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Family Values - Part 1 (From Cousin Ann to Prince Knud)

My cousin Ann and I were the same age, but we grew up in very different environments. My mother's four husbands ranged from my father, who abandoned her before I had my first birthday, to a loving self-made millionaire, and two neer-do-wells to whom she could have been a mother. In between there were the also-rans, who included a Danish matinee idol who starred in horrendous but popular movies, the star tenor of the Danish Royal Opera, and an assortment of British and American military officers. Needless to say, I had a chameleonic upbringing that in many ways compensated me for having only spent a total of five years in school.

Ann, on the other hand, grew up in Bix Manor, her grandparents' well-servanted (my word) stately home in Henley. There, she saw more of her nanny than she did of her mother. I recall visiting Bix Manor in my childhood and finding it odd that Ann's only contact with Aunt Kathleen was the quick kiss on the cheek before bedtime. Ann had everything a child could possibly wish for, except love. When the time came for her to leave the nest, she demonstratively turned her back on the privileged childhood I use to envy, and rebelled against her parents by eloping to France with a miserable, penniless cad of a Canadian musician. It was not an act of love, it was revenge.
My cousin Ann and I at Bix Manor, Henley-On-Thames - August 1933

Ann was rarely mentioned in the mid-Sixties, when I paid Aunt Kathleen and Uncle Christian a couple of visits at their house in Nettlebed. I was in my post-WBAI period, making trans-Atlantic commutes to the BBC in London. They were a gracious couple and the house reflected my aunt's socially correct upbringing—every room was camera ready and the scent of fresh-cut flowers made smooth transitions from the lovely garden.

I visited the house again in the late Seventies. My aunt and uncle had died a few years before and Ann, leaving a trail of broken love affairs in her wake, had made it back. Now she lived alone in that beautiful house, but the beauty lingered only in my memory as I looked around at a home blighted by deliberate neglect. It now had the look Dickens gave poor Mrs. Faversham's dining room in Great Expectations. The sun no longer streamed through the windows and lace curtains, the fragrance of flowers had turned to the fetor of decay, but nothing had been moved. Camilla, our Great Grandmother still gazed down from the huge painting that hung just beyond the bend of the wide staircase, and other family members stared from other walls, silent witnesses to Ann's ongoing revolt. The library's books were rotting away, many fine volumes among them, and my Aunt Kathleen's rose garden was a dried-up mess. I recalled how she cut a rose each morning and pinned it to my Uncle Christian's lapel before he took off for London. "That was so sweet and it stayed with me through the years," I told Ann. "It was all a charade, my dear," she said, flicking into the air the ashes from her cigarette, "Mommy was a lesbian."

Ann's father, my Uncle Christian, was one of my grandparents' five children, the youngest being my mother, Yvonne. That's the name she preferred out of the many she had to choose from. In 1961, when I sought citizenship, the application asked for "Mother's full name," so I turned the form 180° to the left and wrote: Yvonne Karen Margrethe Anna Christina Augusta Broberg. Well, there had been much discussion in 1913, when a name had to be decided upon—both my grandparents liked Yvonne, but suppose she married an Olsen or Hansen? Any typical Danish name would clash with Yvonne, so they came up with Anna, Karen and Margarethe as acceptable alternatives. August or Augusta was simply mandatory, every family member on my grandfather's side was saddled with that one (luckily, I became an exception).

My great grandparents were also ambitious when it came to procreation. They named their children in alphabetical order, intending to get as close to Z as possible. They stopped at F....hmmmm.

Christiern (my grandfather), Bodild, Anna, Dorrit (Dodo), and Edwin

None of the five children settled down in Denmark. Uncle Christian married the aforementioned Kathleen Cousins, the daughter of a well-to-do Fleet Street newspaperman, Uncle Torben married my Aunt Amanda in Santo Domingo, where he raised a family and lived until his recent death, Uncle George—the youngest boy—departed abruptly for New York in 1922, when he was 19. My mother never received an explanation for his early departure, although she often asked about it. She was only 9 at the time but, being the youngest they were very close.

Uncle George loved cars
Mother finally got the answer in the late 1940s, when I came across a box of old letters and found a particularly interesting one addressed to my grandfather from Prince George of Greece. It was written in 1922, shortly after Uncle George (his Godson) left for the U.S. as a crew member on the S/S Hellig Olav. As so often was the case when Grandfather and the Prince corresponded, the letter was essentially about a loan my grandfather had either received or requested, but this time there was also a line that answered my mother's old question. "Dear Christian," wrote the Prince, "don't you think your decision to send George to America was rash? After all, syphilis is not what it used to be."

Future Tsar Nicholas and his cousin,  Prince George
Well, that settled that question. As things turned out, Uncle George overcame that obstacle, married twice, raised a couple of families, and lived to a ripe old age. More about him later. George, who was also Prince of Denmark, had, around 1900, secured for my grandfather a prestigious position on the island of Crete, where he himself was High Commissioner. This is where my uncles Christian and George were born.  The Prince is perhaps best known for having saved the life of his cousin Nicholas from an attempted assassination during a visit to Japan. Nicholas, of course, went on to become Tsar of Russia and the victim of a more memorable and successful assassination.

Aunt Flavie and Mother in Iceland with Prince
Knud and two Icelandic gentlemen. 1933
My Aunt Flavie was named after a young black lady whom my grandfather became enamored with while my family lived in the West Indies. She eventually married a Commander Hudson, a wonderful British Royal Navy skipper, and settled in England, but not before having a lengthy fling with Crown Prince Knud of Denmark. He was a rather eccentric, somewhat rebellious man, which is probably why his younger brother, Frederik, was given the gig when the time came to succeed their father, King Christian X.

