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Who Am I to Doubt the Jedi? ‘Return of the Jedi’ Reviewed

Heaven knows I have fought the good fight against the Jedi — not in the name of evil, of course, but on behalf of a cranky adulthood hobbled by doubts and fears about the human condition and the social contract. The record speaks for itself: I was never stirred by Star Wars; I was never enthralled by The Empire Strikes Back. Thus it is perhaps fitting that Re­turn of the Jedi has arrived on the eve of 1984, and that, like Orwell’s battered hero, I have surrendered to the Force emanating from the myth-making factory of Big Brother George Lucas. The first sign that I was abandoning critical auton­omy in this matter came with my taking my young, intelligent, trend-setting god­son Ross to the ritualistic screening of Return of the Jedi. His critical verdict for which I waited with a pathetic mixture of humility and dependency was clear and lucid: Return of the Jedi was even better than Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back. Now that I have thought about it, I tend to agree. Lucas and his collaborators have managed to sustain the psychic ten­sions in their mythological world through three films over eight years, and by the time the final returns are in from around the world, the gross receipts for Return of the Jedi should exceed the national debt of Nigeria.

There is already some grumbling over this latest joust of the Jedi, to be sure. With the critical crime of sequelitis, one is presumed guilty until proven innovative. One of my cranky adult editors has been heard to complain that Return of the Jedi is cutesier and furrier than its predeces­sors. The Ewoks, a tribe of Teddy bears with traces of both jungle savage and third-world instincts, may seem a bit much at first glance, as if the Star Wars series had been gobbled up by the Mup­pets. Ultimately, however, Return of the Jedi is less callow than Star Wars and less turgid than The Empire Strikes Back. Part of the difference can be attributed to Lucas’s shifting of the directorial reins from anti-genre director Irvin Kershner, who strained to inject complexities into the simplicities of the Star Wars formula for The Empire Strikes Back, to very straight-faced genre director Richard Marquand, who had poured the lushest World War II romanticism through Eye of the Needle, and who has thus managed to blend the Oedipal stirrings of the charac­ters with the moral symmetry of their universe.

What is most remarkable about Re­turn of the Jedi, however, is the canny exploitation of the fact that Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, and Carrie Fisher have aged eight years since Star Wars, and can thus no longer convincingly impersonate Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys in outer space. Rather than resort to the painful younger-than-I-really-am masquerade of Diana Ross in the unlamented The Wiz, Lucas, Kasdan, and Marquand unveil Princess Leia’s legs at long last for a nifty harem routine in the evil lair of a globular intergalactic gangster right out of Lewis Carroll. The spectacle of Princess Leia in the evil clutches of a libidinously mis­shapen monster struck even this gray­beard as more of an erotic shock than any of Nastassja Kinski’s ridiculous fashion mag poses in Exposed. This only goes to demonstrate that whereas Lucas and Company are always one step ahead of Leslie Fiedler, poor James Toback is always one step behind. My aforementioned godson Ross, for example, has grown up on the Star Wars trilogy. All the young fans of Star Wars are now eight years older, and thus are prepared to accept some of the pettier, subimperial forms of grossness to which the Princess Leias in their own midst may be exposed. What is important, however, is that Luke Sky­walker and Han Solo do not make any fuss over what has presumably occurred to Princess Leia. They are still the same people with the same feelings toward each other. Indeed, the revelations of hidden family ties in Return of the Jedi take on the incestuous amplitude of Shake­speare’s late novelistic plays. By the end, however, all the loose ends left dangling in the deliberately open-ended The Empire Strikes Back have been tied so firmly together that it seems impossible for Sky­walker, Solo, and Leia to reemerge in anything but a Proustian recollection of the Jedi trilogy.

It should be noted that Luke Sky­walker, Han Solo, and Princess Leia preexisted Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, and Carrie Fisher in Star Wars. As is not the case with the big-star movies, the iconography of the players was completely subordinated to the mythology of the characters. When kids talked about the movie, they used the names of the charac­ters rather than the actors. By contrast, when pop theoretician Lawrence Alloway asked some years ago what was the name of the character Marilyn Monroe played in Niagara (or in Some Like It Hot or The Misfits, for that matter), his question was clearly rhetorical. One might ask to the same point the names of the characters Robert Redford and Paul Newman played in The Sting. On the other hand, we have the reverse iconography of Rocky and poor Sylvester Stallone, who will probably have to be buried in his boxing trunks after playing a geriatric Rocky IX for the senior citizens circuit. In Return of the Jedi, we are at an in-between phase in the relationship of icon to character. Hamill, Ford, and Fisher have not become big enough stars to transcend their roles, but they are more recognizable presences with the ability to modify the characters they play with behavioral accretions acquired from other films. They seem more com­fortable with each other, and with their increasingly bizarre environments. For the first time I was aware of three dis­tinctive personalities, not the most over­whelming I have ever encountered, to be sure, but likable withal.

This does not mean that I have sur­rendered unconditionally to the Force. Max Ophuls’s Liebelei at the Public The­ater (May 31–June 6) and Kenji Mizoguchi’s The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums at the Film Forum re­main infinitely closer to my notions of grown-up sublimity than Return of the Jedi. Yet I must concede that Lucas and his associates deserve their huge success because they genuinely respect and understand the children in the audience, in themselves, and in all of us. As I watched Ross completely consumed by the absorb­ing spectacle of a son reaching out Christ­like for the mercy of his father, I was reminded of a time almost 46 years ago when my very little brother George screamed in terror at the sight of the evil witch in Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The link jumped into my mind through the eerie resemblances of Ian McDiarmid’s Emperor to the animated witch. Lucas has learned his lessons well from old movies. Nonetheless, he has also covered the few vulnerable positions on his ideogrammatic flanks. To the imputations of racist and colonialist overtones in Star Wars, he has responded by bringing Billy Dee Williams aboard again from The Empire Strikes Back, and striking a chic Viet Cong-Sandinista pose with his outgunned but not outfought Teddy Bear brigades. All in all, the com­mercial colossus strikes again, and this time it can claim me as one of its prison­ers, that is, if it even bothers to take prisoners.

As to where the Jedi are going from here, all I can think of is a growing ideo­logical rupture between the collectively­-oriented conscience of One-Worlder Luke Skywalker and the rugged individualism of confirmed Reaganaut Han Solo. Prin­cess Leia would find herself torn between these two divergent ideologies and manifestations of manhood. I’ll tell you what, George. Mail me a little front money so that I can take a leave of absence from the Voice to bat out a treatment. Say a cool million or so. After all, when I surrender, I like to surrender in style. ■

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In Praise of Pulps

Bannon’s Lusty Lesbian’s

“Ann Bannon” — a pseudonym — now teaches college English somewhere in Cali­fornia, but from 1957 to 1962 she wrote and published six interconnecting potboiler nov­els about contemporary capital-L Lesbian life. These pulp stories are simply amazing reads — engaging, sexy, and unexpectedly il­luminating. It is almost impossible to believe they were written when they were because there was — and is — so little like them. Ban­non took the soft-porn/illicit-love genre and, without denying the reader’s expectation of simplistic, unlikely plot and routinely pas­sionate characters, opened up the form to allow a serious study of three women corning to grips with their attraction to women.

Why did Bannon write potboilers and not “serious” novels? Her pulps were read, passed around, but no library carried them, and they dropped out of sight. (A few years ago, the Arno Press “Homosexuality” series, edited by Jonathan Katz, reissued four; now Tallahassee’s Naiad Press has reprinted five, leaving out the one called Marriage.) A couple of books from the same period used similar “coming out” lesbian themes — The Price of Salt by “Claire Morgan” (Patricia Highsmith) and the moving Desert of the Heart by Jane Rule — but these are straight­forward novels, somewhat quiet in tone if you ignore the shock of their woman-loving protagonists. Although Highsmith and Rule were brave, Ann Bannon “got away” with much more rafter-shaking woman-chasing because potboilers aren’t subject to system­atic cultural censorship. Highsmith’s and Rule’s novels lack the protective subterfuge of genre conventions. The potboiler ploy was Bannon’s strategy. Her problem was to sneak guilt-free prolesbian values past the genre’s sniggering or unsuspecting reader: to find her audience within an audience, or to create it.

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Cultural values are found under any rock the culture has produced. Gemstone or flagstone, the various culture-worms are un­derneath. This is not to say that each rock covers the same ground. In the late 1950s, in these United States, the values most often affirmed in novels, TV shows, advertising, you name it, were the goodness of America, the benefits of progress, and the inalienable right to a home, car, and wife. Of course, these assumptions as well as others — like the status quo of blacks — were openly and covertly challenged, for that’s the way values are defined.

Yet in the late ’50s, some worms still dared not speak their name. Both “high” and popular culture evaluated homosex­uality by denying it. A few exceptions were allowed: complete repression (to invoke the psychoanalytic trope) gives the repressed thing totemic power, and we certainly don’t want that. High culture managed this dif­ficulty through a medical paradigm, defining same-sex inclination as deformity, neurosis, illness, or whatever the culture needed to contain the worm and consolidate control over it. When high culture broached the topic outside the hospital, it did so at its own peril. The spate of novels and stories about male-male love that appeared, logically, just after World War II (Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar, John Horne Burns’s The Gallery, Ward Thomas’s Stranger in the Land) were pulled off the market, to live on only as dog-eared documents of a sub­cultural underground — at least until they could be revived in more temperate com­mercial times. In the ’50s, if a novel was “gay,” it was not really a Novel. In this way the forbidden subject of homosex was forced to cancel out the high-cultural ambitions of its vehicle.

Popular and ethnic culture, on the other hand, gave homosexuality some living room in jokes, jazz songs, vaudeville, drag shows, pornography, and pulp lit. Homosex was allowed here, but acknowledgment is not the same as acceptance or, heaven forbid, celebration. Although it must have been pleas­antly surprising to hear any mention of the guy with the pink necktie or the horsey butch with the close-cropped hair at a time when isolation and invisibility were major methods of containment, such pigeonholing was not always accurate. More important, it was rarely humane. And culture is never passive; when provided with only these exag­gerated and derided models, the unformed male-loving male or woman-loving woman may feel obliged to conform to them. It’s true that once a woman-loving woman sees the butch-femme possibilities she can get away with, she will take the roles into her own hands: outsiders make tools of their chains. But lesbian inventiveness, lesbian reality, never floated to the surface. Popular culture admitted a tiny “gay culture,” but one over which those we now call lesbians and gay men had little control.

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Control over culture. Attempting to con­trol one’s culture is not as foolhardy as it sounds; culture is neither “natural” nor nec­essarily handed down by one’s betters. Indi­viduals and groups can be destroyed by cer­tain cultural values, just as we can be in vigorated and empowered by others. How does anyone gain entrance into culture? Storming Random House (why bother?) or zapping The Village Voice (as in the ’70s) may simply allow the cunningly compliant target more accurate knowledge of you. On­going pressure — cultural, electoral, eco­nomic, in the streets — is needed. But during the ’50s, when little or nothing honest about gay male and lesbian lives was available culturally, how could a truth teller grab a niche? Others had learned the lesson: not through high culture. So Bannon stormed the low.

College freshman Laura Landon meets junior Beth Cullison in Odd Girl Out, and after reticent testing of emotional waters, Laura falls in love and makes love with the dominant, flirtatious, but possibly nongay Beth. The risks are made clear not only through the lovers’ sensible caution, but through a subplot in which roommate Emmy is thrown out of sorority and school because she is caught making love — with a man. Bannon’s obvious lesson is that women, one way or another, have little power over their loves and lives unless they somehow take control of them. But this is a trash novel! Laura loses Beth to Charlie, though she has loved and been loved by a woman.

In I Am a Woman, the same Laura Landon leaves her cold, violent father — he never forgave her for dropping out of college so suddenly — and travels to New York, where she gets a job and falls passionately in love with Marcie, who flirts, cries, and ma­nipulates but is just not “that way.” Laura also meets Jack Mann, the gay male deus ex machina of the series. He’s sympathetic and intelligent, yet because he falls in love with young, handsome men who don’t always fall in love back, he has a few troubles of his own. Laura matches up with the colorful, free­-drinking Beebo — don’t ask — Brinker, five-­ten in sneakers and pants. In the throes of passion she refers to Beebo as “Beth.” Laura finally faces her cruel father, tells him her secret, and discovers his. She knocks him out with an ashtray.

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In Women in the Shadows, Laura­ — who’s been with Beebo for two years — can’t stand her anymore. She falls for the first woman who crosses her path. After great difficulty and indecision, she agrees to marry Jack Mann and have his baby by artificial insemination. But she is still not happy. Journey to a Woman reintroduces Beth, who married Charlie and had two kids. Beth hates her life. She has an affair with a neurotic alcoholic model named Vega, then leaves for New York to find … Laura, whom she hasn’t seen since college. She tracks down her spurned love, but after a sexual interlude and much interesting dialogue, Beth and Laura understand that they can’t go home again. Beebo, who hated Beth even before she met her, now makes a play for her. Beth, by the way, is introduced to the New York lesbian scene by Nina, a worldly writer of lesbian novels, which Beth read hungrily while trapped in her suburban home.

The final book, Beebo Brinker, is a ram­bunctious prequel that charts the moves of the 17-year-old Wisconsin farm girl after she was virtually kicked out of town for wearing drag at the State Fair. Beebo Brinker is the most ridiculously plotted of the five. It in­cludes a vengeful Beat-looking lesbian named (you guessed it) Mona, a straight but lesbian-attracted overgrown hood named Pete Pasquini who, with his French wife Marie, runs an Italian takeout restaurant on Carmine Street, through which their deliv­ery “boy” Beebo meets (and falls for) post-­Monroe movie queen Venus Bogardus, who falls for her. Toss in a Beverly Hills mansion, the star’s unhappy teenaged son, a well­-timed epileptic fit, and you’ve got the most unlikely vehicle for straight-faced lesbian commentary imaginable.

Yet all these books, however silly they sound, grab you and don’t let go. Imagine them as maps, with all the plot-quirks and dialogue as cities. As you read, the maps seem directionless, but pull up to an over­view and some of the city-dots — forceful conversations, arguments, emotions — just glow by themselves, ready to be connected. Which scenes stand out? Those that reso­nate with shared gay experience: Laura’s slow and steely resistance to Beth’s unknow­ingly sadistic flirting; Jack’s ambivalence about working as a closeted draughtsman in an office of “virile engineers”; and most touching, young Beebo, uncomfortable in a skirt, wandering the streets of downtown Manhattan with only a yellow “Guide to Greenwich Village” to help her.

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I’m not sure Laura, Jack, or Beebo are there to “like.” Laura’s too hot-cold, Jack’s too selfish, and Beebo’s too … well, too stubborn to be easily sympathetic. Yet the emotion a reader can feel for them is strong, and it results from possible identification with their lot. This identification isn’t lim­ited to gay readers — a measure of Bannon’s skill. “Identify” is an unpopular literary verb, but in this case the “I’ve been there” response overwhelms more sensible distanc­ing. These characters are historical victims in the process of becoming fighters.

Bannon’s pulp world for homosexuals is not an easy one. Everyone drinks too much — alcohol is a common medicine to treat unhappiness. These lesbians, gay men, and nongay characters also drink to keep alive dying passions, drink to keep up with a lover on the gay-bar prowl, or drink to lose their dead-end childhood and become mem­bers of the adult, urban world: for coming out is, in Bannon’s terms, growing up. Her characters fly from family tradition but fear its loss as well. This ambivalence shows itself in odd ways. While family people, real peo­ple, have dinner, Bannon’s lesbians eat sandwiches, which can be ordered from around the corner. The books are full of sandwiches. Jack and Laura get married to insulate themselves from the evanescent gay world of the martini and the sandwich. You can almost hear, in Jack’s nightmare, Judy Garland singing “The Man That Got Away.”

Bannon’s permanent home for lesbian impermanence is Greenwich Village. Most pre-Stonewall lesbians and gay men will know what I mean when I say that the Village is really Bannon’s main character. In the Village the fringe is central, even though Jack Mann, the Village Virgil, notes in pass­ing that the neighborhood is “filled, too, with ambitious businessmen with wives and families, who play hob with the local bohemia. A rash of raids is in progress on the homosexual bar hangouts at the moment, with cops rousting respectable beard-and-­sandals off their favorite park benches; hustling old dykes who were Village fixtures for eons, off the streets so they wouldn’t offend the deodorized young middle-class wives.”

