Saturday, November 17, 2012

The ‘Jewish Caruso’ Died 70 Years Ago… A conductor once said to Joseph Schmidt, the singer, “It’s too bad that you’re not small.” “But I AM small,” replied Schmidt, very much surprised. He was less than 5 feet tall. “No,” said the conductor. “You are VERY small.” His height was one of Schmidt’s problems. It explains why he rarely appeared in operas. Mimi, Violetta, and Lucia would tower over a 4-foot-11 inch tenor. (One reason Joan Sutherland sang so often with Luciano Pavarotti was that he was tall for a tenor, so she wasn’t all that much taller.) So Schmidt sang mostly in concerts and on the radio, although he did make a few movies — where his short height could be concealed. A few films are still available, including the popular “My Song Goes Round the World” (1934), about the problems of a short opera singer. Another problem Schmidt had was, of course, given the widespread anti-Semitism in the 1930s and 1940s, his Jewishness. He had even been a cantor, in Czernowitz (now Chernovtsy, in Ukraine), and remained active as a cantor all of his life. He and Hermann Jadlowker may be the two most famous tenors who benefited from cantorial training before becoming secular singers. (Two famous American tenors with cantorial backgrounds were Jan Peerce [Jacob Pincus Perelmuth] and Richard Tucker [Reuben Ticker], who were brothers-in-law. A contemporary tenor, Neil Shicoff, sang in a synagogue as a child.) Offsetting these problems was Schmidt’s wonderful voice. Sweet, expressive, seemingly effortless, and — for his size — powerful. He was called the Jewish Caruso. And the Pocket Caruso. He was born in Romania on March 4, 1904. His father was a tenant farmer, not interested in the arts; his mother encouraged her son’s interest in singing. He gave his first concert at age 20. When he was 24, an uncle took him to Berlin, where after an audition (he sang an aria from “Il Trovatore”) he was promptly offered radio and recording contracts. He became, someone has said, Berlin’s talk of the town. He also sang in Vienna, and critics in both Vienna and Berlin fell all over themselves in praising his voice. One wrote, “Whether he sings Mozart or Puccini, Tchaikovsky or Verdi, everything sounds as if it had been rendered in glowing colors.” A friend of his was the Jewish tenor Richard Tauber, who spent much of his life fleeing the Nazis. He tried to help Schmidt and even conducted concerts at which Schmidt sang. Tauber eventually escaped Europe for England. When Nazi Germany (in 1934) and Austria (1938) banned Jewish musicians, Schmidt went to sing in the Netherlands and Belgium, where he was very popular. He toured the United States in 1936, singing at Carnegie Hall with such famous sopranos as Grace Moore and Maria Jeritza. Later he returned to the Ukraine to visit his mother, whose husband had recently died. He then fled the Nazis via Belgium, then to Switzerland, where he landed in an internment camp as an illegal immigrant. He complained of feeling ill after digging ditches; the guards accused him of malingering. Shortly after being released, he died of a heart attack. He died on Nov. 16, 1942, at age 38, exactly 70 years ago. He is buried in a grave near Zurich. Schmidt has been described as “affable,” but not much is known about him. The distinguished English music critic, J.B. Steane, wrote about Schmidt: “His many recordings preserve a fine voice, well produced except for a certain nasal quality, with an exceptional upper range and a distinctive personality.” Mario Lanza, the famous American tenor of the 1950s and 1960s, is said to have admired Schmidt’s voice. Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi minister of propaganda, liked Schmidt’s singing so much that, it’s been reported, he considered making him an “honorary Aryan.” (Tauber tried to become one, without success.) In 2004, Germany issued a postage stamp to commemorate Schmidt’s 100th birthday. Had Schmidt lived and returned to the United States, he might have joined the Metropolitan Opera, which — because the war had kept many European artists away — was in need of fine singers. There’s a half-hour film about him, available on videocassette from for $1.83 to $8.99, plus $2.98 shipping. It’s called “Bel Canto 2: The Tenors of the 78 Era.” To appreciate the beauty, expressiveness, and power of his voice, readers can listen to these recordings on Una furtiva lagrima, L’elisir d’amore from La boheme, with Grace Moore Last Rose of Summer (Medley) There are a few wonderful CDs, too, including one from EMI.