I was a baby when Aunt Flavie and Knud were carrying on their affair, and there were times when they babysat for my mother.  Many years later, in the late '40s, my mother, grandparents and I were invited by Knud for lunch aboard Dannebrog, the royal yacht.  In the course of the lunch, Knud said, "Yvonne, when am I to give Gunnar his watch?" Mother laughed and said she hoped that day would never come. (I was known by my middle name, Gunnar, until 1954).

Later, she explained to me that Knud had vowed to give me an inscribed, double-capped gold watch the first time I caught syphilis—there was no first time. Well, I told you he was peculiar. I have several of his letters and cards to my grandmother, where he almost always addressed her as "mother-in-law." Here's one of them.

I took this photo of the royal yacht, Dannebrog, in the summer of 1961

When his chicken caught diphtheria and wild hogs trampled down his young coffee plants, my Grandfather decided to leave Santo Domingo, where he had taken the family to live, and return to Denmark. My Uncle Torben, the most sensible of the five children, had a decent menial job in a local sugar factory, so he decided to stay behind. He worked his way up to the top position and in 1930 married a beautiful young lady from Mallorca, Amanda Forteza, whose father was a Puerto Rican merchant.

This is where I'll leave it for now. I hope this isn't too boring, because there are further installments and revelations. Do you wonder why I religiously watch The Young and the Restless every day, and why it in some ways stirs up old memories?

Stay tuned...


John Hammond - Part 1 (Alberta Hunter)

One day in the late Sixties, when I was working on Bessie Smith reissues and writing her biography, Alberta Hunter and I decided to meet for lunch in Midtown Manhattan. I suggested hooking up at Columbia Records' Studio B, where she could say hello to John Hammond, who was there to make an audition tape of Ruby Walker (pictured at right) and pianist Dill Jones. John had promised Ruby that he would groom her to replace Bessie Smith, but that was in 1938, when Ruby took her place at the "From Spirituals to Swing" concert. Now, over 30 years later, John finally made a move to fulfill his promise. Nothing came out of it and I have no idea what might have happened to the audition tape, but the years have long since claimed both of them, as well as Alberta and Dill.

On the day in question, Alberta was a nurse at Goldwater Memorial Hospital, with no intention of returning to music, so this meeting was not a subtle attempt to resurrect a career, but rather an opportunity to affect a reunion. The working jazz community being a relatively intimate one, I took it for granted that Alberta and John had at least crossed paths at some point. She began singing in Chicago clubs before WWI, became a main attraction at the famous Dreamland, and initiated a long recording career on the Paramount label. A long-time admirer, I first met Alberta in 1961, when she graciously agreed to break her absence from the music business and participate in a couple of my recording sessions for the Prestige and Riverside labels. John had not been on the jazz scene quite as long as Alberta, but he had been hitting Harlem clubs and theaters since the Twenties and he supervised the first of many memorable recording sessions in 1931. Given all that, it was reasonable to assume that their paths had crossed—I expected a little reunion, of sorts.
Front row: Willie "The Lion" Smith, Victoria Spivey, J. C. Higginbotham, Alberta Hunter, Jimmy Rushing, Lucille Hegamin and Zutty Singleton. Back row: Gene Brooks, Sidney DeParis, Henry Goodwin, Buster Bailey and Cecil Scott. Picture taken by Don Schlitten, August 16, 1961 outside of Rudy Van Gelder's studio during the making of "Songs We TaughtYour Mother" (Prestige).
Ruby and Dill were between selections when Alberta walked into the control room, dressed in her comfortable, not-so-stylish woolen overcoat and knitted hat. She carried in each hand a well-worn shopping bag—in fact there were two or three, one inside the other. This was typical of Alberta Hunter, a woman unaffected by the fame and attention she once had enjoyed on both sides of the Atlantic. She felt blessed, in a secular sort of way, and was secure enough to not at all mind if people took her for a "bag lady," which they often did.

John had his back to us when I called his attention to Alberta's presence. "Look who is here," I said, expecting him to be delighted, but he gave neither a sign of delight nor recognition when he turned around to face Alberta. "John," I said, thinking that they might not have seen each other in many years, "this is Alberta Hunter."

"Oh, glad to meet you." John said, stretching out his hand and flashing his stock smile. Then he rudely turned his attention back to the engineer. Stepping out of the spotlight can take you over the threshold to the has-been zone.

I guess it was a couple of years later that John and I were among the speakers at Pastor Gensel's memorial service for Alberta. By the time of her death, the hospital had retired her and she had made her remarkable comeback, singing from Rio and Berlin to the White House and nightly capacity crowds in the Village. John no longer ignored Alberta, In fact, he recorded her for Columbia and spoke as if she had been among his many talent discoveries. What wonderful fables he spun. When Pastor Gensel called to request "a few words" from me at the service, I declined the invitation, mainly because I have never been comfortable speaking in public, but then I started thinking about it and picturing how it would go—it would be a charade, and Alberta deserved better. So, I called the Rev back and asked be the last speaker.

