Wednesday, November 6, 2019

The Man Who Won't Go Away

It's important to see the documentary, Where's My Roy Cohn? The late disbarred lawyer started out representing possibly the most evil person of the '50s, Sen. Joseph McCarthy, and then had a lengthy series of rich crooks, fixers, and rotters as clients for the next few decades. One of the reviews of this film suggested that the key question we should be asking is: Why did the rich and famous not only hire him but socialize with him, knowing how evil he was?

Of course, Tony Kushner made him the leading figure in his superb Angels in America and showed him as who he really was: a closeted homosexual who had persecuted other gay men. In many ways, he was the evil genius with few redeeming attributes. Even the many who despised him acknowledged his smarts: he knew how to use the law for his purposes. I recall reading an account in the NYU Law Review about how several public interest cases were litigated. In one of them, he represented the bad guys and his performance was a demonstration of how to use the law to delay and obfuscate.

He's most relevant today--many years after his death in 1986--because he was the early mentor of our current President when the latter was learning the real estate business. Cohn taught him never to apologize, always to fight back harder than he had been hit, and to lie and cheat as necessary. Amazingly, it looks like the title of this film reflects his difficulty in finding a mouthpiece as skilled and effective as Cohn was. In another profile of Cohn, in Esquire some years ago, one observer said that Cohn was the lawyer you wanted when your case looked like a sure loser, because he had just about invented the hardball style of litigation.

He had been a prosecutor on the Rosenberg case and his statement in a TV interview years after it showed his propensity to lie. It has become clear that Julius Rosenberg was guilty and that Ethel Rosenberg was not, but was prosecuted and executed in a futile attempt to "turn" Julius. It's also important to add that their espionage was hardly "the crime of the century," in J. Edgar Hoover's phrase, because Klaus Fuchs had already given the Soviets all the secrets they needed to build an atomic bomb. Cohn said in the interview that "we had tons more evidence against Ethel Rosenberg that we didn't even need to use," an obvious lie that is rendered even more despicable because he was communicating ex parte with the trial judge to encourage him to impose the death penalty.

The film is worth seeing to remind us that sharpsters like Cohn do get away with their crimes. Yes, he was disbarred at the end and he suffered a somewhat painful decline and death from AIDS. But he was something of a social lion in New York, and was welcomed as a lawyer and friend by the highest figures in the Catholic Church in the city. Cohn should be featured in the new law school ethics courses (which we never had when I was in law school) as the clearest horrible example of how a lawyer can use every skill and technique to succeed in defending the worst among us. Everyone is entitled to be represented, but we've rarely seen someone who spent an entire career protecting the rich and evil and oppressing those who hoped to find justice in our justice system. 

Saturday, November 2, 2019

Huzzas for Chopin's Second Concerto

Tonight we enjoyed hearing at Kennedy Center in D.C. the National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Krzysztof Urbanski play Chopin's Second Piano Concerto, with Lise de la Salle, the pianist. This was the third and last performance of this concert, which had not yet been reviewed in the Washington Post. The concerto itself is wonderful and the presentation by Mlle de la Salle and the NSO under Maestro Urbanski was magnificent.

Not being familiar with any Chopin compositions other than his piano works, which is a little bit like saying not knowing much about Verdi except his operas (ok, there's the Requiem, of course, and the quartet, which remains sort of an oddity), this concerto was a revelation and this pianist excited listeners and us as much as last year when I heard Daniil Trifonov playing Schumann and other piano challenges with much panache.

Chopin of course was the soloist in the 1830 premiere, and the piano soloist's part contains about every type of piano virtuoso element. It kept your interest without being either repetitive or merely pyrotechnical. It was entirely different in style, but still the bravura effect of the performance reminded me of the wonderful recording of Vladimir Horowitz playing the fantastic and famous Chopin Polonaise in A-flat Major.

The remainder of the concert featured Graznya Bacewicz's Overture for Orchestra written in 1943 which was brief (six minutes) and held interest as well as being enjoyable. The last section of the program after intermission was Tchaikovsky's Fourth. I hadn't heard it before but the one part that was more than pleasant was the second movement with its two great themes. This movement will be instantly familiar to you as one of those Greatest Moments in Music pieces, but that shouldn't diminish the delight it inspires. 

The rest of the symphony seemed mainly bombastic and repetitive to me, except for the third movement's pizzicato which sounded like nothing I had ever heard before and was definitely something worth hearing for the first time. Consider all the strings playing quite an extended section of purely pizzicato with none of the rest of the orchestra included for most of this scherzo movement.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Dedicating the Res Club Memorial at Cornell

After 52 years, Cornell has recognized the nine members of the university community who died in the Cornell Heights Residential Club fire—eight students and one faculty member—with a well-designed memorial placed centrally on the campus between Sage Chapel and Day Hall.

