Tag Archives: Donald Trump

Book Review: ‘Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House’ by Michael Wolff

FIRE AND FURY!

Michael Wolff’s political bombshell, “Fire and Fury,” is like a “Harry Potter” book event: mana for political junkies as well as a breakout book for a much wider audience. It has certainly proven to be an excellent go-to book on my nightstand these past couple of weeks. I felt it in my gut, from the start of the media campaign, that here was something that would hold up to a full reading. Wolff is not Carl Bernstein but he proves to be the right man in the right place and time. Some of the book’s juiciest bits that were placed under the media spotlight helped to distort the narrative. However, it’s not farfetched at all to find that Wolff has compiled something credible. Just don’t tell that to Sarah Huckabee since she swears the whole thing is a “fantasy,” not worthy of the American people.

January 17, 2018: Trump with communications director Hope Hicks and press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)

What I find most useful is that, by and large, Wolff has neatly organized and presented the machinations of all the oddball characters running amok: the mighty Steve Bannon; the royal duo, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, or Jarvanka; assorted misfits and minions such as Kellyanne Conway and Sean Spicer; and especially both Hope Hicks and Stephen Miller, highly unqualified special assistants to the president. The important blocks of activity add up for the big picture: Jared Kushner’s highly suspicious dealings around the globe; the inept advice of Jarvanka to POTUS taking its toll; how all things Trump cannot help but inevitably fall like a house of cards. Time will tell just how much Wolff got right. It is in his best interest that the book holds up as it would make for a great movie. In his favor, he has a credible and lengthy acknowledgements list at the back of the book.

One day prior to FIRE AND FURY book release, Jan 4, 2018: Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was flanked by two large television screens as President Donald Trump delivered a video message on stock market increases and economic gains.

This is much more than just about Trump sneaking a cheeseburger into bed or Steve Bannon’s pontificating. It is about a White House in crisis, even before it started, one stoking an international crisis. It is definitely about an accidental presidency, one that repeatedly abuses power, and is illegitimate. While that may sound too harsh for some hardcore Trump supporters, this book lays out the case for why the whole Trump phenomena is a shell game with players who shamelessly want to hang on to power. And it’s surprising how often Steve Bannon comes out sounding like the more sensible one in the bunch–but not for the reasons his supporters might think. The main reason he seems to have any sense is because he knew what a mistake it would be for Trump to fire FBI Director James Comey.

As Bannon explains it, it was Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner (he nicknamed them, “Jarvanka”) who pushed Trump into firing Comey. This Jarvanka push was triggered by the fact Kushner was part of Comey’s investigation into Russian meddling. And it just gets worse from there. Forget about Russian meddling for a moment. It’s all this Jarvanka meddling that’s pretty scary in and of itself. As the following excerpt demonstrates, despite the tabloid style to this book, Wolff puts together a narrative that most likely will be confirmed over and over again, especially by special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation:

“Most problematic of all, Hicks and Miller, along with everyone on the Jarvanka side, were now directly connected to actions involved in the Russian investigation or efforts to spin it, deflect it, or, indeed, cover it up. Miller and Hicks had drafted–or at least typed–Kushner’s version of the first letter written at Bedminster to fire Comey. Hicks had joined with Kushner and his wife to draft on Air Force One the Trump-directed press release about Don Jr. and Kushner’s meeting with Russians in Trump Tower.”

From left to right: White House counselor Kellyanne Conway; Hope Hicks, White House director of strategic communications; and Omarosa Manigault, director of communications for the Office of Public Liaison, listen during a daily press briefing at the James Brady Press Briefing Room, at the White House, on February 14, 2017. White House press secretary Sean Spicer discussed various topics, including the resignation of Michael Flynn from his position as National Security Adviser. Hicks is now one of six past and current Trump administration aides whom Robert Mueller reportedly wants to question. ALEX WONG/GETTY IMAGES

A key player in the Jarvanka faction is Hope Hicks who provides some good grist for this book. A former model and aspiring actress, Hicks finds herself in the improbable position of being an essential link between the press and the leader of the free world. Hicks regularly provides digestible pits of information to Trump. She was responsible, for instance, in giving Trump a recap on the famous piece in The New Yorker that first connected the dots on Michael Flynn and Russia–except she failed to mention Michael Flynn. Hicks has no qualms over sending out disparaging leaks to the press about anyone deemed a problem, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions and members of Trumps legal team, Mark Corallo and Mark Kasowitz. It is no surprise that Robert Mueller is interested in questioning her.

And it all goes on, getting worse and worse. Just as one scandalous scene plays out, another rears its head to fill an endless news cycle. So, plenty of opportunity to deflect, distract, confuse, and alarm. It was just that strategy that led Trump to threaten to unleash “fire and fury” upon North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. It is a well-documented fact that Trump said this since we can clearly view it on numerous news feeds. Unlike some other comments and activities by Trump & Co., there is no hiding behind the trickery of the Trump White House in this case. Wolff does an admirable job of exposing this spin doctor trickery. Sorry, Sarah, this book is significant and so far removed from your claim that it is mere “fantasy.”

If you’ve seen any of the segments Wolff has done during his book tour, he makes a compelling case: after being embedded in the White House for most of 2017, an informative book results, one that makes sense out of the political crisis of our time. Now, I will be the first to admit that Wolff seems just a little bit out of his depth. It’s like a fisherman going out to make a catch and snagging Moby Dick. And I did see his appearance with Bill Maher where he suggests Trump is currently having an affair with UN Ambassador Nikki Haley. He doesn’t come right out and say that and only hints that he would only say as much if he had absolute proof. It’s that whiff of the salacious than can take away from an otherwise even-tempered book. Ultimately, it doesn’t take away much of anything.

“Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House” is a 336-page hardcover published by Henry Holt and Company. For more details, visit Henry Holt and Company right here. And you can get this book at Amazon by just clicking the image below:

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Filed under Book Reviews, Donald Trump, Journalism, politics, Russia, Russiagate

Movie Review: THE POST

Meryl Streep as Katharine Graham

The Washington Post is in an awkward spot as one of the objects of disdain for Donald Trump. However, the Trump White House requested copies of “The Post” and 20th Century Fox has obliged. So, despite the bad blood, apparently, the Donald is curious. And, if he should see it, he’ll discover that The Washington Post knows how to handle itself. Compelling stuff but the heavy-duty serious subject matter may bore Big Don. Besides, it won’t work for him if he’s rooting for Tricky Dick Nixon. For the rest of us, this movie about newspapers and freedom of the press is quite compelling.

We don’t really have spoilers to worry about too much. The Washington Post is inextricably linked in history with the Nixon White House, The Pentagon Papers, the paper’s owner and publisher Katharine Graham, and the paper’s executive editor Ben Bradlee. It’s all the peculiar facts that add up to show the courage involved for Bradlee (Tom Hanks) and especially for Graham (Meryl Streep). The tension resides in the nerve-racking decisions leading up to whether or not to publish material the government deems too sensitive for public, and political, consumption. The key word here is “political,” as the information in The Pentagon Papers was a political bombshell–but never put American lives in danger, as the Nixon White House claimed. In fact, it would save lives as it helped to put a stop to the war in Vietnam.

Tom Hanks as Ben Bradlee

“The Post” is a perfect companion piece to Alan J. Pakula’s 1976, “All the President’s Men.” Director Steven Spielberg would certainly be mindful of comparisons. But the screenplay, written by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer, is on a decidedly different track. This is more of a character study and not so much a political thriller. That said, it certainly shares some of the same energy. As much as Hoffman, Redford, and Robards commanded the screen, so too does Streep and Hanks.

June 21, 1971: Ben Bradlee and Katharine Graham leave U.S. District Court in Washington.

