Ben & King The name of Ben Sonnenberg caught my eye last week while reading Alexander Cockburn's column. For any of you unfamiliar with it, Sonnenberg is the author of Lost Property, a memoir, and founder of Grand Street, the literary magazine. Cockburn refers to Ben as a onetime dandy (he is now laid up with MS), but when I first knew Sonnenberg, he was nothing of the kind. The year was 1949 and I had just been enrolled to Lawrenceville, at the time, along with St. Paul's, Groton, Andover and Exeter, among the top five prep schools in the land. I was in Thomas House, in the Lower School, and the cube across mine (the Lower School consisted of four houses, each a long dorm with open cubicles facing each other) was occupied by an enormous boy of 13, Ben Sonnenberg.
I was 12 years of age, weighed less than 100 pounds, did not speak or write English well at all and was 5000 miles from home. Worse, I did not know the rules of tackle football, dressed like a European (double-breasted suits, gomina to keep my curly hair down, breast handkerchief...) and refused to wear my rhinie cap. (Rhinies were new boys, and were not allowed to walk on the grass. Older boys had the right to make a rhinie carry a brick to class for infractions, until yours truly came along; I collected so many bricks I put them all in a laundry bag and did not attend classes because the bag weighed more than I did. As a result, it was decreed that the maximum number of bricks a boy could carry was three.)
To say that Ben and I became fast friends would be a gross exaggeration. He was distant, obviously tortured, extremely well-read, cerebral and the most uncoordinated person I had ever met. I was friendly, happy-go-lucky, illiterate, but a natural athlete. He received top grades, I failed every subject but history. My troubles with Ben were due to the fact that he refused to go out for football?he weighed close to 200 pounds and was closer to 6 feet than I was to 5?whereas I was eager but got pushed around quite a lot. I thought it extremely unfair that a big guy like Sonnenberg was hitting the books rather than other boys.
When wintertime came around, however, I came into my element: wrestling. Americans were so big, the 103-pound class had few takers. I got on the JV team on Greek merits (small, short and thin). In fact, I was the only Lower School boy to be on a non-intramural team. While Ben battled his demons, I battled midgets on the wrestling mat and giants on the football field. His philosophic fancies and mystic visions were?at least in my mind?a poor excuse for his lack of physicality. Me Tarzan, he Jane without the looks, that type of thing.
The next year was not a good one for me. I was kicked out for being recalcitrant and an all-around rebel. Years later I returned to Lawrenceville as captain of the Blair Academy soccer team, and wrestled for Blair in the interscholastic tournament, where I placed third in the 141-pound division.
After 1954, I never went back and never saw Ben again. About 10 years ago I read his book and there was a Lawrenceville mention. If memory serves, he did not think much of the place. The WASPs apparently had treated him very badly. Called him a fat Jew boy and stuff like that. I'm sure it was true, except for one thing. If he thinks he had it bad?he was not the type to fight back?the poor little Greek boy had it worse. I did fight back, lost many a fight against bigger boys, but I must say, I love the place because it did sort of make a man out of me. I remember the names, all of them straight out of F. Scott Fitzgerald: Carl MacDonald, Daniel Kehoe, Nick Luddington, Bill Trimble, Temple Brown, Michael Schillaber, Mike Shoettle, Ludlow Miller, Ben Cooper, Bucky Weaver, Homer Smith and so on. As Papa Hemingway said about Paris, it was a good place to be young in...and it gave one a good education.
Well, last week I drove by Lawrenceville on my way to Princeton University, but I got cold feet about going in. They now have girls?rhinies and bricks I imagine are out?and older boys and the faculty?I am certain?feel young students' pain. It's all very good, but not for me. The reason for my going to Princeton was the King of Greece giving a speech at the Woodrow Wilson School's Menaeos Society, a society created in honor of the first non-English-speaking foreign student to go to Princeton more than 150 years ago. The monarch's speech was about avoiding another Balkan tragedy, with a question-and-answer session immediately following. (The president of the Menaeos society is Andreas Sotiropoulos, the son of a respected New York-based doctor.)
