Jerry Ford’s America: The Chicken Has Lost Its Head

True fear comes to a patient when he realizes his doctor’s a quack. For the country laid out on the operating table, there was a sudden realization last week, amidst the outpouring of reports from Washington, that the leaders of the country had lost all sense of reality. The truth came home in a number of different ways.

• There was Dr. Arthur Burns, seemingly the most collected and powerful member of the govern­ment, insisting that a default by New York City would not injure the international economic system. Even as he pronounced these views, international bankers were talking of withdrawing funds from New York banks and were saying that a default by New York would have “a major negative impact on international financial markets.”

• More profoundly there was the sight of the appointed Presi­dent of the United States uncomfortably trying to explain a botched in-house coup in which his chief of staff had seized the De­partment of Defense to boost his own political career and in which the chief of the CIA had been fired in favor of a political hack from Texas. It became clear to all that Ford is a continuation of Water­gate by similar means; that the country is run by a bungling junta exclusively preoccupied with the supposed threat presented by a retired actor and his wild-eyed horde streaming toward Washing­ton from the Western provinces.

• In Congress, presumed center of democratic supervision, the mood was one of listless hysteria. “Everyone here thinks the whole thing is coming to an end,” said one Senate aide to us last week as he hurried in to yet another meet­ing about antitrust.

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As a matter of rational analysis there is no doubting the serious­ness of the situation. Nobody likes to shout “Fire” in a crowded theatre, but it is obvious that even a two-day delay in welfare checks could mean a frontal assault on supermarket windows; beyond that, the possible shut-off of electricity and gas, the closing of 51 schools and hospitals, and the wind-down of other vital services may well follow from a default.

At the moment the headline story in ongoing crisis is the situation of the New York banks. Because of the complex and secret internal operations of banking, much of this talk is pure speculation. But by the end of last week there were clear signs that the big New York banks were under some measure of strain, signified by the fact that they were having to pay more money for certificates of deposit lodged with them by large corporations in and outside the country. Until a few weeks ago a Chicago bank would have had to have paid a higher interest rate than a New York one. By the weekend the situation was re­versed. There were other signs that individual investors may have been shifting funds from the banks to Treasury securities. Yields on Treasury securities were going down, reflecting a heightened desire to buy them.

Various banking analysts and trade periodicals have begin to discuss the names of specific banks which they believe to be under acute pressure. Most com­monly mentioned are Chemical Bank, long a focus of discussion because of poor management; the Chase Manhattan, because of the sickness of its $900 million real estate investment trust; and Bankers Trust, which has sunk millions in foreign investments. There was even talk that Bankers Trust was looking for a merger. All these banks own city and state paper — and the imminence of de­fault throws into harsher relief their long-term problems.

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There is certainly no agreement on what would happen if any of the banks were on the edge of failure. Burns has made it clear that the Federal Reserve will bail them out. But such a process is not as simple as it sounds, for if a tremor ran through the banking industry straining several banks at once Burns would be hard put to pour enough money into them to plug the dikes without removing significant sums from other sectors of the economy and there­by risking a deeply damaging structural blow at the “recov­ery.”

In Congress legislation to avert default became dimmer than ever, with the unions holding out against the possibility of federal revision of their contracts and pensions in a post-default situation. Revisions of bankruptcy laws allowing New York to be considered a supplicant before the courts underwent some reverses in Congress, but according to some congressmen, looked as though they would struggle through.

This is rational talk. More dominant was the simple, irrational statement expressed by almost all involved that no one knows what is going to happen.

New York’s problems are pre­sented against the backdrop of an alleged “recovery” in the national economy. But there are doubts about this, too, and whether the recovery is already over.

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Despite the much-touted but now concluded “upturn,” unemploy­ment remains high and in some instances is increasing. In New York, for example, the October rate was 11.9 per cent — up from 7.3 per cent last year. In Boston the rate is 12.9 per cent, up from 6.9 per cent last year. In Detroit, where the auto industry is alleged­ly enjoying a modest upturn, the rate is 13.6 per cent.

World trade in basic commodi­ties does not appear to be improving. We have previously reported the deep slump in iron ore, which has led to reduction of 40 per cent or more of iron ore imports by European steelmakers. Only last week news came that U.S. steel producers were cutting back their production along with investment programs for future expansion. Pessimism about the future of the economy is the reason for the steelmakers’ timorous prudence.

The world shipping industry is in severe decline. Oil demand, as we have noted before, is down. Such facts should not be construed as mere statistical embroidery. For the last year everyone has known that world copper trade was in severe decline and that efforts to curtail production by producing countries had failed. The end re­sult hair been that Zaire, one of the major copper producers in the world, has defaulted on loans from major New York banks. This de­fault led to frantic demands for special bail-out legislation by Congress, in which millions would be lent to Zaire in an effort to avert domino third world defaults.

We have already mentioned the situation of the big U.S. banks. Many of the economic thunder clouds could be dispelled if people would only increase their spend­ing. There is little sign of this. Worse still, there is real resistance to purchasing high-priced cars and appliances, and simple lack of financing to buy a house. The construction industry remains in a deep slump.

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In a rational world, as the capi­talist system has shown over time, there could indeed be a recovery and a reorganization of the economy by 1977. World trade could take a turn for the good and U.S. trade profit by the strength of the dollar.

But it is plain that the country is not under rational control. Its leaders are unable to focus on reality and prefer to drift along on a broad river of illusions:

• There is the illusion, fundamental to the situation of New York City, that things will right themselves if only the canons of private enterprise are applied.

• There is the illusion that the Federal Reserve is indeed a central bank and can control the monetary system. But the Federal Reserve is not the central bank of Western Europe and Japan and cannot control economic activities there.

• There is the illusion that the country can survive high structur­al unemployment without enormous social strains. There is the concomitant illusion proposed by advocates of “the capital shortage.” They say U.S. industry needs capital presently being devoted to social spending. They call for a simple redistribution of wealth toward business. Their illusion is that the country could comfortably survive such a reallocation without enormous turmoil.

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Running behind these contradic­tions is a long-term and destruc­tive self-deception: that the United States is controlled ultimately by a pluralistic democracy, replete with checks and balances; that all will be well if those “crooked politicians” are chased out. The events of the last few months have made it clearer than ever that the U.S. is dominated by large corporate institutions and run from day to day by a junta which makes any banana republic seem a model of stability and restraint. One way that these illusions can be maintained is to have a strongly run country: in the case of the United States a strong president who leaves freedom for illu­sion beneath the umbrella of authority. This crucial pact was shattered with the assassination of John Kennedy, the central trauma of the postwar era. In the wake of the trauma came dislocation: the disaster of the Vietnam War; the other assassinations; the ruin of democratic procedures at the Chicago convention in 1968; ultimately the discrediting and collapse of Nixon; his spiritual survival in mangled form with the Ford junta.

People yearn for a reknitting of old pacts, for some sense of con­tinuity in authority. This is what explains a fact incomprehensible to some: the popularity of Hubert Humphrey as a Democratic can­didate. Humphrey links us to the New Deal, to institutional contin­uity. It also explains why the Newsweek cover of Richard Nixon was among its better selling issues.

If this is so, the real question is not whether there should be a strong president — or a dictator. Things may have slid beyond the point where a dictator could spring successfully to the levers of power. By failing to govern, by lying badly and by acting the fool, Ford has finally shattered the pact. What he is nominally leading is a people whose illusions are broken, whose structure of society is eroded and who face panic. It is this situation which renders almost impossible the seemingly simple rational acts required to repair — if only for a time — the political and economic order.


Peter Beard, Photographer: The Toast of Society Photographs the Death of a World

Photographs are the blown leaves of modern experience. They swirl around us, clamoring for attention whether they have anything to say or not, and the sheer mass of them can impair our ability to see even the best. Then, once in a while, some iridescent image will confront us and peel away our numbness like a burned skin.

So I was taking an uncustomary browse through Interview a while ago because the issue was entirely devoted to photography. The pictures were an odd jumble, like an exhibition at some peculiar museum run by, well, Andy Warhol. There was a brawny back by Man Ray, a pointless self-impersonation by Verushka, some crinoline-stiff fashion pictures by Horst, a curious view by David Hockney of a sternly symmetrical park, and then, lurking in the midst of all this mostly forgettable imagery, a two-page spread composed entirely of aerial photographs of dead elephants. They were ghastly and beautiful at the same time, and the mix was hypnotic. Unexpectedly coming upon them was the kind of thing that jogs phantoms loose in the mind. When I saw that the photographer was Peter Beard, it was a confirmation of sorts; for the past several years his intensely personal viewpoint has made me anticipate the emergence of a compelling and unique visionary. In fact, all that has stood in the way of this emergence is Peter Beard himself.

