Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Knucklerap Corner: Where a Red Hand is the Mark of an Improved Mind

By Lauren Weiner

In our second installment, we keep on keeping them on their toes. Why, you ask? Because that is how we learn (and how we amuse ourselves). 

Let’s Hector Harvard

“I have been the enormous beneficiary of a time of great change.” Drew Gilpin Faust, the first female president of Harvard University, speaking to the Washington Post, February 7, 2008

We beg to differ. We have seen photographs of the lady and she is normal-sized. She meant to say that she has benefited enormously.

# # #

New York Times, July 5, 2009. Clark Hoyt: “Dilemmas like the Rohde kidnapping put editors in excruciating positions.”

“Editors” is plural, but pluralizing “positions” to match is overly punctilious. Sounds better to say the editors are put in an excruciating position. The people he’s talking about are all in roughly the same position: caught between the desire to publish the facts and the desire to avoid angering kidnappers. What Mr. Hoyt wrote encourages a reader to picture things that (we assume) lie outside of his intention entirely.

Washington Post, August 14, 2009. Dan Morse: “A Hyattsville man who instituted what prosecutors called a ‘reign of terror’ in parts of Montgomery County was sentenced to life in prison without parole.”

“Instituted” is kind of formal. Such gentility goes against the sense of the sentence.  “Inflicted” or “imposed” would have been more apt. Or the man could be said to have “brought a reign of terror to” parts of Montgomery County. He’s a murderer not a mayor.

Baltimore Sun, May 14, 2009. David Zurawik: “He plays an unscrupulous attorney facing disbarment unless he goes back to school and earns an authentic undergraduate degree rather than the bogus one he had been passing himself off with.”

No, we are not going to bug Mr. Zurawik about ending a sentence with a preposition. At Knucklerap Corner we recognize that the prohibition against that has eroded so much that it’s okay to do it. “Passing himself off with” is what drew the foul. You pass yourself off as something you are not. And you get away with fraud. He seems to have conflated the two idioms.

Washington Times, June 18, 2009. Stephen Dinan and Christina Bellantoni: “If confirmed, he likely would face questions during a Senate confirmation hearing over how his nomination would square with the military’s policies on gays – though as a civilian position, he would not run afoul of the policy.”

He isn’t a civilian position; he’s a civilian.

USA Today, August 4, 2009. Gregg Zoroya: “War and separation is historically hard on families.”

No doubt he meant the separation caused by war, but still – if they are presented as two things, they need “are” not “is.”, July 19, 2009. Caryn James: “But the film gains a sharper-than-ever edge as the fumbling turns sinister, as active deception on both the British and American sides manipulate the path to war.”

“As” is being overused, to be sure, but that’s not a grammatical error. For the sentence to be grammatically correct, “manipulate” has to become “manipulates.” The “active deception” manipulates the path to war. On second thought, does it? A path is not really that manipulable. Metaphor doesn’t work.

# # #

Dangle Alley: Where Modifiers Roam the Streets Forlornly

American Conservative, September 2009. Bill Kauffman: “Like Clint Eastwood and Jeff Bridges, Oates’s films in these years were consistently interesting -- soulful, often literate contrasts to the brain sludge for cretins that fills theaters today.”

It is Warren Oates who is said to be like Clint Eastwood and Jeff Bridges, not “Oates’s films.”

# # #

Helping Helprin

New York Times, May 20, 2007. Mark Helprin: “Booksellers that publish their own titles benefit not from escaping the author’s copyright, but the previous publisher’s exercise of a grant of rights (limited, authors take note, to 35 years).”

The word “not” is misplaced. Parallelism demands that it go like this: Booksellers benefit from escaping, not the author’s copyright, but the previous publisher’s exercise of a grant of rights.

That was from an op-ed that Mr. Helprin expanded into a book called Digital Barbarism, which contains this sentence: “He did not share with those who now wrongly expropriate him a contempt for what they would call the bourgeoisie.”

He was speaking of Jefferson and he meant appropriate, not expropriate. Diction error.

# # #

Got a mistake or infelicity to report? Send it to:


Weiner, a Gotham team member, is a speechwriter for the U.S. Secretary of Defense.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

So Long, Uncle Walter

By Mark Frankel

I wonder how Walter Cronkite would have responded to the tsunami of coverage and commentary sparked by his death last week at 92. Certainly, his obituary earned its place above the fold on The New York Times. (To anyone under 40: That’s a newspaper term, referring to its placement on the top-half of the front page). My guess is he would have expressed wry bemusement at the heaps of low-calorie pontificating and punditry his death inspired. He always regarded himself as simply a reporter doing his job.

But make no mistake: Presenting the news from the anchor’s chair on The CBS Evening News during two of the most volatile, combustible decades in recent American history, Cronkite was a journalistic—and ultimately national—institution.

His privileged spot as one of the handful of men (yes, they were all men) heading up one of the three networks’ evening news shows made him a dinner guest (or after-dinner speaker, if you ate before 7 p.m.) in millions of homes, five nights a week. In an era when Americans were hungry, desperate, for facts—about the confusing and unwinnable war in VietNam; about the assassinations of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King, Jr; or the U.S.-Soviet race to the moon—he supplied them in a sonorous, Midwestern baritone that so many people prefer their news (and late-night monologues) to be delivered in.

Yet, unlike today’s parachuting anchors, whose presence on the scene signifies an unfolding Big Story, Cronkite never portrayed himself as somehow bigger than the events he covered.

No one who has come of age since 1981, the year Cronkite retired and a few years before the networks commenced their slow, unrelenting slide into irrelevance, can truly comprehend the social sway that the Big Three network news anchors once wielded. (Though as someone whose father and brother worked at NBC News for decades, I’d like to loyally point out that Cronkite only fully inherited the mantle of “Walter Cronkite” after The Huntley-Brinkley Report, the dominant news broadcast for most of the 1960s, went dark in 1970, when Chet Huntley retired.)

To a degree unimaginable today, the network anchors once set the national conversation. While Woodward and Bernstein became folk heroes for uncovering Watergate in Washington Post, it was Cronkite, in his role as CBS Evening News managing editor, who decided to devote 14-minutes—an eternity-plus-a-day of time, in broadcasting terms, then as well as now—to explaining the scandal and its full implications, to his TV audience. Doing so, Cronkite boosted public awareness of Watergate to a new level, and bestowed upon a flagging newspaper story new legs and significance.

Ditto for his 1968 broadcast that labeled the VietNam War unwinnable, and urged Washington to negotiate with Hanoi and the Viet Cong. Afterwards, Lyndon Johnson fretted to an aide, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.”

For the life of me I can’t imagine Barack Obama saying the same thing about either Charlie Gibson or Brian Williams.

Mark Frankel is a former Marketing Leader of Communications at Mastercard Advisors.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

We Are All Writers Now

We recently came upon a provocative piece from a professor at Oberlin that is causing quite a stir in the writing world.  Contrary to popular opinion, Trubek believes -- as her title attests -- that we are all writers now.

While the flurry of content portals may bog us down with unnecessary updates from unenlightened folk, it has also created a pressure to formulate succinct prose out of what would otherwise be unarticulated ideas.  Mindless chatter, sitcom watching, and lingering phone calls are a remnant of times past, as we now duly tap away at our keyboards with status updates, tweets, and emails.  After all, brevity is the soul of wit.