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Written for my memoir-writing class… A Critic & a Cheerleader Miss Smith was a giantess. A giant of a woman. I didn’t know women could grow so tall. And she was my kindergarden teacher. Once I was playing with my classmates – and I scared them. I had a bad burn on my arm, and they were frightened when they saw it. I noticed Miss Smith staring at me. Open-mouthed. She must have thought that I had frightened the kids deliberately. It happened again—my shirt climbed up and there was the ugly burn. And Miss Smith staring at me severely. At the end of the kindergarden term, Miss Smith took me aside and said she wanted me to remain in kindergarden. To help the new students. To continue cleaning the blackboard (that had been my job). I went home and told my mother I was remaining in kindergarden for another term, to help the new students. My mother introduced a new term into my vocabulary: left back. And she confirmed my suspicion that I was not being honored. Kids can’t explain – and say: Miss Smith had misinterpreted things. I had NOT deliberately frightened the other kids. Years later, a little girl got hurt on a backyard swing. She came crying to her mother. What happened? The mother asked. I had seen the accident, and I explained. She had pushed the swing, run under it, and it came back and hit her on the back of the head. The little girl nodded her head approvingly and pointed to me. Meaning: He’s right. A damn smart kid, but she couldn’t have explained it. Neither could I have explained to Miss Smith. +++ Mrs. Horowitz was my first grade teacher. She liked me. And I was a good sudent. I got a lot of gold stars. She called me the Number Boy. Because I could count to 100 – my mother had taught me. I had learned to spell MAN. I had just learned how to spell SOUP. So I wrote on a piece of paper: I AM SOUPERMAN. Miss Horowitz came over to see what I had written, and seemed to be amused. She showed it to the other teachers. They, too, seemed to be amused…. I didn’t know why. I loved reading and I was good at it. I AM A GINGERBREAD BOY. I AM. I AM. I CAN RUN. I CAN. I CAN…. I still remember my first book… I once had a dispute with another kid, and to justify my behavior, I lied. I had thrown his cap away – and claimed that I had slipped on it, which was why it landed up so far away. A blatant, embarrassing lie. Miss Horowitz bought it. Actually, she felt sorry for me — and pretended to believe the obvious lie. She was very smart. She was known throughout New Jersey, I learned later. She had written children’s books. At the end of the term, Miss Horowitz told Louanne Battaglia and me that we were skipping. We were bypassing the 2A and going straight to the 2B. Miss Horowitz asked my mother to come to school. Was I in trouble again? No, my mother said, approvingly, I was skipping. Miss Horowitz asked the kindergarden teachers to come in and see the two children who were skipping. Miss Smith seemed stupefied. She stared at me and stared at me and stared at me. It took me a long time to figure out why.
Written for a memoir-writing class… A Few Happy Memories My high school physics class. Lucille Lauro was there. Cute as a kitten, sweet as milk chocolate, utterly irresistible. Our teacher: pleasant, elderly Mr. Sotong. The physics book asked: True or false? The speed of sound in air is the fastest speed known to man. Lucille Lauro said true. I shook my head and said No. Mr. Sotong looked at me, puzzled. Lucille Lauro also looked at me, puzzled. “The speed of light IN A VACUUM is the fastest speed known to man,” I said confidently. Mr. Sotong thought a moment. Then he slowly nodded his head yes. Lucille Lauro looked at me, frank admiration in her eyes. But…she wound up marrying a high school football player. +++ Duplicate bridge You don’t have to understand contract bridge to understand what I’m going to say. I was playing duplicate bridge, against a new partner and new opponents, a husband and wife. My partner bid spades, but our opponents got the contract – in clubs, I think. I started the game by leading one of my three hearts. Away from my king, which is considered a really terrible no-no. My partner scowled—because I hadn’t led a spade, which he had bid. The declarer thought my partner had the king and was angry that he was being finessed. The declarer then confidently and smugly led another low heart from the board to finesse my partner, and happily gathered in the trick. He grabbed the cards so quickly, I couldn’t see them. “Could I see that trick?” I asked innocently and sweetly. Sometimes I’m a real bastard. The declarer scowled. I was being persnickety, he thought, asking to see a trick he had easily won. And then…it dawned on him. He was thunderstruck. It was as if a powerful and powerful electrical current had zapped through his body. He realized the worst: I had the king!!! He was going down!!! I cooly produced the king and scooped up the trick and led a spade to my now deliriously happy partner. The declarer, I noticed, instantly fell into a deep state of depression. I still feel a thrill remembering that.
