta plant who collected her wages from him one Saturday and within hours was found dead. The courtroom drama overflowed into the streets of Atlanta and onto front pages around the country, making Frank a national figure. As muckrakers and editorial writers decried his conviction, citing shaky circumstantial evidence, unreliable testimony and far-fetched prosecutorial theories, many Georgians insisted on enforcing a death sentence even if the trial judge’s ruling were reversed. So when John Slaton, Georgia’s outgoing governor, commuted Frank’s sentence to life in prison, Frank was abducted from prison, whisked through the night along back roads and hanged at dawn from a tree outside Marietta, Phagan’s hometown.
The plot’s guiding spirit was Tom Watson, the populist Georgia politician and editor whose vicious exhortations to vengeance in his weekly, the Jeffersonian, painted the free-Frank movement as a creeping Jewish conspiracy. But until recently, the people of Marietta maintained an impenetrable silence, protecting the local men who, as they saw it, served justice by taking it into their own hands. In Atlanta, where the German Jewish community had been accepted more or less as the equals of other whites, discussion of Frank’s lynching also has been a lingering taboo.
Now Steve Oney, a former reporter at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, has painstakingly reconstructed the lynching and identified 25 Mariettans involved, including Joseph Brown, a former governor; Herbert Clay, son of a U.S. senator; and Newt Morris, a circuit judge and Democratic Party leader. Former sheriff William Frey, who owned the farm where Frank died, readied the noose. Watson’s indignation about perceived conflicts of interest (the pardoning governor was law partner to one of Frank’s defense attorneys) did not extend to the inconclusive investigation of the lynching, in which seven grand jurors and two lawyers were conspirators. Later, jewelry store owner George Daniell gave participants a set of silverware for “a job well done.”
Oney’s ventilation of the plot against Frank comes at the end of his swollen, disappointing explication of this notorious episode in American history. Oney’s accumulation of detail helps illuminate the secrets of Frank’s lynching, but in the 17 years he spent on the book, Oney seems to have gotten lost in the volume of trial transcripts, newspaper accounts and other secondary sources. Readers may, too; if “And the Dead Shall Rise” were a movie, all the spinning headlines would make anyone faint from dizziness.
Oney devotes 150 pages to Frank’s trial, awarding points for each skirmish won by the prosecutor or defense as if it were a boxing match, but too much back-and-forth of conflicting testimony frays the narrative thread. A paragraph devoted to advances in air conditioning technology might seem charming, if only he had conveyed why spectators mobbed the courtroom and waited outside, and why it devolved into a spectacle akin to professional wrestling, with Frank cast as the heel.
His bald expression of the Southern social contract did not help. “No white man killed Mary Phagan,” Frank reportedly said before he was arrested. Despite his confidence that jurors would see things the same way, the prosecution’s star witness was Jim Conley, a black janitor at the pencil plant who was questioned about the murder. Conley, who had a criminal record, went on to concoct three inconsistent statements, each more elaborate than the previous, eventually claiming that Frank paid him to move Phagan’s corpse to the factory basement and write out the notes found at the crime scene. At first, Conley told police he couldn’t write but quickly admitted that this was a lie. “Not since Uncle Remus had a black man’s story so enthralled Atlanta,” Oney quips in his gratingly folksy way.
In a time and place when a black person’s testimony against a white person had little impact – an unjust state of affairs, but this is the way things were – why did the jury buy Conley’s story? In his closing statement, the lead defense lawyer introduced the idea that “religious prejudice against the factory superintendent had permeated the case.” Oney uses this to broach the topic of anti-Semitism, as if to suggest that it might be no more than a desperate ploy by Frank’s lawyers. Other kinds of animus may help explain why he wasn’t accorded the usual privileges of whiteness in Georgia – he was an outsider, a northerner and a plant manager, a symbol of the urban industrialism that was devouring country girls like Phagan – but the case against Frank has enough coded expressions of anti-Semitism, from Conley’s pre-trial statement that Frank said, “Why should I hang, I have wealthy people in Brooklyn” to the painting of Frank as an Old Testament-style “Sodomite,” ascribing all manner of deviance to him because he was “unlike other men” (i.e., circumcised). Press reports that Frank’s mother called the prosecutor a “Christian dog,” a statement she denied making, fed anti-Semitic feeling. But the animus mostly was implicit, just as the looming crowds outside the court didn’t have to tell the jurors they expected Frank to be found guilty and hanged.
Then, in his account of the legal and public appeal, Oney almost seems to share some of the nativist hostility toward the national Jewish organizations that stepped in to defend Frank, and the generous individuals among them, such as Chicago ad man Albert Lasker, who funneled cash to Frank’s wife to cover expenses. Special disdain is reserved for Adolph Ochs, the Chattanooga-born editor famous for bending over backward to avoid any appearance of parochial bias in the New York Times, who responded to Leo Frank’s conviction by what former executive editor Howell Raines might have called “flooding the zone.” Even in the swirl of yellow journalism around Frank – Watson’s venomous Jeffersonian; Hearst’s sensationalism in the Georgian, stirring Atlanta’s newspaper wars – Ochs’ intense editorial interest in Frank, and what he represented, is treated as an outsider’s outrageous impertinence, much as detractors dismissed Raines’ recent campaign against discrimination at the Augusta National Golf Club. Frank’s defenders may have played their hand poorly and their persistence may have had the opposite of the desired effect – Watson grew shriller by the week – but they weren’t responsible for his murder.
The Leo Frank case lies at a nexus of nerves still sensitive today: racial tensions, anti-Semitism, class, regionalism, politics and the behavior of the press, which explains why it has attracted writers from David Mamet to Alfred Uhry. Oney is clearly a dogged researcher, and there are some fine stretches of writing here – his passages on Conley’s lawyer, William Smith, who declared his belief in his one-time client’s guilt during the appeals process and spent many years living in a sort of exile from Georgia, stand out. But it fails as interpretive history; the tone is off. It’s hard to put a finger on the source of the dissonance; perhaps he finds Frank an unappealing victim, or recoils at the implications of exonerating him, which would leave Jim Conley as the prime suspect. Whatever the reason, “And the Dead Shall Rise” gets wrapped up instead in the whirlwind of events and strays from the grandeur it so clearly aches to attain.
CHOCOLATE: A Bittersweet Saga of Dark and Light, by Mort Rosenblum. North Point, 290 pp., $24.
Newsday, February 13, 2005
Several years ago, at a tree-trimming party, a friend roped me into playing I Dare You to Eat That Chocolate. The rules are simple: Everyone sits in a circle around a Whitman’s Sampler or an equivalent drug-store assortment that is approaching its expiration date and has been separated from the diagram of fillings. When it’s your turn to eat a chocolate, the others nominate various candidates, speculate on what’s inside, debate the potential perils of chemically stabilized nougat versus artificial strawberry creme. Once a consensus is reached, they dare you to eat that chocolate. You take a bite, then grimace or sigh with relief, and everyone laughs.
I Dare You to Eat That Chocolate has become a holiday tradition among my friends, a decadent ritual with the tension and thrill of Russian roulette without its downside. Unless you have allergies, the worst that can happen is coconut.
We manage to play only once a year, so I tip my hat to Mort Rosenblum, who found a way to go professional. In visiting three continents and tasting cacao beans grown in two more, Rosenblum and his tongue suffer chronic abuse. A venerable Oaxaca, Mexico, vendor’s custom grind is “cloyingly sweet, coarse enough to sand a plank.” Moscow chocolatier A. Korkunov’s signature bar has “a gummy texture and an astringency that pushed aside other nuances.” The wares of Charbonnel et Walker, a shop in Mayfair, England, much beloved by the late Queen Mother, are “waxy and oversweet,” and in general British chocolate is “pretty vile stuff.” A Godiva bar pointedly goes unfinished; a bar of upscale Italian dark chocolate gets tossed in the Seine.
Rosenblum, who has lived in Paris since the 1970s, is known as a gourmet and a food writer – “Olives” (1996) earned him a James Beard Award – but it wasn’t until he embarked upon “Chocolate” that he began his transformation from “chocolate ignoramus” to “execrable cacao snob.” His Virgil on this journey is a choco-dependante named ChloÎ Doutre-Roussel, who twice hopped the fence at the maximum-security Valrhona plant and quit her job buying chocolate for Fortnum & Mason after a year because the English “don’t have a clue what food means.”
ChloÎ, a spectral presence in Rosenblum’s tale, steers our hero to small shops in Paris or Brussels, where chocolates are handcrafted from the finest base, if not from the rarest beans. Made without stabilizers, their pralines and pralinÈs – the former is what Belgians call a filled chocolate; the latter, from France, is a blend with ground almonds – are best when eaten almost immediately, and may spoil after a week. For bonbons made from the freshest, purest ingredients by the most skilled fondeurs, a customer can expect to pay $50 per pound. “For candy, that is a lot,” Rosenblum admits. “For a recreational drug, that seems pretty cheap.”
When he isn’t wolfing it down, Rosenblum describes fine chocolate in the same style as fine wine, using terminology that to the layman is as familiar as it is opaque (“slightly bitter bouquet … soft notes of berries and chokecherries … long, rich finish”). I wish he could better explain his enthusiasm, or his development as a chocolate connoisseur. I’m persuaded by his slow-food ethos, but suspicious that he’s absorbed the biases of his adopted home. For example, he treats Nutella, the chocolate-hazelnut spread that young Europeans eat like peanut butter and that ChloÎ still adores, with reverence, while his own childhood taste for Hershey bars, which he compares to his early preference for sweet kosher wine, is clearly a source of shame. He cites one Frenchman who characterizes it as “vomit.” And he can be condescending when describing Americans coming back from Zurich with the same Lindt bars they can buy at home.
At least Rosenblum saves his harshest words not for the naive consumer but for manufacturers, large and small, who bamboozle the public with undistinguished product in fancy packaging. He meets the North American chief executive officer of Godiva, a division of Campbell’s Soup, who talks more about the gold box than its contents, and tweaks MarieBelle, the SoHo boutique, for charging $350 for a 48-piece assortment in an Italian leather trunk.
Rosenblum’s “Chocolate” evokes a box of chocolates, with its visual design (mint-striped cover with gilt script, brown type) and an episodic structure in which each chapter more or less stands on its own. You never know what you’re gonna get, and not everything was to my taste: The material he collects directly from the source, such as his visit to an Ivorian cacao farmer who tasted the finished product once in his life, seems fresher than his reprocessing of chocolate’s history or his account of the European Union’s showdown over the use of vegetable oil.
A former AP correspondent, he’s unafraid of the easy phrase or image – desert-island chocolate, the “I Love Lucy” candy factory episode. But if Rosenblum is not as fine a craftsman as his favorite Paris fondeurs, he is like his description of Lindt: “clean and consistent,” top quality for the mass market. Even if you won’t be in Paris anytime soon to taste gold-flecked palet d’or, “Chocolate” leaves a pleasant aftertaste. At Rosenblum’s recommendation, I picked up a Michel Cluizel Venezuelan varietal with 66 percent cacao in a local gourmet store. A 3.5-ounce bar cost more than a half-pound Whitman’s Sampler, but I dare you not to eat that chocolate.
THE ONGOING MOMENT, by Geoff Dyer. Pantheon, 285 pp., $28.50.
Newsday, November 6, 2005
Recently, in the Guardian, Geoff Dyer described himself as “a literary and scholarly gatecrasher, turning up uninvited at an area of expertise, making myself at home, having a high old time for a year or two, and then moving on.” In his own way, Dyer is offering a defense of his career – which is to say, he isn’t; pre-empting criticism by admitting his inadequacies, he comes off more as sheepish than defensive, and he rejects the word “career” as too intentional for his restless curiosity. Whatever you call his writer’s life, Dyer makes pithy observations while poking around the history of jazz, World War I or D.H. Lawrence, the subject of his compelling unbiography, “Out of Sheer Rage,” and a model of what Dyer calls “intellectual nomadism.” Dyer has also written three novels, and his own nomadism isn’t limited to the intellectual; “Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It” follows him through Libya and Thailand, New Orleans and Detroit.
He has a knack for pronouncing profound human truths that teeter on the edge of banality (and sometimes fall in) and for saying he’s abandoned a project while capturing something deep about its essence, largely by foregrounding himself. “Yoga,” which keeps referring to a never-completed book about the ruins of classical antiquity, is ultimately Dyer’s examination of his crumbling middle-aged self.
Dyer has married since his “Yoga” days. In “The Ongoing Moment,” a ramble through the history of photography, he explains that his wife read the work in progress and “kept saying she wished there was more of me in it. The reader will, I suspect, be glad that for once I didn’t follow her advice.” On the contrary: Dyer’s partial restraint (there are still plenty of sentences in the first person) may also be what’s holding back the unexpected insights of the sort found in “Out of Sheer Rage” and “Yoga,” books that blend the male-confessional mode that has made Nick Hornby and David Sedaris popular with an appreciation of, and aspiration to, high culture.
It is probably unfair to expect Dyer, who has earned the epithet “genre-defying,” to repeat himself. But without a massive infusion of subjectivity, “The Ongoing Moment” does not transform its material. Instead, it’s like the lectures of a companionable art-history professor whose tics grow familiar as the semester wears on. What seems like brilliance is revealed to be mere cleverness, and glimmers of originality are overwhelmed by a sense of playing it safe within existing scholarly bounds.