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What’s new and heartening about Ban­non’s sometimes self-pitying Village is that the fear of impermanence, fear of an anchor-­less life that haunts her more cynical charac­ters, is assumed not to be their fault. Rather, it’s the product partly of an ignorant, puritanical, sometimes bigoted world. Ban­non has few scenes of confrontation between lesbian-hater and lesbian because she is more interested in solutions to self-hatred and in the interaction of lesbian characters themselves. But the outside (non-Village) world’s disgust is the foundation on which these lesbians must build their loves. An ­argument between Laura and Milo, a nongay black man married to a black lesbian trying to pass as Indian, is remarkable for its just-short-of-liberation militance and political connection between sexual and racial oppression:

“What makes you queer, Laura? You tell me.”

“What makes you normal, Milo?”

“I was born that way. Don’t tell me you were born queer! Ha!” And he was sarcastic now. 

“I was made that way,” she said calmly.

“By who?” he asked skeptically.

“A lot of people. My father. A girl named Beth. Myself. Fate.”

He snorted. “Why don’t you give up women?”  

“Why don’t you?” she flashed. 

He blinked at her, beginning to feel her stormy intensity. “Is it that bad?” he asked.

“Sure, it’s that bad! Do you think I live this way because I like it? Would you live like you do if you could live like a white man?”

After a moment he shook his head, look­ing curiously at her.

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Fear of impermanent relationships also arises from another given in Bannon’s les­bian world: passion. Physical attraction and love may merge, but lust can happily flower without — and in spite of — love. Passion is part and parcel of the potboiler, to be sure, but where before had anyone seen such firm, promiscuous, demanding, heartfelt lust orig­inating from women, lesbian or not? In the past, sexually active lesbians were in­troduced to the culture as vampires, sucking the life from innocent girls. Bannon sex­ualizes but defangs her lesbian characters, and by doing so helps to create a new lesbian public image: lustful as well as loving. To manage such multidirected passion requires arcane logistics, and much of the trouble Bannon’s heroines face results from their sleeping with one woman while being in love with another: surely a difficulty not un­known in heterosexual climes. The unhappi­ness — and happiness — that results is the human lot, not the lesbian one. Nowhere does Bannon put an old pulp convention, constant sex, to more liberating use.

Her writing style does the job and no more. Sex scenes manage to be erotic, in the tradition of pre-’60s potboilers, without be­ing organ-specific or obscene. Most of the books’ language is the language of melodrama — love, love, love, hate, hate, hate — but once in a while the result is ab­surd and almost poetic: “In the pale radi­ance of the dashboard they gazed at each other.” Typically, after a character’s ex­clamation of why she did this or that, Ban­non the narrator repeats the same informa­tion: Laura did it because of her father, etc. This framing is wooden, of course, but an odd protective tone hangs on, as if the au­thor is afraid to exhibit her people without herself as buffer. Bannon employs little irony — irony could destroy a potboiler, rais­ing it to camp — and except in Beebo Brinker, she uses few exact historical details. The lesbian-bar jukebox plays, but what song? The lovers shop for a dress, but what style? There may be a reason for this. When Los Angeles movie-star details are dragged out for Beebo Brinker, they detract from the impetus of the book: which is to define the nature of love, lesbian love. To accomplish this, everything is pared down to plot, sex, and frequent tearful discussion.

Potboilers use simple exaggeration to ac­complish their tasks, but when Bannon ex­ploits melodramatic conventions something unusual happens: they become realistic. The only explanation I have is that her lesbian and gay characters are influenced by the melodramatic conventions of the culture that excludes them. As Beebo tells Laura, “That’s all the Village is, honey, just one crazy little soap opera after another.” Beebo and her friends were raised on the primacy of family and the sanctity of love, and though they understand the falsity of these better than most, they still carry around and mouth the trappings. I can’t say that melodrama-as-life is realistic pre-Stonewall behavior, though camp with its selective ex­aggerations has for years been used by gay people as a mode of self-definition and self­-defense. I can say that melodrama does throw its arms around the arenas of daily ’50s gay struggle: not the courts or battlefields, but the dormitories, apartments, and bars. No high-cultural language existed to play out “lesbian heartbreak” so truthfully. Through melodrama, Bannon has backed into a kind of gay realism of her time.

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The lesbians I’ve met who chanced to read Bannon’s potboilers in their first in­carnation remember them as special and very important. “I thought no one else knew about these,” one said, with the assumption that something lesbian and valuable was also, in the past, necessarily secret. It is not hard to imagine what lesbian and gay male readers thought about these books when they first appeared — if they saw them. Ban­non’s work creates a community larger than the Village; anyone, anywhere, who reads “her own” story is connected to the others who read it. Even pulp writing is powerful when it vanquishes isolation.

But what about the nongay reader? Did Odd Girl Out or Journey to a Woman cross the border from titillation, fulfilling its genre promise, to become something more? Would he (or she) skip the plot and gab to get to the you-know-what? Didn’t lesbians do you-know-what all the time? Bannon’s books must have worked as regular pulp, and I can’t guess if a straight audience would have seen through the hot stuff to its mean­ing, or to one of Laura’s short, passionate assertions of self-respect:

“No, I’m facing it,” Laura said. “I know what I am, and I can be honest with myself now. I’ll live my life as honestly as I can, without ruining it.”

Are reprinted potboilers still potboilers? Naiad’s jacket notes call these novels “les­bian classics,” and whatever their initial genre strategy, they have become something more than train-station propaganda. Pas­sage of time, and liberating action — for which Bannon may have planted some of the seeds — have pushed Odd Girl Out and the others into history, gay and lesbian history. These stories were brave, original, and sly. They still are. Readers will recognize the ghost of the old potboiler, but the books have won another life. ■

ODD GIRL OUT; I AM A WOMAN; WOMEN IN THE SHADOWS; JOURNEY TO A WOMAN; BEEBO BRINKER
By Ann Bannon, Naiad Press, $3.95 each, paper

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Marvin Gaye: The Power and the Glory

March 1983 — In the motel’s living room two women in their late 30s, wearing much too much makeup, and clothes too tight covering too much flesh, hovered over a hot plate, concerned that everything would taste right “for him.” In the bedroom, behind closed doors, dressed in a robe and stocking cap, his face covered with a facial mask, Marvin Gaye accompanied by three biceped roadies (bodyguards?) watched a fight on Wide World of Sports. Marvin and I sat next to each other in tacky motel chairs, his attention wandering from our conversation to the fight.

I anticipated an upbeat conversation full of the self-righteous I-told-you-so fervor so many performers, back from commercial death, inflict upon interviewers and the public. After all, Gaye was in the midst of one of the most thrilling comebacks in pop music history. “Sexual Healing,” some freedom from the IRS, CBS’s mammoth music machine in high gear for him, and adoration from two generations of fans, were all part of a wave of prosperity. Even his stage act, in the past marked by a palpable diffidence, had been spellbinding. The night before, at San Mateo’s Circle Star Theater, he had been brilliant, performing all the good stuff, and even reviving Mary Wells’s “Two Lovers,” one of Smokey’s best early songs, about a total schizophrenic, a man who was both lovingly faithful and totally amoral.

Gaye’s voice was soft, relaxed, and strangely monotonous (he spoke with almost no inflection). His precise elocution was reminiscent of your stereotypical English gentleman, but he spoke of a world far removed from delicacy and style. These were words of isolation, alienation, and downright confusion. His reviewed acclaim had in no way silenced the demons that made his last Motown album In Our Lifetime (despite its premature release by Motown) an explicit battle between the devil and the Lord for his heart, soul, and future.

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I said to him, “The times seem to call for the kind of social commentary you provided on ‘What’s Going On.'”

“It seems to me I have to do some soul searching to see what I want to say,” he said. “You can say something. Or you can say something profound. It calls for fasting, feeling, praying, lots of prayer, and maybe we can come up with a more spiritual social statement, to give people more food for thought.”

“I take it this process hasn’t been going on within you in quite some time.”

“I have been apathetic, because I know the end is near. Sometimes I feel like going off and taking a vacation and enjoying the last 10 or 15 years and forgetting about my message, which I feel is in a form of being a true messenger of God.”

“What about doing like Al Green and turn your back on the whole thing?”

“That’s his role. My role is not necessarily his. That doesn’t make me a devil. It’s just that my role is different, you see. If he wants to turn to God and become without sin and have his reputation become that, then that is what it should be. I am not concerned with what my role should be. I am only concerned with completing my mission here on Earth. My mission is what it is and I think I’m presenting it in a proper way. What people think about me is their business.”

“What is your mission?”

Without a moment’s hesitation he responded, “My mission is to tell the world and the people about the upcoming holocaust and to find all those of higher consciousness who can be saved. Those who can’t can be left alone.”

A year later I reflected on those words while reading the comments of Rev. Marvin Gaye, Sr., Marvin’s father, from his Los Angeles jail cell. It had all gone wrong for Marvin since our talk. The physical assaults on others, including his 70-year-old father, Marvin’s self-inflicted psychological degradation of himself with his “sniffing,” and the lack of creative energy it all suggested, meant Marvin’s unrest was real. Still, to me, the most frightening comment was Rev. Gaye’s response to whether he loved his son or not: “Let’s say that I didn’t dislike him.”

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Summer 1958 — Stardom was taking its toll on the Moonglows, one of the 1950s top vocal groups. One member had been hospitalized for drug abuse. Another was tripping on the glamour and the friendly little girls. Harvey Fuqua, the Moonglows’ founder and most level-headed member, was disturbed to see how the Moonglows were not profiting from their fame. It was during this period of growing disillusionment that four Washington, D.C. teens, called the Marquees, finally talked Fuqua into listening to them in his hotel room. Well Fuqua was “freaked out” by them, particularly the lanky kid in the back named Marvin Gaye. By the winter of 1959 two editions of the Moonglows had come and gone when Fuqua accepted an offer to move to Detroit as a partner in Gwen Gordy and Billy Davis’s Anna records.

That Fuqua kept Marvin with him is testimony to his eye for talent and the growth of a friendship that, in many ways, would parallel that of future Motown coworkers Smokey Robinson and Berry Gordy. On the surface Marvin was this seemingly calm, tall, smooth-skinned charmer whom the ladies found most seductive. Marvin was cool. Yet there was an insecurity and a spirituality in his soul that overwhelmed his worldly desire, causing great inner turmoil. This conflict could be traced to his often strained relationship with his father, a well-known minister in Washington, D.C. Rev. Gaye was flamboyant, persuasive, and yet disquieting as well. There was a strange, repressed sexuality about him that caused whispers in the nation[‘s capital. His son, so sensitive and so clearly possessed of his father’s spiritual determination and his own special musical gifts (he sang, played piano and drums), sought to establish his own identity.

So he pursued a career singing “the devil’s music” and in Fuqua found a strong, masculine figure who respected his talent. Together they’d sit for hours at the piano, Fuqua showing Marvin chord progressions. Marvin took instruction well, but his rebel’s edge would flash when something conflicted with his views. His combination of sex and spirituality, malleability and conviction, made Fuqua feel Marvin was something special. Marvin, not crazy about returning to D.C., accepted Fuqua’s invitation.

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Marvin never recorded for Anna records. But he sure met the label’s namesake, Gwen’s sister Anna. “Right away Anna snatched him,” Fuqua told Aaron Fuchs, “just snatched him immediately.” Anna was something. She was 17 years older than Marvin, but folks in Detroit thought she was more than a match for most men. Ambitious, shrewd, and quite “fine,” she introduced Marvin to brother Berry, leading to session work as a pianist and drummer. Later, after Berry had established Motown as an independent label, Marvin cut The Soulful Moods of Marvin Gaye, a collection of MOR standards done with a bit of jazz flavor. It was an effort, the first of several by Motown, to reach the supper club audience that supported black crooners Nat King Cole, Johnny Mathis, and Sam Cooke. It flopped and some were doubtful he’d get another chance. Yeah, he was Berry’s brother-in-law (that’s the reason some figured he got the shot in the first place), but Berry was cold-blooded about business.

Then in July Stevenson and Berry’s brother George had an idea for a dance record. Marvin wasn’t crazy about singing hardcore r&b. But Anna was used to being pampered and Marvin’s pretty face didn’t pay bills. Neither did a drummer’s salary. With Marvin’s songwriting aid “Stubborn Kind of Fellow” was recorded late in the month. “You could hear the man screaming on that tune, you could tell he was hungry,” says Dave Hamilton who played guitar on it. “If you listen to that song you’ll say, ‘Hey, man, he was trying to make it because he was on his last leg.'” Despite “Stubborn” cracking the r&b top 10, Marvin’s future at Motown was in no way assured. He was already getting a reputation for being “moody” and “difficult.” It wasn’t until December that he cut anything else with hit potential. “Hitch Hike,” a thumping boogie turn that again called for a rougher style than Gaye enjoyed, was produced by Stevenson and his bright young assistant Clarence Paul. “Stubborn”‘s groove wears better than “Hitch Hike”‘s twenty years later, yet his second hit was probably more important to his career. Gaye proved he wasn’t a one-hit wonder. He proved too that the intangible “thing” some heard in Gaye’s performance of “Stubborn” was no fluke. The man had sex appeal. “I never wanted to sing the hot stuff,” he would later tell David Ritz in Essence. “With a great deal of bucking, I did it because … well I wanted the money and the glory. So I worked with all the producers. But I wanted to be a pop singer — like Nat Cole or Sinatra or Tony Bennett. I wanted to be a pop-singer Sam Cooke, proving that our kind of music and our kind of feeling could work in the context of pop ballads. Motown never gave me the push I needed.”

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Cholly Atkins, Motown’s choreographer during the glory years, remembers things differently. “Marvin had the greatest opportunity in the world and we were grooming him for it,” Atkins says. “He almost had first choice to replace Sam Cooke when Sam passed away. He had his foot in the door. He was playing smart supper clubs and doing excellent, but it wasn’t his bag. He wanted to go on not shaving with a skull cap on and old dungarees, you know what I mean, instead of the tuxedo and stuff. That’s what he felt comfortable doing … But he has his own thoughts about where he wants to go or what he wants to do with his life. And he doesn’t like anybody influencing him otherwise.”

Beans Bowles, a road manager and Motown executive in the mid-60s, remembers Marvin as a “very disturbed young man … because of what he wanted to do and the frustrations that he had trying to do them. He wanted to play football. He tried to join the Detroit Lions.”

In 1970, at 31, Marvin tried to get Detroit’s local NFL franchise to let him attend rookie camp. This was the period after Tammi Terrell’s death when he was, against Motown’s wishes, working on What’s Going On. Yet he was willing to stop all that for the opportunity to play pro football. Why?

“My father was a minister and he wanted me in church most of the time,” he told the Detroit Free Press. “I played very little sandlot football and I got me a few whippins for staying after school watching the team practice.” This parental discipline only ignited Marvin’s contrary nature and his fantasies. “I don’t want to be known as the black George Plimpton,” he said, somewhat insulted by the comparison. “I have no ulterior motive … I’m not writing a book. I just love football. I love the glory of it … there’s an ego thing involved … and the glory is with the pros.”

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The Lions, not surprisingly, turned him down flat. Marvin’s attempt didn’t surprise those who knew him then either. At Motown picnics he always played all out, trying to outshine his contemporaries at every opportunity. One time he severely strained an ankle running a pass pattern. In Los Angeles in the early 1970s he developed quite a reputation as a treacherous half-court basketball player. He even tried to buy a piece of a WFL franchise in the mid-70s.

There were two levels to Marvin’s often fanatical attachment to sports. One was a deep seated desire to prove his manhood, his strength, his macho, in a world where brute power met delicate grace in physical celebration. For all his sex appeal and interest in sexuality (“you make a person think you’re going to do something, but never do until you’re ready”), Gaye wanted to assert his physical superiority over other men.

