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Remain Calm While You Read This

My"Keep Calm and Carry On" cup. Every home should have (at least) one for those special cliff-hanging moments, personal and political.
We were eating in a Japanese restaurant in New Paltz when my daughter slipped me a carefully folded note: “Remain calm while you read this…” I opened the note and read further: “Hugh Jackman and his family are sitting to your right.”

My daughter and I are Hugh Jackman fans, not “Wolverine” but “Les Miserables” on Broadway, 2013, Jackman singing and dancing. Plus, my son-in-law looks a lot like him, but is even more handsome.

Of course, when one is told not to do something, how can one resist? In fact, this is a psychological phenomena similar to the urge to jump off a cliff, a bridge or a high building, no suicide intended. The French have a poetic phrase for it: L’appel du vide. The call of the void.

I looked all around, desperately trying to avoid looking to my right and to stay calm. I saw other diners chatting and enjoying their sushi. Then I saw HIM, or felt him, more probably, as the tables are in close proximity in this serene, small-town restaurant. Hugh Jackman! His wife was across from HIM, two kids, one on each side of the table, if memory serves, everyone enjoying their sushi. I’d be a terrible spy for The National Enquirer as I don’t recall all the details, just my embarrassment at discovering them, so to speak, though I had been told to remain calm.

Suddenly, I felt more than embarrassed, I felt nervous. And that is strange because I have interviewed more than a few celebrities and they are, as I have written here, just recently, persons to me. It is my mandate, as a writer, to write about them in the most human way possible, right? So why was I dumbstruck when my daughter handed me the note? L’appel du vide, obviously. I had jumped off a mental cliff.

Remember the British WW II poster: “Remain Calm and Carry On?” More than two million were printed in 1939 in anticipation of the Nazi advance across the Channel, but they were never distributed, they were stored away, only to be rediscovered in the 21st century and reprinted ad infinitum on cups and t-shirts. And the reason the posters were not distributed is interesting: the War Ministry didn’t like the wording, they thought it was condescending. As everyone knows, Brits always carry on, they can be trusted to carry on, it’s in the DNA.

But back to the restaurant: I think my husband felt my muscles tense and put his hand on my arm. I tried to eat and look straight ahead at my daughter and the mountains beyond, but I didn’t say a word. I carried on eating. And so did Hugh Jackman and his family. Had we allowed ourselves to speak casually to one another, as neighbors in a restaurant often do, I think we would all have agreed that the food was good.  Read More 
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My agent called to set up a meeting with a television celebrity who was trying to write a memoir. She wouldn’t tell me his name and I didn’t ask. It was a gig. I needed the work. And I didn’t care who it was; a celebrity is a person and I am interested in all persons. I’d lived in London at a time when famous and infamous people walked around in shorts and t-shirts in the warm weather without body guards just like the rest of us, or turned up at dinner parties carrying flowers or bottles of wine, and took public transport, just like the rest of us. Politicians were always available for interview in their constituency and the word “spin” wasn’t yet in the dictionary, in the political sense of spin. There is a lot I could say about living in London that isn’t true anymore, including the ease with which I moved around as a journalist before violence and fear, and I am sad about that because London is one of the most magnificent, cosmopolitan cities I have ever lived in, and a truly movable feast for a writer.

I value my reputation as a journalist who listens without touting my own ego, and when I returned to New York, I started writing “as told to” stories for women’s magazines, mostly ordinary day-to-day women, and one or two high profile women. So when my agent was approached by the male celebrity’s manager, she thought of me, even though she with-held the details at first, because she didn’t think I’d particularly want to do it if I knew all the details. But I’ll do anything that pays good money and doesn’t compromise my ethical standards. I wouldn’t work with 45, for example, not for a gazillion dollars, but I suppose, dear reader, if you have been reading my blog posts, you already know that. And you also know that 45’s ghost, the guy that wrote “The Art of the Deal,” is now telling all.

I had lived out of the country for a decade so was oblivious to the most recent American celebrities and their travails. I’d written an article about the development of Elmo for a parenting magazine and that was fun because I got to bring my daughter to the set and hang out with all the characters we all love. And those Muppets are celebrities for sure. But this new gig was something else, and something new for me, too. A man by the name of Bob Keeshan, aka Captain Kangaroo, was losing his audience, aging nervously, and his manager had the idea that he could write a memoir/parenting book to keep the character he’d created alive and earning money. “Captain Kangaroo” had moved from CBS to PBS and Keeshan had kept the rights to the character so no worry there. But even on PBS the show seemed old-fashioned, out of sync with all the fast-paced, high production values of children’s programming; the ratings were in a death throe.

So it was time for a briefing: two writers before me, my agent said, both men, had tried and failed to work with Bob Keeshan. The reason remained mysterious, no one could define it, but like any successful relationship there had to be chemistry, right? Now it was my turn. One of the problems, it seemed, was that Mr. Keeshan thought of himself as a writer and wanted complete control of the process. How would this fly with me?

We’ll see, I said.