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Beard is a man of so many parts that the best is inevitably confused with the least. As he stands in front of you, there is the distinct feeling that he is on the verge of moving, shifting slightly out of focus every few seconds. One thing is certain: with his 15-year-old J. Press suit and striped shirts, with his refle­xive and fastidious manners, with his habit of laughing off his own most serious commitments the minute they hang too heavy in the air, he is quintessentially a True Wasp. After spending two decades in Africa, photographing animals, and blasting holes in more than a few (in the name of science), ruffling official feelings, getting himself thrown in jail for putting a poacher in his own trap, he has been called everything from jet-set adventurer to high-minded ideal­ist, and each description can fit easily into his accommodating, tessellated personality. Beard is a scion of privilege — he is the great grandson of J.J. Hill, who put together the Northern Pacific railroad; he went to Buckley School in Manhattan and to Yale (class of ’61), and though conjec­ture on the amount of money he has varies widely, it is safe to assume that he could scrape by without doing any of the things he does. Instead, he uses the advan­tage of financial independence to work under the almost weightless cloak of amateurism. (Make that a capital A.) Everything done with a certain brilliance, but nothing te­diously overdone. And no inescapable niches, please.

Despite telling evidence to the contrary, Beard insists he is not a photographer at all, and strictly speaking, he is no professional. “I think the camera is a wonderful machine, don’t you?” he asks, without trying to be ingenuous (I think). “And not to take photo­graphs in this century is crazy.” Beard might actually think that his work is just a casual record of various aspects of his life in Afri­ca, (as Lartigue viewed his work as merely a record of childhood’s se­cret garden) but at its best it is sim­ply too remarkable to be looked at that way by the rest of us. He has been largely ignored as a photographer because, for one thing, he refuses to take himself seriously, enough, which is a serious crime indeed, and for another he shows up frequently in society columns, which is worse. But attention ought to be paid to pictures that contain the kind of portents some raving prophet might bring back from his purgatory under the desert sun; to a man who can make a picture of two dead crocodiles belly up by a joyless lakeshore in such a way that his own disturbed and disturb­ing inklings of doom speak to the unwary observer in an awful whis­per; to someone so struck by the pre-echoes of Armageddon in the deaths of elephants that he will spend days in a wind-pitched light plane making a vast catalog of colossal remains, and then present a wall of those awesome and memorable cadavers to the some­what less awesome and memora­ble creatures of the New York beau monde at a party that rates a two-page spread in W. There is a temptation to see Beard, with his manic energy and charged conversation, as the Ancient Mariner, trying with a sort of helpless anguish to ride out all the famous kisses and hugs and get the wed­ding guests to listen.

In 1955, when most of his friends were presumably going to Bermu­da or even the Biltmore, Beard went to Africa. One suspects that he could have as easily gone to Bermuda, being the manner of man who overlays whatever discontent he may feel with a soothing and deceptive layer of adaptability, and perhaps if he had lived on the benign talc beaches off and on for 2o years, as he has in Kenya, he might even have found the reverberations of doom there. Beard had a close friendship with Karen Blixen (whose pen name is Isak Dinesen) during the last years of her life (she died in 1962). His new book, Longing for Dark­ness, is in many ways an echo of Dinesen’s Out of Africa, and contains an amalgam of her family album photographs taken over 60 years with captions from Dinesen, and stories and drawings by Ka­mante, a Kikuyu who was for years her cook. When Beard is in Africa, he lives in an encampment known as the Hog Ranch on the outskirts of Blixen’s farm near Nairobi, which Kamante now runs for him.

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Beard photographs in Kenya, mostly the peoples and the animals living there in disintegrating harmony. If that were all there was to it, there would be no more to say. Africa can dictate more photographic cliches than a toddler’s birthday party, and given the beauties and the beasts readily available, they can often be surprisingly good. What single Beard out so unmistakably from the mechanized army that roars and clicks across Africa is the same thing that singled out Ahab from the average sea captain — a kind of madness. The eye that peers through his lens is not your Garden of Eden variety rational optic; it is estranged from the world of im­peccable boundaries, and its hallucinatory perceptions transfigure his pictures. They become messages sent from the Apocalypse.

Perhaps even this misrepresents Beard’s vision. For if he is not one of Darkest Africa’s myth-spinners (“How splendid and melancholy is this vanishing continent”) — and he is not — neither is he a trendy doom-beater of ecology (“It’s not going to be easy, my fellow men, but we can save all this noble savagery for our grandchildren”). When forced even to use the word, he winces. Instead, he is, in the specific clarity of his craziness, a recorder of dissolution in a particular time and place, after the manner of Defoe in Journal of the Plague Year or Celine in Death on the Installment Plan. It is not easy to take pictures of animals and keep them unsentimental, but Beard’s are almost fiercely so. He is assembling a rolling landscape of life and death that is never mawkish, and in the process he is dredging up out of himself (and those of his pictures’ viewers who don’t turn away too glibly) prime­val stirrings that fundamentally alter what we see.

Whether as a thoroughly nove­listic character, a stranger in a­ whole geography of strange lands, or as a photographer, Beard does not sit lightly to be examined. In many ways, his recent exhibition at the Blum-Helman Gallery epito­mized the slippery contradictions that mark his work. First, the exhibition came and went in two weeks, while other less deserving imagery hangs on gallery walls until it turns sepia. (Though no longer hanging, many of Beard’s pictures remain at the gallery and can be seen on request.) The Blum-Helman Gallery, which provided an intimate and elegant setting for the pictures, cannot be faulted, since the rent-paying product there is modern painting. But the exhibition was undeniably worth more time, and perhaps­ more space, somewhere else. Because Beard is a society Somebody with the good luck to be out of town most of the time, the brevity of its run never gave the exhibition a chance to evolve from a social event into a photographic one. The pictures were mounted unframed with a nice sense of balance and flow. Most of the photographs were taken from his three books, The End of the Game, Eyelids of Morning, and his most recent Longing for Darkness. The prints varied in size, and they had a raw look consistent with his blithe lack of concern. (“I’ve never been a quality man myself.”) More than a few of the prints were made from copy negatives where the originals were lost in one pat of ooze or another.

The first grouping of pictures was, perhaps intentionally, the least moving, though there were fine moments, like an awesomely tusked boar right out of Jung, just visible at close range through a screen of underbrush. Two up­stairs rooms were respectively devoted to the corpses of ele­phants, and the corpses of tim­e — the loony and monumental collec­tion of diaries in which Beard stores the lint of his existence, plus an epic photographic record of the diaries.

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To put it very mildly, the diaries are the most obviously obsessive aspect of Beard’s work, and there is no way to adequately describe them in a few words, however well chosen. They are a combination of adolescent daydreaming, fiendish detritus, cosmic dandruff, frantic tangible psychotherapy, and visual novas page after exhausting page (to mention a few well chosen words). On one page lies a stra­tegic segment of a Playboy centerfold, on the next a dried snakeskin, on another an exquisitely loony ink doodle, followed by extraordinarily fetching photographs of Beard’s former wife, Minnie Cushing (one of the beautiful Cushing daughters, and Amanda Burden’s sister), a quote from some arcane source, and so on. The league of compulsive diarists has so diminished these days, and these diaries are so phenomenal, that if they were in any way reproducible they could stand on future bookshelves next to Pepys, Kafka, and Woolf, not as literature, but as the copious archeology of a particular mind.

The “elephant room” — with one wall almost covered by 40 or so views of similar and varying death and a large color picture of an exquisitely formed stillborn ele­phant embryo — may have been in its way as arresting as the room of Irving Penn’s cigarette butts exhibited at the Modern last summer, or that of Richard Avedon’s pictures of his dying father shown there two years ago. (Perhaps more than the show as a whole, this room deserves remounting somewhere else.) This is not to compare these pictures in any way, just to indicate that they are all works of significant eccentricity. Beard, using the odd aerial point of view (an invention mothered by the fact that the park authorities consider him persona non grata for his strong espousal of a politically unpopular method of game control, and perhaps because he has had trouble masking his contempt for rampant mismanagement of African wildlife) has turned what might simply have been sad and horrifying pho­tographs into paradoxes on the nature of death itself. Lying on their sides devolving visibly to dust and old leather, the elephants seem almost to be running, but with a weightless grace that belies the reality of their lives. They are a culmination of Beard’s way of looking at the darkening horizons behind and before us, aptly de­scribed by John Hemingway as “beauty born out of ashes.”

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The story that the elephant pic­tures tell is not at all beautiful, however. They represent just a handful of more than 12,000 ele­phants that starved to death when the growth of suburbs and farmlands crowded them into an 8000-square-mile national park. “I have 6000 pictures of dead elephants!” Beard said when I mentioned that some I had seen in Interview were not on the wall. Whether or not that figure is true, there seems to have been a considerable fury behind the aerial survey. The “die-off,” and Beard’s elegiac photographs of it, illustrate what he calls “the fallacy of the bleeding heart.”

