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Friday, August 12, 2016



Two ancient clay tablets were recently found deep within a cave in Anatolia. One tablet has been carbon dated to approximately 50,000 years old. Its writing pre-dates all previously known languages. However, accompanying this tablet was another clay tablet, one that contains writing in a primitive Sumerian cuneiform, and appears to translate the first one. 

MEMO: from Og to elders
SUBJECT:   Should the experimental discovery called "fire" be continued?
DATE: 50,000 B.C.E., Monday. 

 F.I.R.E. is an acronym I invented for Fuel Ignited to Radiate Energy. This substance has been known to occur in nature, apparently the product of lightning strikes in forests. It has caused untold devastation to the ecosystem as well as documented harm to human and animal populations.  As harmful as this substance has been, it has been argued by many that it would be worthwhile to control “fire.” 

Recently breakthroughs in science have led to the ability to create fires and to control them. Proponents have claimed beneficial uses of this discovery.  Its properties: vast quantities of heat and light — are keys to the benefits as well as risks. 

Heat means protection from the perpetually icy climate we are currently experiencing. Putting meat into the flames seems to help some digest their food, especially those with poor teeth, such as our elderly population — i.e., those who have lived past thirty years. 

Predatory animals seem to avoid fires, especially at night when they might be tempted to prowl near our caves. The light from the fires also extends the time of day into night and enhances the storytelling that gatherings near community and family fires seem to encourage. 

Some have experimented with fire with mixed results. One recent report claimed that a stone that was inserted into a fire began to melt. When the fire cooled, a substance that was harder than the stone appeared. 

A young man struck this material with a stone. “Points of hot lights” emanated from it that caused another fire to begin. 

A girl claimed that she pounded this material with a stone and sharpened its edge to a point that was stronger than a stone or bone spear point.

 However, the dangers of fire have become apparent and alarming. The substance produces a by-product that has come to be called “smoke.” Inside the cave, it causes burning of the eyes, choking, deposits on the cave ceilings of a black coloration and distasteful smell.

Injuries from mismanagement of fires have been frequent, ranging from blistered fingers to singed hairs and fur pelts to deaths from the mere presence of the fire, when it seems that it eats all the breathable air and caves are left with just deadly smoke. 

Proponents of this invention argue that progress demands acceptance of new discoveries. Survival of our species depends on it, especially in these hard times. They argue that we must learn to control nature, to conquer it.

This raises a basic philosophical debate. 

Should we try to control nature or learn to adapt to it? 

On one side are our traditional storytellers, who believe in and fear the spirits who created everything and provide order. 

On the other side are those who insist that curiosity must be encouraged, and that progress and our very survival depends on it.


This subject needs further study. The council of elders should assign the problem to a committee to set a policy. 

The committee should answer the following questions:

1. Should further experiments into the usages of fire be banned, controlled, or permitted to proceed without regulation?

2. Should shamans be allowed to begin using the fire in religious rituals, such as sacrifices that some have claimed will appease the glacier entity?

3. Should these decisions be made by the council of elders, or should it be put to a vote of the whole community?

Respectfully submitted,


Inscribed on tablet by Meg.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

You Gotta Have Friends ...

“If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend I hope I should have the guts to betray my country ... Dante places Brutus and Cassius in the lowest circle of Hell because they had chosen to betray their friend Julius Caesar rather than their country...” (“What I Believe” E. M. Forster.)

“A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and The Great Betrayal” by Ben Macintyre is about an upper class Brit who was a respected official in their Secret Service until he defected to the Soviet Union and revealed that he had been a KGB agent for more than twenty years, including World War II and the Cold War. It soon became clear that he was one of at least five who had been college friends and had spied for the KGB. All were considered trusted friends with many others in the British and American governments of the period, who were shock at the disclosures.

How could Philby and the others betray their country and their friends? 
How could they have gotten away with it for so long? 

The subject of this book has fascinated me for a long time. 

I am not the only one. Graham Greene, who knew Philby when they both worked for the British Secret Service during World War II, was shocked when he found out about his friend’s treason. Greene turned the story into “The Third Man.” It is a story about a man who discovers that his boyhood friend who he idolized is really a villain. 

David Cornwell, who writes spy novels using the pen name John Le CarrĂ© worked for the Secret Service in the early 1950's when Philby and other spies were first exposed. He wrote the Afterward essay for this book, in which he notes that his “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” was based on the relationship between Philby and Philby’s college chum, Nicholas Elliot. Elliot was later to be a high ranking MI 6 officer and was one of the last to believe that his lifelong friend, who he admired to the point of idolatry, was and had been a Soviet spy who had deceived him completely.   

Ian Fleming, of James Bond fame, had also been recruited into Naval Intelligence and had known both Philby and Elliot very well, counted them as friends. His novels were in effect efforts to rehabilitate the image of British intelligence in the Cold War after the scandals involving Philby and the others.

“Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer...” 

My reference for this last bit of wisdom is, of course, “The Godfather.” The implication of the advice given by the elder Don to his heir, Michael Corleone, seemed obvious in the context of the devious chess master class being conducted by the father for his son. The warning seemed to be that friends might be as dangerous as enemies. The Don’s trusted inner circle consisted only of family, although eventually Michael sadly learns that he could not even trust his own brother.

