MY NASTY NORA EPHRON ENCOUNTER

I met the great Nora Ephron just about 30 years ago, when I was a young junior executive in the great John Scanlon‘s public relations agency. We had been hired to work on the film Silkwood, in part through Nora, who was one of John’s Hamptons friends. I really didn’t have anything to do with with the account; John’s partner, Ed Menken, was hot to handle our small show business practice. He really liked hobnobbing with the stars and the directors, and he had the kind of energy that might have made him a successful producer or agent. He wasn’t very good as a PR man, in part because he never really studied how the news business worked. Instead, he was prone to brainstorms, sometimes inspired, but usually stupid. For example, when Columbia Pictures hired us to develop off-the-entertainment-page press for the film Gandhi, Ed was struck by a bolt of brilliance. “Let’s start a campaign to get Gandhi the Nobel Peace Prize!” he shouted, delighted at his own ingenuity. It didn’t do any good to tell him that the Nobel people didn’t give awards posthumously; I had to pretend to call Stockholm, and pretend to lobby to the Nobel people on Gandhi’s behalf, before reporting that alas, the small-minded Swedes said no.

One reason our agency had been hired for Silkwood was to substantiate the film. The picture was about Karen Silkwood, a young woman with a messy personal life who worked in a nuclear energy plant, and who had been blowing the whistle on incidents of safety violations just before she ended up mysteriously dead. Ephron and her collaborator Alice Arlen has written a careful script that adhered to the facts and avoided sensationalism, and they and the studio and director Mike Nichols wanted critics and others who were going to write about the story to know that Nora and Alice hadn’t made anything up.

A very reasonable desire. A fairly standard assignment. Except Ed didn’t do it. He put it off and put it off, and finally, just before Columbus Day weekend, when the thing was already overdue, he dumped the assignment on me. I could understand why. The movie was stuffed with stuff to be fact-checked–personal, legal, scientific–and Ed had only collected a couple articles from The Village Voice to refer to. “Don’t worry about it,” Ed said. “All you have to do is write something that answers four questions.” The first one was “Who was Karen Silkwood?” The others I no longer remember but they similarly simple, and I typed up a few pages for Ed that he pronounced satisfactory, which he then sent to Nora. Later in life I would see the voluminous press notes that are prepared for films, and would understand evidently what Ed did not: the document had to be thick, not merely thick enough to substantiate the film, but so thick as to discourage anybody from even questioning it. “Ah, fuck it,” thick, in other words. More than three or four pages thick, in other words.

Over the weekend, my beloved boss John Scanlon called and told me that Nora had a couple questions. He asked me to go see her on Columbus Day to find out what was on her mind.

Ephron lived in the Apthorp, a magnificent building on Broadway on the west side, in an enormous ten or eleven room barn of an apartment that always makes me weak. Ordinarily I would have demonstrated a lot of awestruck apartment envy, which most occupiers accept as personal reverence, as though the apartment was a sign that they had lived the sort of morally upright life that deserved to be rewarded with a great apartment. But Ephron wasn’t interested in my awe. She was interested in flagellating me.

Nora wasn’t unhappy with my skimpy report; she was furious. Her eyes were black and ferocious, and her jaw jut out in a combination of insult and disbelief that seemed to snarl “How could you?”I do so wish I had taken notes that day–imagine, I was the one-man audience as one of the most celebrated wits of her era engaged in a no-holds barred attack, uncut and uncensored! We sat in her large, splendid kitchen, and went over the document word by word, with her exposing its every shortcoming. And my own as well! All I could say in my defense was “Ed said just answer four questions!”, which I believe I babbled at various times during her autopsy of my work with pathetic repetitiveness. It was torture, and she kept flicking the flesh off my bones for a half hour or more, long after she made her point.

I don’t blame her for being angry. She had a lot riding on the success of that film, and we had clearly screwed the pooch. And it might even be to her credit that she stood up for herself so staunchly. This week her many friends lauded her for her warmth and humor, but based on the day I saw how she treated a junior staffer when she didn’t think anyone was looking, I’d say she had her nasty side as well.

