On September 26, 1914, the Post published an introduction to aerial combat and the new fighting “aeroplanes” of the war and a look inside wartime in Paris.
The Air Fleets
By Glenn Curtiss
The Post’s very first article on air combat was written by aviation pioneer Glenn H. Curtiss. Not only was he familiar with the various styles of planes being used by combatants, he could also anticipate the terrors that pilots would face in dogfights long before any had taken place.
“The awfulness of this combat can be imagined by those only who, through personal experience in the upper air, have come to realize the insignificance of objects or individuals in this practically limitless space. Away up there, in machines speeding at the rate of nearly two miles a minute, men need in the clearest weather be but three or four minutes apart to be hopelessly lost from sight of one another; in hazy or cloudy weather an enemy may be within easy striking distance before he is either seen or heard.”
“England is at present the acknowledged leader in the development of [reconnaissance planes] The business of these machines is just what the name suggests. Fast enough in horizontal speed to escape any antagonist seen in reasonable time, they will sail leisurely over the enemy’s lines, while the observers … make accurate records of the disposition of the enemy’s forces. The observer is armed with a quick-firing rifle … though as most of them are tractors, the observer cannot fire at machines directly in front of him, but would have to shoot from above, below or nearly broadside.”
Paris When the War Broke
By Samuel G. Blythe
A week after publishing his account of wartime London, the Post printed Blythe’s report on Paris. He was surprised to see the demonstrative French respond to the war crisis with calm, almost grim determination.
“With the soldiers marched their wives or their sweethearts, or ahead of them, or behind them, cheering their husbands or their lovers on to war. One woman, going to the railway station with her husband, threw their baby into the soldier’s arms just as the train left. ‘Leave him with the station master at the first stop,’ she cried. ‘You may never see him again, and I’ll go and get him.’
“… It is at night that the greatest change is noticed in Paris. The city is silent and deserted after 9 o’clock. The streetlights are maintained, but the streets seem darker than usual, because electric lights are forbidden in shops and cafés after 9 o’clock. All residents of Paris are supposed to be in their homes at that time. The street cafés, that customarily are open always, are closed at 9. In the first days the tables outside the café were forbidden, but now the Parisians are allowed to sit at the little marble-topped tables during the day and sip their grenadine and discuss the war. Most of the harsh-voiced news-venders have gone to war, and the papers are cried by boys, by old men with squeaky voices or by women.”
“All night long the great searchlights play over the dark and silent city, illuminating every alley and every open spot and sweeping the sky in search of German dirigibles and German airships. The territory round Paris is bathed in light constantly for fear there may be some approach. The spy danger is ever present, and the reservoirs and railroad stations and crossings and bridges are closely guarded. The fortifications are filled with men. The trenches are manned. The city calmly waits the event.”
Step into 1914 with a peek at these pages from The Saturday Evening Post 100 years ago.
The instant that back door slammed behind me, I knew … I knew right then and there, that I, literally, was out in the cold and clad only in my flannel nightgown. And that dog, his dog, his big, black, hairy, slobbery, slow-witted retriever with a wet tongue dripping along the floors and a rod of a tail wiping the coffee table clear of magazines, plants, or whatever and slapping at my wine rack filled with carefully chosen whites and reds was warm inside.
It happened so fast. I couldn’t believe it! I was taking meat bones to the garbage outside so that gangly, lumbering dog wouldn’t get into the kitchen trash. And this mangy mutt, he follows me, jumps up, and slams the back door behind me! Me! The one who feeds, walks, and bathes him!
I banged on the back door as I shouted at him. “I’m outside and my feet are cold! It’s 48 degrees. Do you even care?!”
With his front paws up on the back door and his tongue wagging, he stood panting, his dog breath fogging up the window. We were eye to eye and hand to paw. I was not smiling. He looked like he was.
That dog, not yet 2 years old, could do more damage in a few minutes than a midsummer tornado. Leaning my back against the door, I realized two things about this problem 1) it had to be dealt with fairly soon and 2) being a sane and logical woman, I could not cry about it.
Had to think! Seconds ticked by, maybe minutes.
If I go to my elderly neighbors on the left, they’ll call the police to assist. That would be so embarrassing. Can’t go to my neighbors on the right, they both work, or to the people behind us, too far. And I certainly will not cross the street in my nightgown!
That left me with only one option. Try all the windows.
The bathroom window would be first. If hubby followed his regular morning routine — opening it wide while he showered, leaving it cracked open while he shaved — it might still be open or unlocked. Even though I found all that to be quite silly, since we have an adequate fan and it’s a danger to leave it unlocked, this time, I counted on his leaving it open.
One problem was that the bathroom window was at the side of the house where the elderly neighbors might view my attempt to climb through it as a potential break-in or worse. The other problem was that the window was higher than any other window of the house, so I would need something to stand on — leverage and such.
I was in dire need of a plan.
Aha! I spotted that old wheelbarrow in the yard behind ours. Confident if it all went well I could definitely, with some effort, move it to our side yard, turn it upside down, and then use it to climb into the bathroom, I wondered, Hmmm, long flannel nightgown no slippers for a firm grip can I get it lady-like?
Plan A began well. After wrapping my nightgown around my legs to look like pants, it only took me a few minutes to sneak to the wheelbarrow leaning up against the back of my neighbor’s garage.
In checking the ground for burrs, bugs, or snakes, I looked cautiously around. Good. No neighbors out, none peeking through drapes or curtains. I trusted the commuters wouldn’t really pay attention; they’d be oblivious, talking on their cell phones or staring straight ahead.
Acting like a thief, feeling like a crazed woman, I took the well-used concrete encrusted wheelbarrow and awkwardly pushed it around the house to the bathroom and turned it upside down. Yuck! Cut grass and spider stuff stuck everywhere!
His dog had followed me to the window and began barking and racing around in circles in the undersized bathroom, knocking things off the counter and toilet tank to the floor, or into the toilet. Hearing the crashing, I thought of my expensive perfume. My makeup and hairbrush. I just hated to think what else was there for him to demolish.
Pursing my lips for courage, I whisked most of the obnoxious stuff off the wheel barrel with my hands and wiped them off the best I could on the grass. I gingerly stepped up, avoiding the rusty parts, and took off the screen, exerting pressure up on the window frame. Oh good, miracles of miracles, not locked!
The window area looked OK for me to squeeze through. It all seemed simple enough; I figured if I could get my shoulders in, my hips were sure to follow.
I stuck my head into the bathroom. The mess didn’t seem too bad. Perfume, back of toilet, top appears to have held; no broken glass around; makeup doing the balancing act on the edge of counter; bath powder not as close, lid on … good; hairbrush, nowhere to be seen.
Going in; window wide enough for my shoulders. There’s always hope for the lower half.
His dog, overjoyed that I’d come to play, tore back into the hallway, hind legs scrunching the rugs as he sped around the corner. He returned with his squeaky bone; squeak, squeak, squeak resounding all the way back to the bathroom. “Midnight! Good boy! Go get your blankie; get your blankie for Mummy.”
I made my voice sweet as apple pie, hoping he’d get me his old towel so I could use it as a pad beneath me. Well, so much for that wish, he brought back his stuffed monkey.
I hoisted myself up, using my elbows on the window sill, jumping a bit as I wrestled a little more of my upper half through the window with the adroit skill of a beached walrus. (Thank goodness for granny-gowns because most of me was now up in the air.) In lieu of the dog’s blankie, I grabbed a hand towel that hung nearby to use as a pad for my ribs and subsequent hip bones.