You can also make a favorable comparison with Adam McKay’s 2015 “The Big Short,” another movie that neatly presents a myriad of facts in an easily digestible form. Both movies are about confronting deception at an outrageous level. In one, the public has been duped into falling victim to Wall Street greed. In the other, the public has been duped into feeding the military industrial complex with the lives of its sons. The Pentagon Papers were, at their core, a study in failure intended for scholars at some future time. To have this study released to the public while the war was raging, was unthinkable. It uncovered deception at a massive scale going from Truman to Nixon. In order to publish, The Washington Post had to be willing to defy the courts’ understanding at the time that this act would amount to treason. To publish was an easy enough task for Bradlee to commit to. But for Graham, it was a gamble that put the very paper at risk of extinction.

Finally, “The Post” is an even closer companion piece to Spielberg’s own 2012 “Lincoln.” This all perfectly dovetails with Spielberg’s films of America at war as well as his biopics of American leaders in crisis. Katharine Graham is the pivotal character going against the status quo and conventional wisdom. Why can’t she just lay down and accept the Nixon White House’s demands, right? Streep gives a memorable performance that tenderly follows Graham’s journey from tentative caretaker of a vulnerable family business to a confident leader at a national, as well as an international level. For Hanks, he takes Bradlee from a man born confident to a man more modest and empathetic. Both must and do rise to the challenge of a White House that perceives the American free press as an enemy of the state. Sound familiar? Do you really think Donald Trump has watched this–as well as processed it?

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Filed under Academy Awards, Movie Reviews, movies, Oscars, Steven Spielberg, Vietnam War

Review: ‘The Impossible Presidency: The Rise and Fall of America’s Highest Office’

King Trump Confronts American Presidents. Illustration by Henry Chamberlain.

If someone could use an employee manual, it would certainly be the current occupant to the highest post in the land. Jeremi Suri’s new book guides us through what has become of the American presidency, from its development to its inevitable decline. If Donald Trump were to read it, “The Impossible Presidency” would provide much food for thought.

Suri’s prose has an inviting conversational tone that lifts the reader up. His main argument is that, after a long period of expansion, the job is now collapsing in upon itself. For the first part of the book, we read about the presidents who transformed the office: Washington, Jackson, Lincoln, and the two Roosevelts. The second part of the book follows the fall: JFK and LBJ; Reagan; Clinton and Obama. FDR was the last president to fundamentally remake the job and save the country, and the world, in the process. No one else is going to top that. Furthermore, the job has become so complex that no one person, according to Suri, can ever hope to juggle all the responsibility. Spoiler alert: Suri advocates for a two-person job with a president and a prime minister. Of course, we’ve already established a partnership between president and vice-president since Carter. But that may not be enough.

It is Donald Trump who so neatly underscores Suri’s thesis about the decline of the job that he cannot help but cast a long shadow over the whole book. Suri uses contemporary politico lingo currently associated with Trump. Suri describes past presidents as responding to their “base” and “doubling down” on important issues. More to the point, Suri provides numerous highly relevant examples of how presidents have appealed to the male white voter. This is a fact that each president has wrestled with from the very beginning.

THE IMPOSSIBLE PRESIDENCY by Jeremi Suri

In a work full of evocative and highly informative passages, what Suri does with FDR stands out. Suri weaves a series of recollections by Saul Bellow as a Depression era youth who is galvanized by the reassurances of FDR, the man on the radio, with the funny posh accent, that everyone intently listened to. In the case of FDR, his word was as good as gold. When FDR ordered an increase in the money supply, he answered any criticism over its legitimacy by stating, “How do I know that’s any good? The fact that I think it is, makes it good.” As Suri points out, that kind of common sense meant everything to a struggling boy like Saul Bellow. It was real words backed up by real action.

In a very accessible and compelling style, Suri guides the reader in distinguishing the most consequential American presidents. In this excerpt, you get a taste of Suri’s writing as he compares Lincoln to FDR:

“If Lincoln was the nineteenth-century president, Roosevelt was the twentieth-century American leader.

Lincoln’s presidency anticipated Roosevelt’s. The latter had to contend with the collapse of the American (and world) economy, but they both spent much of their presidencies at war. In retrospect, Roosevelt’s ability to respond creatively to the Great Depression and echo Lincoln’s war performance is truly exceptional. No other president faced the same range of existential challenges. As a consequence, no other president had so many opportunities to change the basic structure of American society, and vast sections of the modern world. Roosevelt turned the darkest of times into the brightest of new hopes. He was not only the first welfare president, but, by 1944, the first global president, influencing more parts of the world than any previous American executive. He pioneered the New Deal and then globalized its reach.”

No less heroic is the way that JFK navigated the Cuban Missile Crisis. In sharp contrast to FDR’s time, Suri points out, the job of president had become so compartmentalized that, even at the height of the crisis, JFK was hamstrung with a schedule crammed with activities of little to no real significance. The office had taken on such a life of its own that it was assumed the president would simply pick how his advisors wanted to strike at Cuba not whether to discuss other options. Of course, we know JFK found another option. But, in the case of Vietnam, the system forced his hand. For LBJ, it was more of the same: another president distracted as well as compelled to great action.

Suri states that gradual and incremental progress is the new template fashioned by Clinton and Obama. But, Suri goes on to say, a sense for bold action must not be lost. For Clinton, it was not responding to the genocide in Rwanda. For Obama, it was not responding to ISIS as the threat emerged. In both cases, each president was conscious of the risk of overextending and held back when they should have acted. As for Trump, Suri seems to see him as more of a warning that we’ve hit rock bottom and now we must plan for what lies ahead. This is an essential book for putting our current state of affairs into proper historical context.

How Much More of King Trump? Illustration by Henry Chamberlain.

The focus of this book is to show how the modern American presidency has evolved into a colossal apparatus. In turn, the role of a modern American president has become virtually unmanageable, too demanding for just one person. Or has it–or is that the crucial problem? To be sure, it is a problem but solving it won’t resolve other government dysfunction. Suri does not delve into what his proposed solution would gain. A team of president and prime minister, as he suggests, would still be at the mercy of a corrupt and compromised Congress. But one step at a time. A post-Trump America, in and of itself, will be a step in the right direction. More and more Americans, even loyal Trump supporters, are coming to see that something is fundamentally wrong with our current chief executive, his election, his entire administration. One American president who Suri does not cover is President Jimmy Carter. Here is a president who valued integrity and did quite a lot of good while in office. Look it up and you’ll see. This book is just the type that inspires you to keep looking up in more ways than one.

“The Impossible Presidency: The Rise and Fall of America’s Highest Office” is a 368-page hardcover published by Basic Books. You can order this book from Amazon by clicking the image below:

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Filed under American History, Book Reviews, Donald Trump, Editorial Cartoons, History, Political Cartoons, politics

Book Review: ‘Winter Warning’ by Jerome Charyn

Isaac Sidel, the president with a Glock. Illustration by Henry Chamberlain.

Writers reach a point in their careers when they can spin gold from within just about any scenario. Jerome Charyn gives himself the perfect backdrop from which to play in his latest novel, “Winter Warning,” published by Pegasus Books. This is the White House. And, if you think Donald Trump is “disruptive,” then get a load of the Isaac Sidel administration: people get punched in the face and guns are fired into the ceiling on a slow day. Charyn makes the most of his opportunity to craft a climactic conclusion to his iconic Isaac Sidel mystery series. And, in the bargain, Charyn revels in speaking to the byzantine interconnections between American and Russian players.

Isaac Sidel, has gone from street cop to police commissioner, to mayor of New York City, to president of the United States. The timeline to the Charyn mystery series places the story in 1989 but, without a doubt, the narrative is every bit as relevant as if it were set in the present. Sidel is indeed a disruptive force. He is, by and large, an accidental president, a vice-presidnet thrust into the highest office after a political scandal. And Sidel is quite outspoken, beholden to neither major party. Where Trump leans to the right, Sidel leans to the left. Side’s liberal inclinations have more to do with a passion to help the oppressed than anything else. Given the chance as mayor, he released countless prisoners from Riker’s Island, victims of an unjust legal system. Our story heats up when Sidel’s more aggressive style attracts various rogue elements, including nefarious Swiss bankers and an erratic former Israeli prime minister.

