100 New Yorkers of the 1970s
By Max Millard
Dedication: to Bruce Logan, who made this book possible.
Copyright 2005 by Max Millard
The interviews for this book were conducted from May 1977 to December 1979. They appeared as cover stories for the TV Shopper, a free weekly paper that was distributed to homes and businesses in New York City. Founded by Bruce Logan in the mid-1970s as the West Side TV Shopper, it consisted of TV listings, advertisements, and two full-page stories per issue. One was a "friendly" restaurant review of an advertiser; the other was a profile of a prominent resident of the Upper West Side of Manhattan. The honoree's face appeared on the cover, framed by a TV screen.
The formula was successful enough so that in 1978, Bruce began publishing the East Side TV Shopper as well. My job was to track down the biggest names I could find for both papers, interview them, and write a 900-word story. Most interviewees were in the arts and entertainment industry — actors, singers, dancers, writers, musicians, news broadcasters and radio personalities. Bruce quickly recruited me to write the restaurant reviews as well. During my two and a half years at the paper, I wrote about 210 interviews. These are my 100 favorites of the ones that survive.
These stories represent my first professional work as a journalist. I arrived in New York City in November 1976 at age 26, hungry for an opportunity to write full-time after spending six years practicing my craft at college and community newspapers in New England. I had just started to sell a few stories in Maine, but realized I would have to move to a big city if I was serious about switching careers from social worker to journalist.
My gigs as an unpaid writer for small local papers included a music column for the East Boston Community News and a theater column for the Wise Guide in Portland, Maine. I had learned the two most important rules of journalism – get your facts straight and meet your deadlines. I had taught myself Pitman's shorthand and could take notes at 100 words a minute. So I felt ready to make the leap if someone gave me a chance.
Full of hope, I quit my job in rural Maine as a senior citizens' aide, drove to New York, sold my car, moved into an Upper West Side apartment with two aspiring opera singers, and began to look for work.
One aspect of the New York personality, I soon observed, was that the great often mingled freely with the ordinary. At the Alpen Pantry Cafe in Lincoln Center, where I worked briefly, David Hartman, host of Good Morning America, came in for his coffee every morning and waited in line like everyone else. John Lennon was said to walk his Westside neighborhood alone, and largely undisturbed.
The other side of the New York mentality was shown by nightclubs surrounded by velvet ropes, where uniformed doormen stood guard like army sentries. Disdaining the riffraff, they picked out certain attractive individuals milling outside and beckoned them to cut through the crowd, pay their admission and enter. The appearance of status counted for much, and many people who lived on 58th Street, one block from Central Park, got their mail through the back entrance so they could claim the higher-class address of Central Park West.
In early 1977 my shorthand skills got me a part-time job at the home of Linda Grover, a scriptwriter for the TV soap opera The Doctors. On the day I met her, she dictated a half-hour script to me, winging it while glancing at an outline. My trial of fire was to transcribe it, type it up that night and turn it in the next morning for revisions. I got little sleep, but completed the job. After that I became her secretary.
Linda's soap work was unsteady, and to supplement her income she wrote all the cover stories for TV Shopper. After I'd been helping her for a few months, she accepted a full-time job as headwriter for a new soap. I had told her of my ambition and shown her some of my writing, so she recommended me to Bruce as her replacement.
For my first assignment, Bruce sent me to interview Delores Hall, star of a Broadway musical with an all-black cast, Your Arms Too Short to Box With God. I went to the theater, watched the show, then met Delores backstage. The first question I asked her was: "Is that your real hair?" She smiled good-naturedly at my lack of diplomacy and didn't answer, but made me feel completely at ease. She led me outside the theater, and without embarrassment, asked me to hail the taxi for us. Then she directed the driver to a favorite soul food restaurant, where she stuffed herself while I conducted the interview. She was as gracious in my company as she had been on the stage while bowing to a standing ovation. Later, her role in the show won her the Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical.
After completing my Delores Hall story, I was kept constantly busy at the TV Shopper for as long as I stayed in New York. At first Bruce gave me all the leads, many of whom were people who had requested to be on the cover. But soon I was after bigger game, and began to systematically hunt down people whom I had grown up admiring. I scanned People magazine each week to find out which celebrities were New Yorkers. When I landed an important interview, I often visited the New York Public Library of Performing Arts in Lincoln Center to study the clipping files and prepare my questions.
A few interviewees were distant and arrogant, making it clear that they wouldn't be wasting their time with me if not for the insistence of their agent. A cover story in the TV Shopper could possibly extend a Broadway run for a few days or sell another $10,000 worth of tickets to the ballet or opera. But the vast majority of my interview subjects were friendly, respectful, and even a little flattered by the thought of being on the cover. In general, the biggest people were most likely to be unpretentious and generous of spirit.