That dog barked almost incessantly and slobbered continuously as he jumped around throwing his wild monkey up again and again until it landed, ending with a perfectly centered shot in the toilet. After studying his problem for a moment, he grabbed the soaked monkey and tossed it once more, splattering large drops on the large mirrored wall over the sink, at the same time tangling a rear paw in the shower curtain trim behind him.
Oh, I knew what was coming …
The rod ripped away from the wall on the far side. The shower curtain snapped from the rod, showering bits of exploded plastic rings over everything and shrouded that dog in a shimmering azure blue. The monkey landed splayed out, weeping toilet water over the floor and the disheveled bathmat, which now bore the piled remnants of my makeup and bath powder.
Poor Midnight masked in my once elegant shower curtain thrashed in circles, barking and yipping and sending clouds of powder and the wicker wastebasket filled with tissues, dental floss, and a used toothpaste tube flying. I shouted at him again, like he would listen to me, “Midnight! Stop! What a crazy mess!” When it was all over the tightly twisted shower curtain looked like it had come directly from the washer with its Dry Clean Only tag sticking straight up. The shower lining lay in a mangled heap in the tub. In his flailing, that dog managed to get the curtain off his head and did proceed to knock the bathroom door shut with his butt, so at least all was contained in the small room.
My body was beginning to hurt dangling halfway into the bathroom. I dragged and pulled myself a few more inches through, wondering how I was going to manage the outcome for the rest of my body. My waist was at the edge of the window sill. What could I grab? The sink was out of reach. If I balanced myself with one hand on the toilet tank and the other grasping the toilet seat (that was left in the up position), I could wiggle in, but I might slip down between the wall and the toilet, or end up in the toilet itself. This situation soooo needed a plan B.
Midnight jumped up — front paws straddling the toilet bowel — barking happily knowing that I really was coming in to play with him. “No Midnight! Get down!” I had a bad feeling of what might come next.
Into the toilet his paws went. Paws in, paws out. And water was everywhere. He jumped up again, hoisting one rear paw into the toilet, keeping one on the floor, balancing himself quite well as he plopped his wet front paws on my shoulders to lick my face and smother me with doggie kisses.
I was more than halfway through the window, belly button resting uncomfortably on the sill; one hand on the toilet tank, the other braced against the wall near the towel rack. I still had the widest part of my body to drag through, but by that time, I heard the sirens.
I moaned, “Oh, no. Plan B.”
Midnight barked, looking anxious. I waited, feeling anxious. He barked more. The fireman and police couldn’t contain their smiles; one laughed, and then apologized; he knew my husband, and the dog — Midnight was one of his dog’s litter. What a morning. What a mess. So embarrassing … why couldn’t he have just locked the window?
“For my money, Tony Bennett is the best singer in the business,” Frank Sinatra said of the crooner in 1965 — a quote Bennett says changed his life. “He excites me when I watch him. He moves me. He’s the singer who gets across what the composer has in mind, and probably a little more.”
Ol’ Blue Eyes got it right. And at 88, he still “moves” us, gaining new generations of fans with each release. With his latest album Cheek to Cheek, Bennett revisits his favorite catalogue of jazz standards from the Great American Songbook, including “Anything Goes, “It’s Don’t Mean a Thing,” “Sophisticated Lady,” and, of course, the record’s title track “Check to Cheek.”
Tony Bennett has achieved longevity in life and career — a rare feat in today’s entertainment industry. In the last decade, Bennett has sold more than 10 million records. During his 60-year career, Bennett has won 17 Grammy Awards (including a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2001) and two Emmy Awards, and named an NEA Jazz Master and a Kennedy Center Honoree — not to mention the millions of records he’s sold worldwide and the platinum and gold albums to his credit.
In Cheek to Cheek, Bennett collaborates with what on the surface may seem an unlikely partner — Lady Gaga, famous for provocative fashion and chart-topping hits among Gen Yers. But Bennett saw something in Gaga beyond the outrageous costumes and performances — an artist.
Despite the 60-year age difference, the singers share a common love — of heritage (both are Italian) and of jazz.
“I’ve been singing jazz since I was a child and really wanted to show the authentic side of the genre,” said Lady Gaga. “We made an album of jazz classics, but it has a modern twist.”
As for Bennett, the jazz icon shares the same passion for the genre and the artistry of such American masters as Duke Ellington, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, and others.
“I have been singing the Great American Songbook my entire career, and all along forging a bridge between pop and jazz music,” said Bennett, who has collaborated with such legends as Barbra Streisand, James Taylor, Paul McCartney, Elton John, k.d. lang, Mariah Carey, Stevie Wonder among many others.
Listen to “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” track 4 from the Cheek to Cheek album.In 1995, I interviewed Tony Bennett, then on a 40-city international concert tour. When asked about his life and career, Bennett felt lucky because he knew what he wanted to do, “I always had a passion … for my singing and my painting … I’ve been very fortunate.”
As have we, Tony. As have we.
Read exclusive interviews with Tony Bennett from The Saturday Evening Post.
Find out why the singer once compared himself to Madonna in “Talking with Tony” by Patrick Perry.
See some of Tony Bennett’s best paintings, including a portrait of Duke Ellington, in “The Best of Both Worlds” by Holly Miller.
Rockwell’s Armchair General is a reliable reflection of the way many parents of World War II soldiers spent their evenings — waiting for the latest reports to know the fates of their sons.
The April 29, 1944, Post cover shows a worried patriarch who tunes in to the radio to chart war maneuvers. More important, he’s attempting to deduce his three sons’ whereabouts and safety.
Rockwell’s careful deployment of mapping and research props gives the illustration a sense of narrative history. It’s clear this activity occurred nightly. Well-penciled maps flag the sons’ positions next to their military portraits. In homes across the country, parental war anxiety was the norm.
Rockwell’s composition is both heartwarming and sad. The patriotic dad is surrounded by a flurry of homemade research and comforted by a pair of cats. He’s doing all he can to stay current, yet he is essentially powerless. Each night, the reports coming through the airwaves could signal allied advances, but also crushing personal loss.
The armchair general turns knobs and tunes out static as if he could bark commanding orders through his radio. But, of course, there’s nothing he can do but passively await the news.
Born in Rostov-on-the-Don, Russia, to wealthy parents Ivan and Izabella Alajálov, Constantin Alajálov (1900-1987) grew up a well-educated man. He attended the Gymnasium of Rostov from 1912 to 1917 and began his studies at the University of Petrograd in 1917. At five years old, the artist began making sketches; a talent his mother nurtured. In school, he preferred languages. Alajálov studied French, English, German, and Italian. His skill in art and language became tools for survival before ever turning it into a passionate career.
His academic pursuits were cut short in 1917 on the advent of the Russian Revolution. The revolution began with an armed insurrection in Petrograd, the very city in which Alajálov was studying. Forced out of school, the Bolsheviks drafted Alajálov to produce political propaganda throughout southern Russian villages. He painted wall murals and posters until escaping to Rasht, Persia (now northern Iran) in 1920.
Constantin’s time in Persia, however, was short-lived. In 1921, the khan he was working for was executed by his successor. Again, Alajálov fled to a new land and sought refuge in Constantinople (modern Istanbul, Turkey).
