Back when I was a wee lad, my parents had a series of three phonograph records that were done by Edward R. Murrow and Fred Friendly. They were all called “I Can Hear it Now” and consisted of recordings of historical events narrated by Murrow. I listened to them so often that I had them memorized. You heard the announcer broadcast the crash of the Hindenberg, King Edward ceding his throne and Churchill’s “Now is the hour ” speech.
I just about wore out the grooves on the records and the tracks were soon burned into my brain. I can still hear Clem McCarthy announcing Joe Louis’s first round massacre of Max Schmeling, and can do a perfect gravelly voiced imitation of Babe Ruth’s farewell (“You know how bad my voice sounds, but it feels just as bad.” and Lou Gehrig’s farewell speech, complete with echo.
One of the tracks on Volume 2 Â was about the McCarthy Era, and told the story of Alger Hiss and Whittaker Chambers confronting each other before the House Un-American Activities Committee. “One of these men is the greatest liar America has ever known, ” Murrow declared.
Who?” I wondered, hooked. I looked up the case in the World Book encyclopedia and read all about it. That’s when I learned that Richard Nixon was involved. In my family, Richard Nixon was kind of the equivalent of the Pharoah in terms of sheer eviltude, so when I learned that Nixon was behind Chambers’ testimony, I got my first real notion about who might have been lying.
I hail from a long line of Nixon haters. In fact, I still remember getting on line with my mother to vote in the 1960 election at Prospect Avenue Elementary School, across the street from our house. It was a long line, and I was a very fidgety five year old. The man in front of us probably took pity on my mother, and I remember he turned to me to try an engage me in conversation. “So, who are you voting for, Sonny,” he asked?
“Kennedy,” I said proudly. “We hate Nixon.”
“Shh,” my mom said. “We have a secret ballot.”
OK, I thought, but I had been under the impression that everyone hated Richard Nixon. Who knew otherwise? As it turned out, my mother was probably less concerned about our constitutional rights than she was about getting attacked. In East Meadow, the town where I grew up, Eleanor Roosevelt was banned from speaking at our high school on the grounds that she was a Communist, so was Pete Seeger ( he was one, of course, not that that should have made any difference). In East Meadow, pedophile priests had free rein, but lefty sympathizers were sent packing. Years later when I thought I’d write a book about the town, I interviewed an African-American man who had his house firebombed because he was living with a white woman. I could go on, but suffice to say the clearest picture I can paint of our town was this: we had a serial killer living on our street (Joel Rifkin), and he was probably a better human being than three quarters of the jocks I went to school with.
As usual, I’m veering off-track here, so let me steer back to the road. As I grew up and began to read newspapers, I continued to take note of the Hiss case whenever the occasional tidbit about it appeared. When I was in college, there was a story that Hiss had been one of the first people to take advantage of the recently passed Freedom of Information Act to obtain his FBI file. That intrigued me. Now, I hated my classes in college, and here I was reading this story when the proverbial lightbulb went off inside me head. I approached one of my history professors with a proposition. Instead of spending my time cutting class or daydreaming in back of the room, I suggested that I spend a semester reading all the books and newspaper/magazine coverage on the Hiss case, and then I would write a paper offering my verdict. Much to my surprise, he accepted.
About two hours into my research, it was clear to me that Hiss had been railroaded. Four hours into my research, I decided to do something about: I was going to write Hiss a letter, Â volunteering to work for him that summer reading or organizing his FBI files. Â Talk about chutzpah. It took a while to get his address. When I saw that he had filed papers to be reinstated to the Massachusetts bar, I figured that his address would be in the legal papers, so I drove to Boston in a snowstorm to see if I could find it among the documents he had filed. I was right. It was listed, so I sat down and penned him a note.
A week later, this arrived in my mailbox:
(The pages below are clickable)
Hell yes, I was interested! A few weeks later I met him in New York, but as it turned out, instead of a summer job, I wangled a deal with the history job to work for him the next January in New York City for a full semester’s credit. I stayed on after graduation. Based on the some 40,000 pages we received, we were able to prove that Â the FBI had and hid exculpatory information about Alger, so we prepared a brief to overturn the guilty verdict, and I actually wrote portions of it. Because all of the judges who handled the suit were appointed by Richard Nixon, the case went nowhere, although the brief was published as a book called “In Re Alger Hiss.” And it even had my name in it.
Eventually, I went to work as a newspaper reporter, but I never stopped following the case and did occasional research jobs for Alger over the years. He died in 1996. Three years later, his son and I established a Web site on the case. One of the articles I wrote for the site has some personal reminiscences of Alger. It can be found here (there is some repetition of this post in there). For the last five years, I’ve been writing a book one the case. I suspect it will be finished in three years Â (I’m a slow writer).
For years, my passion for the case was the subject of great teasing by my friends. If I went out on a date (which I did only occasionally), the questions the next day weren’t the usual, “Was she nice?” Â or “Was she cute?” it was rather, “How does she feel about the Hiss Case?” They knew the wrong response would doom any potential for a relationship.
Luckily for my wife, she had the right answer. Or, luckily for me.
