Grappling With the Instinctive – and Unnecessary – Fictionalization of History

I recently watched Michael Mann’s Public Enemies for the first time since its 2009 theatrical release. Based on Bryan Burrough’s excellent 2004 book of the same name, it narrows the focus of the sprawling book to the cat-and-mouse game played by bank robber John Dillinger and Melvin Purvis, special agent in charge of the Chicago office of what was then called the Bureau of Investigation; it added “Federal” in July 1935. The film, despite middling reviews, is beautiful – Director of Photography Dante Spinotti had photographed my favorite movie, L.A. Confidential, 12 years earlier – well-acted and generally entertaining.

If, that is, you are unconcerned with historical accuracy.

This is both the blessing and curse of being a close student of history: it becomes increasingly hard to swallow the changes, large and small, filmmakers make (or are required to make) when presenting anything “based on a true story.” The YouTube channel HistoryBuffs, researched and narrated by the remarkable Nick Hodges, brilliantly compares “actual” history to “cinematic version” history. We both recognize some license has to be taken at times to translate history into the language of cinema; there is a line between pure documentary and “based on true story.” But – we also agree there is an even clearer line between fact and fantasy.

I had hesitated to watch Public Enemies again because of the head-scratching decisions Mann – an otherwise masterful director – makes. The most egregious one comes at the very beginning of the film. After a reasonably accurate reenactment of the September 26, 1933 Indiana State Penitentiary prison break, orchestrated by recently-paroled Dillinger (played with insouciant charm by Johnny Depp), we cut to a scene in which a man is being chased through woods by armed gunmen.

The clear implication, reinforced by later dialogue: this action takes place roughly contemporaneously with the Indiana prison break.

Leading the armed men is Christian Bale, as Purvis. The man being chased is called “Floyd” and told to halt. Instead, “Floyd” wildly shoots back at his pursuers with a tommy gun – excuse me, a Thompson submachine gun. Bale then fires twice at “Floyd” from a high-powered rifle. Approaching “Floyd,” now prone on the ground and bleeding profusely from a fatal chest wound, Bale looks down at him and says, “Pretty Boy Floyd, you are under arrest.”

“Charles. Charles Floyd. And who are you?”

“Melvin Purvis, Bureau of Investigation…”

Bale does a creditable job recreating Purvis’ South Carolina accent, and Channing Tatum looks a lot like the real-life Floyd. And the scene plays out reasonably accurately.

Well, except for two huge problems.

One, Floyd was fatally shot in a cornfield near Wellsville, OH on October 22, 1934 – three months after Dillinger died in Chicago. In fact, Floyd was named “Public Enemy No. 1” after Dillinger’s death. So, the later scene in which a just-arrested Dillinger says to Purvis, “You’re the man who shot Pretty Boy Floyd” fundamentally makes no sense and, frankly, insults its audience.

And, two, while Purvis was the leader of the group of men who cornered Floyd in the cornfield, no contemporary newspaper accounts say it was PURVIS who gunned down the bank robber with almost superhuman eyesight and accuracy. Instead, as the official Associate Press account puts it, “four Department of Justice men and four East Liverpool policemen” fired at least 50 shots at Floyd, without naming a specific shooter. Purvis did exchange words with the dying man, but all the newspaper records is the latter telling the former “I am Floyd.”[1]

My best guess is that this inexcusable rewriting of history serves two purposes: to quickly establish Purvis as “heroic Bureau agent” and to remind audiences that Dillinger and “Baby Face” Nelson (aka Lester Gillis) were not the only outlaw bank robbers in the early 1930s. A passing reference to the 1933 kidnapping of William A. Hamm, Jr. and a few unnecessary scenes featuring Alvin “Creepy” Karpis of the Barker-Karpis gang presumably serve the same purpose – though Giovanni Ribisi captures Karpis’ oddness well. But that begs the question: why does Bale’s Purvis ask Tatum’s Floyd about “your associate Harry Campbell,” when Campbell was affiliated with the Barker-Karpis gang?

No, sorry. There are better ways to introduce Purvis – like the scene in which the young J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) names Purvis head of the Chicago field office. Floyd simply serves no purpose in this film. And, if you casually throw in him and Karpis, why leave out Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker, or “Machine Gun” Kelly?

Even more frustrating is that other events in the film, like the battle of Little Bohemia and the killing of Dillinger, are accurately portrayed AND are masterclasses in suspense and visual storytelling. Well, except, while Purvis and Nelson did exchange gunfire at Little Bohemia, Nelson did not die there, as the film portrays; he died seven months later (November 27, 1934) in Willmette, IL – albeit in a gun battle with Federal agents.

**********

This blurring of the line between fact and fiction for the sake of “art” has been rattling around in my brain roughly since the now-famous July 2017 conversation in which Nell suggested, as we discussed our financial situation, “Why don’t you write a book?” Being an ardent reader of mystery fiction (and everything Stephen King as ever written) that was the type of book she had in mind: one that would sell many copies quickly. But, as we all know, this post had already popped into my head…and the rest is literal history awaiting a reputable and understanding publisher.

I completed the manuscript of Interrogating Memory: Film Noir Spurs a Deep Dive Into My Family History…and My Own in late January 2021; a full printout, on which I am making occasional edits while I await word from literary agents (not looking good there) and publishers (early days still) sits in a battered red folder just to my left as I type this. As I researched it, meanwhile, I learned more about a wide range of fascinating and colorful “characters” who lived in Philadelphia in the 1940s and 1950s: my maternal grandfather Samuel Kohn – police officer and tavern owner; Herman Modell – politician and lawyer who arranged my adoption; my paternal grandfather Morris Berger and his baby brother Jules – successful merchants who died far too young in the 1950s; and Eddie “Psycho” Klayman – heroin addict and convicted arsonist. Also living in Philadelphia then was crime novelist David Goodis, who frequented the type of “seedy” taverns Samuel Kohn ran for about a decade after he retired from the Philadelphia Police Department on October 9, 1953.

This is why, even while I was still writing Interrogating Memory, I occasionally scrawled notes for a related book. These particular notes are on the back of a paper placemat, folded then folded again, from the Limerick Diner, most likely jotted down when I visited Philadelphia in August 2019. Kudos to anyone who can translate my handwriting into English – or any other known language.

Some combination of Nell’s strong preference for fiction, wanting to have at least one “follow up” book in the works, and genuine curiosity about whether Goodis patronized any of my grandfather’s taverns, inter alia, convinced me a historical crime novel (or just plain novel?) featuring these people – or characters inspired by them – was my next project.

At first the idea excited me. Philadelphia has been remarkably underutilized as a setting for fiction of any kind, let alone crime fiction, at least in comparison to other large American cities. Moreover, these people – other than Goodis – were substantive parts of my history. And while Interrogating Memory captures the broad sweep of my family history extremely well, with as much historic context as I could fit, it was simply not possible to expand any particular event, or events, beyond a few pages at most. Enough literary agents have metaphorically frowned at the high word count as it is.

As intrigued as I was, however, I simply could not find the story connecting these persons/characters.

I still cannot.

Sure, I could see an opening scene in which an aging Modell – no longer Assistant City Solicitor – drives south along the recently-opened Atlantic City Expressway in the late 1960s to meet with my former-cop grandfather to discuss…something or other. Maybe it related to Goodis, or The Boy in the Box, or my recent adoption, or suspected arson, or…who the heck knows? I certainly do not.

The more I probed, the more stuck I became…until it finally dawned on me:

For all intents and purposes, I was already writing this book. Perhaps not with fictional interactions between characters loosely based on real people involved in an impenetrable mystery – but I was telling these people’s stories as completely and accurately as I could. Philippe Garnier had already told Goodis’ life story as well as anybody likely ever will. Moreover, as I have already noted with films like Public Enemies, I know the historical details far too well to be comfortable – satisfied? – fictionalizing them.

Call this a limitation of my imagination, if you like.

I prefer to think of it as a victory for pure, unadulterated history over the fictionalized version.

**********

Hold on, hold on, I can hear some of you saying. Aren’t you being hypocritical again?

How so? I respond.

Just take a look at your DVD collection.

My DVD collection?

That’s right.

What about my DVD collection? suddenly recalling the Doctor Who episode “Blink.”

Well, you have Hammett, The Public Eye, The Cotton Club and all four seasons of The Untouchables, among others.

Yeah, and…?

And those three movies and the television series do what exactly you just said – wrote – whatever – you disdain: turn real-life people into “characters” in a work of fiction. Not to mention all three movies currently have a middling 6.5 rating on the Internet Movie Database (“IMDb”); unlike Brian DePalma’s 1987 film version of The Untouchables (7.9), which you despise for its grotesque historical inaccuracy, these are not even particularly good films.

OK [I nod with understanding], I begin to see your point.

To address your valid critique, let me begin with Nick Hodges’ concise demonstration of just how much a work of pure fiction DePalma’s film is. I will not deny that purely as a work of art, The Untouchables is magnificent – stunningly photographed, well-written and ably acted. The problem, though, is that DePalma allows his audience to believe that what they are watching is the actual history of the arrest and conviction of Al Capone on charges of federal tax evasion in 1931 – when it is not even remotely that. I do not know if this is laziness, greed, cynicism or a mixture of all three – but it is despicable, in my view. It is disinformation, no more, no less.

Whoa there, little buckaroo! You hate the film, but you love the television series? Really? Aren’t they based on the same book written by Eliot Ness and Oscar Fraley?

Well…yes. But – outside of the two-part pilot, the television series at best winked and nodded at historical accuracy, cheekily inventing nonsensical, if highly entertaining, storylines very loosely based on real people. Walter Winchell’s stentorian voiceovers (“Chicago, 1932. Eliot Ness and his Untouchables something something Frank Nitti something something bootlegging”), notwithstanding. DePalma peddles history, Desilu Productions peddled entertainment. I enjoy the series as a work of pure fiction starring a made-up character named “Eliot Ness.” Moreover, it would take years for historians finally to correct the record, rightfully elevating Frank Wilson and his associates in the Treasury Department as the real “heroes” of the Capone conviction story. You can somewhat excuse Desilu, but there is no excuse for DePalma.

Hmm, maybe. But what about the three other movies?

OK, let’s take each in reverse order.

Like the television series of The Untouchables, The Cotton Club does not pretend to be anything than a fairy tale VERY loosely based on real life persons and the eponymous Harlem night club. In fact, the movie – which I think is magnificent, whatever the critics say – was inspired by James Haskins’ 1977 “pictorial and social history” of the famous club, not by specific events. At some point, I plan to write a HistoryBuffs-like post separating cinematic fiction from historic fact in this film, so for now I leave it at that.

The Public Eye, meanwhile, tells the story of a rumpled, cigar-chomping tabloid news photographer in 1940s New York City with a knack for getting to the scene of major events before anyone else. The character’s named is Leon “Bernzie” Bernstein, but we know from the gorgeous opening montage of developing black-and-white photographs he is a fictionalized version of Arthur Fellig, aka Weegee. The usual explanation for the name change is that director Howard Franklin could not get the rights to the name “Weegee” from the executors of his estate – or something like that. But, again, that means this film is upfront about being a work of fiction, not a history lesson.

The same goes for Hammett, based on the 1976 Joe Gores novel of the same name. The obvious difference, of course, is that the actual Dashiell Hammett, eking out a living writing crime fiction short stories in San Francisco in 1926 – the film implies his story “Dead Yellow Women” had just been published, which happened in September 1925 – is the film’s protagonist. Again, however, the film carefully states this is pure fiction –imagining what Hammett returning to detective work might look like. That said, the novel (which I have yet to read) and film probably come closest to how I envisioned my 1950s Philadelphia novel.

So, my imaginary critics respond, you give a pass to pure fiction based on “real” history in some cases, but not in others. Why are you so hard on Mann and DePalma, but not on the other directors and producers?

Because, as I have said, Mann and DePalma allow their audience to think what they are seeing is near-documentary history, counting on them not to investigate – excuse me, interrogate – for themselves. The others do no such thing, effectively conceding what they show are works of pure imagination.

Again [please do not interrupt me], perhaps I lack that particular form of imagination. Maybe it really is a curse of literalism: once I learn “true” history – or do my best to parse out the truth among various versions of that history – I find it more difficult to enjoy a fictionalized version. Unless, as in the case of the three DVDs you found snooping around our entertainment center, the works are so blatantly fictional, that – as with “Eliot Ness” – I can reassure myself I am watching an invented character named “Dashiell Hammett” or “’Dutch’ Schultz.”

Plus – and this is the best part – even when I knew some of the history going into the film or television series, each one of them inspired me to learn even more about them, to question – sorry, interrogate – the actual history behind the stories. In some ways, yes, this now makes it harder to watch these movies – but only somewhat.

[Now I grimace, knowing what is coming next]

Oh, ho, Mister – pardon me, Doctor – high-and-mighty judge of history-based cinema! You admit even a film like The Untouchables serves an important purpose if it gets viewers to learn the history for themselves? Your lack of consistency is remarkable.