Alajálov’s Constantinople era was one of abject poverty. The artist was grateful for a glass of goat’s milk or a small meal as payment for posters and murals. He once remarked that Russian princes wandered the streets in gray flannel pajamas provided by the American Red Cross. He began a Russian Artists Club to study technique and critique the work of his peers. After two years, Constantin had saved enough money, $100, to make the trip to New York City.
Arriving in 1923 with $5 in his pocket, the artist ran into a boyhood friend on Broadway. The friend happened to be the secretary of famous American dancer Isadora Duncan. Constantin used this connection to network with the Russian community in New York City. Soon the artist was painting murals and posters again. His artistic “big break” arrived when he was hired to paint the interior of the Bi-Ba-Bo Club. The club was a popular nightlife spot due to its owner, high-society socialite, Russian countess Anna Zarenkau.
Three years later, at age 25, The New Yorker accepted his submission for the magazine’s September 25, 1926, cover. His covers were satirical commentaries on American life; his artistic style experimental. Alajálov’s art was both Realist, and Cubist. Some of his works contain thick outlining reminiscent of Picasso’s early primitive style.
During his exclusive contract years (late 1920s to 1930s) with The New Yorker, Alajálov taught at The Phoenix Art Institute and Alexandre Archipenko’s Ecole D’Art (both in NYC). He also became the director of the Societe Anonyme for the Museum of Modern Art. During this fruitful time, the artist traveled the world visiting museums and studying art, composition, and technique. He visited Haiti in 1929, Cuba in 1933, Italy in 1938, Honolulu in 1939, and spent the majority of his summers in either Paris or on the French Riviera.
His first Post cover illustration appeared on October 6, 1945. By this time, Constantin Alajálov had made quite a name for himself in the commercial illustration industry. He had already provided cover work for magazines such as Vanity Fair, Town and Country, Fortune, Life, Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, and House & Garden. His work was so sought after that he was placed in the unique situation of overcoming traditional contract exclusivity between The New Yorker and The Saturday Evening Post.
Constantin Alajálov lived a life filled with adventure, travel, ups, downs, failures, and successes. He rose from Russian revolutionary refugee to the heights of the New York art world. He was a global citizen, having traveled much of the world before the middle of the 20th century. His extensive travels were a feat for the time period. In retirement, Alajálov enjoyed swimming, horseback riding, tennis, piano, and golf. He died of natural causes at the age of 87 in 1987.
Covers by Constantin Alajálov
The 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor wasn’t a complete surprise to all Americans. Some had long anticipated a Japanese offensive against the U.S. and had foreseen, with surprising clarity, the general direction of the war. One of them was Fletcher Pratt, a writer of science fiction, a pioneer in war gaming, and “one of the outstanding lay military and naval authorities in the United States,” as the Post described him in its Keeping Posted column.
Just as the war in Europe began in 1939, Pratt completed a book on the world’s naval forces and strategy. An excerpt offering his opinion of the current U.S. Navy was published in the Post that year in its October 7 issue. (Read Pratt’s entire article “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean” from the Post here.)
It didn’t sound good. “The battle line is the slowest in the world, which is to say that it cannot force an unwilling enemy to fight, nor escape from a disastrously superior one. Some of the battleships steer badly. The early heavy cruisers vibrate rackingly at high speeds, roll in a seaway and have weak features in their construction.”
“Promotion in the American Navy is desperately slow and uncertain,” Pratt added. “Junior officers are constantly tempted to toady, and examining boards to give credit for correct routine rather than for original thought. Officers reach command rank late in life. … In no country does it take longer to sign a contract for a new ship; in none is the building process marked by so many petty squabbles.”
Yet he concluded, “No navy in existence, hardly any two together, can bear the weight of the United States fleet.” Its battleships were slow, he wrote, but they were well armed, and its aircraft carriers were the envy of the world. “The American naval air service is a model which other nations have despairingly been trying to equal for 15 years. No navy has so good a catapult; the bomb sight has for years been the object of affectionate curiosity on the part of half the spies in the world.”
Pratt compared the U.S. Navy with its most likely opponent — not Nazi Germany, who many Americans feared they’d soon be fighting — but Imperial Japan.
In general, Pratt didn’t think Japan’s navy was much of a threat. While “the whole American battle line is up to date today, most of the Japanese line well on the march toward the scrap heap.”
The Japanese fleet, Pratt said, “lacks gun power and armor to stand against the American giants. The operating range of the whole Japanese fleet is something under 2,500 miles. … A Japanese campaign against the United States [is] simply impossible as long as American warships float in Pearl Harbor.”
Over the years, I’ve read predictions by several journalists of the past. None of them got everything right. But some predictions stand out for being right about the important points. The important point of Pratt’s report is that, from two years away, he saw the challenges the Allies would face in 1941.
According to Pratt, the British navy was “very poorly fitted for South Sea work; it is composed of World War [I] battleships with the short ranges, good protection against cold and bad protection against heat.” The Japanese would pounce on a moment of British vulnerability to strike, very likely seizing “the Dutch East Indies — those vast storehouses of every raw material the island empire needs.”
Which is precisely what Japan did, just one day after their assault on Pearl Harbor.
Foreseeing an inevitable conflict between American and Japanese forces in the Pacific, Pratt predicted the Japanese offensive would focus on “direct conquest of American establishments west of Hawaii. Guam, Wake, Midway, the Philippines, all the small American outposts, would fall in the first rush.”
All these islands were attacked. All but Midway were taken by early 1942.
America’s offensive against Japan, Pratt wrote, would have to come up from the southern Pacific. The northern route, down from Seattle or Alaska, was too long and wouldn’t affect any of Japan’s interest.
So the U.S. would have to start from Hawaii, Pratt wrote, and proceed to the Marshall and Caroline Islands to connect with Australian forces, then “roll up the Japanese lines from the south. Once that circuit were accomplished, once that blockade set up, Japan would be cut off; she must surrender or die — of a lack of food, oil, and iron, not to mention the many less essential materials she does not have in the islands. Japanese strategy and naval construction are accordingly directed toward the prevention of such a blockade.”
Overall, a fairly accurate synopsis of what took place in the Pacific between 1941 and 1945. True, the Caroline Islands weren’t part of the U.S. offensive. American troops advanced on Japan through the Marshall to the Mariana Islands, while a southern initiative led from the Solomons through New Guinea, all heading toward the Philippines.
Such differences are minor, considering that Pratt was a journalist. He was not a naval officer and had no access to the military’s intelligence reports. Just as remarkable, was his ability to perceive the future at a time when fears and resentments kept many Americans from clearly seeing the situation right before them.
Step into 1939 with a peek at these pages from The Saturday Evening Post 75 years ago:
This series begins with a surprising eyewitness account of London by Samuel G. Blythe, published in our September 19, 1914, issue. It’s surprising because Blythe’s article contradicts the traditional account of Great Britain’s entry into the war.
Popular histories and movies would give you the impression that the warring nations sent their soldiers off to war amid scenes of frenzied, jubilant crowds. Documentaries such as PBS’ The Great War and the upcoming exhibit at the National World War I Museum assert that there was a general expectation that the war would be over by Christmas.
Doubtless there were people who were excited and pleased by the thought of war and believed it would end quickly, decisively, and victoriously. But the Londoners Blythe saw were far from exuberant. According to his article “London in War Time,” they “watch their soldiers silently — almost stolidly. Whatever emotions they may have are held in check. … The crowds have stood silently alongside the curbs, saying nothing — not cheering — not shouting — just watching.”
