DATE October 19, 2000 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Scott Simon talks about his familiy, his career and
his new book "Home and Away"
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
When I'm asked who I admire as an interviewer, I always mention Scott Simon,
host of NPR's "Weekend Edition Saturday." Whether he's interviewing a
an author or someone living under siege, something unexpected usually
during the course of the conversation. Interviewing is just part of what he
does. He's an extraordinary reporter who has covered stories in all 50
and several war zones. His gifts as a writer help make his reports so
compelling. I recently had the pleasure of reading his writing in his new
book, "Home and Away: Memoir of a Fan." The book is organized around his
passion for sports, particularly baseball and basketball, but sports
to nearly everything else that Scott is passionate about, so this memoir is
also about family, religion, politics, show business and journalism. Here's
SCOTT SIMON (NPR News): `I am the son of the funniest man and the most
beautiful woman in Chicago, although my father felt that my mother won both
titles after she was once asked "What's it like to be married to the
man in Chicago?" and she replied with a skillful deadpan, "I wouldn't know."
Outsiders often find it difficult to trace my family and the ties that bind
us. I grew up accompanied by a compelling assortment of irregular,
uncles and aunties with Jewish, Catholic and agnostic allegiances all
abounding in the same group of people we considered family. We think of
as being as American as cheese enchiladas.
`My father's family descends from Spanish Jews, my mothers from Irish
Catholics. Both sides came to America through Montreal, but like many on
continent, we despair of tracing our ancestry back much further and frankly
don't much care. Neither side seems to hold much promise of monied
inheritance. Both the Sullivans and Simons seemed to have been city folks,
whether Belfast or Toledo, Montreal or Chicago, and both sides seemed to
earned their way in this world by the sweat of their smiles instead of their
brows--jesters, sellers, jokesters, hucksters and, to be sure, a few cons.'
GROSS: Scott Simon's father, Ernie Simon, was in show business. Scott saw
nothing unusual in that. He used to ask other kids, `What's your father's
act?' I asked Scott about his father's act.
SIMON: My father's a comedian. My father told mother-in-law jokes, he told
occasional son jokes. He said, `You know, yeah, you know my wife Patty's
expecting another child and we went up to our little boy Scotty the other
and said, "Well, Scotty, you know, Mommy's pregnant. Would you like a
baby brother or a little baby sister?" And Scotty said to me, "Well, Dad,
tell you the truth, if it doesn't throw her too much out of shape, how about
pony?"' He told dialect stories of the kind you probably should be careful
with these days. He would tell Irish dialect stories, my mother's family
being Irish. He would tell Yiddish dialect stories, his family being
Oh, gosh, I'm trying to remember a really tasteless joke--not tasteless,
we would--yeah, tasteless...
GROSS: Yes, this is what I would encourage.
SIMON: I'm sorry, I forgot where I was for a moment. Yes, of course you
would encourage a tasteless joke. Well--all right, this is a joke he used
tell that I think you have to be careful with these days, OK?
SIMON: There's a Yiddish phrase, `vos makhstu,' which I'm told,
essentially--I shouldn't say I'm told like I don't know Yiddish, but I mean,
this one essentially means, I guess, `what's new' or `how are you?' It's a
greeting. And my father told a story about an old Jewish gentleman who grew
up on the West Side of Chicago who took the bus back to that neighborhood
it's now no longer populated by Jews, but my African-Americans. And my
father, I think, when he told the story, certainly he used to say Negro. An
older Jewish gentleman gets of the bus, and encounters a Negro man and says,
`Vos makhstu.' And as my father told the joke, the Negro gentleman would
`Hmm, well, I think they split a doubleheader with the Yankees yesterday.'
You know, it's not a bad joke, but you just can't tell that kind of joke
nowadays and get away with it.
GROSS: Was it ever embarrassing for you if your father was flopping and you
were watching him, or if he was trying to tell jokes at a dinner party and
jokes seemed kind of tasteless...
SIMON: I don't remember...
GROSS: ...or merely bad?
SIMON: Yeah. I don't remember that happening. I remember being with him
on occasion when he was telling jokes at a benefit for something. This was
somewhere in the North Side of Chicago, a place called the Villi Italy(ph)
as I recall, something like that. It was a benefit for muscular dystrophy
something. And without putting too fine a point on it, he had something to
drink, he'd had too much to drink and he was just--it wasn't notably drunk,
but it was lousing up his timing and it was lousing up his memory, and I
remember wanting to crawl--yeah, it was terrible. Yeah, that was a bad
It was worse for him. And I think what probably prevented me from being too
shattered is that, you know, I mostly had to cheer him up.