It would appear that way, yes. But only IF – and this “if” is in neon letters three-stories high – IF anyone in the audience bothers to check a film’s “facts” for themselves. Sure, for works of pure fiction like Cotton Club, Hammett and Public Eye, they may well do so. But if they walk out of the theater or get off the sofa thinking they have already learned the real history, what is their incentive to, say it with me now, interrogate that notion? Anyone who does, good, great, I am wrong, and DePalma and Mann have done a service.

Hmm, mayyyybe.

**********

And so on.

You get the idea.

Here, then, is the larger question with which I continue to grapple.

Why do we feel compelled, when we learn of some interesting event or person or whatever, to immediately turn that thing into a work of fiction? Why is the actual thing not sufficient on its own merits?

“Oh, what a great novel that would make?” we think or say.

Is it that we associate “history” with boring classroom recitations of names and dates, with dull documentaries and film strips, with droning lectures and dusty old books?

Perhaps – but the explosion of history-based, fact-checked (kinda sorta ish) videos on YouTube suggests otherwise.

Is it that we simply prefer entertainment to knowledge?

Possibly – Hollywood has been churning out questionable “based on a true story” films since at least The Birth of a Nation in 1915. And that is about two millennia after epic works of propagandist history like The Aeneid.

Is it a question of protecting the – reputations, privacy, legacies, families, something – of actual human beings?

This may be a bit closer to the mark, as we saw with The Public Eye – and as I learned from my own struggle to balance the privacy of living individuals with accurate history in Interrogating Memory…and continue to do on this website.

Is it something about the production of cinema itself, the need to condense complex historical narratives into something that can be filmed on a reasonable budget in a reasonable amount of time at a reasonable length?

Here I confess I am a bit more sympathetic to the filmmaker and the constraints imposed upon her/him. However, this is also where my darkest fears vis-à-vis Interrogating Memory emerge. Forget getting published by a reputable firm. Like many, if not all, writers, I would love to see my work turn into, say, an HBO or Netflix mini-series; a feature film probably would not be long enough. In the very next thought, though, I dread the cuts, changes, condensations and compromises that may ensue. Too many excellent works of history have been butchered on the screen – large and small – for me to be wholly comfortable with such changes. For better or for worse, however, this is not something I need to worry about anytime soon.

Or is it something to do with the lure of fiction itself? That somehow an imagined retelling of real events – or fiction based even loosely on those events – has more emotional or psychological or epistemic or philosophical reality than a straight recitation of those events?

Basically, I am asking whether we learn more about ourselves and our world from “stories” or from history? I am now the wrong person to ask, because I have found no pleasure in fiction – the printed form, anyway – for years now. There is so much “true” history yet to be learned that literature – produced by writers who can make any character do anything they want at any time – bores me now. Non-fiction writers like myself are necessarily and correctly constrained by verifiable – or, at the very least, carefully-sourced – facts. Plus, there is one way and one way only our narratives can proceed: as they actually did. The best we can do (and here I speak – write – whatever from years of direct experience) is arrange those facts – carefully selecting some and setting aside others, no matter how interesting – in the most entertaining, even cinematic, way possible. Fiction writers, by contrast, have no such constraints, but that also means – I argue – they can manipulate us into reaching any conclusion they choose, whether those conclusions are conscious or unconscious.

Let me stop here, before I sound even more like I am condemning all fiction. I am not. I have hundreds of cherished volumes on a few dozen bookshelves downstairs from my cozy home office to demonstrate the opposite.

Rather, what I am questioning is the deeply-ingrained need to fictionalize history. Or to rearrange that history to fit the “rules” of literature and cinema – simplify, condense, embellish and – when necessary – embroider for the sake of narrative flow and maintaing audience interest.

And – to be brutally honest – the best and most talented writers among us gravitate naturally and perhaps inevitably toward fiction. The flip side of its lack of “real-world” constraints is its tabula rasa nature: a blank canvas awaiting unfettered imagination filtered through raw talent. The ability to create an entirely new tale from scratch (yes, yes, with inspiration from the “real” world) is rightly lauded and celebrated as great art. There is also a great deal to be said for not knowing, as one could with a work of non-fiction, what happens next. Here, those seemingly arbitrary authorial choices make the difference.

So, I conclude by flipping the script.

Maybe, just maybe, the problem is not with history, or with non-fiction generally, but with history (and non-fiction generally) writers. Maybe the skill sets of the historian – the meticulous, plodding, tedious reconstruction of the past by any means necessary, resigned to the ultimate incompleteness of the enterprise – and the writer rarely overlap. Maybe Truman Capote – who purportedly invented the “non-fiction novel” in 1966 with In Cold Blood – truly is sui generis, and the rest of us are just trying to catch up.

Or maybe it is time genuinely talented writers turned their attention away from “the great [fill in nationality] novel” and toward the hard – and, trust me, it is hard – work of writing “novelistic” non-fiction. Compelling, page-turning, gripping non-fiction.

Is Interrogating Memory such a work?

I think so, but – as with a parent discussing a child – I am more than a little biased.

And now I am going to rewatch Mobsters. This should be interesting.

Until next time…please be safe and healthy – and if you not already done so, please get vaccinated against COVID-19!


[1] Mylander, William H., “FEDERAL AGENTS KILLED ‘PRETTY BOY’ FLOYD; NO. 1 ENEMY FELL IN HAIL OF RIFLE, PISTOL AND MACHINE GUN BULLETS; OFFICERS CAME UPON FLOYD AT LONELY FARM; Over Fifty Shot Rang Out As Officers Halted the Criminal’s Flight; FELL MORTALLY WOUNDED; Dying Man Asked the Officers Who Tipped Them Off About His Whereabouts,” Standard-Speaker (Hazleton, PA); October 23, 1934; pg. 1

Fact and Fiction in Relationship Portrayals: BEAUTIFUL GIRLS Meets My Romantic History

The indispensable Internet Movie Database (“IMDb”) informs me the underrated romantic dramedy Beautiful Girls debuted in American movie theaters on February 9, 1996. However, I did not see it until sometime in the last decade or so. I enjoyed it, especially the bravura performance by then-14-year-old Natalie Portman. Her portrayal of Willie Conway’s (Timothy Hutton) “old soul” neighbor Marty (“short for Martin, named for a grandfather I never knew. I believe this name to be the bane of my existence.”) deserved more than Best Supporting Actress and Most Promising Actress nominations by the Chicago Film Critics Association. The handful of short scenes in which Hutton and Portman interact are the highlights of the film – and what I most remembered after the fact.

A few months ago, in the midst of a flurry of “second viewings,” I rewatched Beautiful Girls. If anything, I liked it even more. It is well-written, well-acted and charming in its portrayal of a group of 20- or 30-somethings struggling with questions of love, commitment and fidelity; loss, grief and mental illness lurk around the edges.

And this time, it resonated with me in ways I still find myself unpacking – as I am, to a lesser extent, with the very different films Serendipity and Dead Again. The common thread to me is the notion of “the one,” that person who truly excites you (Beautiful Girls), is your destiny (Serendipity) or with whom you are two halves of the same whole (Dead Again). In reality, these notions are the worst form of hogwash – fairy tale misperceptions of adult relationships best left in childhood. I know because I spent too many years unlearning this epically-bad notion.

My wife Nell’s father used to say that every story begins with someone arriving or somebody leaving. I think it was Nell’s father, anyway. Beautiful Girls opens with Willie – a jazz pianist based in New York City – returning to his boyhood home of “Fictional Lake Town,” Massachusetts. It was actually filmed in Minnesota; locating the town there would not have changed the film one iota. Other than the spontaneous singing of Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” – a Fenway Park staple – in the local bar/restaurant, that is.

A central plot point of Beautiful Girls is Willie’s indecision about the woman he has been dating for about a year. Tracy Stover – portrayed with understated grace by Annabeth Gish – is successful, intelligent, loving and beautiful. So, what is the problem, his friends – each struggling with her/his own romantic issues – ask, directly or indirectly. The not-so-subtle message is “Dude, you’re like 30 or something. It is time to settle down and commit. She sounds wicked awesome, what’s your deal?” Never mind only one of his four primary male friends is married; one has been with the same woman for six years yet cannot commit, one is with one woman while a married high school flame keeps seducing him, and one is not even in the romantic game as far as I can tell.

In one particularly uncomfortable scene, in fact, two of the latter three friends have Willie rate Tracy – who hovers unseen over the film until the last 15 or so minutes – on various attributes on a scale of 0-10. Willie responds with a series of sevens and eights, while we – from the vantage point of 2021 – squirm and cringe. Director Ted Demme does provide a brilliant counterpoint in a scathing monologue by Gina Barrisano – Rosie O’Donnell at her most comically direct.

For all its misogyny, though, this faux-quantitative cinematic exercise frames Willie’s position well – Tracy is great, but somehow not quite great enough. Complicating matters are his interactions with Marty who represents to me a resetting of the romantic clock – it all still lays ahead for her. As Willie tells her late in the film, when she is despondent about her not-very-exciting Saturday night, “Yeah, you’ve got so many exciting Saturday nights in your future.” Earlier in the film, meanwhile, Marty and Willie have this exchange, perhaps the key exchange in the film:

Marty: So, you going to marry that girl in NYC?

Willie: I don’t know. Why?

Marty: I don’t think you should marry her.

Willie: How come?

Marty: You should wait until you’re ready. You should wait until you meet someone who excites you.

Willie: Yeah, well, you know she may not be out there.

Contrasted with “unformed,” precocious Marty is Andera (Uma Thurman). The cousin of the bar/restaurant’s owner, she is the archetypal “beautiful girl” of the title. She is alluring yet down-to-earth, ingratiating yet unobtainable, sexy yet sensible, confident yet humble. Visiting briefly from Chicago, she turns the head of every man she meets – all while remaining contentedly loyal to her absent boyfriend. Stepping back, though, we see that her allure results primarily from the novelty of her outsider, big-city-ness; she is objectively no more or less “exciting” than the women already in these men’s lives.

Andera particularly bonds with Willie – one big-city resident to another – and they have a revealing conversation one night in an ice-fishing shack (again – Minnesota!) as they share a bottle of something or other:

Willie: You know how it is in the beginnings, when you first fall in love? And you can’t eat, you can’t sleep. And getting a call from her makes your day. It’s like, it’s like you’re seeing a shooting star.

Andera: The best.

Willie: But…inevitably, it goes away, quiets down. So, the, this is my thing, see. Why get married now? Why, why not have two, three more of those beginning things before I, you know, settle into the big fade?

Andera: The big fade? That’s an awful way to put it.

Willie: [After a long pause, as he swills from a bottle] She’s coming tomorrow.

Andera: Mmm, that’s obvious.

Willie: I got no feeling about that. Erm, I got a feeling of overwhelming ambivalence. But, but, I would rather dread her arrival than not give a shit either way.

Willie then proceeds to imagine all of the wonderful things Andera’s boyfriend gets to do with her, to which Andera responds, sagely, that there is a man out there who is jealous that Willie gets to do all of those things with Tracy. Willie responds with a half-hearted attempt at seduction, gently parried by Andera; the scene ends shortly afterward, with Willie more muddled than ever.

To avoid spoiling more of this endearing film, I stop here.

**********

Instead, I use my own checkered romantic history to illustrate my frustration with the message of films like this, beginning in early 1996, the earliest I could have seen Beautiful Girls.

As I wrote here, in June 1993 I began to date a woman – then a Harvard senior – Nell now refers to as my “first wife.” On first meeting, I found her charming, funny, brilliant and very sexy. Not unlike Tracy in fact. What I assumed would be a summer romance quickly became more serious. She graduated then enrolled in the doctoral program in chemistry at MIT. One year later, I abandoned my doctoral program in government at Harvard.

I now faced a momentous decision: return to the Philadelphia area where I had been raised or stay in the Boston area. Geographically, this was a no-brainer: I had fallen in love with the Boston area. But remaining in Boston meant staying with first-wife…which also proved a fairly easy decision. Over the summer, we moved into a two-bedroom apartment barely three blocks from the ugly brown Somerville triple-decker on whose second floor I had lived for nearly six years.

She and I had fallen in love, though perhaps just shy of the way Willie describes it in the shed. In fact, while she was away in the summer of 1994, I very nearly slept with a high school friend with whom I had just reconnected. After spending the evening at a restaurant in Cambridge, she drove me home. Parked in front of my ugly triple-decker, we began to make out rather intensely. Good sense kept her from coming upstairs with me, though it was a close call. Something similar happened the following summer, with a young woman I met in a local Dunkin’ Donuts – again not progressing beyond the front seat of first-wife’s car.

In January 1996, just after first-wife and I spent an uproarious week in Wisconsin celebrating the wedding of a very close friend – we were two of the lucky attendees who managed to snag a hotel room in Madison just as a massive snowstorm shut down the airport[1] – I began a stint as Assistant Registrar at Brandeis University. Thus began five of the worst months of my life. Despite the excessive amount of Scotch I imbibed the day I was fired, sloppily weeping while watching a videocassette of old MTV and VH1 videos, I was genuinely relieved – although I still had no idea what I was going to do with my life.

This overlaps with the release of Beautiful Girls.

Had I seen it then, I would have identified VERY strongly with Willie. I believe it is a 10-year high school reunion, making Willie about 28 years old; I was 29. It was sort of in the air I would marry first-wife eventually. After all, as of June 1996, we had been dating for three years and living together for almost a year. She was pretty exceptional.