Shooting an elephant is not the sort of thing you can drum up much enthusiasm for among mod­ern civilized folk. It can only seem an act of purposeless destruction in a world of ever scarce wildlife, but Beard sees it as the only realistic solution. The problem is that man is interfering in a much more profound way than hunting; he is expanding the geographic limits of his civilization, and elephants, with their voracious appetites and inclination to travel great dis­tances, have less and less place in modern westernized Africa except as tourist trade decor. So they are crowded together on preserves to await nature’s way, in the form of the Malthusian sickle. But as Beard vehemently points out, there is nothing natural about overcrowding, whether in Kenya or Manhattan, and while thousands of elephants sank into starvation, the doomed and distended herds deserted the ancient forests that had been their habitat, and that of hundreds of other species. As Beard and I looked at the wall of pictures a Famous Person remarked in plangent Italianate tones, “How wonderful that they die with all that beautiful space around them — not like the way people die here in New York.” Beard pointed out, with his imper­turbable Wasp politesse, that the photogenic empty space was sim­ply the result of the elephants eating every living thing in the region. Beard’s elephants, vul­tured and rotting, are not just unprecedented views of the end of an epoch, they are intimations of the end of the world.

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In the sense that he will still harness his energies to a cause that has been lost as he watched — ­Africa, after all, will finally be lighted in every corner, the heart of darkness flickering with 10 mil­lion color televisions — Beard is the ultimate romantic. It is not a par­ticularly fulfilling thing to be anymore. His pictures, when they are good, relate to Goya’s drawings of the horrors of war, and they may be serving a dual purpose for the photographer: exercising his anguish by determinedly recording the source of it.

I had thought to write about Peter Beard the photographer and leave alone Peter Beard the toast of society, but it would be an incomplete impression. The prob­lem is that the edges of the two personae don’t match up too well. What, one wonders, does that unforgettable wall of elephants have to do with the paparazzi-choked opening-night party thrown by Lauren Hutton for Beard, attended by the likes of Halston and Andy Warhol? And when Marion Javitz tells the Times reporter that Beard is showing Africa through “young, vigorous, sophisticated New York eyes,” one twitches a bit at that missed point and wishes that Beard would find some other way to go public. It’s no crime to befriend the famous — somebody has to, after all, and what matters is the work — but fair or not, the inevitable glamorous cortege around Beard prevents him from being taken seriously by a public that ought to see his pictures. There seems to be no way to rub the glitter off him. This piece, for instance, began life as a humble photography column and has moved forward into a brighter limelight as if by magic — Beard’s magic.

Beard is an anachronism, a throwback replica of the 19th-century young English nobleman who went out to Africa to get away from stultifying family and wan friends and, if he survived malar­ia, green meat, and knobkerries, periodically returned to regale his circle with tales of savagery. When I spoke with Beard at the gallery he was gushed over nonstop by a parade of famous beauties and semi-titanic achievers, and there can’t be much doubt that at least some of his friends are feeding on his palpable vitality. I suspect he puts up with the lionizing for various reasons. First, he is just too well bred in that obsolescent true Wasp way to suggest that anyone take a walk. Second, he has not been in the bush so long that he’s unaware of the power of celebrity to sell books — though an afterword in Longing for Dark­ness by the luminous Jackie O. really is a bit much. And finally, let’s assume that Beard, despite being to the manor born, is just as liable to be star-struck as any other mortal. It would be asking a lot to expect him to resist being that adventurous adorable beau Peter. (If his diaries are any clue to the state of his libido, the assured flow of attractive women is no minor dividend.) His current bit of mischief is that he misrepre­sented a beautiful African girl who was the wife of a Nairobi official, as a goatherd.

The inconsistencies about Beard would be irrelevant if they didn’t seem to confuse Beard himself. If he means it when he denies that photography has any particular importance to him — and his atti­tude toward the reproduction of his pictures indicates that he does­ — then he can deny the harsh lan­guage of his vision rather than accept the risks of confronting it. Like certain other offhandedly gifted photographers, Beard is better than he knows. What he needs is someone who can prod and browbeat him further into the midnight of his mind’s eye. His next book, Nor Dread Nor Hope Attend, is a collaboration with Francis Bacon with an introduc­tion by R.D. Laing. It deals with such things as stress, death, and the lugubrious future in ways that one can hardly predict, but the elephant motif gives an indication of its tone. This may be the project that finally defines Beard’s vision. Sooner or later, too, there should be an exhibition that orchestrates his singular nightmares in a way that they — and we —deserve.

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I have spent only one afternoon with Beard, and otherwise know him only by hearsay and through his photography. He was polite and personable and just as charming as had been predicted, but my guess is that he is a very disconso­late man. In the second after he would express concern over some­thing, he would laugh at himself and disclaim it. I was reminded of a moment in Casablanca when Paul Henreid protests to Bogart that if we stop fighting for what we believe the world will die, and Bogart just shrugs and says, “Well, what of it? It’ll be out of its misery.”

Friends can’t resist reporting that Beard habitually puts himself in situations full of risk, and many of the pictures, of him and by him, attest to this. He once climbed inside a dead crocodile to have his picture taken and was almost crushed by a spasm of rigor mortis. Yet there is no aura of bravado about him. It may be simply that he doesn’t like what the world is becoming, and feels no particular dread at the thought of leaving before the rug is yanked out from under the rest of us. In his lost paradise, in the seemingly immutable African bush, Beard has seen the present, and it doesn’t work.

From The Archives From The Archives NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Washington, D.C.

Nixon’s Pardon: Our Castle

Like any number of stunned citizens, I have in recent days been looking for something to help me to understand the latest shock to the political system and the national conscience, the pardoning of President Ford of former President Nixon. Now where are we? It has occurred to me that at least for the moment, and perhaps for some years to come, we are in something like the world of Kafka’s Castle.

To be sure, Franz Kafka’s novels, The Castle and The Trial, have come to provide a model that is frequently overworked or misapplied. At the popular level, the novels have given way to a word, “Kafka­esque,” which by now is plastered indiscriminately on almost any baffling or unusually opaque event that is not easily translatable into the going simplifications. Kaf­kaesque has certainly never seemed, until now, a word that might add appreciably to an understanding of the Watergate Years, even if any number of the characters and events that have surfaced along the way have partaken of that eerie mix, formerly associated with dreams, of the grave and the bizarre, the horrifying and the ridiculous, that gives Kafka’s novels their special resonance and saliency.

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Likewise, the attempt to determine President Nixon’s culpability did not, strictly speaking, have much to do with the plight of Joseph K., the accused isolate of The Trial. Nixon protested his innocence no less vehemently, and his talent for self-delusion and self-pity undoubtedly enabled him to see himself in a predicament very like Joseph K.’s, as it is described in the opening sentence of The Trial: “Someone must have traduced Richard N., for without having done anything wrong, he was arrested one fine morning.”

Nonetheless, unlike Kafka’s doomed hero, the former President was never without the power to defy and obstruct the tribunals that would call him to judgment. And “the ending” that President Ford has written for Richard N.’s suffering is the very one that eluded poor Joseph K., despite his equally fervent efforts to bring his own famous case to precisely this conclusion.

And yet it is just this seemingly un-Kafkaesque ending that has now given to Watergate a truly Kafkaesque dimension. President Ford, so very deliberate about closing the Watergate story, has actually, like some latter-day Kafka, imagined an ending wholly in the modernist literary tradition that scorns conventional unravelings and final judgments as so much Mother Goosery, and insists instead upon the ungraspable, the impenetrable, on all that is tediously ambiguous. That human affairs can be settled and managed, even to some large degree understood, is an idea that is as uncongenial to the imagination of the good-natured Middle Western President as it was to the depressed and tormented Prague Jew. Story-writing, it now seems, makes even stranger bedfellows than politics. Kafka, thou shouldst be living at this hour — the White House has need of a new Press Secretary.

And there is, as I see it, another telling Kafkaesque dimension to Watergate now that President Ford has given us his version of an ending. It is the enormity of the frustration that has taken hold in America ever since Compassionate Sunday, the sense of waste, futility, and hopelessness that now attaches to the monumental efforts that had been required just to begin to get at the truth. And along with the frustration, the sickening disappoint­ment of finding in the seat of power, neither reason, or common sense, or horse sense-and certainly not charity or courage — but moral ignorance, blundering authority and witless, arbitrary judgment.

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It is as though the American public, having for a decade now been cast in one painful or degrading role after another — Kennedy’s orphans, Johnson’s patriots, Nixon’s patsies — has now been assigned by President Ford to play the part of the Land Surveyor K. in Kafka’s Castle. In this novel, the Land Surveyor, full of hope and energy, enters a village that is under “the jurisdiction of a labyrinthian bureaucracy whose headquarters is a rather inaccessible Castle looming over the landscape. How eager the Land Surveyor is to get permission from the Chief of the Castle bureaucracy — a Mr. Klamm of unascertainable competence — to get down to work and achieve a purposeful social existence. How willing he is to bend over backwards to live on friendly terms with the powers-that-be, imperfect as they are. Indeed, his early hours in the Castle village bring to mind the touching atmosphere that prevailed in these parts during the 30-day honeymoon with our Mr. Klamm. How willing! How eager! And how innocent.