As some of you may have guessed, I am a great friend and admirer of King Constantine, and his speech did not disappoint. He is among the best-informed people I know, and his contacts are second to none. Constantine succeeded to the Greek throne in 1964, at the age of 23, and left Greece on Dec. 13, 1967, following his unsuccessful attempt to overthrow the Greek colonels who had illegally seized power eight months earlier. Talk about Greek tragedy. Constantine had married the most beautiful girl of her time, Princess Anne-Marie of Denmark, won a gold medal in the 1960 Rome Olympics and was the most glamorous and popular monarch in the world. By trying to overthrow the colonels, he not only lost his throne, he was also smeared by the communists as being pro-junta. It's a bit like calling Ronald Reagan a pinko. The reds feared the King's popularity with the people, just as succeeding Greek prime ministers and other politicians do. So they managed to demonize the only man to stand against the colonels with the longest and most vicious media assault on him and his family.
Believe me, I know. I was pro-colonels, and even worked for them in the ministry of propaganda for a while. (I was fired when I joked about shooting all left-wing journalists at dawn; the colonels, alas, did not possess a sense of humor.)
During dinner following his speech, one of the students, a self-proclaimed Greek Communist, said how surprised he was to find out the King was not an ogre. The Queen and her daughter-in-law, Marie-Chantal Miller, were politely listening to his bullshit when I interrupted. I will not bore you, dear readers, with what I had to say, but the gist of it is as follows: Here is a young man born in 1974 who pretends to be a communist, the most evil and by far the bloodiest ever ideology, who is on a scholarship in a great institution of learning like Princeton, and he has the gall to say to people who have truly suffered under the reds how pleasantly surprised he was to find out the King is not the way he is portrayed by the Greek press. No shit, Sherlock.
The trouble with King Constantine and his family is they're too nice. He answered a question about his future plans by saying he accepted the 1974 referendum that abolished the monarchy. But he's wrong. The 1974 referendum was rigged, a fact admitted by a Greek prime minister in 1991.
Give me the old Lawrenceville bullies any time. At least they played fair. Once they knocked you down they waited for you to get up, and if one fought back, they laid off you. The present bunch are weenies, the type who cry a lot and hate contact sports. No wonder they're pink.
Petra Dickenson FEATURE
Clinton v. Tripp The criminal trial of Linda Tripp is scheduled for Jan. 18, 2000. Mrs. Tripp, indicted on two felony counts?recording a single phone conversation and allowing a journalist to hear the tape?faces up to 10 years in prison and a $20,000 fine. Unwilling to commit perjury on behalf of Bill Clinton, Linda Tripp is the only central figure in the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal to face criminal charges.
There can be little doubt that her prosecution is politically motivated. Forty-nine Democratic members of Maryland's House of Delegates sent a letter to the Maryland prosecutors, demanding the investigation of Linda Tripp. Touchingly, their letter noted that "there is no place for partisan politics within our criminal justice system." The Maryland Democratic Club made a separate demand for a grand jury probe of Linda Tripp.
The White House, too, through its aide Bob Weiner, pressured Maryland officials into initiating criminal prosecution.
The White House has hailed the indictment. Linda Tripp's "violations of privacy were an affront to the meaning of friendship," said Bob Weiner. The Clinton-friendly media have noted their approval. While they would never be so politically incorrect as to "judge" President Clinton's conduct, the media have not been reticent about Linda Tripp. She has been scorned for being a faceless bureaucrat, laughed at for not meeting the media's standard of physical beauty and, above all, judged a Judas who betrayed her friend.
The truth is more complicated. A nonpolitical civil servant, in 1993 Linda Tripp was a special assistant to the counsel to the President, sitting outside the offices of White House counsel Bernard Nussbaum and deputy counsel Vincent Foster. It was she who served Vincent Foster his last meal before his suicide. She witnessed, and later testified to the Senate Whitewater Committee about, the removal of boxes from Foster's office by White House personnel following his death. Her evidence was in direct contradiction to the official White House position that no documents were removed from Vincent Foster's office after his suicide.
Subpoenaed by Judicial Watch, the conservative group representing several former Reagan and Bush administration officials in their lawsuit against the FBI, the White House, the Dept. of Defense, Bernard Nussbaum and Hillary Rodham Clinton, Linda Tripp was one of many government employees deposed in the case. Bill Clinton had dismissed the possession of the secret FBI files as a "bureaucratic snafu." Tripp testified to the presence of these files in Vincent Foster's safe and elsewhere in the counsel's offices. Tripp was further deposed about her recollection of the firing of the White House Travel Office director Billy Dale and his staff and the circumstances surrounding Billy Dale's FBI file. She also testified that she saw the file on Chris Emory, a White House usher fired for answering Barbara Bush's computer questions, after Mrs. Bush moved to Texas. Testifying in 1996, Tripp spoke of "the growing sense that I had over time that political opponents, dissidents, those with opposing viewpoints might perhaps be targeted for retribution for behavior based on information that may or may not have been gathered or taken from raw FBI data files." What added to her sense of unease was her conversation with Bruce Lindsey, a lawyer and a close friend of Bill Clinton. Bringing up the matter of the FBI files, she was warned, "That kind of talk could get you destroyed."
