Freddy Cole, RIP

For reasons we cannot explain we’ve long been fascinated by the famous people who were overshadowed by an even more famous people. Our two brothers have certain talents we do not possess, but not to the extent we ever felt overshadowed, so that can’t explain our affinity for all those less-famous siblings.
Bob Crosby’s Bobcats was a popular and top-notch if slightly outdated dixieland jazz band during the swing era, but he was never as famous as his brother Bing. Dom DiMaggio was an outstanding pitcher for the Boston Red Sox, but his brother Joe won championships with the New York Yankees and was by far the bigger star. Warren “Baby” Dodds is regarded as the first great jazz drummer, but he was always called “Baby” because his older brother Johnny is regarded as the first great jazz clarinetist. Here in Kansas you’ll see roads and buildings named for Milton Eisenhower, well regarded as president of Kansas State University and two other institutions of higher learning, but his brother Dwight was President of the United States. Liza Minelli and Betty Hutton and June Carter all had sisters who were so talented it’s a shame they’re largely overlooked.
We were reminded of this by an obituary in the Washington Post for Freddy Cole, who died Saturday at the age of 88. You’ve probably never heard of him, but he was a terrific jazz and soul and standards singer and pianist, and he was very popular in some unlikely foreign markets and managed to live comfortably off his talents over many decades, even though he never achieved the fame of older brother Nat “King” Cole.
Nat “King” Cole was one of the all the time greats, especially with his jazz trio but also with all the heavily-arranged pop stuff that made him rich, but his younger brother was pretty damn good. At first the younger brother was satisfied that his all-state status playing high school basketball surpassed what his brother had done on the athletic fields, but after an injury he decided to go with his musical talent. Freddy Cole was 12 years younger than Nat Cole, and by the time he started his musical career the older brother was the first black man to host a national television show and one of the most popular singers in the world, which didn’t do the younger brother much good.
Freddy Cole had a gorgeous voice and smooth piano patter similar to his older brother, but he mostly resisted the club owners and record producers who wanted him to cover the songs and imitate the style of Nat’s records. He had a bluesier sound than his brother, informed by a dozen years of musical trends trending toward to soul music, and it kept him steadily employed at fancy nightclubs and dives and honky-tonks. Along the way he had some regional hits, and was briefly a big deal in Brazil. When he turned 60, decades after his brother’s premature death, he started to get some recognition, racking up major label deals and several grammy nominations.
Freddy Cole left us on Saturday with an impressive body of work, even if you’ve never heard of him, and we think Nat “King” Cole would have been proud of his kid brother.

— Bud Norman

Dave Bartholomew, RIP

The past weekend was full of news about war and peace and politics and possible economic problems, but we thought the big story was the death of Dave Bartholomew at the ripe old age of 100. It was another desultory reminder that a better century of American musical culture has also passed away.
You have to be an obsessively avid student of America’s glorious vernacular music history to know who Bartholomew was, but if you are you’ll know he was one of the very important guys who made it great. Back in the ’50s and early ’60s the essential American music city of New Orleans was right up there with Memphis as the rocking and rolling-est and rhythmic and bluesy place in the country, with the likes of Fats Domino and Little Richard and Lloyd Price and Lee Dorsey and Shirley & Lee and Jimmy Clayton and Professor Longhair and Ernie K-Doe and Clarence “Frogman” Henry and The Showmen making it damned hard for a hep cat music lover to decide where to do his drinking and dancing on any given night. Bartholomew never seemed to mind they were all more famous than him, but in most cases he was the songwriter and arranger and band leader and record producer and session trumpet player and musical visionary who brought it all together, and he was seemingly content that all his peers acknowledged it.
Bartholomew was born in a small town near New Orleans not long after the Crescent City gave birth to the quintessential American art form of jazz, and he started his musical career as as trumpet player in the big bands of the brilliant swing era that soon followed. In ’42 Bartholomew wound up in the Army, where he learned to write and arrange music and put it all down paper while on a very lucky assignment in an Army band, and after that he was pretty much set on his career path. The post-war years proved crazy for American culture in general and American music in particular, but Bartholomew seized the moment. Jazz and swing had given way to rhythm and blues and then the even more subversive rock ‘n’ roll, and Bartholomew knew exactly what to do about it.
Up the Mississippi River in the other essential American music city of Memphis there had always been a harder edge to the music ever since it gave birth to the blues. Such bluesmen as Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf and B.B. King had piercing guitars and gravelly vocals, and with the unheralded poor white trash Sun Records boss Sam Phillips watching over such poor white trash boys as Elvis Presley and Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis they added that to their country-and-western laments and rock ‘n’ roll was born. Surf and psychedelic and hard and heavy metal and punk and post-punk rock soon followed, for better and worse, but under the watchful eyes of Dave Bartholomew New Orleans went its own way.
Farther down the Mississippi River in New Orleans they tended to ignore the hard times and laissez les bon temps rouler, and hew to the ancient and venerable  tradition of jazz, and Bartholomew made sure that New Orleans rock ‘n’ roll kept that up. The white Elvis Presley was the record-setting singer of early rock ‘n’ roll, but the black Fats Domino was always close behind, with his rollicking piano licks and good times feel, and the very black Bartholomew was always closely involved in every hit. He was in on other countless New Orleans rock ‘n’ roll classics as well. As much as we love that low-down Memphis rock ‘n’ roll we have to admit the New Orleans version was jazzier and more sophisticated, and we credit Bartholomew with the occasionally more elegant turns that rock ‘n’ roll has taken since then.
In most of the many decades after that Bartholomew continued to be involved in great New Orleans and American music as a trumpeter and writer and arranger and occasional record producer, recording some great Afro-Caribbean and straight jazz tracks, and he didn’t seem to mind much if he didn’t become as famous as he deserved to be. The most avid fans of America’s great vernacular music will appreciate what he did over his century on earth, at least, and we hope that and his rich musical legacy and God’s mercy will satisfy his considerable soul.