For with all the will in the world to get on with the job, what the Land Surveyor discovers is that he can’t. The Castle won’t let him. He is blocked at every turn by authorities to whose inscrutable edicts and bizarre de­crees he is beholden, but whose motives and methods defy his every effort to make sense of them, and to abide by them. And that the Mr. Klamm who is running the whole bewildering operation happens not to be a criminal does not make the Land Surveyor’s frustrations any less enervating to the body or the spirit.

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Don’t Tread on Us: New York Should Secede From the Union

Don’t Tread on Us: New York Should Secede From the Union
June 23, 1975

As I write this, the streets outside my hotel are very quiet. Two boys are rolling rubber tires down the cobblestoned street, bouncing them off the walls. A few blocks away, thousands of citizens are gathering in a swirl of red banners, to march through the city. They are going to the park, where there will be speeches and talk and discussion. There is gaiety here, and excitement. The posters of a dozen political parties adorn almost every wall in the city. People rush for the new editions of an endless series of newspapers. The bookstores are crowded. There is a sense that the future lies ahead, and it will be bright and hopeful after a long dark time. I am, of course, in Lisbon.

But in the same newspapers there are stories about the collapse of New York. They tell the readers that the richest city in history is about to collapse, that New York cannot afford the teachers, police, firemen, or sani­tation men it needs.

“How is this possible?” my interpreter asks me. “You are so wealthy. You have so much money.”

It is hard to explain; the closest I can come is to tell him that New York is essentially a colony of the United States, that its people consume American goods to the tune of billions of dollars a year, to pay the mother country some $14 billion in taxes and receive in return about $2 billion, and that even that small return is given begrudgingly. New York, like all colonies, has a balance of payments deficit. The man raises his brows in surprise. “In that case,” he says gravely, “why do you not revolt?”

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And, of course, he is right. Clearly this is the historical moment for the New Yorkers to revolt. We have spoken for years now about the need for statehood for New York, pointing out that it was absurd for, say, South Dakota to have two senators for a population of less than a million, while New York, essentially has none for a population of almost eight million (James Buckley being basically a national senator, representing fetuses and conservatives, while Jack Javits plays at statesmanship, supporting Republi­cans and Israel with more passion than he is capable of generating on behalf of New York). New York’s money is taken by the Americans and plowed into defense con­tracts in Southern California, military aid programs for the likes of Franco and South Korea’s General Park. It is used to maintain 250,000 armed men in Western Europe, at least six separate intelligence agencies, in­credible bureaucracies in Washington and elsewhere. On the day that President Ford gave Abe Beame the cold shoulder in Wash­ington, the Americans were meeting in the Dominican Republic to guarantee $1.6 billion in loans to the Inter-American Bank, loans, by the way, that will be used to help build up the purses of Latin American millionaires at the expense of the people of Latin America. There is absolutely no way that a New Yorker now can have a say about the way his federal tax dollar is spent.

And there are reasons for this. Most of America hates New York. The citizens of America hate New Yorkers. They cannot stand our diversity, our great clanging mixed-up bowl of Jews and blacks and Puerto Ricans and Irishmen and Italians. and Chinese and Poles and Cubans. They despise our energy, the great driving engine of the town that sends us into sweating, muling, ferocious contact with each other every day of our lives. In most of America, people leave their homes, get into the home on wheels they call cars, and drive to the larger homes called the office or the plant, where they work. In Los Angeles, you have to drive miles to see a black skin, unless the black skin belongs to the maid. The hicks and the boobs arrive in New York for their tours in the summertime, and they can’t believe it: “Too much rushing around for my blood.” Of course. Too much talent too. Too much energy. Too much intelligence.

So they have decided to kill us off. Presi­dent Ford isn’t going to help a Democratic mayor of this town. He is not going to bail out a Democratic governor who might some day run for president. Instead, it’s easier to play the game of the Iron Noose. You make life intolerable in New York, and the middle class will move out. It will go to New Jersey and Long Island and Westchester, and will become Republican and fearful. There is nothing easier for a president to control than a fearful middle class. And once you have drawn the Iron Noose of middle-class whites around New York, it will choke to death.

New York cannot hope for help from the American Congress. Even the liberals there fear or hate New York. John Tunney, a supposedly liberal senator from California, went on the record a few weeks ago, saying that it was foolish for the federal government to help New York, because it was so “in­credibly mismanaged.” The day before this statement, he came out for the deregulation of the price of natural gas, a move that will make the oil and gas companies even richer.

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Tunney isn’t alone; not a single Senate voice has been raised in clear support of New York (Scoop Jackson and a few others have wrung their hands a little, but they still assume that the crisis is our fault). George McGovern, whose New York experience was epitomized by his ordering milk with chopped chicken liver in a garment center restaurant in 1972, has said nothing. Barry Goldwater still represents the thinking of the right, changing not an inch from his 1964 statement that New York should be sawed off the United States and floated out to sea.

Sitting here, in a city where unbelievable energy and self-pride have been released after 48 years of dictatorship, it seems more clear than ever that it is time for New York to call the American bluff. It is time to say to them: “Listen, fellas, enough is enough. Either you recognize that we are part of America, or you don’t. If you don’t — if you don’t give us a just share of our own money, and start putting the interests of New York ahead of all those nasty little games you play in foreign countries — then let us go our own way. Let us be free.”

I mean free. I mean secession, separating New York from the United States and mak­ing it a separate country. I mean declaring the Republic of New York.

Free of the continuous bleeding imposed by the Americans, this could be one hell of a country. Under the New York flag, we could create a governmental structure that would resemble that of Switzerland, with 20 or so cantons, governed by freely elected representatives. The president of New York would sit in the present City Hall, and we could probably convert the Coliseum to a National Assembly building, with representatives of each canton sitting for four-year-terms. We would have all the accoutrements of statehood: New York passports, a New York flag, and even our own National Anthem. I think a song that starts off “East Side, West Side” makes a lot more sense than one that starts off, “Oh, say — can you see?”

Internationally we would be a free port, like Hong Kong; with no import or export taxes, giving us enormous trading advantages with other countries. The United Na­tions would, of course, remain here, and the delegates would probably feel a lot more comfortable walking around the town know­ing that we were a free country. We would also make clear to the Soviet Union, Cuba, China, and yes, Portugal, that we don’t care what form of government they have, that we have nothing to do with the lamebrains in the Pentagon who see Communist Peril everywhere. If a country wants to be Communist, that’s fine. If it doesn’t, that’s fine, too. Just don’t spit on our sidewalks, comrade. And we won’t spit on yours.

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The Republic of New York would have plenty of work to do, and one of the major planks in our Constitution would have to be the requirement to work. We could become the first nation on earth to make the four-day week possible, but for the first five or 10 years, we would have a fifth day of work that would be devoted to the Republic. On that fifth day — and it would be staggered according to needs and professions — everybody from bankers and commercial artists to doormen and used-car salesmen would be required to pitch in and rebuild the city. We would have armies of citizens moving through the present ghettos exterminating rats and roaches, repairing plumbing and heating systems, scraping away the mildewed layers of old paint and linoleum and repainting the apartments, sanding down the doors, making every apartment in this city habitable. When that is done, all of those apartment houses would be purchased by the state from the old landlords (who don’t make any money from them anyway) and then turned into cooperatives, owned, kept up, and policed by the people who own them.

The same massive force of New Yorkers would be charged with planting gardens on the rooftops of all apartment buildings in the new country, creating a gorgeous vista to rival anything ever dreamed in Babylon. The backyards would be opened up, with access entryways punched through from the avenues. Those backyard areas, which are now densely clotted with garbage, would then be converted into an endless series of community parks, with miniature disposal plants for garbage (separate chutes for paper and glass), free automatic laundries for the people in the buildings, and recreation centers for old people.

This peaceful New York citizen army would also be charged with constructing day-care centers and miniature nursing homes, one on each block if population density re­quires it. The skills of artists and architects would be employed to make these centers aesthetic de­lights, and not decentralized jails. In the early years, while staff is being trained, these centers would also obtain their personnel from the Fifth Day workers.

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The medical profession would be brought into the government of the Republic in a major way, charged with one simple mission: to provide the best possible medical care known to man. They would train huge cadres of paraprofessionals, mod­eled on the Chinese “barefoot doctor” program, which would send people out into the neighborhoods to find out who is sick before they are too sick to be helped. The General Practitioner would again receive the accolades of his fellow citizens. The specialist would have time and money for research. Health would take precedence over wealth.

