This episode of the show is a two-fer, though oddly it’s the guest who’s not the Mystery Guest who caught my eye. And that’s Erle Stanley Gardner. While he’s not officially the Mystery Guest, the panelists are blindfolded in small part because they might recognize him, but more I’m sure because they’d recognize his name as the author of the Perry Mason novels. Oddly, though, that's not noted, and he’s only identified on screen as “Mystery Writer.” He’s a fun guest for his outgoing brusqueness – and also for playing the game really well, giving hesitating unsure responses when the answers are obvious. And he gives one of the funniest replies at the 9:40 mark, even getting a hug for it from host John Daly. Interestingly, this seems to take place not only before the Perry Mason TV series premiered, but just days before (which is likely why he’s a guest), since he has to very quickly rush mentioning the show as Daly bids him goodbye, adding “or we’re both going to get fired!” Also worth noting that Jim Backus is one of the panelists. If you want to jump to it, it begins at the 2:45 mark.
The official Mystery Guest is George Sanders, who comes along at the 20-minute mark. Though he does an acceptable job with a disguised Russian voice at the beginning, eventually that slides away, however he has an answer to one question that, while surprisingly correct, is unexpected.
(For the record, this is George Sanders below.)
I posted this eight years ago, but sometimes when things get so insane, it's good to step back and let the warm, endearing, loopy world of James Thurber wash over. And after deciding to post this, it whimsically occurred to be that the whole story is about screwing up the storage of papers...
A while before initially writing it, I had mentioned a story here about seeing John Goodman at the start of his career in a small role in the pre-Broadway world premiere of Big River, based on Huckleberry Finn. He played 'Pap Fin,' and the musical, which began at the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego, eventually made it to Broadway, where it won the Tony Award as Best Musical, with a score by country music songwriter Roger Miller, who won a Tony, as well.
What I also mentioned at the time is that during the show's Broadway run, Roger Miller himself briefly replaced John Goodman for a month in the role. Wonderful as this tale is and much as I'd love to have seen Roger Miller in the role, that's not the point here, just the background. That because there’s actually one other story similar to that which I’d put above it.
(That last sentence original read, "probably put above it. I've edited out the "probably." I'd dearly have loved to have seen Roger Miller in his show. But...well, it's just too hard to top this -- )
Back around 1960, they did a wonderful review on Broadway called A Thurber Carnival, which were adaptations of a bunch of short stories by James Thurber. There’s a great cast album which is well-worth tracking down if you like Thurber. One of my favorite scenes on it is also one of my favorite Thurber stories, “File and Forget,” a first-person story about a hellish time that Thurber supposedly had trying to correct with his publisher about a delivery problem of one of his books. On stage, the role of 'James Thurber' was played by Tom Ewell.
Into the run, it turned out that the real Thurber was a bit of a ham, and for a month the production had James Thurber himself play himself in that one scene! There was one particular challenge: Thurber was near-blind. Because of this, he couldn’t make the entrances and exits properly. What they did was build a sort of conveyor belt with a chair on it. Thurber simply sat in the chair and it would roll on and off the stage.
Now, that I would have paid really-good cash money to see. For both of these stories, Thurber and Miller, it’s a shame that no one recorded them. And a shame that they both occurred in the days before cell phones, when someone in the audience would have taped it.
Still, it’s fun to imagine both…
It's not the same thing, but this is audio of "File and Forget" from the original Broadway cast album.
I just finished reading, Unscripted, a new book by New York Times reporters James B. Stewart and Rachel Abrams about the recent scandal and battle for control of the Paramount/CBS/Viacom empire centered on the Sumner Redstone family, but which spills over to the corporate boardroom, Les Moonves and the #MeToo movement. Non-fiction books about big business and Wall Street machinations are, for reasons I can’t quite explain, among my favorite reading. I’ve read two books by Pulitzer Prizer-winner James B. Stewart (DisneyWar about the Eisner/Katzenberg years, and Den of Thieves on the insider trading scandal in the 1980s involving Ivan Boesky, Michael Milliken and others), and Rachel Abrams was on the New York Times team that won the Pulitzer Prize for its #MeToo reporting. So, I was anxiously awaiting this one ever since I read about its pending publication months earlier.