Linked to this was a need for teamwork, a need to enjoy the fruits of collaboration. All his best work, be it some early hits with Micky Stevenson, Let’s Get It On with Ed Townsend, What’s Going On with Alfred Cleveland or Midnight Love with Harvey Fuqua were done in tandem with others. For all his self-conscious artistic arrogance, he was a team player. In the ’60s Marvin bent his voice to the wishes of Motown, but he did so his way, vocally if not musically. He claimed he had three different voices, a falsetto, a gritty gospel shout, and a smooth midrange close to his speaking voice. Depending on the tune’s key, tone and intention he was able to accommodate it, becoming a creative slave to the music’s will. On the early hits (“Ain’t That Peculiar,” “Hitch-Hike”) Gaye is rough, ready, and willing. His glide through the opening verse of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” is the riff Nick Ashford, the song’s co-writer and producer, has been reaching for all these years. On Berry Gordy’s “Try It Baby” Marvin’s coolly slick delivery reminds us of the Harlem bars I visited with my father as a child. His version of “Grapevine” is so intense, so pretty, so goddamn black in spirit, it seems to catalogue that world of black male emotions Charles Fuller evokes in his insightful Soldier’s Play. Listening to Marvin’s three-record Anthology LP will confirm that no Motown artist gave as much to the music as he did. If he had never made another record after December 31, 1969 his contributions to the company would have given a lasting fame even greater than that reserved for Levi Stubbs and Martha Reeves. But, as Marvin often tried to tell them, he had even more to offer.

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In 1971, Motown released What’s Going On, a landmark that, forgive the heresy, is as important and as successfully ambitious as Sergeant Pepper. What?! I said this before Gaye’s demise and I still say it. Stanley Crouch, in a well-reasoned analysis of What’s Going On, explains it better than anyone ever has.

“His is a talent for which the studio must have been invented. Through overdubbing, Gaye imparted lyric, rhythmic, and emotional counterpoint to his material. The result was a swirling stream-of-consciousness that enabled him to protest, show allegiance, love, hate, dismiss, and desire in one proverbial fell swoop. In his way, what Gaye did was reiterate electronically the polyrhythmic African underpinnings of black American music and reassess the domestic polyphony which is its linear extension.”

Furthermore, Crouch asserted, “The upshot of his genius was the ease and power with which he could pivot from a superficially simple but virtuosic use of rests and accents to a multilinear layered density. In fact, if one were to say that James Brown could be the Fletcher Henderson and Count Basie of rhythm and blues, then Marvin Gaye is obviously its Ellington and Miles Davis.”

Though lyrically Marvin never again reached as far outside his personal experience for material, the musical ambience of What’s Going On was refined with varying degrees of effectiveness for the rest of his career.

Part of the reason for Gaye’s introspection was a series of personal dramas — a costly divorce from Anna, a tempestuous marriage to a woman 17 years his junior, constant creative hassles with Motown and antagonism with his father over religion, money, and his mother. Drugs became his escape hatch and his prison. As his In Our Lifetime so brazenly articulates, the devil was after his soul and damned if he wasn’t determined to win.

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April 1983 — Any purchaser of other Rupert Murdoch newstock publications knows the details of Marvin Gaye’s death. I expect the trial, if his father isn’t declared insane, to be an evil spectacle, full of drugs, sex, and interfamily conflicts. It won’t be fun. What was, and will always be my favorite memory of Marvin, was his performance of the National Anthem at the 1983 NBA All-Star Game. Dressed as dapperly as any nightclub star, standing before an audience of die-hard sports fans, and some of the world’s greatest athletes, Gaye turned out our nation’s most confusing melody, asserting an aesthetic and intellectual power that rocked the house. I play it over and over now. CBS was going to release it as a single. Don’t you think they should now?

1984 Village Voice article by Nelson George about Marvin Gaye

1984 Village Voice article by Nelson George about Marvin Gaye

Categories
BOOKS ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives

Norman Mailer’s Greatest Hits

The Time of His Prime Time

Any biography whose subject is still alive is suspect. Nine bombs out of 10, we get to choose between two brands of meretriciousness: sensationalism or sycophancy. Certainly our Norman, who has a talent for sending the most sensible heads into wild yawing, offers rich pretexts for either. Hilary Mills has avoided both. How? The gods of biography (they’re the ones that look like shoe clerks, halfway down the big hill) clap each other on their backs at the joke. By all appearances, it never occurred to Mills that having an opinion about Mailer might be to the point, or just handy. Now, indifference still ranks as one of the odder incentives for undertaking a biography. We have to look elsewhere for Mills’s purpose, as a (the hit car skids wildly around the corner) minor-league purveyor of bookchat, in making Mailer the first flag she nails to her mast. I fear — I revel in it, actually, but the forms have to be observed — that the book is an act of pure career-making: Mailer’s name is First National in the literary marketplace, and any young litterateur looks for targets of opportunity, hang caring. (The car now gets a quick paint job, in a safe garage.)

For Mailer to be used this way has its rough justice. Saul Bellow, turning even his idiosyncrasies impersonal, can make himself a classic while still breathing — when you light upon him saying “After all, I am not Goethe, and this is not Weimar” in the Times Book Review, you know it’s not because the interviewer asked him if he was Goethe and this was Weimar. Mailer, by contrast, only thrives in the up-for-grabs media-age thick of things. You may think this is a polite way of saying he has a knack for making an ass of himself on talk shows, but there’s more to it than that. What distinguishes pop art from high art is its sense that the real aesthetic moment exists in the collision between work and audi­ence. Mailer conceives of his own work, in tandem with his public persona, as only half of a continuing relation­ship that his audience completes. And he knows that by claiming a relationship with you, he forces you to have a relationship with him. For Mailer, the neurotic appeal of writing as a vehicle for imposing one’s consciousness isn’t art’s necessary evil but its whole value. His work is so subjective that it’s justified solely by his audience’s equally subjective response — and he wouldn’t have it any other way.

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This is why Mill’s reportorial synopsis falls short — the way Norman has set the terms, not to have a poetic view of him is to have no view at all. But she’s a victim of the People mentality: facts (exhaustive) plus quotes (copious) equals truth. Needless to say, she misses her target completely. Certainly, she’s labored hard and conscientiously at putting the facts and quotes together, and much of it is interesting — fascinating, if you happen to be on an airplane. But she’s so tone-deaf to Mailer’s sensibility that when it comes to the heavy stuff, she’s reduced to rote-mouthed para­phrases of Mailer’s writing that diagram its sense while canceling its personality — in other words, its substance. Here’s Mailer, in Advertisements for Myself, talking about a sad time in his career: “My mood of those poor days was usually tied to the feeling that I had nothing left to write about, that maybe I was not really a writer — I thought often of becoming a psychoanalyst. I even considered going into business to get material for a novel, or working with my hands for a year or two.” And here’s Mills: “He was beginn­ing to feel he had nothing left to write about. At one point in that depressing win­ter Mailer thought of becoming a psychoanalyst or even going into business to garner new experience for a novel.”

Indeed, Mills’s comprehension can slip so low that when Mailer describes an un­finished novel of his as “rather mechanical,” she quotes “mechanical” as if it were the term for a new genre. But I’m not bringing this up just to attack her mundane writing style. Style, as critic Samuel Hynes ob­served, is nothing less than the writer’s sense of reality; few writers have gone so far as Mailer in seeing style as the pure expression of personality, and personality as the only valid vehicle of insight. The claim he stakes that his unsupported sensibility can not only explain reality but take it one-on-one in a wrestling match. Mills seems unable to grasp this fundamental idea. Her transcription of the data leaves unexplained a life’s progress that only makes sense as bravura media psychodramatics; her reduction of Mailer’s ideas into neat, accessible little formulas, about cancer, totalitarianism, etc., also misses the point. Mailer doesn’t use his obsessive personal craziness to feed his intellect, but puts his intellect, like everything else, in the service of obsessive personal craziness.

But Mills isn’t just writing an extended magazine profile; her book also reflects the attitudes of the literary establishment at its most highbrow. On both levels, Mills’s book is an attempt to rationalize Mailer — which for the masses means laying out his career with Connect-the-Dots simplicity, and for the literary mavens means categorizing, exp­laining, and filing away his literary output by the usual received literary methods. But such explications, good or bad, don’t really work with Mailer, because you have to read his books for him. One quality he shares with a number of great writers is that he is forever outside of literature. This is why the people who run writing in this country like him only when they have to: the books that work as crucibles of embattled sensibility violate their notion of the way books ought to behave, while Mailer’s career traduces their idea of how to understand writers’ lives — as a polite and regulated trajectory that Mailer himself once described as “They are born with a great talent, they exercise it, and they die.” Of course, this mindset exemplifies the timidity that has kept the American literary establishment secluded from the swarm of American life Mailer so insistently plunges into. To understand Mailer you need a pop sensibility that responds to the rules he plays by — and accepts the game itself as valid.

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Well, to work.

It’s a dirty job, but some people really love it, you know?

Obviously, a poetic view of Mailer doesn’t have to mean a rapturous one; many people find him valuable precisely for being such a perfect symbolic embodiment of everything they can’t stand. For those of us in the far trench, though, “rapturous” is ex­actly the right word. At 13, watching my parents visit some friends of theirs, I came on Advertisements for Myself amid the alien shelves. Reading that startling opening soliloquy, near-Marlovian in its cumulative rhythm — “Like many another vain, empty, and bullying body of our time, I have been running for President these last ten years in the privacy of my mind, and it occurs to me that I am less close now than when I be­gan” — I knew this was the first book I was ever going to steal from anybody. I had never run into writing that threw its character into my face so directly; right then, books stop­ped being a scoundrel’s last refuge and be­came, instead, a means of hacking one’s way through the world. The impact had next to nothing to do with content — it was like get­ting off on the beat first, and sitting down with the lyric sheet later.

Of course, by the time people my age started reading, Mailer had already arrived. In 1963, The Presidential Papers defined the existential hero as “a consecutive set of brave and witty self-creations”; six years later, he was tossing off self-creations faster than alimony payments. The late ’60s saw Mailer at his most dramatically fulfilled — ­his prismatic sensibility gave new curves to every light that entered. In fact, I was sur­prised to find out later on that he hadn’t always been thought of as such a bellwether; conversely, his intermittent ups and more frequent downs since the ’60s have always taken that status for granted.

It may help to take the definition of the hero above, and replace the word “existen­tial” with “media-age” — or “pop.” This may be the key, in fact, to understanding Mailer’s version of existentialism. To Mailer, any event whose end is unforeseen is “existential.” By his own admission, that description could apply to a trip to the dentist. But add the modern media fishbowl to that “existen­tial” sense of events, modify that definition of the “existential” hero with the media notion of the hero as pure public image — in short, remember that trips to the dentist don’t get shown on prime-time TV — and boom. In other words, the Mailer hero, whether it’s himself, Jack Kennedy, or Stephen Rojack, makes sense only as a cele­brity, and his philosophy makes sense only within the media arena. Mailer has said that what “thrust” existentialism on him was his coming to grips with his own fame, Q.E.D.

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One virtue of Mills’s work is that she supplies enough graph-points of narrative to chart Mailer’s path whole, instead of being dazzled/appalled by whichever episode is currently in style. What we see — although she doesn’t seem to — is that Mailer’s rela­tion to his own pop celebrity provides the continuity in his life. The most intriguing parts of Mills’s book reveal unlike Nor­man Mailer Mailer was at the start, and how many “uncharacteristic” veins of timidity, conventionality, and plain wrong guesses marble each successive slice of attempted rebellion before they cohere, almost despite themselves, into transformations. There’s plenty here for any debunker, but only a thoroughly smug and scared age sees all attempts to be larger than one is as quackery. To grab center stage first, and count on luck, talent, and wit to measure up later, is as basic to a media-age protagonist’s self-creation as losing the sled was to Citizen Kane’s.

In ’48 Mailer bounced in with The Naked and the Dead only to find that, as John Updike remarked, the party was already breaking up. Thank God. If his youth hadn’t kept him from vested interest in a version of literary success outmoded by World War II, he’d be Herman Wouk by now. For my money, Naked is his worst book — because it’s the only one that somebody else could have written. But what bad timing. The previous generation’s literary rebellion had been co-opted into respectability by the time young Norman developed a yen to emulate it at Harvard, the “New Criticism” was handily covering up the passing of the critical baton to the academics, and for the first time in the century writers were ex­pected to be society’s boosters and not its natural enemies. On top of that Mailer’s private psychological disorientation — fa­mous at 25; call the sanatorium — was oper­ating as a heating coil on his public ideology. Cut off from the safe norms of Brooklyn, Harvard, and earnest-young-writer, he lunged toward whatever could locate him, and became, as Mills paraphrases Norman Podhoretz, the only American liberal whose response to the cold war was to embrace revolutionary socialism. Hence Barbary Shore, in which political commitment and neurotic psychological dislocation engage in a frantic chase to turn the other into a mirror — probably the strangest, loneliest, and most tortured novel published in Amer­ica since Pierre.

What follows over the next several years are the flailings of a mind determined to have an impact on its time, and finding no new fissures in the time’s huge blandness. Mailer had always wanted to be larger than life (see The Naked and the Dead’s trans­parent Great War Novel ambitions), but had a hard time accepting that society offered no polite way of doing so (ambitious or not, a man doesn’t get disillusioned easily with a system that lets a Brooklyn boy discover literature at Harvard). Mailer, to a degree surprising in a figure who appears so self-sufficient, seems to have yearned, then and maybe later, for the cosseting safety of being part of a group. His attraction to socialism may well have rested in part on its being the institutionalized way to rebel. How else to explain the attempts, which Mills recounts, to gather a Village salon around himself after Barbary Shore? Or his plummy satis­faction in finding the ’60s a time so Maileresque that he could comfortably criticize its excesses? Or for that matter the sycophantic retinues he’s surrounded him­self with for 20 years? The worst crisis he faced in the early ’50s was the realization that he was going to have to go it alone — his eventual strategy was to convert necessity into opportunity.

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For a biographer, 1951–55 is the crucial period of Mailer’s career. He goes in at one end as (to enlarge the context of his own description in Advertisements) “a cornered rat,” and comes out the other as a recog­nizable Norman Mailer, first working model of “existential” world-view firmly gripped in fist, ego tilted combatively over one eye. This is also where Mills not only skips peb­bles across the surface of her subject as usual, but (through no real fault of her own) skimps on the biographer’s basic job. We know, in outline, that Mailer’s alchemy had something to do with sexual experimentation, “galloping” self-analysis, and drugs, but the specifics of who, when, and what happened necessary to a full understanding of the process and the results are private, which they ought to be, and so Mills’s revel­atory moment doesn’t, can’t, exist — she can only repeat Mailer’s own cautious gener­alities about it.

The record we do have is metaphorical­ — in the running battles of the developing Mailer prose style. After writing one book in “no style, best-seller style” (his words), and another whose overheated, near-hallu­cinatory raw material had incinerated its own genteel literary aspirations, he was fi­nally beginning to learn from Hemingway’s genius (where before, like thousands of others, he had only tried to ape Heming­way’s mannerisms). For Mailer at this time the most important lesson of the master was that the style, like it or not, really is the man, and if one’s manhood — neither of them would de-genderize that word into self-­hood — is seen as a search and not a possession, then every risky adjective becomes the equivalent of coming on to a policeman’s wife. Mailer’s style, even now, listens to itself; it’s constantly alert to its own poten­tial nuances.

Of course, both men’s sense of the quest as an exclusively masculine domain can make much of it sound distasteful now. I’d argue that at least part of the problem is terminology — if the words for risk-taking self-fulfillment have been largely male-ori­ented up to now, do you ditch the value, or change the words? — and that, in the Eisenhower ’50s, when most men were, symbolically, as much repressed housewives as their partners, the value of the stance outweighed its dubious aspects. But even so, enough of it was more than terminology, and remained part of Mailer’s thinking, to get him into trouble later on.

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At any rate Mailer had to plough through a thicket of bad writing — by turns clunkily earnest and facelessly hacklike, full of re­ceived political jargon, before he began to find his own voice (and subject, and world­view, and everything else that grew out of the voice). He may defend the famous revision of The Deer Park, all elegance dumped in favor of a one-three offbeat, in terms of not wanting to imprison Sergius O’Shaugnessy’s character. But the real jailbreak was his. The first version of the novel was about a tough, cocky young parvenu who told his own story — in a gen­teel voice that reflected Mailer’s lingering aspirations to literary respectability. Preserving that style would have made everything he was trying to grow into im­permissible etiquette. So O’Shaugnessy’s voice lost its manners, becoming colloquial, rough, and fliply tough-minded enough to make Papa himself proud. The new voice isn’t always convincing for Sergius either, but as Mailer discovering his own style by bashing in his bridges under him, it’s com­pletely believable. Literarily, the book is his crossroads; playing by the rules of the conven­tional novel, it reveals a growing sense of fiction, and maybe of all writing, as a set of useful masks and devices for the expression of pure public persona. Which may help explain why it’s also The Great Lost Mailer Book. Mailer’s detractors point to its dual nature as proof of his failure as a novelist; his admirers, who don’t care about such things, put it down in order to boost An American Dream, which brings the earlier book’s tentative authorial persona brazenly front and center.