Furthermore, contrary to the myth that the British expected a quick, easy victory, “the great papers are issuing daily and solemn warnings that the war is likely to be long and bloody.”
Most surprising to me is Blythe’s realization, from the war’s first week, that the coming conflict would have a vast impact. “It will change the map of Europe. It will leave its impress on the destinies of the entire civilized world for years and years to come. No person at a distance can comprehend what it all means. No person can comprehend that even here, at one of the centers of activities, or in Paris or Berlin. The impressions bulk too hugely. The mind does not grasp it all. No mind can.
“A world is being overturned. There is to be slaughter unparalleled in history. There is to be sorrow and woe and distress and ruin. There is to be mourning and weeping. There is to be the glory of arms and the grave of ambition and lust for power. Kings may lose their thrones. Republics may arise where monarchies now prevail.”
Many historians argue that the governments and people of Europe had no idea the war would overturn their world. Well, at least one reporter saw fairly clearly where it was heading, right from the start.
Step into 1914 with a peek at these pages from The Saturday Evening Post 100 years ago:
Does your home’s wireless signal seem slower than it used to be? Is reception spotty in some rooms? Well, do something about it! Believe it or not, you don’t need an engineering degree to boost the range and speed of your wireless router.
1. Run a test. Before tinkering with the router, make sure the problem isn’t your Internet connection. The Web has plenty of free utilities that test broadband speeds, and they’re easy to run. Ookla Speedtest (speedtest.net) is known for delivering accurate results, or you could run a speed test from your Internet service provider. How fast should your connection be? If your provider promises download speeds of 10 Mbps (megabits per second), the speed test should prove it. If you use video streaming services like Netflix or Hulu Plus to watch HD-quality shows, you’ll want download speeds of at least 5 Mbps. Power users who stream HD video, play online games, and have four or more devices online at the same time will need a 15 Mbps or faster connection.
Wisdom dictates that your investment portfolio should be balanced by dividing it among a number of different asset classes. These include stocks, bonds, real estate, and cash equivalents (such as money market funds or bank accounts). Perhaps some exposure to commodities, inflation protected bonds, and a few other types of investment vehicles as well.
For those whose investments are definitely going to be for very long time periods, there is a strong argument that the lion’s share of their portfolio should be in stocks. Not only is the phrase “stocks for the long run” a kind of folk wisdom — and the title of my University of Pennsylvania colleague Professor Jeremy Siegel’s excellent book on the subject — it is also a reflection of economic theory and empirical evidence.
Keep in mind that stocks here refer to investments that involve ownership interests in public companies. No distinction is being made between individual stocks, mutual funds that hold stocks, stock ETFs, or other methods of owning stock investments. On the other hand, it is important to remember that not all funds or ETFs hold only stocks; many are invested in bonds or other underlying investment types.
What makes stocks so strongly suited to long-term investing? John H. Cochrane, a distinguished service professor of finance at University of Chicago Booth School of Business, explains it clearly. “Over the long run, a broad portfolio of stocks has substantially outperformed other investment classes including bonds and real estate. There is every reason to expect that performance to continue as stocks are a claim to real companies’ earnings.”
So why not just invest all your money in stocks or stock-based funds? The answer is plain to see: Any money you are likely to need in the near to mid-term future is not being invested for the long run. For example, if you have a teenager who will be starting college in a few years, the money put away for that purpose cannot be invested for a long time. Also, as you approach retirement it will be necessary to start using some of your investment assets for living expenses. And if you are already in retirement and you need the income now, there’s no time to overcome a drastic stock market setback. Retired folks must wisely temper stock-based investments with other less-risky investments.
What about stock investing for short periods, is that wise? The answer, in my opinion, is a resounding no. As Cochrane puts it, “Stocks are quite risky though especially at short horizons. They tend to do poorly in recessions and other bad economic times, precisely when short-horizon investors need their money. In part, you earn greater returns for bearing this risk and being willing to wait for better times. People who cannot take that risk shouldn’t invest in stocks despite the appealing long-run returns.”
Stocks for the short run turn out to be little more than gambling. Paying someone to play games of chance with your money is beyond foolish. This seems to be a lesson that each generation must relearn. Most of us can still taste the ashes of the 2008 market crash. But many can barely remember the sharp decline of 2002. The decline of 1990 was an unpleasant one. The one in 1973 and ’74 was almost as bad as our recent debacle. And, of course, the crash of 1929 and the Depression that followed it scarred an entire generation. The cycle of grave losses in financial markets is as perennial as the grass — but cannot be predicted in advance.
The solution is a simple one. For investments that will not be touched for very long periods of time, choose stocks for the long run. For money that will be needed to fund the activities of life, though, choose safer classes of investments. No stocks for the short run.
Grandma told me she could fly.
She waited until we were alone in the room to tell me. She was sitting in the chair she liked, the one with the blue fabric and the rip on the arm. I was sitting on the edge of the fireplace, cross-legged, with my chin on my hand.
Grandma stood, and a mischievous grin grew on her lips. Mom called it her “fire grin,” because once Grandma had set fire to the woods behind our house, and when Mom caught her with the matches, Grandma had given Mom that same wild look.
“Did you hear what I said, Charlie?” Grandma asked me. “I said that I can fly.”
I didn’t know what to say.
“Would you like to see?”
“Yes,” I said. Then I said: “No.”
She cocked her head and gave me a look that suggested I was made out of mud.
“I’ll make you a believer,” she said and whirled around in a kind of half-dance.
Our house had these oversized windows with a ledge deep enough to sit on. The windows themselves latched in the middle, and they opened outward like wings. Grandma climbed up on a ledge and hesitated, contemplating the window latch.
“Grandma,” I said. But she paid me no mind. She got the latch undone and with one push she was teetering on the edge, looking down the two-story length of our house, at the grass below. I could feel the cold air seeping into the room, making me shiver.
“Do you believe me, Charlie?” she asked. Somehow she looked younger, every line on her face smooth and settled. There was bright energy in her eyes, an eagerness that was only a stone’s throw from seeming childish. “Tell me you do.”
“Yes,” I said.
Grandma nodded. She turned her head up toward the blue sky and closed her eyes. The breeze caught her hair, tossing it back from her forehead. “I just need to remember how. It’s in the memory, Charlie. It’s all in the memory.”
Mom came into the room and she screamed when she saw my grandma standing in the window. Whether Grandma could fly or not, I never found out that day.
I was older when she told me about the lake.
“You ever lie underneath the sky and watch the clouds?” Grandma asked me. It was late afternoon and we were sitting on the back porch. My dad was trying to get the barbeque lit and having a bugger of a time.
“I suppose,” I said. I leaned back in my chair, laced my hands in my lap, and looked up at the sky. There were no clouds, and the atmosphere was so blue it was hard to believe there was anything beyond that color. No stars. No moon. Nothing.
“Well either you did or you didn’t,” Grandma said. She had her hand wrapped around a glass of lemonade. When she lifted it to her lips the ice clinked against the glass and she made a smacking noise that grossed me out. “There’s magic in those clouds, Charlie, for anyone willing to look hard enough. There’s magic everywhere. But you’ve got to listen for it. Magic whispers; it doesn’t shout.”