Dyer approaches photography, which is to say a certain kind of modernist documentary photography, as a conversation across the generations. If you’re not already familiar with the players, “The Ongoing Moment” may not be the easiest way in, but Dyer’s language and method are not obstacles. He’ll riff on an object or setting – barbershops, staircases, benches, the empty highway – and how various canonical figures handled it. The everyman in an overcoat, for example, “first walks into our cultural viewfinder in the early years of the twentieth century. He still crops up fairly frequently after the Second World War. Rudy Burckhardt spots him in the neon dusk of Times Square in 1947; Mark Riboud finds him in England in 1954, scuttling along, looking slightly out of place in vernacular Leeds. Rene Burri sees him crossing a cobbled street in Prague in 1956, immediately after the Hungarian Uprising.”
That quote notwithstanding, mostly Dyer includes photographers interested in America – Paul Strand, Dorothea Lange, Robert Frank, William Eggleston and through to Michael Ormerod, a British photographer whose posthumous “States of America” is a remix of their visions. Dyer is particularly fascinated by “photographs that look like photographs taken by someone else” – an image of a child’s grave, for example, that looks like a Walker Evans but was actually taken by Edward Weston. These photographs confound assumptions about how content relates to style.
Dyer also tries to dissolve chronology and claims to see premonitions of the suicide of Rebecca Strand in a nude by Alfred Stieglitz, and that of Francesca Woodman, a prodigy who died at 22, in how she photographs doors. His attempt to work against these givens of art history – authorship, date – is an interesting idea but makes for a frustrating read.
It might have been less so if Dyer had more fully articulated what these images mean to him. By the end of “The Ongoing Moment,” though, I suspected that it wasn’t a case of his holding back; maybe he simply wasn’t as invested in these photographs as he thought he might have been when he began. It’s hard to know, but without that personal dimension, the result is a quirky but redundant survey that might as well have been written by an expert.
FANTASYLAND: A Season on Baseball’s Lunatic Fringe, by Sam Walker. Viking, 354 pp., $25.95.
Newsday, March 26, 2006
Robert Coover built “The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop.” around a solitary accountant so engrossed in an elaborate baseball-simulation game he devised that he loses touch with reality. J. Henry Waugh (whose initials suggest he is the supreme being in this fictional universe) spends his time rolling dice, not reading the sports pages or trolling the Web. But in other ways, Coover’s 1968 novel anticipates Rotisserie baseball, in which players cobble together rosters of individual ballplayers and compete based on their aggregated statistics. There have probably been casual fantasy-baseball players, but I’ve certainly never met one, and Roto drafts can trigger a kind of March madness. What else do you call the Florida man who, on medical leave from his job as an air-traffic controller, spent 70-hour weeks scouting for his 41 separate Rotisserie teams, if not the second coming of Henry Waugh?
Sam Walker, who relates the preceding anecdote in “Fantasyland,” has little in common with Waugh. Not only does Walker have a wife and plenty of friends, but, as a sportswriter for The Wall Street Journal, he’s a baseball insider. Wary of the addictiveness of fantasy sports, Walker always kept his distance until he wrote about it and realized that, while covering baseball had sapped any pleasure he used to derive from the game, Roto players maintained “an emotional investment in the outcome of every pitch.” So he decided to immerse himself in the fantasy-baseball subculture for the 2004 season and write a book about the experience.
Walker is a novice, but he talks his way into Tout Wars, an expert league of professional pundits who provide statistics, gossip and analysis for fantasy-baseball amateurs. At first, he thinks his press pass and front-office contacts will give him an edge but discovers that other touts also show up for spring training. Quickly overwhelmed, Walker hires two assistants: Sig, a moonlighting NASA mathematician with decades of player statistics on his laptop, and Nando, a baseball-crazed college graduate charged with entering every tidbit he finds on the Internet – injuries, hobbies, expressions of religious fervor – into a database called Hunchmaster.
Between Sig and Nando, Walker is paying $2,700 a month, but they help him get up to speed on hundreds of potential draftees and develop a strategy that just might let his team, the Streetwalkers, beat the experts. This odd couple allows Walker to echo the “ideological cold war” in baseball between veteran scouts and numbers-crunchers who never played baseball. It’s an imperfect parallel, however, since in fantasy sports, everyone’s crunching some kind of data. (Walker cites a sociologist who found that Roto players are 94 percent white, 98 percent male and “overwhelmingly” college educated.) Mostly, Sig, Nando and other part-time and impromptu advisers – from a baseball astrologer to David Ortiz, whom Walker is considering trading for Alfonso Soriano – let Walker externalize decisions that feel monumental to participants in Tout Wars but to outsiders are meaningless. This is true of sports, too, of course; but somehow fans believe that trading Ortiz affects them more than it does Mrs. Ortiz.
Walker succeeds in conveying the thrill of what is essentially derivatives trading. Once he gets through his preseason scouting trip, “Fantasyland” chugs along briskly, and the tense drama of the Tout Wars draft, held in a windowless hotel room near LaGuardia Airport, comes alive. The scene would be perfect if not for the sexy friend Walker hired to distract the competition with her womanly wiles while posing as a videographer. This sort of gimmickry keeps getting in his way. Walker buys a radar gun but doesn’t know what to do with it. He tours locker rooms and hands out T-shirts (and one player-of-the month trophy) to the bemused but largely indifferent Major Leaguers who are accruing home runs and strikeouts for the Streetwalkers. Later on, when Jose Guillen of the Angels and Streetwalkers is suspended for the rest of the season, Walker and Nando stage a protest outside his grievance hearing. These tactics usually fail and, taken together, raise the question of whether “Fantasyland” is one big cheap trick.
None of this will matter, I suspect, to readers who already knew the difference between Rotowire and Rotoworld. When Walker published his first piece on fantasy sports, he got loads of mail from men boasting or bellyaching about their own Roto teams but ignoring his focus on “the subtle influence that Rotisserie zealots were exerting on the major leagues.” They didn’t seem to care whether this posed a problem, and Walker’s behavior means it must not bother him, either. Fantasy sports are not quite gambling – most leagues are low-stakes contests – but there’s a tremendous amount of pride at stake. And the industry, according to Walker, now generates $150 million per year, not counting premium cable packages. A fantasy-sports scandal on the order of the Black Sox series or CCNY’s point-shaving may be only a matter of time.
Can the jesters of basketball break away from their Jim Crow roots and once again become kings of the court?
The Washington Post, March 2, 2003
The Harlem Globetrotters like to say they are the world’s winningest basketball team, but tonight they are playing catch-up. After a 70-68 loss to Vanderbilt, on a shot at the buzzer, their commercial flight left Nashville late. Traffic on the way to College Park ate into their warm-up time. Slow to find its rhythm, the squad on the floor — a couple of Globetrotter veterans, a few NBA castoffs, and some scholarship athletes who’ve just exhausted their eligibility — falls 15 points behind the fresh-legged Maryland Terrapins, then rallies before intermission and returns to the locker room down by four.
It’s harder to gauge how the Globetrotters are faring in their ongoing game of existential catch-up. By challenging the defending national champions tonight, they scored a national appearance on ESPN2. But for this preseason game and the rest of their three-week, no-nonsense tour against college teams, the Globetrotters have set aside the hallmarks that distinguish them from other mercenary platoons and foreign national teams that barnstorm in November. There are no ballhandling displays to the tune of “Sweet Georgia Brown,” no buckets of water or confetti thrown, and no Washington Generals to act as their inept foils.
When the announcer introduced the Globetrotters’ lineup, Maryland students offered their customary acknowledgment of the visiting team, unfolding newspapers and hiding their heads. The Globetrotters may be nothing special to 20-year-olds who grew up watching Michael Jordan as he took the Chicago Bulls to NBA championships and joined Bugs Bunny in “Space Jam,” but for previous generations the Globetrotters have a certain nostalgic appeal. My generation tuned in to watch Meadowlark Lemon and Geese Ausbie on “Wide World of Sports” and their animated avatars on Saturday mornings, and older fans may well remember Marques Haynes, Goose Tatum and a mid-century roster that regularly took on college all-star teams and twice defeated the Minneapolis Lakers, the pride of the whites-only National Basketball Association.
Tonight’s Globetrotters have an edge in maturity and size, with four players at least 6-foot-10. “If this was a regular-season game, I’m sure the Globetrotters would be favored,” Maryland Coach Gary Williams said before the game, and before rattling off the Globetrotters’ victories so far this fall — Purdue by 19, St. John’s by 25, Western Kentucky by 15. And despite fatigued physical play that keeps sending Maryland to the line, the Globetrotters stay in the game. With less than five minutes remaining, they have a chance to pull even.
After several passes around the key, Keiron Shine, a third-year guard out of the University of Memphis, gets the ball just beyond the three-point line. Shine — who flew in from Iceland, where another Globetrotters unit is touring with the standard comedic show — steps forward, puts the ball through his legs, and moves to his right. Then he spins left, and the ball gets away. Maryland recovers. Steve Blake feeds a streaking Drew Nicholas, who leaps to lay the ball in but is grabbed from behind — a flagrant foul and a collective expression of desperation. Nicholas makes both shots, and the Globetrotters unravel, shooting hastily and fouling on almost every play. Maryland finishes on a 17-2 run, winning 97-79.
“We really had to work hard,” Williams says, graciously acknowledging that the evening was not the mismatch indicated by the final score. “They’ve been on the road now for a week. That can’t be easy.” When Williams wraps up his spiel, the beat reporters and cameramen scurry to meet deadlines. Globetrotters coach Milton Barnes is left with an audience of three — me and two African American reporters representing the ethnic press. Barnes fields questions about whether Maryland can repeat after losing so many starters, and whether the Globetrotters’ ex-NBA men played up to expectations.
“The key word is ‘ex,’ ” says the subdued Barnes. “We’re hoping that the experience they have can rub off on our younger guys. We’re still in the process of putting our program to the level we want it.”
One of the other reporters, surprised not to have seen the famous Magic Circle ballhandling routine tonight, asks Barnes whether this team is even capable of the razzle-dazzle that the Globetrotters made famous.
“When we’re winning by 20 points, yeah, we’ll bring out the bag of tricks. But the key is getting the 20-point lead.”
Behind this question is a much more fundamental one, but it’s impossible to ask it here. For anyone who has seen the Globetrotters cavort with Scooby Doo or Gilligan, the very notion of a postgame press conference seems laughable. What are the Globetrotters, whose antics are their bread and butter, doing by challenging the Division I national champions? Why are they asking to be taken seriously?
Though unrevealing, Barnes’s brief remarks provide ample cover for the Globetrotters to slink from locker room to bus. The lone straggler is Olden Polynice, a journeyman center cut by the Philadelphia 76ers two weeks earlier.
“How do you like the striped shorts?” a television reporter asks Polynice.
“Hey, I told you, man, Harlem Globetrotters, that’s what I grew up watching,” he says. “I’m proud.”
The Globetrotters were born in an era when professional basketball was just another traveling show. Several of the team’s original members played at Chicago’s Wendell Phillips High School, and then at the Savoy Ballroom on the South Side. When the ballroom dropped the Savoy Big Five, their promoter, an energetic Jewish immigrant and former high school athlete named Abe Saperstein, proposed a touring team. On January 7, 1927, five players rode out to Hinckley, Ill., in Saperstein’s car for the Globetrotters’ first game. They earned $ 75; $ 20 went to Saperstein, $ 10 to each player, and $ 5 to expenses. Their uniforms said “New York”; within a few years, Saperstein would substitute “Harlem” to emphasize that his players were black.
Ethnic sports teams were hardly a unique concept in the 1920s; the New York Rens, a black-owned team operating out of the Ren-aissance Ballroom in Harlem, had ongoing rivalries with Joe Lapchick’s Original Celtics and the SPHAs of the South Philadelphia Hebrew Association. Still, the Globetrotters’ skin color was a novelty attraction as they barnstormed through Midwestern towns. Saperstein was a figure with whom white venue owners would do business. That first year, Saperstein’s team posted a 101-6 record.
The Globetrotters weren’t the first to marry comedy and sports, nor did they start off as a comedy act. Players today tell a handed-down story about a cold night in Iowa during the Depression, when one Globetrotter stood too close to a potbellied stove and his uniform caught fire. As he ran screaming around the court, the audience roared, and Saperstein saw the future. The unspoken point of this tale is that if white crowds were going to pay to see the Globetrotters and not get angry when hometown squads lost, they would have to be distracted by displays of bright smiles, dim wits and other features of an archetype that was a fixture of vaudeville and early cinema. “We have to remember that Saperstein’s Trotters played and were hired in a world where the lynching of Black males for ‘reckless eyeballing’ of white women was still commonplace,” Nelson George wrote in Elevating the Game: Black Men and Basketball.
Even as they became famous entertainers, the Globetrotters became a bastion of black athletic excellence. In 1940, at the World Tournament in Chicago, they defeated the New York Rens, who had survived the ’30s without resorting to clowning. A decade later, after the Globetrotters had twice defeated the NBA’s Minneapolis Lakers, led by dominant center George Mikan, the Globetrotters’ Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton joined the New York Knicks, becoming the first black player to sign an NBA contract and breaking Saperstein’s monopoly on African American talent. Even so, NBA teams limited the number of black players to keep from alienating their white fan base, which saw behind-the-back passes, dunks and other flamboyant plays as undisciplined and unsportsmanlike. For many black players, the Globetrotters remained their best chance at a real paycheck; Wilt Chamberlain and Connie Hawkins passed through on their way to the big leagues.