Blog Runner

Monday, July 6, 2009

Shooting for Playboy, Hanging with Kerouac, Celebrating New York: Ghosting Gotham

By D.Z. Stone

(NOTE: This is the latest in a series of articles and commentaries written by Gotham team members.)

My friend Jerry is a ghost and I am his ghostwriter, pulling together his last novel, Gotham, a saga covering fifty years of the city and people he loved. It was his last request to me.

Jerry died in August of 1999. I feel bad admitting Gotham is still not finished.

I was surprised and honored that Jerry had asked me and looked forward to going through his draft and copious notes. Gotham is pulled from his life and those he knew, and the novelist and photographer Jerry Yulsman had led an exciting life during a glamorous time with some very interesting people.

Born in Philadelphia in 1924 and kicked out of high school at sixteen, Jerry lied about his age so he could join the U.S. Army Air Corps. After the war, the former Master Sergeant settled in Manhattan, where he put his Distinguished Flying Cross in a sock drawer, shared an apartment with Wally Cox and Marlon Brando, frequented jazz joints and Greenwich Village cafes, took an iconic photo of Jack Kerouac after a night of heavy drinking, becoming a successful photographer contributing to Collier's, Look, and Playboy magazines.

By the time Jerry lost some vision in an eye and turned to serious novel writing in the 1980s, he'd also taught photography at New York's School of Visual Arts, worked as a photographer for Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus, authored several books on photography, did the photographs for two books by the comedian and social commentator Dick Gregory, published a Victorian-themed paperback erotica trilogy under a pseudonym that had been popular in Great Britain, and married his fourth (and best) wife, the Associated Press photo editor Barbara Woike.

In 1998, when Jerry was working on Gotham and diagnosed with lung cancer, he had already published two novels, the award-winning Elleander Morning and Last Liberator, a book about his experiences during WWII.

Not long after Jerry learned that his diagnosis was terminal, he asked if I would edit and complete his final novel.

The request did not come out of nowhere. Yes, Jerry had been a good friend, confidante, and general advisor, but we had also been writing partners collaborating on a screenplay and we'd often read and critique each other's work. He'd read a novel I was working on while I'd read excerpts from Gotham. Perhaps most importantly, I knew his three possible endings.

I said yes, and said yes again some months later when Jerry repeated the request from his hospital bed (even though he also added that I had the best legs in New York and I wondered how much he could still see, and he asked me to say hello to Frank Sinatra's ghost standing in the corner of his hospital room).

I knew Jerry was serious about the request when his wife Barbara later told me that my bringing Gotham to a publishing conclusion some day was one of the only things she actually remembered talking about to Jerry as he was being wheeled to the ICU on the day his oxygen level dropped to nothing. He told Barbara that he'd asked me and trusted me to do it, if I were willing.

In the first years after Jerry's death, I was consumed by another project, the life story of two Holocaust survivors. Plus, I knew I didn't have all of Jerry's material on my computer. All I had were the chapters he had emailed me and the chats he had asked me to save when we discussed the book.

Jerry wrote in Wordstar, and neither his wife or I knew how to operate his ancient computer. We couldn't read or print out any of the text. Then in 2003, Barbara met a computer wiz who could untangle Jerry's old hard drive and pull Gotham off of it.

It was almost a thousand pages.

I was excited to get the disc with all the material. Then after I opened it I remember thinking that if Jerry weren't already dead I'd probably want to kill him.

He'd saved every version of every chapter he'd ever written, and it became clear that toward the end he was editing and re-editing and messing up more than he was fixing. It was a mishmash. Or was it? Sometimes I wasn't sure which version of a chapter was better.

Then there were Jerry's notes. I'd be reading along a smoothly written section when I'd suddenly come across a note that shook up the entire running narrative, like the one that said that Hypo would be developed and integrated. What? Jerry wants Hypo, a character drawn from the real-life photographer Weegee, threaded throughout the book? Did we really need more Hypo? My first inclination was to ignore notes like these, but I knew I couldn't if I were to do Gotham justice. I had to at least think about it.

So I did some reading up on Weegee and gave some serious thought to where I should insert the Hypo material. I haven't decided where and when I'd use more Hypo, but I did enjoy reading and learning about Weegee, a lot.

I also chose not to ignore the emails and many chats Jerry had asked me to save. Here's one from June 2, 1998.

ELEANDER: I have a new character for Gotham
ELEANDER: You wont believe this guy but
ELEANDER: My friend Earl can vouch
DZStone: tell...

He explained that the character was based on a man named Jerry Intrator. Jerry had met Intrator through his friend Earl. Intrator lived on 45th Street just east of Sixth Avenue over a movie art house.

ELEANDER: Intrator was a "hondler"
ELEANDER: Escaped from Germany during WW2
ELEANDER: as a teenager walked to Spain!!
ELEANDER: mother died in Auschwitz
ELEANDER: Father survived
ELEANDER: When I met Intrator--->
ELEANDER: he was exploitation film producer

In those days (1950s), Jerry said that foreign films imported to the United States went through two censors, US and NY.

ELEANDER: for instance---
ELEANDER: an "art film" would come in to NY---
ELEANDER: pass US import censorship
ELEANDER: but fail NY censorship

Then the American distributor would contact Intrator. He'd view the film and censored part and then Intrator would reshoot the censored scene.

ELEANDER: example--->
ELEANDER: Bergman's first picture
ELEANDER: had a nude bathing scene
ELEANDER: in a river or lake--- I forget
ELEANDER: Intrator reshot it on Staten Island
ELEANDER: using look alike friends
ELEANDER: (including me LOL)
DZStone: you?
ELEANDER: lots of long shots

Intrator would then match editing and film stock. That meant Customs couldn't censor that part because it was shot in the US.

ELEANDER: Times review said---
ELEANDER: Only Bergman could shoot a nude bathing scene
ELEANDER: in such good taste
ELEANDER: Intrator did a lot of that
ELEANDER: tired…could u save this chat to a file

I must confess that sifting through Jerry's manuscript draft, notes, and chats became a bit overwhelming, so much so that I had to put Gotham down and tend to my own work. Even though Jerry had a good thirty years on me, sometimes I wondered if I would have to find someone to agree to finish Gotham for me after I was dead.

Then Barbara told me she was moving to a new place with her new husband and there were some things of Jerry's she was wondering if I would like, including a papier mâché bust he had made of W.C. Fields many years ago when he was sick and stuck inside. I said yes, and took the various photos, manuscripts, and W.C. (complete with straw hat) home to haunt me.

I put W.C. on a shelf, and every so often I'd look at him and feel guilty that I wasn't so willing to work on Gotham anymore. There were also times I'd look at W.C. and get angry with Jerry for thinking so highly of my writing, telling myself that I couldn't write at all and Jerry had just been stupid insisting that I was brilliant and a much better writer than him. Or I'd get angry with him for asking me to do this—and even angrier at myself for thinking I could.

Mr. Fields, it should have been "Never work with children or animals—or dead authors."

Then a couple of years ago I pulled up some Gotham files and came across this note.

NOTE: Fifth Avenue has grown somehow brighter in the months since the war ended. Pedestrians were more spirited, the women smarter; stylish and crisp in new spring outfits. Skirts were longer, men's trousers were once again pleated and cuffed.