— Bud Norman

Doris Day, RIP

Monday was warm and sunny and gorgeous here in our wholesome hometown of Wichita, so it was sadly ironic to hear about the death of Doris Day. Despite a hard life she made it to the ripe old age of 97, and we took some solace in that, but we couldn’t shake a melancholy feeling that a more warm and sunny and gorgeous and wholesome era of American popular culture had passed away with her.
The youngsters won’t recall, and probably can’t comprehend, but back in the late ’50s and early ’60s of the previous century Day was pretty much the epitome of perfect American womanhood. She was a sweet-faced blond with a fit physique, and a pretty good actress who always played the chaste young heroine being pursued by the lecherous leading man, oftentimes played by the excessively handsome and hunky Rock Hudson. She was an even better singer, scoring huge pop hits with such romantic fare as “Que, Sera, Sera,” “Secret Love,” and “It’s Magic.” In all her public appearances on the talk shows and awards ceremonies she always came across as the all-American girl that every red-blooded American boy fantasized was living next door.
It was all Hollywood hokum, of course. After growing up in less than all-American circumstances Day was married to a wife-beater, then another husband who resented her success and wound up leaving her, and then a third husband who wound up cheating her out of a big chunk of her hard-earned fortune. The excessively handsome and hunky co-star who was her most famous on-screen romance turned out to be homosexual as all get out, and he died of AIDS back in the  ’80s as a result, and by that time the Rock Hudson-Doris Day romantic comedies and her even more romantic pop hits were considered quaint and far out of date. As far back as the early ’60s, the late and great comedian Groucho Marx used to get a laugh by saying “I knew Doris Day before she was a a virgin.”
Even so, we miss the lies Hollywood used to tell back in Day’s day. Better to aspire to the pure chaste love of a Doris Day movie, we figure, than the equally unattainable and far less tempting carnal delights with excessively physically-fit starlets that Hollywood mostly peddles these days.
Day seems to have made peace with the modern world in her later days, even if it had left her far behind, and we’re glad of that. When her dear friend Rock Hudson was dying of AIDS she was outspokenly eloquent about his stellar character, and she did much to encourage a tolerant and sympathetic attitude about the epidemic that was controversial at the time but we still consider very all-American. She was an animal lover who understandably preferred her cats and dogs and horses to any of her husbands or most of the show biz people and fickle fans she had to deal with in her career, and she devoted much of her post-show biz life to the worthy cause of animal rights. When she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2004, Day was cited for her activism as much as her by then long-forgotten career as America’s sweetheart.
Given everything, Day seems to have made the most of her 97 years. Her corny movies and mushy pop hits will probably continue to pop up on late night television and the oldies radio stations for years to come, and we hope they’ll inspire some unattainable aspirations of pure chaste love and perfect American womanhood in yet another generation.

— Bud Norman

Burt Reynolds, RIP

Burt Reynolds died on Thursday at the age of 82, and we were sad to hear about it. He was in a few movies we quite liked, a few more that were forgettable but well worth a couple of hours and the ’70s and ’80s prices for a movie ticket, and even in the lousy movies that made up the most of his filmography he was always an appealing figure on the screen. Also, his passing makes us feel old.
At our age we can remember way back when the handsome and hunky and hirsute Reynolds was the biggest box office star and premier male sex symbol of the day, and suddenly it seems a long time ago. Reynolds was good-looking in a hyper-masculine way that is out of fashion with women in these oh-so-sensitive times, and he offset it with a self-aware sense of humor that today’s tough guys eschew, and his biggest hits had a low-tech earnestness about them that will probably strike the current crop of movie-goers as downright corny. There’s something to be said for such modern sensibilities, perhaps, but we hopefully expect that the best of Reynolds’ work will endure in our popular culture.
After an injury ended his promising career as a football player at Florida State University, Reynolds joined the theater department at the school in hopes of meeting hot co-eds, and thus began an acting career that started with co-starring roles in “Gunsmoke” and other television shows, followed by co-starring roles in some forgettable low-budget movies. He got his big break when he was cast in “Deliverance,” a hard-to-watch but must-see classic, and gave a clean-shaven and critically acclaimed performance as a hyper-masculine city slicker on an ill-fated canoe trip in hillbilly country, and after that he was for several years a very big movie star.
The eventual hero of “Deliverance” was the oh-so-sensitive character played by Jon Voight, and despite Reynolds’ nuanced performance it was his undeniable on-screen machismo and charmingly self-deprecating wit on all the talk shows that made him a much bigger movie star. Reynolds had a long run at the the top of the box office with the likes of “Smokey and the Bandit,” an extended car chase involving Reynolds’ macho-but-self-deprecating “Bandit” character trying to win a bet involving a six pack of Coors while a stereotypical southern sheriff played by Jackie Gleason pursues, and it’s not nearly so bad as it sounds. Another big hit was “Cannonball Run,” which has a cast of B-list all-stars on a coast-to-coast interstate highway race, and you could do worse on a rainy day of movie watching, although we can’t say the same for “Cannonball Run II.” He also made movies such as “Gator” and “The Longest Yard” for the southern white boy exploitation drive-in market, which were also huge hits, and despite our art house tastes we can heartily recommend “The Longest Yard.” Reynolds quite convincingly portrays a wisecracking football star who winds up in prison, where he leads an excellent cast of tough-guy character actors to victory over the guards’ semipro team, and it’s a faded color testosterone-laden little flick that is far better than it sounds.
While he was hot Reynolds also directed and starred in “The End,” a very dark comedy about a businessman with a terminal illness, and although it bombed at the box office we and the rest of the critics agreed that it was well worth watching, and that Reynolds really could act when given the chance. After years of relative anonymity his last round of critical acclaim and Oscars came with “Boogie Nights,” a very fine film about the pornography industry of the late ’70s and early ’80s, with the the graying but still-handsome Reynolds playing a pornographer with with artistic ambitions he could never achieve.
Although he always seemed a likable enough enough fellow to us, he was such a fixture of the news for so many years that we also read about what a jerk he could be, and we don’t doubt that at least some of it is true. He was married to Judy Carne, the British actress who went on to be the bikini-clad “Sock it to me” girl on “Laugh In,” and after the divorce and at the height of his male symbol status he dated the 20-years-older diva Dinah Shore, followed by a well publicized romance with “Smokey and the Bandit” co-star and America’s Sweetheart Sally Fields, and then a very public and acrimonious divorce from the blond and buxom sit-com star Loni Anderson. He always admitted everything in his self-deprecating way, however, and we’ll miss having him around in America’s increasingly crazy popular culture.