And yet…

Setting aside the two incidents discussed above, there were already signs I was 1½ feet in, ½ foot out of this relationship. Determined to complete my doctorate, I applied for – and was awarded – a prestigious Mellon Dissertation Completion Grant. Almost immediately, I began to, umm, joke: “Got the Mellon, can’t elope.” Moreover, even though we lived together for 5½ years – and became MattandFirstWife, one word, to our friends – we always maintained separate bedrooms and never completely unpacked.

That summer, we gave a ride to a young female friend of the groom to his wedding. First-wife picked up on my intense attraction to her right away and was visibly relieved when she mentioned her boyfriend. Still, she and I struck up a friendship of sorts. One night, I journeyed from Somerville to Brookline to help her with – something or other. We went out for ice cream afterward, taking it a nearby park to eat. We then returned to her apartment, where things quickly got very hot and heavy; the boyfriend had since left the picture. That night was the closest I have ever come to sleeping with another woman while in a defined relationship with someone else. It was less about what we did – no clothes even came off – than about where my head was.

By now, it had gotten very late, so I took a cab home to a waiting, unhappy first-wife. Downing a bottle of Molson Golden to – cleanse my breath? – I spun a story about why I was so late. Conflicted, but wanting to believe me, she accepted my lies as truth.

Let us make no mistake. I lied to her face – and no rationalizing about not actually sleeping with groom-friend will change that.

That August, meanwhile, I returned to the Philadelphia suburbs of my childhood for a visit. At one point, first-wife left a phone message for me at my mother’s house, where I was staying, which lovingly began, “Hey cutie.” My mother quite enjoyed relaying that part of the message to me. She was very fond of first-wife, though she never – or rarely – pushed the issue of, umm, next steps.

I, on the other hand, reacted like Willie to the imminent arrival of Tracy: no-feelings-either-way ambivalence. To be fair, I was also revisiting (geographically, at least) an inter-high-school group of friends with whom I shared a memorable sophomore year. In fact, after some false starts, that was the true beginning of my relationship journey: hopelessly attracted to one girl (I heard it was mutual for a time), crushing on another, ultimately having my first romantic kiss with then dating the first girl’s best friend, all while a different girl (allegedly) was very attracted to me. In other words – adolescence happened.

You may sense a theme here: my emotions and perceived attachments were all over the place. Even then I had read too many meet-cute stories, the ones that always seemed to lead to marriage and “happily ever after” in an unrealistically short amount of time. Frankly, I blame dangerously prudish attitudes toward sex and its timing in relationship to marriage. How many of these meet-cutes were just excessive mutual horniness settling for the most socially-acceptable – and, in the days before Griswold v. Connecticut, least physiologically consequential – outlet for those physical urges? Naturally, the quantitative analyst in my brain just said, “Hey, let’s figure out a way to measure that!” Down, boy, down.

The point is, I was as much in love with the idea of that first rush of attraction, the adrenaline rush of discovered mutuality, as I was in actually finding a long-term romantic partner.

I was also deeply insecure and drawn to indifferent, even cruel, women. My two Yale girlfriends treated me with near-contempt at times. Friends literally referred to the second of them – the one who dumped me on Valentine’s Day while riding the commuter rail back from New York City, where I had been dragged to convince the wife of a friend of my girlfriend she was not chasing her husband (*I* was not convinced at the end), then fell asleep with her head in my lap – as “the battleaxe.” Her stated reason for breaking up with me then was so she would not have to sleep with me that night.

Ouch.

And yet, I was devastated when each broke up with me. Some combination of undiagnosed clinical depression, insecurity and – possibly – dominance-fantasy kept me attached to them. Women who were every bit as everything these two women were, but who were both attracted and kind to me, bored and/or confused me.

However, soon after arriving at Harvard, I met and become involved with a doctoral student in economics. This time, though, the roles were reversed. She was most excellent to me, and I was – less so – to her. Not mean, mind you; that is not in my nature. More, I took her for granted, and she let me get away with passive aggressive micro-aggressions. That relationship lasted just over a year, a new record, as she finally had her fill of my behavior. Thinking about our time together later, I landed on this thought: “It was like I concluded, hmm, this brilliant, loving and sexy woman is completely devoted to me. Let’s see who else I can get to feel that way about me!”

As Bugs Bunny might say:

**********

October 1996 was one of the most consequential months of my life. Early that month, I began a research assistant job at now-defunct Health and Addictions Research, Inc. For the first time since early in my time at Harvard, I genuinely loved what I was doing. That particular pressure now eased.

On September 28, at the invitation of groom-friend, I attended a star-studded reelection rally for Senator John Kerry at the Fleet Center in Boston.[2] Afterward, we went out for drinks and clam chowder. I cannot be absolutely certain nearly 25 years later, but I am fairly certain she was trying to lure me away from first-wife; candidly, I was sorely tempted. Two days later, however, first-wife and I celebrated my 30th birthday with a phenomenal meal and night in Boothbay Harbor, Maine.

Some combination of that night and my new career led me to put aside my hesitations and do what Willie’s friends urged him to do: mentally and emotionally commit more fully to my current relationship. In a difficult phone call, I told groom-friend we could no longer be “friends.”

I have no idea whether this was the “correct” decision or not; counterfactuals are very slippery things. On one hand, I genuinely loved first-wife and knew we had something special. On the other hand, what I recall of groom-friend reminds me a lot of my wife Nell. Nonetheless, first-wife and I then proceeded to have the best four years of our relationship.

So…why didn’t I not marry her?

I could stop at the morning I woke up in a cold sweat after dreaming we were married and she was pregnant. Yeah, I had been raised with string of broken and ugly marriages. Yeah, I was immature. Yeah, I was content to drift along as we were – even if that meant careening into Massachusetts common law definitions of “married.”

But the hard and painful truth is that my genuine attraction to, comfort with and desire for first-wife went very far, just not quite far enough. Marty’s words of advice to Willie ring in my ears: “You should wait until you’re ready. You should wait for someone who excites you.”

That point was driven home with a jackhammer in September 2000. Now on my third health-related data analysis gig, I had been sent yet again to my company’s headquarters in Ann Arbor, MI. Walking through a hallway in search of a colleague to whom I wanted to say goodbye, a tall striking woman with dark blonde hair and gray-green eyes, wearing a white turtleneck and black jeans, walked past me.

At that moment, I finally understood what “love at first sight” meant – and what meeting someone who “excites” really feels like. Naturally, the colleague I sought turned out to be in blonde-woman’s cubicle. Suddenly incapable of coherent speech, I essayed a word salad spiced with puerile wordplay.

And that was that, or so I thought.

The universe had other ideas.

The following month, I was sent back to Ann Arbor for at least the fourth time that year. This time blonde-woman and I took a training together, ineluctably bonding in the back of the room. I learned later she had been almost equally taken with me despite my having forgotten how to speak English when we met. She even asked discreetly if I was seeing anyone – then resolved to forget me once she learned I was. The best laid plans of data analysts, however: we now began to talk regularly at the office by phone. One Monday afternoon, after wrestling with my thoughts all weekend, I was alone in the office talking to her. Screwing up my courage, I told her precisely how I felt about her.

Then came the longest – measured in emotional time – pause of my life. I do not remember what she finally said, other than her last words: “Because it’s really mutual.”

The universe has an absurdist sense of humor: at that exact moment first-wife suddenly appeared behind me, ready to drive me home. Luckily, she had heard none of the conversation.

Cutting to the chase: first-wife and I split up at the end of November, though we shared the apartment – avoiding each other as best we could – until early February, when I moved back to Philadelphia. Blonde-woman and I embarked on a rollercoaster relationship doomed by personality conflicts, distance and an inability to live up to the overwhelming intensity of the “beginning thing.”

A month after my mother died in March 2004, driven by grief, frustration and a sense I needed to “get on with things,” I pulled the plug on ANY form of relationship with blonde-woman in the cruelest (on my end) phone conversation I have ever had. I will always be deeply ashamed of how I treated her that day.

And that was that, or so I thought.

Five years later, I reached out to her on Facebook with a cryptic message of regret. A day after her naturally-confused response, I called her from my cellphone while sitting in the parking lot of a Star Market in Medford, MA. I did this despite having married Nell less than two years earlier then having a daughter with her, with another on the way.

After some uncomfortable banter, profuse apology from me (met with a deserved “are you doing this for you, or for me?”) and brief life updates, we began to relax and enjoy the conversation. It did not take to realize we were still in love. We sort of danced around it for a few days more – Nell was away at the time – before acknowledging the painful reality: we could now neither be friends nor lovers. Too much had changed.

We told each other “I love you,” one last time…and that really was that.

I finally told Nell about this brief reconnection about a year or two ago – despite knowing blonde-woman the only intimate partner from my romantic past I had been asked not to contact again.

Nell was…not happy. She eventually forgave me, perhaps because I once told her, “Never worry about anything I tell you. It is the stuff I don’t tell you that should worry you.”

Happily, there is nothing left for me to tell her.

**********

So, having told these tales, how do they relate to Beautiful Girls, inter alia?

One, the meet-cute is not all it is cracked up to be. Nor is the addictive chase after “the beginning thing.” I write that as a sucker for the meet-cute and a recovering addict. I had the darlingest meet-cutes with first-wife and blonde-woman. There were others as well. And “the beginning thing” with blonde-woman? A shooting star of blinding brightness that could not sustain itself.

That said, I had a darling meet-cute and exceptional “beginning thing” with Nell – wow, did she “excite” me. The only difference is that in 2005, I was mentally and emotionally prepared to commit in front of friends and family. First-wife had given me experience with the long haul; there was no “big fade,” just recognition she was not the right marriage partner for me. Blonde-woman altered my opinion of marriage – had a few things gone differently, I would have proposed eventually.[3]

Two, make your own decisions – your own fate, your own destiny. Willie and Tracy, like all of us, must figure it out for themselves. Ask for advice, yes. But take with grains of salt advice foisted upon you, especially from anyone whose own romantic life is a mess or not yet even started. Thankfully, people in my life mostly refrained from nudging me and any of my romantic partners, even if one very close friend, upon meeting blonde-woman, said, “I don’t see any red flags.” They were there, of course; there always will be.

To wit, three, there is no destined partner, perfect match or fated true love. There are only relationships with better- and worse-fitting partners that require constant hard work – the best kind of work if you approach it properly – compromise and willingness to end the relationship, when necessary. No amount of “but we’re SO in love” can fix incompatibility, stubbornness and bad timing. Does the initial “wow” factor fade? Yes, everything has a half-life. But if the person truly “excites” you, s/he will always excite you – just in different ways.

Finally, relationships run on their own clock, not an arbitrary human social calendar. When you are ready to select one person with whom to share the rest of your life, you are ready, full stop – not because unspoken rules say you must be. Some people find that person in high school or earlier, some wait until they have settled into a career, some later in life…and some never do – and no one of these is more right than any other.

I do not remain happily married to Nell because I was cosmically fated to be, or because somebody decided it was time for me to commit to the “good enough” person I happened to be dating at the time. I remain happily married to Nell because every day I choose to be, because I want to be, because I have yet to find anyone so incredibly compelling, I would trash all of what we have built and earned and fought for over the last 16 years. Believe me, I have looked often without consciously intending to – old habits die very hard.

Will Nell and I stay married forever and always, linked unto eternity? Damned if I know, though it is kind of the general plan. Should circumstances change – as they often do – our relationship may change as well. That is life, that is reality.

Still, I rather love this current reality – and Nell. Our daughters are pretty excellent as well.

Until next time…please be safe and healthy – and if you not already done so, please get vaccinated against COVID-19!


[1] Happily, we had a big bottle of red wine, a heated indoor pool and a very good restaurant.

[2] “Kerry says Clinton to visit Boston,” The Boston Globe (Boston, MA), August 28, 1996, pg. A18

[3] Well, I had sort of proposed to my second Yale girlfriend and economics-student, but those were more emotional reactions to a moment than well-considered decisions.

When Failure Is Success…And Vice Versa

It was likely in 2001 – though it may have been just after I moved into my new apartment in the Philadelphia suburb of King of Prussia in February 2003 – I received this handsome piece of engraved metal from my more off-than-on-again girlfriend.

When I first read the question, I tried earnestly answer it – until I realized the obvious answer: nothing.

Just as the answer would be “nothing” if the last word was “succeed.”

It is the uncertainty of outcome that makes a thing worth doing. The thrill comes in succeeding when success was not guaranteed.

Moreover, I now think the question is purely hypothetical. I cannot imagine an activity where failure is not an option, no matter how seemingly banal or minor it is. Despite what the self-help gurus and the rah-rah-artists and the well-meaning leaders tell us:

Failure is ALWAYS an option.

**********

In a recent post, I presented an update on the process of publishing the book – Interrogating Memory: Film Noir Spurs a Deep Dive Into My Family History…and My Own – I completed in late January. To summarize, I queried 100 literary agencies between February 5 and May 12, understanding this to the best route to securing a mass-market publisher. To date, 90 agencies have either formally rejected me (22) or have not responded to me within their stated time frame (68). My expectation is the remaining 10 simply have not yet rejected me, though I obviously do not know for certain.