The red, white, blue and olive drab displays in patriotic shop windows had been replaced by colors once prisoners of war: turquoise, tangerine, mauve, periwinkle, blush. Fashions had changed. The understated woman had replaced the fleshy, big breasted kewpie doll. Leggy, apple pie Betty Grable had given way to slender elegance. The high-fashion mystic was no longer the sole property of the rich. Seventh avenue was now mass marketing it to a burgeoning new middle class. To be “new” was to be chic…The New Woman…The New Look…The New Pointed Roundness…The New You. Lord & Taylors' window featured elegant mannequins in ankle length skirts. They perched, incongruously in the orchid bearing trees of a Congo jungle.

I got lost in this note, and for the first time in a long time, I envisioned what Jerry was writing about. His note intrigued me so much that I started reading about old New York—and not simply fashion. I read about New York in the late forties and fifties and had a better idea of the BYOB parties in Greenwich Village that Jerry had written about. The jam sessions in Harlem with Dizzy Gillespie. Dolly, the hooker with a heart. The young woman from New Jersey with intellectual pretensions who joined the Communist party and was going to change the world, one dockworker at a time.

Or how Jordan Axelrod, Jerry's thinly veiled alter ego, felt when he first arrived at the old Penn Station after the war.

Jordan Axelrod had expected instant euphoria. The lack of it had left him with little but the misery of a lousy pair of Cordovan wingtips. They were too tight. He trudged up the long iron staircase from Track 29 with a hundred other guys. They carried barracks bags and cheap suitcases. It was a long staircase.

I considered Jordan Axelrod and how much of Jerry's own life is entwined in Gotham. I now have a clearer sense of what the novel reveals not only about him, but of his particular time and place, the men and women who flocked to New York after the war to make the city their own.

There's never been a carrot dangling on a stick for me here, like an advance or a guaranteed place in posterity for having piggybacked onto a brand name like the woman who finished Jane Austen's novel. What motivates me to finish Gotham is love of the material. Gotham is seeing New York the way Jerry saw it—with his camera eye and storyteller sensibility—a vision well worth sifting through a thousand pages for.

Jerry Yulsman hadn't left me with an uncompleted albatross clunker of a legacy, but a gift. I finally realized that completing Gotham wasn't a matter of trying to mimic Jerry, but, like the best editing and ghostwriting, this was a collaboration. Working on it part time, Gotham may well take a few years to pull together. That's okay. Yes, Jerry, I'm still willing. Say hi to Frank for me.

D.Z. Stone is a freelance writer who specializes in content for major corporations, financial institutions, newspapers, ad agencies, and radio broadcasters.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Global Pop: Finding Michael Jackson in Albania

By RJ Eskow

(NOTE: This is the latest in a series of articles and commentaries written by Gotham team members that we will be featuring here. This article originally ran in Huffington Post on June 26, 2009.)

Here's a small Michael Jackson story to place upon on the pile, one that illustrates the global reach and power of pop music.

Albania existed in totalitarian isolation from the rest of Europe for four decades. It broke with the Soviet Union during Kruschev's de-Stalinization reforms because its dictator, Enver Hoxha, liked Stalinism. Its only ally from that point forward was Maoist China, but even that relationship was severed after the fall of the Gang of Four and the death of Mao. It was illegal to even own a car there.

Like North Korea today, Albania was a closed country that allowed almost no foreigners in and let even fewer citizens out. Even listening to foreign media broadcasts was a crime. I arrived there in 1991 as one of the first wave of outside consultants sent there to help with reforms. People had already made improvised "cars" by welding windows onto the fronts of tractors. Saudi Arabian Wahhabi evangelists had already installed a loudspeaker and a muezzin at the local mosque, which had been unused for forty years. Although the government sent me to help with health care financing, it quickly became clear that they needed food and medical supplies far more urgently than they needed economic restructuring.

My host and translator was a warm and gracious physician who had learned his English by covertly listening to the BBC. He had been turned in once by a neighbor who heard the sound of English-language radio, and had spent a terrified day at secret police headquarters before being set free with a warning. The day I left for home I asked him what I could send him as a gift.

"Connie Francis records," he said. (Connie Francis, for those of you who don't remember, was a star from the pre-Beatles era whose big hits were "Lipstick On Your Collar" and "Where the Boys Are." )

Pop music's traces were faintly discernible elsewhere in the garrison country, too. When we walked into Tirana's only 'restaurant' - a barely-converted garage filled with card tables, folding chairs, and aid workers from everywhere in the world - Garth Brooks' voice was coming out of a boom box. And at a high-level diplomatic meeting some Albanians spoke of their country's best-known folk singer, saying that public use of English was so heavily forbidden that he had been given two years in prison for singing "Let It Be" at a folk festival.

"The last guy I heard singing it back home," I told them, "should have gotten five." They laughed - fortunately.

And when we went to see some remote medical clinics in the Sar Mountains, our car was stopped in remote villages by crowds curious to see a Westerner face-to-face. On one rock-filled road we were waved down by a gang of slightly-scary teenagers with dirty faces and rocks in their hands. When they saw me, the tallest boy -- evidently the leader -- reached into his pocket, pulled out a single glove, and put it on. He tossed back the lock of hair that fell across his forehead, in a gesture common to tough kids everywhere. There was a moment of silence. Then ...

"Michael Jackson!" they screamed. "Michael Jackson!" They kept talking as the doctor translated. "They want to know if you know Michael," he said. I didn't. They let us pass.

I won't claim that Michael Jackson overthrew Albanian Communism. He never met Enver Hoxha in epic battle, although that picture on the cover of the History album made it look as if he had. I was in Prague when Vaclav Havel tried to make Frank Zappa a minister in his government, but I wouldn't say pop music overthrew Communism there, either. I'll say this, though: it didn't hurt.

Was Michael Jackson the first global pop star? Crowds in India mourned the death of country crooner Jim Reeves in 1964. And it took me a while to realize that the singer on an old African record called "Chimiraja," accompanied only by a loosely tuned guitar and someone banging on a Coke bottle, was actually singing about "Jimmie Rodgers," the "Singing Brakeman" of country music.

Jimmie Rodgers died in 1933.

Popular music has always been global. But Michael Jackson became a worldwide star in the first era to have satellite communications. People didn't just hear his music. They saw him. They experienced him - or at least an aspect of him. Michael Jackson broke barriers of race, language, and nationality. His private behavior had a strong impact on some people. But his music reached billions, and it did some good in the world.

In whatever court he may yet face, even if it's only the court of public opinion, surely that counts for something.

RJ Eskow is president of Health Knowledge Systems in Los Angeles, CA.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Gotham Jokewriters in the News

Our recently launched Jokewriters division received a nice plug from our friend Ellis Henican today in his Newsday column. You can check it out here.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Now I'm Up All Night Without Getting Paid for It

By Laurie Kilmartin

This piece is the first in a series of comedic essays we will be posting on a regular basis from members of our Gotham Jokewriters group. Enjoy.

It was 8:45 PM on a Saturday night and the babysitter was not here. I had to be onstage, telling jokes at a New York City comedy club, at 9:15. I'd already left her a voicemail in my high school Spanish.

"Hola, uh, es la mama de William. Donde?"

I would be late for my spot if I didn't leave immediately. I wrapped my one-year-old son in a blanket and ran for the car. The babysitter and I communicated via I would write an email in English and convert it to Spanish. She would do the same, in reverse. I thought we were good for sabado. Damn. Merde?

I had four fifteen-minute sets that night, at three different comedy clubs. My final set ended at about one a.m. In theory, William and I could hang out in the car between spots, but while I was onstage, I'd have to hand him to somebody. I pulled up to the club at 9:12. Five or six comedians were standing out front. Some I knew, some I didn't.