SIMON: Everyone was incredibly nice about it. I do remember that. George
Kirby, a comedian then, a black comic who did a lot of impressions, great
impressionist--I don't know where he is, I haven't seen him in years. But
George Kirby was kind of the star of the show, and he was just such an
absolute and total gentleman and came over and put his arm over my father's
shoulder and, you know, said something about, `Well, you know, sometimes you
just don't know what the bastards are going to do. You know, you were
terrific.' And he said to me, `You know, son, your dad is just great.'
you know, he was just wonderful. But it was that--yes, I remember that
GROSS: Did your father give you advice about how to tell a story or how to
put across a joke?
SIMON: You know, he did, interestingly, and as I look back on it--I mean, I
think I write in the book that I hope I'm past the point--there are some
people that pretend for the rest of their lives that everything their mother
and father said was some golden nugget of wisdom. And while I respect and
admire both my mother and my father a lot, they're human beings and are
probably just as right or wrong as I am. I'll give them benefit of the
doubt--more right than I ever will be. But on the other hand, we're not
talking about a hundred percent ratio there.
I think he was utterly right about this, which is the most successful jokes
are told on a rhythm of three. You know, one, two, three and then you
the punch line. And I guess I--you know, come to think of it, I've probably
never forgotten that in my work. When I'm writing a script, if I'm looking
make an analogy, I usually try to do it on the rhythm of three, because I
think there's something to it. You know, the stool doesn't fall that way.
think you maintain harmony with a rhythm of three.
GROSS: Do you have a good joke to illustrate that?
SIMON: Can I tell one that my father used to tell in the book?
GROSS: Sure. Yeah.
SIMON: I mean, I hope it's not--a man goes into a bar and says, `Look, I've
got a dog who can talk. And the bartender says, `That's ridiculous. A dog
can't talk.' He said, `I don't know, he can even talk.' He looks up at his
dog and he says, `OK, what is on top of a house?' And the dog goes, `Roof,
roof, roof.' The bartender says, `Ah, buddy, I think I'm on to you
(unintelligible).' He's like, `No, no, give me another--I want another
chance. He turns to his dog, goes, `OK, what holds a train with the
The dog says, `Roof, roof, roof.' The bartender says, `Buddy, come on now,
don't have all day.' He says, `Oh, all right, let me try it one more time.'
He looks at the dog and says, `OK, who was the greatest home run hitter of
time?' And the dog goes, `Ruth, Ruth, Ruth.' Bartender says, `Buddy, I've
had it with you. Don't darken my door.' So he throws the man and his dog
out. The man and his dog are standing on the street, the dog looks up at
man and says, `Perhaps I should have said Di Maggio.' I love that joke.
it works on a one, two, three and throw the punch line.
GROSS: My guest is NPR's Scott Simon, the host of "Weekend Edition
and he has a new book, a memoir that's kind of a fan's memoir, sports fan
memoir, it's called "Home and Away."
Your parents divorced as a kid--you were a kid when they divorced. Your
SIMON: My mother was a kid, too, come to think of it, yeah.
GROSS: Yeah. Your father had a drinking problem...
GROSS: ...and he continued to drink and sometimes he drank when you were
alone with him...
GROSS: ...and it was your job to keep the secret. What did you think of
keeping a secret when you were a kid, or having that burden of keeping a
SIMON: You know, I think because my parents, at that point, were divorced,
understood it. And I just--I think knew as the son of a mother and father
I loved very much, that it was my job to keep each of their secrets, and
them from each other. I think I recognized that they were both going
terribly tough times--I suppose I was, too--and that in a way one of the
greatest gifts we could give one another would be to respect that privacy
way. I mean, I don't think it extended to all areas of my life, but I
do think that it extended to that one. So my father never said to me,
tell your mother I'm drinking.' I mean, he tried to hide it from me, but
very successfully. He never had to, really. And for that matter, I think
mother knew when to stop crying. I mean, what else could she do? Her heart
had been broken by his drinking; to a degree her life had been splintered.
You know, their lives together and their life with me had been splintered.
I don't think she wanted to exact any further pain from him at all. Quite
GROSS: Did you try to convince him to stop?
SIMON: No, I did not. I didn't know how to do that. I was young at the
time, I didn't have the wherewithal. I didn't know how to begin that
conversation. I didn't know what to say. No, and among regrets I have in
life is that I couldn't figure that out. Let's put it this way, when I was
in, I think, my late teens and early 20s, I settle on that as one of the
regrets of my life, that I'd never been able to find the wherewithal to say
my father, `Stop drinking, you're killing yourself.' As I've gotten older,
maybe to let myself off the hook, although I hope not, I think that wouldn't
have made any difference anyway. That's what happens when you're an
alcoholic. Nothing is more important than that, which doesn't mean that he
didn't love me, because he certainly did, and loved my mother greatly. But
not that he loved alcohol, but it was a sickness, an addiction, and that
became the thing he had to have in his life, I think above and beyond his
and his wife.