Researching the phrase, I now find that there have been other interpretations. Some sources claim that Sun Tsu, the Chinese warrior / philosopher, wrote of the importance of knowing your enemy as well as you know your own self, and Machiavelli agreed with the advice when he wrote “The Prince,” for Italian Renaissance Dons. 

The sources put a slightly different spin on the interpretation of these words. Keep your friends close because they are the ones who can be trusted. Keep a close watch on your enemies so that you will always know what they are plotting. 

Whatever the twist, the ramifications of this philosophical detail are evident in the history of espionage. Friends, enemies, trust — these are the subjects of Macintyre’s book.

“A Spy Among Friends” analyzes the scandal that rocked the British and American spy communities in the 1950's when it was discovered that five high ranking officials in the British government were Soviet agents and had been turning over secrets to their KGB handlers since the 1930's. 

The so-called “Cambridge Five” had been college classmates during the Great Depression when a majority of students in Britain and America ardently advocated anti-fascist, anti-Nazi, leftist, socialist and in many cases communist ideals. Some even joined the Communist Party, attended meetings, shouted, enjoyed the free spirited Bohemian atmosphere that included open minded attitude toward eccentricity and sex, including the then criminalized (but often tolerated) practice of homosexual sex. 

That the radicalized students of Britain’s prestigious colleges were sons of the upper classes was not surprising. Rejection of one’s parents is a traditional part of the rebelliousness of growing independence. Every generation goes through the process of questioning and even trying to overturn the assumptions of the previous generation. 

Most leave college with some ideals intact but learn to adapt to the realities of life in “the real world.” A few “drop out” and a very few dedicate themselves to undermining the Establishment. Even fewer turn to active treason. In the Viet-Nam era, protesters were wrongly accused of treason — broadly characterized as ‘lending aid and comfort to the enemy’ — but this label has been rejected by law and most of society in a democracy — except for those very few who resorted to terrorism, violent acts of sabotage and rage. 

In the atmosphere of the 1930's, Soviet agents were able to recruit a few to not only espouse ideals, pay Party dues, but to become committed spies for a foreign power, to steal their government’s secrets and give them to Soviet Russia.  These young men were well-placed to do the deed.

Kim Philby’s father was a famously eccentric British diplomat who served in India, later converted to Islam and became an adviser to King Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia. He recommended his son to the British Secret Service. When asked about his son’s communist leanings, he downplayed it as a natural and normal student fling.

According to Nicholas Elliot, Philby was accepted into the Secret Service because he was “one of us.” That means he had the right family, the right education, the right name, the right friends.  

Donald Maclean’s father had been an important member of Parliament. After college, Maclean worked for the Foreign Office, eventually stationed in Paris, London, Washington, Cairo. All the time he was spying for Moscow, turning over secret documents and intelligence. He began this in the critical pre-World War period, including when the Soviet Union had signed a non-aggression pact with Germany, and into the war era when they were our allies, and then the Cold War. 

Anthony Burgess also settled into the Foreign Office during the war. Son of a naval officer, he was recruited to be a Soviet agent as early as 1932. Having gained a position of trust, he was able to provide the KGB with secret documents relating to NATO and the Marshall Plan. He too served in the British Embassy in Washington during the Cold War, and was privy to American secrets, which he relayed to his handlers.

Anthony Blunt was a bit older than the other Cambridge spies. He was an upper class intellectual, an art history professor who later advised the Queen on matters of art. He was a distant cousin of the royal family. He was teaching French at Cambridge when the others were students, and is suspected of being a spotter for his Soviet spy contacts, pointing out potential recruits, including Burgess and Maclean. 

During the war, Blunt was one of many intellectuals brought into the British intelligence agencies. He worked in MI5, (Britain’s FBI) and was privy to secrets code-named “Ultra” which involved products from the ultra-secret Enigma machine that broke the German code. Blunt then relayed secrets to the Russians. 

The fifth member of the circle is said to be John Cairncross, who relayed Bletchley Park secrets to the Soviets during the war and later, NATO secrets. Actually, there were other members of the British upper classes who betrayed their country for what they deemed to be the higher ideal expressed by the Soviet Union. 

Kim Philby is the most notorious of the Cambridge spies because he was the most highly placed to do the most damage to his country. He went into MI 6, the British Secret Service, which preceded and influenced America’s OSS and later CIA. Philby befriended agents of the newly formed American spy agency while in London. These included James Jesus Angleton, who adored and tried to emulate Philby, in dress, style, alcoholism, eccentricities. Later, when Philby was sent to Washington as liaison to the CIA, Angleton was then high in the administration. Over long alcoholic lunches Angleton shared secrets, which Philby shared with the KGB. 

Philby turned over secrets to his KGB handlers which resulted in the deaths of hundreds, possibly thousands, including many within the Soviet Union and other Eastern Bloc countries who had been spying for Britain and the United States. Once his treason was revealed, the harm was even greater because an extreme reaction set in, including Angleton’s obsessive and futile search for other “moles” which resulted in purging from the ranks of the CIA many experts on Russia, China, and other communist countries due to suspicion that their interest made them potential traitors. Combined with the McCarthy era paranoia, this purge left us without competent intel and analysis for a long time.    

The author spends a good deal of time trying to analyze Philby’s motives. He was a complex personality, full of contradictions and flaws, of which an enormous ego and a sense that he reveled in his secret life as a spy, that he kept from everyone who thought they knew him, seem to be the most psychologically significant. He fueled his sense of his superiority to everyone because he knew something they didn’t and he was fooling them all.  

