I had a great time on Sunday speaking about Commander Will at the Scarsdale Library. We had a terrific crowd, very attentive and receptive. Many thanks to Claudette Gaffney for arranging the event and publicizing, and to her staff for the thoughtful decorations and refreshments. It was great fun–I couldn’t think of a better way to spend an “almost spring day.”
Here is the talk I gave at the Naval Academy.
I was seriously chuffed, as my English friends say, to be invited to talk about Will Cushing at my alma mater, La Salle University in Philadelphia last Thursday. When I was an
undergraduate there, it was a mere college plopped onto three street corners; now it a big sprawling plant, with something like 10,000 students. It was a great thrill that two of the best teachers I ever had, Dr. Michael Dillon and Brother Edward Sheehy (above left,) showed up for the talk. Many thanks to those who attended, and especially to Professor Miguel Glatzer of the Political Science Department (above right), who was an excellent host and a congenial lunch companion. It was great to be able to go back home.
I had a great time last Wednesday, when I delivered a talk on CommanderWill Cushing at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis as part of the Shifley Lecture series. A crowd of perhaps 50 or so, divided among midshipmen, officers and civilians attended, and I hope they enjoyed the talk at least half as much as I did, because I thought it went exceptionally well. Before and after, I got to talk with Mr. James Cheevers, the head curator of the museum. He had an incredible number of stories which he relayed in impressive detail. Thanks again to Mr. Claude Berube, the director of the museum, and to his staff for inviting me and showing me such hospitality. Pictures: Top, Mr. Cheevers and me in front of the Tripoli Monument; left, me, emerging from the head of a silhouetted midshipman; right, my host, Mr. Berube, telling me about his favorite scenes from Pentagon Wars.
The Winter of Our Discontent phase of the 2015 Push the Cush Tour saw us braving the snow and cold of January and February to make four stops. Regrettably, illness cost us visits to the Falmouth Historical Society in Massachusetts and the Naval War College in Rhode Island, but we had great time visiting The Group in Pleasantville NY (left); the Chappaqua NY Library (with the appearance up on the marquee!); and two Civil War Roundtables, one (below) in Pearl River in Rockland County, and one in Kingston in Ulster County. Everyone was delighted to hear about the intrepid Commander Cushing. Thanks to everyone who came out, and especially to everyone who helped arrange my appearances.
Thanks to Patrick E. Purcell, who gave Commander Will Cushing a terrific review in Civil War News. “With a skillful account of the Cushing brothers’ careers,” says Purcell, “Jamie Malanowski has created a well-written and often thrilling story that is as engaging as an action novel. His book is highly recommended.” Thanks, too, to Rea Andrew Redd, a professor at Waynesburg University. Writing on his blog Civil War Librarian, Redd calls the book “a retelling of an exciting story about a remarkable individual ” that “is accessible and enjoyable for readers of nearly all ages.” And in his blog Cannonball, York PA-based critic Scott Mingus offers, among other compliments, this recommendation: “Malanowski’s work rectifies a void in recent literature and is a must read for anyone interested in U.S. naval personalities from the Civil War era. It also, quite frankly, is an engaging and stand alone read for anyone who enjoys an adventure tale well told.” Thanks to all reviewers.
A snowfall, a foot or so, fell on January 26th (it clobbered Boston and New England, with multiple feet,) The temperature dropped into the teens a lower and stayed there, so the snow went nowhere. A number of snowfalls followed; none were major, but they all hung around, and hung around, and it stayed cold and gray and dirty and frozen for weeks. One last drop, but then winter relented. On March 7th, the ice pack began to relinquish its miserable hold.
There is an asymmetrical quality to illnesses: they are fascinating to the afflicted, rather less so to well, I don’t want to bore you, but on Thursday, February 11, I woke with a kidney stone. For a condition that was painful but not exactly life threatening, I ended up losing a lot of time and productivity, and consuming a fair amount of health care, including lithotripsy, a very high tech procedure in which I was bombarded with high-energy shock waves that passed through my body until they reached the kidney stones, which they shattered. But the most interesting part of the process was my pre-procedure talk with the anesthesiologist. She was a middle-aged South Asian woman, not manifestly someone who was nutty about keeping in shape, who in an almost bored way read to me the results of the tests and scans that I had undergone. “High blood pressure. . .elevated blood sugar. . .high potassium. . . slightly enlarged prostate. . . fatty liver. . .different-sized kidneys.” Her bland, matter-of-fact reading of my numbers and their shortcomings was eye-opening. It was like she was the GM of a baseball team and was evaluating an aging infielder with declining stats; the implicit question was `How do you expect me to keep you on the team?” She as concerned, she said; my blood pressure was loitering just below a point where it would be too dangerous to do the procedure. She wondered aloud whether to use general anesthesia or just sedate me. “Open your mouth” she ordered, and I complied. “Aha!” she said, “just as I thought: you have the worst kind of mouth for resuscitation!” The worst? Who knew humanity was even being judged that way? But now four doctors have admonished me to start taking care of myself, and I am complying. I would to go out with a bang, not slowly shepherded to the grave by an army of healers,
Until January 7th, I had never heard of Charlie Hebdo, but when Islamic terrorists broke into the offices of what was described as “a small French satirical magazine’’ and killed dozen people, including the editor-in-chief, four other cartoonists, two other editors, an economist, a mainterance worker, and two police officers, I instantly identified with the victims. After all, I spent the happiest, headiest days of my career at a small satirical magazine called Spy, so on a visceral level, I felt a connection to those people that I did not feel with, say, the poor grocery store owner who was also murdered in the same despicable wave of violence. Je mange du pain, mais Je suis Charlie.