In 1996 Mrs. Tripp began hearing Monica Lewinsky's confession about sex with President Clinton. It was not until a year later, when she was drawn into a media maelstrom and branded a liar by Bill Clinton's lawyer, that she decided to tape these talks to safeguard her reputation.
In 1997, lawyers for Paula Jones gave Newsweek reporter Michael Isikoff a tip about a sexual incident between the President and a female staffer. Isikoff found both the woman, Kathleen Willey, and Linda Tripp who could corroborate her story. It took five months of continuous contacts by Isikoff before Tripp agreed to speak. When the Willey article was published, Robert Bennett, President Clinton's lawyer, went on the attack: "Linda Tripp is not to be believed."
Realizing that the Willey incident might drag her into the Jones case where she would have to testify about Monica Lewinsky, Linda Tripp analyzed her situation. She had seen what the Clinton White House did to those it perceived as enemies?being smeared as a liar over Kathleen Willey was nothing compared to what could be done to her over Monica Lewinsky. She was alone, a single wage earner, a mother of two. A governmental nonentity, a political zero, she could not approach Vernon Jordan for a job in the private sector nor demand Webster-style hush money from the White House. Lacking powerful friends, Linda Tripp decided to protect her credibility and ensure her personal safety by taping her conversations with Monica Lewinsky.
Lewinsky herself was served with a subpoena by the Jones lawyers and responded by swearing a false affidavit, denying having sex with the President. She asked Linda Tripp to swear a false affidavit to back her up. The requests, sweetened with promises of a condominium in Australia in exchange for perjured testimony, turned into threats. "Linda, just thought you might find this of interest," read one of the notes placed by Lewinsky on Tripp's office chair at the Pentagon. "This" was a list of people involved with Bill Clinton who had died in mysterious circumstances during the previous two decades. A similar, more detailed catalog of the dead Clinton "troublemakers" had been left on Tripp's chair when Lewinsky was trying to influence her version of the Kathleen Willey story. Threatened with bodily harm and urged to perjure herself by Lewinsky, incredibly it is Linda Tripp who has been painted by the White House and its hallelujah chorus in the media as the one whose behavior has been an "affront to the meaning of friendship."
It is not surprising that the White House wanted Linda Tripp to lie to protect the President and support his claim that he "did not have sexual relations with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky." Bill Clinton has never had any problems with lying, not even when sworn to tell the truth in a criminal case. To his many friends, lying under oath is not a crime when done by one of their own. Linda Tripp, on the other hand, has refused to go away, or at least have the decency to commit perjury in the good cause of preserving the Clinton presidency. Having been given immunity by the Office of the Independent Counsel, she now faces up to 10 years in prison and $20,000 in fines for the very evidence she provided to the federal prosecutors.
Justice is on trial and the American media, when not gloating, remains silent. We at "Top Drawer" accuse the White House and the Democratic establishment of leading a monstrously biased investigation against Linda Tripp. We accuse them of having used the press to lead opinion astray and cover up their mischief. We accuse the State of Maryland of prosecuting Linda Tripp on orders from the White House. We call on Maryland prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli to exercise his prosecutorial discretion and to dismiss the charges against Linda Tripp.
Giles Auty THE SINGULAR EYE
In Your Dreams It has long been my belief that four subjects should be banned altogether from civilized conversation at dinner parties: dreams, money, relationships and plastic surgery. Unfortunately, if my code were adopted, many of the dinner parties that take place in the area in which I live?the supposedly exclusive Eastern Suburbs of Sydney?might pass in total silence.
I hope that you will not find me unduly hypocritical if, for just once in a lifetime, I break my own rule. My excuse is the rapid approach of the millennium and the understandable desire of many editors to mark the occasion in some way.
Since I am constitutionally incapable of making lists (e.g., of my favorite left-handed fresco painters of the past thousand years) I fear I must inflict a recent dream on you instead on the grounds that it was probably millennial in nature.