GROSS: You were 16 when he died.
GROSS: It was shortly after Robert Kennedy's assassination.
SIMON: Same month.
GROSS: Shortly before the summer of the Democratic Convention in Chicago.
And you write in the book it seemed the decisive sign--your father's death
seemed the decisive sign that the world would not wait for any of us to grow
up. The anguish and dying overseas and in our own streets was going on now.
It must have been an incredible summer for you, because so much was
politically, and you lost your father at the same time.
SIMON: Yeah. And Chicago was the fulcrum of that...
GROSS: Yeah. Yeah.
SIMON: ...because the Democratic Convention was coming there, The
`Days of Rage' would occur there. Chicago became the fulcrum of a lot, and
certainly of my family.
GROSS: And it was a period when a lot of people, in addition to protesting
the war, were rebelling against fathers in their own home...
SIMON: Yeah. Absolutely.
GROSS: ...and father figures at universities. And you were losing your
GROSS: So I'm wondering if you think that losing him affected how you
expressed yourself politically during that period of protest.
SIMON: Yeah. You know, I've thought about that over the years, and
interestingly enough the last conversation my father and I had, aside from
saying good night, was some sort of dull argument over the war in Vietnam.
father being a child--he had been a young adult during the World War II
generation, had, I think it's safe to say, a different view than I had at
particular point. You know, `Scotty, you've got to stop the bastards when
can.' And in any event it was a dull argument. You know, we
have continued to have that argument. It was never very serious because in
many ways I think he was sympathetic to what I was saying, and in many ways,
it must be said, I was sympathetic to what he was saying when it was applied
to World War II.
But I think after he died I became a little bit more galvanized in the
movement. Who knows, I might have gone that way anyway, but I think for one
thing, since I didn't have him as a father figure to rebel against, I think
might have fixed some of that on our society generally. And I think I also
had a--you know, even then, at the age of 16, I think I had a sense of
increasing mortality. I knew that kids I was going to high school with were
going to be drafted, probably going to be drafted, and quite possibly sent
to the war in Vietnam. That would have been a possibility for me, too,
I refused to register--but that's another story for perhaps another
quite openly, I mean, I sent a letter. And in any event, I think I just--I
think I had a sense that this is the one life that we're going to have, and
you can't wait to become 21 to participate in the life of the world. When
things are going on at that particular point, you have to find a way to
participate there and then, and I think it probably--I became much more of a
GROSS: Now your grandfather on your mother's side was a cop.
SIMON: Was a Chicago cop, yeah.
GROSS: And, in fact, he was one of the cops assigned to the area around...
GROSS: ...the park during the convention while all the protesters were
SIMON: He was actually at the Convention Center at the Chicago stadium.
GROSS: Oh, excuse me. OK.
SIMON: I was in Grant Park.
GROSS: Oh, OK. OK.
SIMON: Thank God, because then you would have had the makings of some kind
a Greek tragedy if my grandfather had been beating kids in Grant Park and
suddenly he'd swung his baton and came down on his grandson's head. But, in
fact, I wasn't touched by a policeman and he was over by the stadium, so our
family was spared that. But there were other families that had kids in the
park who undoubtedly had that experience, though.
GROSS: Did you...
SIMON: He could--I mean, God bless him, my grandfather did not have that
gift, I think, of being able to separate that. People had to just accept
his--he was--I wish I could say otherwise, he just could be a terrible
you know? I think it was all rhetorical. I hope it was all rhetorical, and
should note for the record when he died in 1969, there were an awful lot of
black cops and an awful lot of Hispanic cops who came to his funeral. I
think any Jews, aside from me. So perhaps I underestimate him, but
were rocky. Also because he had locked my mother out of his life at one
after she had married a Hebrew, as he referred to Jews. And although she,
bless her, had repaired relations at one point, it was rough.
GROSS: My guest is Scott Simon, host of NPR's "Weekend Edition Saturday."
His new memoir is called "Home and Away." We'll talk more after our break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Pledge request; soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Scott Simon, the host of
"Weekend Edition Saturday," and now author of the book "Home and Away."
a memoir, much of which revolves around sports, but through sports he writes
about just about every other aspect of life and journalism.
During the late '60s when you became active in politics and political
protests, you were writing at the time for an underground newspaper, so you
were still a journalist even back then.
SIMON: Yes. Yeah.
GROSS: And I'm wondering if being a journalist then put you, at times, in a
slightly more comfortable situation in the sense that I remember at a lot of
political protests then everyone had to decide, OK, if things got a little
violent, were you going to pick up a rock and throw a stone? Were you going
to yell taunts about the cops? Were you going to break a window? Were you
going to insist on being peaceful no matter what other people were doing
around you or no matter what the police were doing to you? And you had to
really figure out a strategy and then try to stick with that. And were you
willing to get tear gassed? Were you willing to get clubbed? And as a
journalist you, perhaps, were a little bit more on the sideline observing...