“Winter Warning” by Jerome Charyn

Jerome Charyn is always a pleasure to read as you cannot help but get wrapped up in the story and find yourself rewarded at every turn. Here is a taste of a story with hints of the supernatural. In this excerpt, Sidel is questioning Pesh Olinov, a Russian operative, about a Russian criminal syndicate determined to make contact with him:

“And that greeting card is some kind of a threat?”

Olinov appraised the portrait of Isaac with an ice pick piercing his left eye.

“I don’t think so. They consider you a werewolf, like themselves. And that’s a mark of respect. Perhaps they would like to meet with you—the presidency means nothing to them. It’s not your power that interests the besprizornye. In their eyes you have none. Perhaps it is a real winter warning, and they are telling you to be more careful with your steps. The Secret Service cannot protect you with their magnetometers, my friend.”

Isaac Sidel is the president who packs a Glock. As much gritty crime story as political fable, “Winter Warning” takes the reader on a mesmerizing journey. This is the story of an American president who prefers to hide in an office he’s set up in the White House attic. That attic becomes home to a makeshift kitchen cabinet and a haven for various rogue elements. But Sidel, as always, is also a man of action. Charyn keeps this president on the run.

Charyn has a delicious way of hinting at what lies ahead and then, like a panther, hits his mark and pounces on his prey. The pace to this narrative is quick and steady allowing Charyn to conjure up elaborate scenes, deliver on his promise, and quickly sneak out the backway. Charyn is a master at creating a rhythmic pattern. We return throughout to an image of a man with a Glock, a man confronting werewolves, and the realization that he is a werewolf himself. This is not a horror story with werewolf tropes. These werewolves symbolize a certain dark and independent spirit. Sidel is indeed a werewolf. He knew it all along. He just needed an opportunity to prove it to others and confirm it to himself. With a target on his back, and nearly no one to trust, Sidel will need strength from any source he can find. This is a riveting mystery with a hard-boiled edge and worldly charm.

“Winter Warning” is a 288-page hardcover, available as of October 3rd. For more details, visit Pegasus Books.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Books, Crime Fiction, Jerome Charyn, mystery, Novels, Pegasus Books

Review: RED NOTICE by Bill Browder

RED NOTICE by Bill Browder

Russiagate and the Magnitsky Act have become inextricably linked in the news. We may even reach the point where the average person readily makes the connection. This is certainly the stuff of mainstream media now and that’s a good thing. One person who is definitely an authority on the subject is investor Bill Browder. If you were to read just one book on what is going on in Russia today, it is Browder’s “Red Notice.” The full title is “Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man’s Fight for Justice,” published by Simon & Schuster. Keep in mind, the devil is in the details–and these are some diabolical details.

For this story, the one person you will never forget, once you know his story, is Sergei Magnitsky. What happened to him is hardly a new story but a story that reverberates as more and more people become aware. You can think of it, in some sense, as similar to the story of Emmett Till. Once you know his story, you never forget it. See what I mean? In a nutshell, we are living through the complex aftermath of the murder of Sergei Magnitsky.

Bill Browder’s book is so well-paced that, by the time he reaches the details about Sergei Magnitsky, the reader is prepared with a sense of how high finance works (in this case, by the seat of one’s pants) and how Russia works (it can get very dark). What makes this book so readable is Browder’s keen understanding of human nature. He is often self-deprecating and strikes the right tone. If you are looking for an absorbing read, this is it. Browder tells you everything about how he stumbled upon investing in post-Soviet Russia. That alone, is fascinating. Browder did so well with his hedge fund that he became Russia’s biggest foreign investor. The new oligarch regime took notice. Putin took notice.

The Russian response to Browder was, first, to discredit him. And it would escalate from there, especially since Browder was more than happy to push back on being bullied. The Browder team went after the oligarchs and Russian government corruption like there was no tomorrow. That led to the exposing of an outlandish tax fraud scheme: a $230 million tax rebate reverting back to Putin and friends. It was one of Bill Browder’s attorneys, Sergei Magnitsky, who uncovered this fraud. His reward was to be taken prisoner and, for all intents and purposes, handed down a death sentence. Magnitsky’s health steadily declined and, instead of getting medical attention, he was repeatedly beaten and tortured. When he died from this treatment, the government denied any involvement. Instead, Magnitsky and Browder would be blamed for the corruption scandal.

But the level of corruption we are talking about is much bigger than any casual observer might hazard to guess. To that end, Browder and his team created videos that make it a lot easier to digest. There are some key government henchmen involved that, while making meager salaries, managed to live like royalty:

Seeking justice for Sergei Magnitsky led Bill Browder to Washington, D.C. on a mission to enact legislation that would punish the network of people involved with his death. In the process, we get quite an insightful look behind the scenes. In 2010, the Obama administration was determined to improve relations with Russia. The State Department did not look favorably upon anything to strain relations. That was the general tone–but there were detractors to the status quo like U.S. Senator from Maryland, Ben Cardin. It was Sen. Cardin who began work on creating a bill. Now, Browder still needed a heavy hitter in the Senate and he found that support with Sen. John McCain. A number of political twists and turns still lay ahead but it would ultimately lead to a law with some real teeth, a law that could eventually ensnare Putin–unless, of course, this law were somehow made to go away.

The Magnitsky Act is very straightforward. Originally, its intent was to place sanctions on Magnitsky’s killers and then it was broadened to cover all Russian human rights offenders: take away their assets in the U.S. as well as their visas to the U.S. Simple as that. The bill went through various hurdles and ultimately was signed into law by Pres. Obama in 2012. If you are still new to the Magnitsky Act, you will be hearing more and more about it. Keep in mind that Putin has done everything in his power to discredit both Sergei Magnitsky and Bill Browder. After all, put two and two together: if you follow the letter of the law, the Magnitsky Act would surely apply to Putin.

Shortly after the passage of the Magnitsky Act, Putin retaliated by banning Americans from adopting Russian children. This becomes complicated as it also involves numerous children with special medical needs. As you may recall, and how could you not, Donald Trump’s son, Don Jr., met with a Russian lawyer who was essentially lobbying for the repeal of the Magnitsky Act. The excuse Don Jr. uses is that they were actually talking about Russian adoption. But, if you understand the context, talking about Russian adoption equates to talking about the Magnitsky Act. Any scheme to repeal the Magnitsky Act is now dead, right? But these are very strange times we live in. That said, Browder’s book could not be more relevant.

RED NOTICE is a 416-page book available in hardcover, paperback, in audio, and e-book. For more details, visit Simon & Schuster right here. And for more information on Bill Browder, visit him right here. And, if you really want to dig deeper, visit the Russian Untouchables website right here.

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Filed under Bill Browder, Book Reviews, Books, Human Rights, Russia, Russiagate, Sergei Magnitsky, Simon & Schuster

Comey Testimony Brings to Mind King Trump

The Donald. cartoon by Henry Chamberlain

“Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?”
–Henry II

There is an artful moment during the testimony of former FBI Director James Comey. Sen. Angus King, (I) Maine, asked if Trump saying he hoped the Flynn investigation would go away was a direction. And Comey quotes the famous line attributed to Henry II, and which floats within Shakespeare’s Richard II: “Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?” The senator said he was thinking of the same quote.

King Henry II wished that a priest would go away. That was Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury. The next day, that priest was murdered, honoring the king’s wish. King Trump “hopes” for something, that the investigation of Michael Flynn would go away, an inappropriate suggestion, even for royalty.

That quote speaks volumes.

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Filed under Comics, Donald Trump, Editorial Cartoons, Humor, Political Cartoons, Russia, Russiagate

SIFF Review: ‘The Reagan Show’

All Hail, the Gipper!

We’ve heard plenty about how the media helped to construct Donald Trump. We see how another White House and the media interacted in, “The Reagan Show,” a new documentary by filmmakers Pacho Velez (Manakamana) and Sierra Pettengill (Town Hall). Pacho Velez was on hand this weekend for a Q&A after the film’s showing at the Seattle International Film Festival.