But the author not only tries to answer how such a person could betray his country, his family and his friends. He is also interested in the corollary: How could he have gotten away with it, especially within a community of professional spies? After all, common sense would hold that spies would be the most cautious, most vigilant, most precise people when it comes to vetting agents, keeping secrets. 

In college, Philby and the others were known to have been, at the very least, admirers of communism and the Soviet experiment, if not outright members of the Party. How could this have been shrugged off as a disqualifying point? Burgess and Blunt were flamboyant homosexuals. Why didn’t this raise a red flag about their vulnerability for blackmail, at a time when it was a crime. (Alan Turing, the mathematics and computer genius credited with code-breaking at Bletchley Park during the war, was later prosecuted for homosexual acts and hounded into suicide).  

Ben Macintyre’s answer involves recounting the complex culture of the British class system, the “Old Boys Network” which valued breeding, family, and friendship. There was and still is a tradition of tolerant amusement at eccentricity and individual foibles within the upper classes of that highly structured society. Behavior, politics, and attitudes that the bourgeois would consider odd, immoral or bizarre are shrugged off as long as the person is deemed to be from an acceptable background. Homosexuality, alcoholism, infidelity, political extremism — no problem. 

Then there is also the context of the times.

The restlessness of “flaming youth” between the World Wars is well documented. Evelyn Waugh wrote about the “Bright Young Things,” the wittiest, best educated of their class whose hedonistic frolics became subject of amusement for readers of columns. The disillusionment brought on by the disaster of World War I included distrust of the Establishment and patriotic marches that led to the horrors their elders had wrought and suffered. For many, the Russian Revolution seemed to exemplify an ideology (and for a few the only essential one) that had merit and vitality, especially after the rise of fascism in Italy and then in Germany and in the face of the worldwide Depression. 

Now comes the looming crisis of a second war against Germany, this time fascist Germany. The best minds are needed. College radicals who have matured might be considered appropriate choices to fight this threat. And the fact is that they were competent, effective workers for the British government — as long as its interests didn’t interfere with their greater loyalty — to the Soviet Union.

Philby rose quickly in MI 6 because of his talent and brilliance. His anti-fascism was real and he fought the Germans whole-heartedly. The Soviet Union became an ally and then it was easy to justify sharing secrets with them, even if doing so violated overly strict policies of his own government. He and others even have argued that withholding secrets from an ally was “wrong.” After all, the Brits shared intel with the US, why not the USSR? 

But after Germany’s defeat, his spying continued and clearly benefitted the Soviets and harmed Britain. Having been made head of counter-intelligence, he knew the names of Russians who spied for Britain and were going to defect. He told the KGB who killed them and their families. In an operation that sounds like a prequel to the Bay of Pigs fiasco in the CIA, a group of armed anti-communists were sent into Albania to try to foment a revolt there. Philby informed the KGB and they were captured and shot as soon as they landed. Another time, he provided the KGB with a list of East German Catholics who wanted to see a post war democracy instead of communism in East Germany. They were eliminated. 

Eventually, defectors from the USSR and Eastern Bloc countries who were in the KGB disclosed the presence of “moles” in British secret services. Suspicion, investigation, and then the shock — Burgess and Maclean defected to Moscow. Their ties to Philby were clear and suspicion mounted. Still, he denied, withstood investigations and survived. His survival was due in no small measure to friends within MI 6, especially Nicholas Elliot, who was the strongest advocate of his innocence for years — until even he could no longer deny the obvious. 

In a climax suitable to a Le CarrĂ© spy novel, Macintyre recounts taped conversations between Elliot and Philby in a hotel suite in Istambul, in which Philby admits his deception although not fully detailing his crimes.  Philby is offered a deal: if he returns to England and admits his guilt fully, including a debriefing of all his actions, he will not be prosecuted. The offer is given because it would have been too embarrassing for the government to try him for his crimes. Elliot gives Philby a few days to think about it before deciding. 

Instead, Philby contacts his KGB handler, who arranges to smuggle him onto a Russian ship and he shows up in Moscow, along with Burgess and Maclean. They all lived there for years and died there.  

The book delves into issues about friendship that often come up in our lives, if not in the dramatic context of treason. A friend whose son passes the Bar Exam will ask if I will recommend his son or daughter to those of my friends who might hire ... or appoint ... or accelerate an application.... Why? Well I’ve known the family for ages. They’re good people....

“No man is a failure who has friends...” (Clarence, in “It’s A Wonderful Life.”)

Thursday, August 14, 2014


By Kay Redfield Jamison
Some years ago, I theorized — without much more than anecdotal surmise --- that there must be a connection between creativity and mental illness because so many artists, writers, performers, and other creative people have been found to suffer from suicidal depression, self-destructive obsessive addiction, or some other form of “abnormal" behavior. 

A book by by researcher Kay Redfield Jamison titled “Touched With Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament”, 1993, seemed to support the notion.

The author cited several studies which examined the lives of noted creative figures and argued that their experiences strongly suggested a connection between "creativity" and some forms of mental illness, particularly what used to be called "manic-depression." 

She also included in her list of candidates many who lived in the age before what we would consider modern psychiatric diagnoses, but who she deemed to be qualified because their biographers or contemporaries noted serious behaviors now associated with this disorder. Most had spent time in "asylums" or psychiatric hospitals, had tried to or succeeded in killing themselves. 