The Deer Park, with its quasihipster hero, also obliquely marked Mailer’s entry into the Beat movement. The subculture had already been around — old Beats would insist that the life of On the Road was dead a decade before the book came out. But Mailer’s relation to such phenomena is that of a surfer to the wave — he catches it just as it begins to curl into mass consciousness. Even Mailer’s wildest ideas are idiosyncratic refractions of some presence becoming man­ifest in the great collective con. This is not necessarily calculated: in his relation to the culture, Mailer is a born counterpuncher, and the first quiver of an oncoming trend out there triggers his pop instinct. The same instinct instantaneously redefines the trend in terms of his own sensibility. But he has next to no use for fringes, at least when they stay that way. For Mailer, there are no he­roes in basements; for better and worse it’s one of the most American things about him.

Hip worked for Mailer two ways: as an intellectual framework it abetted his self­-excavation more than socialism or Studs Lonigan; as a public posture it allowed him to make raids on the national awareness with the illusion of armies behind him. And crucially, since the Beats used pop artifacts as ideological referents and pop mass communication as their playground, Mailer was also learning new, nonliterary and nonintel­lectual ways of marshaling his ideas and putting them across. When, in Advertise­ments, he does his existential-semiotics delineation of the philosophical merits of T­-formation over single wing, you feel his al­most palpable exhilaration at realizing that something as unliterary and universal as football can fit into his sensibility. But as usual — starting with his immediate substitution of “Hip” for “Beat” — Mailer’s involvement with the Beats rested much more on its temporal value to him than on ideological solidarity. “The White Negro” is a brilliant analysis, but it’s so much Mailer’s version of what Mailer wishes the Beat movement were like (him) that its con­siderable merits hardly have anything to do with the movement’s actuality. He must have realized the alliance’s drawbacks when Capote capped their talk-show argument about Kerouac with that’s-not-writing-only-­typing: to be punctured like that when you’re not even talking about you, but about another writer you don’t even like, out of revolutionary camaraderie — well, you start thinking that the only movements worth belonging to are the ones you start yourself.

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So even though Advertisements’ hun­dred-and-one topics are formally justified as a preview brochure for oncoming Hip, that’s just window-dressing for a personality on the verge of not needing any wrapping larger than its own skin. What does connect all those subjects, and give them meaning, is Mailer’s continuing story of his experience as a postwar American writer/culture hero/Jeremiah in the wilderness, and the fact that he perceives such ego display as intrinsic to his attack on ’50s America. The style has also come into its own. A man who goes out to the limits of experience may come back with a richer sense of the limits than of the experience — what the orgy ultimately gave Mailer, it seems, was a sense of irony. Now a new balance came into play, which in­tensified the game’s stakes instead of vitiat­ing them — unlike those academic contem­poraries for whom irony was a means to shrink life until it could comfortably fit their desk tops, Mailer, like Stendhal, used its zigzags to get further and say more than a straight man could.

Of course this formula makes neat a tran­sition whose reality was chaotic. Mailer’s sense of the edge still remained too in­fatuated to be unerringly accurate; “The Time of Her Time” is a comic masterpiece of sexual knowingness (and capping a book like Advertisements with a story in which every intellectual assumption of the ’50s is quite literally buggered is an act of wonderful pop mindfuck). But another piece in Advertise­ments, the “Prologue” to the same novel that “Time of Her Time” was to be part of, smothers insights in rhetorical adolescent posturing. And parting with his hipster-­phase hope for a sexual and social revolution that would start tomorrow morning (Mailer was the only one who thought a sexual revolution ought to include a Reign of Terror) wasn’t easy. Along with new confidence, there was plenty of dreck, fear, personal confusion, and an overwhelming sense of lost possibilities, all of which seem to have come to a head in the ugly episode of his near-fatal stabbing of his wife in 1960. To analyze something like this in purely literary terms might seem unseemly but if the man himself can have both the intellectual honesty and the outrageous insensitivity to say, “After that, I felt better,” surely a mere writer of wrappings for dead fish can point out that the aftermath of the stabbing coincides with Mailer’s shift, as a writer, from radical confrontation to gadfly opposition.

For which the Kennedys supplied the perfect occasion. Mirroring his cold war embrace of socialism, but this time on purpose, Mailer reacted to the institutionalization of liberalism by nurturing the conservative ele­ments in his thought. That his radicalism now flourished at precisely those points where the Administration stayed conserva­tive also suggests that he was charting his course in dialectical response to American culture, expanding his own persona into a pop symbol more pointedly and confidently than ever before. But his playing the vision­ary clown in Camelot depended on an animal awareness in both camps that their turfs overlapped — if Jack and Jackie hadn’t been so sexually interesting, on the ’50s rebound, Mailer might never have jumped ship from Hip to history. Kennedy believed that the president’s role as a nation’s mirror had more effect than his actual policy; Mailer believed that the artist’s role as the antenna of the race had more artistic value than just writing books. They were made for each other.

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The ’60s, the era that literature (or any­way “literature”) fumbled, will stand in­stead as Mailer’s decade. After struggling for a dozen years to flesh out the notion that existence is not only a war but a just war, that every event is a crossroads of choice between cheating life and intensifying it, and that the self is best defined as a kinetic relation to experience rather than a static bastion, Mailer found American culture coming into a parallel alignment with the same principle. The ’60s, after all, were one of the rare periods when the buried symbol­ism of American life upset the platitudes and practicalities that usually act to stifle it. Mailer did not in the least stop being a gadfly and outrageous eccentric — what he did was go from being an amateur to being a professional, because the times had changed a step behind his changes and now the ’60s were ready to install such a man as a seer. Suddenly, nothing in the culture seemed alien to Mailer’s sensibility. His lonely grap­pling with the paradox of being a literary outlaw — in society for his celebrity, exiled from it for his stance — had also, unwittingly, given him the key to the pop consciousness that was now (in the one decade in which pop culture became culture pure and simple, and almost politics pure and simple) uniquely apt. Laid end to end, The Presi­dential Papers, An American Dream, Can­nibals and Christians, Armies of the Night, and Miami and the Siege of Chicago add up to a single sustained chain reaction without any real parallel in our culture, unless it’s Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61, Blonde on Blonde, and John Wesley Har­ding. (To shift the analogy, but not by much: Why Are We in Vietnam? is Ringo.)

If Nabokov’s faith was that one individ­ual’s spirit could supersede and dismiss the whole machine of history — to him wit and playfulness were a desperately serious transcendence of evil — Mailer, altogether Amer­ican, sought to perform the same alchemy not by transcending the machine but by going to the mat with it, on its terms but also as its equal. If the battle royal for the Ameri­can Soul was being fought out on the top 40 and the evening news, then Mailer was going to be the news and top 40 all to himself. The best line in Mills’s book comes during her description of the march on the Pentagon that inspired The Armies of the Night: “By moving from the drunken, obscene-talking revolutionary provocateur of Thursday night to the man of action stepping boldly across the police line on Saturday to the humble lover of Christ on Sunday, Mailer had managed to encompass the spectrum of American sensibility within himself.” That isn’t literally true, as Mills no doubt knows, but it is exactly what reading Armies, or its fellows, makes you feel.

In the long run, this was a quixotic gamble, and even at the time many of its manifestations were simply foolish. But then nothing appeals to Mailer unless it holds out the chance of chivalry — and one thing we always risk forgetting about the ’60s is that for a good many people the decade offered a baby-boom lifetime’s only chance to feel romantic, or heroic. Few ob­servers had as many suspicions of the Chi­cago demonstrators’ style, assumptions, and ability to relate intent to result as Mailer; he thought much of their stance was posturing, and their antics counterproductive. But in­stead of dismissing them for that, he em­braced them — in that wonderful, absurd moment in Miami and the Siege of Chicago when he sees himself, at long last, as general of a countercultural army. How could he not? The whole guerrilla theater of the ’60s might be said to have begun on the night in 1960 that Mailer waved at a Provincetown police car, and called out: “Taxi!” The Yip­pies’ intuition that the real event of Chicago wasn’t what actually happened there but the media version of what happened, and their theatrical restaging of reality to make subversive use of that fact, was like a vastly expanded and streamlined version of what Mailer had begun reaching for, as the only viable personal style, years before. And since they were doing all this while engaging in a week-long running battle with the Chi­cago police, Mailer saw even their worst miscalculations as brave — which, for him, outweighed everything else.

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Of course, many reasonable people would, and did, dislike that standard. As a yardstick it’s risky, and it also mucks up the issues. But Mailer has never had much use for issues in that sense. In his view, America is the least ideological country in the world — the founding fathers were being good post-Enlightenment types in borrowing from Locke, but they showed their real Americanness by finding Locke romantic. The country’s real (which is to say submerged) politics are cultural, symbolic, and primally intuitive, and what propelled them to the forefront in the ’60s was the McLuhanized conception of media-filtered public image as the real nexus of events. (We know, for instance, that most New Left radi­cals had little use for hippies, and that the New Left itself was a spectrum of factions — but to most of America at the time, it was all one big happy counterculture, and had more impact for being misapprehended that way.) In America, poetic truths have real-life con­sequences, and Mailer is one of the few American intellectuals to perceive this fact as both fundamental and fundamentally good. Certainly he’s the only one who has set out to turn himself into one of those poetic truths.

But it’s pretty much inevitable that if you play the one-man zeitgeist of the ’60s, you’re going to flounder in the ’70s. Mailer started the new decade with The Prisoner of Sex, promptly blowing the counterculture cachet he’d spent the last one accumulating. Of course, if you remember where the coun­terculture ended up, getting out in 1970 starts looking like a good idea. But in fact, a large part of Mailer’s inner motive seems to be suppressed panic at the realization that he, Norman, the writer who knows more about alienation than anyone in America, has somehow managed to omit the single largest alienated segment of the country’s population. As it works out, Prisoner‘s ac­tual argument isn’t Mailer versus the feminists so much as romanticism versus totalitarianism. If you read the book care­fully (I can hear the rustle of all of you rushing off to your libraries), it’s obvious that Mailer doesn’t think he is opposing women’s liberation per se — what he argues against, typically, is its style, its refusal to envision liberation in the individualist, ro­manticized terms that, well, he imagines he would have cast it in, had he been born a woman. The truth is that he thought The Prisoner was an admission of defeat; what’s funny is that the form his surrender took was, unavoidably, gentlemanly — with a drunk’s courtly bonhomie he was figur­atively holding the door open for women all over again, and they, having seen that be­fore, strung up the doorman.

But the more serious problem with The Prisoner of Sex (and most of the rest of Mailer’s ’70s work) lay in Mailer’s own post­-’60s status. The Heisenberg principle of re­bellion is that it’s automatically vitiated if the authorities permit it; “always the challenger, never the champion,” as Brock Brower put it. Mailer’s sensibility was al­tered by altered circumstances. (The come­back to this, of course, is that turnabout is fair play; instead of his using the circum­stances, they used him.) The self-absorption of his work had always been justifiable as the strategy of an outsider with no other re­sources but himself to fight with — now, fa­mous, fifty, and flush, he could hardly be seen as a challenger to anything by anybody. And the creative use he had made of his celebrity, using it to express his own dis­sidence and alienation, no longer stood out against an establishment that had as­similated such guerrilla tactics (as indeed they had co-opted much of the countercul­ture) and reduced them to wacky, bad-boy fun. When the Bernsteins have the Black Panthers over to dinner, how much ruckus can a middle-aged Jewish novelist be expected to make? For a combative tempera­ment, the ’70s were a pillow fight with wet pillows. America had become a nation of hip hobbyists, and if being a zeitgeist was your particular bit, well, that was nice.

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Having more or less achieved his desire to be a pop lightning-rod to the country, only to discover after he had erected himself and plugged in that there was no more lightning, Mailer began writing, a little wistfully, about other American icons, to get that pop magic secondhand. But Marilyn Monroe, once archetypal, had by then dwindled to the coffee-table status that Marilyn only con­firmed; when Mailer finally got around to a book on Muhammad Ali, Ali had lost his grip on the national subconscious and become as empty as any other conventional politician. Well might Norman, seeing how the ’70s cult of celebrity had sapped celebrity of its totemic power, have sighed with Picasso that you do it first, and then somebody else does it pretty.

It took Gary Gilmore to make celebrity dangerous again. Betcha as a novelist he’d have been better than Genet — no one has ever articulated the con’s inversion of soci­ety’s moral scheme more forcefully, or used his Warholian 15 minutes to such disrup­tively threatening effect. No need here to write another blurb for The Executioner’s Song — you see, reader, we are now heaving within landfall of a media-age attention span — but I ought to point out that Mailer could write about Gilmore without (for the first time in 20 years) invoking Mailer be­cause Gilmore was so much the activist ver­sion of Mailer’s sensibility. (Which is not the same thing as saying that writing about the meaning of violence is the coward’s way of indulging in it. The two men’s world views had some remarkable affinities; certainly they both had a dramatic intuition of the uses of fame in enhancing and expressing those world views; but that’s as far as it goes.) And Gilmore’s world — haunted and matter-of-fact, dull and yet teeming with karmic mysteries — was the everyday man­ifestation of a country that Mailer had previously only inferred as a subconscious vision. It may have been Utah, but to Nor­man it must have seemed like Brigadoon. The Executioner’s Song is Mailer’s last book written in collaboration with America, and it connects on an even more mutual and accessible level than before, because instead of telling the country what it might secretly be, he’s simply telling it what it is.

One of those coincidences that could make anyone believe in synchronicity is that Gilmore’s moment of fame came within weeks of the Sex Pistols’ first single. I can remember, in college, reading Gilmore’s death-row Playboy interview while the Ramones’s first album played on the stereo; the murderer’s confession, spliced into the usual T&A, and the joyous blast coming from the speakers, felt like the negative and the positive of the same risky, disturbing new wind. To someone who thinks the punk movement was the single most worthwhile cultural event of the late ’70s, it’s no great leap to call The Executioner’s Song Mailer’s punk book, and see it as his finger’s return to the cultural pulse. But if part of punk’s ethos was energizing and conflating cultural negatives into positives, and part of its method, as Greil Marcus suggested, was to leap from the smallest personal experience to the widest social conclusions, then the parallel extends to Mailer’s career; and his sense of pop culture as an arena, the place where rebellion and acceptance, celebrity and subversion, come together in such a way that one man’s work can make an enormous difference, is directly analogous to rock and roll. I bring this up not just for the personal pleasure of introducing my tastes to each other (even though any taste worth its salt almost demands such continuity), but to make the point that Mailer’s inhabiting Elvis Presley’s frame of reference rather than John Barth’s does make him a better writer, precisely because it makes being a writer more valuable: it’s a recontextualiza­tion of literature that makes literature feel crucial again, while most other American writing since Faulkner has made it more ephemeral.

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The more you look at what used to be called Mailer’s self-advertisements and gen­eral imposition of himself on American life (when, people implied, he ought to be home hard at work), the more it seems not only intrinsic to a revolutionary notion of a writer’s role in his culture (I mean, this is the real postmodernism), but in some ways his greatest accomplishment. Mailer turned on end the debilitating self-awareness brought into modem life by everything from psy­choanalysis to television by subsuming it in a flamboyant new romantic self-conscious­ness. He used his own media-age modernity to open up the subconscious currents of American culture as showily as Orson Welles opened up movie tricks in Citizen Kane, and to much the same effect. Enormous amounts of expressive material were recast in newly knowing terms, then treated as jumping-off points for new explorations, instead of op­pressive dead ends crossbreeding entropy in the data banks. Mailer treated the cultural and historical givens of the age, which tend to reduce all its events to triviality, as mate­rial to be encompassed and dominated by his own sensibility. The result may succeed or fail; the gesture is a transvaluation that speaks volumes.

In that sense, Mailer’s job is probably done. I’m sure I’m not the only one who, whenever the forthcoming Ancient Eve­nings (announced for this spring) is men­tioned, thinks apprehensively of Faulkner’s A Fable. But even so, it’s the last, the perfect Mailer joke that after nearly 30 years of being our great media showman, our only literary pop star, he really is bringing out the “big book” he promised, just like Joyce and Proust, the book no one thought he would actually get around to writing. Inevitably, though, that pretty picture is defaced by the handful of shit lobbed into its center. The Abbott case served painfully to remind that when Mailer talks about taking chances, he’s not being rhetorical; it also served to remind that, in many ways, his gorgeous roman­ticism can be excruciatingly naive, wrong-headed, and simply foolish, and can have ugly consequences. It was an episode bound to bring out all our contradictory feelings about what Mailer represents — quixotic nobility in the midst of hideous error, the battle for culture fought out in the midst of a media circus, admiration and rage going hand-in-hand down the primrose path to hell.