Ronald Reagan is as much icon as enigma. He managed a life and career treading upon the surface. In their documentary, Velez and Pettengill work mostly from archival footage, made up of official White House video and network news segments, to revisit a man who was at his best as a flickering image just beyond reach. The Reagan administration made the big switch from documenting the president in video instead of the traditional, costly, and confining 16mm film. Video allowed for continuous unencumbered recording. It became known as White House TV, perfect for a former Hollywood actor. The documentary perfectly mines all the irony attached to our first reality TV president. What we get is not so much bloopers, or even anything substantial behind the scenes, but a better sense of a president who was painfully too old and woefully disengaged.

Growing up in the ’80s, I don’t recall that era as particularly quaint but the footage in this doc proves otherwise. One such moment could have come right out of the Eisenhower White House. To illustrate how in command the president was, Chief of Staff Howard Baker recites what is supposed to be a decisive moment between Reagan and his Soviet counterpart, Mikhail Gorbachev. Just prior to a tough round of negotiation, Reagan asked Gorbachev if he would autograph his World Series baseball. This gesture supposedly disarmed Gorbachev and left Reagan with the advantage. It’s a nonsensical anecdote but it apparently disarmed the media just enough to look away and move on.

Pres. Ronald Reagan and Soviet Leader Mikhail Gorbachev

There is plenty of obliging on the part of the media to be found here. Some hard-hitting questioning too, especially by ABC News White House correspondent Sam Donaldson. But the president’s charm is ever present. The only tarnish comes with the complex Iran Contra scandal. It is complex enough to allow Reagan something of a pass. For the most part, this doc focuses on the work between Reagan and Gorbachev. As Velez pointed out during the Q&A, Reagan is credited with ending the Cold War, whether or not that’s true. Overall, he achieved the status of an icon. In reality, as this doc makes clear, the Reagan administration did a lot of stumbling and had the unbelievably good luck of having Mikhail Gorbachev running the Kremlin.

Under certain circumstances, the press, and various other power brokers, will always look away. There will always be exceptional circumstances (FDR, for example, was never photographed in a wheelchair). But when a president so flagrantly abuses his power, then that gentleman’s agreement is forced off the table. Ronald Reagan remained a gentleman. And, for that, he was saved by the establishment. The media asked tough questions but they were always open to being charmed. And Ronald Reagan could be relied upon to charm with the best of them.

While this documentary has its share of irony and self-awareness (Reagan’s plea to “Make America Great Again” is included), it cannot help but get caught up in the murk of Reagan “charm.” As Velez stated in the Q&A, he aimed for this documentary to follow a narrative of success with a happy ending. Sure, Velez did not want to demonize Reagan. Fair enough. But to allow Reagan off the hook with a story that closes with him achieving a nuclear arms treaty with the Soviets is pretty generous. You may as well end a story about Nixon with him opening relations between the US and China. To Reagan’s credit, Velez pointed out in the Q&A, he always seemed sincere. In comparison to today, that does count for a lot.

You can follow “The Reagan Show” on its Facebook page right here. The documentary will air this Labor Day on CNN. You can still catch it at SIFF this Wednesday, June 7th. Go to SIFF for details right here.

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Filed under Documentaries, Movie Reviews, movies, politics, Ronald Reagan, Russia, Seattle, Seattle International Film Festival, SIFF, Soviet Union

Interview: Jerome Charyn and the Art of Fiction in Prose and in Comics

Portrait of Jerome Charyn by Henry Chamberlain

Much is brewing for novelist Jerome Charyn and I imagine that’s always been the case. Currently, he has a new novel out, “Jerzy,” which tackles the controversial life of writer Jerzy Kosinski. The development of “Hard Apple,” an animated series based on Charyn’s Isaac Sidel crime novels, is on a fast-track. “Winter Warning,” perhaps the last installment of the Sidel novels comes out this October. And “Family Man,” a deluxe re-issue of Charyn’s collaboration with cartoonist Joe Staton will be available later this year, with a Kickstarter campaign in support of the IT’S ALIVE Press print run closing on May 21st.

For a writer steeped in the works of great literature, it is comic books and movies that influence his work as much as anything else. In 1986, “The Magician’s Wife,” a graphic novel written by Jerome Charyn and illustrated by François Boucq, published by Casterman, won for Best Album at the Angoulême International Comics Festival. That is tantamount to winning an Academy Award for the comics industry. Mr. Charyn’s contribution, and subsequent collaborations, have significantly added to the developing art form that is the comics medium, specifically graphic novels.

We begin our conversation talking about character. In this case, the celebrated and controversial writer Jerzy Kosinski. At the end is a link to the podcast:

Jerzy Kosinski with David Letterman, 1984.

HENRY CHAMBERLAIN: Let’s begin with your recent novel, “Jerzy.” My thinking is that the life of Jerzy Kosinski fits in well with your work as you’re drawn to unusual characters seeking salvation.

JEROME CHARYN: When you look back at it historically, it almost seems like he didn’t exist. He seems like a made-up person. He led so many fictional lives. To me, it was very sad because the first two books he wrote, “The Painted Bird,” and his second novel, “Steps,” which is just as unusual, were works of genius. But, when he put on the mask of Jerzy Kosinski, in the other books, they’re no longer anywhere as interesting. They don’t have the same sad, hard touch. They’re made-up, invented. They’re not authentic.

“Jerzy: A Nove” by Jerome Charyn

“Steps” talks about his life after the war and how he lived. We have such a narrow glimpse into what it must have been like to live in a communist country after the war. And this is, you know, almost like Kafka. I mean, the world he describes in “Steps” is extraordinary. I found him to be a strange man. Very hard to deal with. But the early work was incredible.

You share a certain sensibility with Kosinski: a connection to Russia.

Yes, my mother was Russian. And I love the literature. There’s nothing like it. This is not to take anything away from American writers but when you go back to Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Pushkin, Lermontov, and Gogol, it’s almost like being caught in a landscape of illusions.

Lowes Paradise Theatre in the Bronx. “It was comics and movies. That was my education.”

Would you share with us your special connection to comics. You grew up in the Bronx with comics.

Yes, that’s why it’s not so strange to be involved in the whole aura of comic books. I’m about to embark upon an animated series based on my Isaac Sidel crime novels. People talk about the special role of storyboard artists. Well, I’m a storyboard artist in the sense that I can see the storyboard in my head. I grew up with comics. I learned how to read with comics.

As you wrote in one of your articles, I’m one of the first people to make the crossover from fiction to comics. I started out as an artist but I had no talent at all. So, I needed artists to work with. And I was lucky to find some of the very best artists while I was living in France. Had I not been living in France, it probably would never have happened.

A SUIVRE, a Franco-Belgian comics magazine published from February 1978 to December 1997 by the Casterman.

Your work in comics began with your connection to the comics magazine, A SUIVRE.

Yes, the title means to be continued. It was an extraordinary magazine. It lost its circulation, which can happen as you move from one generation of readers to the next. The magazine reviewed one of my novels. I was sent a copy of the issue with the review and I was exposed to some of the most extraordinary art: Tardi, Bilal, and José Muñoz, a master of black & white. I wrote a letter to the editor, Jean-Paul Mougin, a wonderful editor. I wrote to him about my desire to work with an artist. He found for me François Boucq, and we were able to collaborate on several graphic novels, including “The Magician’s Wife.”

When you were entering into this collaboration, were you at all thinking that you were about to a make your mark on this exciting and emerging comics art form or were you thinking more of it as an interesting experiment?

I would say it was both. To declare that I was making my mark would have been thinking too far ahead. I adored the work Boucq did. I remember working in television for the first time twenty-five years ago. And I recall thinking that I would love hearing the lines that I wrote for the pilot, adapted from one of my novels. And I didn’t love it at all. But when I saw the art that François Boucq did, I almost cried. He took a story that I wrote and interpreted it in his own way. The results felt totally personal. On television, the words each actor and actress spoke had no relation to me whatsoever. I was startled. I’d seen the rushes. I thought I would really enjoy it. It was dead to me.