How many pleasant dreams have you had in the past 10 years that were not erotic in some way? I cannot readily recall any at all but realize I may be an exception. The most agreeable kind of the latter are those in which somewhat aloof members of the opposite sex?precisely the kind of young women who really might use the disparaging expression "in your dreams"?realize belatedly that there was a considerable frisson between the two of you all along, thus confirming how entirely appropriate their hurtful expression might have been in the first place.
What, then, is a millennial dream? And what, if anything, does such a reverie have to do with art, which is supposed to be the subject of this column?
My dreamtime action?or what little there was of it?took place in a giant marquee of a kind I have lunched in occasionally at sports championships such as Wimbledon and Henley. The repast was a light one, for there was clearly work to be done. Outside the marquee lay a day of cloudless sunshine. Back inside our tent, those assembled were gathering up light, medieval armor and weapons that lay scattered on the grass around the tables.
"This is the big one but it is also the last one," our leader said as he strapped on his own martial appurtenances with a sigh. We were given to understand tacitly that we were outnumbered, that things would probably appear unpromising but that the result was not in doubt.
"You kept the faith," our captain shouted and a great roar greeted his words. As he did not launch himself into some Shakespearian address?the St. Crispin's Day speech from Henry V might have seemed appropriate?one gathered that his style was essentially laconic and that he was possibly a former sportsman who did not care much for words. While he greeted each of us in turn I realized there were faces around me that I knew. Instead of a handshake, leader and future fellow combatants gripped each other lightly, just above the forearm, with finger and thumb. As the leader greeted each individual I witnessed faces transform into rude, youthful health. Even within my dream I remembered the matchless line from Laurence Binyon's famous Armistice Day poem: "Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn."
When it came to my turn, I sensed why our captain?who was a trim, slightly graying 50-year-old?had such a transforming effect on his army. His pale eyes clearly had a capacity to burn, but were filled, instead, with an expression of ineffable kindness. An intense joy and feeling of relief filled me, not least because I sensed I might be required no longer to try to transmit ideas about art to deaf or otherwise unwilling audiences. For each of us this battle was to be the final one.
Then I woke up and realized I had to assemble 1500 words for someone or other by the middle of that day. However, the afterglow of the dream was powerful while it lasted. Unsurprisingly, I have wondered for the past month what meaning or significance?if any?this unusual reverie might have had.
My conclusion is that it was simply some kind of occult reminder to those of us in peculiarly unfortunate professions, such as art criticism, to somehow keep the faith, just as our captain had advised in the dream. Contemporary art criticism and art in general are populated now by some of the less savory people on this planet, not least because of the escalating influence of public relations within our profession. Bullshitters, flimflam men, thin-lipped enforcers of political correctness, word-twisters, liars, deconstructionists, money-launderers and other reptiles abound and art itself has become the inevitable sufferer. Once art was one of the noblest and most rewarding of human activities, but I fear its chances of shaking all the present parasites from its back are minimal. But perhaps the coming millennium could really herald some change.
In the meantime, I would like to reward the first New York-based reader and artist who has managed to track me down for his trouble. He is the promising young Australian sculptor Andrew Logan who is holding an open house for would-be patrons at 127 Rivington St. (betw. Essex & Norfolk Sts.), 6-10 p.m., Dec. 10 and 17, 673-7629.
George Szamuely THE BUNKER
Embassy Row The U.S. ambassador to Germany, John Kornblum, announced recently that he was sick of "these diatribes in the press about arrogant Americans." The Germans, he subsequently complained, "were beginning to behave like a superpower." What had the Germans done? Proposed to build their own nuclear weapons? Surely, they had not asked the GIs to go home at last? No, they had dared to protest United States plans for the new Berlin embassy. The U.S. government is demanding a 30-meter-wide cordon around the building to thwart the designs of mad bombers. It all goes back to the August 1998 destruction of the embassies in Tanzania and Kenya. A panel headed by former Joint Chiefs chairman Admiral William Crowe reported that something like 90 percent of America's embassies needed to be renovated.
The trouble is, the United States insists on building the embassy on its prewar site on the Pariser Platz, which is near the Brandenburg Gate?the heart of Berlin. The Germans argue that a 30-meter cordon would disrupt the city's traffic and complicate access to the Brandenburg Gate. As compromise, they suggested that the Americans could have their cordoned embassy in the city's diplomatic quarter in the Tiergarten district. In addition, the Americans could maintain a representative office on the Pariser Platz. Nothing doing, blustered our dimwitted Secretary of State. The Germans then suggested that the Americans could have their embassy on the Pariser Platz but the cordon could not be more than 22 meters. This offer, too, was rejected out of hand. German ingratitude apparently knew no bounds. "All we did was defend this place for 40 years," spluttered an enraged Kornblum.
