Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Norman Corwin

It's a dreary, rainy morning and a palpable gloom has surrounded my single-bulb-lit office.  Amplifying energy-depleting emotions acquired from my hour commute from Indiana is the news I received only minutes ago:  Corwin has died.  This of course revives a personal long-held, inner frustration of having to explain to my peers and co-workers just who Norman Corwin was and why should they care.  The great talents behind the pens behind the stories are rarely remembered in broadcasting and Corwin, who worked gained and lost his fame in the 1940s, was as great at writing as he was about being forgotten to the masses.  But to those "in the know," he was nothing short of a greek god.
Boston born, Corwin rose through the media ranks as a scribe, first in print journalism, then in radio.  He was an enthusiastic hire at WLW in 1935 only to run afoul of the bosses when he questioned a station policy, published internally and stupidly on a memo tacked to the newsroom wall, prohibiting staff from mentioning strikes and labor issues in the news.  Notoriously anti-labor (Crosley's dirty little secret, shall we say), WLW reversed its praise of its newest hire whose political leanings always drifted around the "dial."  Corwin didn't take his subsequent firing lightly, turned the memo over the the ACLU and the press, and helped to arguably and single-handedly turn off the country's only 500,000-watt radio transmitter.
Corwin, meanwhile, only saw his stature rise.  At CBS, he became the first writer to have his name included in the title of a series.  His scripts were original, imaginative and provocative.  He could write an entire half hour in verse, he could write a story that evoked tears, prompted laughter, or anger.  Mostly Corwin's scripts generated thought.  No one, ever, had exploited the inspiration and potential of radio like this writer.  Before or since.  Corwin's "We Hold These Truths"--a celebration of the Bill of Rights, was broadcast over all three networks just days after Pearl Harbor.  Another nationally acclaimed production, "On A Note of Triumph," provided the other book-end to the country's biggest war, on VE Day.  Both are masterpieces of a nation that proclaims liberty as its foundation as well as its place in the world and should be required listening in every high school history classroom in the country.  Furthermore, these two shows are just representative examples of the hundreds of aural excursions led by Corwin that tickled intelligence and goosed consciousness.  Although stymied slightly in the television age, Corwin participated but he never forgot his radio roots.  His NPR production, "Memos to a New Millinium," is an example of how he continued to write special scripts into the new century.  Even as he blew candles on his 100th birthday cake, last year, he was still listed an adjunct professor at USC and lectured as his health allowed.
My first encounter with Norman Corwin came in 2001 when I interviewed him for a radio history documentary.  His LA apartment did not disappoint as it was peppered with modern artwork and awards from his storied career.  Corwin pulled out an ancient album which contained his day-by-day observations from the 1930s.  Despite a potential readership of only himself, Corwin's daily diary writings were eloquent, power-packed and brilliant.  I didn't want to leave that visit but, oddly enough, had a luncheon date with actor Eddie Albert at his Bel Air home for the same project.  "Tell Eddie hello for me," Corwin said.  Any actor worth his SAG card worked with Corwin and Albert was no exception, having narrated his "Prayer for the 70s" poem in the depth of the Watergate/Viet Nam era.
After that meeting, I began a brief mail correspondence with Corwin...nothing deep or significant.  But it brought me great personal pride when I received a note from him--that I KNEW Norman Corwin and, more important to me, that he remembered me. 
A few years later, on another trip to LA, I called him up on the phone and asked if I could stop by and visit before my flight left.  "Of course!" was his reply and again we shared an hour, this time no microphone or tape running, which turned into an interview about ME.  Corwin wanted to know about my family, my Indiana farm, my radio career.  I never felt more awed by anyone in my life.  "Come by again," he said as I departed...but privately I knew that it probably never would happen.  Corwin was 98 years old, for goodness sake.
Norman Corwin's father lived to be 109 and his brother, Emil, died earlier this year at 104.  When talking those numbers, one expects that the angel of death, perhaps, had a degree of mercy.  I did a phone interview with him in 2006 and he sounded great.  But when I called him next on his 100th birthday in May 2010, his speech was slurred and he, although as gracious as ever, was difficult to understand.  The iron-man of the broadcast pen had suffered a stroke, I later found out.  Photos I've seen since had him frail and wheel-chair confined.  And yet he remained active, appearing at dozens of events until the very end.  He was scheduled to appear at an old radio convention in New Jersey next month.  At 101.
Lacking Corwin's eloquence, I fall sadly well short of a adequate tribute here.  If you get a chance, though, promise me you'll rent or find a 2006 mini-documentary called "On a Note of Triumph."   It won an Oscar for best short documentary and is all about Corwin and why he should be remembered.  In the coming days, you'll hear tributes from Bradbury, Shatner and a host of others who have been his friends and fans.  The term "writer's writer" has been so overused and yet it applies here. If you're still unsure about who Norman Corwin was and what he accomplished, for me, please do a little digging yourself and pass it along.  I promise your appreciation will swell along with many others who, like myself, admired and will miss this gentle, kind, thoughtful, talented soul.
If you asked Corwin what the humanity often lacked, he'd reply "decency."  That one word defines the life of Corwin. 