Which is how the story has run all along. By that gauge, Ancient Evenings rightfully ought to confound everyone and be the best book Mailer’s ever written — good enough, even, for the critics to attack it, instead of bringing out the nostrums and encomiums they’ve already prepared. But that prospect makes life too difficult. It’s infinitely easier to wrap things up like this: look, that old man is turning 60 this month, and he’s publishing a 1000-page novel about ancient Egypt; and say happy birthday, pop, in spite of everything; because the fact of the matter is that I never really did get over reading Advertisements for Myself when I was 13. ❖

Categories
From The Archives NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Roy Cohn’s Cash Clients Crash

Rick Mazzeo was a $15,000-a-year civil servant who managed to put $564,934 into his own small company, between 1975 and 1978, while he was quietly awarding lucra­tive leases to concession owners who were running everything from parking lots to newsstands on city-owned property. The concessionaires were running cash opera­tions and that was precisely the form that many Mazzeo deposits in Vimrik In­dustries took. Last week Mazzeo, the for­mer real estate director for the Department of Transportation’s Marine and Aviation Bureau, who ran Vimrik from a phone in the drawer of his city desk, was sentenced to serve six months in jail and fined $2500 for making false statements on deductions in his federal income tax return. In view of the presentencing infor­mation given U.S. District Court Judge Charles Sifton, the judge accurately de­scribed his own sentence as “the most lenient” he could give.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Susan Shepherd wrote Sifton that “the grand jury investigation developed evidence that directly connected Mazzeo to blatant bidding irregularities” and cited one fast­-food concession where Mazzeo twice got a friend to submit phony bids and wound up collecting one-tenth of the rent he should’ve received. Shepherd pointed out that, despite subpoenas, Mazzeo never produced Vimrik ledgers or “any records which indicate the source of desposits to Vimrik accounts.” “Even after deducting purported sales income from 1976 de­posits, and giving Mazzeo credit for depositing all known sources of income to Vimrik including his entire salary, income tax refunds, dividends and interest,” Shepherd concludes, “the source of more than $43,000 in deposits is unexplained.”

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Mazzeo, who used to drive a Mercedes with the license plate “Gatzby” and live in a $20,000-a-year rented home on the Long Island shore, was represented at the sentencing by Michael Rosen, a partner in Saxe, Bacon & Bolan, a firm whose best known partners are Bronx boss Stanley Friedman and Roy Cohn. Rosen said he’d been representing the 36-year-old Mazzeo through a decade of criminal investiga­tions — an interesting revelation since Ro­sen’s firm was simultaneously represent­ing several concessionaires whose deals with Mazzeo cost the city millions in lost revenue. Indeed in 1976, the year cited in the Shepherd letter — when Mazzeo de­posited $43,000 more than he or his com­pany earned from every identifiable source — Mazzeo personally negotiated an extraordinary lease with Paul Dano, de­scribed by the Daily News as Roy Cohn’s “other self.” The city is now pursuing Dano’s former corporate shell, Heliport Enterprises Inc., for $686,000, which they say he owes along with Richard Can­tarella, a New York Post truckdriver to whom Dano transferred stock in the firm for a $35,000 pittance. Then deputy mayor Stanley Friedman, who joined the Cohn firm immediately after leaving city government in 1978, lobbied so heavily for Dano’s lease that he forced a special meet­ing of the Board of Estimate just to con­sider it. The Staten Island Advance re­ported that when one board member announced he was casting the decisive vote against the lease, “Friedman bolted from his chair to confer” with the member, had the meeting suspended for an hour, and got the member to change his vote.

Dano, who built a small empire of parking lot and food concessions with the city and the MTA in the mid-’70s, is now in trouble or out of virtually all of the deals described by numerous Harrison Goldin audits as “sweetheart” deals. The demise of Dano and Mazzeo has shaken a network of cash businesses that persistently extended, despite numerous corporate changes, from the Cohn firm. In a 1980 appearance before a state grand jury, Cohn described his own relationship with Dano: “If a business deal comes along, I will probably refer it to Paul Dano. He is very much interested in busi­ness deals. And he is very imaginative and he has a type of mind I don’t have, with reference to deals and inventions. I always have the idea if it’s good why not let somebody else do it. And he has lots of patience with it. And I refer it over to him.” Cohn also testified that he was the godfather of Dano’s son, a former business partner, and that Dano ran his companies out of the top floor of Cohn’s East 68th Street townhouse. Cohn’s black 1952 Bentley is registered in the name of a Dano corporation. John McLaughlin and Arthur Browne’s excellent, four-part, Daily News series on Cohn, written in 1979, said that Dano’s and Cohn’s lives were “so intertwined, and Cohn’s legal services so linked to Dano’s business ven­tures, that it is hard to tell where Cohn stops and Dano begins.”

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Cohn, who avoids massive tax liens by taking no income and living on an abun­dant expense account, “needs to be legally broke,” wrote McLaughlin and Browne. “Dano is a millionaire. Cohn, though officially broke, lives like one,” was the News‘s conclusion. In an interview with the Voice, Cohn suggested that con­cessionaire legal activity was beneath him, denied that he’d eyer shared in any of Dano’s receipts, and said that he and Dano were “not as close” as in the past. If so, part of the reason may be the dramatic decline in Dano’s business which he once described as “handling cash”:

Parking Lots: On March 30, Paul Dano faces eviction from the last of a group of plundered city-owned lots, located at the 60th Street heliport by the East River. The Bureau of Ferries & General Avia­tion, formerly Marine and Aviation re­named after the Mazzeo scandal, initiated eviction proceedings against Dano way back in May 1980.

Leonard Piekarsky, a Goldin favorite who became bureau director that year, has allowed Dano to remain while his agency and the Department of Ports & Terminals fumble through a protracted process of putting the lot and adjacent properties out to bin. for construction of a heliport restaurant and other facilities (the bid request went out in September 1981).

Goldin made peace with Cohn and Friedman after a bitter fight that led to John Dearie’s primary campaign against him in 1981 and hasn’t audited this or any other Dano concession in at least two years. When he was auditing Dano, Goldin pointed out that Dano had failed to make any payments for this lot from 1974 to 1977. In the beginning of 1982, the city signed a stipulation with Saxe, Bacon, permitting Dano to remain but upping his rent to roughly $45,000 a year, several times the previous amount. Five months ago, the consumer affairs department suspended Dano’s license at the lot after three sets of hearings and repeated viola­tions. The suspension was suddenly lifted, a Saxe, Bacon letter got the license re­newed, and Piekarsky left them in place at 60th Street.

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Dano was already dispatched from a city Department of Real Property parking lot on 59th Street when it and dozens of other lots were put out to bid at a lease auction. The city is getting four times as much now on the 59th Street lot as it did under Dano.

Mazzeo’s Staten Island lease for Dano contained three five-year renewal clauses, but Assistant Corporation Counsel Jac­queline Berkowitz forced Dano’s de­parture in 1981, shortly after the end of the first five years. A series of Goldin audits led to one eviction proceeding, which the city settled in the summer of 1980, when Dano’s company paid $110,000 due in minimum rent payments. Immediately after the settlement, Heliport Enterprises stopped making minimum payments again. Sometime in 1979 Dano had transferred the company to Cantarella, who told the News that he didn’t know if Dano retained an interest.

Throughout most of the last two years of the Heliport litigation, the company was allowed by the courts to collect 50 cents more per car than approved by the agency, and overpark the lot by almost 250 cars a day. The company maintained no counter and for years submitted no gross receipts statements (it was supposed to be paying the city 80 per cent of receipts in addition to minimum rent). When Piekarsky installed a counter, it was destroyed. Though the company was evicted in October 1981, not a dime of the hundreds of thousands in rent unpaid during the litigation was collected. De­spite this record, the city was at this time allowing Dano to continue running the 60th Street lot. The decision to terminate this lease occurred while the Voice was reporting this story.

Food Concessions and Newsstands: One company has a contract with the MTA to run all 161 of its subway newsstands: Ancorp. Until recently, the same company had a hefty share of Amtrak, Long Island Railroad, and Grand Central newsstands and luncheonette operations, as well as a host of similar concessions at public air­ports throughout the Northeast. Up to two months ago, the company had the Staten Island ferry newsstands. Once it controlled all 16 of the food and news­stand concessions at the ferry terminals.

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In a July 1981 affidavit, Roy Cohn said he had “represented Ancorp in a number of matters over a period of years.” It was an understatement. A partner in Cohn’s firm had been Ancorp’s general counsel for a decade; Cohn was the court-ap­pointed bankruptcy attorney for the firm through a seven-year proceeding. More than two decades ago he had represented the winners in a takeover bid for control of the corporation’s board. Paul Dano be­came an Ancorp vice-president and An­corp, in the mid-’70s, turned over seven of its luncheonette concessions with the MTA to a Dano-headed company, Family Heritage. Cohn’s 1981 affidavit was part of a federal suit brought to prevent Am­trak from putting out to bid Ancorp’s massive, interstate, 30-year-old conces­sion contracts with the railroad.

When Cohn’s suit failed, Bernard Carton, a French investor whose Sodexho corporation had purchased Ancorp, of­fered the head of Amtrak’s real estate department $15,000 and a trip to Paris to relent. The Amtrak official was listening to this video-taped solicitation in a Wash­ington hotel room last June, and Carton was immediately arrested, as was Mario Di Domizio, the chief operating officer for Ancorp in this country and an associate of Cohn’s. Top Washington criminal at­torney Bill Hundley, who says he got Carton to vow not to involve Cohn in any way in the case, got Carton off on a thousand-dollar fine and a promise not to enter the country for three years. Di Domizio also pleaded guilty and got one year probation. A month after the arrest, Di Domizio was up in New York signing a six-month-permit with ferry bureau chief Piekarsky and negotiating a possible 10-year lease with him to run the three newsstands on the Staten Island Ferry. Revel­ations by the Staten Island Register and Councilwoman Mary Codd’s insistent nagging of the mayor finally forced Piekarsky to drop Ancorp, which also pleaded guilty to the corporate charges, in December.

It’s a mystery why Pierkarsky let them in the door in the first place. The applica­tion claimed that Sodexho had “com­pletely satisfied all claims” from the 1973 bankruptcy. In fact Piekarsky’s own agency had been left holding an almost $300,000 judgment against a wholly owned Ancorp subsidiary and another Cohn client whom Ancorp had assigned its ferry leases, E. J. Management. They had just skipped with the last year’s rent, while Mazzeo was still in charge. The principal in the other company, convicted felon Edward Jacobson, also ran his com­panies out of Cohn’s townhouse and wound up turning many of them over to Paul Dano.

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Despite this track record, two recent convictions, and two Goldin audits blast­ing a $750,000-a-year loss of revenue be­cause of the Ancorp deal (the last one in 1980), the MTA remains one of Ancorp’s final customers. It has not bid on any renewal of its MTA lease, however. Di Domizio has recently left, as have Amtrak and all but two other city newsstands. One of those two is at the Grand Hyatt, whose owner Donald Trump was listed as a ref­erence on the Ancorp city application and who is described as the “secured party” on Ancorp’s most recent Dunn and Brad­street financial report.

The seven subway luncheonettes that Ancorp turned over years ago to Dano are also in real jeopardy. Indeed, were it not for a bizarre set of delays and turn-abouts in Supreme Court Judge Andrew Tyler’s courtroom, Dano would be out. Like his parking lots without counters, Dano’s luncheonettes are sometimes run without cash registers. Since he is operating under contracts requiring him to pay a percen­tage of his gross receipts to the MTA, his missing registers make it just about im­possible for anyone to determine what he really owes. Goldin and MTA audits piled contract violations (and $42,000 a year in shortchanging the MTA) atop Family Heritage. Tyler took eight months to decide, three months after his decision to issue an order, and then stayed his own eviction. Cohn is personally pursuing a motion to reargue the case and Tyler is now contemplating that.

Should they lose here and with the final Heliport parking lot, Cohn and Dano may be just about out of the concession business. Rick Mazzeo appeared at his sentencing with a lump on his head and said he’d been mugged while driving a limo. He is facing a continuing federal and state probe and the pressures on him to cooperate will mount. Their cash appar­ently disappeared as rapidly and as easily as it accumulated.

Cohn stressed with me how insignifi­cant his own involvement with these con­cessions was. But Dano’s were the only businesses known to be housed inside Saxe, Bacon & Bolan. You could reach Dano’s office in the Newark airport by dialing Roy Cohn’s switchboard. These were not clients who pay fees and can shop elsewhere. This was the cash heart of the Cohn world and it is evaporating. ■

Research assistance by Maria Laurino, Janna Moore, and Barbara Turk 

Categories
From The Archives JOCKBEAT ARCHIVES NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

The Paranoid Style in Yankee Baseball

It is about 10 o’clock in the morning, the Florida sun is already heating up, and I am standing outside a closed gate at the New York Yankees’ Fort Lauderdale training camp. I give the security man my name and tell him I have an appointment with the Yankees’ PR director, Ken Nigro. The guard does not move. It is clear to him that I’m trying to pull some kind of fast one. I reach into my pocket to produce the working-press card is­sued by the New York City Police Department. My picture is on it. In color.

The guard reaches two fingers through the fence for the card. He looks several times at it, several times at me, but he does not open the gate. Neither does he return the card. Carrying it with him, he walks the 15 yards to the press trailer. A moment or two later, he emerges, opens the gate just barely wide enough to admit me, and hands back the card. “They’re expecting you,” he says. He sounds disap­pointed.

Waiting inside the trailer, already typed out on the reception desk, is the little pink pass that will admit me to the field, clubhouse, press box, etc. for the duration of spring training. Nigro is there too. Tall, whippet-thin, and with a haircut that could pass for punk if it wasn’t vaguely military, he takes two rapid steps backward as I enter his office. Eventually he recovers and shakes my hand almost as though he didn’t believe it carried a com­municable disease. We talk politely for a minute or two, and I ask him for a media guide. Though these pocket-sized fact books were once, years ago, more-or-less internal documents distributed only to the media and other baseball clubs, most teams now print them up by the tens of thousands and sell them as souvenirs. The Yankees’ costs five bucks at the Stadium, six by mail. Nigro hesitates, finally unclasps a trunk near the door, and removes one. “You’re very lucky,” he says, “we have only a few left.”

I thank him, consider offering to shake his hand again but decide I don’t want to unnerve him, and start to leave the office. “One thing,” he says, “just a word to the wise.”

“Yes?”

“You’re interested in Billy Martin, right?”

“Yes.”

“I wouldn’t ask him any questions if I were you. He can be, er, difficult.

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•••

It is a truism of administrative theory that the speed of change in any organiza­tion is inversely related to its complexity. When Jimmy Carter wanted to send peanuts to market, they went; when he tried to counter Pentagon procedures, nothing happened. Major league baseball clubs — front offices, farm teams, scouts, players, coaches, agents, broadcast subsidiaries, union reps — are relatively complex entities; though the advent of free agency made it possible to work signif­icant year-to-year changes in the players’ roster, organizational character yielded only grudgingly. Even in the darkest days of the Horace Clarke era, the Yankees’ off-field personality was as patrician and imperial as it had been in their days of greatness. The imperialism remains to some degree (in most spring training camps, security consists of a retiree tilted back in a folding chair), but the essential hallmark of the Yankees has changed in the decade since George Steinbrenner purchased the club in 1973. By now, at every level in the organization — from the guard at the gate to the principal owner in his private box —the Yankees are marked by a broad streak of paranoia.

Before getting into definitions, I should point out that it is not necessarily a bad thing for an organization to exhibit symptoms of paranoia. Within the United States government, for instance, there are several thriving bureaucracies that are supposed to be obsessed with the notion that someone — the Russians, the Cubans, the Yippies — is out to get us. That is their job, and as long as some countervailing force keeps their twitching fingers off the launch button, it may even be a useful one. Paranoia becomes dangerous or self­-defeating only when when it achieves the kind of dominance it has with the Yankees.