…and the end of football season, my lovely and long-suffering wife suggested an item with a football theme. I went digging through my memorabilia and came up with this:
I figure people will know the guy in the suit, but anyone want to take a whack at the two guys in their underwear? The next post I’ll fill you in on the story.
Funny though, when I started to look for football stuff, I remembered I used to have a football signed by the then Super Bowl champs, the 1970 Kansas City Chiefs. Alas, I also remembered I sold it years ago to pay the rent on my apartment. Now that had an interesting back story. In the late 1970s, my Dad represented the estate of some guy known in New York City as the “porn king.” Now this was when VHS and Betamax were fighting a death battle, and after the porn king’s estate was liquidated, there were a few things left over that no one claimed, because, I gathered, the guy’s whole family was ashamed to be associated with him.
One of the items was a top-loading RCA video recorder. These things sold for big bucks in those days, way more than I could afford. He also had a complete porn library. My Dad offered me the VHS machine, and he also asked me whether I wanted a bunch of x-rated movies to go with it. Idiot me, I said no, but did he have any Marx Brothers? It turned out the porn king was a fan, and he had a complete collection. This was when a video cost forty or fifty bucks, so the dozen or so films were actually worth more than the Jeff Kisseloff estate. Anyway, I got the VHS (which in the five years that I owned it I could never once figure out how to use the timer to tape a show off the TV) and a film collection that made me the envy of all my friends. Of course, had I chosen “The Devil and Miss Jones” and “DeepÂ Throat” I would have been even more popular, but you know, a person can have just so many friends.
The day the recorder and films were delivered there was something else in the box: you guessed it, the signed football. Now, how and why he got it I have no idea (maybe he made a porn film called “Kansas City, Here We Come”), but I now owned it, that was, until the day the landlord came knocking and there was nothing in my checking account. To tell you the truth, I can’t say I really miss it much. I still have the Marx Brothers films though. I think my Dad ended up with some highlights from the rest of his library. So porn king, may you rest in peace. In death, at least, you gave me a lot of laughs.
If you lived in Manhattan in the ’70s and ’80s, or if you commuted to the area around 57th Street and Broadway, you’re apt to remember the guy who used to station himself by Lee’s arts supply store, and, canteen in one hand, a cup in the other, would belt out ‘O Sole Mio and other operatic classics in a voice so strained and off-key that it would peel the remaining paint off the sides of the nearby buildings. Really, he’d be screeching out those songs, and my vocal chords would hurt. Nonetheless, he would be out there day after day for years before he disappeared. Then, at some point in the mid-90s, I was walking down the block, and there he was singing again, and suddenly it was like old times: The Upper West Side was no longer gentrified (My favorite line about that neighborhood, “I remember Columbus Avenue when it was on the West Side”), Tom Seaver was on the mound for the Mets and Richard Nixon was still thought of as a national disgrace. Alas, the poor fellow’s voice was even worse than it was before. Barely, a whisper, he could hardly even screech. Even the pigeons took pity on him and refrained from shitting on his head. Homeless people dropped quarters into his cap.
Anyway, he’s no longer there, and neither am I. Manhattan is now a playground for tourists and the wealthy, and there are actually two or three hundred people who think that Richard Nixon was a great guy.
All this bloviation is an introduction to the photo below of Harry doing another great acting job, singing his own version of ‘O Sole Mio (I’m sure much better than the poor guy on 57th Street) in a borrowed green sport jacket and pants that are either his rolled-up or the other fellow’s that are too short. I think I recognize his loafers though. The only thing missing is the monkey. Harry told me he was very proud of this shoot, because several people did put coins in his cap. They probably felt sorry for him, he admitted. Click on the photo to supersize it. For those new to this series of photos of New York in the 1940s and 1950s, click on the tag at the right to read all about it and follow it from the beginning.
A few years ago, my wife and I were out in Los Angeles, and we stopped in at the Television Academy to say hello to some of the people I worked with after my second book, The Box: An Oral History of Television, 1920-1961, was published. The academy had contacted me because they were interested in setting up their own oral history project, videotaping the pioneers of early television before moving on to current movers and shakers. It was a great idea (you can see many of the interviews, including a few I conducted, online, here). A couple of years later, when my bank account was close to empty and I needed a way to pay the rent, I saw a little money in my collection of tapes that I had recorded for the book. Thankfully, the Academy bought them, figuring that researchers might find something helpful in them.
On our visit, I asked about what happened to the tapes. It turned out the few hundred TDK cassettes that I had bought for less than .99 each, were now bar-coded and called “The Jeff Kisseloff Collection.”
Fast forward to a few days ago when a carpenter was replacing some rotted boards outside my office. The vibration from his hammering knocked a picture frame off my wall, and the various pieces of ephemera looked like litter on my carpet. I picked the pieces up with renewed interest. There was some real history in the pile, and even more around my office â€”Â old photographs, videos, ephemera, letters, recordings and more. It’s probably egocentric of me to think that that history that might interest a few people, but what the hell, here I am, thinking that someone might enjoy seeing selections from the Kisseloff Collection (as opposed to the Jeff Kisseloff Collection) and hearing the stories that go with them. If people do enjoy it, I’ll keep updating the site.
Feel free to drop me a line and let me know what you think.