— Bud Norman

Sen. John McCain, RIP

Over the past many decades we had several serious disagreements with Arizona Sen. John McCain, as did just about anyone of any political viewpoint who was paying attention to the news, but we always disagreed with all due respect to the man, as did any fair-minded and well-mannered person of any political viewpoint. McCain died on Saturday at the age of 81 after a courageous fight against brain cancer, and we worry that an age of rough and tumble yet duly respectful American politics might pass with him.
McCain always laughingly admitted that he didn’t earn much respect at the United States Naval Academy, where he was a legendarily mischievous midshipman and finished sixth-from-last in his class, but after that his military career was distinguished by strength and skill and physical courage and patriotic selflessness as extraordinary as anything in America’s horrible and glorious history of war. He’d only gone to Annapolis because his dad and granddad were both four-star Navy admirals with impressive war records, and several other ancestors had served with similar distinction, and the rebellious youth didn’t plan to make a career of the Navy, but he’d been inculcated with a sense of duty to God and family and country that required him to play some small part during his deployment. Although a deadly and unpopular was being in waged in Vietnam, McCain signed up for and then easily passed the Navy’s rigorous fighter pilot training program, and thus volunteered for combat duty in the worst of it.
He was top gun enough to return from 22 risky combat missions, including one very-near miss, but on the 23rd try he was shot down in enemy territory, where his gruesomely broken body was quickly captured by enemy troops, who immediately added several more serious injuries at they dragged him away. For the next five-and-a-half years he survived routine torture at the “Hanoi Hilton” — the most notorious prisoner-of-war camp since the Confederacy’s Andersonville prison — and made only the most meaningless concessions. At first the torture was worse than usual because the captors were aware that McCain’s father was commanding America’s Pacific Fleet, but the North Vietnamese then thought they might gain some political advantage and demoralize his fellows by offering him early release because of his family ties, and no fair-minded American of any political viewpoint can deny that McCain earned everlasting respect by signing up for a few more years of torture rather than hand the enemy a propaganda victory and his leave his men behind and betray everything he ever believed about God and family and country.
The undeniably tough old cuss somehow survived it all, and wound up limping out of a post-war Air Force plane to a brass-band-and-red-carpet hero’s welcome on a landing strip in his home state of Arizona in the good old United States of America. He finished out his Naval obligations in a series of desk jobs as he more or less recuperated from his injuries, and then he naturally went into politics. McCain’s gruesome yet undeniably all-American heroism made him a natural candidate for a House of Representative seat, but after all those years in a bamboo cage he could also articulate a persuasive case for the vigorous foreign policy and limited domestic government that was the Republican fashion of the time, and he soon demonstrated an unsurprising knack for getting by and getting things done with unpleasant but necessary compromises.
After a couple of easy House elections in oh-so-Republican Arizona, McCain succeeded the then-quintessentially conservative Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater in the Senate, and after that he both earned respect and caused serious disagreements with just about anyone of any political viewpoint. He voted with the ever-evolving Republican caucus on most fiscal matters, and was as hawkish as any of them on matters of national defense, but he also seemed to take a mischievous delight in bucking his party on certain of his party’s ever-evolving stands. Sometimes it was some long forgotten continuing budget resolution or another, on other occasions the border-state Senator with lots of Latino Republican voters was bucking the base on on the simmering matter of immigration, and our free speech sensibilities strongly disagreed with his awful McCain-Fiengold Act.
Way back in the long-forgotten headlines of the late-’80s McCain was one of the “Keating Five” Democratic and Republican Senators who were caught up in a corruption scandal involving donations from a shady savings-and-loans finagler right before the savings-and-loan meltdowns of ’89, and although he was largely exonerated by the subsequent investigations McCain repented by joining left-wing Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold in coming up with some campaign finance rules that we considered an affront to free speech. That was one reason we opted for Texas Gov. George W. Bush over McCain in the ’00 Republican primary, along with the fact that Bush had been a pretty good chief executive of a large and largely Latino state, and seemed less leery of dangerous and unpopular wars. Thus Bush made his case and we cast our vote with all due respect to McCain.
As things turned out President George W. Bush wound up signing that awful McCain-Feingold Act, and the Supreme Court eventually wound up overturning the worst of it in that Citizens United decisions the left is is still squealing about, and the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, left the Republicans embroiled in a couple of unpopular wars. Bush nevertheless narrowly re-election against decorated combat veteran but defeatist Democratic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, and McCain vigorously campaigned for the Republican. After that the Iraq War become an even less popular slog, and McCain once again bucked the party by advocating a more vigorous effort rather than a retreat. When Bush followed the advice with a so-called “surge” the American casualties fell by more than 90 percent, McCain was vindicated and wound up winning the Republican nomination for the presidency.
McCain might have had a chance if the economy had kept going as well the war, but about a month before the election the stock markets melted down as a result of some long-forgotten subprime mortgage regulations from the long-forgotten administration of President Bill Clinton, and America was plunged into a deep recession. After eight years of constant media griping about Bush any Republican faced a hard race against a such charming and charismatic Democratic nominee as Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, whose African heritage promised an improbable chance at national racial redemption that even McCain’s heroic war record could not trump. By the end McCain knew he was fighting another losing war, and he accepted his faith with a sense of honor to God and family and country.
Even by 2008 the the ever-evolving base of the Republican party wasn’t fully on board with McCain’s old-fashioned Republicanism, and he steadfastly refused to go along with their partisan fever for rather than his principles. When his Republican rally-goers denounced Obama as an “Arab” and anti-American scoundrel, McCain insisted that Obama was merely a decent American family guy with some crazy liberal ideas, and we think it was at that very point when the ever-evolving base of the Republican party abandoned him. McCain was frequently critical of Obama, and as far as we’re concerned he was completely vindicated in his criticism of Obama’s premature withdrawal from Iraq, but at that point the base of the Republican party regarded anything less than complete vilification of Obama as insufficient.
Way back in ’12 the Republicans wound up nominating the even more old-fashioned Republican nominee Mitt Romney, whose dad had been a centrist Republican governor and one-time presidential contender, but the ever-evolving Republican base was even less enthused and Obama cruised to reelection. After another four years of Obama’s odious administration the ever-evolving base of the Republican party had decided that such fair-minded and well-mannered candidates as McCain and Romney weren’t up to the fight against those damned Democrats, no matter how heroic their war records, and they wound up choosing President Donald Trump.
Say what you want about both Bush and Obama, and their bitter political fights with McCain, the candidates of all parties paid due respect to the man they opposed. By the late summer and early fall of ’16, Trump won the Republican nomination and then the presidency despite sneering on videotape that MccCain was “only a hero because he was captured. I hate to tell ya’, but I like a guy who didn’t get captured,” and another audio recording about grabbing women by their private parts,” and mockeries of people’s looks and physical disabilities, and boldly proclaiming a new style of presidential politics. So far it’s working better politically than the more polite practices of McCain and Romney, at least for now, although we still wish either of them had beaten Obama, and we still expect it to work out badly in the end.
In all of his obituaries McCain is getting far more praise than he did back when he challenged the media darling Obama, and almost as much as he did when challenged the media pariah Bush, but the right media have been less muted, and so far Trump has only briefly “tweeted” his prayers and respect for McCain’s family, and although the flags have been lowered to half-mast there’s no official presidential statement about it. Trump had family-doctor-attested bone spurs that prevented him from serving in Vietnam, even if they didn’t prevent him from playing golf and tennis and chasing casual sexual encounters in New York City’s swankier nightclubs while McCain was being tortured inside a bamboo cage, and being such a self-proclaimed tough guy Trump can’t recant his infamous slur that McCain was “only a hero because he got caught.”
At such a sad time and such a low moment in political disourse we hate to take a swipe at Trump, but McCain made clear that he would be honored to have both Bush and Obama speak at his funeral and would not appreciate Trump’s presence at all, and we can’t say we disagree with this final request. At the end of a horrific and heroic and admittedly imperfect life, the best of which he attributed to his years of getting by and getting things done in the public service, we pay due respect to McCain and his dying nostalgia for a more rough and tumble yet duly respectful era of American politics.