As evidence, she also offered evidence of their self-analysis in correspondence, fiction, poems, even painting. She concluded that a high percentage of creative writers reported "intense, highly productive and creative episodes," which they themselves described as "manic." Others reported severe mood swings affecting creativity. In sum, the experiences many of these creative people described fit in well with clinical criteria for major mood disorders.  

However, since then, other mental health researchers have taken pains to contradict these findings, pointing to flawed testing, contradictory evidence and exposing the reliance on anecdotal and unreliable observations by contemporaries. 

See for example:

The recent deaths of Philip Seymour Hoffman and Robin Williams have reinvigorated the debate with articles quoting experts on both sides. 


My own genius son, Greg, has debunked the romantic notion of “mad genius,” pointing out that creativity demands discipline and concentration, both difficult for the mentally ill person who is in the throes of depression or psychosis, or under the influence of addictive drugs like cocaine, heroin, and the like. 

But I still think of someone like Sylvia Plath. Her poetry, which she certainly worked out with discipline and concentration, was also certainly at least an expression of her depression, which was the central issue of her life for many years and which ultimately killed her. 

Can we really ignore the knowledge that Robin Williams was a self-described self-medicating sufferer of bi-polar disorder when we watch his “manic” improvisational brilliantly observed raps. 

He was surely an artist who carefully honed his craft on many stages. He was born with an extraordinary gift, which he used to express his need for love and approval from audiences. He studied at Julliard and exhibited a sharp intellect. He worked hard for the laughs and the strong feelings he earned from his audiences. 

This is not to argue that mental illness is needed for creativity. 

It does not suggest that suffering from mental illness qualifies as a criteria for creativity. The ramblings or scribbling of severely ill people are most often sadly incoherent products of troubled minds, not defined as art except by the broadest standard. 

Neither does it rebut the truth that mental illness is far more often a hindrance to the productivity of the artist. 

It remains to be proven whether, as some artists believe, if deprived of their demons, whether by medication or therapy or something else, they will lose their gift.   

Certainly there are many artists who would not fit into a definition of any mental illness. Probably, most are merely nuts — like the rest of us. 

Monday, March 03, 2014


Some people look forward to retirement in order to travel or begin another career, to teach, or to accomplish some other long deferred dream. I have done all the traveling I wish to do and I would bore students by lecturing too much. I have been fulfilling a lifelong promise to myself – to read more, especially things I read or was supposed to read during my hurried and often wasted education that lasted for about twenty frustrating years. Now, I am reading those things — at least some of them, at least some parts of some of them to see if I should have paid more attention.

My bookcases are filled with paperbacks and hard covered books and I can’t afford the room to buy more. My brother still goes to the library. I don’t have the patience to wait for the ones I like to be returned. 

To be honest, I prefer the convenience of the Netflix model to the outmoded technology of lending, a la Blockbusters. With the benefit of modern technology — the e-book — I am able to continue my obsessive practice of reading several things at once, that is, jumping from one to another after a chapter or two of each. Since my preference is for non-fiction, this is feasible to do without forgetting the plot thread of my reading: history or biography books lose little in this manner. And there is an unexpected benefit — since my interests are fairly narrow — or at least conjoin in odd ways. I find that several things I read coincidentally make reference to happenings and characters in others. 
For instance, I am reading about Martha Gellhorn in a biography about her (“Gellhorn: An American Life” by Caroline Morehead) and also one about Lillian Hellman, (“Lillian Hellman: An Imperious Life” by Dorothy Gallagher) which also mentions F. Scott Fitzgerald, as does a book about the writing of “The Great Gatsby,” which includes reference to “The Beautiful and Damned” and some events of 1927, which is the subject of “One Summer: America, 1927” by Bill Bryson. My fascination with the 1920's led me to Evelyn Waugh’s “Vile Bodies,” on which a movie, “Bright Young Things,” was based.

Even the fiction I am reading seems to correlate nicely with other reading: Eric Ambler’s classic, “A Coffin For Dimitrios” takes place in Turkey and the Balkans in the aftermath of World War I, also the setting of “A Peace To End All Peace,” by David Fromkin, a history of the fall of the Ottomans after World War I, which set the stage for the intrigues in the middle east. 

“Los Alamos” by Joseph Kanon is a mystery novel set during the Manhattan Project of World War II, also the subject of “Genius” Richard Feynman’s biography by James Glieck, and of course, “The Making Of The Atomic Bomb” by Richard Rhodes, which is more general and deeper about the same subject. 

Reading about Lincoln or, generally, about the Civil War, you have to come across some of the same anecdotes, characters, and sense of the man and the era. My latest reading includes a novel titled “I Am Abraham” by Jerome Charyn, which is in the first person as if written by Abe, admitting to us his human faults, fears, marital problems. It dovetails with the other recent book I found about him, “Lincoln the Lawyer” by Brian Dirck. Ever since I discovered that Lincoln had been a criminal trial lawyer who defended murderers, I have longed to discover more about that part of his career. My thesis is that his legal training and talent contributed largely to his rhetorical genius as well as his political and ethical ideas. I am finding support for that notion in my reading.

