Skip to main content

Better than Sliced Bread: Summer's Best Nonfiction

Fresh Air book critic Maureen Corrigan presents her nonfiction summer reading list — three true tales, plus one book of fiction she just couldn't resist.



Related Topic

Other segments from the episode on May 26, 2008

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, May 26, 2008: Interview with Jim Sheeler; Review of nonfiction picks for the summer; Review of the a five-DVD set of Crawford films "The Joan Crawford Collection: Volume 2…


TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Journalist Jim Sheeler talks about his new book "Final
Salute," and Colonel Steve Beck talks about being the officer
who notifies families of the loss of their love one

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

On this Memorial Day we're going to hear from a Marine colonel who, for three
years, had the job of delivering the news that every military family dreads.
Families knew what to expect when they saw him coming: A loved one had been
killed in Iraq. But his job didn't end with that awful message. He helped
the families get through the terrible period that followed. Beck was a major
at the time; he's a colonel now.

Colonel Beck is my guest, along with journalist Jim Sheeler. Sheeler's new
book, "Final Salute," is about Beck, the families he notified and the loved
ones they lost. "Final Salute" is an expansion of Sheeler's Pulitzer
Prize-winning article which he wrote for the Rocky Mountain News, where he
spent five years covering the impact of the Iraq war at home. He begins
teaching journalism at the University of Colorado in the fall. When I
recorded this interview with Sheeler and Beck last month, Beck was on a brief
leave to enable him to go on a book tour with Sheeler. My first question was
for Colonel Beck.

In the three years that it was your job to knock on doors and deliver the news
that someone's loved one had died in the war, did you learn what were the best
ways of breaking the news, like phrases that you could use that would maybe
soften things a little bit or convey the kind of emotion that you--or lack of
emotion you felt you needed to convey?

Colonel STEVE BECK: That's a very tough question. I don't know that I
learned how to do that. I don't believe I learned how to take away emotion of
the most horrible news that can be delivered to someone. It is wrought with
emotion. What you must do is convey to them that their loved one has fallen,
their loved one has died, and that you're there, that you have empathy for
their pain and you are there to care for them and to help guide them through
what will prove to be some of the most difficult days of their lives. And so
you go with an empathetic heart, but at the same time you go standing as
strong as you can so that you can be their oak and they can lean on you in the
times that will come, which will be some of the most difficult times for them.

GROSS: Being there to lean on is actually part of the job. How long are you
expected to remain close to a family and be there to support them?

Col. BECK: I don't think we have established a set time for that. That
really comes down to the relationship that is formed between a family and a
casualty officer or a fellow Marine. They know you're a Marine. They know
you're trying to take care of them. They know you're there for them. If
relationships form between casualty officers and family members, they could
last for years, or if they don't form in those times of adversity that they're
going through, they may dissolve when your duty is completed and you've taken
care of the family as much as you can.

GROSS: Do the families often know what the news is going to be as soon as
they see you?

Col. BECK: I think so. It's my belief that when they see us at the door
that they know that something bad has happened, and they all know that their
loved one's serving in combat, and we just don't go make house visits. So
when--if we're standing there in front of their door, I think they always know
that something very bad has happened.

Mr. JIM SHEELER: Yeah, they're instructed in their--this is Jim--they're
instructed before their service member leaves that if their loved one is
injured then they'll get a phone call. And the only way that they will know
if they've died is if they get a personal visit. And, I mean, I've talked to
mothers and wives who, I mean, they'll circle the street two or three times
just kind of eyeing in front of their house looking for that government van,
looking for things that aren't right because they know that if it's there then
the worst has happened. And they try to put it off as much as they can, put
it out of their minds. But it's always there.

GROSS: You're there in part to help the person to whom you're delivering the
news, you're there to deliver it and to help them, but when they see you and
they figure out why you're there, you're the symbol of the worst thing that
could happen. And I'm wondering what it's like to knock on a door knowing
that you are going to initially be that symbol?

Col. BECK: Well, the way I've come to terms with that, for me personally, I
know that I'm delivering the worst news that they could possibly hear, and
it's incredibly painful for me. But what drives me forward is knowing the
pain that they're going to go through cannot even possibly be compared with
the minimal pain and discomfort I'm feeling. And so I can put mine aside
quite easily knowing that the pain I'm about to cause with this news and my
responsibility to America to take care of that family is more important than
any discomfort that I have.

GROSS: Jim, you write about how Marines always go out in pairs when they're
delivering the bad news. Why are there two Marines going to each home?

Mr. SHEELER: Well, there's usually--the casualty systems calls officer plus
a chaplain. I mean, nobody knows how somebody's going to react to that news.
And I think they've decided having two people there is the best way to do it.
The Marines actually do it different than the Army. In the Army they have
someone who will knock on the door, and that's pretty much his job, is to
deliver the news, and the family never sees him again, or her again. With the
Marines that person that delivers the news is the primary casualty assistance
calls officer, and they're there for the rest of the whole process.