My last show as a non-mom was the night before I delivered. "Hey!" I shouted, flipping on the hazard lights. "Can anyone sit with the baby? I'll pay you twenty-five bucks and I'll be back in twenty minutes." A comic named Maggie slid into the back seat.

"Thanks," I said, handing her the diaper bag. "Now, try not to kidnap him."

"You're no fun," she said. Maggie rode with us for the rest of the night, pocketing about a hundred dollars, which was not much less than me.

This wasn't supposed to be my life. I wasn't going to have kids. When I got pregnant by accident, I was forty and single. But also bored. I took a "Hey, why not?" approach to motherhood. My belly became a prop that I took on the road. We had a good time, the fetus and me. Indiana, Texas, Montreal. We flew to Alaska in my fourth month and L.A. in my eighth. My last show as a non-mom was the night before I delivered. When the baby came, I lost fifteen minutes of material.

And my lifestyle.

Comedians have the best lives. I used to stay up until four a.m. and sleep until whenever. Now, most mornings I wake up like the amnesiac from Memento. I have no idea where I am, or whose child is crying. Next to my bed is a helpful Polaroid of my son, captioned with the words: "You are his mother and his diaper needs to be changed."

William's dad is also a comedian. We took the baby on the road when he was six months old. My boyfriend would do his set, then run back to the green room, where I was waiting to pass him the swaddled baton. The emcee would kill a few minutes onstage until I arrived. It worked because there were two of us.

Now the baby is older, and there's often just one of us.

The boyfriend and I usually work alternate road weeks, but recently we each booked separate gigs during the same week. Neither of us could afford to cancel. We figured it would cost less for me to take William to Michigan than for my boyfriend to take him to North Dakota. I found a sitter online. She came to the hotel at seven p.m. I debriefed her on her mission as I saw it, which was to keep my son awake for as long as possible so I could sleep in the next morning.

"He's gonna start yawning in an hour. Don't buy into it." "He's gonna start yawning in an hour. Don't buy into it. If you cave and put him to bed, he's gonna wake up at six a.m. And that can't happen because I will be dead by Sunday. I need you to keep him talking until eleven or so."

"Like, sleep deprivation? For a two-year-old?"

From the tone of her voice, I could tell she was not completely on board.

"Of course not! That's a torture technique. Jeez. All I'm saying is, when his eyes start rolling back into his head, point out the window and yell, 'plane!' That's it. Now, if he happens to spend the next thirty minutes looking for a plane that isn't there, well, that's his choice, isn't it?"

"Uh huh."

"Five or six times over the course of the evening should do the trick. And you don't have to say 'plane' each time. 'Firetruck' works. If you really want to keep him hopping, try 'Daddy.'"

I returned to the hotel at 1 a.m. I'd done two fifty-minute shows. I was tired.

"What time did he go to bed?" I asked.

"A little before eight."

Being home is hard, in a different way. After William was born, I cut back on the road work and took a day job writing for a now-defunct website. We had health insurance and the basic bills were paid. But I was in a frustrating position as a comic.

After William was born, I cut back on the road work and took a day job writing. Sunday-Thursday spots in New York City don't pay much, or at all. But they are the best shows to try out new material. There is no pressure to kill. And new jokes get fine-tuned for the weekend shows, which do pay. That system worked great before I had a kid. Now, I had to hire a sitter for those nights. And all of a sudden I was out $10-$50 dollars every time I did a set. I went from eight to fifteen development sets a week to about two.

My growth slowed, despite the fact that I had so much more to talk about. The problem was solved for me in January, when the day job ended. Now I'm back on the road, doing long sets where I have plenty of opportunity to sneak in new stuff. The corporate benefits are gone, but so is the stagnation.

And the boyfriend and I have settled into a groove. When we're both in NYC, we perform on alternate weeknights, or one of us will do an early set, and race home so the other can make a late set. We spring for a sitter on weekends and the occasional miercoles o domingo. My schedule's not the same as it was during the non-mom days, but is anything?

Laurie Kilmartin performs on top daytime and late-night television shows, and previously served as a staff writer for Comedy Central’s Tough Crowd with Colin Quinn and CBS’s The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson. This piece originally ran on on June 18, 2009.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Was JFK's Ted Sorensen The Greatest Presidential Ghostwriter?

By Richard Korman

Peggy Noonan scripted Ronald Reagan; Louis Howe fed words to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In the annals of presidential ghostwriting, you could make the case that Ted Sorensen is the greatest ever. He penned some of the signature rhetoric of John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier and served as a key writer and advisor during Kennedy’s senate and presidential terms. Imagine helping Kennedy craft his bestselling Profiles in Courage, drafting JFK’s memorable inaugural speech and writing a critical memo to Krushchev during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The recently released paperback version of Sorensen’s memoir, Counselor: A Life Lived at the Edge of History, has much to admire and amuse, including instances where Sorensen says Kennedy’s speeches bombed and quotes from Jackie Kennedy on the ways she asked Sorensen to revise the draft of his post-assassination biography of JFK.

Partly blind from a stroke suffered several years ago, Sorensen deserves a prize just for getting this final book finished and into print. He is what he always was: a brainy public servant, a complex Midwestern liberal, a loyal member of the Kennedy family court. By his own admission he never tires of talking about JFK. His book contains several chapters on writing, including his suggestion that ghostwriters maintain a “passion for anonymity.” Although much ghostwriting these days takes place under short-term financial arrangements, such transactions never bear as much literary or political fruit as the longer relationships of trust and respect such as Sorensen shared with JFK. As my ghostwriting friend David Kohn has said, “bad chemistry produces bad books.” The opposite is also true.

Sorensen has said that JFK’s assassination cut short his career as a top public servant. Afterwards, Sorensen chose to live the rest of his life in the half-light of JFK’s unfinished term. In doing so, he almost trivializes accomplishments that would spill off the page of anyone else’s resume, such as hundreds of top writing credits, decades as an international attorney and advisor to foreign heads of state. By choosing to see himself always as JFK’s man, Sorensen’s descriptions of his non-Kennedy endeavors take on a kind of poignant irrelevance. No matter. This book’s behind-the-scene accounts will interest anyone in writing or politics.

Richard Korman is the editorial manager for

Monday, June 8, 2009

Introducing Gotham Jokewriters

New York’s premier practitioners of funny business

We at Gotham Ghostwriters are proud today to announce the launch of Gotham’s jokewriting division, New York’s only business-focused comedy writing group. GOTHAM JOKEWRITERS will offer premium, custom-tailored comedic writing and coaching for executives, politicians, and other thought leaders.

We decided to make humor writing our firm’s first dedicated practice area because, well, you asked for it. In fact, ever since Gotham Ghostwriters went into business, one of the first questions we get from the elite clientele we deal with — after we break the news that we don’t draft Batman’s speeches — is whether we know folks who write great jokes.

These business, political, and cultural leaders are out to get more than just a few laughs. They know that in today’s cutthroat competition for mindshare, true wit can be a powerful way to break through — to go beyond merely gaining attention to get traction with discriminating audiences. In particular, our clients know that humor, when done right and used well, can enlighten as well as entertain — crystallizing important issues, exposing common fallacies, and even revealing essential truths.

The problem is, most serious public speakers don’t know where to look for sophisticated comedic writing. Try finding a listing for that on Google or Craigslist. Seriously, even most top PR firms don’t know where to turn. They may know someone who knows someone who writes for a late-night talk show. But do they know how to write for you — or your audience?