It went as I had predicted. There were sincere sentiments expressed and stories told by people who had genuinely valued Alberta's friendship, but there was also a lot of showbiz posturing and downright fantasy. Barney Josephson (pictured at right with Alberta) whose Greenwich Village club, The Cookery, was kept alive by Alberta's drawing power wanted us to understand that he had never stopped believing in her talent, which was why he gave her a chance. That, of course was a lot of bull, for Barney volunteered to act as her manager, which put him in a position to turn down offers that would have taken Alberta elsewhere. It worked for awhile, but I started receiving calls from bookers who smelled a rat. It was not easy for me to convince Alberta that her old friend, the lovable Barney Josephson, was using her, but she eventually caught on. Then there was John who—as I knew he would—gushed all over the microphone as he  spoke in glowing terms of Alberta's artistry and importance. If one didn't know better—which could be said of the attendees—one was easily left with the impression that John was sending to her great reward a close friend of very long standing. My presence was now fully justified.

Church or no church, the devil made me do it. Following the self congratulatory, delusional speeches of John and his old friend, Barney, I took the podium, noting as I did so, that Alberta was most likely hovering somewhere above us, carefully listening to all the good words, and perceptively separating the wheat from the tare. That produced subtle snickering from the audience, which continued and became more pronounced when I observed that Alberta had turned The Cookery into a goldmine for Barney—they all knew that was true. Then pausing briefly to let the devil come closer, I addressed John directly. "John," I said somewhat snidely, "do you recall that day in Studio B, just a couple of years ago, when I introduced you to Alberta? I was surprised that you two hadn't met."

The audience got the message and when it was all over, Jon Hendriks placed his arm over my shoulder and thanked me. Pastor Gensel shook my hand and chimed in, "It needed to be said," he whispered. Lurking around, somewhere in the background, was Alberta's accompanist, Gerald Cook, and I bet he was relieved that my remarks hadn't included him. More about that some other time.

As I recount the events of that day, I am reminded of something Hank O'Neal told me that happened several years later, when a memorial service for John Hammond was held at the very same place, St. Peter's on Lexington Avenue. The attendees were filing out into the street after sitting through an endless recitation of John's actual accomplishments and a lifetime of spins. John's last secretary caught up with Hank and walked by his side. "They bought the story," he heard her say, almost under her breath. So did many, including PBS:

I had bought the story, too, back in the postwar years when I was a teenager in Copenhagen and suffered the joys of being severely bitten by the jazz bug. I read everything pertaining to jazz that I could get my hands on and John Hammond's name kept popping up. He was the "discoverer," a man with an extraordinary ear for talent, and he was responsible for some of the finest jazz known to man. In fact, black musicians had been known to refer to John as "the great white father." I had read this somewhere and in 1957, when I came to the U.S. as an immigrant, I was thoroughly convinced that here was a man who had done more for jazz and black performers than any other white man.

When I continue this recollection, you will see how I met John Hammond and how the Hammond myth unraveled for me as I got to know him better. That said, you will also see that most, if not all, of the stories that made him bigger than life—stories that he himself either sowed or fertilized—were unnecessary. The truth is that John had no need to exaggerate his own accomplishments—there was enough real stuff to secure him the place he sought to occupy. That remains an enigma to me. If John had done nothing more than put together the legendary 1937 "From Spirituals to Swing" concert at Carnegie Hall, he would have earned a permanent place in the history of American music. But John did so much more, and his love for the music—albeit Wyntonian in scope—was genuine.

Stay tuned.


WBAI - Part 2 (Marathon 1)

This is the second and concluding part of a recollection that begins here.

We were about twenty minutes into the marathon, begging for money and predicting doom if we could not get it, when a listener threw us a curve. "I have no money," she said, "but I have a beautiful small Oriental rug that I will give to the first person who donates two hundred dollars."

That launched an avalanche of what we decided to call "barters." Apparently, there were many listeners who wanted to contribute, but didn't have the money. People started showing up with the most incredible offerings and volunteers tried to keep them in some order. There were small turtles that found a temporary home in the bathtub of our teletype room, bird cages were suspended above them and filled as the first canary barter inspired others, my office soon became cluttered with old cameras, Nazi helmet, many books, including a copy of Mein Kampf, somebody's evening gown, a bugle that had seen much use, autographed baseballs, penny jars, a beautiful ebony fan from a bygone era, paintings, you name it.

Fortunately, the barter items moved fast. With the help of Jean French, a young lady who had come aboard to help us get the word out about the re-born WBAI, I made full use of my contacts in the jazz world. Herbie Hancock was among the first to donate a performance, but we didn't have piano. Our music director, John Corigliano (pictured receiving his first Oscar), solved the immediate problem by bringing in his electronic keyboard. It was a primitive one by today's standards, but it introduced live music to the marathon and—if memory serves me—it was Herbie's first practical experience with an electronic instrument. By the second day, when a piano dealer offered us a floor sample upright, John's little keyboard had also accompanied Joe Williams. Also, the roster of jazz performers who wanted to do their part was overwhelming—our new piano was graced by many great players, including Randy Weston, Ray Bryant, and Walter Bishop. I brought my B&O recorder to the station and hooked it directly to a line feed, so all of this—the entire marathon—is on tape. Unfortunately, I recorded it all at 3 3/4 i.p.s. on four track (mono). Still, the little B&O did remarkably well—now, if I could only find a deck that can handle that format.

This NY Times Editorial didn't hurt
Lou Schweitzer, who gave WBAI to Pacifica, was so impressed with the marathon that he made a double-your-money offer that was eagerly responded to.We also received wonderful press coverage, even in some London papers that found intriguing the novelty of a station begging its listeners to keep it on the air. A retired British concert pianist sent us a tape of one of her concert performances, granting us permission to use it as we wished, and even some of our creditors became participants, making a  live appearances to discuss the money we owed them. This led to some listeners earmarking contributions to be used for specific bills, and I shall never forget the small group of boys who came down from Westchester to hand over their piggybanks because they wanted to help pay the printing bill. I also recall writer A. B. Spellman, a regular around the station, agreeing to sing Blue Moon for a contribution—looking up the dates, I see that he may well have begun work on his excellent book, Four Lives in the Bebop Business.