Clinically, paranoia can be defined as a malfunction marked by systematized delusions of grandeur (“I am the pope”) or of persecution (“The media are out to get me”). Authorities generally recognize that, except in a schizophrenic state, the disorder can coexist with an otherwise intact mental and psychological condi­tion. Paranoia can involve hallucinations (“See that short man in the lavender suit over there? He’s one of them”), but as a garden variety neurosis, it involves prob­lems interpreting reality, not perceiving it.

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Thus, on the afternoon of March 25, when the Yankees were trailing the Expos 5-2 in the bottom of the eighth, approx­imately 7000 observers were in general agreement that Roy Smalley’s leadoff line drive to right field was perhaps trapped, rather than caught, by the Montreal out­fielder. The umpire thought not, however, and as Smalley chugged into second with an apparent double, he signaled that the ball bad been caught. George Steinbren­ner, standing surrounded by reporters in an area along the rightfield line near the Yankee club house, disagreed. “Schmuck,” he shouted (registering un­happiness, disappointment, and grief). Then, as reporters dutifully transcribed his words, he continued, “This happens every spring. The damn National League umps are all homers. [NL president Chub] Feeney tells them to give close calls to the National League teams” (thereby registering paranoid belief in a conspiracy).

Steinbrenner’s charge, being news, was duly reported, and as might be expected, caused some raised eyebrows in the com­missioner’s office. Steinbrenner re­sponded neither with a denial nor an apology, but by promptly banning all re­porters from the area in which he’d been standing (thereby positing Conspiracy B). The ban, creating the George Steinbren­ner memorial zone of silence, was enforced by two uniformed Fort Lauderdale police. Throughout the game, though Steinbrenner never deigned to enter the quarantined area himself, he periodically craned forward from the owner’s box to make sure it was clear of reporters.

There are a couple of points to be made here. First, paranoia is an organizing principle, imposing order (the umps are out to get me) on chance (working with only a three-man crew, they blew the call). To invent, and reinvent on the spot, an explanation for every event which leaves one never at fault, always a victim, is hard work and demands a creative intelligence. It is, for instance, just barely imaginable that Feeney told his umps to be biased­ — though it is hardly likely he would think this the ideal way to get them ready for the National League season.

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Second, the existence of real power makes it considerably easier to sustain one’s paranoid delusions. First, Stein­brenner indicted the reporters as co-con­spirators in the attempt to embarrass him, and then, by banning them from the area in which they’d been watching late innings ever since the Yankees moved to Lauderdale in 1962, he proved they were part of it (see Richard Nixon, Daniel Ells­berg, and “national security”). Otherwise, he’d have let them stay there, right? He’s a rational guy.

When things aren’t going as he de­mands, Steinbrenner vents his feelings of betrayal by scattershot attacks, often vil­lifying the players’ he’s spent millions on. His impulsive decision to trade away Bobby Murcer after a pop up was an early example; last year’s repeated remarks that Winfield wasn’t a superstar like Reg­gie indicates he hasn’t changed much. In­deed, during 1982’s rotating circus of managers and pitching coaches, the Yankee clubhouse was often as sullen and suspicious as the principal owner himself. Long before they became a fifth-place team, the Yankees had started acting like one.

This spring — only partly, I think, because it was spring — the team seemed more relaxed, A slumping Cerone could work on his stance with Pinella, and Murcer could terrify a hungover player with the spurious news that he’d be dh’ing during the afternoon’s game. Winfield seemed particularly at ease and secure in his role as the team’s acknowledged leader. “A lot of it,” he said, “is that Billy protects us from George. Not in any direct sense, maybe — though I think he’ll do that too, if he has too — but that he acts as a lightening rod.” Winfield broke off to guffaw as another player, reacting to the deaths in the Lippizanner stables, shouted across the room to the trainer’s office, “Hey, Gene. If that stuff kills horses, how come it only makes Willie’s lip sore?” then continued: “This year when George wants to scream at someone, he’ll scream at Billy and just let us play baseball.”

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Billy Martin, the likely target for Steinbrenner’s predictable rages, has been a favorite victim of authority for much of his life; after the famous Copacabana incident in 1957, you can bet it wasn’t Ford or Mantle the Yankees traded. Now nearing the age of 55, he has all Steinbrenner’s intelligence and eye for conspiracy, but only he (occasionally) be­lieves he has Steinbrenner’s power. Mar­tin is often fond of pointing out to his players and to reporters that he’s both “a man and a manager.” As a man, he man­ifests all the characteristics of negative paranoia — every fight he ever got into was the other guy’s fault; every baseball job he’s ever lost was because people poisoned the owner against him — but as a manager, he makes the paranoid mindset work for him.

The concept of “positive paranoia” was first discussed by Andrew Weil in his 1974 book, The Natural Mind. Weil argued that paranoia, usually treated as a unitary phenomenon, actually had two parts — first, the imposition or discovery of a pattern in random events, and sec­ond, the interpretation of that pattern as hostile. Citing work done at San Fran­cisco’s Mt. Zion Hospital during the Haight-Ashbury heyday, Weil noted the existence of a significant number of peo­ple who exhibited the typical paranoid’s obsessive drive to explain every single blot in even the most complex Rorshach test, but who appeared to believe, quite hap­pily, “that the universe is a conspiracy organized for their own benefit.” In sports, such a tendency is called “a win­ning attitude.”

To watch a Billy Martin training camp is to discover the positive side of paranoia at work. To the occasional observer, base­ball often appears a collection of random events — hit a round, spinning ball with a round bat and who knows where the damn thing will go? — but winning teams win precisely because they can impose a pat­tern on that randomness. Offensively, they hit behind the runner or execute the squeeze; defensively, the best teams have a coordinated, routine response for vir­tually every situation. There is no predict­ing, for instance, the precise way a bunt attempting to move a runner from first to second will roll, but the defensive re­sponse — the first and third basemen charging, the second baseman covering first, the shortstop covering second, the left fielder breaking toward third — is de­signed to incorporate the random roll of the ball into a pattern determined by the team in the field.

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To create such patterns — to imagine and neutralize virtually anything an of­fensive team can do — is to exercise posi­tive paranoia, and Martin’s teams prac­tice these routines endlessly and inven­tively: runners on first and third, no out, and the batter pops a foul near the stands behind first base. What is the play?

The intuitive play, of course, is for the first or second baseman, whichever catches the ball, to heave it home and prevent a run from scoring. The problem is that a throw from short right field to home may he wasted if the runner on third is only bluffing, and will allow any­one but Rusty Staub to tag up and go from first to second, putting two runners in scoring position and eliminating the prospect of a routine double play. Most clubs defense the pop foul, then, by having the pitcher run to a spot on the direct line between where the foul is caught and home plate and act as cutoff man. Martin, instead, has the pitcher break directly for first base, and drills his fielders to fire the ball directly to the inside corner of the base. This pins the runner on first, ob­viously, but it eliminates the prospect of a direct throw home. Does it work?

Coach Don Zimmer is positioned near the boxes behind first, tossing pops into the air and letting either Don Baylor or Willie Randolph call for the ball. As he tosses it, Bob Shirley races from the pitcher’s mound to first base. At the precise moment the ball is caught, Jerry Mumphrey, perhaps the fastest Yankee regular, tags up at third and tries to score. Time after time, Shirley’s relay to the catcher nips him. The drill, with different runners, fielders, and pitchers, goes on for almost 20 minutes.

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“You set up the play that way,” says Martin later, “to make their first base coach play defense for you, and you prac­tice it with a fast runner on third to convince everyone it’ll work. If a player not only knows what to do, but believes it’s what he should be doing, he’s gonna do it right 99 times out of a 100. On a play like that, if anyone stops to think — Willie, the pitcher — the runner scores, so you drill and make it as routine as the pitcher covering first on a grounder.”

How often, during the course of a sea­son, does the situation they just practiced come up? “Maybe only three or four times a year,” he says, “but maybe a dozen or so. Maybe three times in one game. But even if it’s only once, you fuckin’ well better be ready for it.”

Martin, pretty much an autodidact since high school, is a Civil War buff, and military thinking is the paradigm of posi­tive paranoia. Conceive a strategy, devise tactics, drill, and execute. And, of course, the enemy is out to get you.

In baseball, the other team is out to win, so field generalship is an appropriate mode. Roy Smalley, nine years in baseball and going through his first full spring with Martin, talked about the system: “There’s more money here, first of all, which means more coaches to work with you, which means more time actually to practice, in­stead of just taking infield or bp. There’s an attention to detail here that I’ve never seen anywhere else, except maybe a little with Gene Mauch.

“But I think Billy’s real genius as a manager is that he knows what to do with a particular team. At Oakland, he had to steal every run he could get, so he in­vented Billy Ball — you guys named it that, he didn’t. But with this lineup, he can afford to wait for the big inning, so he’ll be more conservative, stealing a run only when he has to, or just enough to keep the other guys off balance. I mean, even though we’re loaded with power, he’s made damn sure that everyone knows how to squeeze.”

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The threat works for him. Leading the Dodgers 1-0 in the seventh inning of a game at Vero Beach, the Yankees load the bases off Fernando Valenzuela on a single, an error, and a walk. With the bottom three hitters coming up, everyone in the park is thinking Billy Ball, and the cor­ners move onto the grass and toward the foul lines. But Andre Robertson swings away and lines a single to right through the hole where the first baseman might have been. The corners move back as Otis Nixon comes up swinging. He tops a ball toward third, and Valenzuela has to field it, too late for a play. With pitcher Shane Rawley, who may not lift a bat again all year, in the box, the infield moves in again. But even Rawley swings, sending a grounder neatly through the too-wide gap between third and short. By the time the inning is over, the Yankees lead 8-0.

After the game, Martin laughed about the sequence. “That’s what you call Billy Bull, right? If they know you’re capable of executing the squeeze — and if they know you’re willing to do it — they’ve got to defense it. As soon as they do, they give you a bunch of other options.”

Though Martin’s Yankees will often be able to wait for their power to carry them, they will probably not be staid. Through­out the spring, they worked on a com­plicated decoy double steal involving the runner on first apparently slipping as he broke for second, and drawing a throw that would let a runner on third come home. It is perhaps a little too tricky, and after a game against the Expos during which Nettles ran directly into the wait­ing arms of the Montreal catcher, Martin was a little testy. “Nettles worked it right,” he insisted. “Mumphrey just got a little too far off the base.”

But what was supposed to happen?

“Listen, it’s supposed to be a surprise play. How can it be a fuckin’ surprise if you put it in the paper?”

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Martin’s attitude toward the press is complex. He is extremely sensitive to the fact that they can be his allies — tacitly agreeing that certain things are “automatically” off the record — and he cultivates the beat reporters assiduously. As spring training wound down, for instance, every­one was involved in the who’ll-make-the­-team guessing game; Martin leaked the final roster to the regular reporters 24 hours before it was officially released. He was able to do this, of course, partly be­cause be knew them and trusted them enough to know that one of them wouldn’t rush up to Butch Hobson and ask how it felt to be cut while Hobson was still hoping to make the team. In that sense, it’s easy to explain the way Martin works with the regulars, but nothing (except, perhaps, suppressed resentment that he does have to be nice to the major dailies) can quite explain the occasional cruelty he shows to other journalists. An hour or so before a Lauderdale game against the Astros, Martin was sitting in the dugout talking with me and a Newsday reporter, when a puppy-dog of a kid bounced up. “Excuse me, Mr. Martin ” he said, “I’m with the Pace College newspaper, can I ask you a few questions?”

“Sure, sit right down here next to me and ask away.”

The kid got his tape recorder working and began with the obvious roster question: “I’m going to tell all the writers that at the same time,” Martin said. The kid tried to rephrase it, “Didn’t I just tell you I was going to tell all the writers that at the same time?” Flustered, and without the experience to slide to another subject, the kid sort of burbled about how many pitchers the Yankees might carry. Martin looked at him like he was dogshit: “If I answer that, it’ll make three times I’ve told you the same thing. Twice is enough, isn’t it?” His ears red with embarrass­ment, the kid shut off his recorder and got up. “Right, thanks Mr. Martin. Have a good year.” “Sure, same to you …” and as the kid walked away, he continued, “… asshole.”

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Logically, Martin was right. A half­-dozen reporters had been working for a month to figure out the answer to those questions, and he was hardly going to stiff them and give it to a kid on a daypass, but the combative, bullying nature of his re­sponse was surely not a matter of logic. When things are not going as he wants­ — when they aren’t fitting the pattern he’s designed — Martin can be weirdly short­-fused.

Still, though I don’t believe that some­one else started every fight he ever got into (and if you believe Martin’s explana­tion that he offered to bet the famous marshmallow salesman $300 to a penny that he could kick the salesman’s ass in order to avoid a fight by making the sales­man leave him alone, I hope the Easter Bunny brought you lots of candy), it’s clear that Martin’s rep has made him something of a target. A Fort Myers cop who was on crowd control duty when Mar­tin arrived for spring’s final game said, “At first I didn’t recognize him. He was wearing a cowboy hat and had an attrac­tive young woman in the car with him, but he made a couple of jokes and seemed in a real good mood. When he got out of the car, he was signing autographs for all the kids and laughing. But out of nowhere, this one guy — a pretty big guy — started shoving him and shouting at him. Martin shoved him back once — not hard, just to get him away — and I had to grab the guy and lead him off.” If the cop hadn’t been there, headlines again.

In general, most of the players ap­preciate Martin’s readiness for at least a metaphorical fight. Bob Shirley, who came to the Yankees as a free agent dur­ing the off-season, may feel differently now that he’s been dropped from the starting rotation after a single bad outing, but in Lauderdale, he was full of praise for Martin. “I’m really looking forward to playing for him. San Diego, and especially Cincinnatti last year, it was almost like nobody cared what happened. You win, you lose, you get a bad call … so what. Billy’s different. He wants to win, he wants you to win, and you know that if anything goes wrong, he’s a hundred per cent on your side. You know the fielders are going to be making the plays, too, because they know how much be wants to win. Everything is going to be different this year.”

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Well, yes and no. There is no question­ing Martin’s will to win — barely able to stand up straight after an attack of food poisoning that struck down 15 Yankees after their New Orleans road trip, Martin managed to lurch up from the trainer’s table and chew out Rudy May for having walked six and hit one batter during less than an inning of a B-squad game — but there are limits to will power. Despite their strong spring, the Yankees starting rotation remains shakey, and Baltimore has to be the division favorite. Belief can carry a galvanized team of college kids through a short tournament, but it’s un­likely to sustain professional athletes over a 162-game season; they know too much.

And like all neuroses, paranoia­ — whether positive or negative — exists be­cause it serves the function of making reality easier for the neurotic to deal with. The intellectual struggle involved in fit­ting external events into a preconceived pattern pays off by providing a coherence that lets the paranoid function with con­sistency — and often with brilliance. Over time, however, not even the most fertile imagination can keep pace with the curve balls life throws; at that point, either the systematization stretches so far that it tips over into a psychotic creation of un­reality or the paranoid is forced to aban­don it, often sinking into deep depression. Given good breaks, Martin may be able to sustain his positive paranoia over an en­tire season, but, it seems inevitably to crumble over time. As Maury Allen wrote in his 1980 bio, Damn Yankee, “The scouting report on Martin said he would have one personality for the first year of his managerial career and another — “ug­lier, meaner, and more sarcastic — later. He would play to the press in his first season, buddy up with the players, drink­ing socially and laughing with them about common enemies, the press and manag­ment, and charm the fans. Things would change later as his own insecurities would surface, his own ego would take hold, his true nature would spring to the fore.”

The difference between the 1981 and ’82 seasons with Oakland provide the most recent demonstration that Allen was right about the superficial pattern, but he’s wrong to suggest that the ugly Martin is “truer to nature” than Billy the Good. The natures are one and the same; it is external events that determine which dominates. All the things which have made Martin the best dugout manager in the game, year in and year out, contribute to his apparently inescapable loss of con­trol. Every game in which Martin and his teams are able to control chance within the boundaries of the playing field leaves him more vulnerable to the breakdown when off-field events remind him how lit­tle control he really has.