GROSS: ...and not having to think that much about how far you were
comfortable going and what you thought was appropriate and inappropriate in
SIMON: Yeah. You know, you're absolutely right. That's true. And I--I
think it was looking back on it, the first time I understood why journalism
can be a wonderfully compromising profession. Because even if you come to
it with strong ideology, you run into personal flesh-and-blood examples that
have a way of violating it. I mean, in 1968, at the time of the convention,
we came out with an issue of Offset magazine(ph) it was called, which was
underground magazine we were putting out, and I had this long pseudo
Maileresque treatment of the 1968 Democratic Convention at Grant Park, and
at length I had quoted--there was a young man there who was a soldier, he
served in Vietnam--he was back--and he was being restrained, it must be
by some of the National Guardsmen. And he was yelling--it was very moving
he was yelling epithets at the hippies, as he called everyone. It was
something to the effect that, `You damn hippies. You never worked for
anything in your life. You know, you haven't been scratching around in the
mud and the blood like me and my buddies. What the hell right do you have
be out here and be saying these things about your country?' And he was very
And stopped me for a moment, made me think. Didn't make me support the war
Vietnam, but he made me think. I mean, I will say now, I think the
people--the predominant number of people in the park had the right idea, but
think he was right to say that we always didn't have the moral standing to
able to make that argument, because I think we obviously were young and had
not witnessed as much of the world as he had.
GROSS: You got involved in political organizing for a while.
GROSS: You ran the campaign for Chicago City Council candidate...
SIMON: Ran it into the ground. A very nice man named the Reverend Chuck
GROSS: Why did you briefly want to get into political organizing, I mean
voting booth kind of politics?
SIMON: It seemed the logical thing to undertake after, I think, what we had
been through at that particular point. In 1968--I'm sorry if it sounds like
ancient history--I think there was a feeling that there was a lot of ferment
and tumult in the country and that the two people who wound up being
for president--Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey--were not the best logical
result to grow out of that tumult. And I know I felt at the time, `Well, we
have to start organizing politically to elect people who reflect viewpoints
that are closer and in accord with our own,' and a good place to do it was
a local level.
And Chuck Geary had been an old Appalachian American organizer, a man who
believed in multiethnic democracy, who had been organizing Appalachian and
black workers there in the uptown area of Chicago, and I liked him very much
and it seemed like fun. And I had been state student council president, so,
of course, I was perceived to have all kinds of real world...
GROSS: What was your campaign slogan?
SIMON: For state student council president?
SIMON: You know, I don't remember. I remember my campaign slogan for when
was safety commissioner in seventh grade, as a matter of fact.
GROSS: What was that?
SIMON: Safety first Scott. I can still sing the theme song, as a matter of
fact, and I don't get a lot of requests for that. But I don't remember my
slogan when I was state student council president. Poor Chuck Geary, he was
wonderful guy, and our--I shouldn't say poor--`poor Chuck Geary' just
I mismanaged his campaign. Our campaign buttons were five stripes of color
represent the five specific groups that lived in the uptown area of Chicago.
So there was white, brown, black, red and yellow. And that was our campaign
button. You know, what a shame we couldn't have managed to put the
candidate's name on that button. We were just so conscious of being
politically correct, that I think we forget to be politically effective.
we really figured out at the end of the campaign that if we had gone out in
the street and offered people $5 to vote for him, we would have gotten a
bigger vote than actually campaigning and passing out leaflets, you know. I
think we just denied that we were living in Chicago.
GROSS: Scott Simon is the host of NPR's "Weekend Edition Saturday." His
memoir is called "Home and Away." He'll be back in the second half of the
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
Unidentified Announcer: This is NPR, National Public Radio.
GROSS: Coming up, becoming a Quaker and pacifist. Then, reporting from war
zones. We continue our conversation with Scott Simon, host of NPR's
Edition Saturday." He's written a memoir called "Home and Away."
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Back with Scott Simon, the host of NPR's "Weekend Edition Saturday." Scott
has reported from all 50 states and from eight war zones and has won
broadcasting's major journalism awards. He's written a memoir called "Home
During the late '60s, I think one of your favorite writers was Norman
GROSS: ...a writer who had a reputation for, among other things, being a
two-fisted writer. I mean, he'd get into fights, verbal and physical, he
hard drinking and so on. Did you...
SIMON: That's not what I admired about him.
GROSS: Well, I was wondering if you ever thought about yourself, `Well,
I'm too nice.'
SIMON: Oh, I don't know as I've wondered about that. People have suggested
that about me over the years. I mean, that's a common complaint that I
And let me assure you, I'm not. I mean, I'm not two-fisted or a big drinker
or anything like that. But on the other hand, I also know I'm not too nice.