— Bud Norman

Tom Wolfe, RIP

Tom Wolfe was our favorite living writer in the world  until he died Monday at the age of 88. From now on, we’ll have to regard him as merely one of the four or five greatest writers in the history of American literature.
Although we’re far too old and wised up for hero worship, that’s a fair description of how greatly we have always esteemed Wolfe’s inventive and elegant prose style, observant eye for the details of daily and keen insights about what they mean, and his bold willingness to defy the ridiculous fashions of his ridiculous times. He rescued American literature from the quicksand of solipsistic post-modernism, as far as we’re concerned, and he exerted an even more profound influence on our lives of letters.
Way back in our junior high school days we checked out from the Wichita Public Library a collection of the best of “new journalism” that Wolfe had edited, and after reading and then re-reading it we had made our mind up about what we wanted to do for a living. The book featured pieces by such notable writers as Truman Capote, Hunter S. Thompson, Robert Christgau, Joan Didion, George Plimpton, Gay Talese and Norman Mailer, and with characteristic immodesty Wolfe also included a few pieces of his own, which were by far the best of an impressive lot. The book demonstrated how true stories can most truthfully be told with the narrative brilliance of the best fiction, and it made an indelible impression on our literary sensibilities.
After that we eagerly consumed every book and magazine article that Wolfe ever wrote, and we loved every word of it.
Wolfe was born into an educated and well-to-do and very old-fashioned southern family in Richmond, Virginia, and was a star student at Washington and Lee University and earned a doctoral degree in American studies from Yale University, but he preferred the rough-and-tumble worlds of baseball and newspapers to academia. At a hard-earned tryout with the New York Giants he realized that his fastball would never be good enough to take him far beyond the semi-pro leagues he’d played in, so he took a job at The Springfield Union in Massachusetts, soon rose to a reporting gig at The Washington Post, then moved to The New York Herald Tribune for the chance to write feature stories, which every newspaperman knows offers the chance to add a little literary flair to the copy. During one of the intermittent New York City newspaper strikes of the era, Wolfe convinced the editors at Esquire Magazine to commission an article about the custom car craze that currently sweeping California, and after that was published he was a literary sensation.
The article celebrated the supposedly low-brow car customizers as modern artists of the highest rank, and did so with a prose style just as revved-up and ostentatious outrageously brilliant as his subject. He used alliteration and onomatopoeia and hyperactive punctuations and obscure words and complex sentence structures that still drive your typical dullard newspaper editor crazy — trust us — but to the average reader he compellingly explained the quintessentially American beauty of those crazy customized cars. It was included in a hard-cover collection of Wolfe’s other “new journalism” magazine pieces called “The Kandy-Colored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby,” and after that he was not only a literary sensation but also a best-selling author.
He followed that up with “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test,” his exquisitely objective and thus downright hilarious first hand account of justly famed novelist and hard-core hippie Ken Kesey’s hallucinogenic drug-fueled bus trips through California with his band of “merry pranksters,” and that was another still-in-print best-seller. Another collection of “new journalism” called “The Pump House Gang” was released in the same crazed year of 1968 to less enthusiastic reviews and a slightly lower position on the best-seller charts, but is still in print and is still well worth reading. Two years later “Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers” was published, and Wolfe could have quit there and still made our top four or five list of America’s greatest writers.
The first half of “Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers” was a previously published magazine piece called “Radical Chic,” an exquisitely objective and thus downright hilarious first-hand account of famed maestro and notorious bleeding-heart liberal Leonard Bernstein’s fund-raising soiree with New York City’s cultural elite for murderous Black Panther Party. With the observant eye of a ink-stained newspaper wretch and son of the well-to-do south Wolfe noticed all the servants-of-color who were handing out the drinks and hors d’oeurve, and how very strained were the conversations between the well-attired elite northeastern white folk and the leather clad and black-beret-wearing ghetto black folks who were seeking their contributions to their openly proclaimed cause of overthrowing white supremacy and killing whitey.
The second half was “Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers,” a previously published first-hand magazine account of the middle class white bureaucrats running the government’s anti-poverty programs who had to deal face-to-face in less genteel circumstances with black clients who had lately realized, after years of being cowed by white supremacy, that most white people had a deep-seated fear of black people. Wolfe’s written-down-in-his-notebook observations about the ridiculousness of it all rang true then, as it still does now, and at this point in time we’re all the more impressed by Wolfe’s daring in writing it down and having it published.