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Injuries, throughout his managerial ca­reer, have driven Martin round the bend. Prior to the famous “One’s a born liar, the other’s convicted” remark that led to his first departure from the Yankees in 1978, Martin had been trying to buy time with a jury-rigged team. Three starting pitchers (Hunter, Messersmith, Gullet) and his best long reliever (Tidrow) couldn’t throw. His double-play combina­tion (Dent and Randolph) was out, cen­terfielder Mickey Rivers fractured his hand, and catcher Thurman Munson was so crippled by cysts it pained him even to squat behind the plate. The same ability to see patterns that makes Martin a great manager began to give him the creepy crawlies. The only explanation for all these events was a more sinister kind of pattern. It was Reggie’s fault, or George’s, or even Henry Hecht’s. Or maybe, in an unholy conspiracy, all three of them: “The press made it so much harder for all of us,” Martin has written. “Henry Hecht of the New York Post was the worst, … he’d try to pit player against player, or a player against me, or me against George. He’d do that all the time.” Eventually, preoc­cupied by the plotting he knew was going on in the clubhouse and the front office, Martin lost his grip on what was happen­ing on the ballfield. He begin issuing con­fusing instructions to the bullpen, at one point telling Sparky Lyle just to get up and soft toss and a minute later calling to find out if he was ready to go into the game.

In another setting — one where the owner wasn’t already preoccupied by his belief that the manager, the press, and the players were part of the conspiracy oper­ating against him — it is possible that Martin could survive his various crises. He didn’t make it through Oakland’s sore-armed 1982, it’s true, but one can at least imagine a setting in which he could simply hold on for a while, then gradually recover. That situation does not exist with George Steinbrenner’s Yankees, and for the sake of the players — for Martin’s as well — one wishes Mumphrey, Kemp, Net­tles, Smalley, and Gamble an exceedingly speedy recovery. ♦

1983_Village Voice article by Geoffrey Stokes_Paranoid style of Yankee Baseball

1983_Village Voice article by Geoffrey Stokes_Paranoid style of Yankee Baseball

1983_Village Voice article by Geoffrey Stokes_Paranoid style of Yankee Baseball

1983_Village Voice article by Geoffrey Stokes_Paranoid style of Yankee Baseball

1983_Village Voice article by Geoffrey Stokes_Paranoid style of Yankee Baseball

Categories
From The Archives NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Deadly Force: The Debate Over Police Violence

It happens in the dark of the night in an instant of justifiable fear. The police finger clutching the trigger may be only a twitch ahead of a gunman’s equally fatal fire. But almost as often, the victim turns out to have been armed only with “shiny object,” pliers, a fishing rod, or a flashlight. When he has nothing, a police report explains later that the dead man “seemed to be reaching into his waistband in a menacing manner” or began to back a car in the direction of a cop approaching from behind.

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In a city where the death penalty has been perhaps the most con­troversial public issue for a decade, cop bullets killed 39 people last year. The trials lasted seconds. Two hundred have died this way since Ed Koch became mayor in 1978. And until the recently aborted and now rescheduled congressional hearing on police brutality (set for September 19), there was little public debate of these officially sanctioned executions. The Koch administration is now engaged in an attempt to mythologize its police record and to discredit those who raise the issue as partisans who have invented it to advance a 1985 mayoral campaign. But tongue­-lashing police is hardly the way to build a broad-based coalition for a mayoral run and no one knows that better than the poll-armed incum­bent. Indeed it is the mayor who seized on the politically ill-timed urge by blacks to press this issue now and is using it to polarize the 1985 campaign. The best way to gauge Koch’s role in fanning this media fire has been to follow its handling in the pages of the New York Post, which began a drum beat of stories about the canceled July congressional hearing weeks before it was scheduled to occur. But no amount of mayoral or Post hype, nor any of the distorted statistics Police Commissioner Robert McGuire bandied about in his undelivered but released congressional testimony, can con­ceal a host of shocking facts about police violence in the Koch’ years:

A steady, downward trend in fatal police-shootings, begun at the end of the Lindsay era when tough new regulations on firearm use were implemented, and continuing through the Beame years, has been reversed under Koch. Police killings dropped from a record-smashing 93 in 1971 to an average of 28.5 in the two years prior to Koch. In the five Koch years for which complete numbers exist (1978-82), there has been an average loss of 36 lives a year, a statistical leap of 25 per cent. This year’s numbers are consistent with that trend: 23 deaths as of last week.

The increasing death toll in New York also bucks a national decline. The same nationwide survey that Commissioner McGuire based his misleading congressional testimony on reveals that New York cops, virtually alone among those of the major cities cited by McGuire, have been killing more citizens in the Koch years than in the immediately preceding years. While Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, Houston, Baltimore, and Washington — all cities named by McGuire as worse than New York — improved during the Koch years covered by the survey, killings were up only in New Orleans and New York.

In 1982 city police killed twice as many Latins as blacks (20 to 10, according to the department’s official statistics). This disturbing new trend, inconsistent with the Hispanic population percentage and crime rate, began the year before when, for the first time, there were more Hispanics killed than blacks. The department did not seem to have focused on this trend until questioned by the Voice; they now point out that so far in 1983, the rate of Hispanic shootings is down. If anyone has a political motivation for their abdication on the police violence issue, it is the quiescent and generally pro-Koch Latin elected leadership, especially Bronx congressman Robert Garcia, who did not even attend the explosive July hearing.

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Garcia is so uninformed about the changing ethnic dynamic of deadly police force that he told the Voice: “I think the situation has gotten better.” Bronx assemblyman Joe Serrano, whom Koch is wooing as a possible running mate on a 1985 citywide ticket in a transparent effort to split black and Latins says he was not invited to participate in the congressional probe. “I believe there’s a problem between police and the Hispanic community, but I don’t think it’s attributable to a City Hall administration,” said Serrano. East Harlem assemblyman Angelo Del Toro was the only Latin elected official who came to the recent hearing though Garcia says he hopes to attend the upcoming one.

Compared with the final Beame years, black deaths are also up under Koch. In 1976 and 1977, cop bullets killed 14 blacks a year. Since then, an average of 16 blacks a year have died. Blacks deaths haye dropped in the two most recent Koch years, while the Hispanic toll soared. Iron­ically, fewer blacks were killed last year than in any year for which the city main­tains ethnic death data. But so far in 1983, the black death toll is already ahead of last year’s final total.

Whites are also being killed at a slightly higher rate in the Koch years, and these are some of the most inexplicable killings.

New York cops are killing more people at a time when criminals are shooting fewer of them. Four cops a year have been killed under Koch, one more than the average number of cop suicides in the same period. While this is slightly higher than the average of the two years preceding Koch, it is half the cop death rate of the early ’70s. There has also been no statistically significant change in the number of cops wounded; so the rising use of fatal force by police is occurring in a less threatening overall environment.

In statements that the mayor and Commissioner McGuire prepared but did not deliver for the congressional hearing — and in a host of related public ap­pearances — they have tried to make the case that this city’s police are the most restrained in the nation. The essence of McGuire’s argument is that the rate of police shootings here has declined signifi­cantly owing to “an institutional commit­ment by the Police Department to actively promote racial understanding, com­munity outreach, and a department representative of New York’s diverse popula­tion.” He said “studies revealed” that NYC has “the lowest incidence of police shootings of any major American city.” Yet the only national study cited by McGuire specifically — that of the Inter­national Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) — puts dozens of other cities ahead of us.

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As an exhibit to his testimony, McGuire concocted a chart, which is in­correctly attributed to the IACP study, listing four cities worse than New York in the rate of police homicide per 100,000 population. Actually, the IACP study charts 54 cities and New York is 25th. McGuire chose to diagram only cities we were ahead of. He had to look no farther than across the river to find one we are behind: Newark, New Jersey. On every measure selected by McGuire himself, all of which are adjusted for population, Newark is better than New York: fewer deaths per police officer on the force, fewer correlated with the violent crime rate, fewer per 100,000 people. The mayor’s testimony that New York’s rec­ord “is superior to that of every major American city” is pure hoax.

Confronted by the Voice with the rising death figures, Deputy Police Com­missioner Kenneth Conboy preferred to discuss the drop in shooting incidents as a clearer indicator of the impact of de­partmental policy on the cops on the beat. But in fact, the entire recent drop in discharge incidents is attributable to a reduction in firings at animals (due to a toughening of the regulations). The an­nual discharge rate under Koch is virtually indistinguishable from the rate of the final two Beame years if all that is counted is shots fired at human beings. The first statistic cited by McGuire in his testimony, and the only one mentioned twice, is the 39 per cent drop in discharges­ since the new regulations in 1973. But once the reduction in animal firings is factored out, McGuire and Koch can claim no role in this downward trend; it all occurred before they took office. Indeed, the category of firings that McGuire’s own academic experts say is most likely to involve excessive use of force — namely shootings by off-duty police officers — has risen dramatically under Koch, from a prior average of 82 to 100.

Despite increases in fatal and off-duty-incidents, disciplinary action against cops who shoot has declined significantly during the Koch years. In the two years prior to Koch, 4.9 per cent of all gun firings resulted in a departmental finding that the officer had violated regulations and that charges and specifications would be brought against him. For the four Koch years (they stopped releasing the data in 1982) an average of only 3.9 per cent of the ­incidents reviewed led to a violation finding and the bringing of departmental  charges. This full point plummet sets a mood in every station house in the city.

All of these stats involve only the use of police firearms, not nightsticks or any other potentially abusive police action. One index of the overall rise in all kinds of police violence is the doubling of civil claims filed against police since Koch took office, leaping to 1340 last year. Settlements of claims against the police by the city also reached an all-time high in the 1982/83 fiscal year just ended — up to $9.1 million or almost $44,000 per settlement (three times the year before). Of course some of the cases settled involve incidents that go back years, prior to Koch becoming mayor.

McGuire made much in his testimony of the role of the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB), a misnomer for wholly police-staffed commission charged with reviewing all citizen complaints against police. McGuire testified: “As long as I have been police commissioner, I have not heard or received any complaint questioning CCRB’s integrity, diligence, or objectivity.” Where has he been?

Ninety-eight per cent of all the complaints filed in the Koch years — 43,283 complaints — evoked no disciplinary response, making it a vast dead letter department. During the Koch years its budget has been slashed and the already infrequent disciplinary actions ordered by CCRB have been sharply reduced. In the two years preceding Koch, an average of 469 cops were disciplined for all infractions. In the five Koch years, this average dropped by a third to 301. Fewer cops are being disciplined even though the number of complaints filed has been increasing every year.

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Of the 52 cops ordered to do “command discipline” last year, only 2 per cent ­were given the maximum penalty by their precinct commanders — five days without pay. Almost 70 per cent were merely “warned and admonished.” Last year’s total of 215 disciplinary actions is a third of the Beame total of 1976. No wonder Ed Koch is the most popular mayor the PBA has ever had. No wonder Brooklyn’s black congressman Major Owens, in testimony he prepared for the brutality hearings, called the CCRB “an expunging agency whose primary purpose has become the removal of complaints from the files of officers.”

Some of McGuire’s statistical muddle seems deliberate; some is merely the result of his use of a different set of base years than the Voice analysis. I have compared Koch numbers with the two prior Beame years; McGuire has drawn some similar comparison but used the four Beame years. I used the average of the the final two Beame years (one year could be an aberration) because they represent the bottoming out of a consistent downward trend. McGuire’s insistence on a four-year average ignores the significance of this trend and softens the upturn in his own years.

In some instances, though, McGuire’s footwork is not merely fancy — it’s fan­ciful. None of three national survey charts ostensibly taken from the IACP volume (Kenneth J. Matulia, A Balance of Forces) and submitted as exhibits by McGuire, actually appear anywhere in the inch-and-half thick volume. Conboy told the Voice they were separately prepared by the IACP. But the author of the IACP study, Matulia, told the Voice that he’d submitted nothing to the department: “They must have made it up themselves. It’s not mine at all. They may have taken their statistics from mine, but they didn’t take the total context.” The McGuire charts erroneously attributed to Matulia do not even carry on them the years cov­ered by the data, most unusual for a statistical study. The only date cited in the charts or McGuire’s speech is 1982, when the IACP study was published. In fact the data only cover the first two Koch years — 1978 and 1979.

Similarly, McGuire cites an academic study on the racial content of New York police shootings and does not point out that the period studied was 1971 through 1975. He tries to leave the impression that the data is more current both by omitting the dates of the study and by saying that it was “concurred in by Professor James Q. Wilson of Harvard in 1981.” Wilson did cite the study favorably in a 1982 article, but he did not reconfirm the old hypothesis with new data covering more recent years. He simply pointed to it as the only data that existed on the issue. McGuire’s omissions are an attempt to stretch the data to cover his own era.

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The commissioner concluded the sec­tion of his speech on police killings with a single underlined statement that is wholly untrue: “The number of deaths resulting from police shootings within the city of New York is substantially less than that of other comparable major American cities.” In fact, no city has anything approaching the number of deaths New York has; the second highest from the survey data McGuire used is Houston with 20, almost half our total.

The most outrageous claim made by Koch and McGuire in their prepared tes­timony, however, relates only indirectly to brutality. Both cited the increased num­ber of black and Hispanic cops hired un­der their administration. McGuire at least had the decency to note that the almost 7 per cent leap in minority officers was “in part due to court-ordered quotas.” What McGuire did not say is that the city fought the affirmative action decisions of the federal courts all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and that even after losing at the Circuit Court level, the department refused to hire any cops for a while rather than hire the minority cops that the courts had ordered. Even a pro-Koch mi­nority leader like Joe Serrano told the Voice that the police department’s minor­ity hiring record “is a disaster.”

McGuire played a personal role in de­signing the racially discriminatory test that the courts threw out. When he announced the results of that test on August 30, 1979, he proclaimed: “I have always believed it is a healthy sign for a police department to reflect the makeup of the community it serves. The results show that it is possible, through normal testing procedures, to increase minority repre­sentation in the department.” Three hun­dred sixty-seven of the 415 police recruits hired on the first eligible list resulting from that test were white. The city was stopped by the courts when the second group of recruits was even whiter: 342 out of 380 in a city where the eligible work­force is judicially defined as one-third mi­nority. Those were the numbers the mayor fought to defend for years in the courts, vowing at one point (July 1980) in language straight from a southern schoolhouse steps scene in another era: “I will never give in.” Now he is trying to take credit, testifying simply: “The de­partment has increased its representation of blacks and Hispanics.”

As recently as this April, the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, the only Latin organization that has played an important part in opposing both racial violence and hiring dis­crimination at the Police Department, filed another suit against the latest city police exam. This time they are charging that only 34 of the 616 who passed the lieutenants’ exam are minority. In 1981, they also successfully forced a settlement of a challenge to the most recent ser­geants’ exam. Virtually every exam for each rank, given in the Koch years has been really flawed. The black anger over police behavior is unquestionably tied to the persistent racism of its hiring prac­tices.

Politicizing Police Pain

In Ed Koch’s first month in office, Rev­erend Herbert Daughtry and other lead­ers of the Black United Front met with the mayor at City Hall to press a series of demands concerning the use of police force. BUF had been created a couple of years earlier, prompted by the police slaying of a black youth in Brooklyn. While nothing came of that and a subsequent BUF meeting with Koch, these dis­cussions initiated what has really been a significant though largely subterranean issue that has dogged the Koch years. BUF has been the persistent activist, or­ganizing countless demonstrations, often putting thousands of protestors in the streets, focusing on one questionable kill­ing after another. I reported on a police riot that featured widespread clubbings during one BUF demo in 1979. The doz­ens of affidavits and complaints filed by those hurt then have never been answered by the Civilian Complaint Review Board.

One BUF leader, David Walker, has become an archivist of police-inflicted pain. Surviving victims, witnesses, and the relatives of the dead have been drawn to Walker and Daughtry as the only de­pendable voices for their fury. They troop out to Walker’s Bed-Stuy office from all over the city.

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In a moving speech Daughtry prepared but did not deliver, at the aborted hear­ing, he recites the litany of horror deaths that are one-day stories in the media but fester on the streets of this city’s black and Latin neighborhoods for years. In 1978, black businessman Arthur Miller was choked to death by an army of cops, none whom was ever indicted or disciplined. The ostensible cause was a sanitation vioiation.

The next year Luis Baez, a young, disturbed Puerto Rican, was shot by a platoon of cops after Baez’s mother had summoned them to her house in an effort to calm him. Twenty-one bullets were fired into what Daughtry recalls was “his frail body.” No one was punished.