I had no idea what Grandma was talking about. I usually didn’t.
“When you look up into the sky,” she said, “what do you see?”
I shrugged. “No clouds.”
“No clouds today, Charlie, but what about yesterday? Or the day before?”
I shrugged again. I couldn’t even remember if I had cereal that morning for breakfast.
“You lack imagination, Charlie. You always did.” She took another drink of lemonade. “Not your fault,” she said, wagging a finger at me.
My dad was now on his back, underneath the barbecue messing with the igniter wiring, and I watched him so I didn’t have to look at Grandma.
“The lake,” she said. “That’s where I first found it. Heard it. A voice calling out to me.” I felt her gaze on me, heavy and longing, like a puppy from behind a window. “That’s when I first learned how to fly, Charlie. At the lake.”
I was too old now to believe the story. When I was a little boy her stories mystified me. As I grew older they just bored me.
“I was only a little girl. We were poor, and we were about to lose the house. I was sitting by the lake, pouting, because I didn’t want to leave. You can understand that.”
“The water was so still, and the air. The air was so clean! I could hear everything. The crickets and the loons with their god-awful cry. That sound could haunt the freckles off your back, Charlie. I swear it could. Even the earth underneath me seemed to groan with words that weren’t really words at all.”
“What did you hear?” She was sucking me in again.
“Footsteps. Coming up behind me. But there was nobody there.” She took another sip of her lemonade, and when she set her glass down on the table I noticed her hand was trembling. “I turned around and there was nobody there. But something whispered to me, right into my ear. A woman’s voice, or maybe a little girl’s, soft as kitten breathe.”
I checked on my dad, who was still holding his vigil underneath the barbecue. His tongue was poking out of the corner of his mouth, a sign things were getting serious.
“You can fly if you want to,” Grandma said. “That’s what I heard. That’s what the voice said to me.”
“Did you see the woman?” I asked.
“I turned back toward the lake as if the voice had come from the water itself. Maybe it did; I don’t know. I still don’t know. I saw my reflection there, only it wasn’t my reflection, Charlie.”
“It was another little girl looking back at me. And this little girl was in the air. She was flying, and she was laughing, and she was looking back at me with eyes as big as silver dollars. You know what I saw in those big eyes? I saw the future. I saw all the possibilities of what can be, and what might be, and it made me cry.”
“Did you fly?”
“I ran away screaming.” She sat back and smiled. “I was only a little girl, and Daddy came out with a shotgun, thinking I saw someone creeping around in the bushes.” She giggled at this memory as she tenderly put a hand to her cheek. “But I did fly, Charlie. I did, later, and it was wonderful. I can teach you how, but you have to believe. You have to want to do it.”
A crash and a yell disrupted our conversation. I heard my dad curse loud enough to spook a pair of jays from the fence. The barbecue had flipped over on its side, and the grate rolling across the concrete did a kind of lazy wobble and then fell against my mom’s pot of petunias. Dad reared back his arm and chucked the lighter. It landed in the rose bush.
“Shit on a stick!” he yelled, and Grandma belted out a bray of laughter spraying lemonade everywhere.
I lay in bed most of the night thinking about what Grandma told me. By morning, I had decided to ask her about flying again.
But the lights were off in the living room, and in the kitchen, and I knew that was wrong. For as long as I could remember, Grandma was always the first up, the first to have coffee made and the first to be at the table drinking it.
But that morning there was no sign of her.
Her room was at the end of the downstairs hallway. I crept there in my socks, despair gnawing at my ribs. I hesitated at her door, almost knocked, but leaned in to listen instead. From inside I could hear Grandma’s fan whooshing back and forth, but nothing else.
The door opened, and there she was, staring at me as if she had never seen me before. Her face was slack, not with sleep, but waxen like a doll’s. Her skin was glossy and there was dried spit on her lips.
She blinked, once and then again, and then her lower lip dropped open as if she were about to speak. But only the faintest of sounds came out of her mouth.
“Wake up,” I said. “It’s me. It’s Charlie.”
Her eyes darted down to the floor and then back to my face. She smacked her lips and drool fell down her chin and to the floor in one long stringy drop.
“Don’t touch the pastries, Jack,” she said. “The fire department’s at the door!”
I took another step backward until I was against the wall.
“Get away from the toaster! It’s hot! It’s hot!”
Her eyes rolled up until they were white. Her lips and her hands trembled. And then she blinked. When she opened her eyes again, I saw clarity there for the first time.
“Charlie,” she said. “What on earth are you doing in the hallway at this hour?”
“It’s morning,” I said.
She ran a hand across her face and yawned. “So it is, Charlie. So it is.” She put a hand on my arm. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
“I was worried,” I said.
“What on earth for?”
“I don’t know.”
She ruffled my hair and then set off down the hall. “You were always a little odd, Charlie,” she said and turned the corner.
Two weeks later, she fell and broke her hip. Mom told me she had climbed up onto the fence in the backyard, and fell into the neighbor’s hydrangeas.
“I don’t know what in the world she was doing,” my mom said. “Climbing up there like that. I think she’s going mad.”
But I knew. Grandma was trying to remember how to fly.
When Grandma came home from the hospital, she was restricted to a wheelchair. This was like clipping the wings of a sparrow. The medicine made her thick and distant, and she barely said a word to any of us anymore. Sometimes she would just sit and stare and I would wonder if she hated us. Maybe she blamed us for the chair, or maybe it was the fall. I think falling was the hardest part of it all. It was more than her hip that shattered that day.
I missed her, missed hearing her voice and her laugh. I even missed her stories.
One bright morning in late August, I pushed Grandma outside to sit with me on the patio. The day was already edging toward being another scorcher, and I was starting to sweat while Grandma sat there with her yellow afghan draped over her lap.
“Show me how to fly, Grandma,” I whispered. I locked her wheels in place and sat down in the chair next to her.
Her eyes were cold and hard. Her gnarled hands clutched at the afghan.
“Look, Grandma. Look at the clouds. Big puffy ones, just like you like.” I patted her hand. “There’s one that looks like a boat. Like a tugboat.”
I was speaking to her as if she were 5 years old, a horrible thing people tend to do with the elderly and the sick. But I was 14 years old, and I just wanted my grandma back.
“Talk to me, Grandma. Just say something.”
Desperation filled me like water. I stood, biting back the anger, and went into the house, leaving Grandma there on the porch. I pulled open the cabinet over the sink and snatched a glass, but I dropped it when I heard something crash outside. Underneath the sound of metal on concrete was a low, hoarse moan.
I ran outside and found the wheel chair flipped on its side. Grandma lay with her cheek pressed to the concrete, her frail body crumpled in a motionless heap. Her eyes were wet and wide and staring up at me. Her face was a pond of emotion, its surface frozen solid.
“Grandma,” I said, kneeling and brushing the hair out of her face. “What did you do?”
Her legs were twisted wrong. She must have been in pain, but she didn’t show it.
“What do I do?”
Her lips began to move, to tremble, to vibrate. She reached for my arm and grabbed me fiercely with one hand.
“Kill me,” she whispered. “Kill me, Charlie. Please.”
Grandma taught me how to swim by pushing me into the deep end of the municipal pool and holding my head under water until I learned not to open my mouth. I’m pretty sure I was as close to drowning that afternoon as a kid could be, and I’m equally convinced that Grandma would have let me if I didn’t give in to her. I still remember what it felt like to be underneath all that water and to have no control. That’s how I felt the last time I went to see Grandma in the hospital.