At first glance, though, 100 seems like a large enough number of agencies that success should all but guaranteed. After all, I only need one, right?

Well, the likelihood of at least one agency accepting me as a client depends upon two things: the probability of being accepted by each individual agency, and the extent to which those probabilities are statistically independent; the latter being a fancy way to ask whether being turned down by one agency implies being turned down by other agencies.

Being of a quantitative bent, I calculated this probability as best I could, primarily to reassure myself as the days, weeks and months passed. To simplify matters, I assumed a constant probability of acceptance across all agencies AND the decision Agency A makes has nothing to do with the decision Agency B makes which has nothing to do with the decision Agency C makes…and so forth.

These are not great assumptions: it was obvious I fit better with some agencies than with others, meaning my probability of acceptance likely varied across the agencies. And while the agencies themselves want to you think each makes its own “highly subjective” (to quote nearly every rejection e-mail) decisions regarding new clients, the reality – apparent from a close reading of agent wish lists, emphasizing diverse voices, indifference to “serious” non-fiction, pre-existing platforms, “similar” (high sales) books and the constant refrain of how many queries each receives – is that nearly every agency is approaching those queries through a broadly similar lens.

Still, as a first approximation, we use this formula:

P(Acceptance by 1 or more agencies) = 1 – (1-p)n,

…where p is the probability of being accepted by any given agency, and n is the number of “trials,” in this case 100.

Going into this process, I naively thought my educational background (“I am an EXPERT!”) and the fact of completion (“No worries about me not finishing here!”) would boost my chances. Maybe to, you know, 1 in 100 – or p=0.01.

Well, that translates to a P of 63.4%. Even with 100 queries, the odds were only about 5:3 in my favor.

Lowering my expectations to p=0.005 – 1 in 200 – lowers P to just 39.4%, or about 3:2 against.

Lowering them further to the more realistic levels I should have understood in February (or in July 2017):

At p=0.001, P=9.5%.

At p=0.0005, P=4.9%.

At p=0.0001, P=1.0%.

And so on.

Now, this is when the bluntly American “can-do” mindset responds with “Well, then, you need to keep querying agencies.”

And that is not unreasonable. Except, I had just queried (excepting one with no e-mail address) every agency in WRITER’S MARKET 2019 that met my basic criteria: no reading fees, represents adult non-fiction, accepting new clients.

It can seem noble never to accept failure – to keep trying despite the long odds one faces because there is nothing we cannot do if we blah blah blah – but math does not lie.

Failure is ALWAYS an option.

But, for the sake of argument, let us say I found 100 more agencies to query. Here are the corresponding increases in P:

At p=0.01, P=86.6% (still 13.4% chance of failure).

At p=0.005, P=63.3% (still 36.7% chance of failure).

At p=0.001, P=18.1%.

At p=0.0005, P=9.5%.

At p=0.0001, P=2.0%.

You get the idea. Even at the rose-colored glasses probability of 1% and 200 queries, the probability of at least one acceptance is only slightly better than Hillary Clinton’s chances of beating Donald J. Trump going into Election Day 2016.

Clinton lost that election.

Failure is ALWAYS an option.

**********

But, of course, so is success. There will always be a non-zero probability of both outcomes, no matter how much we – and, again, this is a particularly American perspective – try to “round” to 0 and 1.

Besides, all of this math – as wonderful as math is – misses the larger point: successes sometimes turn out to be failures, and failures sometimes turn out to be successes – at least when considered in the future.

Here are two examples from my own life – I encourage you to do the same with your own lives – where “success” and “failure” proved remarkably fluid.

  1. The unfinished doctorate.

In May 1988, I graduated with a BA in political science from Yale University. That September, I began a one-year stint as a Research Assistant in the Government Department at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC. I had enjoyed an unpaid internship there two summers earlier, so I was excited return for a salaried position – my first full-top “adult” job.

I hated it from day one; the success of getting the job later became a clear failure when I was let go the following May. Long before then, though, I had applied to five doctoral programs in government – University of California Berkeley, Harvard, University of Michigan, Stanford, Yale – and been accepted, with generous financial incentives, at all five of them.

Wow, I thought, I am set. Like, golden.

I chose Harvard, moving to the Boston suburb of Somerville in late August. For the first two years, I loved being at Harvard – my fellow students were both impressive and friendly, the classes were excellent, and I felt as home as I had my first few days at Yale.

But as oral and written examinations loomed in early June 1991 – ending the master’s degree portion of the program – something imperceptibly shifted. My romantic life was a bit of a mess, for one thing. Also, I had miscalculated at the end of 1990, when it was the turn of the students who had enrolled at the same time as me to provide the entertainment for the holiday party. We decided to use Saturday Night Live as the frame for our skits – complete with guest host monologue.

In a truly “what the hell was I thinking?” moment, I decided I would deliver the monologue as my academic advisor, Professor Gary King, who had just achieved full tenure at the age of 30. It was a fairly gentle bit of mockery – revolving him stopping wearing ties once he received tenure – but, in retrospect, it may have been unwise to satirize the soon-to-be-chair of my doctoral committee. Next thing I know, I barely pass my examinations – to this day, I think Gary blindsided me during the oral exams when he questioned me about my chosen area of interest, electoral geography.

Still, I put together a doctoral committee – including friend and mentor, Yale Professor David Mayhew – and wrote a dissertation proposal. It was accepted, and I set to work collecting data – even driving to Concord, NH in May 1992 to photocopy town-level results from that state’s 1976 presidential primaries. I wrote some early chapters.

But the joy was vanishing. I had difficulty translating my theory of “differential trait salience”[1] into mathematical models – and articulating it to my committee and fellow students. Moreover, I insisted on applying this model not to general elections – with their highly stable and complete data – but to presidential primary elections – with their highly unstable and incomplete data. I rationalized my creeping sense of failure by quipping bitterly, “Gary’s idea of advising is: go off, do some stuff, bring it back to me, and I’ll tell you why it’s wrong.”

This was garbage, by the way. King was an excellent – albeit socially awkward – political scientist and teacher. I was just not ready to listen, lacking maturity, humility and discipline. It is also likely my yet-to-be-diagnosed depression was kicking in – or kicking in harder – and I began to spend a lot of time in this excellent restaurant only two blocks from my apartment:

As I write in Chapter 11 (A Film Noir Fan is Born), “Credit card receipts reveal I spent at least $418.94 in 1991, $856.40 in 1992 and $554.79 in the first six months of 1993 there; the sum of $1,830.13 equates to $3,335 in 2019—on a modest academic stipend supplemented by teaching and research assistant work.” Self-medicating, much?

A temporary reprieve from my misery came late in June 1993, when there was a knock on the door that opened from the second-floor apartment I shared with three other 20-somethings onto the interior stairwell of our Somerville triple-decker. Two attractive younger women stood there. I recognized the one on the left as one of the female Harvard seniors who had just moved into the third floor apartment for the summer. The one on the right (one of her roommates) – an adorable brunette of just below medium height wearing glasses and a t-shirt advertising Squeeze’s Babylon and On tour – I recognized from the Greenhouse Café in the Science Center. In fact, almost as soon as I opened the door, I pointed to her, smiled and said, “I know you.”

I do not remember what they needed, but within a few days, the Squeeze fan and I had begun to date. To say she saved my life is overly melodramatic, but our rapidly progressing relationship gave me the strength to make one last push to complete my dissertation. Early the following year, I applied for – and received – a Mellon Dissertation Completion Grant. I even began to “joke” to – well, Nell calls her my first wife, so let’s go with that – “Got the Mellon, can’t elope.”

But it was all for naught. In the spring of 1995, after a disastrous search for a university teaching position,[2] I made the hardest decision of my life: to resign, ABD, from Harvard. My last-ever day as a doctoral student – or so I thought – was June 30, 1995.

For the next decade or so, I thought of this – and, in a way, the seven years prior to it – as the greatest failure of my life. Heck, I did not even have a Master’s Degree to show for it, despite completed the requirements; in the spring of 2015, I finally received that A.M.

Here is the thing, though. I am now thrilled I did not pursue an academic career in political science. Does the end of my six years at Harvard still sting? Absolutely. But do I regret not having to deal with the “publish or perish” nature of academia, with its petty squabbles and bureaucratic nonsense. Heck yes!

Even as I was ending my time at Harvard, first-wife and I found an apartment just a few blocks from the triple-decker we had briefly shared. We moved in over the summer; she had since graduated Harvard and enrolled in a doctoral program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she focused on atmospheric chemistry, earning her doctorate in four years. Not only is she one of the warmest people I have ever known, she is one of the most brilliant.

That summer, I worked a mundane data analysis job, and I was happier than I had been in years. After a disastrous stint in the Registrar’s Office at Brandeis University, in early October 1996 I landed my first health-related data analysis job at now-defunct Health and Addictions Research Inc. (“HARI”) in downtown Boston. This launched a six-position, 19-year career – ending in June 2015. Even with its abrupt end, I am immensely proud of this career – and the long-term friendships it yielded. But this professional “success” only happened because I “failed” to obtain a doctorate at Harvard.

2. Selling my mother’s condominium

On the evening of August 11, 2004, I stepped from the SEPTA commuter train onto the Radnor station platform. Descending the few steps to the parking lot where I had left my car that morning, I noticed some police officers clustered near my car. Walking closer, I realized they were standing by my car. As I approached, one asked if this was my car. Yes, I replied. That is when I understood someone had broken into my car – literally bending back the front passenger side window of my Buick Century from its rubber frame – and stolen the radio and some other ephemera. They eventually arrested the thief, and I testified against him in court, but did not recover my stolen property.

That weird, roller coaster day – I had had a terrible ice cream date then met a fascinating young woman while waiting for that very same train in Suburban Station – was the low point of one of the lowest periods of my life.

Backing up slightly, after meeting the woman whose gift opens this essay, I ended my relationship with first-wife in late November 2000. Yes, this was cause and effect. In early February 2001, I returned to Philadelphia. Four months later, I began a series of increasingly-important positions in the Research Department of what was then called the Family Planning Council of Southeastern Pennsylvania (“FPC”), the best professional profession I have ever had. The next few years exemplified “lucky in money, unlucky in love.” Gift-woman and I pursued a tempestuous, ill-defined long-distance friendship/romance that confused everyone, even us. This surrounded short-term flings that went nowhere.

Still, things looked promising early in 2003. I moved into the King of Prussia apartment, I was earning a good living, and the Phillies showed promise after some great off-season moves. But just one year later, in early January, my mother’s ovarian cancer returned with a vengeance. On March 1, 2004 – after a few weeks of hospice – Elaine Kohn Berger died at the age of 66. At the tender age of 37, I was an orphan.

Grief does strange things to people. On the day of my mother’s funeral – when I apparently drank most of a bottle of whisky, prompting a friend of my stepfather Eddie nicknamed Yo to declare, “If you try to drive home, I’ll rip out your fucking distributor cap” – my stepfather’s married step-granddaughter (my step-step-niece?) was clearly trying to seduce me. OK, I was not exactly fending off her advances; she was wicked hot. Nothing – much – happened, though she did put a bug in my ear about needing to cut bait and get on with my life. Realizing she was – not wrong – I ended my relationship with gift-woman in the most brutal telephone conversation I have ever had. I lied about my feelings, among other things. Even now, as I write this, I am filled with regret. Not that I ended the relationship, but the utter cruelty with which I did so.

And while all that unfolded, I was trying to settle my mother’s estate. For her own reasons, she had made Eddie and me co-executors. Embittered – and jealous of my relationship with my mother – Eddie decided to contest the will. He hired a lawyer, I hired a lawyer – and a 16-month ordeal began. The sticking point was a condominium my mother owned. She was living there when she and Eddie began dating around 1994 or so. They married in 1997, but my mother continued to earn rent from the condominium. When she died, I began to collect that rent – clearing $1,100 a month. I do not really understand why this made Eddie so upset – maybe grief, maybe the brain tumor that felled him a few years later – but he would not relent.

Flash forward to early December 2004. Yet another short-term relationship had come to a crashing halt, and I was beginning to see the writing on the wall at FPC – they were going in a more qualitative direction, my beloved projects were ending, and there was no room for me to advance. Meanwhile, trips to western Massachusetts the previous two summers had reminded me how much I missed the Boston area.

Even though I had done nothing wrong – other than be an absolute jerk to a woman I loved, for the second time in four years – I felt like an utter failure, trapped and lonely.

Then, soaking in the bathtub one Friday night, I had a brainstorm: why not sell the condominium, split the profits and end the standoff? With my proceeds, I could move to Boston, study biostatistics or epidemiology – maybe finally get that damned doctorate.

I presented the idea to my lawyer, who presented it to Eddie’s lawyer, who presented it to Eddie. Who – to everyone’s astonishment – agreed.

Huzzah! I cried, if only metaphorically.

The first six months of 2005 are a blur now – other than feeling absolute liberation and optimism. The condominium sold fairly quickly. I narrowed my choices to two schools of public health: Harvard, which seemed a bad idea, and Boston University (“BUSPH”), about which I had heard good things at a HARI reunion the previous summer. I arranged to retake my GRE’s. Having missed the deadline to apply to their epidemiology doctoral program, I applied to the one in biostatistics. Deciding I had been away from “higher math” too long, I was instead accepted into their master’s program. Which was fine; the process would just take a few years longer.