Wolfe’s collection of “The New Journalism” came next, which led to us reading all that had come before, and in ’75 he published “The Painted Word,” a brief but sufficiently long critique of modern art that confirmed our faith in the heartfelt realism of the Winslow Homer and Thomas Eakins Mary Cassatt paintings at the Wichita Art Museum. After that was “Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter and Vine,” another collection of magazines pieces that included a tribute to the great Russian anti-communist novelist Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, and although it was also a best-seller Wolfe was suddenly controversial as a conservative. Rolling Stone Magazine had published most of his best known work, and there was something deceptively hip about his prose, and his enthusiasm for car customizers and moonshine-running stock car racers and the time he spent with drug-addled hippies had given him a certain counter-cultural cachet, but at that point he was outed as a cultural conservative.
He followed that up with “The Right Stuff,” a lengthy and meticulously detailed account of America’s space program that became his best-selling book and was eventually made into a star-studded hit Hollywood movie. In addition to its insightful historical accuracy, it’s also celebration of the quintessentially cutting-edge engineering feats and old-fashioned machismo that landed America on the moon and beyond. That masterpiece was followed by the still-in-print and still-worth-reading collection of magazine pieces called “In Our Time,” and a delightful screed against modern architecture called “From Bauhaus to Our House,” and another fine collection of magazine pieces titled “The Purple Decades.”
Wolfe had long championed the “new journalism” as superior to all those self-indulgent novels about academic sexual affairs that all the creative writing program graduates were churning out, and he was right to do so, but in another magazine piece he conceded your can’t really “sit at the grown-up’s table” of literature without writing a novel, so he took a few years off from freelance work and penned a bona fide classic American novel titled “The Bonfire of the Vanities.” Just as Wolfe’s journalism had long been enhanced by novelistic techniques, his first novel was enhanced by his journalistic understanding of the peculiar New York City scene he depicted. It included all of the racial and class conflicts that defined the the time and place, the same derring-do to confront them honestly no matter what races or classes might be offended, and an even more refined crazy-ass prose style, and it was his biggest selling book to date and was made into a lousy movie.
He followed that with “A Man In Full,” another epic novel about an egomaniacal and deep-in-debt real estate mogul embroiled in racial controversies, and although it’s set in Atlanta rather than New York City or Washington, D.C., it’s still a masterpiece and as relevant as ever. There was another excellent compilation of magazine pieces called “Hooking Up” in 2000, with some excellent essays on the high-tech revolution that was taking place in California during the car-customizing craze and the concurrent sexual revolution’s effect on modern day college life, and after that another essential novel called “I Am Charlotte Simmons.” The book was about a poor but brilliant daughter of the south who wound in modern academia, and the depression she suffered when confronted with longstanding class differences and the newfangled rules of sexual morality, and it might be our favorite Wolfe book of them all.
The high-brow critics of the time hated it, of course, and accused Wolfe of being a prurient old southern cultural conservative, but since then the cutting-edge left has taken to decrying the “culture of rape” in higher education and setting up kangaroo courts to expel the sort of drunken frat boys Wolfe so effectively lampooned. Wolfe always seemed to win these arguments in the long run.
By that point Wolfe was getting old, and although the books came slower his final works are likely to be in print for a long while and are still worth reading. His final novel “Back to Blood” is an honest account of race and class in the Latino-dominated town of Miami, with the prose as revved-up as ever. His last work was “The Kingdom of Speech,” an extended essay about the sciences of the brain and linguistics that seems to argue against free will and for pre-determinism, and although it’s our least favorite of his works we highly recommend it.
Wolfe was more of a cultural conservative than a political one, and we weren’t much surprised to learn from the many obituaries in the big newspapers that he often voted for Democrats in presidential elections, but we’ll always appreciate how he so eloquently celebrated the car customizers and stock car racers and semi-pro ball players and the crazy-ass fighter pilots who sat atop the dubious rockets that America launched into space, and that crazy-ass American spirit in general. We’ll also always appreciate the way he so perfectly skewered all those elite white folks who made cocktail party contributions to the ghetto thugs who openly wanted to kill them, and with such exquisite objectivity and notebook accuracy that it was downright hilarious.
Like Emile Zola and Charles Dickens and the rest of the best of western literature’s greatest writers, the notoriously ostentatious and self-promoting Wolfe realized that all the great novels and non-fiction aren’t about the author but rather about his life and times. Like Mark Twain and Walt Whitman and Sinclair Lewis and the other greatest American writers who also started in the newspaper racket, he captured the best and the worst of the great and awful time and place he lived such a rich life in. His own quintessentially American yet entire unique personality was part of every tale, of course, and we’ll hold out faint hopes the country will see the likes of it again.