I can be as mean-spirited and malevolent as anybody else in this profession.
GROSS: But you probably wouldn't punch a person.
SIMON: Oh, certainly not. Absolutely not.
GROSS: When you were in your teens, you became a Quaker.
GROSS: Now your father was Jewish; your mother, Catholic.
SIMON: Catholic, yeah.
GROSS: Why did you become a Quaker?
SIMON: Well, it must be said, both of my parents were seekers, so I went to
Buddhist services, Pentecostal, Presbyterian, Universalist, congreg--a whole
slew of different kinds of services. And what I immediately liked about
Quakerism--must be said during that time, particularly when I was in my
adolescence and early teens--Quakers are pacifists. And this was occurring
a time--it was really even somewhat before the war in Vietnam became an
in my life, so much as the civil rights movement. And I very much admired
audacious way in which pacifists were effecting social change.
As Ghandi used to say, `It's not as if there won't be losses, but there are
losses in war, too.' I very much--as Ghandi also used to say, that `If you
win your revolution through violence, then the people who'll take over are
people who were the best perpetrators of violence.' And that's often not a
good result. So I really admired the ways in which Quakerism had used
pacifism to try and effect social change.
I also--Quakerism is a religious society as opposed to a religious
organization that insists on sole fealty. And I became very comfortable
the fact that I could both be a Quaker and yet still honor the faiths of my
parents. I could continue to participate in Judaism and Catholicism without
feeling that I had to choose between the two.
I also like the Quaker concept of prayer, it must be said. Quakers, at
in North America, don't have prayers. They don't sit down and intone to the
Almighty asking for things, which has always baffled me a little bit. The
Quaker silence is intended that you leave your heart and mind and soul open
hearing something of God that is within each of us.
GROSS: Now along with your Quakerism, you became a pacifist. And I found
really interesting in your book, "Home and Away," you talk about how in
covering war in Kosovo and in Bosnia you decided that there are places where
was is justified, where fighting back is justified. Would you talk a little
bit about that change of heart, not a disavow of pacifism, but a kind of
loosening up of...
GROSS: Go ahead.
SIMON: It brought me face-to-face with its limitations. That being said,
about half the draft-age Quakers and Mennonites here in North America during
World War II enlisted on the feeling that whatever Quakerism had to give the
world, it was probably an insufficient answer to Adolph Hitler. Now in none
of the conflicts that I'd ever covered prior to Bosnia had I ever felt that
way. I still feel, by the way, that the situation in the Middle East could
better addressed by massive campaigns of civil disobedience rather than
violence. I didn't feel that way about the war in El Salvador, certainly
didn't feel that way about the Gulf War. I could go on and on.
But it wasn't until I got to Bosnia that I confronted the fact--Bosnia
have an army when that conflict began--that if people did not react with
violence to the violence that was perpetrated on them, if they didn't fight
back, all of the good people, all of the people who believed in a
tolerant democracy would be slaughtered by all the worse people who were the
racist, murderous thugs across the hills in Pale who were members of the
army. And I just couldn't accept that. As I told a lot of Quakers at the
time, I would rather be morally mobile and inconsistent than to be a good
Quaker around this one. I just felt the stakes were too high.
GROSS: Well, I like the way you found it comfortable, acceptable to be
SIMON: Yeah, well...
GROSS: Sometimes inconsistency is something that one won't allow oneself
therefore, one gets painted into a corner, forced to be a hard-liner in a
that they don't really want to be.
SIMON: Yeah. No, and I thought certainly--I mean, I became pretty openly,
our air, and certainly in Quaker meetings, I don't mind saying, an advocate
for involvement of the West in trying to deter the Holocaust that was going
there. And I thought that was important and urgent and the people who had a
strong conviction should not stay silent about it, for one nicety in their
life or their professional vocation for another. And, I mean, I still feel
strongly about that.
GROSS: My guest is Scott Simon. His new memoir is called "Home and Away."
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Scott Simon, host of NPR's "Weekend Edition Saturday."
His new memoir is called "Home and Away."
It's somewhat paradoxical that someone who is as opposed to war as you
are--opposed most of the time to war--should have spent so much time
it. You've covered a lot of wars...
GROSS: ...over the years as a journalist. I know part of that is wanting
bear witness to what was happening and...
GROSS: ...to explain it, but I'm wondering if you've ever thought that part
of you maybe had a taste not to fight a war but to see it, to be in the
of it. I always think that there's something going on when somebody
voluntarily ...(unintelligible) to a war.
SIMON: Yeah. I've wondered about that over the years. I mean, I wouldn't
have wondered about it so much if it was just one or two, but I think when
get to eight, I think, you know, the question is justified. Perhaps. I
point out that the best stories are there.