For the first time since 1945 the Germans did not grovel abjectly before Washington's diktats. Klaus Bolling, a former spokesman for Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, wrote a newspaper article entitled "The Times Have Changed Mr. Ambassador." He likened Kornblum to Lord Mountbatten of India. The German magazine Der Spiegel published an article about Kornblum entitled "Imperial Nostalgia." Subsequently Kornblum berated Bolling when the two accidentally bumped into each other in a Berlin restaurant. "He was like a U.S. Army sergeant dressing down a GI," Bolling recounted later. But Kornblum was not done yet. At the recent opening of Berlin's Transatlantic Center, he declared that a reunited Germany still needed time before it could "strike the right tone in the international arena."
The "right tone in the international arena" means following the United States' orders. American insistence on blind obedience is more fervent today than it ever was in the Cold War. Not only are Germans expected to fall in enthusiastically with the latest loony bombing caper thought up by Washington; they are also expected to surrender the center of their capital to America's whims. In addition?and this is a real innovation?they are expected to adopt the American model of capitalism. Scarcely a day goes by without a story appearing in the media about Germany's apparent economic backwardness, its moribund economic system, its museum-like industries. "Germany Resists the New Economy" was the typical headline of a recent Washington Post analysis. That same day, The Wall Street Journal ran a front-page story with the heading: "Once the Big Muscle of German Industry, Unions See It All Sag." The subheading said it all: "Membership and Clout Slip As Country Rues the Cost of Labor Inflexibility." "Labor flexibility," of course, is a euphemism for "easy to fire." This outpouring of anguish at Germany's alleged terrible plight was provoked by Chancellor Schroder's rescue of Philipp Holzmann, the nation's second-largest construction firm. On top of that, the Chancellor indicated that he was opposed to the proposed $125 billion hostile takeover of Germany's Mannesmann AG by Britain's Vodafone Airtouch PLC. From the hysterical splutterings of our reporters and editorial writers you might have thought Lenin had just seized power in Berlin. Holzmann, a 150-year-old company that had built opera houses and train stations in the 19th century, had got into trouble with some bad debts and the creditors were about to pull the plug. The company filed for bankruptcy and tens of thousands of people were on the verge of being thrown out of work. But the German public did not respond the way the American public would. It failed to be moved by the tragic plight of the poor, down-at-the-heel bankers. Instead, it demanded that the venerable company be saved. "Bank Disgrace!" ran the banner headline in the mass-circulation newspaper Bild. The paper also published photos of the 20 bank chiefs who had refused to bail out Holzmann, as well as their salaries. Bild, incidentally, is a conservative newspaper. Schroder came up with DM250 million of government money and persuaded the creditor banks to support a restructuring program as part of a DM4.3 billion bailout. Schroder saved Holzmann and for the first time ever he is wildly popular in Germany. "I wanted to be sure my buddies had something under the Christmas tree? I came here to get the banks to be responsible. To be responsible is not to let a company that I consider salvageable, break up," Schroder explained. Such talk would be unthinkable in the United States where the highest moral imperative is the unhindered operation of the free market. Workers are taught to sacrifice themselves for the sake of "competitiveness." In American eyes Schroder committed sacrilege. "Throwing in a generous dollop of taxpayer money to avert a big corporate collapse and save jobs," explained an incredulous AP reporter, "the chancellor has turned leftward to make amends with the many German voters who reject his modernizing course? Schroder came around to defending Germany's well-worn, consensus-based corporate culture." Note the easy identification of "modernizing" with, in effect, Americanizing. A Reuters story summed up the issue excellently: "Analysts say German banks, locked in mounting competition with international banks, can no longer justify bailing out loss-making companies just for the sake of rescuing jobs." Of course not. Who cares about jobs? The only thing that matters is staying competitive and that means continuously boosting the value of the banks' shares.