GOTHAM JOKEWRITERS was formed to fill the funny gap in the knowledge marketplace. To that end, we have recruited a stable of elite comedic writers who specialize in the high art of funny smart. We have considerable experience working with serious people in serious forums and a deep understanding of how to use humor as a means to a larger end — be it making a point, making a pile of money … or just making your colleagues wet their pants.

Our team has written for just about every big name in American comedy — including Jerry Seinfeld, Jay Leno, David Letterman, Conan O’Brien, and Chris Rock. We have also helped a wide range of influential public figures in business, politics, and culture funny up and stand out — such as Bill Gates, Hillary Clinton, John McCain, Donald Trump, and Katie Couric.

Beyond writing jokes, our team will focus heavily on helping clients with their delivery. We know better than anyone, after decades of stage experience, that the key to connecting with an audience is confidence. If you trust that you have great stuff, that it’s true to your voice, and that you can deliver it comfortably, you’re 90 percent of the way home. To reach that level of confidence, you can try the traditional approach and stock up on peach schnapps. Or, if you’re smart, you’ll hire us.

We encourage you to learn more about our stable of writers and our services on our new Jokewriters page:

We’re confident you will see the value of what we do and how we can help companies and organizations like yours stand out, sink in, and enhance your brand. As we like to say, listen to us, and they’ll remember you.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Knucklerap Corner: Where a Red Hand is the Mark of an Improved Mind

By Lauren Weiner

What a humbling craft is writing. There are so many ways to do it wrong. With standards to uphold (and fun to be had) we take you to . . .

Knucklerap Corner
Where a red hand is the mark of an improved mind

“Gray Lady” Stumbles Repeatedly

New York Times, April 19, 2009. Richard W. Stevenson: “In beginning to articulate a long-term approach, the president is putting an early stamp on a debate of historic importance – and ideological underpinnings – just getting under way in the United States and around the world.”

The three-word interjection floats in strangely. Where are those ideological underpinnings supposed to be located? Under the debate? It would seem so. That would leave us with: a stamp on a debate that has underpinnings and is under way. Hmmm.

New York Times Book Review Trifecta

“These brief encounters function to communicate Sally’s belief in ‘a magical being,’ but how, or whether, such a belief informs her actions remains less certain.” Leah Hager Cohen, New York Times Book Review, April 19, 2009

“Consider that she’s got pluck enough to face down a gauntlet of drunks, a loaded pistol and a bully who beats her nearly to death, knocking out two of her teeth.” Leah Hager Cohen, New York Times Book Review, April 19, 2009

“Even minor characters have names that would render them right at home in a vintage comic strip.” Leah Hager Cohen, New York Times Book Review, April 19, 2009

Item one: “function to.” She means the encounters serve to communicate Sally’s belief. It would be correct to say that the encounters’ function is to communicate Sally’s belief. That’s wordy. Best solution: skip all that and make it, “These brief encounters communicate Sally’s belief.”

Item two: “face down a gauntlet.” No, you run a gauntlet. This conflation of idioms stems from the fact that you do face down drunks and bullies.

Item three: “would render them right at home.” This locution seems lame to the editor of Knucklerap Corner, though she admits it might not be out-and-out wrong.

# # #

Washington Post, April 7, 2009. David Ignatius: “Richard Holbrooke, the special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, and a man sometimes known for being headstrong and pushy, asks the tribal leaders sweetly, ‘What attracts people to the Taliban?’ ”

To be precise, the obnoxious behavior is the sometimes thing, not the knowing of it. Holbrooke is known for sometimes being headstrong and pushy. Granted, Mr. Ignatius might not like the ring of that. At least the syntactical error is fixed.

Washington Post, April 9, 2009. Carrie Johnson: “For Holder, who got his start as a young lawyer in the department more than three decades ago, the announcements put his stamp on a building still reeling from the dismissal this week of criminal charges against former senator Ted Stevens.”

Again with the stamps (see Mr. Stevenson, lead item). This metaphor is mixed multiply: You can’t put a stamp on a building nor can that building go “reeling.”

# # #

Dangle Alley: Where Modifiers Roam the Streets Forlornly, March 27, 2009. Mark Thompson: “Instead of lobbing missiles towards the U.S. and letting physics and gravity handle the rest, Cartwright predicted that enemy warheads will be the military equivalent of a screwball.”

Cartwright isn’t the one lobbing the missiles; the enemy is. Opening clause dangles., May 2, 2007. Geoffrey Wheatcroft: “Without quite resorting to the coarsest xenophobia or Muslim-baiting, the language he used to win 30 percent of the vote in the first round of balloting was decidedly more brutal than emollient.”

“He” should come immediately after the comma, for it was he -- not “the language he used” -- who stopped short of resorting to xenophobia or Muslim-baiting.

# # #

Oldies but Goodies

New Yorker, May 27, 2002. Malcolm Gladwell: “Yes, the middle manager does not always contribute directly to the bottom line.”

Yes, we have no bananas. Better to lead the sentence with “No, . . .” or “True, . . . ”

Weekly Standard, July 14, 2003. Joseph Epstein: “I myself have had no difficulty loving women who wanted to, and others who didn’t in the least care about, saving the whale.”

Take out the middle clause and you’re left with: “women who wanted to saving the whale.” Parallelism error. Mr. Epstein should have said he had “no difficulty loving women who wanted to, and others who didn’t in the least care to, save the whale.”

Chronicle of Higher Education, February 21, 2003. Ben Yagoda: “. . . with an eloquence and truth that is almost never intended at the time but that becomes unmistakable with the years . . .”

Eloquence and truth are two things. It should be: “are almost never intended at the time but that become unmistakable with the years.”

Weekly Standard, February 25, 2002. Lauren Weiner: “Legs Diamond, Marcus Gorman, and Billy Phelan also figure in ‘Roscoe,’ a work that magnifies this phenomena yet further.”

Should be “phenomenon.”

Got an error or infelicity to report? Send it to:

Weiner, a Gotham team member, is a speechwriter for the U.S. Secretary of Defense.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Why (and When) to Use Personal Anecdotes in Speeches

When writing a speech, personal anecdotes go far -- assuming they correspond to the topic at hand. Hal Gordon, a speechwriter who worked in the Reagan White House, as well as for General Colin Powell, shares his tips on a recent MyRaganTV post. He recommends avoiding collections of stories (often stale) and icebreakers (the audience will smell nervousness from a mile away), and instead finding stories on your own -- from a biography, history book, or (ideally) a personal anecdote.

-Blog Runner

Friday, May 1, 2009

Analyses Hold Stock Market Warnings to be Heeded

By Arthur Hoffman

(NOTE: This is the latest in a series of articles and commentaries written by Gotham team members that we will be featuring here. This article originally ran in St. Louis Business Journal on April 17, 2009.)

It seems like a very long time ago. But in October 2007, presidential candidate Sen. John McCain said he’d appoint octogenarian, former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan to lead a review of the U.S. tax system, joking that “if he’s dead, just prop him up and put some dark glasses on him, like ‘Weekend at Bernie’s.’”

McCain made that remark days before Oct. 9, 2007, when the Dow Jones Industrial Average hit its all-time record high close of 14,164.53.

In those heady days, long before the financial system began to come apart, no one questioned McCain’s adulation of Greenspan’s acumen, even dead.