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Cincinnati's Uncle Carl: Carl Lindner

Uncle Carl has passed.  Cincinnati's greatest benefactor was 92, proving again that even though some might come close, nobody in fact lives forever.  I've never met Carl but I've been in his presence a few times and those encounters, such as they were, left quite an impression on me.
Encounter number one occurred around 1992.  Sue and I were living in Avondale, near Xavier, and would frequently go to Norwood to shop, eat, etc.  One afternoon, we decided to attend the Norwood parade.  We parked on a side street near City Hall and walked up to Montgomery, passing, along the way, a beautiful white Rolls Royce.  Sure enough, standing on the steps alongside average "Joes" (including Joe Dippong, aka "Mr. Spoons") was Carl.  Just watching and smiling.  Standing among the "common folk" enjoy his hometown's parade.  One of the guys.
Only a few years later, Uncle Carl purchased the Cincinnati Reds.  Although there have been critics who accuse him of not spending enough of his money on the team during his tenure as owner, as I recall there was a strong possibility the team could have gone to an out-of-town owner when Marge decided to sell.  In essence, Carl wanted the control of the team to stay in Cincinnati and I'm sure he felt he was doing the city a favor (and I agree with him) by keeping the ownership in town ala Powel Crosley of 1935.  Anyway, one of his first big acts was to trade far and sign Ken Griffey Jr. to a long term contract.  I was there at the press conference when Junior was introduced.  I'm not sure if Carl was a huge baseball fan, but he sure beamed with pride by pulling off the seemingly impossible--bringing arguably baseball's best player back to his hometown.  Nobody could have predicted how things would turn out for Junior and the team, but at that one shining moment, Carl gave Cincinnati sports fans a gift of the same calibre of the gifts he gave to Cincinnati's arts communities (his many gifts to the Symphony and Ballet) and to academia (the buildings at local schools and universities.)  Now even sports fans could share in his largess.
My most recent encounter came just last February.  Sue and I decided to celebrate the anniversary of our engagement with dinner at the Palace restaurant, where I originally popped the question a couple decades earlier.  Obviously we don't dine at the Palace often--or ever, for that matter--and the economy obviously has taken its toll on this upscale dining establishment because, in addition to the out-of-place couple from Indiana, there were exactly two other tables with customers--one in the corner by the window occupied by a solitary, elderly Carl Lindner.   I was surprised he sat alone (the waiter and maitre'd certainly fawned over him and I think there was a driver/bodyguard who came and went).  I so much wanted to walk over and shake his hand and thank him for all he'd done.  Even as he passed my chair on his way out of the room, I wanted to make eye contact and smile, but I didn't.  Too intimidated, I guess.  Instead, I felt kind of sorry for a man with a billion dollars who probably gets harassed with a steady stream of false kindnesses camouflaged as donation requests.  "Leave the poor man alone," I thought. 
It must be lonely being very wealthy and having a reputation of being very generous.  I think I sent a letter his way many years ago when Media Heritage as just getting off the ground.  I mailed it to his home and never heard anything.  I wondered even then how many letters like mine he must receive and how unfair it was that he should be annoyed at home.  I felt guilty.
The Cincinnati arts community must really be in a tizzy.  I had heard from those on various "Boards" that whenever the Symphony or the Opera needed "an additional 50" (and I'm not talking $50) to top off a successful public fundraising campaign, they'd call Uncle Carl.  The Lindner name is on several buildings around town for major million dollar gifts, but people may never realize just how many "little" checks of "50" or "25" (add some 000's) Carl would write whenever one of these organizations would ask.   Is there really anyone in the bullpen ready to write those checks in the future?
A good friend told me a story about Carl, who worked his way up from practically nothing on his daddy's dairy farm.  As Carl's bank account added zeroes over the years, he approached Indian Hill's most exclusive country club, Camargo, about joining.  They turned him down in a not-so-polite slap-in-the-face to Norwood's most famous high school dropout.  So as Carl added to his wealth, he purchased a piece of property right next door to Camargo's front drive and building a beautiful white mansion.  He also joined rival Kenwood Country Club, who was more than happy to have his name adorn one of their lockers.  Eventually, perhaps they passed his home enough times, Camargo's leaderships came crawling (if they actually "do" that in Indiana Hill) to his front door and an amused Carl reluctantly capitulated.   Mental note to myself: It's amazing how a billion dollars changes one's attitude.
Goodbye Carl.  I wish I would have been able to sit down with you and chat at the Palace last February.  I had so much to ask you.  And it wasn't because I wanted money, either.  But it was my anniversary and you've shown all of us in Cincinnati how important "family"--personal and community--should be.  I hope you understand and may you rest in peace.