We used every trick we could think of, such as threatening to play Kate Smith records until  a certain tableau was reached—it was all as good-natured as it was urgent, but there were times when we had such amazing on-air performances that we had to hold back for fear that listeners might end up preferring marathon fare!

And then there was Yoko Ono, asking me if she might be allowed to go on the air to sing Japanese children's songs and make a special plea for the music department, where she worked as a volunteer file clerk. The press wasn't interested in her, yet, but her request surprised me, because she had struck us all as being rather withdrawn—one never knows, do one?

I don't think the current WBAI staff is any less serious about meeting their fund-raising goal than we were, but that first marathon had something special that not even we could duplicate a year later. It was honest, almost to a fault and the desperation went way beyond keeping one's job—we were determined to save the station, and I think that got through to old as well as new listener. Five minutes before midnight, July 3, 1965, our pledge total reached $25,000 and we stopped the marathon on a dime, as we had promised. It had lasted about 53 hours, taught us much about fund-raising, shown us how truly wonderful and devoted our listeners were, and boosted staff and volunteer morale beyond measure. Then, as Steve Jobs likes to say, there's "one more thing." When all the money was in, we had well over $30,000. I later was told that fund-raisers are considered successful if 70% of the pledges are realized.

As I stated at the beginning of this piece, it was the current WBAI marathon that took my mind back 45 years. I hear that the station has a history of uncollected pledges, amounting to many times the money we raised. I am really sorry to hear that, because WBAI is still, as Nat Hentoff put it in the Sixties, "the only game in town." If I may be allowed to offer an opinion without being labeled a bitter old fool, something is wrong with the current approach. For one thing, there do not seem to be any guidelines, each program host has his or her way and his or her "premiums" to offer. True, we also started without guidelines, but we quickly determined what worked and what didn't, so I sat down at the typewriter and threw together a little manual—well, manual sounds too dictatorial, this was more a list of useful observations, a guide to be utilized at will.

What I hear today is blend of professionalism and hopeless fumbling, with the pitches all too often sounding like infomercials. Most are not keeping the phones at WBAI ringing, some are probably driving listeners away. That also happened back in 65, but we learned from it and changed course when it seemed prudent to do so.

That's all I have to say, except that our success so impressed the California boards and managers that I was asked to fly out there and conduct marathons for them. They raised money, but the magic of spontaneity was missing. Marathons became annual events at Pacifica stations, but they grew more clinical with each year.

Fifty years on the air is an achievement, but it is not grounds for the kind of complacency I heard during the recent WBAI anniversary "special." Good luck good people at Pacifica.

WBAI - Part 3 (Marathon contrasts)

I turned on my radio yesterday and what do you know? WBAI is having another fund-raising marathon. Yes, they are back selling miracle medicine and questionable cures for subscriptions, but they also offer incentives (I think they call them "premiums") that are more in keeping with Pacifica's image. I'm talking about DVDs of vintage radio shows and documentaries, theater tickets, dinner with Amy Goodman—stuff like that.

 As I listened to all this huckstering, I thought back to the summer of 1965, when dire need gave birth to what I have been told was the first broadcast marathon conducted to keep a station on the air. Although WBAI is streamed globally, and thus no longer a local New York station, some of you may wonder why I have been devoting so much space to it. Well, this is a radio station that profoundly affected me in my younger years and with which I have a love-hate relationship of sorts. Basically, I love the station and hate what is often done to it by those who either exploit it or haven't much of a clue as to what has allowed it to survive on listener sponsorship for half a century.

This piece is not a review of the station nor its current fund-raising efforts, but a recollection of how it—the idea of airing annoying pitches for money—all started. I don't think one has to be a New Yorker or a BAI listener to not be bored by the story I have to tell—at least, I hope not. I realize that I have alluded to this in an earlier piece, so I will try not to repeat myself.

First, some background.
In 1964, as always, WBAI's manager, Joseph Binns, took a long summer vacation. Nothing wrong with that, except that the station lived from check to check, and listener support traditionally ebbed in the summer months. The Vacation scenario was etched in stone: Joe returns to find the station in desperate financial straits, acts surprised, and proceeds to lay off the staff, one or two a week. You might pass him in the narrow corridors of our brownstone (at 30 East 39th Street) and he would make a morale-shattering remark, such as: "You'll be glad to know that I am not laying you off this week." Of course the remedy would have been to raise money, but if that ever occurred to Joe Binns, he wasn't telling anyone.

At that time, Hallock Hoffman was the President of the Pacifica Foundation, the California-based non-profit organization that owns WBAI and, at that time, two West Coast stations, KPFA and KPFK. Morale at WBAI had taken a deep plunge when we learned that Hallock was coming to town, so we decided make the most of his rare visit. I forget whose idea it was, but we ended up writing individual letters of resignation, with a common theme: we could no longer work with management whose only reaction to a fiscal problem was to reduce staff.

On the morning of Hallock's arrival, we handed him a rather large manila envelope containing the resignations of all but one staff member, Baird Searles, who chickened out. Perplexed, Hallock took the envelope and disappeared into Joe Binn's office, closing the door behind him. About an hour later, he emerged and called us all together to inform us that he had accepted Joe Binn's resignation and appointed himself interim manager. As such, he was accepting our resignations and—since that essentially left him with an unstaffed radio station—he would be conducting job interviews in the afternoon and we were welcome to sign up for one. We all did—except, of course, for Baird, who made himself scarce.