SIMON: And that really does drive me a lot. I also have felt that you
shouldn't leave the covering of war to people who believe in it,
that treat it as if it's just a, you know, kind of more lethal form of
And so I've always felt strongly about that. Also you begin to learn more.
You begin to feel about things. You have a certain base of knowledge and
feel driven to use it. I think all of that contributes to something. I
know. I mean, I would do it again. I mean, it depends on the
I mean, I'm not a professional that way. You know, I cover a lot of things,
but I think those stories can be important and involving. They're very much
worth covering. And I think they ought to be covered not just by people who
think that violence practiced on a mass scale is a perfectly acceptable way
for the world to acquit itself of its business.
GROSS: You know, how have your mechanisms for dealing with what you're
and then reporting on it changed over the years? Like the first time when
were seeing people being killed in war, your reactions must have been much
more kind of extreme than after the eighth war, when you had seen it often.
SIMON: I think it comes and it goes. The first time--I mean, it happened
on--I believe it was my third day in El Salvador, the first time I ever saw
people killed in front of me. It was also the first day I ever came under
fire. And I had been warned that when that happens, you either cry or mark
your laundry, as we say--you can follow what I mean--or laugh. You can
probably guess I was a laugher. And, I mean, none of the circuits that I
in my body at that particular point were prepared to accept or process that.
I just--on top of everything else, it was just absolutely incredible to me.
Now I had covered some instances of violence in Chicago, domestic unrest and
riot and all that sort of thing, so I knew people could be mean. I could
understand how people could kill each other--I don't want to say in cold
'cause to them it wasn't in cold blood. They felt there was a battle going
on. I just couldn't see why somebody didn't stand up and say, `Wait a
Do you understand? We're going to kill each other. Let's just stop this.
What is this all about anyway?'
GROSS: What exactly happened?
SIMON: Their fighting reached the capital in San Salvador and we were at
headquarters there in San Salvador. It was in the northwest quadrant of the
city. And we just drove out there with our van and driver and we, of
could hear the shooting and we decided to--we could see actually rebel
soldiers who were wearing masks and shirts and blue jeans--I still remember
this distinctly--on the right side of these streets, the small (foreign
language spoken) that were leading down from the hills. And on the left
there were the government forces that were trying to bear them back.
back on it now, I think the rebel troops were trying to escape. They had
launched a raid at a--it wasn't a weapons facility--a police station;
a raid in the local police station. They were trying to get out without too
many casualties and they had sort of gotten caught up in a bottleneck in
So we could see this because the rebels in particular were trying to get up
the hill and the government soldiers were pursuing them, so we told our
driver, Armando Ayado(ph), to go down closer so that we could see it. And
first I was struck by the fact that there was really something obscene in us
watching this, like it was some kind of sporting event. And Kim Conroy(ph),
my producer, and I got out of the van and began really walking, because we
no sense of physical hazard at that particular point. And then the shots
began to go near us and there was a whiz and I must say, without getting
dramatic about it, I mean, you feel the wind around you rustle. There's a
percussive effect that happens. And thankfully we got behind a staircase
just--then the fire became pretty withering over in our direction but we
as it turned out, obviously all right behind that staircase.
I ad-libbed a news spot, by the way, 'cause we didn't have cell phones in
those days, and this is such an NPR story. Ultimately, when we could get
of there, we drove back and filed the news spot that I ad-libbed under fire
and the man who took it in said, `Well, you know, it's very dramatic, but
there's really no analysis of the political situation in there,' so my
John McChesney, who now reports on new technology for NPR, apparently did
scene rechewing at that particular--`I've got a man down there risking his
and you people won't put this on,' so it eventually got on the air. But...
GROSS: It became a kind of famous piece then of yours, too.
SIMON: Oh, yeah, it did. But in any event, I think what happened pretty
SIMON: ...what happened is that the circuits in my body just kind of got
soldered. You know, they just sort of came together flat and I just began
operate on another plane that was professional. And I think over the years,
that is probably what has happened. I'm not out of touch with the misery
I'm seeing or the pain, the loss, the suffering, the insensate violence.
there's something that kicks in that is professional and, you know, that's
level on which I operate, all of which is a way of saying I think I would go
nuts if all I could do was just look at this and having nothing to do.
I would pick up a rock, pick up a gun. I've always had my work, which I
of is kind of cathartic just at the personal level.
GROSS: And when you would do the algebra of how much of a risk am I willing
to take for a story, what's the biggest risk that you took?
SIMON: Well, I think the biggest risk I ever took was probably something
where the algebra was obscured. This was in El Salvador. We decided--a
of us, whose names I will probably keep private, decided to go out--the
Party, the right-wing military party, was putting up these banners--`Friends
International, (foreign language spoken) tell the truth,' to taunt us. And
one night after curfew a group of us went out and tore one of them down.
was the most stupid thing that I think I have--no, we were perfectly fine,
that was the most stupid thing I think I ever did.