It was also around 1950 that the Globetrotters actually started trotting the globe, with tours of Western Europe and South America in the early ’50s, and a trip to Moscow in 1959. While representing the emerging American superpower, they sowed an appetite for basketball worldwide that has only now matured enough to challenge American dominance in the sport.
Saperstein died in 1966, and the team has changed hands a few times since. These days, the signature on the Globetrotters’ tricolor basketballs belongs to a former Globetrotter and Honeywell executive named Mannie Jackson. In 1993, Jackson paid $ 5.5 million for a moribund organization that had all but forsaken athletics for entertainment and was losing $ 1 million a year. The Globetrotters now report $ 6 million in profits on $ 60 million in revenue and an annual audience of 2 million. In September, the Basketball Hall of Fame enshrined the Globetrotters, making them the fifth team to enter the Springfield, Mass., pantheon, and the only one honored while still in business.
Jackson has returned the Globetrotters from the brink of oblivion, but his vision for their future is, in it its own way, as grandiose as Saperstein’s was. The Harlem Globetrotters will not abandon their signature showmanship, Jackson tells me, but he also wants them to become one of the world’s 10 best basketball teams again. I wait in vain for the punch line, and he declines to sketch out how this dream can be realized, though he claims they can do it in the next five or six years. The good, but not great, players who took the court against Maryland didn’t quite have to live up to those expectations. But in addition to taking on the Division I national champions, they were also challenging their own legend, a mix of achievement and abasement forged in the era of Jim Crow.
Before their November trip to Maryland, the Globetrotters had not lost consecutive games since 1961. Further losses to Mississippi State, Connecticut, Central Connecticut State and Ohio State made for a six-game losing streak, their longest in history. Jackson fired Barnes, although the tailspin was destined to end soon anyway; the Globetrotters were about to lay off competitive play for the winter. From late December to mid-April, they get up to their usual tricks, on a North American tour with the New York Nationals — an intentionally hapless traveling team that goes where the Globetrotters go but stays in less fancy hotels. The Nationals have the same role as the Washington Generals once did, as well as the same owner. It is a grueling marathon, with two full complements of Globetrotters constantly on the move; each team is booked seven days a week, sometimes twice in one day. (On March 8, the Globetrotters are due at MCI Center at 11:30 a.m., and the Patriot Center, in Fairfax, at 7:30 p.m.)
In early January, I catch up with the Globetrotters’ eastern unit at a high school gym in Edwardsville, Ill., about half an hour east of St. Louis, where the team will play tonight. When time permits, the Globetrotters hold an afternoon practice to polish their showmanship and hone their basketball skills. The NBA veterans have moved on since the college tour, but five others who played against Maryland are here, running the floor in a full-court drill.
As with any professional basketball team, the Globetrotters’ roster is in constant flux. The average hire lasts less than three years, and Jackson’s staff is constantly making adjustments and scouting new talent. Joining the full-court drill is Tarise Bryson, a 6-1 shooting guard who’s had a recent run of tough luck. In his junior season, Bryson was the fourth-leading scorer in Division I, and he began his senior year with a chance to topple Doug Collins’s career scoring mark at Illinois State and a shot at being chosen in the NBA draft. But his first game back, he broke his wrist. By the time the NCAA denied Bryson’s request for another year of eligibility, it was too late to register for the draft. Bryson’s hopes of attracting attention in the summer leagues were squelched by injuries sustained in a car accident. Since recovering, Bryson’s been trying to keep in shape for next summer.
The Globetrotters don’t pay anybody a million dollars a year, and they can’t compete for a lottery pick. For a less sought-after prospect, however, they can be a tempting option. The minor-league salaries of the Continental Basketball Association and the NBA’s developmental league can be a fraction of what the Globetrotters pay a newcomer; their best-paid players make six figures. Top foreign leagues can afford to be more generous, but players can get homesick. For a player still clinging to NBA dreams, the choice might at first seem like giving up on Carnegie Hall for a steady gig with a wedding band. But as one basketball scout put it recently, to make it as a professional basketball player today, with the spillover into television, marketing and hip-hop culture, “you almost have to be a performance artist.”
The performance the Globetrotters put on is unlike anything else that Bryson — or, for that matter, any of his contemporaries — has encountered in a purely competitive environment. Globetrotters develop a repertoire of “reems,” a term encompassing vaudevillian routines as well as physical feats: dribbling a ball while sliding on one knee, catching the ball on the back of the neck, bouncing it between the legs and grabbing it behind the back with pointed elbows. Globetrotters, who avoid the fierce posturing that pervades basketball, must be career diplomats. All this requires a different set of muscles, both physical and social. The Globetrotters don’t expect new recruits to have mastered these skills, but there has to be the potential and the will to develop them. “I always used to have that hard face,” says Mike St. Julien, a seven-year veteran and the team’s strength and conditioning coach. “Now I smile more and just have fun and meet people.”
Back in November, Bryson played for the Globetrotters at Connecticut, but they cut him the next day. In Edwardsville, the Globetrotters offered him $ 1,000 for 10 days and another chance to make the team. Bryson says he’d never really thought about joining them year-round before Jackson approached him again, and when he tells me, “It’s very interesting seeing what they do,” it’s unclear whether he’s begun to think about it now. At the very least, he’s accepted an invitation to ride the bus as the eastern unit heads up into central Illinois, where he remains a popular local hero.
The Globetrotters will never compete at the highest level if they can’t match the NBA’s salary scale, but they can elevate their game by seeking out the Tarise Brysons of the world — overlooked players at in-between moments in their careers. But even if Bryson could be brought into the fold, he’s hardly a natural Globetrotter; at Illinois State, he had a reputation for being serious and seriously shy, and still speaks with his head down in a soft mumble. “He’s a shooter, but he’s got to play more to find his spacing,” Jackson says after watching Bryson work out in Edwardsville. “In the context of the team, he’s got to find his way.”
In St. Louis, a couple of hours before game time, Bryson joins a small shootaround as four other Globetrotters in full uniform greet hundreds of early arrivals. Children with parents, Cub Scouts and their den leaders, and the odd lone adult wait to meet a Globetrotter — it doesn’t matter which. Instantly recognizable and anonymous at the same time, the players introduce themselves and make cordial small talk. In a subtle way, the Globetrotters bridge the chasm between athlete and admirer and, depending on the customer, other differences as well: tall and short, adult and child, white and black. After a few seconds, a player will wrap his long arms around the fans and smile for a snapshot.
At 7 o’clock, the lights go down. The reems begin before the clock starts ticking, when Matthew “Showbiz” Jackson (no relation to Mannie) stands with his back to the basket by the scorer’s table, and launches a hook shot. The ball arcs high in the air, a revolving blur of red, white and blue crossing half of the court, but fails to hit the rim. The crowd of 10,850 remains silent until Showbiz, tonight’s lead clown, sighs into his microphone, then says, “One more time,” in a thick Georgia drawl. He misses again, and this time the crowd needs no cue to sigh. After each miss, he offers a ridiculous excuse: He’s too close, he’s distracted by the reflection off a bald fan’s head. After the seventh miss, he gives up.
As the starters take the court for the opening jump ball, Tarise Bryson takes a seat at the end of the bench. He’s not in uniform, since the Globetrotters won’t be using him as a substitute, but he’s been given a cranberry velour sweat suit that says Original Harlem Globetrotters. It hangs well on his slender frame but doesn’t quite match his solemn expression. Showbiz, all smiles, makes the rounds of his teammates, shaking their hands and greeting them warmly. He snubs Nationals captain Jared Whelan, a white guard out of Ramapo College, and when he comes to the tipoff circle and looks up at the opposing center, a tall black man with an NBA-caliber scowl, he shrieks and falls back faint, as if from fright. The crowd laughs, though I’m not sure whether the joke is that he’s a mean-looking guy or a mean-looking black guy. In either case, the Nationals’ center gets distracted, Showbiz controls the tipoff, and the Globetrotters take a 2-0 lead.
Sometimes the game is indistinguishable from any other game. Some plays out of the pivot-and-weave offense build to a choreographed dunk. Some reems subvert the conventions of basketball; when Showbiz wants to come off the bench, he presses the substitution horn and doesn’t let go. Others invoke the subject of race. Showbiz stops the game to call a foul on one of the Nationals, and the referee and announcer repeat his call “on the little white dude” verbatim. Later, Showbiz pulls a white boy, perhaps 6 or 7 years old, from the front row and tells the referee that the boy is his son. When race isn’t an explicit issue, it can be a subtext impossible to ignore, as when the clock stops while the team shimmy-shakes in unison to the likes of P. Diddy and Nelly. Throughout all this, I am wondering whether Bryson can see a role for himself in the script.
When the final horn blows, the ushers hoist a rope around the perimeter of the court, and the scoreboard operator puts 30 minutes on the clock. The Globetrotters commit to signing autographs for half an hour after every show. As fans stream down the aisles, Bryson is handed a felt-tip marker. His picture doesn’t appear in the program, but the children would be tickled to walk away with his signature. With the pen and the sweat suit, Bryson has a chance to get a taste of what it’s like to be a Globetrotter, but he stands well back from the fans and maintains a wary gaze.
Bryson perambulates uneasily as the road crew unfurls an inflatable mannequin, a towering Globetrotter that reaches halfway toward the ceiling. He settles behind Showbiz, who is signing programs, pennants, basketballs, hats, T-shirts, ticket stubs, paper cups, dollar bills — anything that absorbs ink. Bryson makes eye contact with a woman he knows in the stands. He taps Showbiz on the shoulder, but the besieged showman is too busy to look up until he is tapped again. When Showbiz turns around, Bryson points up at the woman, who is holding a point-and-shoot camera. She gestures that they should stand side-by-side, then puts the camera to her eye. In the presence of a familiar face, Bryson cracks a bashful smile, and her flash goes off.
For Bryson, this photograph may turn out to be what the parade of pregame snapshots will be for the children: a keepsake of a brief encounter. Bryson will never even make it to the next night’s game in Springfield, because his agent, Bill Neff, has heard that the Globetrotters put out a press release touting Bryson’s tryout. As Neff sees it, the Globetrotters already passed on Bryson in Connecticut, and this new tryout is merely a way to use a cash-strapped kid to hype the Globetrotters’ Illinois appearances.
While Jackson says, “We thought we were doing him a favor,” Neff doesn’t think his client would be served well by joining the Globetrotters anyway. “If you have aspirations of getting better as a player, spinning the ball on your finger isn’t a way of doing it.”
It’s not unheard of these days to play for the Globetrotters and move on to the NBA.
Devean George of the Los Angeles Lakers made the leap. So did SuperSonics center Jerome James. The biggest obstacle in attracting talent, according to Mannie Jackson, isn’t skill or salary levels but perceptions. There is the nagging sense that what the Globetrotters do is not exactly basketball, which is compounded by the persistent afterimage of them as animated superheroes.
“When people came to the arena, the guys tried to act like what people liked on TV,” Jackson says as his rental car crosses Missouri to check on the western unit. He blames previous owners for bowing to television executives’ demands that the Globetrotters cartoon characters have wider lips and more identifiably black voices, feeding stereotypes.
Returning to competition could remind the public that the Globetrotters were more than a blaxploitation-era cartoon, but the roster Jackson inherited in 1993 wasn’t yet up to it. He cleaned house, replacing older comedians with more athletic youngsters. In 1995, the Globetrotters won 10 out of 11 games against a touring team captained by retired Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, but even the one loss, which came after 8,829 consecutive victories against the Generals and their ilk, was progress. Two years later, the Globe-trotters defeated a new crop of college all-stars. In 2000, they beat the NCAA Division II champion, and lost to Division I champion Michigan State by four. The return to competition harked back to the years before integration, when they were the leading African American franchise. Jackson is still sore that the NBA did not include the Globetrotters in its 1996 golden jubilee, since it might never have reached 50 without Saperstein’s team playing doubleheaders to fill NBA arenas.
“He could bring numbers in,” Jackson says of Saperstein, “but he’d throw them out there as a bunch of Negroes clowning.” Jackson speaks of his predecessor with a processed blend of admiration and disdain. “His times were very racially cast, you know, and he himself was a minority. When you are the bottom of the barrel, you’re stepping on a lot of people trying to climb to the top.” At the same time, Jackson says, “Abe had a very special genius, not just in creating the marketing around the Globetrotters, but to be able to embrace these black folks. He had to take all the crap they took, plus he was building a product that will probably last another hundred years. It is an ingenious product. So Abe was a different guy. I think about him all the time.”
The Kansas City show features a different clown prince, Paul “Showtime” Gaffney, but events unfold much as they did in St. Louis, beginning with Showtime repeatedly missing the long hook shot.
In Omaha the next night, however, Showtime nails the half-court shot on his first try, eliciting a roar of genuine marvel. In the third quarter, Showtime grabs a handbag from the long table at courtside opposite the scorer. After fobbing the purse off on a National and taunting him with Bill Cosby’s Jell-O jingle (“Watch it wiggle, see it jiggle”), Showtime then identifies the bag’s owner, an attractive blonde named Suzi White, and calls her out to center court. A throbbing bass line comes over the public-address system, and Showtime begins an exaggerated bump-and-grind. With everyone in the Omaha Civic Auditorium watching — her 13-year-old daughter, Kelsey, sitting courtside; her fiance, Pat Thomas, a sergeant in the county sheriff’s office, who’s working security; and thousands of strangers — Suzi turns red, then decides to play along, and begins dancing.