— Bud Norman

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MTM, RIP

On a cold and windy Wednesday afternoon we heard the news that Mary Tyler Moore had died at the age of 80, and it felt like a sunnier and spunkier era of American popular culture had passed along with her. She really could turn the world on with her smile, not to mention that body of hers, and the body of work she created over her long and varied career is even more impressive.
Moore began her show business career as a dancer, most notably as the perfectly lithe female figure in the skin-tight suit prancing around in the Hotpoint appliance company’s commercials for the “Ozzie and Harriet” show, but she soon moved into acting and got a number of small television roles on small shows, most notably as the elegant legs and inviting lips and mesmerizing eyes of an otherwise unseen answering service girl on “Richard Diamond, Private Detective.” She was reportedly turned down for the forgettable role of Danny Thomas’ daughter on the lame sit-com “Make Room For Daddy” because her perfectly upturned nose would have raised doubts about the famously well-schnozzled star’s paternity, which turned out to be a lucky break when she instead landed the plum role of the suburban housewife on the still-dazzling “Dick Van Dyke Show.” America got to see all of Moore’s top-to-bottom beauty in the program, along with the charming personality and comedic flair and undeniable intelligence and wide range of talent that went with it, and after that Moore was pretty much a permanent star.
This was right around the same time we were starting to notice women and all that, and Moore made an indelible impression on our impressionable minds. We were gobsmacked by the beauty and charm and flair and smarts and talent, and how nicely it was all packed into those capri pants and belly-revealing sweaters that became all the fashion back then and still look good on similar women even to this day, but we were also forewarned by the comedic genius of her portrayal of a perfect suburban housewife that even the best of women can be insecure and prone to cry and and shout “oh, Rob” and will occasionally put a dent into your beloved sports car. Re-watch some of those scenes on the late-night UHF re-runs and you’ll marvel at how brilliantly Moore played them for laughs, and how utterly appealing even her most flawed womanhood was.
After that Moore tried for the upper rung of movie stardom, but despite some memorable performances in some otherwise forgettable movies she wound up back in television, which was another lucky break because it resulted in the still-dazzling “Mary Tyler Moore Show.” Her first marriage to a salesman who was the father of her only child ended in divorce, she re-married a big-wig at 20th Century Fox, and although the marriage produced no children it did result in a production company that made some of the best television of the next several decades. Moore’s eponymous sit-com was the first of it, and would have made the partnership notable by itself.
The situation for the comedy was an unmarried woman in her  mid-30s trying to make a living as a producer for a low-rated television news program in frigid Minneapolis, with a lovably neurotic Jewish neighbor and a meddling Nordic landlady and a gruff-but-sweet editor and bored but droll news writer and inept yet arrogant news reader thrown into the mix, and if you’re up late enough to catch one of the re-runs that are still playing on the UHF channels you’ll still notice how well the cast of veterans from small roles in small shows pulled it off. Valerie Harper and Cloris Leachman were so good as the Jewish neighbor and Nordic landlady they had their own hit spin-offs, Ed Asner was so good as the gruff boss he had a popular and critically-acclaimed hour-long drama spin-off, and Ted Baxter’s pitch-perfect portrayal of the bumptious broadcaster landed him that unforgettable role in “Caddyshack.” Betty White also did such a good job exploiting her previous image as a television sweetheart a the man-hungry and amoral but almost convincingly sweetheart “Happy Homemaker” that she’s still a star even in her ’90s, but despite her willingness to assume a ensemble role Moore stood out.
At the time Moore was hailed as a feminist heroine, being 30-something and still unmarried and fighting for wage equality in the workplace and perhaps even having sex and all the rest of it that was still slightly cutting-edge in the ’70s, but she also continued to perfectly portray the insecurities and crying jags and the lament of not having a husband to cry out to and everything else you need to be forewarned about women, and it’s hard to imagine any feminist heroes of the moment being so universally desired by men. Moore never did embrace that feminist heroine status, and we’d like to think it’s because she didn’t like how it how it failed to appreciate the very subtle nuances of her performances, but her work in television gave women plenty of reason to be proud. Her subsequent attempts at name-in-the-title television were dull variety shows and mostly lame sit-coms that were short-lived and quickly forgotten, but the production company she’d formed with her husband gave birth to such excellent television-of-the-time as “The Bob Newhart Show” and “Newhart” and “WKRP in Cincinnati” and “Hill Street Blues,” and the talent they nurtured also led to such worthy entertainment as “The Simpsons,” which is still occasionally dazzling after 30-some years on the air. If you haven’t seen any of it don’t worry, it’s just TV, but at a time when everyone was watching TV it was as good as it got.
Moore continued to act on both the large and small screens until not along ago, and although her youthful beauty had aged her talents had ripened. She played an embittered mother who passively-aggressively tormented her son after the death of a favored sibling in “Ordinary People” with exquisite iciness, won Emmy Awards for made-for-TV roles as a breast cancer survivor and a Mary Todd Lincoln succumbing to mental illness, and the former comedic beauty was always undeniably good. We also liked that she was almost always quite reserved about her private life and political opinions, but it leaked out that the sunny sweetheart who could turn the world on with her smile and make a nothing day suddenly seem worthwhile had endured a harsh girlhood with two alcoholic parents, suffered the death of her only child due to a gun accident caused by a manufacturing glitch, endured the deaths of both of her husbands, fought her own alcoholism and childhood demons and diabetes and other health problems throughout her life, and did so with an interview-denying dignity that is all too rare these days. You can sense something of it from almost every moment she spent on screen, and everything else she poured into her other projects, but the laughs that she and the rest of the world of got from it are the most of what remains.
We’ll be needing some of that sunniness and spunk and best sort of feminism in the coming days, and we’re grateful that it will still be showing up on the late night UHF channels for a while, and we hope Laura Petrie and Mary Richards and all the other beguiling creations of Mary Tyler Moore will rest in peace.