GROSS: Why? Why?
SIMON: It was after curfew. We could have justifiably, by the laws of that
country, been shot and for what? You know, for a prank. I think other
times--I tell a story in the book about when Minoli Wetheraul(ph), my
erstwhile longtime record engineer, and I were in Sarajevo. We were doing
this story on pets because we were very impressed by the way people in
Sarajevo wanted to keep their pets in their lives, and sometimes really
measures they would--interesting ...(unintelligible) I don't call any sports
figures heroes but I will call the people of Sarajevo heroes, undertaking
heroic measures to care for their pets.
And we came under fire in this open park that had been denuded and shorn of
trees doing a pet story, as Minoli said, `I don't want to get shot doing a
goddamn pet story,' and yet, had you said to us at the beginning of the day,
`You can do this pet story but you might get shot for doing it,' we never
would have done it. I'm glad we did this story but, on the other hand, I
mean, for Minoli and I and Lail Dalagula(ph) and I, who all--the three of us
have been to a lot of places over the years; Peter Breslow and I were in
Kosovo--I think we've all made decisions where, `No, this is just another
shoot-'em-up. I don't think we're gonna go there today.' But on the other
hand, sometimes you have to do that. Most of the time you really don't get
make that choice, though. It just kind of bursts around you.
GROSS: When you've been under fire in war, is there a voice in your head,
like your father's, for instance, saying, `The show must go on,' you know,
GROSS: ...you know, you've got to...
SIMON: No. It may be a terrible thing to say, but absolutely there is.
there is. I remember once when Kim Conroy and Lail Dalagula and I had to
across the street. We came under fire in a town called Suchi Toto(ph) one
in El Salvador and we were kind of--you know, the three of us just mashed
ourselves down into a gully and they were firing over the road. This went
for about 20 minutes and the firing let up somewhat but not totally, but
enough so that we thought we would take a chance on getting up and running
across. On top of everything else, you don't know if it's sniper fire or
snipers are going to reposition themselves. So we thought we would run
the road to get over behind a wall that was kind of a church school--Roman
Catholic compound there. And in any event--so we all agreed to do this and
remember saying, `OK, are we ready?' And Lail said `Yes,' and I said, `Are
you rolling?' because if something had happened--I hate to say it--you want
that to be on tape.
Lail has that tape in particular, as a matter of fact, because when we
get behind the wall, the three of us were smashed together again really
like a scene from the Kama Sutra and, in any event, Lail, this Peruvian-born
gentleman, says to Kim Conroy, our producer, `Oh, I knew you could not
me forever, you skinny Irish girl, you.' And I think what happens is you
can't have a high state of nervous tension for probably more than 5, 10, 15
minutes at a time. At some point it has to break out. Lail was also a
laugher. I think at some point it has to break out. And, I mean, over the
years, that's how people find the wherewithal to persist, I think, through
these terrible situations. It's astonishing to me how quickly people make
transition into living inside some kind of hell.
GROSS: You make a nice connection in your book between a lot of the things
that you write about, which is your father being in show business, you being
in journalism, a lot of the people you most admire being sports figures.
talk a little bit about what you see as connecting that.
SIMON: Well, it depends on the circumstance and the performer, but I think
some level, everybody involved in all of that has some aspect of their lives
and their profession which is performance, and I think proudly so. There's
reason to be embarrassed about this. And I like to think that part of what
all share that we can give to people who listen to us, watch us, whatever,
a kind of catharsis. I mean, I think sports has the same cathartic elements
as good drama or bad drama sometimes. It allows you to take yourself
of your skin, put yourself into another--somebody else's skin and to inhabit
their world for a while. I mean, certainly I think just about the most
valuable step I've ever been a part of in journalism does that. And in a
different way, I think sports performers do that and certainly people on the
stage, be they comedians or tragedians or any kind of actor, does that, too.
And I think it involves, on the one hand, expressing yourself to the
And on the other hand, I think when it's most effective, you have to have a
sense of yourself, at least as a performer. I've always kind of not
understood it when people say--someone will dismiss an actor's performance
saying, `Oh, he or she was just playing themselves.' Nothing is more
difficult, I think, than to play yourself. And people, it's been my
experience, as a generalization, they don't go into drama or acting, the
or theater because they're entirely certain who they are as themselves, so
that's why they shuck other personalities off and on. And, look, I wish I
could say it was otherwise in broadcast journalism, but I think a lot of our
colleagues, God bless them, are all fine, wonderful people and my best
friends--you know, people with an identity crisis are not unknown in this
business. Let's put it that way. And I think to be most effective,
you have to both be able to take on an understanding of somebody else's
personality while also expressing that through the channels in your own body
that make the most sense and allow you to be the most expressive.