Col. BECK: Grief has many faces, and when someone's getting this shock they
respond differently. And so anger should be expected and planned for. You
know, I've felt all the different emotions that they were feeling at the time.
And I know the reality of it is that I'm not the person they really want to
lash out at, but I certainly don't mind being that person because they need to
do that. They need to do that with someone, and it's better that it is me
than--or the casualty assistance calls officer than someone else in their
family or otherwise--or themselves, for that matter. So taking that on is not
something that we're concerned about. But we go out together and we have a
chaplain with us as well, so I think we're--with another Marine and a chaplain
I don't think we can go wrong.

GROSS: Jim, one of the stories that you tell in your book is the story of
Katherine Cathey, who lost her husband in Iraq while she was pregnant. And it
was Colonel Beck who had to deliver the news with her and who stuck with her
during this horrible part of her life. Would you describe the story as you
understand it of how she responded when Colonel Beck came to the door?

Mr. SHEELER: Sure. Katherine was actually taking a nap when they knocked at
the door. And her stepfather answered, and as soon as he saw the Marines
there he knew. And then he stepped back, and Katherine's mother saw them and
she screamed. And then he went in to wake up Katherine, who had heard the
screaming of her mother, and she asked what had happened and he just said,
`It's not good. You need to come outside.' And as soon as she saw Major Beck
and the chaplain there she knew as well and she started screaming. And she
screamed and screamed. She ran into the other room cradling her pregnant, you
know, belly, and she just glared at the Marines, from the way she and her
parents and Major Beck describe it, and she just went and took a bath and she
sat there for a long time before she came back out.

And a lot of the families have that sort of reaction of--sometimes they refuse
to let the Marines in, period. They say, `If I don't let them in, it's not
going to happen.' They'll try to delay the message. But eventually it always
gets to them.


GROSS: My guests are Colonel Steve Beck and journalist Jim Sheeler. For
three years Beck had the job of notifying families that their loved one had
been killed in Iraq, and then helping the families through the tough period
that followed. Sheeler's new book, "Final Salute," is about Beck, the
families he notified and the loved ones they lost. One of the people Sheeler
writes about is Katherine Cathey, who learned from Colonel Beck that her
husband, Jim, was killed in Iraq. She was pregnant when she got the news.

Her husband's casket arrived from Iraq on a commercial airline, an American
Airlines flight that landed in the Reno/Tahoe International Airport. Colonel
Beck, were the passengers on the flight aware that there was a fallen Marine
in the cargo?

Col. BECK: They were. What we often try to do--it doesn't always happen,
but we try to make sure, through the help and the assistance of the
airlines--we'll communicate, at least it was something that I liked to do
every opportunity that I had with a particular airline, was to let them know,
to radio ahead to the pilot and ask them to ask the passengers to remain
seated while we took care of our fallen Marine. And so my understanding is
they were able to do that on this particular flight. They did also know, in
that point in the war many people realized that when there's a service member
in a dress uniform onboard that they may be transporting someone home. So in
this particular instance the pilot made an announcement and asked everyone to
remain seated and--just as we would like--and show their respects as we bring
our brother home.

GROSS: And, Jim, you write in your book that commercial flights aren't used
anymore in this way. Why did that change?

Mr. SHEELER: A father in California complained after learning that his son
would come home on a commercial airline. And since then Congress has passed a
measure that allows the families to choose whether they want their sons to
come home, or sons and daughters, to come home on commercial flights or on
private, chartered aircraft, which in some ways is better for the family. And
they've also instituted a rule that those caskets are to be met by a full
honor guard and given the proper treatment.

GROSS: There's an incredibly moving photo of Katherine, who was very pregnant
at the time of her husband's death, draping herself over his coffin. And,
Jim, I know you didn't take the photographs for the book, but did you and the
photographer ever feel like it was intrusive of you to be there observing or
photographing this period of grief?

Mr. SHEELER: Well, the photo was taken by Todd Heisler, who now works for
the New York Times. When we first met Katherine, it was in her home a few
days after her husband's death. And she, like all the other family members,
just simply wanted to talk about her husband. She wanted to tell Jim's story.
And I've found this continually. It doesn't matter anybody's politics, the
family wants their son or daughter's picture on the front page of the paper
next day. They want their stories told.

And so we sat with Katherine for hours just talking and talking. And the one
thing that really struck me was she told the story of how, when they found out
she was pregnant, she took up knitting because Jim was then at officer
candidate school at that time. And she would knit and knit. And when she
found out the baby was coming she started knitting baby blankets and baby
booties. And the night before Jim left for Iraq he slept with that baby
blanket, and he did it because he knew he wouldn't be home in time to see the
baby born. But when the baby was born he wanted the baby to know how he
smelled. And for me it really said all that needed to be said about Jim
Cathey as a person.

And we also made a connection with Katherine. After spending hours with her
during one of the worst times of her life, when we left that night she said,
`Thank you. You know, this may sound strange, but you guys made my night.'
Because we were able to take Jim's story and share it with so many people.