She lay in her bed, motionless, so still that she appeared artificial. Like a husk or a shell of something that was no longer present. Her wrinkled skin was sallow and thin. Her eyes, almost lifeless.
Mom put her hand on my arm and I almost screamed.
There was little light coming through the blinds and as I approached her bed I could see dust floating in the air, could feel them collecting on my skin, like a thousand tiny fingers. I wanted to run away, but stood frozen as her heavily sedated eyes rolled toward me.
“Charlie,” she whispered, her lips like leather, colorless and worn.
I put my hand on the bedrail; felt the cold steel against my skin.
“Charlie,” Grandma said again, and she tried to smile but could only hold it for a fraction of a moment. “Come here.”
She lifted her hand and twitched her fingers. I put my hand in hers and tried not to show in my expression how horrible it felt to touch her. Touching her was worse than touching that cold bedrail, because it was like clutching death itself. She was so frail I worried that she would crumble and blow away, right out of my palm, just like a memory or a whispered word on the breeze.
I looked up at my mom and saw tears in her eyes.
“I’m here, Grandma,” I said. My voice sounded too loud in the haunting silence that surrounded us.
“Do you still remember how to fly, Charlie?”
I shook my head. “I don’t know how.”
“We all know how to fly,” Grandma said. “We just need to remember. That’s all.”
The nurse came in and took Grandma’s vitals. Grandma closed her eyes and fell asleep, and she never woke up again.
What we remember the most from our childhood are often the strange things. These become sacred somehow, and so we hold on to them. They haunt us, like ghosts. They move us, still, when we allow them to, like old melodies. In the same way, Grandma still speaks to me. She was my friend, and even in her madness she was a part of me that will always hum, like a live wire. Dangerous and beautiful.
I go out to the lake often now to sit in the grass and I’ll look up at the sky to watch the clouds. Sometimes they make shapes, and I’ll watch them shift and reform, and I’ll remember what Grandma used to tell me, about water, about the sky, and about life. When I look at myself in the still mirror of the water, I see a strange face staring back at me. It’s my own face, but younger, perhaps it belongs to the boy I used to be, or the boy I had always wanted to be. Once I saw that boy holding onto a red balloon by its long string. The balloon drifted and bopped, and I’m pretty sure that boy was flying.
Today, the clouds are like cotton balls, and they cast shadows that move slowly over the fields. The lake is still and there is no wind. I’ve taken off my shoes and rolled up my pant legs, and I’m about to get into the water. I’m a great swimmer now. I owe that, and many other things, to Grandma. But I think that I should like to see if I can walk on the water this time. I’ll pretend that it’s made of glass and that I am as light as a feather. Afterward, I think I’ll climb a tree. I can fly, just like the little boy in the reflection on the lake, and just like my grandma. It only took all these years to finally believe, but I do. I really do.
The story has a familiar ring to it. Thousands of refugee children seeking asylum in the United States sparks a heated debate over immigration and human rights.
Today the children are illegal entrants from impoverished regions of Central America. In 1939, they were Jewish children whose parents had been shipped off to Hitler’s concentration camps.
That year, U.S. legislators introduced a bill into Congress to allow 20,000 of these children to enter America. The bill’s sponsors believed that, unless these children were allowed to emigrate, they would suffer the same fate as their parents.
The bill was defeated when Congress voted in accord with American opinion; at the time 60 percent of voters didn’t want to raise immigration quotas for Jews fleeing the Nazis.
We might wonder how Americans could turn their backs on children facing almost certain death. But Americans weren’t heartless in those days, they were afraid. Many feared the children’s parents would eventually petition to join their children and would arrive in the U.S. to take jobs away from Americans. After all, unemployment in 1939 was still lingering near 17 percent.
Some feared that allowing these young refugees into the U.S. would damage its status as a neutral nation, particularly in the eyes of Germany. Others feared the children would introduce non-traditional culture into American society.
Some were hoping to keep all traces of Europe’s troubles out of America.
And many, alas, just disliked Jews. If anti-Semitism hasn’t declined in America in the past 75 years, it has certainly become less outspoken. But in 1939, many anti-Semites weren’t shy about expressing their dislike of Jews.
Many Americans, though, were simply indifferent, reluctant to intervene in Germany’s treatment of its Jewish population. They regarded Hitler’s brutal treatment of Jews with cold detachment as Demaree Bess did in the Post on March 18, 1939.
“There are two manners of approach to this important question. One is emotional, coming from the heart. The other is intellectual, coming from the head. In America, we have thus far stuck largely the emotional approach. Our hearts have been profoundly moved and our sense of decency outraged by the barbarous persecution of thousands of helpless men, women, and children. Many of us have become so indignant that we are in a mood to do something — anything — to retaliate against bullies and brutes.” (Read the entire article “Jewish Pawns in Power Politics” from the Post.)
Bess was worried that “anything” could mean going to war with Germany. So he encouraged readers to think about anti-Semitism as something other than the systematic abuse of a religious minority. It was also, he said, a political tool. In Germany, it had helped the Nazis distinguish themselves from other socialist groups and gather a following among bigots and bullies. Anti-Semitism had also enabled the Nazi Party to enrich itself from the penalties they inflicted on Jews as well as the theft of imprisoned or executed Jews.
In a surprising move, Bess, reported Italy had also adopted racial laws against Jews, despite the fact that Mussolini long maintained that anti-Semitism was senseless. Japan, which had virtually no Jews to hate, had also made anti-Semitism part of its national policy.
Italy and Japan only adopted the Nazi policy to attract anti-Semitic allies in other countries. In the Middle East, for instance, Italy was hoping to stir up opposition against Britain and its colonies, but it had agreed not to engage in any anti-British propaganda. With an anti-Jewish campaign, it could still rally support among Arabs. Italy’s new anti-Jewish laws, Bess wrote, “served as the most effective kind of propaganda among all those countries and groups which dislike the British because they are pictured as defenders of the Jews.”
Japan’s big worry in 1939 was the Soviet Union. Russian troops continued to threaten Japanese forces in Manchuria. At the time, the communist government in Russia was widely considered to be friendly to Jews.
Japan hoped to reduce Russian troop concentration in Manchuria by forcing the Soviet Union to shift armies west against opponents in Europe. “Japanese agents,” Bess reported, “working among anti-Semitic groups in Eastern Europe [that engaged in] various anti-Soviet movements, finally realized, like Mussolini, that they could make better progress if their government were definitely committed to a policy of Jew-baiting.”
While this is informative, it hardly seems to address American outrage over Nazi atrocities. And it raises the question of whether it is appropriate to consider some issues “intellectually.” A truly detached inquiry would involve accepting nothing and questioning everything, so that you might raise the question, as Bess did, “Are the Jews themselves responsible for arousing the hostility of other groups? Are they guilty of all those sins with which they are charged by anti-Semitic groups in all parts of the world?”
Precisely the sort of questions Hitler would want you to ask.
Step into 1939 with a peek at these pages from The Saturday Evening Post 75 years ago:
The top of a French horn collided with my head as I climbed aboard a shuttle bus in Aspen.
“Sorry,” said the teenage girl hidden beneath her big brass instrument.
I had just arrived in Colorado for a conference on medical problems of musicians and dancers. The opening session was scheduled to begin at eight. Aspen’s annual music festival was wrapping up, so the pretty alpine town was filled with talented young students, elite teachers, and a renowned musician or two.