GROSS: Scott Simon, a real pleasure to talk with you.
SIMON: Pleasure to talk with you.
GROSS: Scott Simon is the host of NPR's "Weekend Edition Saturday." His
book is called "Home and Away." This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Profile: Gwen Verdon, who died today at age 75
Ms. GWEN VERDON: (Singing) If they could see me now, that little gang of
mine, I'm eating fancy chow and drinking fancy wine. I'd like those
stumblebums to see for a fact the kind of top-drawer, first-rate chums I
attract. All I can say...
TERRY GROSS, host:
Gwen Verdon died yesterday at the age of 75. She was considered one of the
greatest dancers in Broadway history. She starred in "Damn Yankees" as the
devilish seductress Lola. On that show she worked with choreographer Bob
Fosse. He became her mentor; she became the dancer who best interpreted his
work, most notably as the star of the shows "Redhead," "Sweet Charity" and
"Chicago." I spoke with Gwen Verdon in 1993 and we played her big number
(Soundbite of "Damn Yankees")
Ms. VERDON: (Singing) Whatever Lola wants, Lola gets. And, little man,
little Lola wants you. Make up your mind to have no regrets, recline
yourself, resign yourself, you're through. I always get what I aim for and
your heart and soul is what I came for. Whatever Lola wants...
GROSS: I think "Damn Yankees" was the first Broadway show that you worked
with Bob Fosse, who later became your husband.
Ms. VERDON: True.
GROSS: What was it like the first time you worked with him and danced to
choreography? What was different about his choreography and direction from
what you had experienced before?
Ms. VERDON: The first thing that I noticed was it was so amusing. I know.
I know it was sensuous. I know it was all of those things, but it was done
with such a sense of humor and also done with the innocence of a child, so
weren't acting sexy. It just came out that way. And I was amazed at the
training, because I had excellent training in many disciplines of dance and
was amazed at how disciplined and what was required with Bob's work.
GROSS: What was required of you that you...
Ms. VERDON: Ballet.
Ms. VERDON: Tap. Isolation, which I'd learned from East Indian dancing.
And, I mean, there was his humor. I had worked with Jack Cole(ph), always
very sensuous women. He did that number "Gilda" from the movie "Gilda" for
Rita Hayworth. I think he's probably more famous for that number, but it's
not funny. And Bob would do the same kind of thing, not the same steps, but
his point of view was the flip side of that. It was just making fun of
sexy, which comes out much more sexy.
GROSS: Do you feel that you played Lola, the devilish seductress, as funny?
Ms. VERDON: I played it as a child. Have you seen little girls all dressed
up in their mother's clothes?
Ms. VERDON: You know, lipstick smeared all over their face. I did it like
GROSS: When you said that there was isolation required for Bob Fosse's
choreography, do you mean, like, just moving one shoulder or an elbow or
like, one part of the body?
Ms. VERDON: Yes. And it was extremely musical. That was up to Bob. I
mean, the music was the ground order, but he would catch every little thing.
If you moved your little finger, there would be a ting on a triangle,
there was an economy to the movement. You didn't sort of blast out and
It was isolation and discipline. That's the only thing I can think of.
GROSS: Would he do the moves to show you what he wanted?
Ms. VERDON: Yes. And they were hysterical. And I once said, `I don't
I can do that in high heels.' So Bob put on high heels and did it.
GROSS: Oh, no.
Ms. VERDON: Oh, absolutely.
Ms. VERDON: Then he believed me, but he had to find out for himself.
GROSS: Well, could he do it in high heels?
Ms. VERDON: Sure he could.
GROSS: So then you were forced to do it.
Ms. VERDON: Not forced. I thought, `Oh,' as soon as I could see how he did
it in heels.
GROSS: What was the trick?
Ms. VERDON: It was not a trick. It was a certain step in Lola where you
keep twisting and I kept thinking the heels--or one heel is going to scrape
my other foot.
GROSS: So what was the solution he came up with?
Ms. VERDON: Just do it.
GROSS: Just turn.
Ms. VERDON: It's turned in enough. It would be very turned in, which
just great for me, because that's how I studied dance. That's how my father
taught me when I was two.
GROSS: Gwen Verdon, recorded in 1993. She died yesterday at the age of 75.
We also lost a great singer yesterday, Julie London. She died at the age
of 74. We'll close with one of her best-known recordings. I'm Terry Gross.
(Soundbite of "Cry Me A River")
Ms. JULIE LONDON: (Singing) Now you say you're lonely. You cry the whole
night through. Well, you can cry me a river, cry me a river. I cried a
over you. Now you say you're sorry for being so untrue. Well, you can cry
a river, cry me a river. I cried a river over you. You drove me, nearly
drove me out of my head while you never shed a tear. Remember, I
GROSS: This is NPR, National Public Radio.
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