Thus it came as a tremendous compliment when the cartoonist Ted Rall, writing about the killings in The Los Angeles Times, said, “The Charlie Hebdo artists knew they were working at a place that not only allows them to push the envelope, but encourages it. Hell, they didn’t even tone things down after their office got bombed. They weren’t paid much, but they were having fun. The last time that I met print journalists as punk rock as those guys, they were at the old Spy magazine.’’
People were quick to call Ted out for hyperbole. Former Spy editor Larry Doyle, never one to miss an opportunity to crack wise, said on Facebook, “ The most dangerous thing I ever did at Spy was take a call from Camille Paglia.’’ Matt Weingarten, Spy’s copy chief and an erudite musicologist, observed “There are many ways to characterize the old Spy staff that come to mind, but “punk rock” is not one of them.’’ Playboy editor Jimmy Jellinek tut-tutted “ Making fun of Anthony Haden Guest is not the same as being murdered for mocking the prophet.’’
Captain Obvious couldn’t have said it better. No, we never mocked the prophet, but Jellinek, who is actually an intelligent man, surely knows that Spy was about a lot more than shooting Anthony Haden Guest in a barrel. One reason that we never mocked the prophet is that it never occurred to us to do so, any more than it occurred to us to mock Osama bin Laden or Lindsay Graham or Kanye West. They all became topical after our time. When the first bombing of the World Trade Center occurred in January 1993, those of us who were in the founding group of Spy were half out the door and soon altogether gone. You cannot blame us for not taking on targets who were still beyond the horizon. We were satirists, not soothsayers.
More importantly, we differed from Charlie Hebdo, or at least its cartoonists, in our approach to satire. Charlie’s cartoonists tarred with a wide brush, making fun of groups and group characteristics. Not us. Making fun of groups—Jews, blacks, Catholics, etc.– was an older, discredited form of humor, and we were just too liberal to do that. Too liberal, and too sharp. We mocked people, institutions, power, and once in a while ourselves. But not group stereotypes. It just wasn’t smart enough.
Not only did we never mock the prophet, but apart from a few jabs at Cardinal O’Connor and Catholicism (writing the archdiocese to ask if it okay to use a pesticide that called itself “birth control for roaches,’’ that sort of thing), we never even mocked religion all that much. I wonder, had we been in business in 2006, whether we would have joined Charlie Hebdo in republishing the dozen cartoons depicting Muhammad that had brought such trouble to the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. We might have, but quite possibly not. We would have been sympathetic to Charlie’s free speech arguments and would have wondered why Muslims insist on sacred cattlehood and can’t accept the kind of free-for-all that other religions and other institutions take for granted. But I don’t think we ever looked to become collatoral damage in somebody else’s fight. We preferred to make our own trouble.
We took on the targets that were in front of us. Some of them were manifestly dangerous people, like the KKK and mobsters. We wrote about mobsters a lot. I don’t believe we ever feared violent retribution from anyone. It is true that James Toback made some sort of ominous comment that caused us to hire a bulky fellow to man the front desk for a couple of days, but nobody went to ground. It is also true that Anthony Pellicano, the notorious Hollywood private eye who later did time in a federal penitentiary for the illegal possession of explosive, firearms and grenades, went to jail for bugging people, told my colleague John Connolly that he was going to kill me. In an entirely thoughtless and breezy manner I had mentioned his name in a parody film poster, and an unamused Pellicano took umbrage, and went out of his way to make sure that John gave me the message. Did I feel threatened? No, I felt baffled.
Far more realistic than violent payback was the risk of social and career retribution. The choice of targets cost some of my colleagues friendships and opportunities for social advancement And all of us played with our careers. All of us were young journalists, people who lived at least some of the time on our ability to access the rich and famous, and to be on the good side of their publicists and other representatives. All of us had dreams of working at magazines, writing books, getting into the movies, and yet we all chose to advance out causes by taunting the powers at the New York Times, Conde Nast, Si Newhouse, Tina Brown, Mort Zuckerman, Rupert Murdoch, Hollywood studio chiefs, television network execs, Liz Smith, and many other powerful people in the media who could affect our careers. In the end, the Spy association did not prove too damaging, although some of us occasionally paid a price. Even as recently as last year, I lost a significant publishing opportunity at the hands of someone whom I ridiculed at Spy a quarter century earlier. It was a painful loss, but I am entirely without regret. At least on one occasion the price we paid was a shot at real money; Mike Ovitz must have grown tired at being mocked in Spy once sent an underling to propose that CAA represent us in Hollywood. To their eternal credit, Kurt Andersen and Graydon Carter turned down the deal with the devil. And some us declined to pay the price: one of our editors became afraid that his association with Spy would damage his literary aspirations, and quit the magazine. I thought he was a coward then, and now, after reading some of his subsequent works, I still do.
So I think Ted Rall was right. We wrote for ourselves, and we didn’t care what anybody else thought. In that way, and quite likely in that way alone, yes, we were punk rock, and in that way, yes, we were Charlie. We were Spy.