Thanks to Schroder, the Germans have now made clear they are not about to adopt the Blairite or American model of capitalism. They have no intention of allowing their companies to be taken over, stripped of their assets and their workers fired?all in the name of cutting costs, improving balance sheets and therefore increasing shareholder value. The Germans are not about to fall on their knees before the holy altar of "labor flexibility." Here in the United States our media?now more and more simply the spokesmen for the corporations that own them?invariably applaud the daily corporate mergers and acquisitions. Time and Warner, Viacom and CBS, now Washington Post and NBC?the hacks fairly drool as they detail how many billions of dollars these new conglomerates are now worth. That people are thrown out of work is of little consequence. That resulting new entities are scarcely innovative, interesting or productive is of even less consequence. No, the only thing that matters is shareholder value. This is what the so-called "modernization" of the economy means. This is what the moribund, lackluster Germans seem unable to embrace.
Interestingly enough, despite predictions of its imminent demise, the German economy is actually astonishingly robust. A reader of the American press would be surprised to learn that in 1998, the hidebound, sclerotic Germans improved their manufacturing productivity by 4.3 percent?the best performance of any OECD country. Americans workers would be surprised to learn?unpleasantly so unfortunately?just how much better off their German counterparts are. In 1997 hourly direct pay for manufacturing workers in the United States was $14.34 an hour. In Germany it was $20.94 an hour. To be sure, the Germans have high unemployment. But what is better? To wash dishes here at $2 an hour? Or to be unemployed in Germany and to enjoy generous welfare benefits, first-rate health care and a largely free education system?one that is vastly superior to anything in the United States? Remember, too, that during the past decade the Germans have had to bear the staggering costs of absorbing the former East Germany.
"America uber alles" was always a nonstarter. Forever basking in the Cold War victory, Americans fail to see how much has changed in the last 10 years, as Ambassador Kornblum's disastrous performance demonstrates. For all the bluster of the Washington elite, America's economic performance is simply too insipid to support an imperial foreign policy.
Toby Young ARRIVISTE
Crimes & Woody Did anyone notice that Sweet and Lowdown, the new Woody Allen film, came out last Friday? In Woody's heyday, the release of his latest movie was a big deal in New York. With his psychoanalytical understanding of sex and relationships, his preoccupation with art and mortality and his passion for jazz, he embodied the values of the city's educated elite. He was their artist-in-residence, their cultural ambassador to the rest of the world. What the hell happened?
Three words: Soon-Yi Previn.
With each new movie Woody dashes off?Sweet and Lowdown is his 30th?it's becoming increasingly clear that the scandal that erupted in his personal life seven years ago has crippled him as an artist. The revelations about his behavior exposed his lovable, nebbish persona as a sham and he hasn't been able to reinvent the Woody Allen character in his films to reflect this development, at least not to his own satisfaction.
You can sense him struggling with this issue in Sweet and Lowdown. The central character, played by Sean Penn, is the most unappealing proxy for himself he's ever come up with. He's a kleptomaniac and a pimp and his idea of fun is to head out to the dump and shoot rats. Yet he's also?wouldn't you know it?a brilliant artist, the best American jazz guitarist of the 1930s. The message of the film is that it's possible to be both a great artist and a lousy human being.
Now I don't dispute that this is possible?who would??but it doesn't apply to that particular lousy human being Woody Allen. Take Sweet and Lowdown. It's a diverting allegory about the relationship between an artist's work and his life?but is it great art? Not compared to Manhattan or Annie Hall, it isn't. Indeed, the conclusion of Sweet and Lowdown?that an artist is compelled to mess up his private life since it's only through personal suffering that he can achieve greatness?seems to be the exact opposite of the truth in Woody's case. He hasn't been able to do anything good since he screwed up his life.
Why should this be? It must be because part of what motivates Woody Allen as an artist?perhaps the most important part?is his desire to be liked. At heart, he's still a stand-up comic yearning for the audience's approval. Why else would he cast himself?as himself?in all his films? The tension in his movies, what makes the best ones so entertaining, stems from the conflict between his longing for acceptance and his weird compulsion to expose himself, warts and all. In nearly all his films, this is always the Woody Allen character's comic flaw: he wants to be loved and yet he insists on telling his leading lady just how unlovable he is.
The problem is that, in seducing Mia Farrow's adopted daughter, a teenage girl who'd regarded him as a father figure for more than 10 years, he went too far. That alone, even if you put the allegations of sexual abuse against his then-seven-year-old adopted daughter Dylan to one side, was enough to bring the dance to an abrupt halt. His sexual interest in young girls was a guilty secret he never should have revealed. The suspense went out of the drama. After that, he was just straightforwardly unlovable.