Do you recall what televsion show that was?

Yes. It was an adaptation of “The Good Policeman.”

I wanted to build a little more on what you’ve said about comics, that it comes in and out of reality. And you’ve talked about how one can linger upon a panel. The framework of comics is unique, is magical.

Yes, it is magical. It has its own framework, like a house. It’s architecture. The panels are pieces of architecture. Also, you can move them around and shift the logic. You can possibly do that in a novel but it’s going to be difficult for the reader. You see how I do that in “Jerzy.” I shift the narrative, in a way. It seems to me, going back to Krazy Kat, you move from panel to panel and you’re in a different landscape. That, to me, was very exciting. In other words, there were no rules. You could tell the story in any way you wanted.

“Once Upon a Droshky” by Jerome Charyn. Cover art by Edward Sorel.

I wanted to chat with you about your first novel, “Once Upon a Droshky,” published in 1964. It has beautiful cover art by Edward Sorel.

I really love that cover. I’m disappointed that I never worked with him again. I chose one of my friends to do the cover for my next book. That was a mistake since you shouldn’t mix friendship with art.

Is there anything you can share with us about Edward Sorel–did you guys socialize?

I think I did meet him. I do adore the cover. I don’t know why he was chosen. He was a young man at the time. It is simply a wonderful cover as it fits the book perfectly. I was delighted to learn that you had just interviewed him. Not only that, we both have the same publisher, Liveright.

You guys should have coffee some time.

I hope so. I would love to meet him. I always wanted to be a writer and, when you see your first book, it doesn’t seem real. I’m holding it in my hand right now and it still doesn’t seem real!

You seem to have anticipated my next question. I wonder if you could give us a window into that time, at the height of the modern era. Sorel could create the Great American Illustration and you could create the Great American Novel.

“Great American Novel,” no, but it was a time when serious literature thrived. Hemingway was still alive. I believe, Faulkner was still alive. Literature was at the center of the culture. It meant something to the culture. In other words, when I went to Columbia College, we spent four years just reading books. So, one did not talk about the possibility of whether or not you might become a doctor or a lawyer. That was incidental to the idea of learning a way of life. And that has remained with me. The greatest gift I ever had was spending four years studying books. We had a colloquium of ten students and two professors. In the colloquium there was a student who would go on to win a Nobel Prize, another student who became a professor of philosophy at Harvard, etc. These were all very serious guys with a murderous intellect. And literature was a kind of religion. It’s difficult for me to speak about the current generation. But I know that, at that time, literature was at the center of the culture. It meant something.

It’s always been a relatively small group of serious readers. Literature used to mean more to the general public–we’ve lost that.

We’ve lost a lot. There are fewer book reviews and fewer bookshops. It’s the same thing that’s happened to the movies. They’re just remakes of superhero flicks and a few small films. The small has disappeared. It’s the mega-book. It’s the mega-bomb, you know. And that’s not the kind of art that I want to do.

There’s something that Marilyn Monroe said toward the end of her career, and it’s my credo. She said, “I don’t want to be rich. I want to be wonderful.” I feel the same way. I love Marilyn Monroe but she had no idea how to live her life. When she moved back to L.A., she didn’t know how to furnish her house. All she had was a bed and a lamp. It’s kind of sad but also poetic at the same time.

You have an amazing formal education. But, first, you had comic books and the movies. Do those two forces strongly influence your work, the magical realism that keeps popping up?

Yes. Remember, when you grow up with films, you have a visual sophistication that you don’t have in real life. I came from a very poor family. I remember going out with a girlfriend of mine. She came from a very aristocratic background. She was chastising me for not holding my knife the correct way. I seldom get angry. But I really exploded. I said that I lived all my life being told what to do and I didn’t want to be told how to eat. I didn’t have her table manners. I didn’t have her customs. I grew up like a kind of wolf.

But, on the other hand, I had this visual sophistication from a very early age. Joyce Carol Oates explained it to me. I thought that maybe I’d just seen so many movies. She said that maybe my brain was wired in a special way. In other words, I can distinctly remember the back of an actor’s head I had seen in a film thirty years ago. I don’t have to see the front of his face. That crazy visualization was imprinted in my brain.

There were no books in the house. It was comics and movies. That was my education. School didn’t give you much, just little things like how to spell.

“The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson” by Jerome Charyn

What can you tell us about your debut novel. What led you to choose the subject behind “Once Upon a Droshky”?

My grandparents came from the Lower East Side. You have to remember, I’d never traveled. I’d never been anywhere. Even as a kid, I very rarely went into Manhattan. Even though I was sophisticated in terms of what I read, I could not, at that point, take what I read and turn it into what I wanted to write. I had to find a theme, or a group of characters that made sense to me. I remember walking around the streets where my grandparent lived on the Lower East Side. And I can still recall the Yiddish theaters—the marquees and the actors. So, in my first novel, I picked a Yiddish actor who is unemployed. And I was able to move into that world and find his voice. Voice is critical. Writing is music. There’s nothing else but the music.

I certainly enjoyed reading your first novel. I would encourage everyone to grab an existing copy while you still can. It would definitely make sense for this book to come back in a new edition.

That’s when you get into issues of commerce. At some point, things will either work out or not. I’m grateful that I was able to do it. Someone will ask me about how I wrote that novel. Well, I found the music for it. And, for a long time, while I was living in Europe, I’d lost the music. I really wasn’t able to write. I was only able to write about New York. I was able to write stories about New York but I wasn’t able to be more adventurous. Language is a gift that can disappear as quickly as it can reappear. It’s almost magical. You write in a dream. It’s really a dream state. I don’t know how artists draw. I can only tell you how I write. You’re writing in a dream.

Your body of work is breathtaking. When someone goes over the many titles and considers the quality of the work, it’s stunning. A recent example is “The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson.” I had not read that much of Dickinson prior to reading your book. But I have now. And your novel is quite beautiful.

Thank you. I like that book a lot. I was chastised for writing in a woman’s voice. I’d rediscovered Emily Dickinson rather late. I’d never read her letters before and they are just as extraordinary as her poems. I knew I wasn’t finished with her. So, I started “A Loaded Gun.” The wondrous fact is that she never wanted to publish her work. She was like Kafka in a way. She had a secret self that was very tough. People don’t recognize her toughness. And this is what I wanted to write about.

“Bitter Bronx: Thirteen Stories” by Jerome Charyn

I wanted to ask you about your story collection, “Bitter Bronx.” I would recommend that as a wonderful point of entry. I love the fable-like quality to the stories. They remind me, in a way, of J.D. Salinger.

I’m not a great admirer of “Catcher in the Rye.” But I love “The Nine Stories.” I read them in high school. There are three or four of those stories that can make you cry with sadness and delight. The important thing is a book that you can reread and still feel the same affection: Ernest Hemingway’s early stories, Flannery O’Connor, Grace Paley, Isaac Babel. The thing about “Bitter Bronx” is that I had to relearn the craft. My editor in France suggested that I write a collection of stories about the Bronx, and like Yankee Doodle, that became my quest.

I want to call attention to the four recent graphic novel re-issues, translated in English, by Dover Publications. Readers can follow up on my previous reviews for that. I also want to call attention to FAMILY MAN, a crime noir graphic novel that will receive a deluxe reprint from IT’S ALIVE Press led by Drew Ford.

We currently have a Kickstarter campaign for “Family Man.” Drew Ford has not received the recognition that he deserves. He is a shrewd editor and gets exactly what he’s looking for from a project.

Page from FAMILY MAN by Jerome Charyn and Joe Staton

Tell us about “Family Man.”

Andy Helfer was the editor at DC Comics. I was interested in writing a Batman story but they had other ideas.

I’ll bet you could get your Batman story today.

Yes, but I’m no longer interested. Jeanette Kahn, president of DC Comics, was interested in one of my novels for a comics adaptation. At the time, in the very small printed format for “Family Man” in three stingy booklets, I didn’t like the art. However, when I finally saw the original art, I loved it.

