Read I Hated to Do It: Stories of a Life Online
Authors: Donald C. Farber
Tags: #Biography & Autobiography, #Literary, #Nonfiction, #Personal Memoirs, #Retail
For me, it was comforting to know Sidney, as we had so many things in common. I also taught at The New School for many years, and there was our mutual affection for Kurt. It was comforting after Kurt’s death to be able to speak with Sidney and to reflect on the many memorable times we both enjoyed with Kurt. He was an important influence in Kurt’s life and remains a very close friend of mine. Sidney described Kurt as the Philosopher of Fun.
At one point it seemed like a good idea for Kurt to do a teaching spell at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. This was a good idea because Nanny was in the neighborhood and could look after Kurt and be the company he needed. Annie and I made a trip to visit Kurt in Northampton. We were surprised to find him less than overjoyed with Northampton and with Smith. He was in a comfortable, clean, barren apartment, but it was sterile and the company we hoped he would have was not there for him.
It had been the hope of some of the family that this would turn out to be a more appropriate place for Kurt to live. It was the college community that up till that time worked well for him, and with Nanny there and some of the nephews in the neighborhood, there were advantages. So it worked well for all except for Kurt. It didn’t work for him. When I conjectured if Kurt was happy in Northampton, I answered my own question with, “Have you ever known Kurt to be happy?” The Smith teaching ended as quickly as it started.
It was last minute and Jane, Kurt’s ex-wife, was getting married to Adam Yarmolinsky, a person known to be active in Democratic politics. Annie and I arrived at the church for what was a very quiet, traditional wedding ceremony.
It was not an easy experience. Some time before this Jane had been diagnosed with cancer and was not well. So when the minister pronounced “until death us do part,” there was a stunned silence and all reflected on the words.
Jane was married to Adam and her health was deteriorating. We thought it important that we see her before she left us and thought maybe Kurt would join us. Again, this was something Kurt could not deal with, and it was just as well, because we did go to visit Jane at her home in DC, and she was too ill to comfortably communicate with us. We suspected that Kurt had never stopped loving Jane, of course, in that way he always loved her, which was with affection but also with detachment. Consider, this was just our guess, and it should be taken for that.
We Humans Are at Times Not Human
So many of the discussions I had with Kurt on the telephone—which telephone calls, as I said, were almost daily, and many times on some days—started or ended with what was happening in the country and in the world. Kurt was in agreement with me politically, socially, and culturally, but darn it, sometimes he would take the extreme point of view not only to advance his point of view but also because he believed that to some problems, there really was no solution that would be acceptable to civilized, intelligent people.
When genocide was happening in Rwanda in 1994, of course, a telephone call could not avoid a reference to that. Now, Kurt knew that what was happening was beyond belief and abhorred it, but to make the point he would come up with the idea to just help them kill them all, then we wouldn’t have the problem. That would solve things once and for all. That was Kurt saying, the problem is beyond solution because we humans are at times not human. He would express an extreme point of view to illustrate the inhumanity of the problem and the sorry state of humanity.
So what do I say to this kind of discussion? He used this kind of reasoning often, just to illustrate the futility of trying to live in a world populated by uncivilized people who could learn civility from the animals. It took me a while, but I finally learned how to deal with this kind of nonsense, which made sense if you knew what Kurt was trying to get at. So my response in this instance would go like this, “Hey, Kurt, why stop with the Rwandans? After we murder a mess of them, we can keep going and kill a whole bunch of Turks, or maybe we should concentrate on getting rid of all of the Albanians.” And Kurt would say, “Don, you are getting smart, now you’re talking.”
We often spoke of our early years growing up in the Midwest. Kurt was proud of Indianapolis and of the state of Indiana. I certainly could not easily defend Nebraska politically, except for an errant exception to the hard-nosed Republican point of view, like Senator Norris. Unfortunately, William Jennings Bryan was better known throughout the world, and the only literary lights well-known were Willa Cather and lesser-known author of
, Mari Sandoz.