Through the bus’s open windows I gazed at Rocky Mountains ignited by the rising sun and took a deep contented breath of clean, crisp air, reveling in my escape from New York’s hazy, hot, and humid.
The following four days were filled with lectures and discussion, provocative ideas, and camaraderie among medical professionals, dance and music teachers, seasoned performing artists, and a smattering of students. After the concluding session, I stood waiting once again at the bus stop to head back to my hotel. A musician with a large cello was waiting too.
“Oh m’gosh,” he suddenly exclaimed, “… completely forgot …”
I turned to look at him.
“Please — could you watch my cello while I make a phone call?” he asked.
“Sure,” I said. He dashed inside.
Ten minutes passed, then 20. Where is this guy? I fumed.
Two buses came and went. An hour passed. Is he still inside? Did he get lost? I grumbled with mounting irritation. By now I was the only one left standing at the bus stop. Better go and look for him, I thought. But what if he comes back … finds his cello gone? It was getting late; I had no more time to waste.
The cello was unwieldy, almost four feet high; I wrapped my arms around it and went inside. The conference hall was empty except for one lone workman stacking chairs.
“Did you see anyone come in … ?” I began, trying to recall descriptive details of the cellist: “… short, slim man, wearing a baseball cap … black hair, I think it was, sticking out.”
“Nope,” said the custodian. “Everyone cleared out when the conference finished.”
“He left his cello outside with me and disappeared. Is there anyone else I can ask … someone in the office?”
“Nope — they’re all gone for the summer. Vacation time.”
I unzipped the fiberglass case, searching for some sort of ID. The custodian took a closer look at the cello.
“That’s some fine instrument there,” he said with admiration approaching awe. Neither case nor cello yielded any kind of clue.
Years after Adolf Hitler had been Germany’s dictator, many Americans still couldn’t take him seriously. They’d seen him in newsreels, waving his arms and screaming, acting like a complete lunatic. They’d laughed at his imitators — Moe Howard of the Three Stooges or Charlie Chaplin — who’d portrayed him in movies as a ranting, bumbling egomaniac. Far from the realities of life in Europe, Americans found it hard to take Hitler seriously, particularly when the media liked presenting him as a humorous sidelight in the news.
This was how he was treated when the Post first took notice of him. Sensing the whole National Socialist Movement was a quaint joke, the Post editors sent a writer who’d present the Nazis as humorously as possible.
Kenneth L. Roberts was a frequent contributor and a critic of just about anything new or foreign. The editors could rely on him to write a scathing report of extremist politics in Weimar Germany. They couldn’t have been disappointed with his dismissively titled “Suds,” which appeared in the October 27, 1923, issue. Asserting that beer was the guiding force in German politics, the article was illustrated with two barmaids demonstrating their remarkable grasp of the issues. (Click Here to read the entire article from the Post.)
Roberts opened his piece by establishing his contempt for Germans. “In certain respects Berlin is the center of Germany. It is the seat of government. There the heads are the squarest, the prices are the highest, the banks are the largest, and the buildings belong to the most violent neo-German school of architecture. … There is more depravity in Berlin than elsewhere in Germany, more gloom and depression, more of the newly rich off-scourings of other races, more of that wild German nightlife that is about as spontaneous and joyous as a Monday morning in a morgue. In such ways as these Berlin is Germany’s heart.”
Having sharpened his scorn on the German capital, he closed in on the southern province of Bavaria.
“One finds cement-headed plotting and foggy intrigue at its very apex. There is always a plot on foot in Munich — either a plot to push France into the Atlantic Ocean or to shove Russia across the Ural Mountains or to shoot somebody or to seize something. In Munich one finds the thickest ankles, the most peculiar garments … the wildest rumors, the roundest heads … and a more passionate devotion to the consuming of beer than exists in any other part of the known world … that beer plays a more powerful part of the life, custom, and activities of the Bavarians than almost anything else.”
His condescension toward Germany probably arose from the contempt many Americans felt for the country they had defeated in the last war. Americans had little understanding or sympathy for the country’s civil unrest, unstable government, skyrocketing inflation, or the German character.
“A Bavarian,” Roberts continued, “who is full of an evening’s accumulation of his favorite bräu will frequently burst into tears over the most trivial occurrences. … [When] a flannel-mouthed German orator becomes inflamed by beer and feels obliged to rise to his feet and find fault with the world in general … the beer drinkers pound the table with their firsts, hiccup openly, and agree vociferously that the speaker has given tongue to the Wisdom of Solomon.”
Hitler was, to Roberts, just another flannel mouth. A very ordinary person, he concluded, but a great talker with a detailed agenda. As leader of the National Socialist Workers’ Party, Hitler had made a list of demands to the Allied powers, which naturally included releasing Germany from the penalties imposed by the Versailles Treaty. It also demanded punishment for war profiteers, non-Germans, and, especially, Jews.
“There are several other demands on Hitler’s list,” Roberts wrote, “including a few that are never made public. In fact, whenever he thinks of anything new to demand he demands it. Demands don’t cost anything”
Roberts frankly admired the fascists of Italy and thought that a little fascism — if such a thing is possible — would be good for America. But he had only scorn for these Bavarians, who did little more than issue demands and play soldier. When the weekend came, “the Bavarian Fascisti sportively line up in military array,” Roberts wrote, “march 10 or 15 miles into the country until they reach a likely terrain, and then proceed to march, countermarch, issue hoarse orders, discipline each other, kick dust up each other’s backs, dream, hope, conspire, plot, and otherwise have a full day of South German sport and social activity.”
Roberts had the perspective of a man who viewed foreigners with contempt. He also had the view of a man who regarded Germany without getting out of his car. For example, he believed everything you needed to know about Bavarians could be learned by how poorly they gave travel directions. Ask anyone in France for directions, he said, and they “almost invariably understand the question and instantly hurl back accurate answers. The Bavarians, no matter of what age or condition of life, never understand, don’t particularly want to understand, and are usually incapable of answering after understanding has been forced on them.” He didn’t like the bicycle riders any more. “Finding himself directly in the path of an approaching automobile … the Munich bicyclist rides serenely on his way, leaving it to the automobilist to run his machine into a tree, drive it through a shop window or drop dead from heart failure.” He probably thought the Sauerbraten was overdone, the beds were lumpy, and — from what I’ve read of him — the waiters were insufficiently respectful.
With Hitler and the Germans portrayed as such laughable goons, it’s no surprise Americans dismissed the Nazi threat for so long.
Step into 1939 with a peek at these pages from The Saturday Evening Post 75 years ago:
Breaking news: Something terrible has happened out there … calamitous … innocents have perished … it is beyond horrific. Instantly, TV newsrooms across America crackle. Adrenaline pumps. The on-camera anchors are visibly jazzed.
Excuse me? Jazzed? Ladies and gentlemen, we have descended into the apocalyptic universe of 24-hour cable, where bad news is good news and extremely bad news is the best news of all, meaning there will be year-end staff bonuses. Which raises the question: What kind of demented people are we?
We are a cable-news-watching people, that’s who. A few weeks ago I heard Robert Bryce, author of the book Smaller Faster Lighter Denser Cheaper, declare on a talk show that millions of Americans “aren’t happy unless they’re scared and miserable.” I assume he wasn’t just talking about devotees of Larry King’s vitamin infomercials. Fact is, the big cable channels incessantly tease the thrill of catastrophe: Either it’s about to happen or it just did. Scared yet?