The interviews gave us each an opportunity to vent our grievances and, prompted by Hallock, say what we thought needed to be done. Direct communication with a board member was something none of us had previously experienced. and here, face to face, was the captain of the mother ship—it was not an opportunity to be missed.

Each Pacifica station had a local board, and ours was headed by Harold Taylor, the former President of Sarah Lawrence College, a job he had handled exceptionally well, I was told. The same could not be said of Harold's association with WBAI. He never visited the station, but was quick to step into the media spotlight whenever a crisis at BAI attracted it. The other board members also stayed away, and none of them ever tuned us in—most of us didn't know their names, much less what they looked like.

I give you this background to explain how it came about that I was appointed WBAI's manager. After the interview, Hallock promoted me from staff announcer to head of production, something the station had not previously had., and a couple of months later he offered me the top job. I told him that I would accept it on two conditions: unanimous staff approval and a guarantee of the Board's help in fund raising. Both conditions were met, so I took over Joe Binns' office.

The next day, I went on the air for the first time as manager, candidly sharing with the listeners what I thought was wrong with the station's offerings, and urging that they stay tuned as we made improvements. Although we sorely needed it, I deliberately did not ask for money, but said that I hoped our future programs would speak better than any plea I could make.

As it turned out, my optimistic report had an immediate positive effect. There as a noticeable increase in subscriptions to our monthly folio—the annual $12.50 fee that kept WBAI running—and staff morale climbed to a more acceptable level. As for help from Hallock and the boards, nothing happened—well, that's not entirely true, Hallock did call me from Santa Barbara to give me "good news," as he put it: "You will be happy to learn that I have finally persuaded my father to make a donation."

I was excited about that, because Paul Hoffman was a multi-millionaire, former President of Studebaker and the Ford Foundation, advisor to President Eisenhower, and Administrator of the Marshall Plan. I had been to dinner at his elegant Sutton Place house and I just knew that this would be a sizable check, so I announced it at a staff meeting, where it produced smiles and applause.

I had decided to raise the annual subscription fee to $15, but Mr. Hoffman's check for $12.50 arrived just in time to avoid the increase! Morale took a slight beating that day.

Then there was the call from the secretary to Frank Stanton, who just wanted to verify our address, because "Dr. Stanton wishes to make a substantial contribution to WBAI." Stanton was President of CBS, as well as the Rand Corporation—this was exciting I thought, but this time the staff, having grown somewhat cynical, held back on the smiles and applause. The next day, Dr. Stanton's $100 check was hand delivered.

It was clear that I wasn't going to get any help, so I started thinking of ways in which I could make WBAI more interesting without sacrificing the high principles and ideas upon which it was founded. At the top of my list was improved programming, which began with the reinstatement of Bob Fass' Radio Unnamable, a hippie-oriented free form midnight radio event that entertained as it stroked the social consciousness. 1964 was a perfect time for what Bob did, a period in which our country found itself immersed in an unpopular war in Vietnam and struggling for civil rights at home. Joe Binns had fired Fass, which I thought was a bad idea, so I brought him and his show back. Almost 50 years later, he is still at WBAI, albeit only one night a week and, I fear, somewhat of an anachronism.

Although there was an increase in subscriptions, we were far from solvent as 1964 ended, but changes were already being felt—I was airing more WBAI-produced programs and relying less on material from our sister stations. Here's a piece from the February 12, 1965 issue of the NY Times: 

The debt I inherited was still plaguing us, so in early summer of '65, as subscriptions went into their annual slump, we desperately needed $25,000 and there were some Board members who suggested that the station be sold and the money spent on upkeep for the West Coast outlets. Our home on the dial, 99.5, was a commercial frequency located between CBS and NBC, a choice spot for which there was an offer of a million dollars, but selling it was, to me, unthinkable. This made it all the more important for us to raise that money and quiet the misguided board members. Today, when the station is a million dollars in debt, 25,000 seems a piddling sum, but it was a lot of money in 1965.

On a beautiful July day, with that cloud hanging over us, I went to lunch with Joanne Grant, whom I had just hired as news director. The subject of our pecuniary plight inevitably came up and we started tossing ideas around. Our listeners were obviously motivated to sent us money because they liked what they heard on the air, and because there was no other place on the dial where anything like that could be found. Ergo, we finally reasoned, it might be a good, albeit unkind idea to give the listener the bland taste of nothing at 99.5. To make them experience a WBAI spewing the same inane chatter, pop and pap as dominated the rest of the radio dial. 

By the time we finished our coffee, Joanne and I had decided that I would cut into her six o'clock evening news and tell it like it is, paint the unthinkable scenario, and ask for money. I would announce the end of programming, as we knew it, until we had the needed $25,000 in pledges.

That evening, shortly after Joanne had begun delivering the news, our plan went into action and the marathon was on its way. There were no people manning phones, there was no schedule, no official tally person, no rules—we just jumped into it, feet first. As things turned out, our listeners were right there for us. Not only did they respond, they inadvertently gave the marathon concept its shape.