The first meeting with my agent and Bob Keeshan’s agent and Bob and me in his manager’s office went well. I wasn’t on tenterhooks at all, nor was Bob. Well, it goes to show that expectations about people hitting it off are never right. And then there was the man-woman rather than the man-man combination. Bob Keeshan was gallant, he was a gentleman, he helped me off with my coat for goodness sake. Everyone...sighed. Most important, we liked each other immediately, said so openly, and were both ready to sign a contract. My name would not appear on the cover, but I’d be in the first line of the acknowledgments. I was now a ghost.

So we made plans. We would meet in his office on 57th Street at least once a week. I would record our conversations and read everything Bob Keeshan had ever written, including his radio and television scripts, and his testimonies in front of Congressional committees advocating for children. I would interview every one who had ever worked with him. He was bitter that Children’s Television Workshop (Sesame Street) had head hunted most of his old friends who were also his employees, so it was hard to report back to Bob about them, that they were doing so well, that Sesame Street was doing so well. But the more private Bob Keeshan was lost to me, and to his fans, and to television history. No emails or letters or diaries, no interviews permitted with his wife and kids. One day I was so frustrated I had a temper tantrum:

“This book will be remaindered in two weeks in Barnes & Noble.”

He laughed and made a comment about what I was wearing: a white top and pants with a thick black belt. He said it looked like a Karate outfit.

But all the laughter and warm feeling made no difference, he wouldn’t budge, and remained secretive about his family. Or, perhaps, protective. He remained protective.

An editor at Doubleday was assigned, much rewriting was done, a collaboration of three people now, and one year later, we had a book, “Growing up Happy.” I knew that the best parts of Bob Keeshan’s story had hit the cutting room floor as his own parenting struggles were not revealed. Whatever I did find out, I found out by reporting, and not with his permission, always, more by accident, talking to one person, then another. And this is what Bob Keeshan meant when he said he wanted complete control of the process. Nothing must be revealed that he did not want revealed. I was his ghost and, by definition, had to respect his wishes and remain silent. I don’t know if I would have done the same for 45. Probably not.  Read More 
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Summer Sundays

My stepfather with my daughter, Chloe. He was my anchor and lodestar. Photo © by Jim Bergman
I haven’t written much about my stepfather over the years—curious in itself—but if it hadn’t been for him I would never have had a memorable childhood summer, or any memorable childhood memories for that matter, or a precocious interest in the etymology of words and language, or courage on the ski slope when I was still too short to use poles, or a lifelong devotion to reading the newspaper and talking intelligently about “current affairs.”

My mother married him when I was four-years-old and always told me—bless her sweet lie—that she chose him just for me. I think I believed her until I was an adult because it certainly seemed that my stepfather –Ernst P. Poll –and I were fated in some way. I started calling him “Dad,” very quickly. My biological father was “Fred,” and the less I saw of him, the better.

From the day we met, until he became too demented to think, my Dad and I both talked about what we were reading and the new words we had learned. He was a native German speaker, had also studied Latin, and was continually improving his English to a self-imposed high standard. His shelves had books in German and English as well as dual-language dictionaries, a huge Webster’s, a two-volume Oxford English Dictionary, and law books. He had been a lawyer in Vienna, and though he never practiced law in America, he followed the Supreme Court decisions avidly, as well as American politics. When he picked up the New York Times at the breakfast table, and folded it back in that very adult way, I wanted to do the same, and I did, more or less.

Summer Sundays were luxurious, with the newspaper of record spread out on the wooden picnic table on the screened-in porch in our getaway home in New Jersey (that my stepfather built), my mother tackling the crossword puzzle, my baby sister in a high chair, and the Scrabble set waiting for the arrival of at least one of my stepfather’s brothers and his wife, both of whom had houses nearby. I would watch them play, or retreat to read a book, or ride my bike up the road to visit a friend and play Battleship, which was very boring compared to my discussions with Dad about what was going on in the big wide world.

Girls and their dolls were always boring to me. I was active, physical, what used to be called a “tomboy,” not a moniker I approve of, because I was a girl with athletic skill and an inquisitive mind that should have been rewarded, culturally speaking, but wasn’t when I was growing up in America. Lucky for me, my parents were European, my mother was a doctor, and my stepfather in particular encouraged my questions, my education, and my athletic abilities: ice-skating, tennis, swimming, softball, track. I excelled at all of them. Because of his attention to me personally, and my progress at school, I skipped two grades and entered college—too young—at sixteen. This is not a boast, it’s an origin story reality. I didn’t fit in, I was eager to learn, I could run fast and win races, I did well at school, I wasn’t an ordinary American girl, I became a writer.

I had never considered until just recently how important my stepfather’s gentle, loving, mentoring influence has been on my romantic and writing life. He was an anchor and a lodestar. My first boyfriend had a glove compartment filled with books like Graham Greene’s “The Comedians” which I thought was very sexy. Books-sexy? How do those things go together? Well, they do for me. My husband is an historian and deep political thinker from a renowned journalism family who reads the newspaper every morning cover to cover, albeit electronically. I struggle to keep pace with his incisive interpretations, and only rarely beat him at Scrabble.  Read More 
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