When the music stops, Showtime escorts Suzi toward the exit, announcing that they’re heading out for a bite to eat. He then brings her back on the court, and says he can guess where she got her shoes. If he’s wrong, he’ll give her his jersey and autograph it; if he’s right, she has to give him a kiss on the cheek. It’s a sucker bet, and when Showtime announces that Suzi “got her shoes on her feet,” she gives him a peck on the cheek. He turns the other cheek, and she kisses that one, too. Then Showtime takes a towel, wipes off his lips and puckers up. When Suzi kisses him, he faints, and the rest of the Globetrotters stampede onto the court, clamoring to be next in line. Then everyone sits down, and the action resumes.
At the end of the show, the Globetrotters’ bus driver privately approaches Suzi White with a dinner invitation from Showtime. Suzi declines the offer, which Showtime says is
a further gag he improvised after hearing sheriff’s deputies say Suzi is engaged to their superior. During the autograph session, Thomas patrols the court in his uniform, keeping one eye on the crowd and the other on Showtime. Suzi brings Kelsey over to Showtime, so she can ask him to autograph her poster.
A few weeks later, the deputies still hadn’t let Thomas forget the handbag reem. “That’s the way cops are,” he says. “I got grief for that for two or three weeks after she kissed him on the lips.” After all the ribbing, Thomas is even less amused. “If he’s going to take advantage of my girlfriend in that public setting, how many women is he going to take advantage of around the country? He kissed her on the cheek, he kissed her on the lips, he asked her to dinner. To me that sounds like he’s trying to make the moves on her.”
Suzi White now says she regrets kissing Showtime on the lips. “Afterward, I looked up at Pat, and he didn’t look happy,” she says.
Kelsey, however, went back to school and told her friends about her mother’s star turn. “My daughter was like, ‘Mom, you didn’t do anything wrong. It’s funny. Who cares?’ ”
The Globetrotters’ bus, which is virtually a moving billboard for them and their sponsors, leaves Omaha at 8 a.m. For 300 miles, it cruises along the interstate, with the Nationals, in a generic rental bus, following at a safe distance. The early departure allows them to reach Columbia, Mo., with plenty of time to check in at their hotel, have some lunch and relax a bit before heading over to the arena for a full practice. The Globetrotters like to have two hours on the arena floor, with half set aside for rehearsal and the remainder as a free-form scrimmage.
The arena doesn’t free up until 4, however, leaving only an hour before the first fans
arrive for the pregame photo session. The rookies need to run through the double-dunk reem a few times, and figure out who throws the ball off the glass, and who will slam it home. They also have to learn where to kneel as the veterans do the Magic Circle to the tune of “Sweet Georgia Brown.” Five thousand people have bought advance tickets, not bad for a school night, and walk-ups are more likely with no snow on the roads. The Globetrotters have a show in a couple of hours; playing basketball will have to wait.
Deception, double-crosses, back-stabbing … It’s not that the passionate enthusiasts who gather around the Diplomacy board can’t handle the truth. They just don’t care to
The Washington Post, November 14, 2004
The train pulls into Baltimore, and Satan is waiting, as promised.
They say the devil wears many disguises. Satan has chosen the summer weekend uniform of the American male, a polo shirt and many-pocketed shorts. So has his friend Bad Tom.
There’s no telltale sign of how Andy Marshall and Tom Pasko earned their nicknames — no teeth missing from their smiles, no jailhouse tattoos, no leather above the ankles. Bad Tom may have a ponytail, a scruffy beard and a stud in one earlobe, but the combined effect is more pleasure-boat captain than outlaw biker, and the character on his baseball cap is Grumpy, from Disney’s “Snow White.” When a Ford sedan honks at Satan’s Jeep SUV for a not-very-aggressive merge, Satan leaves the windows rolled up while murmuring, “It’s really unfortunate that you’re that upset.”
We stop for dinner at Bertha’s, a seafood place in Fells Point. Nursing a Glenlivet, Satan shrugs off his handle as a harmless pop-culture reference; in his round face, round glasses, receding short hair, mustache and goatee, friends detected a resemblance to the animated cutout of Satan on “South Park.” As for Bad Tom, he explains that on the Diplomacy circuit, “Evil Tom was already taken.”
Diplomacy is a seven-player board game based on the fragile balance of power in pre-World War I Europe. First played 50 years ago in a Cambridge, Mass., rooming house, it is a cult classic that, like a midnight movie or a jam band, attracts rolling waves of adolescent fans. It also enjoys a core following of salesmen, lawyers, software engineers and other adults, mostly men, who spend their weekends at gatherings in suburban dens, conference rooms and chain hotels around the country.
Diplomacy isn’t everyone’s idea of fun. Time is one obstacle; a quick game can take six hours, and others can go on for 16 hours. More important, most of the action unfolds away from the table, in tense, furtive conversations among the seven players representing the once-great powers of Europe as they trade intelligence and plan joint maneuvers. The back-and-forth sounds like a David Mamet screenplay about the Triple Entente, especially because no promise is binding, no piece of information reliable. According to the rules, “players may say anything they wish.” Eavesdropping, slander and betrayal — back-stabbing, in Diplomacy parlance — become arrows in your quiver, not the concealed weaponry of cheats and spoilsports.
“The whole thing about Diplomacy isn’t lying,” says Bad Tom, who drove down to Maryland from Connecticut for the Tempest in a Teapot, a tournament run by the Potomac Tea & Knife Society, the national capital region’s Diplomacy club. “It’s getting other people to do what you want them to do and have them think it’s their idea.”
Satan laughs. “And if that doesn’t work, you lie,” he says.
MORE THAN 15 YEARS HAVE PASSED since I’ve been around a Diplomacy board. I discovered it in eighth or ninth grade, at that awkward age when boys, especially those of us not destined to become varsity athletes, seek out alternate paths to feeling powerful — anything from student government to the punk scene. My friends and I had made a brief foray into Dungeons & Dragons, but found it too fantastical, too formless, too random. Diplomacy, on the other hand, I fell for immediately. At the time, I was toying with the thought of a career in politics, maybe international affairs. And what was high school, after all, if not a world of limited resources, rampant rumors and shifting loyalties?
Describing an unfamiliar game, particularly something as involved as Diplomacy, is an almost impossible task. It’s like expecting a real estate ad or a blueprint to capture what it’s like to live in that house; you can’t understand until you’ve parked your toothbrush there. Enthusiasts sometimes describe Diplomacy as chess crossed with poker, because the game combines tactics and strategy on a board with bluffing and second-guessing in a large group. Reality television offers another point of comparison. “It’s like ‘Survivor’ without the bug bites,” says Lisa Foster of Burke, who joined the Potomac Tea & Knife Society last year. “You make alliances with people. You stab them in the back. You vote people out, sometimes because you’re threatened by them and sometimes because you don’t like them.”
Back in high school, sometimes my close friends offered the best alliances on the board, but other times I had to choose between my strategic interests in prewar Europe and my strategic interests in high school. We must have played Diplomacy only a handful of times, no more than 10, before burning through the pool of curious players and our own fascination. That may not sound like much — and compared with the typical player at the Tempest, we were mere amateurs — but it was like a formative teen romance: brief, intense, casting a shadow over future relationships.
In Diplomacy everyone gets to be an emperor, and emperors don’t always treat others with the respect demanded by family and friends. When a child tries to be manipulative, usually the effort is either revealed or rewarded; in Diplomacy both happen at once. No matter how much you remind yourself that Diplomacy is a game, an attack can feel surprisingly personal — in part, as seasoned players acknowledge, because it is. “Some of it is France attacking England, but some of it is me attacking Michael,” says Tom Kobrin of Greensboro, N.C., the one known as Evil Tom.
So sometimes a stab can reverberate beyond the board for years, raising fundamental questions about your ability to read strangers or about the trust underlying a long-standing friendship. Its impact isn’t limited to the person on the receiving end of the dagger. As much as I enjoyed back-stabbing in high school, it bothered me that I enjoyed it, and that I might even be good at it — a character flaw, I assumed then, for an aspiring politician or diplomat. Cunning is celebrated through nicknames and banter in Diplomacy circles, but the same players choose to keep thishobby separate from their professional and personal lives. Satan avoids telling outsiders how he spends his weekends. “I downplay the hell out of it,” he says. “I don’t want people to get the idea that I engage in this sort of lying and deceptive behavior in my real life. Partly because it isn’t how I am in real life, and partly because it is.”
THE POTOMAC TEA & KNIFE SOCIETY sends out about 100 invitations to its floating monthly games in members’ homes. The Tempest in a Teapot, which squeezes three rounds of Diplomacy into a 48-hour period, is its annual to-do; Satan, who lives in Germantown, is the tournament director. It’s 6 p.m. on a Friday in August, the first day of this year’s Tempest, and Satan is assigning players their tables and countries at the Hunt Valley Inn, a Marriott 20 minutes north of Baltimore. The champion will get a plaque, and the person who pulls off the weekend’s best back-stab will receive the Golden Blade. “It’s a good award to have, but you win too many of them and people start to wonder about you,” Satan says.
The players proceed to unfold the Diplomacy boards, which feature a map of Europe divided into 75 spaces, corresponding to provinces and bodies of water. Spaces marked with dots are called supply centers, and each can sustain one army or one fleet. The major powers — Austria, England, France, Germany, Italy, Russia and Turkey — begin the game with three or four pieces in their home country, each one in a supply center. There are a dozen more unclaimed supply centers in minor countries such as Denmark and Bulgaria. To win, one player must occupy 18 supply centers, or a majority of the 34 of them on the board.
A turn begins with 15 minutes of negotiations in which the seven players discuss grand strategy and plan tactics. The pieces can go one space in any direction. Fleets can’t go inland, armies can’t cross the water on their own, but otherwise all pieces are equally strong. And two pieces can’t share a space; for instance, opposing pieces trying to move into the same supply center would mean a standoff. Instead of moving, a piece can provide support to a nearby piece, its own or an ally’s. Support is needed to capture a contested province, hold off an attack or force a retreat.
A similar dynamic exists on the strategic level. No player begins the game with enough strength to eliminate another country single-handedly, so you need to gang up. But on whom? Diplomacy is not a strict reenactment of history, so the battle lines of World War I usually go out the window. And while everyone wants to get bigger, nobody can afford to be seen as a threat to the others.
“When you’re playing on a Diplomacy board, you are a salesman,” says Jim Yerkey of Catonsville, Md., who has played competitive Diplomacy since 1976. “Whatever country you have, you have to sell your story to the other people. And in many cases, it’s a different story to each of the other six people.”
After 15 minutes, the players draft and submit written orders. Only when these are read aloud do you find out who kept their word, who betrayed you, who distrusted you, who hedged their bets (though the orders might contain a feint). Every piece moves simultaneously — that is, the pieces that haven’t been blocked from moving. The game begins in spring 1900; there are two turns per calendar year. At the end of each fall turn, players take inventory of supply centers, then add or remove pieces until every country has one per supply center.
I wander over to Board 6, where several top players are clustered, including Bad Tom, who is France. Perhaps the most formidable player here is David Hood, who picked up Diplomacy in high school in 1984 — right around when I did, only he never put it away. Hood, who now practices law in Hickory, N.C., is short and thin, with a widow’s peak and reddish sideburns. No diabolical nickname could possibly stick to his clean-cut appearance, honest face and gentlemanly manner. “In this game, lying is okay,” Hood says in his smooth Piedmont accent. “You can’t do that in a small town.”
The timer is set, the spring turn begins, and players pair off to negotiate. With seven boards going at once, the players spill out of the Hunt Valley Inn’s Garden Room into the carpeted hallway, the tiled vestibule near the catering kitchen and a brick outdoor patio. One player slinks around to another entrance on the far side of the patio so a clandestine rendezvous will go unobserved.
Hood, who is Turkey, first sounds out his immediate neighbors on the board — Italy, Austria and Russia — and tries to put them at ease. The Diplomacy circuit has its own balance of power, and Hood’s national reputation and trophy collection make him a prime target for a preemptive attack.
“Your name is too strong, Dave, you understand,” says Hudson Defoe of Baltimore, who is Italy. “You’re number one, realistically. I’m just telling you straight up.”
Hood seems unruffled. “If you wanted to work with me, you could make it happen,” he tells Defoe. Then Hood finds Nathan Barnes, an up-and-comer from Seattle, who is Austria. They seem to have a genial, if inconclusive, chat, but Hood smells danger. “He wants to kill me,” Hood says afterward. “He wasn’t being forthcoming at all about what he wants to do. This is not looking good.”
Russia is similarly guarded. Hood then chats with Bad Tom, who, as France, is too far away to be a short-term threat or immediate help. Together they size up the rest of the board. Germany is an unfamiliar player — what Bad Tom calls “fresh meat.” The England player, Carl Willner of Washington, “is an alliance player, but he’s aggravating as hell,” Hood tells Bad Tom. “Remember, he works for the Department of Justice. There’s not a lot of interesting people who work for the Department of Justice.”
With most conversations taking place between pairs, there is often an odd man out, and Hood finds himself alone at the table when time is up. When the others return, they write down their orders. From Turkey, Hood sends an army into Bulgaria, a neutral supply center, and another one east, toward Russia. In the fall, Hood tries to move up into Rumania; Barnes, playing Austria, has promised him support, but when the orders are revealed, he has written them down wrong. Russia also tries to take Rumania, but without Austrian support it’s a standoff. Barnes claims he made an honest mistake, but Hood doesn’t believe him. “That was a misorder on purpose,” he says. What’s more, Italy and Austria have allied against him, making a series of moves known as the Lepanto Opening, a gambit named for a 16th-century Ottoman defeat.