It was thrilling experience to meet and interview the people who had been my idols only a few years before. When we were alone together in a room, I felt that — if only for that brief period — I were the equal of someone who had achieved greatness. I had grown up reading Superman comics, and one day it flashed on me: this is Metropolis and I'm Clark Kent!
My subjects probably found me somewhat of a rube. I didn't dress well, I had little knowledge of New York, I asked some very simplistic questions, and until 1979 I didn't use a tape recorder. So perhaps some of the stars were put off their guard and revealed more of themselves than they would have to a more professional interviewer. I was struck by how single-minded they were for success. Probing their brains was like getting a second college education. Their main message was: Don't waste your life and don't do anything just for money.
Of course, many people declined my request for an interview. Among those I fished for, but failed to reel in, were Richard Chamberlain, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Bob Keeshan (Captain Kangaroo), Rex Reed, Halston, Carrie Fisher, Russell Baker, Ted Sorensen, Joseph Heller, Margaret Meade, Helen Gurley Brown and Ira Gershwin. Then there were the Eastsiders and Westsiders too famous to even approach, such as Woody Allen, Bob Hope and Mikhail Baryshnikov.
The person who did more than anyone else to secure first-rank interviews for me was Anna Sosenko, a woman in her late 60s who owned an autograph collectors' shop on West 62th Street filled with elegantly framed letters, manuscripts and autographed photos of some of the greatest names in the history of entertainment. Despite her treasures, she always talked with one hand over her mouth to hide the fact that she had practically no teeth.
For 23 years Anna had managed the career of cabaret superstar Hildegarde Sell, and had penned Hildegarde's theme song, "Darling, Je Vous Aime Beaucoup." Anna was still a formidable figure in showbiz; every year she produced a spectacular fund-raising all-star show in a Broadway theater that paid tribute to Broadway legends. Her 1979 show, which I attended, included live performances by Julie Andrews, Agnes DeMille, Placido Domingo, Alfred Drake, Tovah Feldshuh, Hermione Gingold and Rex Harrison.
I met Anna through her friendship with Bruce Logan, and she became my direct link to many stars of the older generation, including Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Lillian Gish, Ann Miller, Maureen O'Sullivan and Sammy Cahn. One phone call from Anna was enough to get me an appointment.
The TV Shopper interviews and restaurant reviews – a total of four stories per week – became my whole life, and I had little time for friendships, hobbies or anything else. By late 1979, I realized that New York City wasn't my natural element. It was too dog-eat-dog, too overwhelming, too impersonal. I had grown dissatisfied with working for the TV Shopper, and felt that I had squeezed the juice from the orange; I had interviewed everyone I wanted to meet who was willing to sit down with me. After interviewing my fifth or sixth broadcaster or dancer, things began to feel repetitive. I pondered what Tom Smothers had told me when I'd asked why the Smothers Brothers had split up as an act: "First you just do it, then you do it for fun, then you do it seriously, and then you're done."
About this time I got an invitation from a friend in the San Francisco Bay Area to move out West and give it a try. I told Bruce I was quitting. When I gave the news to Anna, she said: "You might never come back." She was right.
In my last couple of months as a New Yorker, I did as many interviews as I could fit it. I left for Maine on Christmas Eve of 1979, taking all my TV Shopper stories with me, and flew to San Francisco on New Year's Day of 1980. Using my notes, I wrote up my final interviews during my early months on the West Coast, which accounts for some of the 1980 publication dates. Other stories dated 1980 were published first in 1979, then reused; I have no record of their original dates.
When my parents moved in 1988, they threw away my entire TV Shopper archive. Fortunately, Bruce Logan had saved copies of most of the stories, and at my request, he photocopied them and sent them to in 1990. About 10 stories were missing from his collection, and therefore cannot be included here. Among the lost interviews I remember are Soupy Sales, Dave Marash, Gael Greene, Janis Ian, Joe Franklin and Barnard Hughes.
After 9/11, I began thinking a lot about New York, and started rereading some of my old stories. My eye caught this statement by Paul Goldberger, then the architecture critic for the New York Times: "This is probably the safest environment in the world to build a skyscraper." I realized that the New York of today is quite differently from that of the late 1970s, and thought that a collection of my interviews might be of interest to a new generation of readers.