In March, a chance meeting at my local laundromat turned into a much-needed, if necessarily short-term, romance. I literally told her “I am moving to Boston in September” within minutes of meeting her. Looking back, she was the perfect transition relationship – even if she did move to Boston a few months after I did. That got – weird, though only briefly.

On June 30, 1995 I tearfully ended my game-changing four years at FPC. In August, I drove to Boston to find a new apartment, settling on a complex in Waltham not that different from the one in King of Prussia. Having not yet received my share of the settlement, though, I was forced to borrow the necessary first-last-security deposit payments from a close Yale friend. He graciously obliged.

Finally, at the end of August, I drove to a lawyer’s office in Philadelphia, where I was given a check for – let’s just say it was low six-digits. I immediately paid off – well, my Yale friend – my student loan debts and three credit cards, keeping only the Discover Card. It pays you back, you know.

The rest is wonderful, serendipitous history. Four days after moving to Waltham (with laundromat-woman) – hiring a moving company for the first time – the used Buick Century Eddie had given me when I moved to Philadelphia died. On September 6, I wrote a check for something like $34,000 to Cambridge Honda so I could drive away in a brand new black 2005 Honda Accord. Still in great shape, I hope to pass it on to our older daughter in a few years. I settled happily into my new classes, though I had to drop one – four was just too many; I finished the MA in three semesters, not two, as I had planned.

And on Halloween night 2005, a radiant elementary school teacher named Nell wrote to me on Friendster – and that is how I met my wife. She pretty much had me when she used “Persiflage” as the subject of her first e-mail to me.

In short, had I not reached a point of utter despair – grieving the loss of two women I loved, sensing the end of my most rewarding professional job, seeing no end to the fight with my stepfather – I would not have made the drastic, albeit smart in retrospect, decision to sell my mother’s condominium. Had I not made that decision, I would not have returned to Boston, earned both an MA and a PhD, bought my beloved Honda and met my astonishing wife. And without Nell, there are no incredible daughters.

And no Just Bear With Me…or Interrogating Memory.

Failure may always be an option, but it can also have a way of leading to successes, just as seeming successes can end up feeling like failures.

Now, back to the work of getting my book published!

Until next time…please be safe and healthy – and if you not already done so, please get vaccinated against COVID-19!


[1] Essentially, the idea that the overall demographic composition of a geographic area – a state, a county, a Congressional district – determined which demographic traits were most politically salient within an individual. This acknowledged that each of us has a race AND an ethnicity AND a socioeconomic status AND a religion (or no religion) AND an age AND a marital status AND an education level AND so forth. More often than not, race is the primary predictor of partisanship. But if an area is, say, 95+% Non-Hispanic White then a trait like education level or religion might be the primary predictor. Or something like that – I have not thought deeply about in more than 25 years.

[2] The disastrous – at least for a tried-and-true Democrat like me – 1994 midterm elections hurt as well. I realized how difficult it was going to be to separate my strong partisan lean from my need for professional objectivity.

Moving, Non-Publication…and Dada?

I rarely break the fourth wall here: personal stories I tell are usually contextualized within some larger theme, like interrogating memory.

Today, however, I speak directly to you – to explain why, after 16 posts in 3½ months, I have not posted since June 25. I will not, however, explain why I did not post at all between November 17, 2020 and March 8, 2021 – other than to say I was burned out from the 2020 elections, finishing my book (see below) and dealing with some serious family health issues.

On March 14, 2021, meanwhile, the owners of the two floors of a Brookline house we had called home since August 2018 – informed us they were selling the unit and we had to vacate by June 30. My wife Nell, who had skillfully located our prior two apartments, put her mind to the task of finding a new apartment. She succeeded brilliantly: our new home, two floors in Brookline much closer to our daughters’ middle school, is a little bit of very spectacular. We both feel liberated by the move for reasons we are still deciphering.

My task, meanwhile, was to start another purge. Nell’s mother moved to Memory Care at her senior living center in March 2020, precipitating the cleaning out of her small apartment. Moreover, Nell had moved her from a packed brownstone in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, DC nearly seven years earlier. A rented storage unit helped us manage this influx of stuff – a combination of high-value antiques and the normal detritus of 70+ years of living.

Still, unneeded stuff was strewn throughout our spacious half of the basement, so that is where I began to make things disappear, after which I proceeded to the apartment itself. Some disappearance was via normal trash pickup, some via these kind folks, and some…suffice to say I know where the nearest industrial-sized trash bins are. In the end, we removed at least 40 large green trash bags filled with stuff from our home. At the same time, large piles of books, clothes and dishes made their way to stores and Red Cross bins. And Nell contacted purchasers of antique silver and furniture, who seized upon much of it, some of which we transported in a rented U-Haul van with poor shock absorbers – our eldest daughter has vowed never to travel this way again – on a particularly hot and sunny June Saturday. Not all of it, but enough to make our actual move a little bit easier.

To wit, we cannot sing the praises of Gentle Giant movers enough. After a few weeks of packing, four strong handsome men arrived at our apartment with TWO trucks early on the morning of July 1. It took them nearly 10 hours to pack some final things, load their trucks, then unload them in our new apartment, but not once did they lose their sense of humor, their good nature or their camaraderie. They politely placed anything where we requested – including up and down numerous flights of stairs. They were professionals in the very best sense of the term, and they did not charge us nearly as much as we had feared.

Our younger daughter – who gets very anxious with substantive change – stayed with a cousin for a few nights, while Nell, older daughter and I set to work constructing our new home. The three ladies (our beloved golden retriever Ruby died from lymphoma at the end of April, a few weeks before her seventh birthday) then departed for the family home on Martha’s Vineyard on July 6. Over the next 10 days, meanwhile, I finished the last 90% of the “construction,” loudly singing to iPod playlists blasted through computer speakers as I unpacked – then deconstructed before tossing them into a special bin in Brookline – box after box after box. I repositioned bookcases, ordered and shelved a few thousand books, washed glasses, rearranged the kitchen multiple times, collected like items into one place…and so forth. I essentially completed the job two days ago, with only a few old bins of clothing left to explore – or not.

There is absolutely no rush at this point. And I will leave most of our artwork – including eight pieces we never unpacked in our last apartment – for Nell and her stud finder to hang. The piece we most missed the last three years is this self-portrait of my cousin, the artist Lois Lane. Yes, Ervin and Celia Lane named their only daughter Lois back in the 1940s; her husband’s last name, Bark, improves matters only slightly.

But having finally constructed our apartment, it is time for me to get back to my regular job – writing.

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The other thing I have done this year is query literary agents about publishing my book Interrogating Memory: Film Noir Spurs a Deep Dive Into My Family History…and My Own. A well-worn copy of WRITER’S MARKET 2019 (“WM2019”) informed me most mass-market publishers no longer accept submissions directly from authors. Instead, prospective authors contract with an agent to do that work for them. Why this changed, I do not know, but Christopher Vyce of the Brattle Agency pithily summed up what this new “rule” has done to literary agencies.

Thank you for your interest in the Brattle Agency. Since the founding of the agency in 2008, the Brattle Agency has prided itself on accepting unsolicited submissions for consideration. The industry is founded on discoveries. There are many great writers out there who have never had an agent or somehow escaped an agent’s radar and that was why we were always interested in hearing from prospective clients. Unfortunately, the industry has changed in that nearly no publisher will accept a manuscript unless it is submitted to them by an agent. This institutional change has meant that nearly every hopeful writer has had to spend an inordinate amount of time trying to secure an agent to start (or in a few cases further) their career. That has led to a tsunami of submissions to the pool of agents who are willing to read and evaluate unsolicited proposals. That tsunami has engulfed the Brattle Agency. On any given day our inbox of submissions numbers in the hundreds. It is untenable. It has to change.

Between February 5 and May 12, I submitted 100 queries, using the list in WM2019 –members of the Association of Author Representatives (i.e., do not charge “reading fees”) who represent non-fiction writers and are open to new submissions. As Mr. Vyce predicted, I spent an inordinate amount of time drafting these queries – there is little-to-no query uniformity across literary agencies.

As of this writing, I have been formally turned down by 22 of them – including Brattle; Mr. Vyce, as did nearly all of the other rejecting agents, wrote an encouraging note emphasizing the extreme subjectivity of the process. One agent, though, was remarkably rude, writing “Hi, Matt, normally when I read a proposal I have a lot of ideas about where to take the project. In your case, I have none.” Ouch!

Nonetheless, these were the “polite” agencies, those that took the time to e-mail even a form-letter rejection. I have passed the “if you don’t hear from us by…” date for an additional 68 agencies. A further four allow you to follow-up or contact a new agent after a certain date; I will do so shortly. That leaves only six other agencies who are still “in the running,” one of which has apparently not yet made a decision about my query after 151 days. Like every reputable literary agency, they are trying to dig themselves out of an avalanche of queries – and so it is still possible those deadlines are extremely loose, and I will finally hear something positive from one or more agents soon.

I am not holding my breath, however. In fact, I am already brainstorming how to get this book published – I believe that strongly in it – without a traditional literary agent. Assuming that is possible; I may eventually have to accept the fact it is not.

Back in early April, when I could first sense finding a literary agent was going to be challenging, I began to write a post in which I ruminated on the nature of failure. In this still-unfinished post, I primarily critiqued the absurd, particularly American notion that if you somehow keep trying just a little harder, you can achieve anything.

Horse manure.

There are often profound structural barriers that prevent even the most talented and “deserving” persons from achieving their goals. Reading dozens of loose descriptions of what agents – the vast majority of whom are female, interestingly – seek to represent, few were a good fit for me: an Ivy-League-educated cisgender white heterosexual male in his 50s raised in the suburbs of a northeastern American city.

Bor-ing! I can hear them cry.

Now, given the deliberate vagueness of the 22 formal rejections, I do not know with any certainty why any given agent declined to represent me. The most direct answer is a nicer version of “I have no idea where to take this book”: s/he simply could not figure out a way to market a 400-page book about Jewish immigrants to West Philadelphia, the backstory of my adoption and genetic families, film noir and my suburban childhood – complete with dozens of illustrations, three appendices and 30 pages of endnotes – to a mass-market publisher. I had not realized, for example, going into this process that having a large, preexisting platform from which to promote your book is apparently a prerequisite for publication. It sort of strikes me that is the job of publishing house Marketing Departments – and is yet one more example of the rich getting richer.

As an aside, the formal proposal question with which I struggled the most related to “similar works published in the last few years.” Huh? When I began to write Interrogating Memory in July 2017, I was simply telling a related set of cool stories, stories illustrating what an epistemically-sound critical thinking approach to one’s own life can yield. Because, wow, did I learn some stuff – both new stories and debunked old stories. But I did not set out to write another “XXX” book, I set out to write the first “Matthew Berger” book. Now, I was certainly heavily influenced by a wide range of books – some relatively recent, some dating back to the 1970s. I discussed those books, of course, none of which were massive sellers – but the clear subtext of the question was not lost on me: we only want books guaranteed to sell a certain number of copies.

The point is, I did not start with a marketing strategy, I started with an idea: turn this essay about why I love film noir into a full-length book. I then wrote the book that resulted from that process. It is, if I may say so, an excellent book. But it was not designed with readers in mind, not sales. And, to be fair, I do see a market for this book, as I summarized in many of my query letters:

Interrogating Memory is both objective history and deeply personal, informed by a meticulous curiosity and rigorous academic training. It is a love letter to investigation, film noir, Philadelphia, Judaism, true crime, the immigrant American experience and, of course, my families. While fans of these specific topics–and presumably of my families–will enjoy it, so will a wider audience, drawn to its core conceit: every life is fascinating when framed properly and investigated thoroughly. 

I do not want to sound bitter; I am not. Rather I feel frustrated and let down by a broken system. I recognize that traditional publishing – hardbound books sold in brick-and-mortar bookstores or online – is being challenged on many sides. I also recognize we live in a time when diversity is being actively sought; this is an excellent thing. I represent the very opposite of that diversity – simply put, my timing stinks. I could also argue – as I may do in a later post – that fiction and what I might term “coffee table non-fiction” (celebrity memoirs, cookbooks, pop psychology, self-help, etc.) is vastly more popular with mass market publishers than more serious non-fiction. Not that Interrogating Memory is especially academic or ponderous. Quite the opposite: it is eminently readable, despite its emphasis on careful research and critical thinking. If anything, it may not be rigorous enough for the university presses who typically publish this type of non-fiction. To be fair, I do not know that my book is not right for these presses, as I do not know if the literary agents I have thus far queried typically interact with those presses.

Still, for now, I appear to be caught betwixt and between – too non-diverse for literary agents, too academic for mass-market publishers, not academic enough for the university presses and unwilling to self-publish. Having devoted 3½ years of my life to this book, I want the full backing of a reputable publisher, even if that publisher is relatively small.

Well, and it is now a matter of pride – this has become personal.

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So…what does ANY of this have to with the early-20th-century artistic movement known as Dadaism? Perhaps nothing at all, which would please the original Dadaists.