Written for a memoir-writing class… TURNING POINT in my life… I went to a small high school in New Jersey, so small that there were only 90 students in my graduating class. A girl who attended the Bronx High School of Science transferred to my school. She had ranked 300 out of 600 at Bronx Science. At my school, Memorial, she came in first. Valedictorian. That’s how much behind Bronx Science my own high school was. When I entered Columbia College, I was determined to prove that I was smart. That would raise my very low self-esteem. So I studied like mad. I memorized and memorized. I didn’t even live on campus; I commuted from New Jersey. Those students from Bronx High, Stuyvesent, Erasmus, and other famous New York schools were so different from me! I once read a French novel in which a young student marveled that some of her clever fellow students actually had “opinions”! I knew what she meant. When I read Aristotle, I memorized his laws. (Remember that name: Aristotle.)The other students talked about the significance of those laws. My God, they actually THOUGHT about things. I had won a chemistry award in high school. So I thought I would be skipped to an advanced chemistry class. I took a Columbia chemistry test. Hard as hell. Some Bronx Sci students were skipped to an advanced class; I wasn’t. Working my head off, I got adequate grades. OK, good grades. B plus. Naturally, I took easy courses. Which, for me, were languages. German, French. One class, for advanced students in ancient literature, I wasn’t doing well in. I think I got a C+ on one paper. So I dropped the course. And then there was my French class. It was the day before the all-important mid-term examination. So I finally did something clever. We had finished going over half the French textbook. The night before the test, I read through the entire French textbook. I memorized all of the new words. Two weeks later, the results of the French test came out. A national test. I had gotten an A plus. Thanks to that amazing A plus, my average went from B plus to A. I made the dean’s list. I was tickled pink. Of course, the only reason I got an A average was that I had studied so hard. It didn’t prove that I was smart…. So even my wonderful grades didn’t raise my low self-esteem. Now, when I was a junior I happened to meet a Columbia freshman who came from my very own high school. He was bemoaning how all those New York City students were so much better informed than he was. And he felt that he couldn’t compete with them—he was so far behind. “You know,” he said, in an unforgettable statement, that “when I came to Columbia, I had never even heard of ARIStotle!” I didn’t correct his pronunciation. I just said, reassuringly, “You’ll catch up. I did.” OK, how did this change my life? Well, I was disgusted to realize that even good grades in college didn’t persuade me that I wasn’t a complete jerk. But I thought about it. And it finally dawned on me that I didn’t particularly LIKE smart, quick-witted, well-informed people, bursting with confidence. Many of them were cynical, arrogant, competitive & nasty. (Oh, and brutish and short.) I liked warm, down-to-earth, friendly people. Conscientious people. Whether they were smart or not. And when THAT dawned on me, it also dawned on me…that I was smart enough.
