Friday, April 07, 2006

When people dressed for dinner, and to be on TV

The picture above is from the original version of the TV game show What’s My Line? Reruns of the show air in the wee-hours of the morning on the Game Show Network (GSN) so, of course, I watch it all the time.

While I was doing so this morning, it occurred to me that two of the people on the program had had a profound effect on the American Psyche. I will get to them last.

Standing on the left is Oscar Levant. He is not much remembered today except by those of us who love old black and white motion picture comedies. Levant was really more a man of our time than his own. He was an acclaimed pianist and composer, an author, a comedian and an actor. While alive, he was a star of radio, TV, and movies. He once said "The only difference between the Democrats and the Republicans is that the Democrats allow the poor to be corrupt, too."

A famous hypochondriac, Levant’s epitaph supposedly reads: "I told them I was ill." (It doesn’t, but it’s a great line.)
Regular readers of It’s Jim will recognize immediately why I am so fond of Levant, and have included him in this post even though he has nothing to do with it. He just happened to be the guest panelist on What’s My Line the day the photo above was taken.

Seated left is Arlene Francis, who was a regular on What’s My Line? and on other games shows produced by Mark Goodson and Bill Todman. She was a major star on Broadway and is a star in one of my favorite movies -- One, Two, Three – a comedy starring James Cagney as Coca-Cola's manager in West Berlin after World War II. If there is such a thing as a “Cold-War Joke,” this movie includes every one of them. The movie also has one of the cleverest movie endings of all time!

Standing on the right is John Daly, who was the original host of What’s My Line? Before becoming a TV personality, Daly was a newsman. It was he who first informed a national radio audience of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and the first to announce the death of President Franklin Roosevelt. He was married to Chief Justice Earl Warren’s daughter, and narrated the first episode of Green Acres in a mock documentary style.

That leaves us with the two people that this post is actually about.

Standing middle is Dorothy Kilgallen, who was the Barbara Walters of her day, only on radio and in newspapers. She was also the first major news person to publicly criticize the Warren Commission Report on the assassination of President Kennedy. Famous for her in-depth coverage of high-profile trials, she not only attended the trial of Jack Ruby in Dallas but was the only reporter granted a private interview with Ruby. When she returned to New York, she told friends and associates that she had discovered something that was going to break the whole JFK assassination wide open. She had her notes with her for her last radio broadcast but the show’s producer pleaded with her not to bring up the assassination on that evening’s show. She was found dead in her apartment a few days later. Her death moved the Kennedy assassination theories from whispers and a few fringe investigators to being a serious, major, on-going inquiry. (Not getting the jest of this, imagine Barbara Walters being found dead and her notes missing shortly after a private interview with I. Lewis Libby.)

Seated right is Bennett Cerf, a co-founder of Random House. Among the authors he published were William Faulkner, John O'Hara, Eugene O'Neill, James Michener, Truman Capote, and Ayn Rand. In 1960, Cerf bet his friend Dr. Seuss $50 that he could not write an entire book using only fifty words. Seuss wrote and Random House published Green Eggs and Ham.

In 1934, Cerf arranged for the importation into the U.S. of James Joyce's masterpiece Ulysses, F-word and all. Excerpts from the novel had already been declared obscene when published in a magazine because of sexual content. But, the F-word, in print, in black and white, was just way over the line! The book was seized by U.S. Customs when it arrived in New York and, I suppose, charged with a crime (the case is officially United States v. One Book Called Ulysses). The trial court and the appeal court both essentially said “It’s art, leave it alone.” It would be another 40 years before the Supreme Court would devise it’s three-part obscenity standard for adults, but the Ulysses ruling is considered to be one of the great blows against government censorship. Don’t care? You should. The fictional Leopold Bloom’s written stream of consciousness as he moves about Dublin is essentially what many of you do on your blogs every single day! Bennett Cerf is one of the reasons that you get to do that.

2 comments:

The Phoenix said...

They all look so dressed up and spiffy. Nowandays, the game show contestants are dressed in sweats and tube tops, much to Bob Barker's liking however.
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They were definitely among the New York social elite, the A-List, the Cafe Society -- here, if I'm wearing pants we call it "dressing for dinner" -- Barbara Walter's father owned the famous The Latin Quarter nightclub.

:P fuzzbox said...

I certainly owe a great debt to Cerf.
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not as great as I owe to Certs