In some of the movies he's made since the scandal, such as Everyone Says I Love You, he goes through the motions as if nothing's happened: he's in denial. In that film, released in 1996, the Woody Allen character?played by the 60-year-old Woody Allen?seduces Julia Roberts, who was 28 at the time. Didn't it occur to him that there was something slightly creepy about this in the light of his relationship with Soon-Yi Previn? Evidently not, since the most overtly sexualized character in the film is played by Drew Barrymore, the Woody Allen character's ex-wife's daughter. She's a new addition to Allen's oeuvre: a Soon-Yi Previn proxy.
In others, such as Deconstructing Harry, the Woody Allen character?again played by Allen?is truculent and unrepentant, as if he's announcing to his audience that he knows they've rejected him and he just doesn't care. The film, like the central character, is peculiarly flat and charmless and the jokes, when they come, leave a sour taste in the mouth. It's as if, now that Woody knows he's never going to win our acceptance, he's lost his mojo; the engine of creation has run out of gas.
Sweet and Lowdown is a more appealing film than both of these, if only because Woody himself appears in it very fleetingly. It also has the virtue of addressing his fall from grace, and its implications for his work, more directly than any of his other movies since the scandal broke. Tellingly, it contains a Mia Farrow character, played by Samantha Morton, who unconditionally loves the Woody character. (She's mute, which speaks volumes about Woody's feelings about the allegations she made against him.) Sweet and Lowdown is the first time Woody has acknowledged that he regrets the way he behaved toward Farrow, though it will be a long time before she?or we?forgive him.
It wasn't just Mia Farrow and her extended, sitcom family he let down when he ran off with Soon-Yi Previn in 1992. It was his fans as well. As an adolescent, I adored Woody Allen because he demonstrated that you didn't need to be tough and macho to be sexually attractive to women. He wasn't a role model, exactly, but he was a source of comfort. He made it possible to be unmanly and yet still be a man.
Now that Woody's exposed himself as a pervert, I'm not so sure I chose the right path. Perhaps my old headmaster was right and I should have spent more time playing rugby. The poster child for unconventional masculinity has set back the cause of male liberation by 20 years.
Jim Holt THE TIRED HEDONIST
Talk Is Cheap Looking for a hobby that is both enjoyable and modestly remunerative? Try journalism. It is quite easy to get started. Simply write an article and pop it in the mail to an editor. If the editor prints the article, send that editor another article; if he doesn't, send that article to another editor. Repeat this procedure and your byline will soon become familiar. Eventually some paper will offer you a column. To be successful as a columnist you must (1) find something to say and (2) keep on saying it. If you can manage that, your fame is assured. Fashionable restaurants will invite you to "soft openings." Your name will appear on "Page Six." Photographers will offer you complimentary sittings. If you are English you might very well end up with a knighthood.
Oh, there is one thing I forgot to mention. If you wish your career as a journalist to be an agreeable one, you must avoid at all costs getting mixed up in that tedious business known as "reporting"?going out and observing events, interviewing people and scribbling down what they say, that sort of thing. It is very easy to get seduced into reporting. You are writing an article on some social trend, say, and you can't think of anything funny to say about it yourself, so you feel tempted to ring up Fran Lebowitz for an amusing quotation. Or an editor asks you to run up to the Bronx Zoo to do a story about how the animals are preparing for Christmas. Sounds innocent enough, but you are headed down a slippery slope. The next thing you know you are no longer the leisured litterateur but a "reporter" covering some ghastly beat like municipal kickbacks in northern New Jersey.
I myself had an extremely unpleasant brush with "reporting" earlier this year. An editor at Talk wanted me to write a little piece on a new book about sex in the 20th century. The book was being published by Playboy, and Hugh Hefner was throwing a celebratory party for it at the big Playboy mansion out in California. "We're sending you to L.A.," the editor told me. "Go to the party, talk to some bunnies, jot down a few wry observations about the decor, and you'll have plenty of 'color' for your piece." While I thought this was a little extravagant, it looked like a bit of bunce for me?a sybaritic weekend in L.A. on a corporate expense account. So I shut up my house in Maine, parked the dog with a neighbor, bought a little tape recorder and a new white dress shirt, and flew out to Los Angeles as bidden, by way of Washington, DC.