The deluxe edition is faithful to all the duotone details of the original work.

Exactly.

My quirkiest question for you: You have these leather masks that all the trainees wear in “Billy Budd, KGB.” Where did you get those masks?

They just came from my head!

Well, they’re very arresting visuals!

Trump cartoon by François Boucq for Le Monde.

The thing is that Boucq is an extraordinary artist. When he focuses in on a subject, he gets extraordinary results. These days, he also does political cartoons for Le Monde. For “Billy Budd, KGB,” Boucq made certain changes in the story. Mine was more of a straightforward spy story. Boucq added in the Native American spiritual quality.

That reminds me of your Isaac Sidel stories. What can you tell us about the “Hard Apple” animated series based on your crime series?

We hope to get eight half hour narratives based on the first book, “Blue Eyes.” Then continue from book to book. I’ve done what they call the bible which is a summary of the characters. And soon I will be working on the pilot. I am excited about it. I didn’t realize how lyrical one could be in that animated format. The original idea, six or seven years ago, was to do a live action series. When we moved from that to animation, that’s really my country.

Then you have “Winter Warning” coming out.

Yes, the twelfth book in the series. It may be the last but at least we’ve completed the series. As you know, the main character ends up becoming president of the United States. He’s a Trump-like character. In his case, he’s a Trump of the left, rather than of the right.

Do you think that Donald Trump would make an interesting character to write about or are the people working for him more interesting?

I really don’t know. He’s a phenomenon we never thought would have happened, coming out of reality television. The country has changed so much that now a television star can become president and there will probably be other television star presidents. Say what you will about him, but he was able to speak to the American people in a way that the other candidate could not, except maybe Bernie Sanders.

I hope we may see a re-issue of “Panna Maria.”

Yes, everything in its time. If you shove to hard, you lose everything. You have to see it within its own sequence. If “Family Man” works, then everything else will work.

Things need time to breathe.

Yes. Right now, I’m working on a sequel to “Little Tulip.” I have a wonderful Belgian editor. And we’re at work on a graphic novel of Charlemagne.

It’s great how you rekindled your relationship with François Boucq.

That was through this editor. François Boucq had moved from Casterman to Le Lombard. And that editor, at Le Lombard, said that he grew up on “Billy Budd, KGB” and wanted us to work together again. Let’s say it was my stupidity that had led to our falling out. It was a pity since we could have done wonderful work all this time.

That was through this editor. François Boucq had moved from Casterman to Le Lombard. And that editor, at Le Lombard, said that he grew up on “Billy Budd, KGB” and wanted us to work together again. Let’s say it was my stupidity that had led to our falling out. It was a pity since we could have done wonderful work all this time.

And I look forward to the “Hard Apple” animated series. That’s being put together by Tomer and Asaf Hanuka, who created art for the animated movie “Waltz With Bashir.” They’re twins. One does covers for The New Yorker. It’s going to be a wonderful animated series. It’s a chance to do something that’s never been done before.

It would be great to pick up the thread again sometime, especially leading up to the next, perhaps last, Isaac Sidel book.

As you can see the discussion is endless: the relationship between comics and novels, the whole notion of graphic art, the notion of narrative in every form, we could be talking for days.

Your book, “Movieland,” there’s an hour of conversation right there.

Exactly. You should pick up a copy of “Metropolis,” my book on New York, when you get a chance.

I will.

I really appreciate your interest. And we’ll talk again.

Thank you for your time.

Thank you.

“Winter Warning,” Book 12 in the Isaac Sidel crime novel series.

Click the link below to listen to the podcast interview right here.

Be sure to visit the Jerome Charyn website here. And be sure to check out the FAMILY MAN graphic novel Kickstarter campaign, running thru May 21st, right here.

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Filed under Comics, Crime Fiction, Donald Trump, Fiction, Interviews, Jerome Charyn, Jerzy Kosinski, New York City

Interview: Mike Capozzola and ‘Evil Cyborg Sea Monsters!’

Mike Capozzola and “Evil Cyborg Sea Monsters!”

Mike Capozzola is a unique hybrid, a cartoonist and a stand-up comedian. He’s a professional in both for over 20 years. In fact, the two passions are inextricably linked. I enjoyed his set this last Saturday at Seattle’s Comedy Underground. Mike is based out of San Francisco and maintains a busy schedule so it was a real treat to get to catch his act while he was in town. I asked him about his process, specifically about a bit where he describes weird yet appealing movie scenarios, ending each description with, “Yeah, I’d see that.” I came to find out that this movie routine originated as a drawn-out cartoon. The concept as a cartoon did not seem to work. But, when he performed the material on stage, Mike found what he was looking for.

Mike kicked off his first night at Comedy Underground with his ongoing pop culture extravaganza, Evil Cyborg Sea Monsters. This is a multimedia show featuring all the things that us geeks enjoy: sci-fi, superheroes, and monsters. As Mike said during our talk, geek culture is everywhere today but it was a hard-won identity for kids growing up in the ’70s and ’80s. It wasn’t so cool to be a geek back then. That said, we can all freely celebrate being a geek now, like we kids from yesteryear could only dream of.

Mike Capozzola at the Comedy Underground in Seattle

The last time I had one of these free-for-all chats with Mike, I offered up the topic of leaf blowers. He had no problem with them. I took the opposing view. Sure, it’s an honest job but, to my mind, the art of leaf blowing can be overdone. I contend that rakes make for a sensible and quiet alternative for much of these tasks. Anyway, I tried a different tack this time and brought to the table the intrinsic character of Seattle. Given that it’s my hometown, I felt it fair for me to say that there’s some truth to stereotypes regarding a certain coolness and reserve to the natives. Capozzola, based upon is observations, took the opposing view.

Is Seattle Sweet, Bitter, or Just Right? That’s what I’d call our lighthearted search for Seattle’s soul. Overall, I think that my friend here was picking up some strong frontier vibes. And I can’t deny him that joy. Seattle does offer the comforts of urban living in close proximity to an abundance of natural wonder. Mike wanted to take the more sunny view of things too. And it was challenging for me to pursue my case that Seattle is too prim and proper while we were chatting outside in Pioneer Square, hands down the rowdiest part of town. Ongoing hijinks near us just played into Mike’s hands.

We had time to dissect a few other things too, namely Trump. Mike had this to say: “The day after the election, so many people felt defeated. Many thought they could turn to art. For comedians, this meant war. I remember Trump for the last thirty years as being treated as a punchline by the tri-state area media. To see it come to this is wild. It’s like the local screw-up, or Ronald McDonald, or a sled has suddenly become president. He’s given voice to a fringe element in the same way that you’d unlock a mystical box and unleash an ancient curse.” That, my friends, says it all. We chatted about how those of us in the Gen X demographic feel unfairly sandwiched between the mighty Baby Boomers and the Millennials. We were misfits to begin with so it figures. And we decried the overall lowering or lack of standards we live with today. Maybe America deserves a pro wrestler or Mark Wahlberg as their next president.

Contact Mike Capozzola with any questions, such as doing commissioned work or presenting his Evil Cyborg Sea Monsters show, at his website right here.

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Filed under Comedians, Comedy, Comedy Underground, Comics, Donald Trump, Geeks, Mike Capozzola, Monsters, pop culture, Seattle, Stand-up Comedy, Superheroes

Interview: Edward Sorel and a Grand Career in Illustration

Edward Sorel in his studio.

Edward Sorel in his studio.

Anyone interested in illustration, art, satire, or the specific art of drawing, will know something about the career of Edward Sorel. The work of Edward Sorel covers a wide spectrum resulting in a hefty portrait of the human condition, with a notable eye to speaking truth to power.