A few years back, I was visited by a writer who was working on a book about broadcast fund-raising marathons. She had come to me, she said, because I had started it all, I was the "Father of the On-Air Marathon," a dubious distinction. Actually, it had never occurred to me that this might be the case, but when I think back, I realize that she might have been right. We had no precedent upon which to base our approach—it was strictly ad lib and it took delightful (in retrospect) unforeseen twists and turns. I think that was the charm of it, the reason why it was so successful—listeners sensed our genuine urgency and lack of planning.

So much for the introduction—please pardon me for its length. I will return with Part II, in which I describe the marathon in detail, how it ended up, and the aftermath. It happened 45 years ago and it was in many ways beautiful, but it was also the start of something less than that.

Susan Brownmiller, for whose journalistic integrity I would later lose all respect, wrote up the marathon in the Village Voice, giving you but a hint of what you will read as I continue my recollection (Click on the image to enlarge). This recollection continues here.

If you have a serious interest in the past and present goings-on at the station, you might want to check out my WBAI-dedicated blog.


Van Vechten - Part 2 (Ruby and Bessie meet Carlo)

This is a continuation of an earlier post. If you wish to go to Part I, click here.

Carl Van Vechten was such a great fan of Bessie Smith that he purchased several copies of each record, keeping in mind that 78 rpm discs had a tendency to become worn. He left his collection to the James Weldon Johnson Collection at Yale, stipulating that no record was to be played more than once in a year. This rule served us well when engineer Larry Hiller and I worked on Columbia's reissue project and visited the collection with transfer equipment.

It had long been Van Vechten's wish to have Bessie attend one of his parties, but, of course, he expected her to sing for his celebrity gathering. When he finally got his wish, it was with the help of Bessie's musical director, pianist Porter Grainger. A gay man, he had long wanted to become a part of Carlo's inner circle, so Bessie was his ticket. Van Vechten would later describe the evening, but his story was far from complete.

Character actor Leigh Whipper (20th Century Fox Films 1943)
Here, from my book, Bessie, is an account pieced together from the published recollections of Langston Hughes and Van Vechten, as well as my interviews with Bessie's niece, Ruby Walker, and that wonderful character actor, Leigh Whipper (seen here in a scene from "The Ox-Bow Incident"). I should point out that the dialogue is as told to me by Ruby and Mr. Whipper, whose accounts were almost identical, and while it may not be verbatim, I have good reason to believe that it is very close to it. You should also know that Bessie was wearing an ermine coat and that she had loaned her mink to Ruby for the occasion. They made the visit in April, 1928, between shows at the Lafayette Theater. It is lengthy, but I hope you find it interesting:

The maid offered to take her coat, but Bessie’s brushed her aside and breezed past the welcoming party into the room beyond. Barely visible in the oversized mink, Ruby trailed behind her. "It was so big, you couldn’t even see me! I could wrap it around me several times," she recalled. Bringing up the rear was Porter Grainger, elegantly dressed and somewhat nervous. As he moved slowly behind Bessie, Ruby recalls that Porter was  graciously and almost apologetically returning the smiles Bessie had ignored.

Taking no notice of a chorus of salutatory "Oh, Miss Smiths," Bessie, cold sober at this point, did not come to a halt until someone mentioned a drink. It was her host, Van Vechten, radiating the sort of glee a celebrity hunter might exhibit upon having at last captured his prey. "How about a lovely, lovely dry martini?," he suggested, clasping his hands together.
"Whaaat a dry martini?," bellowed Bessie. Ain’t you got some whiskey, man? That’ll be the only way I’ll touch it. I don’t know about no dry martinis, nor wet ones either."

"Of course," Van Vechten replied. "I think we can conjure up something you like," he purred  and disappeared to fulfill Bessie’s request.

Turning to Ruby, Bessie noticed her tripping over the enormous mink. "Take that damn thing off," she ordered, handing her the ermine to hold. Thoroughly embarrassed by Bessie’s brazenness, Porter pretended to be oblivious to it and began to distance himself from Bessie and Ruby. He sought to blend, as best he could, into the genteel atmosphere of the drawing room as Ruby, hidden behind the huge fur coats she carried, stumbled to the side of the foyer. Because they were only to stay there a short time, no one bothered to relieve Ruby of the coats. "I didn’t even get a drink, she complained, but I had a ringside seat."

As guests gathered around her, contralto Marguerite d’Alvarez stood at the piano and conferred with her accompanist. As he returned with Bessie’s drink, Van Vechten paused at the opera singers’s side and announced that "Madam d’Alvarez will sing an aria." Then he graciously made his way over to Bessie and handed her the drink. She promptly downed it  and handed the empty glass back. "I think I’ll have another one of those."

Ruby recalled hearing Ms. d'Alvarez sing, but she could not see very far into the living room and thus did not notice, as Langston Hughes did, that Bessie was riveted by the operatic performance and that she walked over to Ms. d’Alvarez when it was over, slapped her on the back, and advised, "Honey, don’t let nobody tell you you can’t sing." Then she walked back to her host, mumbling something about her throat being dry. 

Marguerite d'Alvarez (Van Vechten photo)
Porter stood off to the side, horrified and embarrassed, but Van Vechten motioned for him to come over—it was time for Bessie’s performance. He led them over to the piano and disappeared briefly to return with another drink for Bessie. As before, she gulped it down and handed the emptied glass to Van Vechten for another refill. Someone asked her what she was going to sing. "Don’t you worry about it," she said. "My piano player knows."

Porter Grainger smiled shyly and went into the opening bars of Work House Blues. Then, with subtle, sensual movements and a heaving bosom, Bessie mesmerized her audience. The guests listened attentively as she delivered her tale of hard times. Perhaps not everyone understood the words, but they got the message and, as it cut through the scented air and novelty became art, they surely understood why Carlo had offered this treat.