Dadaism – a kind of anti-art – emerged in February 1916 when five artists from France, Germany and Romania, all fleeing the horrors of World War I, converged in Zurich, in neutral Switzerland. Disgusted both by the unprecedented carnage of the war and by the establishment “rules” that led to it, they designed an art that was in opposition to war, to traditional rules – in many ways to art itself. In a world where suddenly nothing made sense, where traditional ways of thinking had led to millions of pointless deaths, the idea of “making sense” seemed pointless. These five artists opened the Cabaret Voltaire, where – among other things – they dressed in paper outfits, read absurdist poetry and engaged in Dadaist soirees. “Dada” is itself a nonsense word whose origins are obscure.

It is one of the great personal ironies that I, a highly-trained researcher who just wrote a paean to critical thinking and who revels in a kind of ritualized order and structure, have always been particularly drawn to art influenced by Dadaism and its immediate successor, surrealism – art that defies rational, conscious structure and meaning. To begin with, my cousin Lois’s work is clearly Dadaist-influenced. From a young age, meanwhile, I was drawn to Salvador Dali (“borrowing” a book about him from my maternal grandmother) then to Man Ray. I have long loved the comedy of the Marx Brothers and Monty Python – heavily reliant on non-sequiturs, bizarre juxtapositions and joyous anarchy – and, more recently, anything directed by David Lynch. Animator Terry Gilliam, the lone American-born member of the Python troupe, is clearly influenced by the photomontage style pioneered by the Dadaists. As for Lynch, easily my favorite director not named Alfred Hitchcock, his work explores the buried, the hidden – the unconscious, as the surrealists would call it – within the everyday. And his penchant for letting ideas lead where they will is extremely Dadaist, as we shall see. Finally, one of the best books we ever bought for our children reflected the surrealist art of Rene Magritte.

I myself have mastered a kind of Dadaist sense of humor.  I love to intentionally mishear things, replacing the banal with the absurd – even going so far as to say, “Nah, my version is funnier.” I sometimes vocalize a series of ululations of varying volume, pitch and tone and call it “opera;” one such opera apparently glorifies the Treaty of Ghent. And, in December 2019, I constructed what I called “a surrealist epic” poem: a sampling of lyrics from every track on that year’s Thanksgiving clean-up playlist. In retrospect, given that it repurposed existing art into a new piece of art, it is actually Dadaist, not surrealist.

The point is that I am drawn to art that challenges my ordered, button-down nature, ignoring and even disdaining artistic “rules.” I did not even mention the avant-garde music of Robert Fripp and Brian Eno and cinema of Koyaanisqatsi. I love all of it.

One could also point out that I am…dissatisfied…with the “rules” and processes surrounding contemporary publishing. While I am not yet prepared to tear down the process and publish my book in some yet-to-be-determined non-traditional way, I am determined to get Interrogating Memory into the hands of anyone willing to pay a reasonable cost.

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All of which brings me to my late-night viewing habits.

Writing Interrogating Memory, I got into the habit of starting to work around 10 or 11 pm, once the rest of the family had gone to sleep. After working a few hours, I would crash on the sofa in front of YouTube – on our big screen HD television – to watch informative videos. Even my relaxation is somewhat educational.

Recently, I have been delving deeper into film history beyond film noir, which is how I discovered excellent channels like Cinema Cartography, 100 Years of Cinema…and Crash Course Film History. Meanwhile, when I was unpacking my books, I rediscovered Mel Gordon’s terrific history of the Grand Guignol theatre in Paris. This led me to videos about the Grand Guignol – this one is particularly good – and to Crash Course Theater; Episode 35 is about the Grand Guignol.

It was only a matter of time until I watched the episode (#37) about Dadaism, Surrealism and Structuralism – and here we are. One thing I learned is that in 1920, Tristan Tzara wrote his rules for constructing Dadaist poetry.

TO MAKE A DADAIST POEM
Take a newspaper.
Take some scissors.
Choose from this paper an article of the length you want to make your poem.
Cut out the article.
Next carefully cut out each of the words that makes up this article and put them all in a bag.
Shake gently.
Next take out each cutting one after the other.
Copy conscientiously in the order in which they left the bag.
The poem will resemble you.
And there you are—an infinitely original author of charming sensibility, even though unappreciated by the vulgar herd.

For the record, I do not thing anyone who reads my posts is in any way part of “the vulgar herd.”

Having finally constructed our apartment, I decided to entertain myself by applying Tzara’s rules to song lyrics, replacing the hat with a random number generator – this is still a data-driven website. Likely because it has been one of my favorite songs for more than 40 years, I chose “Him” by Rupert Holmes (excerpt from Chapter 10: Night Driving):

“Between my window and the walkway was a small outdoor patio bounded by a rough semi-circle of five walls, alternating brick wood brick wood brick, each about six feet high. Female-first-cousin and I clambered over these walls one night before we moved in. In my memory, Rupert Holmes’ “Him”—still a favorite—plays in the background; one year later, on March 28, 1981, male-first-cousin and I sat near the stage during his performance at the Host Farm Cabaret—my second-ever concert.”[1]

You may find the actual lyrics here. And let me make clear I mean no disrespect to Mr. Holmes, one of my artistic heroes.

To construct the poem, I copied the lyrics into Word then made sure there was only one word per line. Next, I copied the 288 words into Excel. Using the random number generator on my iPhone calculator – dividing each number by 3.47222 to scale values from 0.001 to 0.288, I selected each word below. If I repeated a number, I chose the nearest word – going down one for the first 144 words and up one for the last 144 words when given the choice.

This is what I created – my first Dadaist poem, although the punctuation and line breaks may be verboten:

Leaves about or stays without

Have she?

Ooh!

Let know, for I don’t…it’s…is…it…

Not forgets…don’t do…let about who, for to time

Don’t!

By can, it’s gonna

Girl, how…what’s to him, say him, do, make.

I, with.

Not free, it free, me have her time.

Him gonna, it’s she one, him…him…him wants to.

The…what’s, or do, of to, with her, we get, or do

Goodbye is left – both get without

Hide ways – the?

Me, him, him wants, she once – sometimes him, him do

Of me, a window stays or gonna do the…free him!

It’s gonna…and…and me – it, three?

It can’t, without there’s…without over

Pack cigarettes, many

His have, she without too, me me

To mine, it get she those blind

Who thought – like – she’s without us, him

For him, gonna me, him to, to he, him…or gonna him!

Gets – or gonna – NO!

She’s me, them one, it’s…it’s…him?

Gets do my without back – what’s do?

She’s were…ooh…OOH!

One, the…I…him…free

It’s about do me – I is brand

You, but I’ll understand…to know

Ooh…him…HIM!

To…what’s gets him for

Ooh…I’m me

Want forgets see have…if one

Ooh…she – and smokes him – she want, get, have

Would to…to own her?

Ooh…friend do!

I, I, me…behind him

Ooh…that why know looks?

Just he…oh!

Ooh…me, what’s me without, exactly?

What she’ll know don’t me for…or…or say

For to he, she gonna him or/and do to me…me!

Gets? No to one…no girl, see it’s she

Me, a…me, ah…do about him?

She’s me without – have just, he’s…no

To make girl, it’s me.

Until next time, please by safe and healthy…and get vaccinated if you have not already done so!


[1] Lancaster New Era (Lancaster, PA), March 13, 1981, pg. 17

Measuring the Unmeasurable: Ranking One’s Favorite Music, Part 1

I recently updated a data-based discussion of my cinematic “guilty pleasures,” adding a comparison of “most-acclaimed” and “my favorite” films from a given year or years. In so doing, though, I side-stepped the question of determining with something approaching academic rigor just what my favorite films are, relying solely on my gut to select a favorite film or films from each period.

Readers of this website know that I am fascinated by the art and science of measurement, be it the “noirness” of film festivals, Charlie Chan films, the Marvel Cinematic Universe or baseball player performance. Each of these prior analyses, however, is purely objective: all of the data I used are publicly-available, so the only “subjective” decisions I needed to make were selecting which data to compile and what statistical methods to use. And even when I was analyzing data for which I am the lone source – like this gorgeous distribution of iTunes tracks[1] by year and genre – the only decisions I made related to visualization, not personal preference.

Now, at last, I tackle the deceptively simple question of what music, movies, etc. I like most. More to the point, I address how I can most effectively and efficiently derive a “score” for each track or film, so that I can not only rank order them, but aggregate them into, say, albums, artists and genres, overall or by time period.

In the first installment of this seriees, we journey from my first-ever “mixtape” to my initial attempt to assign scores to my favorite music.

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While researching my book Interrogating Memory: Film Noir Spurs a Deep Dive Into My Family History…and My Own, I reread a hand-written “Journal” – really just a paper-clipped set of mid-sized lined pieces of paper ripped from a notebook – I began on May 29, 1981, as I was about to finish 9th grade at Harriton High School.

Buried within the June 5, 1981 entry is this:

Went to Ludington [Library in Bryn Mawr, PA]. … Then from there to Sam Goody’s for The Moody Blues Long Distance Voyager and Phil Collins Face Value. Good stuff. … Then it was Mad’s for Kraftwerk Autobahn.

At the time the two record stores sat a short walk from each other on E. Lancaster Avenue in the Philadelphia suburb of Ardmore. Four decades later, I still own these very albums.

A few months earlier, I had convinced my father – not exactly flush with cash much of the time – to buy three albums for me: The CarsThe Cars and Panorama, and, if memory serves, Supertramp’s Breakfast in America. I still have Panorama on vinyl, though I long since replaced the other two with CDs.

In the 12 months before that, meanwhile, I acquired Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk, Peter Gabriel (III) and Steve Winwood’s Arc of a Diver. I still have Tusk and Arc on vinyl, with PGIII replaced by a CD. Finally, in late July or early August 1981, I acquired Foreigner 4…which I foolishly sold a few years later to buy a new issue of Billboard.

I played these 10 albums – and others I owned – on a turntable, complete with mid-sized brown wooden-cabinet speakers, my mother had bought just over four years earlier. Two moves later, it had migrated to my bedroom, where it sat on a low white wooden shelf with my record collection.

Exactly when I received my first Sony Walkman – and when I got the idea to record a set of tracks I like onto a Maxell cassette – I could not tell you. Nor could I tell you exactly what day in August 1981 – it was likely a Saturday, as I was a day camp junior counselor on weekdays – I placed one of the brown speakers on the floor next to my portable cassette recorder, cued up “Spanish Dancer” on Arc of a Diver, and hit Record. I sat in absolute silence as that track – followed by 13 others – recorded monaurally with zero Dolby noise reduction.

At least, I think it was these 14 tracks, in this order:

Side 1

Spanish Dancer                     Steve Winwood

Night Train                           Steve Winwood

Urgent                                    Foreigner

Juke Box Hero                       Foreigner

Moving in Stereo                  The Cars

All Mixed Up                        The Cars

Side 2

Touch and Go                       The Cars

Running to You                    The Cars

In the Air Tonight                Phil Collins

The Voice                              The Moody Blues

Gemini Dream                      The Moody Blues

Sisters of the Moon              Fleetwood Mac

Games Without Frontiers   Peter Gabriel

I Don’t Remember               Peter Gabriel

I have long since lost the cassette and lined insert card on which I wrote track titles and artists. A thorough search of the cardboard box on the floor to my left – containing dozens of mix cassettes and CDs – did not reveal it. It is purely memory that conjures up this list, though it is a very reasonable list.

My memory also says it was a 60-minute cassette, except this version of Side 1 is 32 minutes long, while Side 2 is 36 minutes long. So, unless I cut off two minutes of a track on Side 1 and have too many tracks on Side 2, this was more likely a 90-minute cassette, and I either ran out of tracks to record (VERY unlikely), or I am forgetting tracks.

Either way, as the cardboard box implies, what I creatively called My Stuff was only my first adventure in mix-making. Four months later I filled a 90-minute cassette with 22 tracks recorded from the radio; I called this cassette Stuff Vol. I. Over the next two years, I completed Stuff Vol. II through XI. With the exception of Side 1 of Stuff Vol. IV, a collection of late 60s/early 70s rock I recorded in June 1982,[2] these were “acquisition” mixes – mostly from the radio but sometimes from borrowed records. Indeed, only six of the 188 (or more, see below) unique tracks I recorded onto those mixes were recorded twice: “I Don’t Remember,” “Tainted Love” by Soft Cell, and the four borrowed-record tracks: two by A Flock of Seagulls, “Kids in America” by Kim Wilde and “Escalator of Life” by Robert Hazard and the Heroes.

It is pretty clear where my musical tastes lay then – and now.

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I first wrote here about the 300+ mix cassettes, CDs and videocassettes I recorded between August 1981 and August 2016. These mixes contain at least 3,383 unique tracks.

  • Besides My Stuff, I no longer have Stuff Vol. V (from which I recall seven tracks) and one of the two mixes between Stuff Vol. VIII and Stuff Vol. XI. The other one is in a different plastic case with a sticker reading “I92–Stranglers/Fixx/Devo.” As I have no memory of the “missing” cassette – and I played the heck out of these mixes – it is very likely I simply misnumbered them.
  • When I first began to enter mix contents into a spreadsheet in December 1992, I equated studio and live versions of the same track (except when I didn’t), while including tracks from which I only recorded snippets, or which got cut off at the end.