Today, no politician talks about appointing Greenspan — to anything. While Greenspan has rejected the thought that he bears any responsibility for our economic meltdown, he has ruefully admitted that he made “a mistake” in believing that bankers would act in their self-interest to protect their shareholders and institutions. By way of explaining his error, he pointed to “a flaw in the model... that defines how the world works.”

This brings us to Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the author of “The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable,” published in 2007 (Random House). Taleb argues that models, like the one Greenspan trusted, are inherently unreliable and, indeed, worthless because they cannot predict the highly improbable, or black swan, event.

As a quant, or expert in quantitative finance, Taleb understands sophisticated mathematics. But Taleb has little faith in highly complex models. Indeed, he cites research by Spyros Makridakis and Michele Hibon of actual forecasts and their conclusion that “statistically sophisticated or complex methods do not necessarily provide more accurate forecasts than simpler ones.”

Taleb also describes the work of psychologist Philip Tetlock involving 300 specialists (one-fourth economists) and thousands of their predictions that showed “an expert problem: There was no difference in results whether one had a Ph.D. or an undergraduate degree.” In fact, those who had a big reputation were worse predictors than those who had none.

How can this be? Taleb speculates that our inherited instincts reflect a relatively primitive environment eons ago in which highly improbable events were limited to encounters with new predators, human enemies or abrupt weather shifts. Today’s global, intensely informational and statistically complex environment bears no practical resemblance to the primitive world in which those instincts were learned.

“Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape Our Decisions” by Dan Ariely (HarperCollins, 2008) expands on human frailties in making even simple decisions. A professor of behavioral economics at Duke University, Ariely devises experiments that prove people do not act according to the assumptions of economics. Instead of making rational decisions based on information, we succumb to a variety of irrational influences from the environment, called context effects, and make predictably irrational decisions.

Many of these influences, like the power of “free,” are well-known to retailers and advertising copywriters. Still other forces Ariely identifies — for example, how pricing affects the efficacy of placebos — are not well-understood outside the world of pharmaceuticals and medical ethics but should be. Also, Ariely’s research on honesty has profound implications, except for the extreme case such as the 30-year fleecing of friends and nonprofits by Mr. Madoff in which societal norms obviously did not influence his behavior.

If we’d read Taleb’s “The Black Swan” in 2007, would we still be mired in the stock market today? I believe the sad answer is yes.

There are many reasons found in both these thought-provoking books. One example: Anchoring, or relativity, is a classical mental mechanism in which a starting reference point, say a Dow Jones of 14,164.53, will mean dismay, or worse, when an investor expects the Oct. 9, 2007, record closing high to continue to be exceeded.

The reality is that the Dow Jones Industrial Average began in May 1896 at 40.94. So, half the index value created in more than a century has been wiped out in less than 18 months. Anchoring to the 14,164 level can lead to depression and perhaps even more irrational behavior.

Both authors write about the power of anchoring or relativity. Ariely says, “We fall in love with what we already have,” and, “We focus on what we may lose, rather than what we may gain.”

This does not bode well for short-term market performance — not to mention investors’ emotional well-being.

But the reality is that most of us stayed in the market well after its October 2007 high, at least in part because of anchoring — and the belief that past trends that demonstrated our genius would continue.

Arthur Hoffman is an executive speech writer and president of Hoffman Creative, Inc. in St. Louis.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Fighting Cancer a Win for Both Parties

By Matthew Dallek

(NOTE: This is the latest in a series of articles and commentaries written by Gotham team members that we will be featuring here. This article originally ran on Politico on April 7, 2009.)

House Republicans released their version of a budget last week, and the familiar partisan potshots began to ring out across Capitol Hill. But on one issue, at least, there is hope for bipartisan agreement. Republicans and Democrats alike should put partisanship aside to endorse a plan to double federal funding for cancer research by 2014.

Cancer research is an issue that resonates profoundly, without regard to party affiliation. It frightens, maims and kills Democrats and Republicans alike. To cite just a few members of Congress who have cancer: Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) has brain cancer, and Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) has twice survived Hodgkin’s disease. Sens. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) and Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) share the distinction of having survived prostate cancer, and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has battled melanoma.

In the House, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) has undergone seven major surgeries in the past year because she not only had breast cancer but also has the BRCA-2 gene — putting her at increased risk for developing ovarian and other cancers. Her colleagues Sue Myrick (R-N.C.) and Jim Marshall (D-Ga.) are also among the cancer survivors serving in the House.

The history of the “war on cancer” shows that this is an issue where bipartisan solutions are within elected officials’ grasp. In 1937, Franklin D. Roosevelt signed legislation that received the support of every senator to establish the National Cancer Institute. The National Cancer Institute Act not only created the first federal cancer-fighting agency but also called for better coordination of cancer research, the purchase and distribution of much-needed radium to hospitals, and an education campaign designed to raise awareness about the need for early detection.

Four decades later, Republican Richard Nixon built on FDR’s legacy when he increased the federal commitment to cancer research. He declared that America should muster the “federal will” and provide the “federal resources” that could be used to launch a “campaign against cancer.”

While FDR’s and Nixon’s efforts have not resulted in a cure for cancer, it is clear that federal support for cancer research has saved the lives of thousands of Americans through the decades.

Building on that bipartisan legacy, congressional Republicans and Democrats should agree that the time is right to step up the fight against cancer at the federal level. During last year’s presidential campaign, the politics of this issue were already beginning to move in the right direction. Republicans and Democrats expressed mutual support for funding cancer research.

Even conservative Republicans like Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, a melanoma survivor, strongly support cancer research. On the campaign trail in 2007, Brownback called cancer “the leading cause of fear in America today.” In his February address to a joint session of Congress, President Barack Obama talked about “seeking a cure for cancer in our time.” Obama’s mother died of ovarian cancer at 53, and his budget proposal includes doubling the funding for cancer research over five years.

Congressional Republicans and Democrats alike should rush to support that reasonable goal and all of the benefits that might flow from achieving it. On ideological grounds, liberal Democrats should unanimously show their support for a federal institute that conducts research, distributes grants and supports doctors whose clinical trials and laboratory research will save countless lives.

But Republicans should also be able to rally around the idea that the NCI isn’t just a Big Government bureaucracy stifling economic innovation and the private enterprise system. On the contrary, NCI distributes grants to researchers employed at private medical institutions and leading hospitals. It makes the United States more competitive on a global scale in the areas of science, medicine and cancer research. And it deepens a public-private partnership that, whatever its flaws, has led to innovation, strengthened the scientific marketplace of ideas and helped the American people live healthier lives.

A final reason for bipartisan support for cancer research is that potentially lifesaving research projects are much too dependent on the whims of private donors nowadays. At M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, one wonderful physician, Elizabeth Ann Mittendorf, relies significantly on private sources of funding to conduct clinical trials vaccinating women who have had breast cancer to lower their risk of a recurrence. (One of my friends is enrolled in this trial and is attempting to raise tens of thousands of dollars just to help keep the trial going.)

At the Johns Hopkins Sol Goldman Center for pancreatic cancer research, a team of brilliant doctors has recently mapped the pancreatic cancer genome. But they do not have as much funding as they need to conduct research that could translate their genetic discoveries into simple early detection tests for the disease and to develop better treatments for pancreatic cancer, which has a five-year survival rate of 5 percent.

This issue is a no-brainer. “A permanent 1 percent reduction in mortality from cancer has a present value to current and future generations of Americans of nearly $500 billion. If a cure were feasible, that would be worth about $50 trillion,” said Mittendorf.