Here in Lisbon, the banks and insurance companies have been nationalized, and it is extraordinary to observe the spirit of camaraderie among the workers in those compa­nies, now that they are doing the work for themselves and their fellow citizens, instead of some owner sitting in a barricaded office upstairs. The Republic of New York would probably have to nationalize most of the domestic banking system. To obtain the loyalty of the middle class, it would forgive the interest on all outstanding mortgage loans, thus freeing millions of dollars for con­sumption or other purposes. And it would provide interest-free housing loans for all citizens, to encourage the establishing of permanent roots.

The Republic of New York would have some crucial problems at the beginning. It would probably be nec­essary to pass a mandatory treat­ment law for all drug addicts. Ad­dicts would not be treated as criminals, but they would be told that they are carriers of disease, and treated the way a civilized nation treats bearers of cholera or typhoid. Some of the estimated 250,000 heroin addicts will not respond to any form of treatment; they would be legally provided with heroin, in mainte­nance doses, required to work, in carefully chosen environments that might stimulate them to change. But they will never again be as free as they have been during the plague years. Anyone caught selling heroin would be automatically sent to pris­on for life. Since police estimate that as much as 70 per cent of the city’s present crime is committed by drug addicts, the result would be a safer city, with far less expense for police work; eventually, the police force could be reduced to about a third of its present size. In every respect — ­cost, humanity, firmness — New York would treat the drug problem more efficiently if it were a separate Republic.

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Because land is limited, and because millions of Americans would want to live in the Republic, there would have to be very careful restrictions placed on population. Everyone with an established residence in New York at the time of indepen­dence would have to make a choice: they could become automatic citi­zens of New York, or they could remain citizens of the United States. If they chose to remain with the United States, they would have to apply for a residence permit, to be renewed every year, and would pay approximately 50 per cent more in taxes.

Once New York is free, it would be out of the “We’re-Number-One” lunacy for good. If Tokyo, Los Angeles, London, and Shanghai want the title of Most Crowded City, they can have it. New York would have one basic goal: to become a humane state. Everything else would be decoration.

My own feeling is that such a New York Republic would function best under a system of democratic socialism, with industries controlled by the people whose labor makes them possible. There is no reason why the garment industry, for example, could not be revitalized, and made into the most successful in the Western World. If the design­ers, seamstresses, and managers all owned those plants (as compared to the state itself owning them), they would again become competitive, because technology could be employed in a humane way to produce more goods in less time than the present antiquated system requires. New York could begin immediately to build smokeless industry, based in industrial parks scattered through all the cantons of the city.

The decision on the economic structure would have to be made democratically, after extensive debate in a Constitutional Convention followed by a referendum. A Social­ist economy — provided that it is not centralized in a government bureau­cracy — would be the most rational, the most productive, and the most just that the new nation could create. And when the facts about such a state were made clear to the citizens, I have no doubt that they would choose it over the present corrupt and unmanageable mess.

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Some things would not change. The Mets and Jets would operate as usual, in about the same way that the Montreal baseball and hockey teams operate. Madison Square Garden would still be the capital of sports, and some attractions — such, as heavyweight championship fights ­— would be more easily available be­cause our taxes would not be as high as those of the federal government.

And some things would be added: prostitution would be legalized, until such time that it no longer is desired by citizens; that would be rather soon, I would imagine, since a truly just society would make it possible for prostitute and customer alike to satisfy needs like hunger and loneli­ness without a cash transaction get­ting in the way. The Republic of New York would also open legalized gambling casinos, in the Las Vegas style, capable of paying the best enter­tainers in the world, providing an outlet for visitors and New Yorkers alike to engage in activities that are totally foolish, and eliminating still another mainstay of that capitalist institution, The Mob.

Is all of this some dumb dream, inspired by the revolutionary fervor of a small country across an ocean? Maybe it is. But maybe it isn’t either. In the past few months, the world at large has changed. Vietnam and Cambodia stand as examples to many small countries of the world, teaching the lesson that if you fight, if you stay the course, you will beat anybody. In Africa, Angola and Mozambique are about to be free, for the simple reason that the mother country, from which I am writing this, decided to be free too; a free nation cannot enslave other nations.

I believe that the time for New York to assert its independence is now. All of us are moving into a world that is increasingly revolutionary and will almost certainly be mainly socialist by the end of the century. New York, which has many of the characteristics of a Third World or underdeveloped country, has history itself going for her now. The federal government in Washington, ruled by an unelected President and an unelected Vice-President, grows more dangerous by the hour, encouraged by the national response to the Mayaguez incident to prove its collective manhood in still more violent ways. The war ends in Asia; a policy of detente is established with the Russians; and the Defense budget increases. There is growing talk of war against the Arabs, to steal the oil the country will not pay for on the open market. Well, hey — New York should have nothing to do with people like that. If the Americans want to go around the world picking fights with people, let the Americans themselves pay for the cost of those fights. But they should not be allowed to sap the strength and morale of New York while they’re doing it.

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Can it actually be done? I’m cer­tain that if a national referendum were held tomorrow, with the terms of the decision framed correctly (e.g., “Should New York Be Thrown Out of the United States?”), the Americans would let us go. If we had to go the long route, through an Albany legislature that also feeds on our emaciated body, and then through a series of votes in the other state legislatures, the Americans would change their minds. They would gradually realize that far from being one huge welfare client of the United States, we are in fact a very lucrative colony. They would vote to hold on to us, the way England is holding Northern Ireland, until there was nothing left to surrender. There would be a lot of jingo rhetoric, many quotes from Lincoln, but they would keep us.

Perhaps we will not have to go that way. Mayor Beame has been marvelous during the weeks of the crisis — up to a point. He has placed the blame where it belongs: on Washington, on the Republican state legislators, on the banks. In that way, he has prepared the people of New York for the next step. That next step should be in the form of an ultimatum. If the federal government does not end its arrogant policies toward the city, and give New York access to some of the funds it has itself produced in taxes, then the mayor should immediately start withholding all federal taxes collected by the city from its 320,000 employees. That sum, amounting to many millions every week, would be immediately applied to pay off debts caused by federal policies.

If the federal government failed to respond to the ultimatum, then New York would simply declare the Re­public. This would create a constitutional crisis of catastrophic propor­tions in Washington, and New York would risk armed assault at the hands of the Americans. (In the great tradition of the Son Tay POW camp raid and the assault on Koh Tang Island, the Pentagon would probably invade Perth Amboy, try­ing to find Brooklyn.) But it is unlikely that Ford actually would order the B-52s. Goldwater and the rest of those characters would probably say, “Let the bastards go.” Kis­singer would hold backgrounders explaining to Marvin Kalb that this represents a grave threat to NATO. James Reston would thunder about the “irresponsibility” of the action. Art Buchwald would ask for citizenship. Variety would run a headline saying: “New York Goes Indie; Ankles States.” California would play tennis. And most of the world would cheer.

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They would cheer, because we would be setting another example to the world of the power and will of human beings when threatened with extinction. Most foreigners love New York and hate America; most Americans love America and hate New York. In one simple move, we would find ourselves aligned with the rest of the world, free at last from the asinine policies that have made America the most feared and hated country on the earth.

The timing of revolutionary ac­tions is always critical. For New York, the timing has never been better. The Americans have made their feelings brutally clear about New York. We should accept them at face value. It’s time for us to make the change. It’s time for us to em­brace sedition. It’s time for us to declare the Republic of New York.

Up the Republic!


Bob Dylan’s Pain: Flip Side of Cruelty

Riffs: Bob Dylan’s Pain — Flip Side of Cruelty
February 3, 1975

Bob Dylan has regained his courage. Blood on the Tracks has more raw power than any of his albums since Blonde on Blonde. It fuses the musical control he began to gain in John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline with lyrics that are so honest you begin to share his torment as soon as you hear them. In songs like “Shelter From the Storm” and “Tangled up in Blue” he is once again exploring his private rage and pain, rather than posing as the con­tented country squire of “New Morning.” Even his decision to recut the record with unknown Minnesota studio musicians to rely on the evocative power of his lonely voice, his harmonica and guitar, make you feel, in your pores, that this album comes from his craving to create, not from a willed decision that his career required a new album.

The message that comes through the blues, the ballads, the light, lithe country tunes, is a bleak one. At 34, with his marriage on the rocks, he is an isolated, lonely drifter once again: “I’m going out of my mind, with a pain that stops and starts, like a corkscrew in my heart.”