I had actually been rank-ordering my favorite music for years – summoning from my gut then playing personal “top 25 songs” lists since 1980, if not earlier. In January 1990, meanwhile, I commemorated the end of the 1980s by determining – purely through thought and memory – my 40 favorite tracks of that decade; I mistakenly included “Prime Time” by The Tubes, even though Remote Control, its parent album, was released in 1979. “Promised You a Miracle” by Simple Minds was #1, beating out “All Roads Lead to Rome” by The Stranglers. In March, I purchased my first CD player, allowing me to record from CD to cassette, followed in April by my first PC. The former purchase triggered a wave of CD buying, mostly through buy 1, get 11 for one penny deals; I stocked up on “Best of” CDs. I also began prowling through used record, tape and CD stores. With a PC, meanwhile, I now had a spreadsheet program, though not Microsoft Excel.

By December 1992, I had created 88mixes – excluding the two Top 40 of the 1980s cassettes (10 tracks over four sides), a mix I created for my then-girlfriend in 1990 and a mix I created in the summer of 1992 for a woman in whom I was romantically interested. In the days before data compression and MP3s, constructing a mix required you to play every included track in its entirety. Plus, cassettes had only so much room and unless you bought them in bulk, blank ones were precious. Thus, you really had to like a track if you chose to record it onto a mix.

The brainstorm that I had in December 1992, then, was this: the universe of tracks included on my mixes roughly corresponded to my favorite tracks. And by tallying up what tracks appeared most often on a mix, I could both rank my favorite tracks and assign each one a numeric score. Then, by aggregating those scores, I could rank my favorite albums, artists and genres, both overall and by year.

Ranking hypothesis #1: I like every track I recorded onto a mix more than any track I have never recorded onto a mix.

Ranking hypothesis #2: The more mixes on which I have recorded a track, the more I like it.

This proved not to be as straightforward as I had hoped.

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In March 1984, I drove some classmates and myself to Washington DC for a Model UN gathering. Anticipating the long drive, I made my first proper mix tapes since My Stuff: Georgetown Survival Mix Vol. I and II. We did not actually stay in Georgetown – where a teenaged Nell (now my wife) then lived – but in a Marriott on Connecticut Avenue NW in Woodley Park. These 43 tracks summarized favored recent album purchases: ABC’s The Lexicon of Love and Spandau Ballet’s True, plus an assortment of records from Roxy Music, Alan Parsons Project, Talking Heads, Genesis, Peter Gabriel, A Flock of Seagulls, U2, Duran Duran, Squeeze, Icehouse, Re-Flex and Real Life. I still did not have a proper cassette recorder – nor could I play cassettes in the “Berger Bus,” my black 1979 Ford Fairmont. So, my tape recorder came along for the ride.

Similar two-cassette “constructed” mixes followed in July 1984, November 1984 and January to March 1985 – with another “acquisition mix” in June 1984. That summer, as I settled into my new room in my mother’s suburban Philadelphia apartment – she had rented my bedroom to a young woman – I was gifted an all-in-one turntable/cassette player/radio/cassette recorder. I spent much of that summer twirling radio dials, seeking tracks to record, creating Summer 1985, Vols. I to VIII.

At the start of my sophomore year at Yale, after 28 mixes and 487+ unique tracks, I constructed a mix – mostly from my record collection, but with some borrowed albums as well – called Stuff and Such Vol. I. I have no idea why I chose this playful title, but in so doing I created the mix-naming convention I would use for the next 16 years.

Well, it was the naming convention I used exclusively, excepting Pseudo Dance Music Vols. I and II in October 1989, beginning with my move to the Boston suburbs at the end of August 1989. In the previous four years, I intertwined first 12 Stuff and Such volumes with Stuff of 1985, Summer 86 Vols. I-III, Summer 1987 Vols. I-III, Stuff of 1987-88, Video Stuff Vols. I-IV, Summer 1988 Vol. I and Washington Vol. I-III. Broadly speaking, I constructed Stuff and Such mixes from my record collection – filling out sides with a few radio/borrowed tracks – and the other mixes from the radio and elsewhere – filling out sides with tracks from my record collection.

Basically, mixes served two purposes at this time:

  1. Acquisition: Though borrowing and recording from the radio and cable music channels new tracks became part of my collection.
  2. Portability: I could play tracks from newly-acquired albums on my Sony Walkman anywhere I wanted.

By the end of August 1989, I had created 52 cassette and four video mixes – averaging seven per year – comprising 919+ unique tracks spread over 1,118+ “slots.” A “slot” is anything recorded onto a mix, so if I record 25 tracks onto a cassette, that is 25 “slots.” During this eight-year period, 157 tracks (17.1%) were recorded twice, while 21 (2.3%) were recorded three times. A track appears multiple times either because I liked it so much, I wanted it to include it on subsequent mixes, or because I first recorded one version (perhaps a 12” remix) from the radio then found a different version – or the video on either MTV or VH1.

Updated Ranking Hypothesis #2: The number of mixes onto which I record a track is positively associated with how much I like that track.

Meanwhile, as I prepared to move to Somerville to enroll in the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences doctoral program in government, I knew I had a long solo drive to Boston ahead of me. To accompany me on this drive, and presuming I could play these cassettes on the sound system of the U-Haul I drove, I lovingly prepared the 136-track Boston Drive Vols. I-VI. Only nine tracks were being recorded for the first time, including the first two tracks on Side 1 of Boston Drive Vol. I: Overture and Heaven on Their Minds, which open the soundtrack to the 1973 film version of Jesus Christ Superstar; I played that soundtrack incessantly over the next few years. This is the first instance of what I later called the “anchor” track (in this case, tracks) – the very first track recorded on a mix or set of mixes, the one(s) I am the most excited to hear. This would later apply to a) the first track recorded on any mix within a set and b) the final track recorded on that set.

Ranking Hypothesis #3: The tracks I like the most on a mix or set of mixes are the first tracks I record on a cassette/CD – especially the anchor track – and the final track I record.

Ranking Hypothesis #3a: RH3 is not true before August 1989.

Ranking Hypothesis #3b: RH3 is sometimes true between September 1989 and February 1992.

Ranking Hypothesis #3c: RH3 is always true after February 1992.

In essence, the Boston Drive mixes were a compendium of those tracks I always fast-forwarded or rewound to hear over the previous eight years. And for the first time, I began to think about how I ordered tracks. Up until now I had either been at the whim of disc/video jockeys or had recorded artist “blocks” – a group of ABC tracks followed by a group of Spandau Ballet tracks followed by…you get the idea. There was no particular ordering of tracks within each artist – or really at all.

This began to change with Boston Drive, even my thought process was no more complicated than “put ‘rocking’ tracks on Side 1 and ‘mellow’ tracks on Side 2,” with “rocking” and “mellow” loosely defined. This was how I constructed Vols. I-III. Side 1 of Boston Drive Vol. IV contains 10 Genesis tracks, while Side 2 opens with “The Chamber of 32 Doors” followed by seven instrumental tracks. Boston Drive Vols. V and VI are essentially the leftovers, with the line between “rocking” and “mellow” nearly obliterated. The final track – still one of my 10 or 15 favorites – is “Darkness,” the last track on The Police’s Ghost In The Machine.

The Boston Drive mixes were such a revelation I returned to them repeatedly over the next few years. They also allowed me essentially to ignore the previous 52 cassette mixes, though I still watched the four video cassettes sometimes; what I do not remember is whether I had physically left them behind in my mother’s suburban Philadelphia apartment.

Meanwhile, shortly after moving to Somerville, I borrowed an apartment-mate’s CD of Camper Van Beethoven’s Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart. I had fallen in love with “One of These Days” after hearing it played on WFNX in Washington, though I never got the chance to record it. That track – still one of my 100 favorites – not only opened Stuff and Such Vol. XIII, it signaled the end of the first wave of mix making. I have not recorded a single track from the radio since then, for example, though I did once fill an entire videocassette from VH1 Classic, retroactively designating a set of videos as Video Stuff 2002-03. Also, I now focused solely on constructing cassette mixes based on a mix of newly-acquired tracks – whether from CDs, vinyl albums or cassettes, or culled from other collections – and “repeat” tracks, the ones I wanted to hear again after recording them on an earlier mix. I still grouped tracks by artist – devoting two cassettes to Genesis and one to Roxy Music – and gave little thought to how one track flowed into the next, but the first faint glimmers of the strict mix-construction rules I later followed are there.

This demarcation of mixes into “before Boston Drive” and “Boston Drive and later,” however, meant that when I began to enter track name, artist and mix name into my PC spreadsheet I began with the Boston Drive mixes. I was daunted enough by the thought of entering data from 32 mixes – 36 counting the tangential 80s and romantic mixes; entering data from the previous 56 mixes went above and beyond.

Moreover, I was not satisfied with a simple tally of how many of the 749 slots each of the 512 tracks filled; two-thirds (341) occupied only one slot, while 39 occupied three slots, six occupied four slots and five – “Zamba” by Bryan Ferry, “Save Me (plus the unlisted reprise after “Fat Chance Hotel” that closes out Happy?) by Public Image Ltd, “Same Old Scene” by Roxy Music, “Driver’s Seat” by Sniff ‘n’ the Tears and “Cuad El Habib” by Yello – occupied five slots.

No, I began to “weight” appearances on some mixes more than others. Nearly 30 years and many iterations later, I can only guess at those first weights – but an appearance on the Boston Drive mixes equated to something like three slots, while appearing on the four “non-series” mixes something like two slots, as did appearance on particularly beloved mixes like Stuff and Such Vol. XXX, created in June 1992. It is possible appearance on “one-artist-only” mixes counted as <1 slots, but I doubt it – I had not yet reached that level of, umm, methodological sophistication.

Ranking Hypothesis #4: I like tracks included on designated mixes more than those only included on non-designated mixes.

Ranking Hypothesis #4a: How much more I like tracks included on designated mixes varies by designated mix.

At the time, ignoring 56.1% of the 1,166+ tracks I had recorded over the previous 11+ years made logistical sense. It also allowed me to ignore the distinction between “now/recently” and “of all time.” I continued to exclude them – with a partial exception I revisit in the next installment – for more than a decade.

It was thus a limited collection of 512 tracks from which I tabulated – using the “ranking hypotheses” listed above – the first installment of “The Berger 100;”[3] “The Berger 10” received its own page:

10. “Promised You a Miracle”

9. “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” Tubeway Army[4]

8. “The Evening’s Young” Yello

7. “New Toy” Lene Lovich[5]

6. “Stay Hungry” Talking Heads

5. “Cuad El Habib”

4. “Entangled” Genesis

3. “Right Down the Line” Gerry Rafferty

2. “Driver’s Seat”

1. “Save Me/Reprise”

“Zamba” was #12 and “Same Old Scene” was #19.

Based on what I remember of that time, the “ranking hypotheses” – the earliest incarnation of a score-computing algorithm – worked very well, at least in terms of what I most listened to in the early 1990s. From the song rankings, I generated “The Berger Album 50/10” and the “The Berger Artist 100/10.” At least, I think I did – I dated the track listings but not those for album and artist. Not that it mattered, as Ultravox’s Quartet and Genesis, respectively, topped those lists throughout the 1990s.

We return to that decade in the next installment, in which mix-making protocols emerge, mixes proliferate and technology flummoxes me…before it makes me rejoice.

Until next time…please be safe and healthy – and if you not already done so, please get vaccinated against COVID-19!


[1] I prefer “track” to “song” because it encompasses the full range of “music-related things that can be recorded onto a mix” tape, CD or video.

[2] For the previous two years, an older Harritonite rode the same bus as me, and she regularly played a mix of 60s folk rock tunes. The side I recorded – Beatles, Rolling Stones, Chicago, Seals and Crofts, Moody Blues, David Bowie, John Lennon – was inspired by her mix.

[3] Brian Eno’s “Julie With” was #100.

[4] Incorrectly written as Are Friends Electric? Gary Numan

[5] Yes, that is Thomas Dolby in the video.

Walter Mondale, Perry Mason and George Floyd

This is how I conclude the opening section of Chapter 1 of Interrogating Memory: Film Noir Spurs a Deep Dive Into My Family History…and My Own (publication TBD):

I also learned that by 1920, Pennsylvania was the 2nd most common American state for the last name “Berger” (14%), behind only New York (23%),[i] which meant I had plenty of company for every lame “ham-Berger” joke I endured as a child. That said, one appeal of Perry Mason reruns for me was that Mason’s primary opponent, played by film noir stalwart William Talman, was District Attorney Hamilton Burger…get it?

Perry Mason, which aired from 1957 to 1966, makes multiple appearances in my book, both as a marker on my film noir “personal journey” and as a fondly-remembered part of my childhood:

My final memory of Robindale is a nasty upper respiratory ailment which kept me home multiple days in January 1979. I mostly watched my small black-and-white television in bed, at least when I was not making myself read the paperbacks—primarily In Search of… volumes—collected in a shoebox. I also listened to WIFI-92, hoping to hear one of my favorite songs at the time: Rod Stewart’s “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?,” Nicolette Larson’s “Lotta Love” and The Bee Gees’ “Tragedy.” Mostly, though, I was waiting until 11:30—on weeknights—to watch Perry Mason on Channel 48, after which the station ended its broadcast day.[ii]

For some reason, my wife Nell and I did not watch the HBO Perry Mason prequel series, which debuted on June 21, 2020, when it originally aired. This past Saturday night, though, having just finished re-watching Sherlock with our younger daughter—who absolutely loved it—we queued up the first episode. We were immediately hooked—though we quickly decided its content was too mature even for our Riverdale– and Stranger-Things-obsessed daughter.