My interest in Edward Sorel runs deep. I checked out from my school’s library Sorel’s 1972 collection, “Making the World Safe for Hypocrisy.” It was 1973 and I was a sensitive and highly impressionable lad of 10 years-old. I was filling sketchbooks with portraits of Watergate personalities, both villains and heroes. I tore into that book and marveled over Sorel’s distinctive crosshatching and his lively expressive line work. I was in awe with how he brought to life various dignitaries, politicians, and movie stars. The gold standard had been set in my mind and it hasn’t changed ever since. What really wows me now goes back to my early introduction to the work of Edward Sorel.

Quotes from reviews for Mr. Sorel’s new book, “Mary Astor’s Purple Diary: The Great American Sex Scandal of 1936,” published by Liveright/W.W. Norton & Company:

“Life is so unfair. I tore up the old linoleum in a grungy apartment I rented years ago and found under it only schmutz, hardened chewing gum and a torn ticket stub to ‘Moose Murders.’ Ed Sorel tears up the old linoleum in his apartment and finds yellowing newspapers with headlines screaming about a scandal that gave him material for a terrific book. Not only does he then write a terrific book, but he illustrates it with his wonderful caricature drawings. Who would figure that Mary Astor’s life would provide such entertaining reading, but in Sorel’s colloquial, eccentric style, the tale he tells is juicy, funny, and in the end, touching.”
—Woody Allen, The New York Times Book Review (cover review)

“Rapier-sharp…With a tip of his pen to Daumier, the artist evokes the quaint, febrile glamour of Astor’s Hollywood, and his affectionate, conversational prose gives Mary and her story a kind of valiant dignity never bestowed while she lived.”
—Edward Kosner, Wall Street Journal

“Delightful, colorful, and occasionally cheeky.”
—Allison Sadlier, Entertainment Weekly

From "Mary Astor's Purple Diary" by Edward Sorel

From “Mary Astor’s Purple Diary” by Edward Sorel

Edward Sorel (born Edward Schwartz, 26 March 1929, The Bronx) has recently released a book from Liveright/W.W. Norton. The book, entitled “Mary Astor’s Purple Diary” is about his lifelong obsession with film star Mary Astor but it’s also a memoir of a sort. You may have read Woody Allen’s review of the book in The New York Times Book Review. Allen had the honor of introducing many new readers to the opening story in the book: It is 1965 and Edward Sorel, newly married and settling into new digs, is left with the task of replacing the old linoleum kitchen tile. Lo and behold, buried underneath is a stash of old newspapers chronicling the scandalous 1936 custody battle of Hollywood star Mary Astor. Well, the rest is history and this most engaging book.

I interviewed Mr. Sorel this last Wednesday, February 8th. I hope you enjoy it.

HENRY CHAMBERLAIN: Turning our attention to Mary Astor, what is intriguing about her is that she had a life where one plus one kept equaling three. Despite a series of bad choices, whether in lovers or career options, Mary Astor managed to persevere. Is that part of the appeal, that she took such an offbeat path?

EDWARD SOREL:
The appeal came when I read her memoir. She was a self-denigrating and witty writer. Very observant. Somewhat cynical about Hollywood. She had an intelligence that appealed to me. Then I started seeing her movies and I was hooked on her. Her bad decisions that you refer to have to do with having had an abused childhood, not in any physical way but in a mental and psychological way.

Her father kept her from having friends because he didn’t want her to see how Americans lived, how Americans treated their children. He wanted to be the dictator of his home. And he succeeded. She was unable to break free from him until quite late in her life. And it kind of ruined her. And God knows she made a lot of terrible mistakes in her life.

Marry Astor and John Barrymore.

Marry Astor and John Barrymore.

I was watching 1924’s “Beau Brummell” and I am intrigued by the relationship Mary Astor developed with her co-star, John Barrymore, of all people. In their case, the twenty year age difference was inappropriate. However, it was what it was. And it was through Barrymore that Mary Astor learned a lot and gained self-confidence.

He did do her a lot of good but not for any altruistic reasons. He was out to nail her. He was on his way to Hollywood on the 20th Century Express. He had just completed the most successful run of “Hamlet” that America had seen. He was acclaimed as America’s greatest actor. He was on his way to the coast to make “Beau Brummell” for Warner Bros. because they were paying him a lot of money. And he picks up a magazine that has a photograph of Mary Astor about the age of 16 and under the photograph it said, “On the Verge of Womanhood.” Barrymore had a particular liking for virgins.

As I pointed out in the book, it was Barrymore who had his way with Evelyn Nesbitt, who later married Harry Kendall Thaw. And it was Thaw who shot Stanford White, America’s great architect, because he thought Stanford White had taken his wife’s virginity–when, in fact, it was Barrymore. That is a sidebar I’m proud of since I pieced together that bit of information.

According to Mary Astor, Barrymore really believed that he was going to marry her. And maybe he did plan to. But when Mary would not break free from her parents, after Barrymore offered her starring roles, because her father forbade it, Barrymore realized that she was just a child. She was completely under the sway of her father. Marrying a woman twenty years younger was one thing but marrying a child was something else. He broke her heart by calling it off.

I think it’s a cartoonist thing, as I’m a cartoonist, that we keep seeking out the offbeat. So, in the spirit of that I throw out a curveball, and ask you about your changing your last name to Sorel. You are referring to Stendhal’s “The Red and the Black.” I loved that book and the main character, Julian Sorel. Is there something interesting going on there with that connection?

I liked to think that I saw myself in Julian Sorel because he was like catnip to women, which I really wasn’t, and he hated the corrupt society of his time, as I hated mine. The first election that I voted in was the one between Eisenhower and Stevenson. I took a dim view of both of them and voted for a third party.

The other thing about Julian Sorel was that he hated his father. God, I certainly hated mine, not only because he tried to discourage me in wanting to be an artist but because he was a mean-spirited ignorant man not kind to my mother, not kind to anyone. And I didn’t want anything to do with him. I was going to be a cartoonist and I didn’t want to sign my name, Schwartz, in the right-hand corner. And I chose the name, Sorel, because of the novel. It seemed as good a name as any.

"Stagecoach." 1980 illustration for Esquire magazine.

“Stagecoach.” 1980 illustration for Esquire magazine.

I think back to myself as a boy wondering about how you created your work. You’ve spoken about “finding lines.” Could you share a little bit about that?

When you work commercially, and you’re taking assignments, you have to show the art director what you plan to do. So, you do sketches of the drawing you plan to do. And, after a while, I began to notice that my sketches had more vitality and life than my finishes did. My finishes were often dead and overworked. And so I tried to emulate the quality that I had in my sketches which meant doing it without tracing. In point of fact, that’s impossible to do if you’re doing very complicated scenes. You can work direct if you’re doing a face, a figure, a still life, or anything relatively simple. You can work direct without tracing and the work has a vitality to it. But when you’re doing complicated scenes, with many different elements, you really do have to know where you’re going. So, I found out that if I just had a light outline of where I wanted the elements to be, and didn’t trace, I could keep this sketchy quality that I think gave my art work some distinction.

"The Goodwood Races," 1939, by Feliks Topolski (1907-1989).

“The Goodwood Races,” 1939, by Feliks Topolski (1907-1989).

That quality of your art has influenced so many artists, whether they realize it or not. And, certainly, there have been other artists who have used an “expressive line.” You have talked about some of your favorites, like Feliks Topolski. There’s a certain sensibility that you both share.

Yes, well, he wasn’t trying to be funny like I always have. But his work has spontaneity, which I value in every artist. Wether its Bemelmans or Topolski. What shocks me now is to find so many artists who enjoy doing art work with a computer. I’ve seen some very nice computer art. You can get that nice flat color and can do all sorts of tricks that you can’t do by hand. But, to me, it doesn’t seem like fun. It seems like working on a machine. I just love the act of drawing. I’m a throwback. Most of the illustrations that you see today in magazines, and God knows you don’t see too many, are computer-generated in some form or another.

One compromise is for the artist to draw some of the illustration by hand, scan it, and do the rest on a computer.

It doesn’t seem fun to me but it must seem fun for them. I don’t cast aspersions on their way of doing it.

I think it boils down to being a time-saver. And, once a routine has set in, that’s the way it’s done and that’s it.