One of the first books I read during this search was James McPherson’s “Battle Cry of Freedom: the Civil War era.” It led to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s best seller (one of the few best sellers I was drawn to) “Team of Rivals.” It was then a short jump back in time to “Manifest Destinies: America’s Westward Expansion and the Road to the Civil War” by Steven E. Woodworth. In all of these sources I was hoping to find support for my suspicion that Lincoln’s obsession about keeping the union together was influenced by his hope for a continental nation as a guarantee of peace and prosperity. 

I thought that our founding fathers were conscious of Europe as an example of the fractious nationalism that they were desperate to escape and to avoid for the nation they called by the name of the continent: America.  “Napoleon: A Biography” by Frank McLynn and “Warfare and Society in Europe, 1792-1914" by Geoffrey Wawro provided some evidence for this argument. 

What followed logically were a string of books about World War I. “The Great War: A Combat History of the First World War” by Peter Hall contains diary entries of many soldiers, generals and privates, relating the miseries of that war that was supposed to end war. The origins of that war are covered in “The Lost History of 1914" by Jack Beatty, which argues that there were many missed chances to avoid the war. It is a companion to my re-reading of Barbara Tuchman’s “The Guns of August” and “The Zimmermann Telegram.” An alternative story about the same era is “To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918" in which the author, Adam Hochschild, documents that forgotten battles by conscientious objectors in England and Ireland who actively opposed the war. 

Reading the classics was also a goal. I began with Mark Twain, whose novels I have to confess were always difficult for me to get through in school. The dialect was part of it but mostly it was the mere fact that it was “assigned”. But now, I read “Huckleberry Finn” aloud to myself and loved it, laughed aloud many times and found the language to be subtle and appropriate to the often melancholy mood. 

On a roll, I decided to read “A Tale of Two Cities” and that worked, too. I always admired Sydney Carton as depicted by Ronald Colman in the movie. This character strikes me as a precursor of an anti-hero of later, noir type books of the Hammett and Chandler genre. I have “The Complete Works of Charles Dickens,” tentatively begun “Bleak House” but I am scared to death by the table of contents (thirty seven chapters?). 

Reading several Sherlock Holmes stories proved disappointing. Remembering the brilliant logic of the great detective that I enjoyed in my boyhood, I realized that the writing was of the dated “tell it don’t show it” school and the deductions were rather contrived.

Classics led me to Shakespeare’s complete works as well. I have always loved “Hamlet” and “Julius Caesar” and that led me to “Merchant of Venice” “Richard III,” “Macbeth” and “Romeo and Juliet.” I began “The Tempest” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” but haven’t yet been able to make much progress. I have learned that continuing this project demands some discipline, which in this context means abrupt detours from dead ends, maybe returning later (when the street is paved).

Movies have also influenced my reading. “Shakespeare in Love” inspired a look back at the play it plays with, and in reverse, re-reading “Macbeth” made me watch and enjoy Polanski’s movie. PBS presented the “Henry Trilogy: Henry IV, Part I & II, and Henry V” which led me back to better follow the plays. 

My enjoyment of history and movies got me into “Master and Commander” and “Post Captain” by Patrick O’Brien which reminded me of “Horatio Hornblower” which I loved when my mother took me to see it at Radio City Music Hall when I was ten. The movie “Troy” encouraged me to re-read “The Iliad” and a companion critique, “The War That Killed Achilles: The True Story of Homer’s Iliad and the Trojan War” bu Caroline Alexander, which elucidated the classic poem as an anti-war epic rather than one which glorifies the idea of war.

The movie, “The Good German,” led me to the book on which it was based, written by Joseph Kanon. It’s “Casablanca”-like story about World War II and the search for Nazi scientists at the start of the Cold War re-stimulated my interest in that era. I read “Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945" by Max Hastings, “The Nuremberg Trial” by John and Ann Tura. This led me to “The Brigade” by Howard Blum, which is about Jews who fought the Nazis. As I mentioned, another Kanon novel, “Los Alamos,” reminded me about Richard Feynman.   

On the subject of the holocaust, I read Deborah E. Lipstadt’s “The Eichmann Trial” (partly due to my nephew Max’s discussion about the book about her libel trial that he adapted for a possible movie). That led me recently to read a novel by Robert Harris, “An Officer and a Spy” which relates the story of Major Picquard’s exposure of the truth in the Dreyfus Affair (the overview of which I had read in Tuchman’s “The Proud Tower.” 

Jewishness led me to curiosity about the history of “Jerusalem” by Simon Sebag Montefiore and “Zealot: the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth” by Reza Aslan. In something of a circular trip, I began “FDR and the Jews” by Richard Breitman and “Hollywood and Hitler: 1933-1939" by Thomas Doherty, all of which cover the general subject of the origins and effects of anti-Semitism. 

My fascination with films also tempted me to read biographies of “Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations” by Peter Evans; and “Jean Arthur: the actress nobody knew” by John Oller. Re-reading “Catch-22" led me to “Now and Then: From Coney Island to Here” a memoir by Joseph Heller of his childhood in my old neighborhood. Other biographies I have tried include “J. Edgar Hoover: The Man and the Secrets” by Curt Gentry and “A Perfect Spy: a novel” by John LeCarre, which is autobiographical. “Churchill” by Paul Johnson (as well as Churchill’s own “the Gathering Storm”).

One unique novel was “Jack 1939" by Francine Mathews, which imagines the college student Jack Kennedy as a spy for FDR in Hitler’s Germany. Another book on which a movie was based: “A Most Dangerous Method” by John Kerr, delves into the origins of psychiatry with Freud and Jung. “Lady At The O.K. Corral” by Ann Kirschner explores the lives of Wyatt Earp and his “wife / mistress” Josephine Marcus. “Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight” by Bingham & Wallace, covers the Supreme Court’s ruling in his draft problem. 