Hood tries to make nice with Russia, but it is too late. He holds out long enough to avoid being the first knocked off the board; the fresh meat is run out of Germany by 1903. Then Turkey gets carved up by Defoe’s Italy and Barnes’s Austria. But even before Hood retires to his room for the night, the conquering alliance has frayed, and Defoe is losing his grip on his supply centers.
Now in cahoots with Bad Tom, Barnes knocks Defoe out at about 11:30 p.m., just in time for Defoe to join fallen emperors from other boards at an unoccupied green table in the Garden Room for a friendly game of no-limit Texas Hold ‘Em. Like professional athletes with friends on rival teams, seasoned Diplomacy players are able to grapple intently, then leave what happens on the board. Paradoxically, betrayal binds them together, and Diplomacy circles have yielded many solid friendships. Andy Bartalone, a Potomac Tea & Knife Society stalwart from Bowie, says of one friend, “I would trust him with the payoff mortgage on my house — in cash. But I wouldn’t trust him to stay out of Belgium.”
IN 2000, THE HUNT VALLEY INN WAS THE SITE of the World Diplomacy Convention, an annual event that attracts players from North America, Europe and Australia. Also in attendance was Allan B. Calhamer, the creator of Diplomacy. “The biggest lie we ever tell around the Diplomacy board is likely to be, ‘I’m going to back you up,’ ” Calhamer said in his keynote speech. “They tell a lot bigger lies in the real thing.”
Born in 1931, Calhamer grew up in the Chicago suburb of La Grange Park, the son of an engineer and a schoolteacher. “We used to draw maps of imaginary countries,” recalls Gordon Leavitt, his boyhood neighbor and lifelong friend. “Once we discovered in the attic a geography book that showed a map of Europe before World War I with the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the old boundaries.” Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on Calhamer’s 10th birthday, and, though he discounts this coincidence, World War II clearly had a profound impact on him. In high school, he participated in debates about universal military service and world government. He read in Life magazine that the postwar world would have seven major powers.
“It didn’t work out that way, of course, because the United States and Russia were so much more powerful than the rest,” Calhamer says now. “But the article gave this idea of the complex balance of power. And it would make a heck of a parlor game, so I basically translated complex balance of power onto a board.”
Calhamer won a scholarship to Harvard, where he played on the chess team and majored in history, then went on to Harvard Law School. Calhamer was developing a board game, and one day he invited six classmates to his room to test it out. “It required somebody who had a lot of patience,” says classmate Herbert Prochnow. “After an hour or two, I started looking at my watch.”
Nevertheless, Calhamer made a breakthrough that day. “In the first game, we did the diplomacy by writing messages,” he says. “It got to be crazy, jotting these things off and throwing them across the table. So after that, we just talked face-to-face. That was a tremendous improvement.”
Calhamer never finished law school, but he kept working on Diplomacy. In 1958, he joined Sylvania’s Applied Research Laboratory, in nearby Waltham, Mass., where he was engaged in operations research, a scientific approach to military problem-solving that’s akin to designing a game. “He was hired because of the game,” says Richard Turyn, a mathematician who worked at Sylvania.
In 1959, Calhamer printed 500 copies of Diplomacy; through word of mouth, it sold out in six months, he says. He licensed the game to a publishing firm; Diplomacy was mentioned in Time, Life and the New Yorker, and became a feature of some introductory Foreign Service courses. Over the years it has surfaced as a diversion in professional diplomatic circles.
Gideon Rose, the managing editor of Foreign Affairs, learned the game as a teenager from Martin Indyk, a Middle East specialist and former ambassador now at the Brookings Institution. “Last time I played with Martin, he conquered the world by playing with France,” Rose says. “I don’t know that he’d cop to it, with the transatlantic alliance where it is now.”
At Harvard, Rose taught the game to his fellow graduate students, and he sees it as valuable practice for the real thing. While Diplomacy is not a perfect model of today’s world — it doesn’t anticipate a nuclear North Korea or a decentralized terrorist network such as al Qaeda — there is a parallel dynamic in mid-game, when one player takes a commanding lead. “The challenge to the United States today is how to be a liberal hegemon, how to maintain its dominance without provoking a balancing coalition, without pissing people off,” Rose says.
Diplomacy isn’t every diplomat’s favorite. “It rewards bad behavior and furthermore gives people the impression that that’s the way it’s supposed to be, that people achieve their objectives by deceiving people,” says Larry Lesser, who encountered the game while in the Foreign Service in Kigali, Rwanda, in 1978. Frank Crigler, then the U.S. ambassador, proposed a game of Diplomacy, with a turn each day at cocktail hour. Lesser signed up and got stabbed on the first move; he’s still smarting. Last year, Lesser wrote in Foreign Service Journal that the ambassador, when faced with resistance in the game, threatened to shut down an aid project run by one player, banish another from the Peace Corps and blackball him from the Foreign Service. “The ambassador’s wrath ended the game prematurely,” wrote Lesser.
“Larry and I have never been the same,” says Crigler. He says he doesn’t remember making any such threats, but if he did, they weren’t meant to be taken seriously. “Winners in the game of Diplomacy may forget they have to face these people in the office tomorrow.”
The game’s greatest devotees have been armchair diplomats. John Boardman, a retired physicist formerly at Brooklyn College, devised a postal version for players who couldn’t find enough time or people to play in person. Today, the action has moved to the Internet. The different media emphasize different skills — the persuasive essay versus the sales pitch — and the best online players can founder in face-to-face tournament play. Besides, as Bad Tom says, “one of the coolest things in Diplomacy is seeing the person’s expression when you screw them.”
This activity has never added up to enough sales for Calhamer to live off royalties, nor did inventing Diplomacy help him find work in the foreign policy field after leaving Sylvania in 1965. Calhamer eventually moved back to La Grange Park, where he took a job as a letter carrier for the Postal Service; he is now retired. When he writes in to the Harvard alumni magazine, “he always mentions the game,” says his old friend Gordon Leavitt. “It’s the one thing that he could always be proud of.”
At the Hunt Valley Inn in 2000, Diplomacy fans asked the creator of their universe to autograph their game boards, but they didn’t cut him any slack in the tournament. “I had two good games and two lousy games, I guess,” he recalls.
“He got creamed,” says Satan.
“Calhamer was pretty well crunched up,” says Jim Yerkey. “He has the ultimate target on his back.”
MOST DIPLOMACY GAMES END WITHOUT A CLEAR WINNER, because of tournament time limits, stalemates or fatigue. (Invariably, our games during high school were called on account of dinnertime.) With no end in sight, the surviving players can call a draw.
At the Hunt Valley Inn, in the early hours of Saturday, as Hudson Defoe is cleaning up at the poker table, Evil Tom pulls off a solo victory on Board 4 while wearing a button that says, “Diplomacy is the art of saying ‘Nice Doggy’ while you look for a big enough rock.” Other boards have settled on three- or four-way draws and dispersed to the bar or the poker table, but Board 6 is still hard at work.
With 12 supply centers, Nathan Barnes is two-thirds of the way to a solo victory as Austria. At the table, he floats the possibility of a three-way draw with France and England — Bad Tom and Carl Willner. In one-on-one talks, however, Barnes explores with each of them how they might eliminate the third player. And this may all be for show, because Barnes appears to have too strong a position to settle for a draw.
“Austria’s got a solo sitting at his doorstep,” Bad Tom tells Willner.
“I’m happy to work with you,” Willner replies, but these two have had a testy relationship all night. As neighbors, they have prospered, but Willner, perhaps wisely, never lets his guard down, and Bad Tom grows impatient with Willner’s “defensive squirrel actions.” So Bad Tom and Barnes team up, and Willner can’t find any way to shift the momentum.
The sun begins to set on the British Empire. Willner, a gifted tactician, holds his ground as long as he can. At 2:30 a.m., he notices that Bad Tom, secure in his nonaggression pact with Barnes, has left France’s position badly exposed; by fall 1910, Austria could move into Munich and Rome, which would bring Barnes up to 18 supply centers and a solo. “You’ve done very well,” Willner tells Barnes privately. “You got him to move out of position. Refusing to take the last two centers just prolongs the agony.”
After cultivating Bad Tom for more than eight hours and laying the groundwork for a two-way draw, Barnes could put himself in contention for a tournament win, maybe take home the Golden Blade and have something to boast about for months or years to come.
What Diplomacy players compete for is bragging rights. Twelve hours earlier, Barnes had been smoking cigarettes and drinking whiskey in the Hunt Valley Inn bar, swapping war stories with veteran players. My favorite came from Steve Koehler, a North Carolinian. “I’ve driven people out of the hobby,” Koehler had said with a mixture of pride and disdain. “We had a three-way alliance for eight hours. Germany was the front line, and England and I slaughtered him. And he said, ‘We’ve been at this how long and you turned on me?’ And we said, ‘Of course.’ And he got up and left the tournament.”
Koehler’s point was: Back-stabbing is fair play, but abandoning your position is unsportsmanlike. In other words, an ethical violation. From a distance, the Diplomacy circuit, which condones some “antisocial” behaviors, looks like an amoral free-for-all. But the game has rules, as does the culture that has grown up around it: See the game through to the end; respect the authority of the tournament director; and play in your own best interest.
Unquestionably, Barnes has Bad Tom by the short hairs, but he decides that, taking the long view, it is in his best interest to spare him. An hour later, the two have seized enough of Willner’s supply centers to declare a two-way draw between France and Austria.
“If I won this game, I wouldn’t have any fun the rest of the weekend,” Barnes explains before returning to his hotel room. A solo would have put him in excellent position for the tournament, but it also would have made him a target, and he fears early elimination in rounds two and three. He doesn’t want to have flown 3,000 miles for one glorious evening and two days of idleness. Getting to play all weekend, and having a chance at another solo, sounds much more appealing. And there are other weekends to consider; Barnes will face Bad Tom on another board one day, as well as other people who will hear about this game. He might need them as allies. “France and Austria, we did the whole handshake thing; I wasn’t willing to go back on that.” Besides, he says, “you have a reputation.”
NATHAN BARNES NEVER GOT ANOTHER CHANCE AT A SOLO, but he made his way into two more draws. He placed third in the Tempest, right behind Evil Tom, whose Friday night solo led to a humbler approach Saturday; the “Nice Doggy” pin was nowhere in sight. While fending off attacks to escape with a three-way draw involving Carl Willner, Evil Tom spent much of Saturday afternoon egging me on to play the next day.
When I had first talked to Satan about covering the Tempest, I explained that I had played Diplomacy years ago, and he invited me to join in the third round. We had left the question open, and I showed up Sunday morning not knowing whether I would be using my notebook to take notes or to order a Lepanto Opening. Satan finished the country assignments without calling my name, and largely I was relieved to be left out. My tactics are rusty, and I saw how these guys grind up fresh meat. Also, I’d have to go home and write about what happened, and, though I’ve matured since high school, I wasn’t convinced that I’d be able to leave what happened on the board.
Maybe what makes Diplomacy so difficult for most people to take is how closely it echoes human relationships — not the way people are supposed to treat one another, but society as it actually is, full of compromise, disappointment, betrayal. Nothing happens in this game that hasn’t been tried before on a blind date, a sales call, a family vacation or a reporting assignment, on Capitol Hill or at the United Nations. Most times we are still entangled with the same small group of people, and we can’t walk away from the board. We get swept up in our own tempests, and have to negotiate the turns to come.
After receiving a Hanukah present, he gave something that could never be taken back
Washington Post Magazine, November 24, 2005
Hanukah is a minor Jewish festival that has been elevated by what Americans call “the holiday season.” This euphemism means to be inclusive, but it also enters Hanukah in a competition it can’t win. Hanukah becomes a film festival, eight days of subtitled curiosities and earnest documentaries, up against a Hollywood blockbuster that opens simultaneously on thousands of screens. Likewise, every Hanukah present can disappoint simply because it is not one among dozens torn open in a flurry of paper around a tree.
The traditional gift is gelt, which is Yiddish for money; as a girl, my mother would receive a silver dollar for Hanukah, or a roll of dimes. But each evening after we lit the candles, my parents gave their children a present culminating in a Big Gift on the eighth night. Along the way, there would be gelt in the form of waxy chocolate doubloons that melt if you hold them too long before removing the foil; a plastic dreidel or some other small toy; books; clothes for our winter wardrobes.
When it came to clothing, I more or less accepted what my parents picked out, which could best be described as sensible and, whether for budgetary or philosophical reasons, excluded trendy items with prominent logos. As with most things, my mother usually understood what I did and did not like, and even when I wasn’t delighted with her choices, I was compliant. My sister, who is two years younger, was far more likely to argue with anything my mother wanted her to do. If my sister defined herself through this verbal sparring, I strived to become the person my mother and father expected.
By eighth grade, I had begun to notice classmates wearing vintage overcoats and army pants, and had become aware of the possibility of style, even if I didn’t have any myself. That Hanukah, on the third or fourth night, I remember peeling back tissue paper to find a safari shirt with epaulets, a larger version of a favorite from a few years earlier. It felt all wrong, as if my mother still saw me as the boy I was back then, only in a bigger size. (My mother recalls a different gift — a plaid flannel shirt, my sister got a matching one — and I’m tempted to defer to her because she did all the Hanukah shopping.) My sister lashed out, telling my mother that she had the worst taste and that she didn’t understand what we wore — that she didn’t understand us. This time, I joined in my sister’s outburst, and our mother looked like she was going to cry. She told us she’d spent hours looking for just the right gifts, hours she couldn’t afford to spend away from her editing work, with all the deadlines she was under that fall. Her vulnerability only egged us on, and our rejection of her gifts turned into a mutiny.