MADONNA’S LATEST NIPPLE


Madonna bared her breast during a concert in Turkey the other day, and the world did not pause in its orbit. The most shocking thing about the moment is that one of the era’s most successful purveyors of shock played what had always been an ace, and most of the world went ho-hum.

Since her arrival in the early eighties, Madonna has proven herself to be a limited actress, a middling singer, a gymnastic dancer, and a peerless provocateur. A Cindy Sherman with a video camera and a beat box, Madonna was unmatched in her ability to conjure one compelling, attention-demanding image of herself after another: some retro, some futuristic, all linked by her underlying determination to succeed. Her great gift was to shock; “I know that I’m not the best singer and I know that I’m not the best dancer,’’ she told an interviewer, “but I can fucking push people’s buttons.’’ At the outset she struck against the dying pop conventions that preceded her: the BoyToy belt buckle and bridal lingerie of “Like A Virgin’’ struck at the seventies-era Joni-Carly-Carole folk rock feminism that had played itself out, and the cold ka-chinginess of “Material Girl’’ was one of the theme songs of the Predators’ Ball, aligned perfectly with the rising market-worship of the Reagan-era. Afterwards, however, the elements of her theatricality were conventionally avant-garde targets of religion and sex. The crucifixes that accompanied her bandana and fingerless gloves to create her first signature look, and which appalled the Church, showed up again in her 1989 “Like A Prayer’’ Pepsi commercial, which appalled the Church, and again in her 2006 Confessions tour, which appalled the Church, and again for her Interview magazine cover in 2010.

Yet religion wa hardly the far sacred cow that sex proved to be. Hardly the first performer to recognize the power of the sex, Madonna could have written the Harvard Business School Case Study on how to exploit it. Beginning with the studied application of underwear as outwear, to the propitious appearance of early nude photographs in Playboy and Penthouse, to fellating a water bottle in the Truth or Dare documentary, to the strip club in “Open Your Heart’’ and the teenage sexuality subtext of “Papa Don’t Preach’’ to the nude scenes in the lamentable thriller Body of Evidence to the conical Gaultier bra for the Blonde Ambition tour, to the images of S&M and bondage in the “Justify My Love’’ video to tongue-kissing Britney Spears at the MTV Awards, on and on, Madonna has always known that a bit of juice from a forbidden fruit can be depended on to jazz up any ordinary entertainment snack. Her greatest single miscalculation was her photo book Sex that she did with Steven Meisel. Full of nudity and sexual situations, it was too much, too raw, all nightmare and no dream, and it cost her, not her career, but her preeminence. Before Sex, she was seducing us, inviting us to join her in some mysterious, exciting place, exhibiting a creativity and a playfulness and an insolence that said it would our loss if we didn’t join her. After Sex, the mystery was gone, and only the insolence remained. Her hardness revealed, Madonna has worked hard for two decades to convince us that the playfulness is still there.

Now, after decades in which she has been a star, actress, activist, mother, wife and businesswoman, Madonna is back on tour, and once again, sex is still her message, with Madonna’s breast on center stage. Is this once again a case of media manipulation, a reliable trick to rouse the attention of a drowsy media? If so, it’s rather a lot to ask of what, after all, has been an unusually well-aired nipple in a boob-saturated environment. Or maybe the 53 year-old singer is making a case for the sexual vitality of the AARP adult; if so, she’s about a decade late to the Viagra-fueled party. Or maybe it’s just her way of signaling to her fans that her playfulness remains, a fleshy wink to emphasize that her greatest hit was always an attitude, never a song. Whatever the reason, it’s too bad that at this late date, such an original seems to have run out of things to say.