One member of our class, Anne Catherine McCormic ‘67, was among the deceased, and another, Sherry Carr ’67 ’70 MILR, delivered one of two reflections at the dedication ceremony at the memorial site on October 4. Both were senior women, who resided on the second, which was the top, floor of the Res Club.

Most people at Cornell then only were aware that 60 freshmen were living on the two lower floors: they had been recruited for the Ford Foundation-funded Six-Year-PhD program. But women in our class who learned about the housing opportunity, at a time when living on campus was severely limited for undergraduate women, occupied the rooms on the top floor, along with several female graduate students.

All, except for Anne McCormic, managed to be rescued by first responders and other residents who used ladders to reach the windows after those trying to escape punched out the screens. Those living on the lower floors either got out through a back door (on the lowest level) or through the windows on the first floor at street level.

The Tompkins County District Attorney’s Office has never initiated criminal proceedings in the case. Until recently, Cornell University did not allow any scrutiny of its archives and records relating to the fire. Our class’s 50th Reunion Book, published in 2017, featured an article by one of the ’67 survivors, Judith Adler Hellman, who recalled what happened that night and also analyzed what has been described as a cover-up by Cornell. Subsequently, the New York Times ran a long piece examining what it could find out about the case.

Cornell President Martha Pollack delivered opening remarks at the dedication of the memorial, acknowledging that “[F]or too long, all of you have felt unheard and your memories unacknowledged. No one can take away the pain of what you experienced. But what we can do is hear your stories and become accustomed, become the custodians of your memories with this memorial, which will remain here in the heart of campus for as long as the University stands.”

In her reflections, Sherry Carr described McCormic, who was one of her roommates and was enrolled in what was then the School of Home Economics during her time at Cornell, as a “dynamo” and observed that “earlier administrations” had refused to recognize the need to honor those who were lost in the fire or resolve the issue of its origin.

The case was complicated by the University’s admitted negligence in failing to observe fire codes in the building, which lacked fire doors, sprinklers, and other standard protective requirements. Subsequent investigations by the New York State Police, fire marshals, and other authorities have reached inconsistent conclusions as to whether an accelerant, which is a fire-causing substance, was detected on the Res Club premises.

One speaker at the reception in the Straight Browsing Library, which followed the dedication, mentioned the name of a former Cornell student whom many of the survivors, and their families and friends, believe started the fire and is living under an assumed name. Others have said that they don’t expect any legal cases—civil or criminal—to be brought unless the District Attorney’s Office ever decides to proceed or Cornell issues a finding regarding the fire’s cause.

Both of these possible outcomes are regarded as unlikely to occur, although the District Attorney’s Office regards the fire as an open case.

The memorial reads “In memory of nine vibrant and brilliant young scholars who died in a tragic fire at the Cornell Heights Residential Club on April 5, 1967,” then lists the names of the deceased and concludes: “Their families, friends, classmates, colleagues, and the entire Cornell community promise to never forget them.”

Monday, October 14, 2019

Mockingbird and Tootsie

Is it still possible to approach To Kill A Mockingbird without bringing the immense baggage that the title now carries all these years after becoming perhaps the most significant novel of the second half of the 20th century? Watching Aaron Sorkin's highly effective adaptation for the stage this weekend at New York's Shubert Theater leads me to conclude that the answer is yes. This is because the underlying subject--race--remains a major part of our culture and because the leading character--Atticus Finch, the lawyer who accepts a court appointment and believes he can achieve justice--is still compelling.

Last year a sequel to the famous novel by Harper Lee was published posthumously amid questions regarding both its provenance and its quality. It apparently (I haven't read it) presents Atticus as somewhat less than the saint portrayed in the renowned movie by Gregory Peck. Despite his proclamations in the movie (and original novel) that justice can be achieved and times have changed in the Deep South, the sequel suggests that he was more conflicted and wasn't in favor of change coming too quickly.

Even without that added input, however, the current rendition is moving and inspiring, while providing excellent characterizations through outstanding performances by the entire cast. The set design and production are excellent, reflecting traditional Broadway standards. Jeff Daniels may well give us a fairer portrayal of Atticus than the majestic Peck. My only complaint was not the appropriately strong Southern accents but the players' tendency to drop the ends of sentences or project them toward the side or rear of the stage.

Sorkin has managed to capture the novel's powerful impact even though by this time, most of us are familiar with the plot and many of the characters. In the end, Mockingbird stands as a formidable picture of our times because it confronts its challenging subject so well, showing all the different angles and impacts it has on each character.

On a lighter note, I was mightily surprised to enjoy the musical Tootsie so completely. My recollection of the Dustin Hoffman movie is now vague so I had no problem accepting the talented Santino Fontana in the title role. The book here is clever and often uproariously funny. That to me may be why this musical captured the Tony award for best musical. Others in the cast are also excellent: Sarah Stiles as the lead's ex-girlfriend performs what could easily be a Gilbert & Sullivan patter song with great spirit and charm.