Nell and I were watching on the night of Monday, April 19, 2021 when I let out a squeal of delight when a character—a Yale-educated lawyer and aspiring district attorney—said his name was, you guessed it, “Hamilton Burger.”

A short while earlier, however, I was on the verge of tears.

Nell was scanning her iPhone, when she suddenly said, “Oh, Walter Mondale died. He was 93.”

**********

Late in 1982, I visited my best friend at his house in the Philadelphia suburb of Wynnewood. I do not know why I walked through his parents’ bedroom—to use a bathroom, maybe?—but on top of a dresser in that room was a recent copy of Time magazine, or perhaps Newsweek. I was drawn to a story featured on the cover about the emerging race for the 1984 Democratic presidential nomination, then shaping up to be a battle between two liberal icons: Massachusetts United States Senator (“Senator”) Edward M. “Ted” Kennedy and former Vice President Walter “Fritz” Mondale, as well as Ohio Senator John Glenn, who possibly had the right stuff. Arguably, Kennedy had severely damaged Mondale’s chances to be reelected vice president four years earlier by unsuccessfully running against President Jimmy Carter for the 1980 Democratic presidential nomination.

While I had followed the 1980 presidential campaign to some extent—jumping briefly on the bandwagon of Democratic California Governor Jerry Brown—I had not yet begun to focus on 1984. However, something about that article galvanized me toward Mondale. Perhaps I had never warmed to the idea of Ted Kennedy as president, making Mondale the obvious choice for a passionate young liberal. Perhaps it was that Mondale had recently been vice president, so it was his “turn.” Perhaps it was a vague memory of Mondale’s son Ted visiting Bala Cynwyd Middle School on April 18, 1980, during that year’s Pennsylvania presidential primary, to campaign for the Carter-Mondale ticket.[iii] As I note here, Barbara Bush, wife of the former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, had spoken to my fellow 8th graders and me the previous month.

Perhaps…I have no idea why.

At any rate, Kennedy announced in early December that he would not seek the nomination, after all. It is possible that this was the article I saw in Wynnewood that day.

At the time, our cable package had a kind of ticker-tape news channel. I began to watch—well, read—it regularly, waiting for the next Democrat to announce his candidacy. Joining Glenn and Mondale were former Florida Governor Reuben Askew, California Senator Alan Cranston, South Carolina Senator Ernest “Fritz” Hollings, civil rights activist Reverend Jesse Jackson, Jr., and former South Dakota Senator George McGovern—the 1972 Democratic presidential nominee. Oh, and when I toured Yale University in late August 1983, there were signs advertising an address by a young Senator from Colorado named Gary Hart, who had worked on McGovern’s campaign. As intriguing as some of these candidates were, though, I never wavered in my support for Mondale. In fact, in my role as co-News-Editor of the Harriton High School Free Forum, I wrote the “meet the candidates” article on Mondale (and on Glenn, actually.)

I also schlepped this around senior year…

…and taped this to the cover of a school notebook, cementing me as “the Mondale guy” at the centrist-Republican-leaning Harriton.

It is not necessary to review the nomination battle beyond this: while Mondale dominated the February 20 Iowa caucuses, it was Hart—not Glenn—who finished a strong second. Nine days later, I raced home from Harriton to watch CNN’s coverage of that day’s New Hampshire primary—and the same video clip featuring ice sculptures of the candidates—only to be stunned by Hart’s 39%-29% victory over Mondale, with Glenn well back at 12% and Jackson at 6%. After two contests, it was essentially a three-person race between Mondale, Hart and Jackson—who won or tied in contests in Louisiana, Mississippi and Washington, DC.

It was a seesaw campaign, though it is possible this moment in a March 11 debate ultimately gave Mondale the nomination. For context, the original “Where’s the Beef?” ad follows.

As the April 10 Pennsylvania presidential primary approached, the Philadelphia area was dotted with Mondale and Hart lawn signs, with quite a few Jackson signs in the city itself. Mondale won solidly 45.1% to 33.3%, with Jackson earning 16.0%. About two months later, on June 5, Mondale effectively clinched the nomination by winning primaries in New Jersey and West Virginia.

By this point, I had taken a white pull-down window shade, scrawled MONDALE in large block letters on it using—something or other—and suspended it from one of the brick walls on our small patio. Naturally, I followed the chaotic selection process to be Mondale’s vice-presidential running mate, thrilling at the diversity of the choices, but concerned by the very public “audition” process. I was very excited when he chose New York member of the United States House of Representatives (“House”) Geraldine Ferraro, the first woman chosen for a major-party ticket.

If memory serves, I actually put on a coat and tie to watch the Democratic National Convention, which ran from July 16-19, 1984, in the Moscone Center in San Francisco, CA. I remembered Democrat Mario Cuomo being elected governor of New York two years earlier but, like most of the nation, I was not prepared for how electrifying his keynote address on the opening night of the convention was.

While writing this essay, I re-watched Cuomo’s speech.

Do yourself a favor, watch it yourself.

It is that good…and that prescient.

I also re-watched Mondale’s acceptance speech, which—after a slow start—was much better than I remembered. The only thing I had previously recalled from it was Mondale’s discussion of the need to raise taxes in order to bring down the massive federal budget deficits President Ronald Reagan’s fiscal policies had created.

“Mr. Reagan will raise taxes. So will I.

“He won’t tell you. I just did.”

This statement was an enormous political risk because of the “tax and spend” Democrat stereotype. And it only endeared him to me more.

Otherwise, Mondale appears resolute, experienced and clear-eyed, frequently flashing a surprisingly warm smile for a man unfairly criticized for lacking charisma.

The primary purpose of the convention was to unify a Democratic Party badly split by the months-long battle between Mondale, Hart and Jackson, one about to face a unified and well-organized Republican Party in November. It is striking that Cuomo never mentions Mondale or Ferraro by name—or any Democrat other than New Mexico House Member Mo Udall, who had spoken earlier that evening, and five former presidents, including Carter who watches in approval with his wife Roslyn—only obliquely mentioning them only at the end of his speech.

Did it work?

**********

The raison d’etre of the character first introduced by Erle Stanley Gardner in The Case of the Velvet Claws in 1933 was to defend persons whose guilt appeared obvious to the state but who were genuinely innocent: “the friendless and unjustly accused.” It is no accident Gardner founded The Court of Last Resort in 1940 to do in reality what Mason did in the fictional courtroom.

The HBO series provides an “origin story” for Mason, as well as for his indefatigable private secretary Della Street, private investigator Paul Drake (brilliantly reimagined as an African-American Los Angeles police officer) and Burger. It takes some time for all four to appear in the same scene as tenuous allies, but the wait is worth it.

What I always loved about Perry Mason, besides the actual whodunit and the brilliant courtroom scenes, was that as much as Mason and Burger are rivals, in the end both want not just to win, but to make sure the correct killer is identified. As irritated as he clearly is by Mason’s tactics, Burger is quick to realize when he has been beaten and the actual guilty party identified, who is then usually taken away by Lieutenant Tragg.

They both seek true justice, not merely fleeting victory. They are respectful opponents, not bitter enemies.

**********

The selection of Ferraro gave the Mondale campaign a much-needed jolt, but soon Ferraro was facing a barrage of questions about the finances of her husband John Zaccaro. In August, she held a marathon press conference which temporarily stemmed the tide of negative press.

A few weeks later, I began my freshman year at Yale University, where I became active in the College Democrats and other political organizations. It was through the latter I saw Ferraro speak in New Haven on September 8,[iv] despite what I later wrote on this card.

On September 30, I turned 18, meaning I was eligible to vote for the first time in the November 6 election. One week later, I watched—likely with my then-girlfriend on a common room television set—as Reagan stumbled badly in his first debate with Mondale. He appeared old, tired and very confused—and, once again, Mondale rallied in the polls. However, while Ferraro also did well against Vice President George H. W. Bush in their October 11 debate, Reagan rallied in the second and final presidential debate on October 21. In fact, the only line anyone remembers from either debate is a confident Reagan saying “I want you to know that also I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth, and inexperience.”

Mondale laughs right along with the audience, even though he seems to know how devastating that moment is.

**********

Mondale was born in Ceylon, MN on January 5, 1928. An activist in Minnesota’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party and protégé of Hubert H. Humphrey, Mondale was elected state Attorney General in 1960. When Humphrey was sworn in as Vice President in January 1965, Mondale was appointed to fill his seat, serving until he himself became Vice President in January 1977.

On May 25, 2020, an unarmed African-American man named George Floyd died in Minneapolis, MN while a white police officer named Derek Chauvin kept his knee on his neck for nearly 10 minutes. This death—captured on video—inspired a summer of protests and calls for fundamental changes to our system of justice and policing. One day after Mondale—who had long since returned to his beloved Minnesota—died in Minneapolis, a jury in that city found Chauvin guilty on all three counts in the death of Floyd: manslaughter, third-degree murder and second-degree murder. It is highly unusual, to put it mildly, for a white police officer to be held accountable for the death of a civilian of color; this was a historic verdict.

In fact, just as I teared up when I heard the news of Mondale’s death, I felt a rush of emotion—relief mixed with jubilation—when I watched the verdict live on MSNBC. It is fitting it was announced while the nation mourned Mondale, a profoundly decent public servant who forcefully advocated for racial, gender and economic justice his entire career. It is also fitting Nell and I watched the final three of the eight Perry Mason episodes that same night, watching Mason complete the journey from bedraggled and cynical private investigator to indomitable fighter for justice.

**********

After casting my first-ever vote—and still one of my proudest—for the Mondale-Ferraro ticket on Tuesday, November 6, I had dinner with my then-girlfriend at a new restaurant called Audubon’s, a few blocks east of the main campus; the strike which closed down all of Yale’s dining halls for most of my first semester there was still in effect. We figured we would have plenty of time to settle into watch the returns by 8:30 pm or so, optimistic about Mondale’s chances to the very end.

But beginning around 7 pm, we watched in stunned disbelief on the television set in Audubon’s—or perhaps in windows as we hustled back to campus—as state after state after state was quickly called for Reagan. Before long the only question left was whether Mondale-Ferraro would win ANY state besides the District of Columbia. Minnesota did, finally, vote for its native son, but only by 3,761 votes. Nationally, Reagan-Bush beat Mondale-Ferraro 58.8-40.6%, winning 525 of 538 electoral votes. It was a humiliating and historic defeat.

Nell has since claimed responsibility for what happened on November 6—something about dumping beer cans she was drinking while under age in the trash bins behind Mondale’s house in Georgetown—but much larger forces were at play. Reagan had won election in 1980 by soundly defeating Carter, who himself had beaten Gerald Ford for reelection four years later. Ford only became president because he was vice president—having been appointed when Spiro Agnew resigned in October 1973—when Richard Nixon resigned the presidency in August 1974. Nixon had himself beaten a Democratic Party badly divided in 1968 over President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Vietnam War policy and civil rights legislation. Johnson, finally, ascended to the presidency after John F. Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963.

That is five presidents in 20 years, after there had been only three presidents in the preceding 28 years. Voters, I think, desperately wanted continuity and stability in 1984, and with the economy seeming to recover strongly, they overwhelmingly awarded Reagan a second term.

Mondale returned to Minnesota until President William J. Clinton named him Ambassador to Japan in 1993. Nine years later, on October 25, 2002, Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone died in a plane crash, just 11 days before he was to face election to a third term. Mondale, now 74 years old, was hastily named to run in his stead, losing to Republican Norm Coleman by 2.2 percentage points—a bittersweet end to a long and distinguished career.

As always, though, Mondale graciously shrugged off the loss and went back to private life. Six years later, Republican presidential nominee John McCain selected Alaska Governor Sarah Palin to be his running mate, the first woman so named since Ferraro 24 years earlier. Eight years later, the Democratic presidential nominee was Hillary Clinton, the first woman so selected by a major party. Not of these three women became vice president or president, however.

It was only in November 2020 that a woman finally broke through: California Senator Kamala D. Harris, a Democrat, was elected Vice President to serve with President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. Mondale, happily, lived long enough to see her victory…and it is very apt that Vice President Harris was one of the last people Mondale called before his death.

Rest in peace, Mr. Mondale. You served your nation with honor, compassion and dignity, and you will always be one of my biggest heroes.

Until next time…please stay safe and healthy…


[i] https://www.ancestry.com/name-origin?surname=berger

[ii] e.g., “TV Today,” PI, January 16, 1979, pg. 17-D

[iii] Cusick, Frederick, “They can’t vote but can question,” Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, PA), April 19, 1980, pg. 2-B

[iv] Lender, John, “Ferraro Raps Reagan in Stop at Festival,” Hartford Courant (Hartford, CT), September 9, 1984, pg. A1