The other thing about computer art is that there’s nothing original, nothing to hang on the wall. You could have a show but it would only be prints. To each his own.

"Pass the Lord and Praise the Ammunition," 1967, by Edward Sorel

“Pass the Lord and Praise the Ammunition,” 1967, by Edward Sorel

I wanted to touch on one of the all-time classics, your 1967 anti-war illustration, “Pass the Lord and Praise the Ammunition.” The real life punchline there is that you were all set to roll out a poster when the focal point of the piece, Cardinal Spellman, passed away rendering your satire unsellable. Now, there’s some divine intervention.

The day it came off the press is the day he died. It never sold in any store in America. It is in a museum in Amsterdam. One store in Chicago tried to sell it and had its window broken. Apparently, Cardinal Spellman had some fans in Chicago. That was a bad break. You get some bad breaks and you get some good ones. I was the recipient of Woody Allen’s praise on the front page of The New York Times Book Review. That was the best break I ever had.

From "Edward Sorel: Nice Work If You Can Get It," 2011, by Leo Sorel.

From “Edward Sorel: Nice Work If You Can Get It,” 2011, by Leo Sorel.

I encourage everyone to check out the short film on you that your son, Leo, did. That is quite informative and a treat. It shows you in your studio. And then the Q&A afterward with illustrator James McMullan is very impressive. Towards the end of that, you talk about the pen you favor, a Speedball B6. I’ve always had a devil of a time with steel point dip pens. But the Speedballs I could manage. And then you flip it backwards to get the crosshatching.

Yes! That was my secret. The Speedball does move and it allows you to be kind of spastic over a piece of paper.

"Nixon and Mao," 2007, The New Yorker.

“Nixon and Mao,” 2007, The New Yorker.

I wanted to ask you about Donald Trump. There was that drawing of him as Medusa you did last year. The big news at the moment is all about Mitch McConnell silencing Elizabeth Warren. I could see that as perhaps triggering an Edward Sorel drawing.

I can’t cope with Donald Trump. I haven’t done political cartooning in a number of years. I can’t deal with him. With all other presidents, you could make fun of their hypocrisy and have fun with them. But Mr. Trump is kind of crazy. And he’s dangerous. He’s cruel. Making fun of him doesn’t seem what’s called for. It’s trivializing him. He shouldn’t be trivialized. He’s really a danger. People are really scared. They wake up with Donald Trump on their mind and they go to bed with him on their mind. He’s a heavy presence in our lives now. I don’t know how to deal with that.

You can’t call him the new Nixon. At least with Nixon, there was a mind at work. It’s being very generous, but there was some sense of integrity compared to Trump. Nixon you could call a president. But, with Trump, he’s president only by title.

He seems unhinged. I think it was Bernie Sanders who called him unhinged. He seems too crazy to be in that office. I don’t know what else to say about him.

Donald Trump illustration, 2016, for Vanity Fair.

Donald Trump illustration, 2016, for Vanity Fair.

Especially living it right now. It is stomach-turning. I won’t talk about him anymore. But I do need to mention Melissa McCarthy’s impersonation of Sean Spicer. Have you seen that?

No, tell me about it. I’ve been trying to avoid the news lately.

Well, Melissa McCarthy is a comic genius and she was on Saturday Night Live last weekend. She did a spot on impersonation of Sean Spicer, had the look and mannerisms down.

Oh, wait, I did see that! A friend sent that to me.

I think that has the power of a political cartoon and then some. It captivated everyone. It was an emotional release for everyone to see that.

Yes, I’m sure it was. It was very funny.

It seems to me that every artist needs a hero, someone to play off of. I see your book, weaving your life with Mary’s, as following the artist’s struggle. I think of how Mary evolved. I think of how Mary and Bette Davis were able to rewrite “The Great Lie,” turning that around into a notable film.

She did become a very fine actress. But she also became a little bit like her father, terribly obsessed with money. She twice turned down contracts for starring roles since she believed supporting roles would provide a longer career. She did indeed have a long career. She was in over 100 movies. And she was going strong until about 1959. She didn’t take chances. Maybe she didn’t believe she was a good enough actress. She missed having a chance at great roles and great performances. That was too bad.

My obsession with her has to do with my thinking I wasn’t a great artist because I didn’t have an obsession. So, I was very grateful when people called my interest in Mary Astor an obsession. Yes, it was an obsession and I do think it helped produce my best work.

"Mary Astor's Purple Diary: The Great American Sex Scandal of 1936" by Edward Sorel

“Mary Astor’s Purple Diary: The Great American Sex Scandal of 1936” by Edward Sorel

Can you tell us about your connection with Boston University?

I was very lucky to have Boston University buy my entire work, my oeuvre, as we say. In March, they’re having a retrospective of all my work and, as a matter of fact, I’m still packing up things to send there.

The Howard Gottlieb Center at Boston University has one of the finest collections from all walks of life. They have the second largest Martin Luther King collection. They have many of America’s great writers. They have Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. They have most of the actors and actresses from the golden age of Hollywood. I’m very delighted to be part of this collection.

Mural by Edward Sorel at The Waverly Inn, completed in 2007. From left to right: Eddie Condon, Donald Barthelme, Willa Cather, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, Jane Jacobs, John Sloan, and Andy Warhol.

Mural by Edward Sorel at The Waverly Inn, completed in 2007. From left to right: Eddie Condon, Donald Barthelme, Willa Cather, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, Jane Jacobs, John Sloan, and Andy Warhol.

I heard a siren in the background. It brings back my visits to New York. You are a lifelong New Yorker and I know how much you love New York. Could you share some of your thoughts on the city?

I do love New York. I don’t love the crowds anymore. I do worry. When you live in a city like New York, you do begin to see a kind of science fiction future: crowds everywhere, lines everywhere. New York is kind of becoming that. They keep building these enormous skyscrapers without thinking about how the city will accommodate it. They’re not building out, like they did in Los Angeles. They’re building up. It used to be that the only crowds were in midtown but now crowds are all over. And you find yourself walking in the gutter because there’s too many people on the sidewalk.

So, yeah, I love New York. The New York that I grew up with, where the museums were free and everyone went to public school, seems to have vanished. Everything is expensive now, including the museums. It’s very difficult for young people. When The New York Times that I used to buy for three cents is now $2.50, The New Yorker which I used to buy for ten cents, is now something like $7, it’s bizarre. And, of course, the wages that young people get are pitiful. So, yeah, I love New York but I don’t like the time particularly.

Is there anything else that you’d like to add?

I can tell you about my next book. It’s going to be similar in structure to the Mary Astor book. It’s going to be a memoir. It will be about my growing up in New York. And it will be about the thirteen presidents that I’ve lived through.

My point is that every one of these presidents, whether I liked them or not, committed illegal acts, overthrew governments illegally, and did unconstitutional things. Starting with Dwight D. Eisenhower, who became enamored with Billy Graham. It was through those machinations that they put “In God We Trust” on our currency and inserted “Under God” in our oath of allegiance. Somehow, I regard that point in history as the slope we’ve been sliding ever since.

Now, it’s done so garishly with someone like Trump.

Right. Trump, the great Christian, who apparently was much loved by the Bible Belt. I don’t think there’s anything more derogatory I can say about organized religion than that they were responsible for the election of Donald Trump.

Is part of the new book you’re working on sitting on your drawing board?

Not yet. A little bit is sitting on the computer. Nothing has been drawn yet.

I wish you well on that. It’s been exciting and quite a treat to get a chance to talk with you for a bit.

You’re very kind. Thank you so much.

You can listen to the interview right here.

“Mary Astor’s Purple Diary: The Great American Sex Scandal of 1936” is a 176-page hardcover, with full-color illustrations, published by W.W. Norton & Company. For more details, visit W.W. Norton & Company right here.

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Filed under Art, Cartooning, Cartoonists, Donald Trump, Edward Sorel, Illustration, Interviews, New York City, Political Cartoons, politics, Richard Nixon