World War II also provided the fascinating story of three American generals: “Brothers, Rivals, Victors” by Jonathan W. Jordan. My interest in Paris and World War II and crime led me to a fascinating novel / memoir about the search for a murderer in occupied Paris, “Death In The City Of Light” by David King. That also led me to “Brave Genius: by Susan Carroll, which chronicles the story of Albert Camus and Jacques Monod, two friends who worked for the resistance and later won Nobel Prizes in their fields. 

Crime and noir genre stories have always attracted my attention. I re-read favorites, “The Maltese Falcon” and “The Big Sleep” along with “Farewell, My Lovely.” I also discovered Jim Thompson, reading “A Swell Looking Babe,” “The Getaway,” :The Grifters” and “Pop. 1280" to which I added my Netflix access for the movies that were based on these novels. Another Eric Ambler thriller, “Journey Into Fear” was basis of a classic film (directed by Orson Welles, starring Joseph Cotten). I re-read “Casino Royale” by Ian Fleming to remind me about the pleasure of reading about 007 instead of watching a parade of CGI explosions.

      At Greg's urging, I began "Cryptonomicon" by Neil Stephenson, but find it tough sledding. Like some other contemporary writers, Michael Chabon being another, I have trouble with the style. I was reared spoiled by writers who stick to a far more economical narrative technique. But I will keep at it.  

LILLIAN HELLMAN: An Imperious Life by Dorothy Gallagher

Lillian Hellman is one of those legendary literary figures whose name pops up in so many interesting contexts that you feel you know her. Beware of stripping away the veneer of legend. What lies beneath may be disappointing, even ugly, depressing, shattering to your long held faith.
I first heard of her through my interest in movies and Dashiell Hammett. They were lovers for many years and it was said that he modeled Nora Charles on her. She wrote the courageous play, “The Children’s Hour,” (1934) about two teachers tragically accused by a student of being lesbians. The second movie version, with Shirley MacLaine and Audrey Hepburn (1961) seemed to be an apt metaphor for the McCarthy era — like Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” which was about the Salem witch trials. 
I had heard that Miller, Hammett and Hellman were all victims of the HUAC witch hunts. Hammett went to jail, and Hellman bravely challenged the committee, famously writing: “I refuse to cut my conscience to fit the fashions of the day.” 
TV often showed the movie version of Hellman’s anti-fascist play, “Watch on the Rhine,” starring Bette Davis and Paul Lucas. Davis had starred in another adaptation of a Hellman play, “The Little Foxes.” Both were directed by William Wyler, Hellman’s good friend. She had written the screenplay for “Dead End” on of my favorite Depression era films, which starred Humphrey Bogart, also directed by Wyler. 
Hellman next came to my attention in the 1970's with her memoir, “Pentimento” which included a story called “Julia.” The movie starred Jason Robards as Hammett, Jane Fonda as Hellman and Vanessa Redgrave as her tragic and heroic childhood friend who was killed by the Nazis. The film won three Oscars.

This book claims that the image was almost all bullshit. 

It is refreshing to read a biography written by someone who is not an apologist or in awe of the subject. Dorothy Gallagher’s book has been called by reviewers bitchy, and a hatchet job. It is scathing in its criticism, nasty in its tone. Even her acknowledgments of Hellman’s achievements — her talent, her skill as a playwright, her wit, are often grudging, sarcastic, and conditional, accompanied by far more convincing  “Buts”. When she does relate Hellman’s version of an event or person, Gallagher conditions it with “maybe” or “possibly.”
Hellman’s life also touched other characters whose lives interested me:  Hemingway, Martha Gellhorn, Dorothy Parker. 
According to the author, Gellhorn and Hemingway both despised Hellman, denied her inflated claim of involvement in the Spanish Civil War cause. 
Parker, though a life-long friend who was helped financially by Hellman during her decline, was a posthumous victim of Hellman’s predatory greed when she became her executor and tried to negate Parker’s wish to leave her estate to Martin Luther King and the NAACP. Hellman made nasty remarks about both: “he’s just a southern preacher.” 
Hellman also became executor of Hammett’s estate, made vast sums exploiting his copyrights and tried to deny his daughters their share.

Although admitting Hellman’s talent as a writer, Gallagher asserts that Hammett gave her the plot of “The Children’s Hour” from a story he had heard about a trial in Scotland. She strongly implies that he deserves more credit for her work than Hellman was willing to admit. He was so much a part of Hellman’s writing, with advice, editing, revising this and all of her plays, that after his death, she wrote no more plays. 

Hellman’s anti-fascist, anti-McCarthy courage was not so courageous, nor very noble. She was not “right” about her steadfast support for Stalin, dishonestly and stupidly ignoring obvious facts contrary to her beliefs of the righteousness of the Soviet Union and the Communist Party. 
Hellman was foolish in other respects as well. In what seems a bit mean-spirited gossip mongering, Gallagher points out that tor years Lillian Hellman paid for therapy with a psychiatrist who was little more than a charlatan. He gave celebrities advice about their health and sex lives, had sex with some patients, fleeced others. Gallagher claims that George Gershwin and his lover, Kate Swift, were both his clients. He had sex with Swift, told Gershwin, who had a brain tumor, that his headaches were from neuroses. Hellman took his advice regarding her many love affairs.  
In detail, Gallagher snipes at almost every aspect of Hellman’s life, exposing the meanness, self-deceiving, selfishness that Gallagher documents in Hellman’s work, her relations with lovers, friends, the public. 