Our telephone conversations were this kind of banter back and forth after the business information was out of the way, and that never took more than a few moments.
In addition to the Sermon on the Mount, I know that Kurt’s favorite quote was what Eugene Debs, also from Indiana, said: “…that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”
Another person that Kurt made certain I was aware of the fact that he was from Indiana was Birch Evans Bayh Jr. He was a former United States senator from Indiana who served from 1963 to 1981. He is the only non–Founding Father to author two amendments to the US Constitution and was a candidate for the Democratic nomination for president in 1976. He was the father of former Indiana governor and former US senator Evan Bayh. All I could counter with, after I exhausted the fact that Marlon Brando, Henry Fonda, Montgomery Clift, Nick Nolte, Fred Astaire, Dick Cavett, and Sandy Dennis were all from Nebraska, was to offer the story of two of my very close friends who may have made contributions that changed the world.
The Tale of Two Presidential Advisors
You might as well know now where this is going. The person who wrote the speeches and advised our president Jack Kennedy was a very close friend. And not only that, but the person who advised and wrote laws for our president Lyndon B. Johnson was also a very close friend.
I grew up with the Sorensen kids, Ted, Bob, and Philip, although I was close only with Ted and Bob in junior high and high school in Lincoln, Nebraska. Ted and I were on the high school debate team, led by our esteemed teacher, Mr. Kvasnicka.
We knew Ted Sorensen from high school, and Annie and I knew him well when I was going to law school. We attended Ted’s first wedding, a Quaker wedding, which was interesting. What was even more interesting was the fact that Ted and I decided to enter the university intramural tennis championship, and as luck would have it, Ted and I won the championship. It was really an easy win for us because no one else showed up that day to oppose us.
But what was even more interesting than that was Ted’s engagement party to Camilla Palmer, which was held in his brother Bob’s home. It was a gala affair at lunchtime with some punch, soft drinks, and some finger food. After the usual bantering back and forth, it was decided that everyone there should make a little toast, a tribute to Camilla and Ted, and it would be recorded. In those days there were tape recorders and wire recorders that were in vogue. Unfortunately, this day the speeches were being recorded on a wire recorder.
After about ten speeches, before the eleventh person was starting to talk, the recorder was being rewound and good friend Joe Ishikawa, the then curator of the art museum on the campus of the University in Lincoln, as a playful gesture pulled the electric plug from the wall. The rewinding stopped immediately and wire went sailing all over the room. It was an impossibility to preserve the speeches and it was one big mess with the wire entangling some of the persons close to the recorder. The engagement party was memorable, the tennis tournament was memorable, but more memorable were the wonderful speeches Ted would later write for President Kennedy.
Ted has been asked if he was responsible for the remark “Don’t ask what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Being a smart, sensitive person, he did not want to very specifically take the credit from the president for the thought, but his answer, as worded, left no doubt that it came from him. There was no doubt that in addition to those speeches, Ted advised the president, especially on the Cuban Missile Crisis, which contributed to saving the world from disaster by avoiding a nuclear war.
I was in my father’s little supermarket one day when a chubby little man walked in and yelled, “Charlie,” and my dad, Charlie, yelled, “Herman.” Herman White came to the place to tell my dad that his son Lee was coming to the University of Nebraska, and Charlie advised him that I was also. Lee and I, in spite of being fraternity brothers, became close friends.
Lee needed a couple more hours to graduate from engineering school, and I casually suggested that he should go to law school. He did and became editor of the law journal. After graduation and our army service in World War II, Lee ended up at the Tennessee Valley Authority until Ted, who was working for Senator Kennedy at the time, lured him to Washington. After a while, Lee, who had
(the Yiddish word for “ants in his pants”), could not stand still, so he went back to the TVA.
Then Kennedy became President and Ted one more time convinced Lee to join him, working for President Kennedy in the legal department at the White House. Ted and Lee were working away in the White House, and then the fateful event occurred on November 22, 1963, in Dallas, Texas: our handsome, admired president was shot. Ted could not continue working for the new president, and Lee became the legal advisor and confidant of President Lyndon B. Johnson.
