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Posts Tagged ‘memoirs’

Assorted Hijinks: An Interview with Dick Cavett

November 13, 2014 | by

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Cavett on the cover of Brief Encounters.

Forty years ago, The Dick Cavett Show was a place where luminaries sparred (e.g., Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer), where reclusive stars lowered their guard (Marlon Brando, Katharine Hepburn, Laurence Olivier), and where musicians were actually interviewed about their music (David Bowie, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon). Cavett’s show put an early spotlight on the Watergate scandal, even taping a special episode with the senators in the very chambers where the hearings were taking place. It’s hard to imagine today’s major-network late-night shows doing anything similar.

The Nebraska-born Cavett began in New York as a broke Yale grad attempting an acting career while working as a copy boy at Time magazine. One afternoon, with a Time envelope in hand, he bluffed his way into The Tonight Show studios and handed said envelope, filled with jokes, to Jack Paar, who was then the show’s host. Paar used some of the material that night; Cavett was hired, and booked talent for Paar, briefly, until a writing staff slot opened up. Later, he wrote for fellow Nesbaskan Johnny Carson before going out on his own, so to speak.

Cavett, at seventy-seven, keeps busy—for the past several years he’s moonlighted as a columnist for the New York Times, and earlier this year he starred in Hellman v. McCarthy, a play off Broadway at the Abingdon Theater Company that explores the legal fallout from a time in ’79 when Cavett had the novelist and critic Mary McCarthy on his show. McCarthy lambasted Lillian Hellman: “She really belongs to the past. As I said in an interview, she’s such a dishonest writer that even her ands and thes are lies.” Cavett plays himself in the play. “The funny thing is,” he told the Times when it debuted, “I was the second choice for the role.”

In July, Cavett made a popular video with Dave Hill and Malcolm Gladwell about the Amazon-Hachette dispute; he followed this with an op-ed in Time about the prevalence of depression in show business (“Robin Williams Won’t Be the Last Suicidal Star”). That same week, PBS aired a special, “Dick Cavett’s Watergate,” about his role in having publicized the scandal.

Finally, last week saw the publication of Cavett’s new memoir, Brief Encounters: Conversations, Magic Moments, and Assorted Hijinks, with a foreword by Jimmy Fallon. To discuss the book, late-night television, and his writing process, I rang Cavett at his house in Montauk.

In Cavett, your book from 1974, you quite vehemently said you had no interest in being a cultural critic. But that’s an arguably accurate descriptor for you.

I would never think of that as a description of me. It has a nice sound, I like the alliteration, but other than that, it surprises me when I’m  called that. Honestly, I don’t think it would have ever occurred to me to think of myself as a writer/commentator/ cultural critic /columnist. Especially for The New York Times. I’ve had op-ed pieces in the Times over the years when I was pissed off about something. But I always felt alien to friends who knew exactly what they wanted to be. I’m still wondering.

Anyway, the Times offer came over the transom—or out of the blue. (Is it National Cliché Week?) and I took the dive. (Another one.) I’ve been told I write well, maybe thanks to two English teacher parents who wrote well, so I took the job. It’s not for the money, I assure you. Someone said, do you want to try a column for the Times? And I thought, Sure, I guess. How much. And they said two days a week. Most writers would have meant how much money, I guess. And I said, that seems easy enough, and it was—for about three weeks when I was doing two a week. Then I started to get desperate, because I felt I had said everything I would ever be able to say in a column of any kind. It’s always nice when someone remembers a line correctly from something you’ve written. In a Sarah Palin column, I said, “She seems to have no first language.” And this is much remembered to this very day, I find. Strange.

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Robert Stone, Tabloid Writer

August 21, 2014 | by

I think cultural undergrounds develop in the void left by the abdication of the official culture. During the sixties, so many august institutions seemed to have no self-confidence. The universities, corporations, the very fabric of the state. Everything you pushed just seemed to fall over. Everything was up for grabs. For me, the counterculture was like a party that spilled out into the world until one had the odd feeling in society that one was walking around looking at the results of a party that had ended a few years before—a big experiment. But there was no program, everybody wanted different things. I think Kesey wanted a cultural revolution, the nature of which was uncertain; he was just making it up as he went along. Other people were into political reform. Others thought the drugs would fix it all. Peace and love and dope.
—Robert Stone, the Art of Fiction No. 90

Happy birthday to Robert Stone, who turns seventy-seven today. Prime Green, his 2006 memoir, features more of his thoughts on the sixties—and he is very good, and often very funny, on the sixties. In the clip above, he reads an excerpt from the book about his time as a writer at a supermarket tabloid, an unsavory publication he calls the National Funder. Stone worked under a guy called Fat Lou “in the dank basement of hackdom,” at an office not far from the Flatiron Building. His forte: headlines. His compunctions: myriad. But his work as a yellow journalist: impeccable.