Ruby recalled that Bessie sang six or seven numbers, but Leigh Whipper remembered hearing only two or three, each followed by enthusiastic applause. There were apparently also further requests for refills, which made Porter increasingly uneasy. Only he and Ruby knew what effect the alcohol was having on Bessie, so they felt relief when she finished a number and announced, "This is it!"

"Bessie was good and drunk when she finished her last song," said Ruby. "So Porter came over to me and said, 'Let’s get her out of here quick, before she shows her ass.’ We got her coat on her and got her to the front door when all of a sudden this woman comes out of nowhere. 'Miss Smith, you’re not leaving without kissing me goodbye,’ she said." Standing directly in front of Bessie, the diminutive lady raised herself up on her toes and threw her arms around Bessie’s neck. Porter’s fears were coming true, Bessie was about to fly off the handle.

Almost hanging onto her neck, the lady started to pull Bessie down to her level, but she did not get far before Bessie exploded. "It was a mess," said Ruby. "Bessie screamed, 'Get the fuck away from me!’" With that, she thrust her arms out, throwing the poor woman to the floor. "Then," Ruby continued, "she said, 'I ain’t never heard of such shit!’and poor Porter, he would have done anything to be with that crowd, but now Bessie had done shown her ass to all them people. I felt so sorry for him."

Even forty-three years later, Ruby had no idea who the effusive woman was, but Leigh Whipper, whose account of the incident was practically identical to Ruby’s, identified the lady on the floor as the evening’s hostess: Fania Marinoff Van Vechten.

Following a painful silence, Van Vechten and one of his guests helped his wife to her feet.  Surrounded by stunned celebrities, Bessie stood in the middle of the foyer, ready to take on the whole crowd. Porter knew that she had only begun—it was time to get her out of there. Grabbing Bessie gently by one arm, he told Ruby to take the other; as guests—some horrified, others bemused—followed them with their stares, Ruby and Porter escorted the Empress out of the apartment and proceeded slowly down the hall towards the elevator. Van Vechten trailed closely behind, seemingly giving his review of the night’s performance.

"It’s all right, Miss Smith," he said softly, "you were magnificent tonight."

They had reached the elevator before it dawned on Bessie that she was actually being led away. Shouting, "What the fuck are y’all pullin’ me all over the damn place for?", she threw her arms in the air and this time almost knocked Ruby and Porter to the floor.

When the elevator door opened, she quieted down, raised her head high, marched in past the startled operator, and sank to the floor in the corner of the car.

"I don’t care if she dies," sighed Porter, straightening the tam on his head.

Books have been written about Carl Van Vechten, but we have yet to see an honest one—I wonder if we ever will. Apropos books, Van Vechten wrote several, but none more controversial than his novel, "Nigger Heaven". The story was unusual in that it's characters were middle-class blacks, but many condemned it without reading it. Still, even that title did not lose Carlo his black friends. That in and of itself might be an interesting subject. Perhaps I will return to Van Vechten at another time, but, for now, we leave Carlo with another of his letters to Jimmy Daniels. Perhaps the most interesting one. I think we have to use our imagination as far as the busboy photos are concerned. I asked Jimmy if he had one to show me. He only laughed.

 Excerpt from "Bessie" - Yale University Press ©2003 by Chris Albertson

Van Vechten - Part 1 (An amazing trunk)

Forty years ago, when I was working on my biography of Bessie Smith, I was under pressure to get it written in less time than any reasonable person would allocate to research alone. I had spent considerable time preparing Bessie Smith's entire recorded output for release by Columbia and the enormity of that project had generated media interest, some of it spurred by Grammys I received for truly inferior liner notes. Even so, I was not surprised when a publisher, Stein & Day, called to find out if I would be interested in writing a book. The thought of doing that had not occurred to me, but, having bemoaned the fact that no half-way decent biography of my favorite blues queen existed, I rather liked the idea. They would get back to me, said Sol Stein.

In the meantime, actually that same week, I received a call from a young lady in Philadelphia who was about to start work on a Bessie biography and sought my help. When I told her that I might be writing such a book myself and that I was just waiting to hear a publisher's decision, she all but begged me to say no. I told her that I might not have to say that, but if the publisher called me back, I would not turn him down. 

For some reason, the young lady asked if she could come to New York and see me, anyway. When she arrived at my apartment, a week later, I had been given the nod and my research had begun. I decided to discourage her, if I could, so I asked a couple of friends of mine to come over and give a performance. Placing them at a table in an adjoining room, I made sure that they could be seen from the living room couch, where my competitor would be seated—it worked, sort of. With stacks of file folders and newspaper clippings on the table, my friends appeared to be poring over some very interesting material, stopping now and then to share what seemed to be a particularly interesting item. The young lady was taking it all in and I think I heard her gulp.

She left my apartment without any deeper knowledge of Bessie Smith than she had brought with her. Mission accomplished—well, not quite, for she was determined to write her book, with or without my cooperation. More on that, later.

Because I was being rushed, I had to hire friends who could spend hours at libraries looking over microfilm, bringing back anything that might be useful. I told them what to look for and they were quick to catch on, all the time becoming increasingly engrossed in a subject that told them much about their own heritage. One of them, Hank, was also looking for an apartment during this time. They were not as impossible to find back then, and the rents were still reasonable, so Hank soon found a great little place right in the heart of Greenwich Village. An extraordinary thing happened when the landlord took him into the basement to show him where he could store some things. Hank spotted an old trunk of the kind that people used to hop ocean liners with for pre-war transatlantic treks, and when he remarked on its beauty, the landlord told him that it had been left there many years ago and that he was welcome to it.

