Conclusion of JACK @ 75, his celebration of his 75th birthday (August 9). Jack writes,
What is a life but stories—stories we tell ourselves, stories we tell others, stories others tell about us? Out of these stories we fashion—what? I am writer, husband, father, poet, teacher, friend, “radio personality,” occasional cook, householder, amateur guitarist, sometime tap dancer, jobless person, performer, student, any number of other things. And now, biographer. How was “he” as a poet? you may ask. How was “he” as a lover? Was his cooking all right? Who is “he” when “I” see “myself” from the objective point of view? Who is doing the seeing? Where did “he” get his lamentable habit of putting words in quotation marks and italics? What are these words anyway? Will they tell me anything real about “him”? —Adrift, to use the title of one of his/my books. But what did “he” mean by that?
A few years ago I was told by my doctor that I had diabetes. The doctor told me to read up on the subject but if I saw any references to “blindness, impotence, and death,” not to worry, that wasn’t the kind of diabetes I had. Appropriately enough, my earliest memory is of being fed candy. My mother and I are lying on a bed. I believe we are in a hotel room in Port Chester, New York, a city in the southeastern part of the state, on Long Island Sound, population approximately 25,000. We have recently moved to Port Chester from Philadelphia. My father is not there. My mother is, if I’m not mistaken, weeping. I am being given candies which were actually named “Chocolate Babies” but which my mother and others regularly referred to offensively as “N— Babies.” My mother is making an effort to shut me up. I am probably about three years old and I am “eating babies.” My mother perhaps wishes that real babies could disappear as easily as these babies can. If I remember correctly from later experience, the candies are delicious, but at this moment they are not quite doing the job. My mother is trying to prevent me from asking a question which tears her apart. Where is Daddy? Is Daddy coming back? She doesn’t know, though at some level, I think, she realizes that he will come back. She knows but she does not know, and the uncertainty is tearing her apart. The uncertainty is tearing me apart too, and so I keep asking. I am like an awful witness to the failure of her life.
After that, nothing. I don’t know how the story turned out. Perhaps my father walked through the door the next moment and reassured everyone. Certainly we were able at times to maintain the fiction of being a happy family as, here, we were maintaining the fiction of being an unhappy one. Perhaps this is a “screen memory,” standing as an emblem for many individual events. When the pressure of circumstances became too much for him, my father would simply disappear: later I learned that he would go on “binges.” But he would always come back. Perhaps I was reminded of these disappearances when I heard stories of a Christian god who also disappears—disappears for centuries—but who also promises to come back. That god too is frequently represented as a baby, and, under certain circumstances, like the Chocolate Babies, he is “eaten.”
The two close friends had been arguing all afternoon. They were also laughing at the absurdity of their argument. The argument was all in the script. They were radio stars, Fred Allen and Jack Benny. The argument—they called it a “feud”—was all in the writing. It was the late 1940s. Everyone knew that it would soon be The End of radio. Allen knew it. Benny knew it. The script writers knew it. All the comedians figured that they had better start wearing dresses like Milton Berle. They had better start squirting each other with seltzer bottles. It didn’t matter what they said anymore. Nothing like that mattered. You had to look funny.
When it was radio, no one paid any attention to what anyone looked like. William Conrad, a short, fat, balding man who played Matt Dillon on Gunsmoke, thought he would go on to play Matt Dillon on television. After all, he had made movies. He knew how to act in front of a camera. But only his voice was six foot tall and ruggedly handsome. He was a short, fat radio actor. James Arness got the part. That’s how it was in those days. The money moved what moved and the money was being taken out of radio and being put into television.
“You, uh, you finished tonight, didn’t you, Jack,” said Allen to Benny in the script. Benny had, for the season. “Yes,” said Jack carelessly. “Every year the sponsor and I say goodbye and shake hands and…yikes!” “What’s wrong?” asked Allen. “This year he didn’t shake hands.” Whoo hoo it was funny. Darkness was descending on radio, which had encouraged everybody to “turn out your lights.” The brightly lit radio dials were on the wane. “I don’t care about TV,” people would say, “I’ll stick with radio.” “TV is good for shut-ins, not for regular people.” (Why was radio not good for shut-ins?) The great radio producer William Spier gave people buttons that said, Help stamp out TV, recalling a slogan of the time, Help stamp out TB.
For a while, Fred Allen was king of the airwaves. Then it was discovered how to destroy him. Not just win; destroy him. His competition gave away money. That’s what the audience really cares about. That’s what the bourgeoisie has in its bones. If you listened and you knew the name of a song, they would give you money. But you had to listen. That’s how Fred Allen went down. Intellectual wit came bang against moneygreed and lost, lost, lost.
The poet wrote: The idea is that there is a link between self-criticism, feelings of worthlessness, and bourgeois morality. Is that possible? Does the one feed upon the other? Feelings of terrible self-criticism, worthlessness are in their way socially unacceptable. Bourgeois morality is extremely socially acceptable. Is it possible that the one masks itself as the other—and thus achieves a permanence and a place of honor in one’s consciousness? Is it possible that bourgeois morality and feelings of worthlessness, even of self-destruction, are, at base, one and the same? Bourgeois morality brought old radio down.
“To stay on the air, you gotta give stuff away,” said Allen from the script, remembering his audience. “I’ve got a new quiz show; it’s called ‘Break the Contestant.’” So, ha ha, in the script, Benny “disguises himself”—this wasn’t hard to do on radio!—and enters Allen’s contest. He wins! But no, he has been recognized. “You’re king for a day!” says Allen, mocking Benny in the script. “Come on, men, the king has to have new robes. Take off his pants.” This was radio, but it had an audience of people watching. This show gave those people something to see. It was like Milton Berle wearing a dress. “Allen,” snarled Benny as his pants were removed, “you haven’t seen The End of me!” “No, king, I haven’t,” said Allen, “but it’s coming up soon.” Good night, folks, we’re a little late.
A special feature of today’s show is Jack’s musical setting of this famous passage from Gertrude Stein’s Everybody’s Autobiography (1937):
We began to do everything Gertrude Atherton took us to eat the smallest oysters there are and in a quantity they are the best oysters there are. She took us to see her granddaughter who was teaching in the Dominican convent in San Raphael, we went across the bay on a ferry, that had not changed but Goat Island might just as well not have been there, anyway what was the use of my having come from Oakland it was not natural to have come from there yes write about it if I like or anything if I like but not there, there is no there there.
The show will also feature musical settings of Jack’s work by composers Corinna Manetto and Tony Tune (Tony Perez).
With Adelle Foley.
EN L’AN DE MON EAGE
strange feeling as if my age
strange feeling as if my age
were separate from me:
were separate from me:
I look at the pile-up
I look at the pile-up