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The Greatest Artist in the Whole Wide World

July 22, 2014 | by

06 Edgar

A portrait of the author by his mother, Louise Oliver.

02 Edgar December 14th 1963

Louise Oliver, Edgar, December 14, 1963

03 Helen at 17 or So

Louise Oliver, Helen at Seventeen or So

04 Untitled January sketch

Louise Oliver, Untitled (January sketch)

05 Still Life with Glasses

Louise Oliver, Still Life with Glasses

One of our favorite places to play, all throughout my childhood, was in cemeteries. We would go get fried chicken at the Woolworth’s on Broughton Street and go with our sketch pads to the Colonial Cemetery to picnic atop the family vaults that were all shaped like gigantic brick bedsteads. Helen and I loved to climb on these strange bed-shaped vaults and to lie there on the gently curved bellies of the tombs and play at being dead. And while we played, Mother drew in her sketch pad.

At the very back of the cemetery was a playground with old, rusted iron swings that shrieked when you swung in them. Helen and I loved to swing high and make the swings shriek mournfully—the cry of our flight. On the other side of the brick wall, overlooking the playground, rose the Savannah jailhouse—a tall old building with a tower topped by a red onion dome. High up in the jailhouse wall were dark arched windows where you could sometimes see the silhouettes of men’s heads—the prisoners watching us as we swung.

“You’re the greatest artist in the whole wide world, Mother. You’re also the best, funnest, most beautiful Mother in the whole wide world. And you cook such good food too.”

Mother made us say that to her over and over again—every day. And I think we said it sincerely. Mother almost never cooked—but when she did, what she made was always luscious. And I think Mother was a great artist. There is an innocence to Mother’s work that is like a form of revelation.

Over the years of our childhood, Helen and I were to become Mother’s most trusted and devoted encouragers and critics. Mother would call us in from the backyard to examine whatever painting she was working on. We would make our pronouncements with great authority. Read More »

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The Whys and Wherefores

June 18, 2014 | by

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Jeanette MacDonald in an Argentinean Magazine, February 1934

I remember the moment clearly: it was a late winter afternoon, and I was sitting on the radiator in my bedroom, reading Michelle Phillips’s memoir California Dreamin instead of doing my ninth-grade English homework. The author described moving into the mansion where the 1930s movie star Jeanette MacDonald had once lived. The Mamas and the Papas—then at the height of their fame—gutted the place, in the process ripping out the built-in wardrobes, whose enormous drawers had been designed to hold entire gowns, laid flat. And I made the conscious decision not to tell my grandmother about it. I thought it would distress her.

Back when the world was simpler and videotapes were physical objects, my grandmother and I used to set aside an afternoon when we’d settle ourselves on the couch with the milk shakes she made from homemade ice cream and gorge on Jeanette MacDonald–Nelson Eddy films. Why my grandparents had them all on cassette I don’t know; maybe my grandpa had picked up the lot at a tag sale. Those operettas became the soundtrack to my summers; to this day, I can’t hear the “Indian Love Call” without a Proustian rush of nostalgia. Of course, since one never hears the “Indian Love Call,” said rush has yet to happen.

There was a time when everyone knew MacDonald and Eddy. Films like Rose-Marie and Maytime made the handsome singers household names, and made hits of their scores. The films were corny and soapy, and even eighty years ago the music was nostalgic. Eddy’s acting—especially in their early collaborations—was wooden. (Check out the clinch in Naughty Marietta for proof.) But my grandmother loved them when she was a little girl, and at the same age, I adored them. A few plot synopses will illustrate why. Read More »

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Elements of Style, and Other News

March 14, 2013 | by

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  • Classics, Strunk and White style.
  • “The year I turned ninety, I wanted to give myself the gift of a night of wild love with an adolescent virgin.” And other surreal opening lines.
  • Fans rally around San Francisco’s beloved (and endangered) Adobe Books.
  • “How many other books had I been fooling myself about?” When you think you’ve read books ... but you haven’t.
  • Get the knives out: any discussion of the best food memoirs is sure to be contentious.
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