And it was worth the wait, really wonderful. A fascinating story, seriously impressive meticulous research, and as readable as a good novel.
(It was also just optioned to be adapted for a limited series, which should give you some idea of how wide-ranging and involving the story is. And it’s a natural for that, as HBO's Succession showed. This, on the other hand, is real life and actually happened, stunning as at times it seems.)
This is where the disclaimer comes in. I wasn’t anxious to read it for the corporate subject matter or being a fan of James B. Stewart. (Though I would have read the book for either of those reasons.) My being anxious to read it was Rachel Abrams, whose work I’ve admired, but far more to the point – I’ve been friends with her father Ian Abrams for decades, and we were even business partners in a “bulletin board service” (a precursor of chat rooms) for professional writers, called the PAGE BBS. (Among our other partners was the inveterate Chris Dunn.)
So, in full disclosure, Ian and I were movie publicists together, and both survived to get into screenwriting. In fact, among his credits, Ian wrote the movie, Undercover Blues that starred Dennis Quaid and Kathleen Turner, and co-created the CBS series Early Edition that starred Kyle Chandler and Fisher Stevens as his sort of sidekick buddy, and was on the air for four seasons.
So, I knew Rachel from when she was around 10 years old, although not well, a very nice, smart, quiet kid – and then the family moved to Philadelphia because Ian hated Hollywood and decided to teach at Drexel University, where he created their screenwriting program.
Rachel eventually grew up, as such things happen, and got into journalism, where she later worked for the Hollywood Reporter, and took on the #MeToo beat, doggedly covering Harvey Weinstein and more. Her topnotch work caught the eye of the New York Times, which wisely hired her. And she’s become a powerhouse, fearless journalist.
It’s no small thing that she partnered with the long-respected James B. Stewart. In fact, it is seriously impressive. After all, as he notes himself in the afterward, he had never worked with a co-author before in his long career. In fact, they hardly even knew on another at the Times, but were working on a similar story and overlapped. As he writes in the acknowledgements, “She was a dream collaborator: incredibly hard-working, resourceful, ethical, considerate and brimming with enthusiasm for every discovery. Working with her was both inspiring and fun.” Not shabby. And her words for Stewart were as glowing and moving, among them – his “reputation is belied by his grace and humility. Working with him has made me a better journalist, and I am very grateful to have had him as a partner.”
So, yes, I’m biased. But that doesn’t mean I’m wrong. In fact, I’m right. It was a New York Times bestseller, has 4.1 stars on Amazon, and among its reviews are –
“Jaw-dropping...an epic tale of toxic wealth and greed populated by connivers and manipulators.” — The New York Times Book Review, Editors’ Choice
“A deeply reported account... The story, whose contours would be familiar to fans of the HBO series Succession, stands as a real-life warning to other family dynasties led by powerful founders….a masterful job.” -- Financial Times
“The book is a page-turner — an over-the-top tale of money, power, sex, and relentless scheming to wrest billions away from an old man who in his final years seems to have lost the capacity for just about anything except sex.” -- Fortune
“A must-read... A bombshell new book from two Pulitzer winners reveals some truly shocking storylines within the real-life Succession drama that is the Paramount media empire... Abrams, a New York Times investigative reporter, and Stewart, a Times business columnist have written a jaw-dropping yarn.” -- Daily Beast
There’s more, but we’ll leave it at that. I just wanted to make it clear that my praise wasn’t purely subjective.
The book really is terrific. And if one is a fan of Succession, this is the real thing. (In fact, I suspect that as much as the series is inspired by the Murdochs and Trumps, the Redstone story has to have played a part in there, too.) Billionaire Sumner Redstone is a Shakesperean character, triumphant, towering, profoundly flawed, and ultimately a tragic figure. Then add in the turbulent family drama, boardroom maneuverings, sexual lavishness, lawsuits flying all over the place with tens of millions of dollars regularly thrown around like pocket change, and twists and turns every step of the way, notably a daughter thrown into the middle of it all against her best inclination.
All that, and a quote from Nell Minow. (Hey, I said I was biased. But again, I’m not wrong – her warning is incredibly prescient.)