It is ironic that Gallagher’s book is published as part of a Yale Press series called “Jewish Lives” because, according to the author, Hellman was a pretty bad Jew. She was born into a nominally Jewish but very secular family whose German ancestors landed in Georgia in the 1840's and thrived in business in the antebellum south.  Hellman’s father married into the wealthy family, but he was a failure in business, died leaving her mother a poor relative of a rich family, an obvious and traditional source of resentments. Two of her famous plays, “The Little Foxes” and “Another Part of the Forest,” were about southern families corrupted by greed. 
Her fictitious families (called the Hubbards) are not overtly Jewish, a fact which Gallagher sees as a noteworthy example of Hellman’s less than noble denial of her Jewish identity. I think this is a weak argument: if Hellman had made the family Jewish, it would have been dismissed as stereotypically (for the time) anti-semitic. Gallagher also quotes Hellman’s occasional negative quips about Jews as further evidence, but I have heard this stuff all my life, sometimes from members of my own family. Although Hellman readily acknowledged being Jewish, she denied any knowledge of the religion or identified with it as “race” or a “people.” This is not unusual, especially among that era’s long assimilated Jews, and especially those raised with no real sense of community. Hellman looked down her long nose at New York ghetto Jews. This too was not unusual for her time and society, even among liberals.  
Gallagher make a similar point about “Watch on the Rhine” which Hellman based on Otto Katz, an anti-Nazi German who was a communist and a Jew. Hellman amended both of those traits, creating her hero as a liberal generic anti-Nazi resistance leader. Gallagher also notes that Hellman’s friend was later “purged” by the Soviets, tried and executed for imagined crimes against the state, facts which Hellman ignored in her blind love of the Party. 
Hellman was also involved in the dramatization of Anne Frank’s diary into the play. She was offered the chance to write it, but turned it down, suggested Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich, two non-Jewish screenwriters who had written the scripts for the “Thin Man” movies. She advised them to diminish the Jewishness of the story, deleting the girl’s ardent self-identification as a Jewish victim. 
Contrary to Gallagher’s implied criticism, I think both of these modifications are justifiable as commercially viable choices. I think that Hellman was no different from many Jewish artists of her generation, who suppressed their Jewishness to assimilate. Her friend George Gershwin knew it and did it too.  

Although Hellman was actively and vocally anti-Nazi from early in the 1930's, she was quoted as focusing more on the evils of fascism in general and against communists in particular than on the Jews, even after exposure of the holocaust. 
It is in Hellman’s life-long commitment to communism that Gallagher finds the richest paydirt. Gallagher indicts Hellman for many sins of deception, stupidity, immorality. 
She points out that both Hellman and Hammett had lauded Stalin and the USSR despite news of the brutal purges of Trotskyites and other opponents, the suppression of dissent including artists, writers, and intellectuals, the forced famine of the Ukraine. Their worst sin was  continuing blind approval of Stalin long after others had abandoned the Party in the face of the non-aggression pact with Hitler. For most this was a last straw. But Hammett and Hellman both hewed to the party line: now refusing to criticize their new “ally” Hitler and in fact bitterly attacking those who abandoned the Party line as weak liberals, until all was forgotten after Hitler attacked the Soviet Union and eventually, the U.S. entered the war as Stalin’s ally. 
Hellman later in life dissembled, tried to revise her previous stances, claiming that she never wholly supported Stalin, etcetera, grudgingly acknowledged her ignorance of the true facts, while still keeping to her general leftish bent. Gallagher challenges even this, noting all the many chances Hellman had to learn the “true facts,” including several visits to the USSR during which she could have learned the truth of Stalin’s evil but chose to stay ignorant. 

Which brings me to Gallagher’s overall theme: that Hellman ignored the facts and hid the truth about almost everything in her work, politics, life. 
The crux of the thing occurs when “Julia” became famous. A woman named Muriel Gardiner wrote a letter to Hellman and then wrote her own book, noting the coincidence between her life and “Julia’s.” Gardiner had been raised in wealth and privilege, but in Europe had become an active anti-Nazi, had gone to Austria, worked for the resistance, and eventually returned. 
Critics began to question the sources of Hellman’s supposed memoir. No corroborative evidence existed to support Hellman’s claims. Eventually, Mary McCarthy, writer and critic, was asked by Dick Cavett on his T.V. show about overrated writers. She named one, Lillian Hellman. Pressed by Cavett to explain, McCarthy uttered one of the most quoted jibes ever: “Every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the’.”
Hellman sued McCarthy for slander, and died before the suit came to trial. But the damage was done. Gallagher cites many sources to challenge the veracity of the Julia tale. It never happened, not to Hellman, or her childhood friend, if she ever really had one. 

After noting all of the discrepancies in the details of Hellman’s account of the “Julia” story, Gallagher poses the theme of her book this way:

“It was no secret to Hellman’s friends that she ‘didn’t know the boundary between fact and fiction’ as Norman Mailer said after she died. In her personal life this mattered only to her friends: they could take her with a grain of salt, or not at all. But Hellman had a public life, and she wrote about it. She wrote about herself as witness to the world — in Moscow, in Spain, in Vienna and Berlin . . . at the very time of crucial historical events. Her readers saw the world through her eyes. She wrote about her relations with celebrated people . . . and her readers saw them through her often unadmiring eyes.

