A Week in Culture: Elizabeth Samet, Professor and Writer


The Culture Diaries


What better way to launch this diary than with a little detour, en route to meet some friends, along the street of pianos? I love the Sunday morning silence of this short stretch of West 58th Street between Broadway and Seventh Avenue: all those Steinways, Bechsteins, and Bosendorfers asleep inside their showrooms. Outside there’s only the light jingle of the collar on a small but imperious terrier, its owner dragging sleepily behind. The terrier—preferably Fox or Welsh—is my ideal virtual dog. I can admire one in passing; then someone else can take it home. The canine’s playful condescension always calls to mind my favorite couplet, Alexander Pope’s epigram, which the poet had engraved on the collar of a puppy he once gave the Prince of Wales: “I am his Highness’ dog at Kew/ Pray tell me Sir, whose Dog are you?”

My Piano Street Strut concludes a musical weekend. Let’s start in reverse order: Lucinda Williams, Webster Hall, Saturday night. Webster Hall has its own time zone: doors open at 6; show starts at 7; or maybe 7:45, as they inform you at the door; or, in fact, a little after 8, when Lucinda Williams steps onto the stage saying, “Sorry.” The hall is packed, and the crowd can’t get enough. Many are obvious veterans of her shows; they keep screaming, “Lu!” and lifting their beers in tribute. My favorite Williams recordings are bundles of bitterness, but I’m just not hearing it this night.

But what chance did anyone really have after Ann Hampton Callaway at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola on Friday? I raced home from a late night at work to meet friends in from D.C. for the show, which was delayed a bit because of some water problems at the club. Never underestimate the cosmic force of a diva: Callaway can conjure the elements. Water flowed again. And then Tony Bennett appeared. Yes, he did. Callaway improvised a song of tribute to him. It’s that capacity for improvisation, that singing on the precipice, I so admire about Callaway’s artistry. She often speaks of the importance of “live music,” and then she lives it right there in front of you.

The first time I saw her she improvised a song using whatever unlovely, unmusical words the audience happened to suggest. I attended that show in the company of Callaway’s father, the great Chicago journalist John Callaway, who died in 2009. He interviewed me once and quickly became a friend. John was the most delightful correspondent: we wrote to each other about politics, sports, and books. (He was a fan of Henning Mankell mysteries.) And when he came to New York, I looked forward to dinner and stories of the old City News Bureau in Chicago. How is it that we can feel so deeply the loss of people we’ve known but a short while? Maybe it’s because there are so many stories left to tell.


I refuse to subscribe to “premium” cable. While everyone around me obsesses over the latest groundbreaking “original series,” I bide my time. My mother, who has both HBO and DVR capabilities, stockpiles episodes for me like missiles in a cold-war silo. I return home for the holidays each year to ignore my family and catch up on a season’s worth of In Treatment, Curb Your Enthusiasm, or The Sopranos. But now I’ve got a three-month free trial of HBO, and I’ve become a little dangerous. Deadwood on demand has been the highlight: I do love life on the filthy (in so many different ways) frontier. I realize that in HBO time this puts me about eleven years behind, but sometimes belated is better.

Having finished the entire first season of Deadwood, I start to wander through the premium wilderness of HBO A to Z. Then somewhere between Catch Me if You Can and that roller-derby flick with Ellen Page, or maybe it’s between The Fantastic Mr. Fox and the movie in which Tony Shalhoub talks to a parrot—it’s late and the plots are running together—I light on an extended preview for Mildred Pierce, the five-part miniseries directed by Todd Haynes and starring Kate Winslet in the title role originally inhabited by Joan Crawford. HBO has plastered ads for Pierce on the side of every New York City bus, but to watch the preview is to be stunned by the hubris of it all. Can even the formidable duo of Haynes and Winslet pull this off? Is it wise to mess with the Crawford mojo? This is the woman who supposedly responded to a director’s question about whether she could cry on demand, “You want tears? Which eye?” A woman who dragged her mink across the floor of 21. My indignation builds: Crawford brazen in the lurid lunacy of Johnny Guitar; rolling her car over on a snowy New England road at the end of Daisy Kenyon, then emerging from the wreck looking only slightly dazed and stumbling gamely out of the frame in fur and heels to find her way home to a waiting Dana Andrews and Henry Fonda; running up and down the streets of San Francisco in Sudden Fear—again with the fur coat—to escape her murderous husband Jack Palance:

Jack: “Why do you look at me like that?”

Joan: “I was just wondering what I’d done to deserve you.”

And of all films, Mildred Pierce? The Warner Brothers picture that resurrected Crawford’s career, with Eve Arden and Jack Carson—those meticulous Warner Brothers contract players—wisecracking their way through all 111 minutes, that oozing Max Steiner score, and Joan’s Mildred baking four-dozen pies a night just to buy that bitch of a daughter singing lessons. What can they be thinking?


For reasons still obscure to me, I recently decided that I needed to learn how to play the guitar. One Sunday my friend Steve—a first-rate Virgil for a trip down to the Union Square Guitar Center—helped me pick out an instrument. Think Will Ferrell finding that sea-foam Fender in Stranger than Fiction. Okay, not quite. Sunday mornings are quiet at the Guitar Center, especially in the climate-controlled room where they keep the acoustic instruments. Nevertheless, as I discovered on a return visit, the vibe is altogether different on a weekday afternoon, when every teenage boy in New York is there grappling with an ax to create a cacophony impossible to describe.

Thus newly indoctrinated into the world of guitars, I decide to go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “Guitar Heroes” exhibition. Fantastic. There are some beautiful stringed instruments from the museum’s permanent collection. The materials from which they’re made are found poems: spruce, ebony, fruitwood, snakewood, parchment, bone, ivory, mother-of-pearl. But at the heart of the exhibition are the gorgeous mandolins and archtop guitars of three twentieth-century New York luthiers: John D’Angelico, James D’Aquisto, and John Monteleone. Several of the most beautiful models were inspired by city architecture: D’Aquisto’s New Yorker Deluxe and Monteleone’s Radio City and Deco Vox models, the latter capturing the look of the Chrysler Building at sunset. Monteleone’s Black Mambo, Radio Flyer, and Sun King are also on display. You can listen online to musicians playing several of the instruments and discussing the sound and craftsmanship. Check out Barry Mitterhoff”>playing “Soldier’s Joy” on a Monteleone Baby Grand model mandolin.

I went home to practice my C chord.

Elizabeth Samet is the author of Soldier’s Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point. Check back tomorrow for her second installment.