It’s really well-written on top of everything, wonderfully readable for all the detail. If you’re interested, you can find it here.
And as a bonus, here are James B. Stewart and Rachel Abrams being interviewed on the Today show.
On this week’s ‘Not My Job’ segment of the NPR quiz show Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me!, the guest is literary fiction writer George Saunders, recipient of a MacArthur Genius Grant and the Man Booker Prize. He has a fun conversation with host Peter Sagal about the odd jobs he did before getting into writing, including working in a slaughterhouse to get enough money to get to Chicago and later as a roofer in Chicago after arriving. And a funny tale about his first novel, a 700-page effort that was so terrible he saw his wife in agony by page six.
This the full Wait, Wait… broadcast, but you can jump directly to the “Not My Job” segment, it starts around the 18:30 mark.
I’ve long been a huge fan of the work of Robert Caro. The upside is that he’s brilliant. The downside is that one reason he’s brilliant is the unearthly meticulous research he does means that over 50 years he has written only five books (plus one additional book that was a short memoir of sorts) – though has won two Pulitzer Prizes. And received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. And yes, is making his way through his fifth and (finally) final book on the life of Lyndon Johnson – what was intended to be a trilogy.
(How unearthly meticulous is his research? When writing about Lyndon Johnson’s early days growing up in the desolate Texas Hill Country, he felt that he and his wife had to move to the Hill Country and live there for two years – researching and talking to people there, to understand that that world was like.)
So, I was thrilled when I read that a documentary, Turn Every Page, was made about him and his working relationship with the only editor he’s ever had, the legendary Robert Gottlieb – who edited such books as Catch-22, Beloved, True Grit, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, Heartburn, Jurassic Park, and such writers as Salman Rushdie, John Cheever, Ray Bradbury, John Le Carré, Toni Morrison, Bruno Bettelheim, B. F. Skinner, and memoirs by Lauren Bacall, Sidney Poitier, John Lennon, Paul Simon, and Bob Dylan.
The other day, I went to see Turn Every Page at the Writers Guild Theater. And yes, it was joyous. How can you not love loved about an ongoing, 45-year argument over using semi-colons -- and watching them at a loss as they wander around the publisher’s office looking for a pencil? But it’s all the stories in between that add such richness.
And just to add a special touch, the fill would likely never have been made (since Gottlieb especially was against it) if the filmmaker pushing the project, Lizzie Gottlieb, was the editor’s own daughter.
I can’t say that Turn Every Page was “snubbed” by the Oscars (a description I hate to use with the Academy Awards) because I haven’t seen the others that did get nominated. But I can say that all five better have been great to have been nominated instead of this. (And the Gabby Giffords documentary, Won’t Back Down.) What I can say is that a good friend in the Motion Picture Academy has participated in the documentary category every year, and has seen most of the films in consideration, and says that it’s ridiculous these two films didn’t get nominated, but that that’s par for the course with the category.
While it’s unlikely that you’ll get a chance to see this in the theaters (though certainly possible), I’m sure it will get a DVD/streaming release because it’s from Sony Pictures.
Here's a clip from the film. It’s one that delves into their battle on semi-colons, so you can see what I meant, that I wasn’t joking. And trust me, this is only a brief reference to it; the battle is longer...
(And yes, the semi-colon there was intentional.)
And here’s the trailer. It gives a nice sense of the film, but the movie is significantly richer – not only talking about writing and their work process, but going into their own histories and returning to locations important to their careers.
I recently finished reading the January 6 Select Committee report. First things first:
For anyone trying to figure out when you have the time to read it, know that it is not remotely as long as they keep saying. The figure that gets repeated is that it’s around 850 pages. It’s not close to that. The edition I have (the Harper-Collins one with Ari Melber’s introduction) is 691 pages – that’s a lot, but it’s a lot less than 850. And more to the point, that number also includes 260 pages of endnotes. So, the text is only around 430 pages. (Melber’s introduction is separate from that page count, and about 30 pages.) Furthermore, there are a lot of photos interspersed throughout, so it’s even less. And perhaps most importantly, that includes the 130-page summary, all of which is repeated in the main text, just with more details. In other words, the report is only 300 pages – including a great many photos. So, maybe it’s around 250 pages of text. That’s all.