“Does it matter if she was actually in all of those places, at those times, and if she saw what she said she did? Does it matter if one or many of the stories that make up her memoirs are invented? Readers enjoy them and, after all, every memoirist, everyone who tries to tell a true story for that matter, fails to some degree. It is not the truth that is tricky and unreliable, as Hellman would have it. Memory is the problem: the color of a dress, the arrangement of furniture in a room, the words of a conversation — these things can be lost or confused. Truth remains in the facts; facts can be verified, but only if the writer cares to do so. 

“Hellman either knew or did not know Julia. . . . She did or did not belong to the Communist Party.”

Gallagher quotes “historian and author Timothy Garton,” about the “‘frontier’ between ‘literature of fact’ and the ‘literature of fiction’”:

“Imagination is the sun that illuminates both countries. But this leads us into a temptation . . . ‘look just across the frontier there is a gorgeous flower — the one novelistic detail that will bring the whole story alive. Pop across and pick it. No one will notice.’ ... But if we claim to write the literature of fact, it must be resisted.

“Why? For moral reasons, above all. Words written about the real world have consequences in the real world. ... moral reasons are sufficient; but there are artistic ones too. Writers often cross this frontier because they think their work will be enhanced as a result. Reportage or history will become literature. Paragraph for paragraph that may be true. But as a whole, the work is diminished.
“... It is the one question was always ask of those who bring us news of the world. Did that really happen? Is it true?” 

In our time, other memoirists have been exposed as frauds; journalists have manufactured news, invented sources, imagined interviews. So what? Isn’t it all entertainment. “Infotainment?” the web, blogs, free lance agenda driven reporting is the new norm. 

These questions I’ve thought about with regard to the border of art and reality, the difference between fact and truth. Does the artist have any responsibility to tell the truth? Does the goal of entertainment always justify or excuse deception? 
Movies and novels are meant to entertain. Art aspires to some more: to express beauty, to tell at least a part of the truth about nature, humanity, life. Artists talk a lot about seeking truth. There is something called “poetic truth” which implies seeking a deeper reality than exists in “mere facts.” 
All art is a lie, we are told by modern and post-modern philosophers. Of course, this clever argument is a truism. Yes, a painting of a pipe is not a pipe. Yes, Ben Kingsley was not Gandhi. T.E. Lawrence looked nothing like Peter O’Toole and many of the events of “Lawrence of Arabia” did not happen. This was a fictional story, not a documentary, and even those make choices to include, omit, emphasize, dramatize facts about the subject, take a point of view. 
The greatest works of historic historians have all included biased reportage. 

And yet I have often been troubled by things I have read and watched about things I knew about, and knew to be false, deceptive, manipulative. As a lawyer, I groan at the misrepresentations of the law and the system I know. Acquaintances in other professions have similar complaints: doctors, teachers, ministers, even movie makers, moan about dramas about their professions.
But “it is only a show, or “only a movie” I am told. True, and I can ignore the dramas that don’t purport to be anything other than mere entertainment. No one can take seriously Perry Mason’s weekly ability to pluck the guilty from his courtroom audience, although I do remember when this show was popular, that we lawyers took the time to caution prospective jurors not to expect us to pull that rabbit from our hats. 

My problem comes in the kind of “docudrama” that is intended to do more than merely amuse or entertain: but to expose an issue or to send a message, to teach. “To Kill a Mockingbird” is a good example of a courtroom drama that sends a message. I have never heard a southern lawyer complain about any lack of authenticity in its depiction of the rape trial and I have no qualms about it.

But what about other legal dramas or satires which are intended to reveal something about the law or lawyers or the justice system. “The Verdict” is one of those. Lawyers protested the implausible plot that had an incompetent alcoholic shyster suing a Catholic hospital for medical malpractice while the prestigious firm representing the Church planted a spy to have sex with the plaintiff’s lawyer. After the lawyer insults the judge, incompetently prepares and argues his case (which if real would have been settled), the jury returns a huge verdict in his favor, ignoring the judge’s instructions. This is the happy end of the movie, which every lawyer laughed at, knowing that any judge would have reversed the verdict, and any appeal would have left the client poor.
But it was a good movie. Paul Newman was great in it.

Al Pacino was terrific in “In Justice For All,” in which he is forced to defend a corrupt judge, but then exposed his guilty client in court. Friends mimicked his tag line: “No, judge, you’re out of order; this whole system is out of order!” wished they had the guts to shout it in their cases. But some took it as an indictment of defense lawyers and their corrupt complicity in an unjust system, a dangerous distortion of reality.

The most outrageous example is the oldest one: “Birth of a Nation” in 1915 depicted the rise of the KKK as a justifiable and even noble response to the asserted evils of the reconstruction era. With D.W. Griffith’s immense artistic skill taking full advantage of the new technology of the cinema: editing, musical score, close-ups, stirred emotions of the audience to a fever pitch. Race riots resulted in lynching of Negroes and supported the nationwide revival of the Klan, resulting in fifty more years of murder and repression. Yet President Wilson, the great intellectual and morally pious president, praised the movie as “writing history with lightning.”