Since Talk is owned by Miramax and Miramax is owned by Disney, the flight arrangements and hotel reservations were made by Disney's corporate travel office. I was fondly hoping they might put me up in the Mondrian Hotel, which I had heard was a "scene." But the Disney people said it was full, so they booked me into another West Hollywood hotel that was nearly as chic, they insisted?the Park Sunset.
When my flight finally landed at LAX it was well after dark. I took a cab to 8462 Sunset Blvd. ($32 with tip), the address of the hotel as indicated on my itinerary. The place didn't look so chic to me. In fact, it looked a bit cheesy. I entered the lobby, pulled out my Disney documents and recited the confirmation number to the Indian fellow manning the front desk. "Very sorry," he told me, "we are being overbooked. No rooms no."
"What do you mean, no room," I spluttered angrily, brandishing my official papers. "This is Talk, Miramax, Disney!" But these remonstrations were in vain. The hotel was not going to honor my reservation, regardless of what powerful names I might invoke. I demanded to use the phone, and was told there was one out on the street.
Fortunately, my Disney documents listed a 24-hour emergency hotline number. When I called it and explained my plight to the nice Disney lady who answered, she put me on hold for a long time and then returned to inform me, as sympathetically as she could, that there did not seem to be a free hotel room anywhere in L.A. at the moment. "You mean Walt Disney can't do anything to get a person a bed in this town?" I said incredulously. She agreed that this was absurd, put me on hold again and then came back with good news. "We've found a room for you," she said. "At a Days Inn."
I took another cab to the address she gave me ($15 with tip). It was a dispiriting ride, for the scenery kept getting less and less attractive. Finally I was let off in a slummy edge of Hollywood that, in the dark, looked approximately like downtown Newark. There were wig shops with steel gates pulled down over their windows; there was a Taco Bell; there were youths of feral aspect on the street. I felt like Reginald Denny.
Have you ever stayed at a Days Inn? They are economical but not very elegant. Standing in the parking lot, I wanted to cry. And not just out of self-pity. I was, after all, Tina Brown's person in Los Angeles. My being treated in this undignified way was, I felt, an implicit snub to her. And if it got around town that I was being put up in a Days Inn in a slum, it would not do the reputation of Talk any good. The other guests in the hotel were pretty rum?Miami Vice extras, I would have guessed?and there were funny smells in my room. No party was worth this, least of all one in a Playboy mansion that I would attend as a "reporter."
What would Tina do in this situation? I thought to myself. I called the Disney travel hotline again and gave them an ultimatum: either they find me a suitable hotel room, or I was returning to Maine immediately. They were unmoved. The next morning, after another ruinous cab ride ($55 with tip), I was back at LAX.
At the airport something peculiar happened. My name was announced repeatedly over the paging system. Someone was trying to reach me?someone from Talk, no doubt, sweetly calling to apologize for my shabby treatment. But it was not Talk's fault at all; it was Disney's?and mine, for foolishly violating my principle of never doing "reporting." So, to avoid awkwardness, I did not pick up the courtesy phone. By the end of the day I was happily back in Maine (this time by way of Chicago)?far away from the Playboy Mansion West, which I had never seen, far away from the slums of Hollywood, which I had.
The next week I received an astonishing letter. "Congratulations, Jim!" it began. "I could not have imagined that this early in the life of Talk magazine such an impressive standard for high-maintenance behavior would be established." But this adulatory tone proved deceptive. "Faced with less than ideal accommodations," the letter continued, "flying home without at least calling your editor, his assistant, me, my assistant, or anyone in the office is simply unacceptable... In short, Talk spent $1422 to fly you to California for nothing. While I will stop short of asking you to reimburse the company for this expense..."
Needless to say, this letter did not come from Tina Brown, who is constitutionally incapable of such impertinence. (Indeed, her staff thought it best not to apprise her of my humiliating experience.) It came from someone called Howard Lalli, who at the time was Talk's managing editor. Since then, as everyone knows, Mr. Lalli himself has prematurely and ignominiously bailed out of Talk?congratulations, Howard!?and I can only believe that the magazine's hopes for achieving its considerable potential have been improved by his departure.
By the way, I did eventually write a brief piece about Playboy and the century-of-sex book. It was filled with gloomy reflections on venereal disease and malformed genitalia, which the Talk editors wisely took out, reducing the thing to a 100-word caption for a photo of Hugh Hefner and a couple of Playboy bunnies that ran in October's issue. As I said at the outset, journalism is an excellent hobby, as long as you steer clear of "reporting."