Members of Congress should join together, double the federal funding of cancer research and provide themselves and their constituents with a bipartisan measure of hope that one day the “leading cause of fear in America” will be sharply reduced, if not eliminated.

Matthew Dallek writes a monthly column on history and politics for Politico, teaches at the University of California Washington Center, and is a visiting fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

Monday, April 6, 2009

And the Tweet Goes On...

Last week we put up a post asking for your thoughts on the recent phenomenon of ghost-twittering. From "lucrative" to "ludicrous!", our writers offer their final word...

"New rates! By the character, not the word!" -- Ellis Henican, Staff Columnist, Newsday

"While the concept of someone needing to know the daily details of a celebrity’s life is a bit disconcerting, I’m sure writing such “tidbits” is enjoyable." -- Rich Mintzer, former Writer, MSNBC

"Beware of ghost Twittering, your brain may become a shadow of its former self." -- Jessica Copen, Communications Consultant, UNICEF

"Very funny! That's the problem with Twitter. It's for people with zero attention spans. 140 characters doesn't even get my throat cleared." -- Doug Garr, Speechwriter

-Blog Runner

Friday, April 3, 2009

Searching for the New Mencken

By Mark Lewis

(NOTE: This is the latest in a series of articles and commentaries written by Gotham team members that we will be featuring here. This article originally ran on on April 2, 2009.)

America's wealthy elite could use a latter-day Sage of Baltimore to shield them from populist wrath.

These are hard times for elitists. On the left and on the right, populist mobs are lighting torches and passing out pitchforks. Soon they may start herding plutocrats onto tumbrels and rolling them toward Wall Street, the new home of the Place de la Revolution. Amid such dire portents, who will dare to take a stand for aristocracy?

H.L. Mencken comes to mind, at least as a model. The last time populism crested, back in the 1930s, the so-called Sage of Baltimore sided with America's oppressed patricians and poured scorn on the overweening hoi polloi. Mencken was no worshiper of Wall Street, but he instinctively sided with the few against the many. Especially when he sensed a witch hunt in the offing. "The whole history of the country has been a history of melodramatic pursuits of horrendous monsters, most of them imaginary," he wrote.

Henry Louis Mencken (1880-1956) was a newspaper pundit, literary critic, magazine editor and agent provocateur. He first rose to prominence as a Progressive Era dissenter who ridiculed the very notion of uplift as laughably naive. What ailed America, he announced, was "the lack of a body of sophisticated and civilized public opinion, independent of plutocratic or government control and superior to the infantile philosophies of the mob--a body of opinion showing the eager curiosity, the educated skepticism and the hospitality to ideas of a true aristocracy."

Mencken derided the common man for envying the rich. "He hates the plutocrats of the cities, not only because they best him in the struggle for money, but also because they spend their gains on debaucheries that are beyond him," Mencken wrote in his caustic classic Notes on Democracy (1926). "The seeds of his disaster, as I have shown, lie in his own stupidity: He can never get rid of the naive delusion--so beautifully Christian!--that happiness is something to be got by taking it away from the other fellow."

Mencken was hugely influential during the roaring '20s, when he functioned as a bipartisan scold, flaying socialists and Rotarians alike. But the Great Depression pushed the country to the left and stranded Mencken on the right. As a libertarian, he viewed the New Deal with horror. His eloquent denunciations of Franklin Roosevelt alienated many former admirers but presumably earned him the gratitude of those aristocrats who considered Roosevelt a traitor to his class.

These days, with the Wall Street bailout fueling populist rage, there is an opportunity for a new Mencken to show his mettle. But is there anyone among the current crop of right-wing pundits who can bear comparison to the Sage?

"Absolutely nobody," declares Washington Post book critic Jonathan Yardley, who edited Mencken's posthumous memoir My Life as Author and Editor.

"These people are self-important pipsqueaks," Yardley said, via e-mail. "I don't respect a single one of them, much less think that a single one of them deserves to be compared to H.L.M. I do have a measure of respect for David Brooks, whose knee doesn't seem to jerk in his sleep, but he's no Mencken and I suspect he'd be the first to say so."

Naturally, there are those on the right who would reject Yardley's assessment. "I think I am the right-wing Mencken," Ann Coulter asserted on CNN in 2006. (For good measure, she also claimed to be the right-wing Mark Twain.) R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr., editor in chief of The American Spectator, has been compared to Mencken, as have the Canadian writer Mark Steyn and humorist P.J. O'Rourke. (O'Rourke gets bonus points for being the H.L. Mencken Research Fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute.)

Meanwhile, many on the left still cherish Mencken as a humorist, an iconoclast and a masterful stylist, even as they deprecate his "survival of the fittest" philosophy. In liberal precincts, the Mencken label has been affixed to such writers as Gore Vidal, Lewis Lapham and Alexander Cockburn.

Victor Navasky, a journalism professor at Columbia University and a former editor and publisher of The Nation, illustrated the protean nature of the Sage's enduring appeal. When polled by Forbes, Navasky offered three extremely diverse nominees for the "latter-day Mencken" title: Calvin Trillin (who writes verse for The Nation), Mark Steyn (who is anathema to The Nation) and Christopher Hitchens (a former Nation mainstay who left after his support for the Iraq War alienated its liberal readership).

Hitchens, as a proud contrarian, might be tempted to interpose himself, Mencken-like, between the current populists and their well-heeled prey. "Populism, which is in the last instance always an illiberal style, may come tricked out as a folkish emancipation," he once wrote in an essay about Mencken. "That is when it most needs to be satirized."

That old saw "vox populi, vox dei"--the voice of the people is the voice of God--is "a treacherous saying that has often been used to cement alliances between the plutocracy and the mob," Hitchens wrote. "It helps, of course, in resisting the populi bit, if you are convinced that the dei part is nonsense also. Thus we have Mencken, in his heroic period, defending Eugene Debs and Robert La Follette, not because they were tribunes of the plebs but because they were individuals of integrity who stood out against the yelling crowd as well as against the oligarchy."

But neither Hitchens nor any other current pundit can truly fill Mencken's shoes, because none espouse the Sage's gleeful brand of social Darwinism, which animated almost everything he wrote. These days, anyone admitting to such mean-spirited views is relegated to marginal publications. Was Mencken's extreme elitism a pose, something he exaggerated for effect? Not according to Terry Teachout, the drama critic for the Wall Street Journal and author of The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken.

"Mencken was every bit as heartless as he made out," Teachout said, via e-mail. "Not on an individual level--he was capable of great personal kindness--but everything that he wrote in Notes on Democracy should be taken seriously as an expression of how he thought the world worked. Another way to put it is that he believed that politics existed in order to block the otherwise inevitable operation of social Darwinism. For that reason, he didn't have any serious expectation that his ideas would ever be adopted in America: He knew that elitism has no appeal in a democracy."

"It's important to keep in mind, though, that Mencken was the furthest thing from a practical political thinker," Teachout added. "He was essentially a literary artist who played with ideas. This doesn't mean that he wasn't serious about those ideas, but it would never have occurred to him to think through how they might be made to work in the real world. That wasn't what he understood to be his job--he was a critic, period."