When a mass casualty event occurs — the Newtown shootings, say, or the downing of the Malaysian airliner — barely an hour passes before hyper-caffeinated producers have created catchy graphics and even theme music for the miniseries they are rushing to launch. That’s either brilliant marketing or all kinds of icky, depending on your tolerance for revulsion.
“Personally, I hate that stuff,” says Michelle Kosinski, a longtime NBC News correspondent, now handling the White House beat for CNN. “The branding, the titles. It looks like a parody of news coverage.”
Blanketing one big story while short-shrifting others — as in CNN’s weeks-long Malaysia Flight 370 marathon — tends to attract viewership and mockery in equal measure. “After a few days of that kind of coverage, it can turn people off,” Kosinski says. Following a small Los Angeles earthquake in June, comedian Paula Poundstone tweeted: “Early reports say there was no dmage [sic] … but CNN will keep trying.” Ouch.
I reached out to a dozen TV insiders, and all agreed: What cable delivers on the heels of a tragedy may be unseemly and warped, but it’s also mesmerizing. “It always goes back to the mystery,” says Chris Ariens, managing editor of the TVNewser blog. “That’s the TV draw.”
“Why” is a reasonable thing to ask. However, “the country has many real problems, and the fixation on catastrophes amounts to so much wasted effort. It drives me crazy,” says Lauren Ashburn, a Fox News contributor. Terry Anzur, a TV-news coach who’s anchored for CBS and NBC, adds that, regrettably, cable news has degenerated “into a form of chicken.” It’s a game everyone is guaranteed to lose.
Look, there’s no gainsaying that the cable news crews have conspired to raise our national blood pressure. They giddily activate our night tremors because it means money, and because they can. The technology that allows cameras to go live anywhere, anytime is addictive. What news director is going to leave those cool toys in a box?
And almost always, we, the advertisers’ dupes — er, audience — will stay glued to the screen, no matter what. “When journalists are rewarded for viewership, there’s a perverse motivation to play into people’s attraction to freak shows and horror,” Danah Boyd, who works at Microsoft Research, wrote in an essay not long ago. She added that this occurs “regardless of the social consequences.”
Is there any way to defend the way cable gorges itself on these mortifyingly sad dramas? Probably not. “With all the new tools at our disposal, we might be better at chasing the moment, but we’re losing the meaning,” says Lisa McRee, a former co-anchor on ABC’s Good Morning America.
Maybe she should take it up with Leonard Steinhorn, a professor of public communication at American University in Washington, D.C., who argues that “these catastrophes are like Greek tragedies. TV understands our fears, our anxieties.” Ultimately, the professor says, the soap-operatic coverage of grand trauma “serves as a national binding experience.”
Only, of course, if we’re willing to be so bound. An alternative position is that, dependably, it’s not only tragic news that will keep breaking, but our collective national dignity as well.
His well-bred gentility sold her,
But then he began to get bolder.
So our cool-headed Midge
Put the flower in the fridge
After giving her date the cold shoulder.
—Jeanne Kaufman, Boulder, Colorado
Congratulations to Jeanne Kaufman! For her limerick describing M. Coburn “Coby” Whitmore’s illustration Prom Memento (above), Jeanne wins $25 — and our gratitude for a job well done. If you’d like to enter the Limerick Laughs Contest for our upcoming issue, submit your limerick via our online entry form.
Of course, Jeanne’s limerick wasn’t the only one we liked! Here are some of our favorite limericks from our runners-up, in no particular order:
With a touch, the door echoes her sigh,
And the scent of romance dances by
From the small space reserved,
Where her dreams are preserved,
Tucked between last night’s roast and the pie.
— Carrie Clickard, Gainesville, Michigan
She hummed to herself the prom ballad.
Her wish to preserve it was valid.
But her piece of the past
Wasn’t destined to last;
Her grandma mixed it in the salad.
— Patrick McKeon, Pennington, New Jersey
The prom was all right, I suppose.
For dinner he took me to Joe’s.
This Patty McDougal
Was way beyond frugal.
For dessert he suggested my rose.
— Andrew Janik, Hadley, New York
The evening has come to a close.
It’s here I am saving my rose
And thinking of Hughes
With humongous shoes—
Oh, let there be ice for my toes!
— Georgia Suprenant, St. Anne, Illinois
The gala was really quite splendid!
But now that the evening has ended,
I’ll save the corsage,
To be an homage,
For I hope he’ll become my intended!
— Karen Mueller, Oak Harbor, Washington
After dancing all through the night,
She’s reminded in limited light,
Though her tootsies are weary,
Her date was a dearie,
His choice of a flower just right!
— Larry Mann, Danville, Virginia
It’s 1:25. I’m awake
And searching for something to bake.
Hugh left me a flower
But come on, at this hour?
I don’t want romance — I want cake.
— Samuel Zifchak, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
She stores her corsage from prom night
And knows one day at its sight,
She will reminisce
The night’s front porch kiss,
Cut short when dad turned on the light!
— Angie Gyetvai, Oldcastle, Ontario, Canada
To remember this night’s celebration,
I’ll hold onto this lovely carnation.
And hope it will last
As a memory past
With the help of some refrigeration.
— Steve Pavelich, Grand Blanc, Michigan
The night at the prom was pure bliss,
Including the thrill of first kiss.
The gardenia shall wilt.
The boyfriend will jilt.
But right now “oh the joy” for this miss.
— Sally Havens, Dublin, Ohio
“I have to work,” comedian Joan Rivers told Post reporter W.H. Mannville backstage in 1967 after killing it at the now defunct Manhattan nightclub Downstairs at the Upstairs. Only seven years into her career and Joan Rivers was already surprising reporters with the fearless drive and rapier wit that made her a success and unforgettable to the world.
We invite you to step back into that smoky nightclub and catch a glimpse of Joan River’s act, as told by Manville, almost 50 years ago:
She waits for the laugh, and the spotlight, falling across her anxious, narrow, pretty face, fills the hollows beneath her thin cheekbones with shadows. During her act Joan rushes around the stage, peering into the blackness. “And when you’re single?” she goes on. “The girl has to wait for the dumb phone to ring, but a man can call anyone he wants in the whole world: ‘Hello, I just saw your name on a men’s-room wall, and thought I’d give you a cal …’ A single girl, she’s 30, she’s an old maid. A man, he’s 90 years old, he’s single, he’s a catch. ‘We have an extra man.’ ‘Bring him along.’ He’s 93.’ Bring him, bring him.’ ‘He’s dead.’ BRING HIM! We’ll just say he’s shy.'”
“When it all started,” Rivers told Mannville after the show, “when I told my mother and father I was going into the business, they didn’t speak to me for a year. To them it was showbiz first, and next, white slavery in Argentina, right? The yelling scene the day I told them! My mother ran around the house slamming the windows shut. She didn’t want the neighbors to hear what a scandal her daughter had become.
“But I had to be a success,” Rivers continued. “Anyway, after the argument with my parents, I left. I never asked them for a penny again. It was never offered. I slept in my car that night. It wasn’t the last time.”
Excerpt from “Who Are You, Joan?” by W.H. Mann, The Saturday Evening Post, July 1, 1967, photos by Stephen Manville.