In the summer of 2005 I finished retyping, correcting, and fact-checking the 100 stories. Three of my interviews – Isaac Asimov, Alan Lomax and Tom Wolfe – were originally published in two different versions, one for the TV Shopper and a longer one for the Westsider, a weekly community newspaper. I have included both versions here. Also, my interview with Leonard Maltin was not a cover story, but a half-page "Westside profile." It appears here because of Maltin's huge future success as a writer, editor and TV personality.
In the course of my research, I uncovered a lot of information about what happened to my interviewees after 1980. Many have died, some have grown in fame, and some have virtually disappeared from public records. In a future edition of this book, I hope to include that information in a postscript at the end of each story. In the meantime, I invite readers to send me any information they have about these personalities by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
San Francisco, California
TABLE OF CONTENTS
WESTSIDER CLEVELAND AMORY
Author, radio humorist, and president of the Fund for Animals
Author, radio humorist, and president of the Fund for Animals
12 9 78
It's impossible to mistake the voice if you've heard it once – the tone of mock annoyance, the twangy, almost whiny drawl that rings musically in the ear. It could easily belong to a cartoon character or a top TV pitchman, but it doesn't. It belongs to Cleveland Amory, an affable and rugged individualist who has been a celebrated writer for more than half of his 61 years. Amory is also a highly regarded lecturer and radio essayist: his one minute humor spot, Curmudgeon at Large, is heard daily from Maine to California. His latest novel, nearing completion, is due to be published next fall.
TV Guide perhaps brought Amory his widest fame. He was the magazine's star columnist from 1963 to 1976, when he gave it up in order to devote his time to other projects, especially the Fund for Animals, a non profit humane organization that he founded in 1967. He has served as the group's president since the beginning; now it has 150,000 members across the United States. Amory receives no pay for his involvement with the organization.
The national headquarters of the Fund for Animals is a suite of rooms in an apartment building near Carnegie Hall. The central room is lined with bookshelves, and everywhere on the 25 foot walls are pictures and statues of animals. Amory enters the room looking utterly exhausted. He is a tall, powerful looking man with a shock of greyish brown hair that springs from his head like sparks from an electrode. As we sit back to talk and his two pet cats walk about the office, his energy seems to recharge itself.
Amory's quest to protect animals from needless cruelty began several decades ago when, as a young reporter in Arizona, he wandered across the border into Mexico and witnessed a bullfight. Shocked that people could applaud the death agony of "a fellow creature of this earth," he began to join various humane societies. Today he is probably the best known animal expert in America. His 1974 best seller, Man Kind? Our Incredible War On Wildlife, was one of only three books in recent years to be the subject of an editorial in the New York Times – the others being Rachel Carson's Silent Spring and Ralph Nader's Unsafe at Any Speed.
"A lot of people ask me, ‘Why not do something about children, or old people, or minorities?'" he begins, lighting a cigarette and propping one foot on the desk. "My feeling is that there's enough misery out there for anybody to work at whatever he wants to. I think the mark of a civilized person is how you treat what's beneath you. Most people do care about animals. But you have to translate their feelings into action. ... We're fighting a lot of things – the clubbing of the baby seals, the killing of dolphins by the tuna fishermen, the poisoning of animals. The leghold trap is illegal in 14 countries of the world, but only in five states in the U.S.
"The reason this fight is so hard is that man has an incredible ability to rationalize his cruelty. When they kill the seals, they say it's a humane way of doing it. But I don't see anything humane about clubbing a baby seal to death while his mother is watching, helpless.
"One of our biggest fights right now is to make the wolf our national mammal. There's only about 400 of them left in the continental United States. The wolf is a very brave animal. It's monogamous, and it has great sensitivity."
One of his chief reasons for dropping his TV Guide column, says Amory, was because "after 15 years of trying to decide whether the Fonz is a threat to Shakespeare, I wanted to write about things that are more important than that." His latest novel, a satirical work that he considers the finest piece of writing he has ever done, "is basically a satire of club life in America. ... I sent it down to a typist here, and it came back with a note from the typist saying, ‘I love it!' In all my years of writing, I don't think I've ever had a compliment like that. So I sent the note to my editor along with the manuscript."
An expert chess player, he was long ranked number one at Manhattan's Harvard Club until his recent dethronement at the hands of a young woman. "I play Russians whenever I get a chance," he confides. "I always love to beat Russians. I want to beat them all." Once he played against Viktor Korchnoi, the defected Soviet who narrowly lost to world champion Anatoly Karpov this fall.
"I think he threw that final game," says Amory of Korchnoi's loss. "He didn't make a single threatening move. I think he was offered a deal to get the kid and wife out. It was all set up from the beginning. I hate facts, so I don't want any facts to interfere with my thesis."