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He’s still Woody Guthrie’s disciple, but his echoes of Woody’s songs evoke a deliberately desolate counterpoint to his mentor’s exuberant America (and his own past hopes). Woody saw the Grand Coulee Dam as an example of this country’s marvelous capacity to make “‘green pastures of plenty from dry desert grounds.” But for Dylan, the dam is no longer an example of benevolent engineering. It is an arid, ominous symbol. “Idiot wind, blowin’ like a circle round my skull, from the Grand Coulee Dam to the Capital.” The language and phrasing are Woody’s, but the spent pessimism of the lyric and the tone of voice sounds more like T.S. Eliot. Dylan, trapped in the prison of himself, is Tiresias in his dugs. America is his waste­land. The answer, my friend, is no longer blowing in the wind. Now the idiot wind is blowin’ in a circle round his skull.

In Blood on the Tracks, as in all Dylan’s great albums, pain is the flip side of his legendary cruelty. I remember my own anger at him when I first heard his masterpiece of scorn, “Ballad of a Thin Man.” It was released in 1965, when Dylan was still marginally political, when people who would become part of the new left were still trying to decide whether to reach out to America or withdraw from it. That insinuating, derisive refrain — “something is hap­pening and you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones” — promised to become an anthem for a spoiled generation. Dylan had permitted them to view all the America that lay beyond their tight knots of long-haired dopers as a land of Mr. Joneses, a frieze of naive, contempt­ible grotesques.

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The irony is that his cruelty grew out of his own shyness, which seemed to intensify as he moved from anonymity in Hibbing to celeb­rity in New York. Before his motorcycle accident, everything he ob­served was material for a fresh tidal wave of the terrifying images that fill “Desolation Row” and “Mem­phis Blues Again.” There was al­ways a defensive, pained distance between himself anti what he saw, a quickness to judge new people and experiences without ever relaxing enough to enjoy them.

Judging from Blood on the Tracks, the years he celebrated in “Nash­ville Skyline” and “New Morning” were somewhat stultifying, a soap bubble of time filled with contrived joy. Now the bubble has burst open. Sometime — probably as his mar­riage began to shatter — his selfish­ness must have curdled into self-hatred. You can hear that in the unexpected ending of “Idiot Wind.” The song begins with a put-down that sounds as cruel as “Ballad of a Thin Man”, (“you’re an idiot, babe, it’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe”), but it suddenly closes with a forlorn paean to his woman’s “holiness” and “kind of love” and then with the terrible confession that, for the moment, he’s a sort of spiritual paraplegic: “We are idiots, babe. It’s a wonder we can even feed ourselves.”

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Even if part of you dislikes the singer, you have to feel unreserved admiration for the unsparing hon­esty of his songs.

But he can never connect. He’s still too eager to be the Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan or the handsome, mysterious Jack of Hearts (the hero of a nine­-minute ballad on Blood on the Tracks) to permit any anchors in his life. Think of his songs about his five children. He writes about them once in awhile — in “Sign in the Win­dow,” for example, where he or a patriarchal persona says he wants “a bunch of kids who’ll call me Pa,” or in “Forever Young” (as mawkish and touching as “My Boy Bill” in Carousel), where he’s conventional­ly ambitious dad exhorting his young to embody a conventional array of virtues.

But the kids are always objects. He never experiences them as Robbie Robertson, say, experienced his daughter in “A La Glory” — or (to put Dylan in the class where he belongs) as Yeats experienced the prospect of fatherhood in his lovely meditation “Prayer for My Daughter.” And, incredibly, he never sings for his children. All the new songs he’s released since the birth of his first son are filled with intimate details about his love life and his search for God. But there is not a single non­sense playsong like Woody Guthrie’s “Mama, Oh Mama, Come Smell Me Now.” There is not a single lullaby.

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I think that Dylan bears a very special kind of curse. He seems unable to establish warm, lasting relationships, but he’s too eager for love to make the cold decision to sacrifice his private life to his art, as Joyce or even Mailer can. Blood on the Tracks is a great album be­cause he’s writing into the head­winds of that curse, because songs like “Shelter From the Storm” and “Idiot Wind” are so plainly part of his relentless effort to find salva­tion.

The entire record is the excruciat­ing cry of a man who is tormented by his own freedom. But it is also filled with religious imagery, with hints that the wounded, weary Dylan sees “Shelter From the Storm” not as a woman’s warm home, but as the peace of God. I think that, like T.S. Eliot, Dylan longs to submit his unruly will to the ceremonies and certainties of faith — maybe Ortho­dox Judaism, maybe formal Chris­tianity. Or maybe — hopefully — some American fusion of those European forms.

For him, perhaps, the faith he is seeking is the only escape from his swirling emotions, the only alterna­tive to madness or suicide.

CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES From The Archives Uncategorized

The ‘Dog Day’ Bank Robber Learns Moviemaking, Like Crime, Does Not Pay

Littlejohn, the ‘Dog Day’ Bank Robber Learns Moviemaking, Like Crime, Does Not Pay
September 29, 1972

They don’t look like the other couples holding hands in the visitor’s room at Lewisburg Penitentiary. At 127 pounds, he looks boyish sitting hunched-up cross-legged in tan chino pants, gesturing with a cheese sandwich to the reporter. She looks coquettish, daintily draped over his shoulder despite her 238 pounds. Here in this softly sunlit room in Pennsylvania, could anyone sense the recklessness that has ruined their lives or the vulnerability to show-biz exploitation which they share?

They are John Wojtowicz, alias Littlejohn Basso, the gay bank robber, and his wife Car­men. John is nearly resigned to serving his full term as the prison’s gay whipping boy; Carmen’s meager life is uncomforted by belit­tling portrayals of her in a book and movie for which she was paid $50.

The movie is Dog Day Af­ternoon, a tale of abduction, bisex­uality, transsexualism, armed rob­bery, and death. Even if it doesn’t come to match the runaway box office receipts of Jaws, it may chew up a Tommy or two. Mixing accounts of those actually involved and a bit of artistic license, it takes us inside the bank, and, to some extent, inside the bandits’ heads. It shows an uneasy camaraderie between the hostages and Wojtowicz, whom Pacino plays as a tender-hearted loser caught between physical and mental forces beyond his understanding or control. As a re­sult, Dog Day Afternoon is like other Robinson — Cagney — Bogart gangster Films Warner Brothers has given us: you feel sorry for the bad guy.

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Interviewing the bad guy last week, one does feel a little sorry for him. This is Littlejohn’s first interview in three years, secretly and more carefully arranged than the clumsy stickup because prisoners aren’t allowed to meet the press. Especially an openly gay inmate doing a 20-year stretch in a max­imum security fortress like Lewis­burg where, after Jimmy Hoffa checked out, Littlejohn became its most pointed-at prisoner. Even among killers and con men, a kind of glamorous visibility attaches to an inmate with a story like his. You remember it: three years ago on a 97-degree day in August, the news flashed that robbers were cornered holding up a Chase Manhattan branch in Flatbush. Battalions of police enclosed the scene, the media and thousands of onlookers swarmed in to watch while negotiations dragged on to free the nine hostages. Suddenly the drama took a high bounce when it was learned that the two desperadoes inside were gay, one of them Littlejohn, who said he needed money to finance a sex change for his male “wife” named Ernie. While he already had a he­terosexual wife and two children (so did Ernie, it later developed), Ernie had become his second wife in an elaborate mock wedding. Now the second wife was delivered to the scene, a sepulchral figure in a hospi­tal gown, unsteady from a suicide attempt two days before. Fourteen hours later, the two robbers wrapped themselves in hostages and were driven to JFK, where, in a scuffle under the wing of a jet, Wojtowicz was captured and his accomplice, Sal, was shot dead through the heart.

John’s manner is direct but soft-spoken, even oddly respectful of the reporter whom he addresses as Mister, though we’ve had a half a dozen phone conversations and he’s aware his wife and I have developed an easy familiarity during a five-hour drive from New York the night be­fore. (“Did you two make it?” he asked me apparently more curious than concerned.)

Can you see the film here?

They finally said okay. I’ve seen the script, y’know

Does it follow the facts?

Some stuff was left out. Like our plan was to leave the bank by 3:25 to get over to King’s County Hospital pretty quick and get Ernie out. They were holding on to him and visiting hours were over by four o’clock.

You were just going to take him by force?

If necessary. If I didn’t come out with him in 10 minutes, Sal was coming in with guns.

In the car, Carmen had said she noticed a change in John’s attire just before the robbery. He started wearing “gorgeous outfits, like purple velvet pants and lavender shirts to match.”

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Pacino wore crummy clothes. Did you?

Naw, that’s not right. I wore a black iridescent sharkskin suit with a red and black tie. I ran up $1500 on my BankAmericard to get all the stuff together, the guns and everything. Sal had on a gray pinstripe with a handkerchief in the pocket. We all had mirror sunglasses for the getaway. We thought about glue-on mustaches but it was too much. In the script they got me carrying the 12-gauge Mauser shotgun in a long flower box but actually we used one of them giant boxes of Wrigley chewing gum.

Wouldn’t that attract attention?

Sure, but what the hell.