BRILLIANT “BRING UP THE BODIES”

It is a hard job being a sequel, but it is nearly an impossible task to be the second book of a trilogy. The first book gets all the benefit of the first blush of a love affair between the subject and the reader, and the third cashes in on the great drama of the climax. This is the fate, I’m afraid, of Hilary Mantel‘s excellent Bring Up the Bodies, which has the thankless job of following Wolf Hall, as original and as dazzling a novel as I have ever read. In Wolf Hall, Mantel took the well-known tale of Henry VIII‘s first divorce and second marriage and found a new way to tell it, by taking a little known figure in the saga, Thomas Cromwell, and making him not only a flesh-and-blood figure, but a very contemporary character. Cromwell is a shrewd behind-the-scenes advisor, a Bob Strauss or a Jim Baker, whom modern readers recognize, but a also a figure of modernity–a globalist, a pragmatist, a secularist, and a self-made man who has advanced on the basis of his knowledge of the new world of commerce and industry and arms past those had risen on, and are now encumbered by the rules and limits and strictures of the past. Mantel gives us a very human Henry, who is frustrated and unhappy, and a bold, clever Cromwell, who manages not only to give the king what he wants, but to set him on the path to the modern era. As if all this weren’t achievement enough, Mantel has devised a truly original narrative voice, one that is shrewd, and sinister, and that moves in and out of Cromwell’s head and back and forth in time with almost magical seamlessness.

Bring Up the Bodies cannot match this achievement; it cannot be original in the way Wolf Hall was. But to say that Bring Up the Bodies follows in Wolf Hall’s path without faltering or without diminishing is to give it all the credit in the world. In Bring Up the Bodies, the first lesson is to be careful what you wish for. Anne Boleyn, Henry’s new queen has longed for the death of her predecessor, Catherine of Aragon, thinking that it will solidify her status. Astonishingly, she is rendered more vulnerable, and the mechanics of her downfall make for great reading. But the great surprise in the book is the slow, subtle corruption of Cromwell, who finds himself seeking only as much justice as he can use, as he memorably puts it, and who finds himself weaving personal vengeance with his labors for the king. These changes in Cromwell elevate the entire book, and make it something deeper and more thought-provoking than the usual historical thriller.

And then there’s the writing! Here’s a nice morsel, plucked from Cromwell’s thoughts: “It is not easy to explain to a young man like Wriothesley why he values Wyatt. He wants to say, because, good fellows though you are, he is not like you or Richard Riche. He does not talk simply to hear his own voice, or pick arguments just to win them. He is not like George Boleyn; he does not write verses to six women in the hope of bundling one of them into a dark corner where he can slip his cock into her. He writes to warn and to chastise, and not to confess his need but to conceal it. He understands honour but does not boast of his own. He is perfectly equipped as a courtier, but he knows the small value of that. He has studied the world without despising it. He understands the world without rejecting it. He has no illusions but he has hopes. He does not sleepwalk through his life. His eyes are open, and his ears for sounds others miss.”

I could immerse myself in such passages, and swim in them all day. Mantel reportedly is working hard on part three. Bring up The Mirror and the Light!

FLOTILLA FINALE


The Royal Philharmonic, accompanied by the Royal College of Music Chamber Choir, really brought it for the musical finale of the Diamond Jubilee Flotilla. I tell you, those girls can sing in my boat anytime. Sorry for the lousy production value, a lamentably shorter but much sharper version can be found here on the BBC site. For once, “Brilliant!” is le mot juste.

OSSINING CIVIL WAR DAYS

Many thanks to Miguel Hernandez (above, holding the top hat) and my new friends at the Ossining Historical Society for inviting me to participate in their Civil War Days event yesterday at the Campwoods Meeting Ground. I had a terrific afternoon talking about Civil War history, discussing my book, and learning about Ossining history. I met some terrifically smart and friendly people. Until yesterday, I did not know that Ossining was called Sing Sing until the 20th century, when merchants sought to distinguish their businesses from prison factory-made goods; or that the Sing Sing Tigers was a unit in the Union Army; or that one of the prized possessions of the Historical Society is the bell (above) that was on that train that President-elect Lincoln took out of Illinois, and eventually through Peekskill and Sing Sing and New York City and onto Harrisburg, where he transferred to a train that accomplish the final, clandestine leg of his trip to Washington. I had a blast.