Another Latin, Peter Funches, a totally disabled Vietnam veteran, “shell­-shocked and on medication,” was beaten to death by cops. Daughtry’s account: “In June 1979 his wife, recognizing that he was having problems, called the Veteran’s Administration for help. They never came. In the meantime Peter began to react to his Vietnam experience and got into his car and commenced driving. He drove until he ended up on a street in the Bronx and for whatever reason, police cornered him.” According to witnesses who came to BUF, “the police broke open the car with crowbars and beat Peter Funches to death.” Daughtry says that differing police explanations of Funches’s death went from a car crash to his wield­ing a knife at them, but that no knife was found and no crash occurred.

Daughtry closes his speech with a list of the minority youths killed by cops go­ing back to the early ’70s and asks an anguished question: “I wonder what the Irish or Italian or Jewish or Polish people would say if black officers were killing their children, not to mention men and women.” The importance of Daughtry’s speech is not the accuracy of the fine points of each story (though the police offer no other persuasive versions of the three deaths cited here from the speech). It is that this history makes a fraud of the Koch claim that there is no real police violence issue, only a campaign charade. Daughtry’s chronicling of the hot inci­dents of the Koch years proves the op­posite. The campaign for ’85 hasn’t manu­factured the brutality issue; instead this sort of real problem over time has created the momentum for a political campaign, felt at the most grass-roots level.

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This is one time when the impassioned shouts and the random anecdotes get us closer to the truth of a hard problem than the seemingly cool efficiency of a forth­right commissioner with a batch of charts in his hand. No campaign agenda could produce the massive number of people who jammed the Harlem State Office Building and talked to each other, after the hearing was abruptly closed, about hundreds of incidents for the rest of a hot day. John Conyers, the congressman who called the hearings, would have to have been a political prophet to have first laid the basis for these hearings way back in the summer of 1980. The Voice reported after the Miami riot that Conyers’s sub-­committee on crime began investigating police brutality and cited New York as one of three cities “with particularly ex­plosive potential” (NYC, June 2, 1980).

The Voice has examined a series of police violence incidents during the Koch years. One category of incidents is made up of all 39 fatal shootings in 1982. Another is a loose compilation of beatings and killings, some suggested by BUF’s Walker, some by attorneys who represent victims in these kinds of cases (including the Puerto Rican Legal Defense Fund), and some by law enforcement agencies. These incidents are not typical of police use of punishing or deadly force; they are ones that rise to the level of a questionable case or a filed complaint. Though Koch and McGuire deride any critical version of a police act that hasn’t been filed as a charge with the Civilian Review Com­plaint Board, the CCRB record of disposi­tions and its entirely in-house structure does not encourage the filing of the com­plaints. Dave Walker’s storefront on Nostrand Avenue is more of a civilian review vehicle for police complaints than the CCRB bureaucracy.

The Voice has attempted to get both a police and citizen version of these inci­dents. The police version is contained in incident reports that are filed with the department. Though the department en­couraged this reporter to read individual incident reports when I was doing a simi­lar story in 1980, and freely provided the reports, they refused Freedom of Infor­mation requests for the same access for this story. Instead, they prepared for the Voice one-paragraph summaries of each report. They answered some additional questions on specific incidents. They re­fused to inform the officers involved of our request for interviews. Our own attempts to reach those cops at their precincts did not produce a single officer willing to dis­cuss the case. Since union, departmental, and legal reasons might legitimately pre­vent officers from discussing these cases, the Voice asked both the department and the Patrolman’s Benevolent Association to arrange a confidential group interview with cops who had actually been in shoot­ing incidents. We offered to print excerpts from that taped interview, without com­ment and without identifying the cops by name or printing details that would’ve revealed a specific incident. The purpose was to let cops explain what runs through their heads during and after these inci­dents. We struck out everywhere. Despite these limitations, we’ve pieced together these glimpses of the violence behind the current storm:

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One Year’s Deadly Tally

Of the 39 shot dead last year by cops, 20 were armed with guns and four had knives. On the other hand, David Ramsey, a 25-year-old Hispanic, was shot in the back of the neck while sitting unarmed in his car. The officer, in civilian dress and leaving an unmarked police van, claimed that Ramsey tried to back his car into him. Though department regulations ban firing at moving vehicles, the officer has not been disciplined. Thirteen months after Ramsey’s death, a Brooklyn grand jury cleared the cop. The criminal proceeding ended four months ago, but a departmental case is “still open.”

A 31-year-old black, Otis Morrison, was shot in the park adjacent to the 113th Precinct stationhouse in Queens. At least four cops went into the park looking for Morrison, who was creating a disturbance. So close to their home base and with Morrison so overmatched, the cops none­theless killed him when they mistook a pliers in his hand for a gun. No criminal or disciplinary action was taken.

Rudy Santos, an unarmed 18-year­old Hispanic, was shot by cops executing a narcotics search warrant at a Manhattan apartment. They said he “reached into his waistband in a menacing manner.” A number of narcotics arrests were made in the apartment. Thirty-five-year-old black Edward Latchman took 15 police bul­lets from four different cops after he cut a fifth with a knife. Police claimed they tried throwing garbage at him and firing Mace at him before emptying their guns. Neither incident led to any action against the cops.

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Ironically, though, the two most ques­tionable police killings of 1982 involved white victims. Nine whites were killed last year, continuing an upward trend. An­thony Ruggerio, a 25-year-old transit employee who had passed the police exam and was awaiting appointment, was shot dead at point-blank range on the shoulder of a Staten Island road. He had been interrupted by an unmarked police car that pulled alongside his car to watch him and his girlfriend, parked and half-naked, engaged in midnight sex. The police were in civilian clothes and, according to their own initial statements, did not identify themselves. Ruggerio’s girlfriend said: “Tony was frightened and worried. We both thought that they might be weirdos or perverts. So he got out of the car and he smashed the passenger window with a fishing pole.”

From a sitting position in the car, one cop shot Ruggerio square in the chest. Seventy-five white demonstrators marched on the Staten Island District Attorney’s office, but no indictment was handed down. A departmental probe wound up handled by the cop’s own su­pervisor who had made newspaper state­ments clearing the cops immediately after the shooting. The officer remains a detec­tive in the “crimes against the person” squad.

Another 25-year-old, Richard Sirignano, was shot twice by an off-duty cop who had spent the night at four different bars and, earlier in the evening, drawn his gun on six bar patrons and frisked one in an unrelated argument. Sirignano and two Red Cross operations assistants had been talking on a street corner for a half hour, and when they started to walk across the street, the cop appeared to drive right at Sirignano. Sirignano and officer Charles Tschupp Jr. got into an argument. Tschupp claims Sirignano hit him with a bottle. Queens D.A. John Santucci, who ultimately in­dicted Tschupp, says that “at the time the officer fired his weapon, the deceased al­legedly was in retreat, not advancing on the officer, and therefore did not repre­sent a threat to the officer’s safety.” After a series of beneficial and inexplicable rul­ings by Queens State Supreme Court Jus­tice Herbert Posner, Tschupp won a hung jury. He didn’t even take the stand. San­tucci may try him again. Tschupp is suspended from the force, and is being defended by the PBA.

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Another Few Bite the Dust  

The 1982 questionable killings are replicated by other disquieting deaths of in recent years, beyond the notorious deaths of Arthur Miller, Luis Baez, and Peter Funches. Voice reporter Jill Nelson, in a cover story (“Cops Who Kill,” Janu­ary 28-February 3, 1981), documented the extraordinary Brooklyn slaying of two young black men, construction worker Ricky Lewis, 24, and 18-year-old Kenny Gamble, in a fusillade of police bullets. Cops opened up on a carload of six young blacks, subsequently claiming that one of the passengers had earlier been involved in a shoot-out with a plain-­clothes cop. There was never a charge that any of the other five were involved in the alleged shooting incident, nor that anyone in the car was armed during the blast-out.

Several eyewitnesses questioned by re­porter Nelson said that Gamble, already wounded, emerged from the bullet-rid­dled car with his arms in the air and took four more shots in the chest, followed by a beating and kicking. One of the survi­vors in the car told the Voice: “I was layin’ on the sidewalk and I looked up and saw the police comin’. They was runnin’ and firin’ away at the car. I just seen a big clump of smoke, I could see the fire jumpin’ out of the barrels, oh man. They was steppin’ through the smoke and kept on firin’. I didn’t expect to live. I thought they were killing everybody in the car. The police laughed and said, ‘They all dead.’ ” No one was ever indicted or dis­ciplined for the two deaths; the city reached an out-of-court cash settlement with one of the victims’ families. A black accountant, college graduate Vernon Lawrence, who grew up with the dead Lewis, arrived at the scene that night as the ambulances drove off. He watched 30 cops: “They were congratulating them­selves, singing ‘Another one bites the dust.’ ”

In another Brooklyn killing this March, 19-year-old black Larry Dawes died after he and a friend were chased on their moped by a cop car. Dawes’s com­panion and several witnesses claim that the cops rammed the moped into a parked car. The police say they chased the moped for 12 blocks after it ran a red light. Dawes’s companion, Corey Gibson, told the Voice that he was thrown under the parked car and watched one cop kick Dawes’s body. Last week a grand jury decided not to indict the cops involved and the Police Department is “just get­ting involved” in its own reveiw of the case.

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During a New Year’s Eve party in 1981, a Harlem cop killed an unarmed 39-year-­old woman, Ruth Alston, claiming that she and two other women were striking him from behind. In another incident nine days later, 19-year-old Donald Wright was shot at point-blank range in front of a Harlem shoe store by a cop who’d escorted the youth out of the store after getting involved in an argument with him. Neither incident led to an indictment, though the officer who killed Wright, the only black cop involved in the deaths detailed here, was removed from the po­lice force. Alston’s family eventually won a $50,000 settlement and Wright’s a $125,000 settlement with the city.

A 15-year-old white Queens kid, John Cortese, was shot to death this March by an off-duty cop while he sat unarmed in a locked car. Cortese had brushed the cop’s personal car in a minor traffic accident and had driven from the scene. Cortese headed his car to his Astoria home and, in an alleyway near his home, got stuck. The cop got out of his car and started to ap­proach Cortese. According to the recent indictment of the officer by D.A. Santucci, “the officer fired into the driver’s door window after jumping out of the way as it started to move again. When the shot was fired the officer was not in danger of being hit by the car.”

Billyclub Beatings

But the police incident that pro­voked the current controversy and com­pelled the congressional inquiry did not result in a citizen’s death. It was a beating case and what turned it into a political issue was the mayor’s fast and foul lip. The black man beaten was Reverend Lee Johnson, a first-year graduate student at Union Theological Seminary. Reverend Donald Shriver, Union’s president, issued a press statement describing how a traffic summons escalated into police striking Johnson with a flashlight and a nightstick, amid a barrage of racial epithets. The beating and insults were carried from the street to the sta­tionhouse. The Koch response was one of disbelief: “I find it certainly possible, but nevertheless strange, that in the heart of Harlem two white cops would inten­tionally, in violation of the law, harass a minister. It’s possible. It could have hap­pened … but again, in a police precinct filled with large numbers of black officers?”

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The Johnson incident was followed a week later and with less media attention by an allegation from Kenneth Woods, the co-owner of one of Harlem’s best­-known restaurants, Sylvia’s, that he was roughed up and verbally insulted by of­ficers from the same precinct. ” ‘None of you motherfuckers ain’t shit,’ ” busi­nessman Woods says one cop swore. ” ‘All of you are the God damn same. ‘ “

The documented beating incidents are as multiracial as the shooting cases. On July 29, Julio Castillo, a 42-year-old Hispanic bus driver with 12 years seniority, was driving to his Manhattan home in a rush after receiving a call on his beeper from his wife, who’d recently been hospi­talized. A cop car pursued him the last mile or so for a traffic violation. Castillo recalls getting out of the car and the of­ficer coming toward him with a gun in his hand. “I was in tears explaining to him that I live there, that my wife was ill and that I needed help. He kicked me in the stomach. I fell back and I don’t know how my head got cracked. One witness said he hit me with the butt of his gun.” Until Castillo made clear that he intended to press charges against the cops, none were filed against him. Then he was hit with resisting arrest and disorderly conduct. After Castillo filed a CCRB complaint, police investigators showed up unan­nounced at his house one night. The first thing they said was “Have you thought about not considering the whole thing?”

A white victim, Richard Sim­monson, a 38-year-old dentist employed by the NYU College of Dentistry, was jogging through Washington Square Park in the early evening of April 18, 1982. A slow-moving police car crossed his path and Simmonson collided with it, one hand slapping against a window. Simmonson,  who thought little of it and kept running, was subsequently chased the wrong way down a one-way street by the officers and clubbed twice with a nightstick. The cop then tried to bring the nightstick up be­tween his legs to hit him in the genitals, but Simmonson avoided the blows. The cops then just drove off. An initial CCRB investigation led to a quickly closed case, but NYU lawyers got District Attorney Robert Morgenthau’s office to force the CCRB to reopen the case. On its second go-around, the CCRB concluded, “The Board has found the complaint substan­tiated and has determined that the appro­priate action in this case is to have the officer involved instructed by his Com­manding Officer … regarding his respon­sibility to conduct himself properly in his contacts with the people we serve.”

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The Voice has examined details of half a dozen similar cases — Lamont Heywood, who had an electric revolving brush thrust down his throat in the Lower East Side stationhouse and Nero Rich­ardson, a 16-year-old disturbed youth whose mother called the cops who beat him into a hospital bed. Each case has elements that lend some plausibility to police denials, but the bruises and the wounds are real. The frequently clean criminal records, before and after the inci­dents, are real. The credibility of the vic­tims — most of whom were employed and pressing legal suits — is genuine. And the paucity of governmental response to ei­ther individual charges or the persisitent patterns of abuse is disturbing.

***

Ed Koch has misrepresented the num­bers of blacks and Latins he’s appointed to top positions. He’s lied about the percentage of the city budget that’s spent on services for the minority poor. He’s built a mosaic of deception around every important race question raised since he’s been mayor. Now he’s distorting the num­bers of minorities who’ve been beaten and killed by the Police Department he’s charged with running. The media has let him get away with this hype in part be­cause Koch’s are always white lies, issued with an air of efficiency and countered only by black accusers without a press office of their own.

Police violence did not end with the riots they once prompted. Indeed, in the Koch years, when indifference or hostility to black concerns has become city policy, the nightstick and police gun have been working overtime. The only two cases chronicled here that led to criminal charges against cops involved the Queens D.A. prosecuting a Brooklyn cop for the death of a white. Koch is not responsible for that; the interdependence of prosecutors and police paralyzes such cases everywhere. But serious departmental action is now as rare as any by a prosecutor.

Conyers’s subcommittee hearings will surely provoke remedial ideas. As­semblyman Del Toro and others are al­ready pushing a bill to reform the CCRB, as is City Councilman Fred Samuels. But the father of one of the white victims of fatal police force, a man who has spent a lifetime working in law enforcement him­self, said he’d rejected a lawyer’s sugges­tion that he participate in Conyers’s hear­ing. “I never miss Mass,” is his way of fighting back. “Every night and every day I pray that those cops will be punished.” He has filed a federal suit and is de­terminedly waiting to force the cops he believes lied about the death of his son to take the stand. That is the way individu­als insist on pecking away at the institu­tionalized police violence that has so many ways to insulate itself.

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Cops live with fear. They do it to pro­tect us. But that does not license them also to instill fear. And to do it to many of us. The theory is that a mayor’s politics and pronouncements reach the troops on the line. That is difficult to square with 93 dead in the Lindsay year of 1971. But Lindsay did something about that, and the 1972 change in police regulations, plus a curtailment of “buy and bust” drug raids by police, dramatically and persistently lowered the death rate until Koch was elected.

When all the figures are adjusted for population, neighboring Newark, with a black mayor, a black police commissioner, an increasingly black police force (30 per cent), and an overwhelmingly black and poor citizenry, is doing far better than New York in restraining the use of police firearms. There were five times as many police killings in Newark in the first half of the 70s’ (25) than in the second half (five). Deputy Police Commissioner Con­boy argues that Newark is simply not comparable because of “the management issue,” the sizes of the two forces. While it is true that this comparison can be stretched too far, it is hardly a useless one. Police death tolls in Atlanta and Detroit, for example, did Newark-like nosedives with the rise of black political power and the election of black mayors.

The race message of the Koch mayor­alty has been as clear for cops to see as it has been for blacks and Latins. The mes­sage has also been translated into hard numbers at the CCRB and in disciplinary dispositions. The cop response in the streets won’t change unless the mayoral rhetoric or the institutional handling of the violence cases does. That is a life-or-­death fact for an undetermined number of potential police victims, not an organizing tool on a political calendar.