(Robert Barrett, the bank manager,­ has a different recollection. “Yes, they were dressed like a pair of Frank Nitty’s but there was no Wrigley box. Just a brown paper-wrapped thing.” Later Carmen explains, “He just gets carried away. He believes those dumb stories himself.”)

What about all that phone calling into and out of the bank?

Well, before the cops discovered us, we had to make it look normal if anyone phoned in. Since I used to be a teller, when the phone rang, I answered it and gave them what they wanted. “Y’know, credit infor­mation, balances. The real thing. I OK’d a loan I shouldn’t have though, someone with a long Polack name — ­one of my people — and the manager, hollered at me.

(“The girls took the calls,” says Barrett.)

John, would you really have pulled the trigger on those hostages?

Me and Sal and Bobby, we talked it over the night before. The decision was not to waste anybody.

But people had to think you would use those guns.

The decision was not to waste anybody.

Could you kill someone?

If I had to.

Could you kill me?


Why not? 

Littlejohn pauses, lowers his chin, and gazes at me with big brown eyes that have for some time won hearts of all genders. Tender and macho at the same time, it is oddly affecting.

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Though he’s been vigorously om­nisexual since childhood, his open gayness dates from the early days of the Gay Activists Alliance in 1970 when he was a visible and somewhat controversial irregular. “All you had to do to get a laugh,” recollects someone who knew him then, “was mention Littlejohn Basso’s name.”

Why were you offering to exchange hostages for members of the press? 

I told them we’d give ’em one hostage for Chris Borgen, two for Jim Jensen. They sez, nothin’ doing. We’ll give you two priests and a rabbi.

But why?

The more publicity we got, the safer we were. We knew they were coming in to blow us away. But they wouldn’t if we had reporters inside. They wouldn’t dare.

You mean they would have just charged in at you like Attica?

Listen, when John Lindsay phoned, I put Sal on one extension, the manager on another, and one of the girls on a third. He sez, “Hello, is this the bank robber?” I sez, “Yah, this is the bank robber.” He sez, “You got five minutes to come out with your hands up or we’re coming in there shooting.” I sez, “Hey, wait a minute. What about all these hostages here. Somebody could get hurt like that.” He sez, “We don’t care about the hostages. Drop your ammunition or we’ll go through all of them to get to you.” Well the man­ager hears that and he drops the phone and the girl gets sick and starts crying. I hang up. So then I sez to the manager, “Look, we got a problem here. I ain’t gonna tell the women about this. You gotta do it.” So he sits them all down and says. “All right, ladies, in a few minutes they’re coming through that door and we’ll all be dead.”

How’d they take it?

Well, the manager asks me if he can have a gun. He sez, “You got one for me? If I’m going to go, I’d like to take one of them cops with me.” One of the girls wants a gun, too, so we show her how to use it.

John Lindsay, on TV assignment in Moscow, was unavailable for com­ment. At presstime, Wojtowicz admitted playfully, “Well, it was his assistant. Sometimes the parts I can’t remember I make up.”

(“He tells a beautiful story,” says Barrett. “Maybe he should have written the screenplay.”)

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Littlejohn’s hot temper and sly naivete seem to have combined with poor advisers or no advisers at all to spoil his one shot at a break. Three months after the rob­bery, he sold the movie and book rights to Artists Entertainment Complex for $7500. (Putting that into some context, Lenny Bruce’s heirs will probably make between $250,000 and $400,000 from the film Lenny.) “If $7500 seems low now,” says Martin Bregman, AEC’s president and the film’s producer, “you must remember we were only speculating that we could make a movie. It was later we were able to sell the package to Warner Brothers.”

Apparently Littlejohn made the deal without professional advice and while in an anguished state of mind. Mark Landsman, his court-appoint­ed attorney who plea-bargained the 20-year sentence (John was broke), retained $3500 of the $7500 with Wojtowicz’s approval, “but I was just a letter carrier on the movie deal,” says Landsman. Did he give John any wise counsel or see to it the contract held water? “To be perfect­ly frank,” says Landsman, “I didn’t want to get involved. How should I know what it takes to pay off a criminal for his story?”

It has been widely reported that Wojtowicz owns 1 per cent of the net profits of the film. He does not. Asked for confirmation, Warner Brothers, and Bregman, who is Al Pacino’s agent, searched their files and report that no such contract exists.

Pressed for a statement, he said, “All right, look, if Dog Day does as well as Serpico (his last film which grossed $22-$23 million). I’ll give Wojtowicz $25,000.”

“Can I print that?”

“Print that,” said Bregman.

It was two days before the pre­miere and he was understandably nonplussed. “You’ve made me feel very guilty. If the picture makes any profit at all, I’ll see he’s taken care of. If we get fat, some of the fat will flow in his direction. A job, an apart­ment, something.”

Carmen Wojtowicz has fared even less well. Believing the $7500 deal for John’s “defense fund” depended partly on her cooperation, she says, she signed a release to her rights in a West 4th Street book store on the back of Randy Wicker’s briefcase, standing up. (Wicker, then a writer for a gay newspaper, The Advocate, was acting as liaison for AEC.) Later Carmen gave him a tape recorded account of her experience during the robbery, and her recollections of life with Littlejohn, for which Wicker paid her $50. “I got a little red raincoat for my daughter,” she says, “and some new kitchen curtains.”

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Warner Brothers may have been covering their bets this July when they asked her to film a “promotion­al documentary” to plug the movie on TV. “Six hundred dollars is what people usually get,” she says Warners rep Bardwell Jones, told her, ”but promise me you won’t go telling anyone.” Her counteroffer of $1500 was snapped up. Three days later, she left tor Lewisburg at 8 a.m. in a Warner Brothers limousine. There, she secured John’s blessing on the project without any­one’s yet seeing the 500-word release it entailed. She says Jones told her he forgot to provide it. When I phoned him last week, he seemed agitated and refused to comment.

A careful reading of the release shows that, while it does not deliver Carmen into slavery, it considerably weakens any potential action by her against the studio. As does her film footage, sitting in a vault somewhere.

When Carmen saw Dog Day Af­ternoon, she wept. “Am I that repulsive?” she asked. “Is my apartment as awful as that girl’s was?”

Carmen crash-dieted to 150 pounds for her wedding in October 1967, “but I was weak and miserable,” she recalls, and the weight began to climb again. “John has always said he likes me this way,” she adds (he agrees). Sometimes loud but never strong, she has adjusted her life to child raising, occasional dating (“Did you know some men are abso­lutely weird for, y’know, big girls?”), and waiting for John to come home.

Dell’s “novel” would appear to assume she has no feelings whatev­er. Tina, the wife, is referred to as “a fat cunt,” “a no-good pusbag,” “guinea broad” with a “lardhead’s brain.” One passage reads, “Tina had been one cute cunt in those days… you could still see the cow’s shape. Nowadays there was nothing to see but acres of soft, drippy meat. Her tits hung down—”…

“It’s a matter of First Amendment free speech,” says H. Miles Jaffe, a lawyer whose firm withdrew from representing John and Carmen last spring. “Certain landmark court decisions say that, in a way, we all live our lives in the public domain. Then, of course, the Wojtowicz’s did sign some ‘sort of’ releases.”

“Maybe,” says Carmen in a small voice, over tea in her tidy kitchen last week. “Maybe they’re trying to screw us because we’re just little people.” She and her two children receive $175 in welfare every two weeks and she pays $150 rent to her father for a four-room apartment in his aluminum-sided, three-family house in East New York. She’s a Christmastime Avon Lady and to help with the kid’s clothes, this summer she worked the 8 to 2 a.m. shift at Carvel twice a week for $24 until welfare found out and started de­ducting it back, $25 per check.

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The children sleep in an alcove without windows which has been cheered by new mattresses and playroom wallpaper put up chest high with Scotch tape. They have their father’s eyes and irrepressible nature that often confounds their mother. “I holler at them and pound them,” she says, “but they’re good kids. They just need Johnny more. So do I.”

Littlejohn won’t be with them before 1979 when he is first eligible for parole. He is a lure for rape attempts (one successful, he says) and, partly to defend himself against this, has paired up with another prisoner. “Cool it,” he says, smiling evenly, making me think I’m prying too deeply until I realize a guard is passing close, and as a “friend” I shouldn’t have a notebook.

It sounds like your hostages were pretty brave people, right?

Yeah, all except the bank’s security guard. He got right down on his knees and begged for his life: “Oh please, PLEASE don’t kill me — I don’t want to die!”

(“True,” says the bank manager sadly. “He was six feet, 24-years-old, and a kind of black belt type.”)

How about yourself? Weren’t you scared?

I was too busy to be scared.