THE CAR CRASH OF CRAZINESS THAT’S ALL ID AND ALL EGO

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A jury acquitted John Edwards of one count of campaign finance crimes last week, and hung on five other counts, allowing the smarmy ex-senator to go free. Afterwards, Edwards offered a self-serving but fairly innocuous comment to the media (it appears at around the 2:15 mark above, and lasts around a minute.) Innocuous to me, anyway; on Hardball with Chris Matthews a couple hours later, it set HuffPo‘s Howard Fineman and Cap’n Huffinpuff himself into arias of denunciation.

HOWARD FINEMAN: He has so veered off into the land of creepy self-delusion. I–I’m watching–I’m watching a, a, a, a, a car crash of, of, of craziness here. And I know there are second lives in American politics. But the notion that he took this occasion to weave the story of his children, of all his children, including the one that he had with the mistress that he was having relations with while his wife was dying of cancer, that he’s going to weave the story of those children into the story of the poor people of America and the world, and thus I am going to be the Pied Piper leading the Americas and the children of the world together into a new public role for myself, that was so beyond any level of self awareness as to be almost pathological.
CHRIS MATTHEWS: (sounds like) Yahhmmmmmm.
HOWARD FINEMAN: Did I make myself clear?
CHRIS MATTHEWS: Yah, I did, I did, I think you captured it.
HOWARD FINEMAN: It’s just, sometimes the shamelessness–shamelessness of public figures, especially of politicians, is astounding to me. You have to have to a certain level of shamelessness to be in political life, let alone to run for office–
CHRIS MATTHEWS: You put it so well.
HOWARD FINEMAN: –let alone to run for office–but to but to do that, on the occasion was just mind-boggling, completely mind-boggling. I’m sorry, it’s mind-boggling.
CHRIS MATTHEWS: You’ve never been better, you’ve never been better at explaining the reality of political thinking, which is, it’s all id. It’s all ego.

Matthews and Fineman went on and on, working themselves into a froth about the specter of an Edwards comeback. Thank goodness in the next segment Melinda Henneberger came on and coolly suggested that Edwards was just chucking platitudes, mercifully throwing a bucket of cold water on the poor heated puppies before they dry-humped themselves into exhaustion.

OBAMA’S FATAL FLAW?

As Joe Nocera reminds us today in the Times, “Not a single top executive at any of the firms that nearly brought down the financial system has spent so much as a day in jail. . . .What is also true, and which is every bit as corrosive to our belief in the rule of law, is that the Justice Department has instead taken after the smallest of small fry — and then trumpeted those prosecutions as proof of how tough it is on mortgage fraud. It is a shameful way for the government to act.” Nocera goes on to point out that “the last time the federal government went after corporate crooks” was when the Justice Department vigorously prosecuted the executives of Enron, WorldCom and Tyco. “Amazing, isn’t it?” Nocera asks. “George W. Bush has turned out to be tougher on corporate crooks than Barack Obama.” Yes, amazing indeed.

Whatever explanation is eventually offered for this administration’s failure to prosecute high executives–and one very much wants to know what Tim Geithner or Larry Summers or for that matter Eric Holder, the sherpa of the Marc Rich pardon contributed to this discussion–this much is clear: if President Obama loses this election, the failure to hold financial titans legally, financially and morally responsible for this financial meltdown will be the factor that will have cost him re-election. His failure to channel voter anger in 2009 and 2010 cost him an enormous amount of political support and opened the door to the Tea Party movement. And now his failure to find people to blame for our predicament means that he has left himself wide open for the voters to put the blame on him. Even when mounting heads on pikes ameliorates not an ounce of suffering, it comforts the common people to see evidence that king is working on the problem.

It’s an odd strategy that the president has chosen. Obama’s team is trying to sully Mitt Romney through Bain, although Bain, for any and all the vulture capitalist sins it may have committed, is not at all connected to our current predicament. Meanwhile, Jamie Dimon loses another couple billion in a risky bet, and he still sits on the board of the New York Federal Reserve.

It’s a hard thing to swallow, but we need to face it: the president has shown himself to possess the courage to order Navy Seals to kill Osama bin Laden and to use drones to obliterate suspected terrorists, but he hasn’t shown that he has the courage to look in the eyes of the bankers and financiers who are his cultural peers and who have contributed to his campaigns, and to tell them “We are coming after Too Big To Fail, and we are coming after you.”