The whole topic of men dressing as women to save a thus-far dead-end career is now freighted with our current battleground of sexual politics and culture. Even so, this show demonstrates that there's still room for enjoyment of clever lines and lyrics, accompanied by imaginative music. My weekend included these two exciting evenings in the theater--and even more, the weather in New York was palmy and pleasant. It remains challenging to walk through Times Square either before or after showtime, and that's as it should be.

Friday, August 30, 2019

Pavarotti Sings Again

The movie  Pavarotti captures the sheer delight that Luciano Pavarotti inspired during his career as the reigning tenor of his times. The film is a documentary of sorts directed by Ron Howard, who has already succeeded in a second career as a director following his acting days, when, most memorably he played Andy Griffith's son in the TV series of the 60s.

It reminded me of just how fantastic Pavarotti was. His voice was absolutely beautiful and he seemed adept in using it to give extra quality to the famous operatic arias he sang. He first appeared of course in his native Italy and then Covent Garden. When he came to the Met in the early 70s, he costarred with Joan Sutherland, the Australian soprano who made singing bel canto scales and trills as easy as he made the great challenges of the tenor repertory.

We saw them in a grand performance of Donizetti's The Daughter of the Regiment, a show-off bauble that exists today, or should exist, to be revived only when singers of the calibre of Sutherland and Pavarotti are available. Sure, there are nine High Cs for the tenor and likely a similar challenge for the soprano, but the special appeal of this duo was the ease with which they appeared to produce these amazing sounds. No one wants to see a singer show the difficulty of performing these arias; Pavarotti always seemed to be holding notes for amazing lengths and Sutherland negotiated the exposed coloratura of Lucia di Lammermoor's Mad Scene without seeming to try.

The reason I called the film a documentary of sorts is that it mostly presents a wholly positive view of Luciano. Even his affair with a far younger woman in his later years, which led to his divorce from the mother of three of his children, is treated sympathetically--while pointing out that this did diminish his popularity in Italy, his first wife seemed understanding about what happened. I also chuckled about the omission of his disastrous solitary venture into starring in a movie.

But the high point of the picture is definitely the famous Three Tenors concert in the Baths of Caracalla in Rome on the eve of the World Cup football (soccer) final. Aside from the gorgeous singing, what is most enjoyable is the sheer joy that Pavarotti, Domingo, and Carreras, along with Zubin Mehta, exuded while producing incredibly wonderful music. The indulgence of those three magnificent voices doing O Sole Mio was complemented by their extraspecial rendition of Nessun Dorma

There were shots and snippets of Caruso, but although Caruso's fame was heightened by his making some of the first recordings, the somewhat limited quality of those early preserved sounds couldn't compare with modern technology. There was also a clip of DiStefano, who also came off as a lesser singer. It probably would have been the same with others--Gigli, Bjoerling, Martinelli--and we'll never really know how they would stack up with Pavarotti, Domingo, and Carreras.

I also learned from the film. I had never credited Pavarotti with his knowledge of singing technique derived from his two excellent teachers. To me, he just seemed to be a natural, needing no training, but that wasn't true. He had worked hard to be able to perform at the exceedingly high level he achieved. The film included many of his most famous and favorite operatic pieces and reminded me of just how extraordinary he was. We were so fortunate to be able to hear him in person and also on recordings and on television for all those years.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Funny Man Not So Funny

Just finished reading a bio given to me as a present, Funny Man, by Patrick McGilligan, which is about Mel Brooks. It definitely holds your interest and even provides a laugh or two every so often. But while Brooks, still kicking in his early 90s, does not fit the sad clown-comedian profile perhaps most famously depicted in Leoncavallo's always delightful opera, I Pagliacci, the story does bear a resemblance to Billy Crystal's film, Mr. Saturday Night.

I always enjoyed Brooks's movies because he tended to push at the edges of being outrageous. The bio confirms that he only succeeded in producing top-flite films a few times. To me, The Producers will always stand apart, and I mean the original movie, not the musical, which I've not seen (the film of the musical did not get the raves received by the stage version). One reason it was so good was the perfect casting--Zero Mostel, Gene Wilder, Dick Shawn, Kenneth Mars. 

Young Frankenstein, which I hadn't known was Gene Wilder's conception, had great moments, again with players including Wilder, Marty Feldman, Peter Boyle, and Madeline Kahn making it work. And "The Inquisition" number in History of the World--Part I, performed by Brooks, offends a whole lot of people with panache and severely black humor.

He did produce 12 films altogether, not that many for a long career and there are other episodes in movies I've never seen in full, like the great song-and-dance scene in his re-make of To Be or Not to Be, where he and wife Anne Bancroft perform "Sweet Georgia Brown" in Polish. His marriage to Bancroft, which lasted more than 40 years until her death, was his second and seems to be one of the few really happy aspects of his life. 