As such, Mencken left his mark on America, even if he failed to thwart the New Deal. Truth be told, his libertarian crusade had little practical effect, other than to put a severe crimp in his popularity. But at least it boosted the aristocrats' morale as they made their way to the Trans-Lux newsreel theater to hiss Roosevelt. Today's upper-crust types may get little love from today's pundits, but they can still order themselves a copy of Notes on Democracy and let it lift their spirits. We'll give the last word to the Sage himself:

"I enjoy democracy immensely. It is incomparably idiotic, and hence incomparably amusing. Does it exalt dunderheads, cowards, trimmers, frauds, cads? Then the pain of seeing them go up is balanced and obliterated by the joy of seeing them come down. Is it inordinately wasteful, extravagant, dishonest? Then so is every other form of government: all alike are enemies to laborious and virtuous men. Is rascality at the very heart of it? Well, we have borne that rascality since 1776 and continue to survive. In the long run, it may turn out that rascality is necessary to human government and even to civilization itself--that civilization, at bottom, is nothing but a colossal swindle. I do not know: I report only that when the suckers are running well the spectacle is infinitely exhilarating."

Mark Lewis is a former Senior News Editor at

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Take Your Word for It

As you may have seen last week, the New York Times ran a front-page piece spotlighting the newest and perhaps strangest form of ghostwriting -- ghost twittering. It turns out a growing number of celebrities and public figures like Britney Spears are turning to others to craft their brief words of wisdom for the twit-o-sphere.

This practice of hiring a ghostwriter to produce such short, seemingly mindless content raises a lot of questions -- starting with why bother. We thought who better to provide some answers and shed some light on the topic than the Gotham team of ghostwriters? We've sent this article out to our crew to get their thoughts -- in 140 characters or less, naturally -- and over the next several days will we be posting their responses. We hope you find the dialogue as enlightening as Shaq's last tweet.

-Blog Runner

"And then there are those who *should* be hiring ghost twitters, such as Ms. Courtney Love" -- Jerry Weinstein, Editor-At-Large, Jack Myers Publishing

"Too busy to Twitter? Hire a ghostwriter to Gwitter." -- Laurie Kilmartin, Comedian

"Warning to would-be ghosts: Twitter can smell a phony from a million pixels away. Sell softly." -- Ben Boychuk III, former Moderator,

Monday, March 30, 2009

The Last Great Editor Remembered

By Lawrence S. Dietz

(NOTE: This is the latest in a series of articles and commentaries written by Gotham team members that we will be featuring here. This piece was originally read at Jim Bellow's memorial service in Los Angeles, and later quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle.)

I met Jim Bellows when he moved to the L.A. Times after the N.Y. Herald Tribune collapsed. Tom Wolfe had befriended me and gotten me writing for New York, the Sunday supplement to the Tribune.

Jim asked me to meet him at the Times; we’d go out for lunch from there, but we wouldn’t drive: we’d walk over to a nearby place, which turned out to be the dining room of the once splendid but by the 60s down-at-the heel, Alexandria Hotel.

It was drizzling, and to his surprise Jim slid on the sidewalk. I told him that L.A. sidewalks weren’t as gritty as New York’s – they weren’t constructed with inclement weather in mind. He filed that one away.

He filed a lot away. He was a sponge for information about Los Angeles, unlike subsequent editors from New York who came to the Los Angeles Times with the same air of pious certitude exhibited by missionaries going to Africa in the 19th Century to bring enlightenment to the savages. Of course, those editors were from the New York Times.

At the L.A. Times, Jim oversaw the “back” of the paper – the features and the Sunday magazine, West, the sections that “real” newspapermen sneer at as “soft.”

The guy who’d really made the careers of Tom Wolfe, Jimmy Breslin and so many others was clearly open and accessible to ideas. I was barely starting as a free-lance writer, but when I suggested West, which was drab-looking, could use great design (after all, New York and the Herald Tribune were sensational to look at) Jim hired a friend of mine, the brilliant and mercurial Mike Salisbury, to be the art director. Mike made West the best-looking magazine in the country.

I went to New York to edit a new magazine, and when it folded, Jim lured me back to L.A. to write for West. Jim personally worked with a few writers – I was lucky to be one of them – whose words could keep up with Salisbury’s graphics.

West was the first thing people turned to on Sunday. It even attracted the Holy Grail, younger readers. But editors in the vast Times bureaucracy opposed Jim getting the top job; so he left and went to Washington.

After his stint editing the Washington Star, throwing darts at Ben Bradlee, he came back to L.A. and took over the Herald-Examiner, the distant #2 paper in town. With slender resources he actually challenged the behemoth Times. Finally, though, it was time for him to move on.

No more newspapers to edit? He became the managing editor of “Entertainment Tonight”, hired after the show debuted to embarrassing, accurate reviews labeling it a studio flack’s wet dream. He brought in some of us print guys, and asked that field reporters ask real questions. What a concept. ET flourished.

Later he developed editorial content for Prodigy, a web service ahead of its time (a combination of AOL and the Huffington Post, with a stable of terrific columnists).

After Prodigy faded, some young Stanford grads hired him to create short reviews of websites to distinguish their new search engine, Excite. Again Jim turned to journalists, and we beavered away in the days of dial-up 14.4 kbps modems and pages that took forever to load. (A colleague wrote the best Excite web review, of a bestiality chat room: “Lassie! Go home! Quick!”)

Google proved that web surfers just want links, not reviews, so Jim wrote his autobiography, all the while looking for the next opportunity. It came from UCLA’s communications staff: perhaps a great magazine written by the faculty could move the campus up the college pecking order.

Jim turned to me and we developed the idea of mixing UCLA contributors with “real” writers, many from Jim’s enormous Rolodex. We created a smart and beautifully designed dummy and a business plan. The project made its way slowly, slowly through the bureaucracy; finally it won the support of the faculty Senate, but when it got to the then-Chancellor, who had come to UCLA from Harvard, he said that while he worried about the finances, it couldn’t succeed because no one in Los Angeles reads. I was too stunned even to sputter.

Jim’s health had begun to fail, so the UCLA journal would not be a terrific last hurrah for an editor who, most of all, revered talent. Even as he slowed down, though, he talked about another project.

I’ve written mostly about work. Jon Carroll printed some of this piece in his column in the San Francisco Chronicle. Jon, who worked for Jim at West, wrote: “Sooner than most of us, Bellows understood that information was fungible, and nostalgia for a particular medium was not useful.”

But beyond work, what a sense of humor Jim had. After ET, Jim was hired by ABC-TV to develop a news show, so he went back to New York for a while. As always, he liked working with the people he had faith in, and among the crew he assembled for the project was Jack Nessel, who had been Clay Felker’s #2 at New York. Jack sent me this e-mail message after Jim died.

“I brought my Akita [about 85 pounds] to a meeting with Bellows about the TV show we were supposed to invent. He said he supposed I thought my dog was tough, but he had a dog that could take mine in seconds, and he proposed a ‘dog-off’ the following Sunday in Central Park by the bronze sled-dog statue. At the appointed time he showed up with a dog the size of a large rat, on a leash that looked like a string. The two animals barely looked at each other. Whereupon Bellows claimed he won because my dog was clearly intimidated.”

Finally, much has been made of Jim’s mumbling. I think it was a brilliant strategy for dealing with writers who parse every word an editor says to them, and never forget what they deem criticism.

You knew when Jim didn’t like something from the shake of his shoulders and his pained expression. If you were any good, you didn’t need him to tell you exactly what to do to make your piece or editing job or headline better.

And when you did fix it, there was nothing better in this world than the smile that lit up his face.

Lawrence S. Dietz is the former editorial manager for