Ted Sorensen, my friend from Nebraska, helped President Kennedy make some world-changing decisions. Lee C. White, my friend from Nebraska, helped President Johnson make some world-changing decisions.
I spoke earlier of Kurt’s favorite quotes of the Sermon on the Mount and Eugene Debs’s famous remarks. Of course, I had to make sure that Kurt heard my favorite quote. My favorite quote was spoken by Richard Bennett, father of Joan Bennett, whom I mentioned earlier. Richard Bennett, who was born in 1870, was an American actor who became a stage and silent screen matinee idol over the early decades of the twentieth century.
It happened on the opening night of Paul Muni’s performance on Broadway in 1939 in
, a play written in blank verse by Maxwell Anderson. By this time Richard Bennett was getting on in age, getting close to seventy, and he went backstage after the performance, as was the custom, to congratulate Muni. He introduced himself to Muni and said, “I am Richard Bennett, do you know who I am?” Muni, a very humble man, replied, “Of course I know who you are, you are America’s greatest actor.” Bennett replied, “I was until tonight.” This is not only my favorite theatre story, but it moves me beyond belief.
We celebrated many of Kurt’s birthdays with him. The best ones were the ones with a dinner with a small group of friends. The big surprise party birthday dinners for him on his seventieth and seventy-fifth were filled with famous people but meant little to us. They were crowded with persons wanting to fawn over Kurt. Some funny speeches were made but too many boring ones. When Wynton Marsalis played “Happy Birthday” to Kurt at one of the parties, yeah, that was nice, but it was so impersonal.
Kurt Sides with the Monkeys
I already told you that I spoke to Kurt all the time. Much was to tell him what was with the biz and much was just to exchange pleasantries. Many times we ended up talking about the people who control politics, and he often defended his humanitarianism directly or indirectly. So when he had dinner in East Hampton at the home of a very wealthy man where he sat next to Joe Heller, I heard the story from him before it was later published in a magazine.
The story is that Kurt, at the dinner, says to his friend Joe, “How do you feel knowing that our host at this dinner made more money during the last hour than you will make on the entire publication of
?” Joe responded that he had something that their host did not have. When Kurt inquired what that was, Joe said simply, “I know when I have enough.”
I searched for a response and came up with a story to confirm the awful habits of many humans and told Kurt the story about the monkeys who went to God to complain. The monkeys went to heaven, found God, and said they had a serious complaint. The monkeys said that people down on earth were claiming that they descended from the monkey and this outrage had to stop. The monkeys said they never fought any wars, they never raised any rebellious young, they never had any plagues, they never passed on any terrible communicable diseases, and Man must stop saying these terrible things about the monkeys.
As you might have guessed, Kurt sided with the monkeys, and this gave him the opportunity to go after me since it raised the question of Darwin and the Scopes trial in 1925 in the state of Tennessee, when Scopes was accused of violating Tennessee’s Butler Act, which made it unlawful to teach human evolution in any state-funded school. William Jennings Bryan, three-time presidential candidate, argued for the prosecution, while Clarence Darrow, the famed defense attorney, represented Scopes. Even though Bryan won, Kurt knew, and knew that I knew, that the theory of evolution and Darwin were here to stay and the other religious belief propounded by Bryan was sheer nonsense. This did give Kurt an opportunity, however, to take a moral position by pointing out to me something I knew and that Kurt knew I knew, and that was that William Jennings Bryan was a Nebraska hero.
It was on another phone conversation that one more time Kurt and I got into the religious thing. It’s not that we had any basic disagreement, but Kurt used his talks with me to challenge my thinking in a friendly manner. He found out early that he could not get me to defend some of the indefensible dietary laws of Judaism. So when he would give me the humanitarian stuff, I would point out to him that my Judaism made little or no demands of me, and that like his humanitarianism, my idea of Judaism was to lead a decent life and to be kind, considerate, generous, and to do unto others as I would have them do unto me.