Moreover, it’s as well-written as its reputation and so, reads fast. And it reads all the quicker since I suspect most people diving in are generally familiar with what the overall view of what it’s saying.
I read both the summary and the main report, so it was in the 400-page range. But you can skip the summary, since all of that is in the report. But then, honestly, if you really didn’t want to read the whole thing – you could just read the 130-page summary which is extremely comprehensive. Though I said the main report has more details, there are plenty of details in a 130-page summary. I just liked reading both, because it gave me more familiarity once I got to the final report. It seemed to read smoother. But the summary is not necessary. There’s only one thing that I recall which is in the summary, but not the report. (I’ll get to that in a moment.) So, you won’t miss anything by skipping it. I don’t mean metaphorically, I mean other than this one chart, there is literally nothing in the summary that is not in the final report. And since the chart is easy to spot – it goes on for six pages! – so, you can just flip to it. And to make things even easier, I'll mention that in my copy it starts around page 22.
Having now finished it all, I must tell you that I’ve come to the conclusion that I think this Trump guy is really guilty.
Quips aside, there is so much more damning evidence in this than got presented at the hearings – there’s more testimony and a great many blunt text messages. It’s incredibly clear why the Committee was so driven in their actions because you get the sense that all the committee members wanted to yell into the cameras, “We know SO MUCH more than we’re telling you, and it’s horrible.”
That one chart that’s only in the summary is fascinating and really smart of them to include. It’s a great chart of boxes that goes on for three pages – on the left side of the pages, running vertically, each box is dated and shows what someone testified they told Trump the facts and reality were about no election fraud, no problems, everything has been investigated and is legitimate. On the right side opposite each box are a companion boxes with the lies Trump then told the public days later that totally ignore the truth he’d just been told. It goes on and on for three pages, and is brutal.
(Though the chart is not in the main report, all the information in the chart is.)
The text messages they include about what high White House officials knew about plans for “war” and for killing Congressmen that were posted on militia and white supremacist sites for Jan. 6 is sickening and damning. And the Trump officials involved goes as high up as texts with Chief of Staff Mark Meadows. (I have to believe the DOJ Special Counsel is honing on him to get him to flip, if Meadows hasn’t already flipped. It’s clear he knows so much.)
The nuggets throughout are amazing. For just one example, there’s the passage that dealt with what Cassidy Hutchinson testified to about Trump being out of control in the SUV wanting to go to the Capitol. Up to now, the public likely sees this as her word (under oath) against Tony Ornato’s (not under oath). But there’s new, subsequent insight in the report -- “The Committee has now obtained evidence from several sources about a ‘furious interaction’ in the SUV. The vast majority of witnesses who have testified before the Select Committee about this topic, including multiple members of the Secret Service, a member of the Metropolitan police and national security and military officials in the White House described President Trump’s behavior as ‘irate,’ ‘furious, ‘ ‘insistent, ‘ ‘profane‘ and ‘heated‘.”
It's just one small matter and a minor passage in the summary. But the report is full of material like that, where you sit up and go, Wow, I didn’t know that!
Quite a few people stand out as particularly awful. Trump, of course, leads the pack Being relentlessly told the truth and not only ignoring it, but consciously going out and lying about what he’s been told is contrary. But also Rudy Giuliani and John Eastman hold a special place of deceit. Giuliani for being relentless in trying to push lies he knows he has nothing to back them up with, and Eastman for continually pushing the legal theories and plans for Trump act on, even though he says he knows they have no validity.
One can get the report for free online as a PDF file. I preferred to have it in book form, and ended up getting the edition with Ari Melber's preface -- not so much for that (since, good as it was, he covered it all on a special episode of his show -- but because at the time it was the least expensive version for sale. You can get it here.
However, there's now a less-expensive edition for four dollars less at $11. (Oddly, it's less than the Kindle version.) It's from The New Yorker, and includes a prologue by a David Remnick, the Pulitzer Prize-winning editor of the magazine, and an epilogue by committee member Jamie Raskin. That's available here.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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