(“Well, he was often very excited,” says Barrett, whose own great bravery is understated in the film. “We had to keep saying, ‘Calm down, John, calm down.’ When one of the guns went off by mistake,” he continues, “it blasted a hole in the floor and we all jumped 10 feet. So John announced to us, ‘Y’know, I’ve had to take a shit for three days and I think this thing drove it up farther.’ ”)

John, why didn’t you bother about disguises or fingerprints?

I figured I didn’t have long to live anyway. Cancer. The important thing was to save Ernie’s life.

(“Yes, he kept saying, ‘I’m a dead man anyway,’ ” remembers Barrett, but John’s intestinal lumps later proved benign. “He was obviously concerned about Ernie: ‘How do you like this thing?’ he said several times. ‘What I’m doing for her, and the silly bitch won’t even come in here and talk to me!’ “)

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John, why did you do it? You threatened to shoot nine people to get money for Ernie, who, you’ve said, only loved you half as much?

I loved him enough for the both of us (Carmen begins to study her lap.) That’s why I did what I did.

Now that Ernie’s had the sex change, do you love Liz Eden? (her new name)

I guess not. I never see her no more.

Does she seem like a woman to you?

Naw, she’s still a man.

After $15,000 worth of plastic surgery, silicone injections, implantation, and dermabrasion, Liz at 29 is a real woman standing 5-foot-10, 38-27-38. With $1000 worth of work at the chin, she can throw away her Track II razor blades forever. Over a London broil on Eighth Avenue the other night, looking a bit like Dolores Del Rio in a red halter and tiger-lady nails held on by Crazy Glue, Liz was feeling good about the modest settlement she made with Warner Brothers in a million dollar injunction against the movie. Another $2 million action against the book is pending. She was smarter than Carmen and turned down $3500 for the documentary.

“I may announce plans at the premiere to marry Tony,” she says, her eyes shining, her built-up cheekbones enough to make Hepburn weep. Tony, she explains, is 17, gorgeous, learning how to repair air conditioners, and very hot in bed.

“Then do I take it you don’t love Littlejohn anymore?”

“Never did,” she replies, slicing her meat into 20 bitesize pieces. “I must have told him a thousand times.”


Honoring Molly Haskell: A Review of “The Story of Adele H”

This week, the New York Film Critics Circle gives a special award to Molly Haskell, one of America’s foremost film scholars and a pioneering feminist critic. Haskell, author of the essential study From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies and other books (including a recent one on Steven Spielberg), wrote for the Village Voice throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s. As a tribute to her, all this week we are featuring selections from our archives. (You can read our earlier post of her review of Gator here.) Here is her 1975 review of Francois Truffaut’s drama The Story of Adele H

“The Story of Adele H” Is a Tribute to an Experience
By Molly Haskell
October 27, 1975

The Story of Adele H, about the younger daughter of Victor Hugo, is a remarkable love story directed by Francois Truffaut. It is the recreation of a passion, but the passion entertained by this particular woman in love, played with frightening self-possession by Isabelle Adjani of the Comedie Francaise, is seen not as desire or ecstasy, or with even a glimpse of mutuality, but as a dark and one-sided obsession, a pursuit remorselessly undertaken, with the female stalking the male, almost literally, to the ends of the earth. It was an appropriate ending to the New York Film Festival in that, like so many of the year’s films, its appeal was to the intelligence rather than to the emotions, in that Truffaut asks us to understand Adele’s situation without identifying directly. This approach seems more logical in a Brechtian parable like The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum than in a love story, which is what makes the Truffaut film so fascinating, but ultimately more as a tribute to an experience than as an experience in itself.

Adele Hugo, according to journals she left that were recently discovered, decoded, and edited into a biography by Professor Frances Guille of Wooster College, and which served as the basis for the film, went to Halifax, Nova Scotia, in 1863 in pursuit of an English officer with whom she had had a fling, intending to force him to marry her. Although talented and intelligent, she was, by all accounts, the neglected child overshadowed not only by her illustrious father, but by his preferred daughter, Leopoldine, the victim of a drowning accident prior to Adele’s departure. Truffaut’s film begins with Adele’s arrival in Nova Scotia. Under an assumed name she puts up at a boarding house and proceeds to pass her time writing voluminous diaries and imploring, annoying, and spying on her ex-lover. She follows him when he is transferred to Barbados where, bedraggled and demented, she is nursed by a native woman and taken back to France, to pass the rest of her days in an asylum.

We never see Leopoldine in the film, except in the images of drowning (in which — ultimate love-sacrifice — her husband, unable to save her, had jumped in after and drowned) which haunt her sister’s sleep. Nor do we see her father, only feel his presence overbearingly in every reasonable letter to his daughter, a presence that extends to, and is expressed by, the dark Victorian interiors and somber lighting of Nestor Almendros’s cinematography, which give way finally to the blazing sunlight and madness of Barbados. A French audience, for whom Leopoldine is a familiar name and the figure of Hugo is almost as oppressive as it is for Adele, would see that Adele’s journey to the “new” world, in search of a “new” name, is also the search of a woman — a woman emblematic in the extreme of a woman’s inherited disadvantages — for something else: for an identity apart from her father. The irony is that her failure to secure this adoptive identity becomes her “success,” as she devotes herself to the passion that is her true identity. And thus does Truffaut, in rendering explicit the insight that has lain beneath the surface of many a “woman’s film” (Back Street, Only Yesterday, and — most brilliant — Ophuls’s Letter From an Unknown Woman and Madame De), make the “woman’s film” to end all “women’s films.”

In all of these, a woman in love defies social decorum and propriety, rejects the normal woman’s destiny in marriage and family, lives as an outcast — in sin or in violation of duty — and finally goes beyond even the beloved himself in embracing an emotion that is religious, total, self-defining, based on denial rather than fulfillment, and, by communing with no mortal being, can end only in martyrdom and death. What the world (and most feminists) see as a woman “throwing her love away” on an unworthy man is in fact a woman throwing away the world and all dependencies for a love radically created by her, preparing herself, kamikaze-style, for immolation on its altar. This dark and terrifying side of love, never quite acknowledged in most Hollywood films, and made tragic in Ophuls, becomes the exclusive tonality in The Story of Adele H. In thus intellectualizing the etiology of an obsession, Truffaut has made palatable to critics a theme that would otherwise be regarded as soap opera, but he has altered the premise in the process.

For instance, Adele’s British officer, an attractively callow man played by Bruce Robinson, is a negligible figure — a handsome wastrel unable to cope with a passion he senses is not real love but rather a complexly motivated obsession which is an end in itself. In the old woman’s films, the lovers — played by such leading men as John Boles, George Brent, Louis Jourdan, Charles Boyer, Vittorio De Sica — not only played a more active part in the drama of attraction, but seduced the audience into an understanding of how such a passion could evolve. They, too, like Lieutenant Pinson, were “pretexts,” but this came as a gradual revelation, not as a premise.

By beginning with this assumption, by opening in darkness and doom of an obsession analytically understood and predictable, the Truffaut film becomes a meditation on the “woman’s film” rather than a direct experience, and skirts the depths and heights of the great tragedies of obsession. In Vertigo and Madame De, there is a progression from normal to abnormal, a sense of options available to, and rejected by, the main character, so that his/her choice, however inevitable it appears in retrospect, precipitates the fall and removes him from a society he had enjoyed. But Adele, belonging to that tribe of madmen, gamblers, outlaws that so fascinate the French but are perhaps better described in the nondramatic media of prose (I think of Gogol’s Diary of a Madman and its peculiar adaptation to the stage), embraces her martyrdom from the beginning. There is no dramatic conflict.

Danielle Darrieux’s gaunt martyr in Madame De is preceded by an ecstatic woman, in love for the first time, and she is preceded by a charmingly vain society woman. But Adjani’s secretive Adele begins, like Truffaut’s “wild child,” with whom she has more in common, as an outsider, intersecting with society only to seek a human form for her obsession.

Truffaut understands, as Ophuls understood in Madame De and Hitchcock in Vertigo (with the interesting difference that the male obsession is fixated on the idealized image of a woman, while the woman’s is in the emotion itself), that such an obsession is not only magnificent but terrible, not only sublime, but selfish and cruel. But it was Hitchcock and Ophuls who gave us, in the most deeply sympathetic “rejected lovers” ever created on the screen (Bel Geddes in Vertigo and Boyer in Madame De), the true measure of this cruelty. This is what makes these films, for me, the greatest ever made, their sense of the wholeness that is forfeited or lost by the mad and by those who would defy society and live at its edge. They see, with ambivalence, the wholeness that is left behind, but they also see, with ambivalence, the obsession to which art and love and madness can lead. Loss and gain, the components of paradox, are simultaneously present in the vertiginous daring of their style, whereas Truffaut’s “safe” devotion to the truth has the effect of constantly justifying Adele’s actions, redeeming them with gravity, without ever plunging her into the abyss of romantic folly and cruelty that might, paradoxically, have given her the dimensions of greatness.