Bessie Smith (Van Vechten Sep. 1936)
This turned out to be a providential find, for the first thing Hank saw when he dusted off and opened the lid was a photograph of Ethel Waters. It was a postcard to Jimmy Daniels from Carl Van Vechten, who had taken the picture, and it came from a stack of photos. Hank picked up a handful and didn't have to dig deep before he found one of Bessie Smith! How does one explain such a coincidence? One doesn't even try.

The trunk belonged to Jimmy Daniels, an entertainer with an illustrious background in show business. I met him through my friend, Alberta Hunter, who was about to make an extraordinary comeback after spending decades out of the spotlight, working as a nurse. In the Thirties, she and Jimmy had shared an apartment in Paris and often appeared on the same bill. I had spent many hours listening to them reminisce, hours that I ought to have been recording, but this was not work, this was relaxing among friends. Work should never interfere with personal friendship, and there have been many times when my priorities cost me a golden opportunity to capture history. Yes, one later wishes that one had that tape to savor, but no regrets.

When Alberta began performing at The Cookery, and it became clear that this two week engagement was open ended, Jimmy invited her to stay with him in his Chelsea apartment rather than go back to her Roosevelt Island place every night. They eventually took a bigger apartment together, so I saw a lot of Jimmy during that time. Of course, I told him about the trunk, but he said he did not seem interested in having it back, and when I told him that it was a young aspiring black actor who found it, he said, "let him keep it."

Besides being a writer, Carl Van Vechten was a prolific portrait photographer whose subjects truly formed a who's who of the intellectual and artistic world. He took those wonderful final pictures of Bessie, and he aimed his camera at the likes of Lukas Foss, Deems Taylor, Gertrude Stein, Billie Holiday, Eugene O'Neill, Martha Graham, Orson Welles....you get the picture, as it were. His backgrounds were often busy wall paper or drapes, and he had a passion for photographing people gazing at masks.
Van Vechten liked busy backgrounds and face props.

Bette Davis at a U.S.O. Stagedoor Canteen.
Jimmy and Carlo, as Van Vechten called himself, had been close friends since the Thirties, and several items in the trunk reflected that. During WWII, when Jimmy was stationed in Florida with the Army, Van Vechten spent much of his time doing celebrity duty at the U.S.O.'s Stagedoor Canteen, just off Broadway. There were such places in several cities during the war, the biggest being New York and Los Angeles, and here service men and women could relax, dance with movie idols to some of the greatest bands around, and have stars like Betty Grable, Jack Benny and Bette Davis serve them food and soft drinks. Van Vechten was among the many writers who volunteered in these canteens. Here is a letter from the trunk, dated November 21, 1942, in which he refers to a canteen and some disconsolate dancing boys.

Van Vechten dropped some celebrated names in this letter to Jimmy Daniels.

Carlo often aimed his admiration at Jimmy Daniels.
Van Vechten was a highly respected man whose interest in black people led him to play a rather good role in the Harlem Renaissance—well, he knew the artistic community quite well, Here (to save myself some time) is a pertinent fragment from my book on Bessie Smith:

Certainly Van Vechten’s writing, even in the Fifties, was characterized by a Great White Father tone that patronized as it commended, but this subtle—and, one might conclude, innocent—racism should not obscure his positive contributions. Regardless of what motivated it, Van Vechten’s attitude represented a new liberating voice for his time, and his support of black artists like Bessie must be seen within that context. At first, his efforts benefited only a select few, but he had sown the seeds for the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, a cultural movement that brought attention to the works of Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, and others. This he was an important force in what came to be a landmark in the history of African-American culture.

In their spacious, lavishly decorated apartment on Manhattan’s West Fifty-fifth Street, Van Vechten and his wife, the former Russian ballerina Fania Marinoff, presided over a remarkable salon whose guest list traditionally comprised some of the New York cultural community’s foremost figures, inevitably including a sprinkling of uptown notables. Having black people on one’s guest list was a novelty in white upper circles, so Van Vechten’s parties might be regarded as precursors to Leonard Bernstein’s radical chic gatherings of the 1960s.

But Van Vechten’s interest in black people was not limited to their artistic offerings. Along with his deep fascination for the ghetto’s pulsating music, Carlo had a weakness for its strapping young men. To accommodate that interest, he maintained a small Harlem apartment whose decor sharply contrasted that of his midtown residence: painted entirely black, its ceilings were decorated with silver stars that glowed pink from strategically located red lights. This place was used solely for Van Vechten’s intimate nocturnal gatherings—asides that only a small inner circle of his downtown friends knew about. "It was a seductive place," recalled entertainer Jimmy Daniels, who only once visited the uptown pad, but was a frequent midtown guest. "There were no chairs or tables, just red velvet cushions, and some of them were more like beds—well, I guess they were beds. It was a decorator’s nightmare, and Carlo acted quite differently when he was there. I don’t think Fania even knew about the place."

On New Year's Day, 1943, Van Vechten wrote another letter to Jimmy, full off intriguing references and, of course, dropped names. I think Carlo missed his calling by not having a gossip column. In this letter, he also mentions Babe Wallace who, like so many other black performers was heading to Hollywood for the filming of "Stormy Weather."

This is becoming a longer post than I had anticipated, so I will continue it in a couple of days. I leave you with a link to the Wikipedia bio of Van Vechten. A truly interesting man.