— Bud Norman

Justice Antonin Scalia, RIP

There is supposed to be no such thing as an irreplaceable man in a constitutional republic, where the rule of law and the God-given rights of the people are supposed to persist through the passing of the generations, but the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia on Saturday at the too-young age of 79 will sorely test that dubious proposition.
One of the greatest jurists in American history, Scalia’s long career was devoted to defending the rule of law and the God-given rights of the people by insisting on the plain language and clear meaning of the Constitution. He did so when the Constitution favored liberal interests, he did so when the law and the Constitution favored conservative interests, and he most notably did it even went it against the prevailing tides of fickle public opinion that the Constitution was always intended to thwart. More importantly, he did it with a rare steadfastness and even rarer brilliance that in crucial moments that enabled his originalist theory of the Constitution to prevail over the idea that a mere five black-robed justices should be able to impose their beliefs on the other 300 million or so of the country no matter what the framers wrote or the states ratified or the people have long understood was the binding agreement.
Scalia was not only a decisive vote but also the the author of the very persuasive decision in Heller v. District of Columbia, which found that the Second Amendment’s guarantee of a right to keep and bear arms does indeed mean just that, even for the average schmuck who might need to defend his home and not just for a “well-regulated militia” that the left would happily regulate out of existence. He was a key voice in that Citizens United decision that all the Democrats and even some of the dimmer Republicans are still noisily insisting be overturned, and he wrote the far more persuasive concurring opinion, and all those soft-headed Bernie Sanders fans who share his indignation about it should know that its plain-meaning reading of the First Amendment basically said the government doesn’t have the right to exercise prior restraint of speech critical of Hillary Clinton or any other candidate of either party or any ideological persuasion, and that none of us would have a meaningful First Amendment without it. On every other occasion he was a reliable vote for whatever law had been passed by the people’s legislature and signed and by their duly-elected president which was not clearly in violation of the basic individual rights defined by the plain language of the Constitution, even if it was some dumb-ass law he and another four wised-up and black-robed jurists would have never voted for.
Even on those all-too-often occasion’s when Scalia insistence on the rule of law and the God-given rights of the people did not prevail, he wrote such brilliantly dissenting opinions that he will no doubt be quoted in some inevitable upcoming challenge, so he might yet prevail posthumously. His dissent in the Obergfel v. Hodges decision that legalized same-sex marriage will no doubt be cited in the countless forthcoming sentences against any bakers and photographers and churches who don’t want to participate in a same-sex wedding ceremony, so there’s hope that Scalia’s legacy will persist. There were enough times when Scalia thwarted George W. Bush and there’s some residual bipartisan spirits that obliges the likes of President Barack Obama and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to pay him some lip service, and the press is being strangely respectful, and Scalia has earned his moment of national respect.
The petty politics immediately intrude, though, and there’s the legally-required matter of how to replace such an irreplaceable man. While we hate to presume what such a more learned jurist as Scalia might opine, our reading of the plain language in the Constitution suggests that Obama has every constitutional right to name an appointee at a time of his choosing, the Senate has every constitutional right to ignore it at its own leisure, and our guess is that Scalia wouldn’t mind a bit if the inevitably messy fight stretched out noisily into the next presidency. If the next president is Sanders or the soon-to-be-constitutionally-protected-from-criticism Clinton, a lot of those 5-4 decisions from the good old days of the plain meaning the Constitution will suddenly mean that the the First Amendment doesn’t allow criticism of public officials and the Second Amendment doesn’t guarantee a right to keep and bear arms, and the rest of the Constitution will mean whatever five black-robed jurists and fickle pubic opinion think it ought to mean. At the moment the the front-runner for the Republican nomination has mentioned his sister, who authored a soon-to-be-overturned opinion finding a right to late-term abortion, would make a “phenomenal” Supreme Court Justice, and who joined in a ridiculous politically-correct outcry that Scalia was racist for questioning the effect that affirmative action admission policies at universities have on its supposed beneficiaries, and although the rest of the field are making more reasonable suggestions their party doesn’t have a good track record of lately finding jurists such as the Reagan-appointed Scalia. Our guess is that the even the most weak-kneed Republicans won’t dare allow a lame duck appointment, and after a respectful moment or two the Democrats will revert to screaming about censoring anti-Democrat speech and compelling same-sex-wedding-cake-baking laws, and that there’s no guessing how that might come out. So far even the squishiest Republicans are digging in their heels, Obama has backed off a recess appointment, and we don’t think there’s much sentiment in of the recently outraged parties for a new Supreme Court Justice to ban anti-Hillary Clinton speech and repeal gun rights and whatever else five black-robed justices might come up with, so we’ll hold out hope.
Such petty politics aside, we’ll also take a moment to note that by all accounts Scalia was a good man. He was a devoted husband for 56 years, beloved father to nine children, and was such a remarkably genial gentleman that he even maintained a famously affectionate relationship with his constant nemesis Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. He once spoke at the high school graduation ceremony of one of his many grandchildren, and we think he spoke best for himself when he urged them “not just to be zealous in in the pursuit of your ideals, but to be sure that your ideals are the right ones. That is perhaps the hardest part of being a good human being. Good intentions are not enough. Being a good person begins with being a wise person. Then, when you follow your conscience, you will be headed in the right direction.”
We pray that Justice Scalia’s wisdom has led him in the direction to eternal peace, after so many years of toil on this troublesome earth, and that somehow the rule of the law and the God-given rights of the people it is meant to protect will persist through the passing of the generations.