After dinner, my sister and I retreated to our room. The next night, my mother gave us the presents she’d already bought and wrapped, but it didn’t feel the same; once crew members revolt, the captain can never trust them again. And ever since what my mother still calls that horrible Hanukah, she’s become gun-shy and won’t buy either of us anything more substantial than a pair of socks without prior consent. On the one hand, this comes as a relief. But the exchange of gifts between us has also lost some of its magic. Looking back, I wonder about the real reason behind my harsh reaction. Perhaps my tantrum wasn’t a declaration of independence but rather of disappointment, revenge on my mother for not knowing me as completely as, until then, I always thought she had.
Cards and gambling authority John Scarne claimed to have invented one of the greatest board games of all time. Was he bluffing?
Washington Post, July 15, 2001
The disorderly bins outside a secondhand bookshop are like a potter’s field. In among paperback classics with too many dog-ears or too much fluorescent marker or pages so brittle that they could be turned only once more, one finds a haphazard assortment of obsolete curiosities and unrealized ambitions: a how-to book on typewriter repair; an analysand’s chronicle of six years of treatment by a disciple of a disciple of Freud; the spiral-bound cookbook of a ladies’ auxiliary enamored of bacon, marshmallow and gelatin. Their uniform token price — ANY BOOK THIS BOX $1 — signifies their all- but-worthlessness.
The book bins name names, unlike the anonymous mass grave, which means that anyone can see whose big dreams have fallen short of immortality. They also offer one last hope that one of those dreams may yet be redeemed. It was in just such a bibliolater’s boneyard that I happened upon Scarne on Teeko. The title, written in large, sans-serif, red block letters, screamed out from a Cold War-gray cloth spine. The colors caught my eye, but the reason I picked up Scarne on Teeko was that the only word I recognized was “on.” I couldn’t be sure the title wasn’t in Estonian or Esperanto. Scarne on Teeko is in English, published by Crown in 1955. John Scarne was the author, and Teeko was a board game he devised in the late 1930s and spent 15 years refining. “I firmly believe that the creation of Teeko plus the writing of this book will stand out as the achievements of my life,” Scarne proclaims in the introduction. “To millions of game devotees, Teeko has already proven its merit, worthy to be rated with Checkers, Chess and Go (the Oriental game), as one of the greatest skill games of all time.”
Millions of devotees? Greatest of all time? I’d seen Hula Hoops and poodle skirts, the remnants of other deflated postwar fads, but I’d never even heard of Teeko. Yet if a publisher had put out this 256-page manual full of endgame strategies and diagramed problems and variant rules, Teeko had to be more than just one man’s delusion. Then again, if the game still had a following, the bookseller would have shelved Scarne on Teeko indoors alongside vintage copies of Goren’s Bridge Complete and Lasker’s Manual of Chess. Something didn’t add up; it crossed my mind that Scarne on Teeko might be a work of fiction. Whatever the book was, I was certainly taken with the narrator. From his first words, Scarne’s voice rises from the page like a carnival barker’s: determined, supremely confident, and ultimately irresistible. “In order to play Teeko well,” Scarne says, “a certain amount of study is demanded.” So I paid my dollar and took my chances.
It says in Scarne on Teeko that by 1955, Calcutta and Rio and Tel Aviv all had active Teeko associations, but the epicenter was the Fairview Teeko Club, in Fairview, N.J., just across the Hudson River from Manhattan. A steppingstone for Italians and other immigrants moving out into the middle class, Fairview was Scarne’s home town, and he tested the game at a table in the back of a local luncheonette. In the finals of the inaugural tournament of the Fairview Teeko Club, Scarne defeated club president Howard Wurst seven games to one. The results are printed in Scarne on Teeko, as is a photograph of Scarne, broad-shouldered, partly bald, and snarling like a B-movie tough guy, facing off against a young woman of Fairview identified as Miss Steffi Storm. Her burlesque moniker contradicts her prim appearance.
Directory assistance in New Jersey had no listing for a Scarne in Fairview or the surrounding area. Nor was there a Steffi Storm, a Howard Wurst or any of the half-dozen local players Scarne had mentioned by name. I did find an Edward Wurst, and when I called he turned out to be Howard’s brother. Howard, I was told, had been a protege of Scarne, who taught him some magic and card tricks, but both men were long dead. Edward Wurst and his wife remembered seeing a Rolls-Royce with a TEEKO license plate at the A&P a while back and thought it might belong to Steffi, who became Scarne’s wife.
I tracked down Steffi Scarne in Florida and wrote her a letter. “I get letters from people all the time,” Steffi explained by phone in a nasal alto. “They will say, ‘I remember playing Teeko and I enjoyed it so much and I have grandchildren and I would like to get the game for them. Where can I get it?’ ”
Steffi told me Teeko is no longer available but that John Scarne Games Inc. remains in business. I asked whether I might visit company headquarters, and we met in a residential unit in a low-rise condominium in Clearwater.
One stucco-walled room is devoted to her late husband. It is filled with books and plaques and laminated pictures. There is a still from a ’30s Robert Benchley film Scarne appeared in, a photograph of a Kiwanis Club meeting with dozens of members holding up Scarne board games, a picture of Scarne looking a bit like Humphrey Bogart as he testifies before Sen. John McClellan’s 1961 committee hearings on gambling and organized crime, and a Magician of the Year award from the Society of American Magicians. There is a thank-you note from Robert F. Kennedy, and there are snapshots of Scarne posing with Rocky Marciano and Conrad Hilton. There is the original ink drawing of the March 1, 1957, installment of “Pogo,” Walt Kelly’s syndicated daily comic strip. In the second frame, a cane-wielding mouse yells, “Woddya mean ‘Shhhh!’ It’s the biggest thing since Scarne invented Teeko.” Perhaps the most remarkable curiosity on the wall is the carefully composed portrait made in South Africa by a National Geographic photographer of four bare- breasted, dark-skinned women of the Bavenda tribe huddled around a Teeko set.
Taken together, the mementos form a shrine to Scarne’s long and varied career, but also a monument to a bygone America, the place of prizefighters and comic strips and neckties, remembered in lush black and white. It is the era Simon and Garfunkel invoke when they ask, “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?” DiMaggio is on the wall playing one of Scarne’s games.
John Scarne was born Orlando Carmelo Scarnecchia in Steubenville, Ohio, on March 4, 1903, and soon moved with his unemployed Italian- born parents to northern New Jersey. In The Odds Against Me, his 1966 memoir, he admits that his first dream was to become a boxer. He tells how he would spar with — and lose to — a boy named James J. Braddock. When the two played checkers, however, Scarne consistently beat the future heavyweight champion.
Scarne had a sharp mathematical mind, but he never finished high school. His education came from observing “broad tossers” (three- card monte men) at the local carnival grounds and from a novelty shop owner who milled imperfect dice and marked up decks of playing cards. Mechanical aids fascinated Scarne, but not as much as sleight of hand. From an early age he devoted countless hours to practicing prestidigitation. By the age of 13, he could toss the broad like a professional, much to the chagrin of his Catholic mother, who believed cards and dice were the devil’s tools.
Mrs. Scarnecchia’s concerns cannot be considered entirely religious. In the early 20th century, gambling in America was not the regulated, advertised combination of state lotteries, Indian reservations and family-friendly Nevada oases of today. Rather it was the shady province of racketeers and policemen paid off to ignore their parlors.
Gambling could be perilous, even in small-time situations, as the 15-year-old Scarne learned when he tried his luck at a neighborhood card table. A fellow called Lutzie was dealing “banker and broker,” a game decided by who cuts the high card. As Scarne tells it in his memoir, he ran through his entire weekly salary (he worked in an embroidery factory) before noticing that something was amiss. Lutzie would pick up the cards at the center of the deck to cut for Scarne, but for himself he would cut from the end. Scarne asked Lutzie if he could shuffle, and as he handled the deck he could feel it was uneven; some cards had convex edges, others concave. In gambler’s argot, these cards are known as belly-strippers.
“You’re all a bunch of crooks and this deck is just as crooked!” hollered Scarne, who then demonstrated to the other players how Lutzie could cut a high card at will. Lutzie reached for the belly- strippers, then pulled a switchblade. Another man grabbed a bottle. Scarne, trembling with fear, fled just before the cops arrived.
“If you like to play with cards so much, practice to do tricks with them,” Mrs. Scarnecchia told her son when she heard what happened. So he developed skills in the slightly more respectable realm of magic. A playing card would mysteriously appear in someone’s wallet, a dollar bill would emerge from the inside of a lemon.
At 19, Scarne gave a half-hour magic show at the Park Central Hotel in New York. For the finale, he performed what would become his signature feat: cutting all four aces from an unmarked, unstacked deck of cards. At the hotel that evening was Arnold Rothstein, the gangster infamous for fixing the 1919 World Series. Night after night Rothstein paid $200 for a private show so his cronies could observe Scarne cutting the aces. No wiser at the end of a week, Rothstein had an associate offer to bankroll Scarne on a card-playing junket to Hot Springs, Ark. With Scarne’s gifts, it would be possible to earn $100,000 in a week without resorting to belly-strippers. Rothstein’s boys offered Scarne a 25 percent cut, but he turned them down.
Throughout his life Scarne walked a fine line in his contacts with the underworld. Scarne lived in what might now be dubbed “Sopranos” country, and he wasn’t shy about claiming to know figures like Willie Moretti and Frank Costello. Yet Scarne didn’t want to shorten his life expectancy by playing cards with mobsters — even the mighty Rothstein met his end as the result of a high-stakes poker game — and he bailed out of more than one business venture after his partners brought in unsavory characters.
As careful as Scarne was about staying clean, his interest in gambling meant hanging out with criminals and keeping abreast of new schemes employed by card mechanics, or cheats. Scarne won their trust.
What’s more, Scarne lived for impressing the people who best appreciated his handiwork with cards and dice. In addition to the racket boys, this audience included the fraternity of magicians who congregated at Hornmann’s magic shop in New York. Magicians used different techniques than card mechanics, and Scarne’s brand of legerdemain made an impression. At Hornmann’s he befriended the already legendary Harry Houdini. Scarne learned a trick or two at Hornmann’s, perhaps none so useful as Houdini’s advice: “No one will ever be a better press agent for John Scarne than John Scarne himself.” In vaudeville, Scarne billed himself as The World’s Greatest Card Manipulator and The Magician Who Fools Magicians.
Scarne was already pushing 40 when the United States entered World War II, and he initiated his own campaign on the home front. The way Scarne saw it, the war brought together millions of strangers in isolated places with few leisure activities other than gambling. Scarne estimated cardsharps and dice cheats were earning $75 million a month off enlisted men. On military bases and in the pages of Yank, the Army Weekly, Scarne undertook a crusade to educate the young and naive. When he couldn’t warn soldiers off gambling altogether, Scarne tried to level the playing field by teaching them how to identify rigged equipment and distributing a crib sheet with the correct odds in craps, which Yank printed under the headline “Paste This in Your Hat.”
Scarne’s hands and occasionally his face appeared in Time, Newsweek, Life, Saturday Evening Post and the New York Times Magazine. He demonstrated cheating methods to the FBI, and at a 1944 banquet at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington entertained the commanders of the U.S. Army Air Forces and Britain’s Royal Air Force.
Building on his wartime efforts, Scarne set out to supplant Edmond Hoyle, the 18th-century Englishman associated with gaming manuals as closely as Noah Webster is with dictionaries. He was helped along by the birth of television and the rise of Las Vegas. Scarne did his anti-cheating act on the variety shows popular in the early years of TV. In Vegas, he met Bugsy Siegel, already familiar with Scarne from illicit gambling parlors, at Siegel’s pioneering Flamingo Hotel. Scarne taught Siegel the fly-and-sugar game, in which players wager on which of two sugar cubes a fly will land upon. The game is rigged; one face of each cube is treated with DDT, and the cubes are rotated so only one pesticided face is exposed. With the help of a fly, Siegel won $10,000 off Willie Moretti.
Scarne became a consultant to the Hilton hotel chain to ensure its casinos in the Caribbean were run honestly. For a while he ran his own magic-themed nightclub. Every few years he produced a new book. Scarne on Dice, Scarne’s Guide to Modern Poker and Scarne’s New Complete Guide to Gambling remain in print decades after the original editions appeared. Scarne appeared with Merv Griffin and Jack Paar, and served as a technical adviser on “The Sting.” When the con man played by Paul Newman contrives to deal himself a winning poker hand, the dexterous hands you see in close-up actually belong to Scarne.
“All of my adventures and exploits . . . will, of course, be forgotten soon enough,” Scarne writes at the conclusion of The Odds Against Me. “Gamblers and magicians come and go, but these truly great all-skill parlor board games are what I feel is my contribution to history.” When he died in 1985, newspapers eulogized him as an international gambling expert, though there was no mention of his favorite game.
Why did Scarne, The World’s Greatest Card Manipulator and The Magician Who Fools Magicians, think his ticket to immortality would be something as basic as Teeko? From a contemporary perspective, board games seem quaint when compared with today’s solitary technological diversions, but even in Scarne’s day Teeko was hardly cutting-edge. A Teeko set comprises eight medallion-shaped pieces, four red and four black, and a board with 25 circles arranged in a 5- by-5 matrix.