For people my age… Do you remember Jimmy Cannon’s wonderful occasional column in the NYPost? “Nobody asked me but…”? Richard Watts Jr. wrote an occasional similar amusing column. Remember the NYPost sportswriter who wrote an article in mock-Indian whenever that great pitcher, Allie Reynolds, won another game for the Yankees? (DiMaggio had been asked what pitcher the Yanks should buy. His answer: Reynolds.) Remember listening to Baby Snooks on the radio? The great Fanny Brice. I tnink Frank Morgan (the Wizard himself) was also on that program. What was the program’s name? Remember listening to the Lone Ranger on the radio…and waiting to hear the thrilling Lone Ranger overture? (The William Tell overture.) Toscanini loved to listen, too. (He also liked watching wrestling bouts.) Remember the rumors that Uncle Don had said, “That should hold the little bastards” on the radio when he thought his program had ended? (Probably not true. Do you think that that fact-checking site would write about that?) How about ads for that movie with Jane (Boom Boom) Russell? The Outlaw. (Never saw it.) Do you remember the movie lines several blocks long when you went to see Bambi? Pride of the Yankees? Do you remember movie houses offering THREE movies? (My brother Roger and I saw three pleasant Westerns at the Alvin Theatre in North Bergen, then decided to see them again. But we finally got tired and left…and met our mother on our way home. She’d gotten worried. Do you remember all the movie theaters of our youth? It’s fun to recall all their names. The Temple, the Colony, the Rivoli and Rialto… Do you remember when Cardinals pitcher Murray Dickson no-hit the Yankees in an exhibition game? I was so unhappy, I had to get out of my house. Remember coal bins? We lost a cat in a coal bin. Didn’t find the body until the winter was over and all the coal had been burned…

Monday, November 05, 2012

Inside Mitt Romney's Head Someday someone will try to explain Mitt Romney. What has made him the person that he is? Someone so eager to win the Presidency that he will say almost anything — even if it contradicts whatever else he has been saying? Someone so contemptuous of public opinon that he doesn’t mind that many respected people consider him a liar? Someone who identifies so strongly with the 1% and disdains the 99%--and the 47%? What follows is pure speculation. *** Like George W. Bush, he is competing with his own father. The senior Bush didn’t topple the leader of Iraq, Sadaam Hussein; George W. wanted to succeed where his own father didn’t. Mitt’s father, George, also coveted the Presidency. But after visiting Vietnam and claiming that he had been “brainwashed” by the military there, his prospects for election sank. (The older Romney blamed his failure on Rockefeller’s entering the race.) Mitt is determined to succeed where his father didn’t. He may feel the sting of defeat from his own father’s frustration. So, to win this election, there isn’t much he isn’t willing to do. *** His Mormon religion may have exerted an influence. As a religion, it is a bit more absurd than other religions. Joseph Smith’s finding special tablets and being able to translate them... Mormons being able to have multiple wives, like Brigham Young... a Mormon leader named Moroni (it was lucky the religion didn’t wind up called Moronism). Was it Mark Twain who said that most of the pretty girls in Utah marry Young? Possibly Mitt concluded, as an early age, that all this was garbage—and concluded that most people will believe anything. And since Mormonisn made little sense, the idea of an afterlife, where you might be punished for your sins, was nonsensical. So, all that mattered was success, and power, is this our life…. All this is speculation. But Mitt Romney does need explaining. His father, George, was a man of unquestionable integrity. And I think we need to explain why the apple fell so far from the tree.

Sunday, November 04, 2012

Responding to an Idiot Lawyer Named Scott H. Greenfield

Responding to an Idiot Lawyer Named Scott H. Greenfield Is Scott H. Greenfield, a lawyer in NYC, an idiot or an imbecile? Hard to decide. He wrote an article attacking me—-for, among other things, writing that people who need lawyers should (other things being equal) consult lawyers working in a group. One reason I gave was: These lawyers are likely to have other lawyers looking over their shoulders. There are, in fact, more complaints against individual lawyers (proportionately) than against lawyers in groups. Doctors in groups, similarly, are less likely to be guilty of moral infractions. Now, this idiot Greenfield can’t even write. In his first sentence, he refers to “someone” as “they.” In his second sentence he writes about “reglazing a broken window.” Why the hell would anyone reglaze a BROKEN window? You would reglaze a NEW window. Now, I had written about young man who needed a lawyer to pay the medical bills he incurred at a hospital when a restaurant gave him a hidden bay leaf—-and who had not hired one. (My article resposibly urged middle-class people to hire lawyers when they need one.) What was the idiot Greenfield’s objection? No lawyer would take such a trivial case! With only several hundred dollars involved! So…there are no decent lawyers anywhere? Who would want to see simple justice done? Who would want to help someone in need? Perhaps this criminal lawyer Greenfield only accepts cases he is sure to win and where he will get an enormous fee. There are, alas, such lawyers. But there are also decent, ethical lawyers. Who are not idiots.