It's also highly satisfying to compare Bancroft's career--always a fantastic actress, who was recognized as such, and who wisely kept her career separate from Brooks's until that song and dance late in both of their stories. One of the most moving events I read about for the first time was that Paul Simon sang "Mrs. Robinson" with acoustic guitar at a memorial for Bancroft at the Shubert Theater. She had many great roles but that's the one most will remember.

And last but definitely first, is the routine developed as a party piece by Carl Reiner, the perfect straight man (also still going strong, at 97), and Brooks--The 2,000-Year-Old Man, which provided Brooks with a continuing source of support--emotional as well as, ultimately, financial. Brooks always had limitations as a performer, eventually learned to direct without having to terrorize everyone on the set, and even had to get educated in writing comedy when he started out barely out of his teens as the junior on one of the greatest assemblage of writers ever--the gang that created Your Show of Shows starring Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca. 

To me, what the book leaves you with is the recognition that Brooks missed enjoying much of his colorful career because he was so focused on making money. Many of his projects did not rake in profits, which of course is a sad truth prevailing in show business. But the story is full of occasions where he stiffed people and was chintzy when he didn't have to be, including to the three children from his first marriage.

It's encouraging that in his later years Brooks acknowledged that he had sacrificed a lot of enjoyment--especially with his children by his first marriage--by focusing almost entirely on his work. It's an object lesson because in many ways,he maximized a bunch of mid-range abilities--writing, singing, directing, producing--with the amazing comic inspiration of a truly great clown. It didn't always appear but we should be grateful for the handful of absolutely hilarious occasions when it did.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Stevens and Elephants

Justice Stevens was one of the finest members of the Supreme Court ever because he was likely the last to approach every case with an open mind. He came to the bench from a privileged background and an antitrust practice with a major law firm. Of course, his family had suffered during the Depression when their hotel business failed and his grandfather and uncle went to early deaths and his father was imprisoned for fraud. That his father was later exonerated and freed did not erase the experience from the teenage son's consciousness.

Gerald Ford, who had been a partisan minority leader in the House and will be remembered for the disgraceful Nixon pardon, which at least cost him election to the Presidency, did act presidentially with regard to this Supreme Court appointment. Then-Judge (7th Circuit) Stevens's name was advanced by Sen. Charles Percy of Illinois, the kind of moderate Republican with a strong business background who no longer exists, and cleared by Ford's finest appointment, the distinguished former Dean of the University of Chicago law school and President of that university, Attorney-General Edward Levi. He was confirmed, 98-0, in those calmer times.

Stevens did strike observers when he was appointed as likely to follow a center-right trajectory on the court. Instead, his bow ties signaled someone who was independent if not maverick. He seemed to take each case as it came, without a prefixed position. This country has always been more tolerant of far-right positions than far-left ones: Stevens was in reality a moderate; he has been described as a liberal because our media and politicians have moved the center so far to the right. His mentor, Wiley Rutledge, for whom he clerked, was a liberal. So was William O. Douglas. We haven't had any on the court since then.

But some justices have demonstrated a willingness to change their world views. Earl Warren had been a solid conservative when Attorney-General and Governor of California. Now, it is hard to believe he was the Republican nominee for Vice President in 1948. He evolved or, more probably, was able to act on his long-held personal outlook when he joined the court. So did Stevens. He even did what hardly any of them have ever done, before or since: he acknowledged that some of his earlier decisions had been wrong.

I see his dissents in Bush v. Gore and in the Heller 2nd Amendment case as his shining moments. If you read his dissent in Heller, it destroys the spurious historical justifications Scalia managed to convince four ignorant colleagues to accept. The Bush v. Gore decision was fraudulent the moment it appeared and will haunt us by its naked power grab in inflicting someone who had not clearly won the election on us as President. Until now, he was the worst to hold that office.

A story in last Sunday's New York Times Magazine convinced me to change, as it happens. It described in fascinating detail how keeping elephants in captivity, much less having them perform, is entirely alien to their nature and, it has now become clear, their very continued existence. This is not a conclusion that I arrived at easily. I always enjoyed the circus and I've found animal rights a dubious legal concept.

Having put the circus out of business--yes, some small ones persist but Ringling Brothers' fall truly sounded the death knell for this ancient survivor in the show-business world--the animal rights movement turned its attack machine on the zoos. This article showed clearly that the zoos have ignored doing the right thing, which would be to support and lead a movement to enable elephants to endure in their natural habitat. Instead, they have connived to evade export bans to increase their entertainment values by exhibiting elephants. Even if I'm still skeptical of animal rights as a legal theory, I do hate to see animals mistreated. The elephant story shows that the zoos have behaved abysmally and deserve condemnation.