A great game doesn’t have to be elaborate. But it has to create a complete and engrossing universe that allows its players to escape reality — or attain the satisfaction they seek in their real lives – – by following an alternative set of rules. Monopoly, which became a sensation during the Great Depression, offered the facade of riches. Chess offered the weak and unassertive an opportunity to flex and dominate.
However large the player’s satisfaction may be, it must be dwarfed by that of the inventor who makes the rules. As much as Scarne was proud of his masterful skills of deception, The Odds Against Me portrays him as a hero who used his extraordinary abilities only for good. Gambling was his bread and butter, but he claimed to hold it in disdain. However, a game that gives everyone an honest chance, that has no room for underhandedness and no potential for violence, must have seemed to Scarne like a utopian retreat.
In Teeko, the board begins empty, and black and red alternately place pieces on unoccupied circles. Once all eight pieces are in play, the two players take turns moving one of their pieces to any adjacent unoccupied circle. The first to arrange his four tokens either in a square or a straight line (diagonals count) shouts “Teeko!” and wins.
The key to Teeko is thinking several moves ahead, getting opponents to expose their vulnerabilities while steering clear of their stratagems. “There are only 44 winning positions in Teeko whereas there are thousands of standard traps,” Scarne writes. Among the gambits he unmasks in Scarne on Teeko are the Horizontal Trap, the Vertical Two-Way Trap, the Sneaky Square Trap, the Unsuspecting Trap and the Cramped L Trap. The Scarne Trap is L-shaped, but not cramped. The Wurst Trap is named for Howard Wurst, the Storm Trap for Steffi.
At times Scarne makes Teeko sound like an approach to life. “You can’t play a good game of Teeko if your mind is wandering down the street to where the redhead lives, or if you’re wondering about Friday night’s card game or your boss’s ulcers,” Scarne on Teeko says. “Staying alert and thinking clearly may often depend on your condition both physically and emotionally.”
Having invented Teeko and possessing the virtues it rewards (intelligence, sobriety, hard work), Scarne created a realm he controlled and in which he was indisputably the best. Never one for modesty, Scarne described himself as “the outstanding player until such time as national experts are developed and competition is raised to a higher level.”
Teeko was not Scarne’s first foray into the world of board games. A 1929 photograph shows him moving numbered tokens on a hand-drawn oilcloth board. In the early 1930s, Scarne manufactured 5,000 cardboard sets of this game, which he named after himself. He hired a friend to demonstrate Scarne at Macy’s. Sales were disappointing; in The Odds Against Me he claims to have sold 300. The inventor, who still lived with his mother, didn’t want her to know Scarne had been a failure. So he asked a friend to send a telegram “from” Sears, Roebuck requesting a large rush order. Once his mother saw the telegram, Scarne took the remaining sets out of her cellar, doused all but a few with gasoline at the Fairview dump, and watched them go up in flames.
Next came a board game called Knockout, a joint venture with James J. Braddock, but Braddock’s reputation — he was then the heavyweight titleholder — couldn’t save their boxing game from the pyre. Over the years, Scarne started no fewer than five more bonfires for games that couldn’t be sold or became obsolete in the wake of further refinement.
In 1945, Scarne unveiled an experiment that synthesized elements of several classic games. “So I took the T from Tic-tac-toe, the E from Chess, the K from Checkers and the O from Bingo,” he wrote. Scarne quickly withdrew Teko because he thought the rules could be improved and the name should “be phonetically sound in any language.”
As Scarne was revising Teko (and adding another “e”) he first met Steffi Storm (nee Norma Kearney) at a nightclub. “He came over and sat down at the table and he did some tricks for us, card tricks,” Steffi recalls. “He had the fastest hands in the world. He was talking about he had just invented the game Teeko. It was in sample form, it wasn’t produced then. He had a friend who was in a paper box company and he made several prototypes using John’s design.”
Steffi became Scarne’s secretary. “He was very exacting,” she says. “Everything had to be absolutely perfect in his work. He was not easy to get along with in his work, because he wanted everything to be exactly right.”
When Scarne brought out Teeko in 1952, he took Houdini’s advice on self-
promotion to heart. Scarne dubbed himself The World’s Foremost Game Authority. He hired a sales staff. He parlayed his televised card-mechanic routines into sales pitches for his new game.
According to Scarne, the marketing strategy paid off. A November 1953 column in Newsweek has Scarne saying he had sold 100,000 Teeko sets to date. In a September 1955 Mechanix Illustrated article on “How to Market and Invent a Game,” Scarne said Teeko “has hit the half-million mark.” A decade later in The Odds Against Me, he claimed he sold “upward of one hundred thousand Teeko games” between 1952 and 1955.
Whatever the actual Teeko sales figures were, Scarne never turned a profit. “I should have made money, but I trusted too many people who turned out to be thinking of themselves and not of John Scarne,” he wrote in his memoir. He redoubled his marketing efforts in 1955, with the publication of Scarne on Teeko and with a tournament at the 21 Club in New York. The tournament was a promotional event; Scarne challenged 10 people — Braddock; actors Judy Holliday and Walter Slezak; national champions of chess and bridge — to play Teeko against him simultaneously. Scarne offered a $1,000 prize to anyone who could win two out of three games.
He invited a Life photographer and gave the magazine an exclusive: “The five-page article that will appear in Life Magazine following the tournament should sell one million Teeko games,” he told friends.
The evening at 21 was a success in that Scarne won all 10 matches, but otherwise it was a losing effort. He had ordered up canapes shaped like Teeko pieces, and let his guests run up a $5,000 tab. However, no story ever appeared, in Life or anywhere else.
It was a season of disappointments. A month earlier, in February 1955, Scarne’s mother died. Scarne, then in his early fifties, was still a bachelor, and he sought solace in his creation. “I plunged into my work harder than ever,” he wrote, “and that helped me forget. Every evening for the next three weeks I could be found engaged at the Fairview Teeko Club playing Teeko against ten to thirty players in simultaneous play.” He also heeded his mother’s suggestion and married Steffi.
At home, Steffi says, Scarne was less exacting than in his professional life. “He wouldn’t care what you wore to the house or how you decorate it. ‘You want a car, go buy it, don’t bother me,’ he’d say. He couldn’t care less. But don’t make a mistake if you’re typing up copy for him, because then he would have a fit.”
The year they married, Steffi gave birth to a child. “John was a very forceful person,” Steffi says. “He made up his mind, boy or girl, it was going to be called Teeko.” They dubbed him John Teeko Scarne “because you have to have a saint’s name for baptismal reasons. But we always called him Teeko.”
When people asked the boy where his name came from, he would say, “Teeko — after the game.” When they asked his father, Scarne would say, “If my dad had invented the game of checkers, I would be proud to be named Checkers.”
It’s unclear whether Scarne actually sold the hundred thousand or half million Teeko sets he claimed. Were he still alive, he might lash out at me for questioning his numbers. The autodidactic inventor got into heated quarrels and even legal disputes when his figures were challenged, particularly when the challenges came from someone with an academic pedigree. Scarne feuded with Allan N. Wilson and Edward O. Thorp, professors who said his blackjack advice was based on incorrectly calculated odds. And in the 1970s, Scarne’s statement that Americans wagered $500 billion each year was countered by governmental and university studies that produced estimates less than a tenth of Scarne’s.
After the 21 tournament, Scarne withdrew Teeko again to make some refinements, rereleasing it in the early 1960s. The Fairview Teeko Club had fallen dormant by then. Its successor, Parent Assembly 1 of the Teeko-Scarney Game Club, held its inaugural meeting in 1963 at Merletto’s Restaurant in Fairview, but the club did not last.
Scarne, whose various projects divided his attention and kept him on the road much of the time, tired of running his own warehouse. “He was more of a creator than a person who liked to do day-to-day business,” says Steffi. “He’d be very excited when he was working on it. And then he was off onto something else.”
Scarne found a firm in Pennsylvania to store and distribute John Scarne Games, but this too turned out to be a bad bet. Steffi remembers that the company had a devastating fire; a spokesman for Stackpole Books of Mechanicsburg, Pa., which also published some of Scarne’s books, says a flood destroyed much of its stock. In either case, the disaster meant the end of Teeko.
“It was a heartbreaker for John,” says Steffi. “But he was the type of person who said, ‘Well, it’s not in the cards, it’s God’s plan, maybe it’s not meant to be.’ And he just contented himself with the knowledge that he had created what he considered to be the best skill game of all time. Nobody knows who invented chess or checkers, but they evolved over generations; they didn’t start out the way they finished up. So he was happy to know he was the only person, that he could say that John Scarne invented Teeko from start to finish.”
Every so often, one of John Scarne’s games surfaces on eBay — Scar-Nee, Scarney, Skarney, Scarne’s Challenge and a Yahtzee-like dice game called Scarney 3000. The sellers don’t always know much about him, but they always mention he is the World’s Foremost Game Authority because that’s what it says on the box. After months of trawling, I landed a Teeko set for $24 from a woman in California. I received a full-size board in still-vibrant primary colors and a pencil-yellow box that holds the eight plastic game pieces. From the picture, it seemed like the box contained the board, but in fact it only holds the playing pieces and is no bigger than a paperback book. I was disappointed by its size, yet this seemed fitting somehow.
“It’s too bad John isn’t here to demonstrate the games himself, because naturally he knows how to do it best,” Steffi Scarne says as she prepares lunch in the kitchen of her Florida condominium. She is short, with smooth skin and green eyes, and dressed all in pink. “I’m no expert when it comes to games. He really could explain it very well. He knows all the percentages and the odds and the moves. But I’ll try to show you the best I can.”
Steffi’s domain is decorated with Catholic statuary and with pictures of their son, who died of cancer in 1981, four years before John Scarne. On the kitchen counter, Steffi has set up game boards for Teeko, Scarney and a game called Follow the Arrow. “They’re skill games,” she says between bites of tuna fish sandwich, “which means to be really good at anything you have to study it, count the moves so many ahead and all of that. I’m not in that category.” She giggles. “If I win, it’s by dumb luck.”
After lunch, Steffi brings the game boards over to the dining table. The Teeko set looks different from the one I have; the playing pieces have pips on them like dice, numbered one to four. It’s a point-scoring system, she says, one of the innovations that came after Scarne on Teeko. This version, she says, was the “final final” edition, from the early 1960s.
“The trouble with John is that he never knew how to stop inventing games,” she says. “He was always improving. He’d say, ‘You wouldn’t want me to have this game if it wasn’t perfect’ — he always put it off on me, you know — and before you know it the dump truck would be pulling up to the door and taking away thousands of games. Five, six thousand of them, because he’s going to change the rules or something. He used to say to me, ‘Why didn’t Henry Ford come out with the Lincoln Continental? He had to invent the Model T.’ ”
Steffi remembers her husband saying, “I know that I created the best games on the market, the best games there are, and they’re going to last for years and years and they rival chess and checkers and go. But I’ll never see it in my lifetime, and probably you won’t see it in yours. As soon as we’re out of the picture, the vultures would step in and see what they can grab.”
In fact, Steffi says, she has had conversations with at least one big company about bringing Teeko back. “They’re interested, but when you tell them you want credit for it they say, ‘Well, it’s the policy of the company that it has to be a Milton Bradley game or a Parker Brothers game. We don’t care who invented it; this is going to be our game.’ And I want to promote it because it was John’s creation. This is like his children. That’s the way he thought of it. They can call it whatever they want to call it, or repackage it any way they want to repackage it or come out with a series of games if they felt like it. But would it hurt in small letters on the box to say ‘Created by John Scarne’? Unless they want to do that, I just wasn’t interested.”
Steffi’s attention returns to the Teeko board between us. “You wanna try it?” she asks. She explains the new rules, then tells me to go first. I make my opening move, she makes hers, and we each fall into silent concentration. I had worked on some of the problems in Scarne on Teeko, but this is my first game against another person. Inquiries about the present status of the Teeko clubs of Calcutta and Rio and Tel Aviv have yet to produce any results; for all I know, they may never have been more than one of Scarne’s illusions. At the moment, our Teeko game may be the only one being played anywhere on Earth.
All eight pieces are on the board, and we start to move them around. After decades of playing with Scarne and typing his manuscripts, Steffi has more than dumb luck in her corner, but I realize this one turn too late. Unsuspecting, I have fallen into a trap. With my next move I block one winning position, but Steffi maneuvers into another. Her four red pieces form a straight line.
“Teeko!” she shouts, clearing the board so we can play again.
Economy Candy, Nextbook.org, April 3, 2006. Podcast interview with owner Jerry Cohen.
The Ambassador of Go, Third Coast International Audio Festival, October 22, 2005. Feng Yun, a 9-dan Go professional from China, makes her way in America. Also aired on Weekend America, October 22, 2005.
Taking Over the World, Weekend America, July 30, 2005. Love and betrayal at a Diplomacy tournament.
Domesticated Cricket, The Next Big Thing, August 27, 2004. Is America ready for a professional cricket league?
The Best and Brainiest, The Next Big Thing, May 28, 2004. Cooper Union students describe their projects in the End of the Year Show.
Playmates, The Next Big Thing, April 29, 2004. Robin King and John McCallion found each other through a transatlantic game of postal chess. Now they review board games. Produced by Emily Botein. Listen.
Birthplace of Dreams, Candide Media Works. Scripts for cell-phone tour of the Lower East Side narrated by Jerry Stiller.
Subway Photography, Paris Review Daily, May 1, 2012.
Getting With the Program: Code Year, newyorker.com, January 6, 2012.