— Bud Norman

J.B., RIP

The wife of our old friend J.B. has recently updated his Facebook status to “dead,” and although you’re unlikely to have ever heard of him we think his passing is worth noting. J.B. was one of those American boys who went off to fight a war in Vietnam and never really came back, and between his rough and rowdy ways and his exquisitely sensitive soul he was something of a local legend around here, and he was another small but important piece of a more ruggedly individualistic America that seems to be slipping away.
It took years of beery and heartfelt conversations before we found out that his name was actually Gerald Brown. Even in the tough south side neighborhood where he grew up no one would dare call him by such an inappropriately refined moniker as “Gerald,” however, although he would tolerate the less pretentious “Jerry” from a select group of childhood chums, and most of the rest of us acceded to his preference for J.B., which somehow seemed most apt for such an colorfully abbreviated character. To an even more select group of friends that he served with in Vietnam he was “Rap” Brown, which had nothing do with the black nationalist leader H. “Rap” Brown, whom our south side white boy friend hadn’t even heard of at the time, and instead was earned by how well he “rapped” on the radio when calling in an airstrike. It took many more years of beery and heartfelt conversations before he divulged that to us, though, and even then we were warned to keep calling him J.B.
Those conversations started when he was owner of The Spot Recreation Center, a notorious dive that just happened to be located exactly halfway between the newspaper where we toiled and the cheap apartment where we resided. The Spot had a pool table and a shuffleboard table and a straight-out-of-a-western-movie bar and an authentic dive flavor, and drew its clientele from the more disgruntled downtown office workers and neighborhood derelicts and local biker gangs, and the chili and the burgers were the greasiest in town, and it regularly booked such spectacular rockabilly acts as Sleepy LaBeef and The LeRoi Brothers, and there was this very attractive barmaid who sometimes wore the most provocative attire, and it was quite conveniently located, so we spent enough time there to strike up an acquaintance with the proprietor. We enjoyed his ribald sense of humor, admired the way he kept a watchful eye out for that attractive barmaid in the provocative attire, and we weren’t the least intimidated by his unmistakeable aura of danger.
J.B. wasn’t a big man, and in fact was several inches shorter than ourselves and possessed of a physique that can most charitably described as wiry, and he had a lot of years and even more miles on him, but anyone with a modicum of street smarts would have immediately  recognized that he was not someone to be messed with. We hadn’t the slightest desire mess with him, of course, and his far superior street smarts immediately recognized this, and he wasn’t the type to menace such friendly types, and he seemed to enjoy our highfalutin conversations about the latest events, and thus we gradually became friends. Eventually he even asked us to write about his war.
J.B. freely admitted he only went to war because he was drafted, not being the sort of guy who could swing an educational deferment, but once he was dragged in he went full hog. He volunteered for paratrooper and Ranger duty and anything in the worst of it. There was a certain exhilaration in his war stories, but also a horror, and he had a drawer full of snapshots that confirmed the worst accusations about America’s behavior in the war, and first-hand accounts that the enemy had behaved at least as badly, and this rough and rowdy man confirmed to us that war truly is hell. He had stories about his jeered return to civilian life, too, still too young to drink in the bar he would later run, and it was always obvious to us that his war had never ended.
We did our best to write that story for the newspaper where we toiled, and we can’t say it did our career any good. Some readers objected to our sympathetic portrayal of such a rough and rowdy fellow, who had done a little time in prison on a rap involving some fraud scheme or another, and who ran a notorious dive just east of downtown, and who was known as someone not to be trifled with, but we still wonder what sort of men they expect to fight their country’s battles. The story also  raised some money for a charity that helped Vietnam veterans by taking them back to their battlefields to find healing, we proudly note, and  J.B. was one of those veterans who took the trip. He wound up moving to Vietnam several decades ago and spent most of the rest of his life there.
After a couple of marriages we know of, one of them with a woman we thought quite sound, he wound up marrying a much-younger Vietnamese woman, who was kind enough to send news of his recent illness and ultimate death, and that’s pretty much all we know about the intervening years.
An occasional e-mail or Facebook posting from “Rap” Brown would invite us to join him for a vacation in Vietnam, where he promised all manner of carnal delight and other great deals on the Yankee dollar, but that was about all we heard of him the past couple of decades. He was going by the name of “Rap” Brown at that point, having decided to fully embrace his nom de guerre, but we’ll still think of him as J.B. We rather liked that south side kid who wasn’t  to be messed with, and we can’t be sure that he was ever really reconciled with his war, so we choose to remember all the spectacular rockabilly and the fine  friendship and the greasy chili and our pal J.B.

— Bud Norman