The Year in Listening: Vasily Grossman’s “Life and Fate”, newyorker.com, December 15, 2011.
Saul Steinberg in Italy: Brush with Fascism, newyorker.com, November 21, 2011.
Cell-Phone Service on the Subway, newyorker.com, September 27, 2011.
Back in Blackwing, newyorker.com, September 8, 2011.
Waiting for Irene at Grand Army Plaza, newyorker.com, August 27, 2011.
Apple After Steve Jobs, newyorker.com, August 24, 2011.
Stranger’s Day is Next Week, newyorker.com, August 18, 2011.
Starry Heavens: A Life-Size Board Game Comes to MOMA, newyorker.com, July 27, 2011.
The Attack on Oslo: A Developing Story, newyorker.com, July 23, 2011.
Fathers and Sons and the Mets, newyorker.com, June 17, 2011.
Amazon, the Times, and “Go the Fuck to Sleep”, newyorker.com, June 10, 2011.
Anthony Weiner’s Dangerous Liaisons, newyorker.com, June 9, 2011.
iCloud, You Cloud, We All Cloud, newyorker.com, June 7, 2011.
Ratko Mladic’s Downfall, newyorker.com, May 26, 2011.
Fear Is Even Harder to Kill, newyorker.com, May 2, 2011.
Notes on SXSW Interactive: Guides for the Perplexed, newyorker.com, March 18, 2011.
NPR After the Schillers, newyorker.com, March 9, 2011.
More Melodrama at Madison Square Garden, newyorker.com, February 22, 2011.
Watson 1, Fun 0, newyorker.com, February 15, 2011.
The Daily on Day One, newyorker.com, February 2, 2011.
Barack Obama, President and Prime Minister, newyorker.com, January 13, 2011.
Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior for Literature, newyorker.com, January 10, 2011.
Denis Dutton, newyorker.com, December 28, 2010.
The Year in Reading, newyorker.com, December 17, 2010.
Cable Traffic: WikiLeaks, Facebook, and You, newyorker.com, November 29, 2010.
Like Monopoly in the Depression, Settlers of Catan is the board game of our time, Washington Post Outlook, November 21, 2010.
The Booker Goes to Howard Jacobson, newyorker.com, October 12, 2010.
The Origins of Pee-wee Herman, newyorker.com, October 2, 2010. A dispatch from The New Yorker Festival.
Cee Lo, the Times, and “Fuck You”, August 31, 2010.
Get Shorter: An Open Letter to Twitter, newyorker.com, June 17, 2010.
The Ghost of Mrs. Kagan, newyorker.com, May 10, 2010.
The Seriously Fun World of German Board Games, Tin House, Spring 2010. My visit to Alan R. Moon’s Gathering of Friends.
iWill Be Your Mirror, newyorker.com, April 7, 2010. Reflections on the iPad.
More on E-mail and Romance, newyorker.com, February 11, 2010.
New Orleans vs. Indianoplace, newyorker.com, February 8, 2010. Notes on Super Bowl XLIV.
Climate Change in the Cards, newyorker.com, December 18, 2009. A German game called Climate Poker.
Chocolate Milk: Vitamin-Filled Elixir or Brown Menace?, newyorker.com, November 18, 2009.
Wombats and Wildfires, newyorker.com, November 10, 2009.
Caroll Spinney, the Man Inside Big Bird, newyorker.com, November 9, 2009. A conversation with the puppeteer on the 40th anniversary of “Sesame Street.”
The Exchange: Rick Duffield, newyorker.com, October 22, 2009. A conversation with the executive producer of the children’s show “Wishbone.”
A Little Help from My Friends, newyorker.com, November 4, 2008. Watching election returns on Facebook’s Live Feed, when that was a new phenomenon.
The Girl Who Cried Wolf: A Holocaust Fairy Tale, Boston, September 2008. The undoing Misha Defonseca’s false testimony about being a child survivor.
Extraordinary Meeples, Print, June 2008. The design of German board games.
Books to Chew On, New York Times, March 26, 2006. The Edible Books Festival and a history of bibliophagy.
When Every Pitch Counts, Newsday, March 26, 2006. Review of Sam Walker’s Fantasyland.
Total Recall, Nextbook.org, January 18, 2006. Oprah Winfrey, James Frey, and Elie Wiesel.
Oases Springing Up Here For Ancient Game of Go, New York Times, January 14, 2006. 250 Go players gather for the North American Oza; Feng Yun expected to win (and she did).
They Shoot Adverbs, Don’t They? New York Times, December 25, 2005. Reconstructing the Noun and Verb Rodeo, Milton Crandall’s four-day talking marathon held in 1928.
Documenting the World, Newsday, December 11, 2005. Holiday roundup of photography books.
Gift Rap, Washington Post Magazine, November 24, 2005. Family gift-giving tensions at Hanukkah.
A Photographic Conversation, Newsday, November 6, 2005. Review of by The Ongoing Moment by Geoff Dyer.
Stacking the Deck, Washington Post Book World, October 30, 2005. Review of four books about card games.
The Plaster-Filled Eggshell Gambit, New York Times Arts & Leisure, October 16, 2005. Two exhibits of artists’ chess sets at the Noguchi Museum and Luhring Augustine Gallery.
LCD in Aisle 3, U.S. News & World Report, August 15, 2005. Supermarkets roll out handheld scanners and other technology to compete with superstores.
Class Subconscious, Nextbook.org, June 9, 2005. On the New York Times’ “Class Matters” series.
Of Elks and Epidurals, Slate, May 17, 2005. Birthing from Within and the passive-aggressive tug of natural childbirth.
The Sensitive Skinhead, Washington Post Book World, March 13, 2005. Review of A Changed Man by Francine Prose.
Haute Chocolate, Newsday, February 13, 2005. Review of Chocolate by Mort Rosenblum.
Second Fiddle, Nextbook.org, January 4, 2005. Harvey Fierstein takes over as Tevye.
Tricking (and Treating) the Eye, Newsday, December 5, 2004. Holiday roundup of art books.
An Innocent Flirtation? Nextbook.org, November 24, 2004. A Jewish subplot on Six Feet Under.
All in the Family, Nextbook.org, October 6, 2004. Interview with Yuri Slezkine, author of The Jewish Century.
Boratty Behavior, Nextbook.org, August 11, 2004. The Blues Brothers and Da Ali G Show.
Off Broadway, Nextbook.org, June 9, 2004. Tony Kushner v. Hedy Weiss and Caroline, or Change.
Damn Yankees, Nextbook.org, May 2, 2004. Interview with David Shields.
Pepsi Degeneration, The New Yorker, March 29, 2004. Vera Lutter watches the dismantling of a neon sign from inside a giant pinhole camera.
Fiddler Crabs, Nextbook.org, March 2, 2004. A revival of Fiddler on the Roof raises questions about “ethnic cleansing,” but the show was never authentic.
Connecting With Dots, Nextbook.org, February 4, 2004. Interview with Abraham Nemeth, blind mathematician who devised a system of Braille mathematical notation.
Game Time, Boston Globe Ideas, December 7, 2003. Alan R. Moon and Aaron Weissblum win Game of the Year for New England, and what we should think about when we think about board games.
Maps, Superheroes and Celestial Bodies, As Seen From Your Couch, Newsday, November 30, 2003. Holiday roundup of art books.
Mob Injustice, Newsday, Nov 16, 2003. Review of And the Dead Shall Rise: The Murder of Mary Phagan and the Lynching of Leo Frank by Steve Oney.
Brooklyn Dodger, Nextbook.org, October 22, 2003. Tugging at the Jewish threads in Fortress of Solitude and other writings of Jonathan Lethem.
Where Ladies Lunched, and Boys Grew Up, New York Times, August 29, 2003. My Manhattan essay about living on 20th Street.
Playing Baseball by the Numbers, Newsday, June 1, 2003. Review of Michael Lewis’ Moneyball.
Recommended Reading, May 25, 2003. Review of Henry Kisor’s What’s That Pig Outdoors? A Memoir of Deafness in group summer-reading roundup.
Harlem Renaissance, Washington Post Magazine, March 2, 2003. On the road with the Harlem Globetrotters.
Games People Play, New York Sun, February 2, 2003. Board games at the Toy Fair.
Sold Separately, The New Yorker, January 20, 2003. Sid Sackson’s family breaks up his mammoth board-game collection.
Old Masters and Modern Visions, Newsday, December 1, 2002. Holiday roundup of art books.
From the Bully Pulpit, Newsday, October 6, 2002. Review of Leadership by Rudolph Giuliani.
In the House of Hoops, New York Sun, October 4, 2002. The new Basketball Hall of Fame building opens in Springfield, Mass.
Survivor: The College Version, Newsday, September 1, 2002. Review of The Gatekeepers: Inside the Admissions Process of a Premier College by Jacques Steinberg.
Who Is Tyler Hicks? Details, June 2002. A profile of the photojournalist who distinguished himself in Afghanistan.
Still Life With Garbage and Bee, ARTnews, May 2002. Profile of sculptor Tom Friedman.
Taking the Local, ARTnews, May 2002. Profile of photographer Thomas Roma.
“Making More Andys Possible,” ARTnews, May 2002. Profile of Joel Wachs of the Andy Warhol Foundation
A Slice of the Camel, New York Times Book Review, April 7, 2002. Review of Revenge, by Laura Blumenfeld.
A Beautiful Hand, The New Yorker, March 11, 2002. Dave Bayer, mathematician and hand double for Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind.
Getting the Big Picture, ARTnews, February 2002. Photojournalism in the wake of 9/11.
A Journalist Learns Art Can Be Fast But Hard to Fasten, New York Times Arts & Leisure, January 20, 2002. Janet Malcolm shows her collages in a group show at Lori Bookstein.
Museum-Hopping in Your Living Room, Newsday, December 9, 2001. Holiday roundup
of art books.
Building the Bioluminescent Bunny, ARTnews, December 2001. Profile of Brazilian artist Eduardo Kac.
His Worst Critic Proved Wrong, New York Times Arts & Leisure, November 18, 2001. Photographer and Peruvian-textile collector John Cohen.
The Man Who Snubbed Lenin, Lingua Franca, November 2001. A biography of David Rowland Francis, U.S. Ambassador to Russia during the Bolshevik Revolution, by Harper Barnes
Speaking Mameloshn, Newsday, October 21, 2001. Review of Yiddish: A Nation of Words by Miriam Weinstein and The New Joys of Yiddish by Leo Rosten.
Courting Rituals, Newsday, October 14, 2001. Review of John Edgar Wideman’s Hoop Roots.
The Incredible Growing Art Museum, ARTnews, October 2001. The building boom after Bilbao.
From Russia, With Loans, ARTnews, October 2001. The Corcoran partners with the State Russian Museum.
Serf Rising, Lingua Franca, July/August 2001. Aleksandr Nikitenko’s Up From Serfdom: My Childhood and Youth in Russia 1804-1824 translated into English.
A World of Games, Washington Post Magazine, July 15, 2001. In search of Teeko, the board game that magician and gambling authority John Scarne thought would guarantee his immortality.
Man of Steel, ARTnews, June 2001. A visit with Mark di Suvero at his Queens studio.
Defending the Truth, Newsday, May 27, 2001. Review of two books on the David Irving trial: Lying About Hitler by Richard J. Evans and The Holocaust on Trial by D.D. Guttenplan.
Translating the Good Book, Newsday, May 6, 2001. Review of Benson Bobrick’s Wide as the Waters.
Contract Sport, Lingua Franca, April 2001. Former UCLA athlete Ramogi Huma tries to organize a union for college athletes.
The End of the Affair, Brill’s Content, April 2001. Review of Stefan Maechler’s The Wilkomirski Affair.
Export, Details, March 2001. Russian pop star Philip Kirkorov swings Latin
The Roaches That Came In from the Cold, ARTnews, February 2001. Catherine Chalmers paints and photographs cockroaches in her SoHo loft.
Indelible Prints, ARTnews, February 2001. Ten photographers talk about the pictures they can’t forget.
Hasidim in the Heartland, Newsday, November 5, 2000. Review of Postville, by Stephen G. Bloom.
Case Closed, Boston Phoenix, November 1996. Review of James Ellroy’s memoir My Dark Places.
A Life in Pieces: The Making and Unmaking of Binjamin Wilkomirski (W.W. Norton, 2002). The story of a man who wrote an award-winning Holocaust memoir and seemed like he might be a long-lost relative but turned out to be an imposter. A New York Times Notable Book.
“Sad, outrageous, sometimes tragic, sometimes hilarious, always riveting.”—Jonathan Lear, New York Times Book Review
“A riveting account of the already amazing story of Wilkomirski. Eloquent and insightful.”—Newsweek
“An extraordinary book…. Eskin has used this event to uncover aspects of history and the human mind and spirit which have perplexed most people for years.”—Gitta Sereny, The Times [London]
“An important contribution to Holocaust literature as well as to studies of psychological and cultural trauma.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“A fascinating portrait…. [Eskin] offers a convincing explanation of why people were so eager to be deluded.”—The New Yorker
Blake Eskin is a writer, editor, and producer. He is the executive producer of podcasts for Design Observer, including The Design of Business | The Business of Design, produced at the Yale School of Management. He was the first Web editor of The New Yorker and host of The New Yorker Out Loud podcast. He has written for manynewspapers and magazines and for public radio. His book A Life in Pieces: The Making and Unmaking of Binjamin Wilkomirski, was a New York Times Notable Book.
He lives in Prospect Heights, which deserves better Chinese food.