And so when we got to Reno, it was basically the most difficult question that
I had to ask in the whole reporting process, was to ask Katherine if we could
come along for everything, for the entire process. By this time we had been
following Major Beck for about nine months. But we hadn't seen everything
from the inside, you know, through the family's eyes directly. And so I asked
her if we could come along for everything. At that point I probably knew more
about what was going to happen than she did. But I told her that `if there's
ever a moment that you feel like we're getting too close, we're too intrusive,
all you have to do is just wave your hand and look at us funny and we're
gone.' And I think by giving her that power she realized that she didn't have
to use it. It kind of created this trust that remained throughout the entire

The night that she was sleeping with Jim's casket there--she decided to sleep
with Jim's casket the very last night he was there. And at one point just
before she fell asleep, she looked up at one of the Marines who was looking
over Jim's casket and she said, `Are my reporters still here?' And he said,
`Yeah, you want me to get rid of them?' And she said, `No, no, I just wanted
to know that they were still here.' So we were comfortable that she was
comfortable with us being there, and that she wanted people to see what she
was seeing.

GROSS: Colonel Beck, one of your jobs is to inspect the body in the casket
before the family comes in and sees the body. What are you looking for in
this final inspection?

Col. BECK: Well, warfare is very violent. It is the most violent place and
conditions that there are on earth. Things happen to people that can
devastate their bodies. And so it's important that we make sure that nothing
has happened in transit with the airlines. And it's important that we make
sure that the uniform on the Marine is perfect and so that we can convey to
the family exactly what they may see if they desire to look at their loved one
one final time. And so if we don't inspect that Marine, we won't understand
how best to convey that information to the family so that they can make an
informed decision on what their wishes might be with respect to seeing their
loved one.

GROSS: Jim, you've attended about a dozen Marine funerals as part of your
reporting and your research for the book. As an outsider, as a person who's a
reporter, not a Marine, what did you find most interesting or most confusing
to you about the actual Marine funeral rituals?

Mr. SHEELER: I think the most amazing things are the things that you don't
see, the things that are happening behind the scenes. Yes, there's the very
formal and very important ceremony where the Marines are folding that flag for
the last time that so many people have seen. But at the same time, a lot of
times the Marines will go to the houses, the homes of the relatives or the
family members and station themselves at the house because they know it's been
in the paper that this family is not going to be at the house. So they want
to have that covered, that nobody's going to rob that house, that this
family's going to be taken care of.

One mother just told me the Marines are everywhere right now. You don't even
know where they are. And so I've made it my job to try and find out. And it
was pretty amazing to find out that the escort who brought that Marine home is
there and will not leave the casket unattended. And the Marines themselves
will not leave that casket anywhere where the public can get anywhere near it.
There's going to be two Marines standing at the head and the foot of their
brother. And just that dedication is pretty amazing.

Some of the Marines that I talked to will, while they're standing post there,
they'll talk to the body even if they never knew him. They'll talk to him
when they come up into the airplane and say `hello,' you know, `you're home.'
They take this very personally. And when you talk to them about the impact,
it's pretty incredible. You know, they're trained to kill, really. I mean,
they're trained to fight, and they know how to fight as good as anybody in any
branch of the service. And yet when you talk to them about these emotions
when they pick up that casket, you know, one of them told me that you just,
you don't know, you don't understand until you pick up that casket and you
feel the weight. That's when you understand.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Colonel Steve Beck and
journalist Jim Sheeler on this Memorial Day edition of our show. For three
years it was Colonel Beck's job to notify families that a loved one had been
killed in Iraq, and help the families through the terrible period that
followed. Sheeler has written a new book called "Final Salute" about Beck,
the families he notified, and the loved ones they lost. "Final Salute" is
expanded from Sheeler's Pulitzer Prize-winning article, which was published in
the Rocky Mountain News, where he spent five years covering the impact of the
war at home.

When we left off, Sheeler was describing Marine funerals he attended.

Colonel Beck, where were you at the funerals for the loved ones of the people
who you were working with after delivering the news?

Col. BECK: I'm the person that delivers the flag to that family. And so I'm
running the ceremony at the funeral. So I'm in charge of that ceremony, and
so that funeral--that flag is folded by the Marines, the pallbearers there who
carried him or her. And they fold that flag, as Jim said, for the last time.
The rifle detail puts three rounds, three of the brass rounds from the rifle
salute into the final fold of that flag, and they present that flag to me to
present to the family.

GROSS: What are some of the things you know that families have done with the

Col. BECK: Well, it varies. I've seen flags framed and prominently
displayed on mantles. I've seen flags framed and displayed within other cases
with all of their loved one's Marine Corps items around it, basically paying
honor to his service or her service. I've seen flags placed in drawers as
keepsakes because they don't--it's not that they don't want to see them, they
just want to protect them and keep them in a very secret place. I guess
that's the extent of it. I haven't seen much else.

Mr. SHEELER: A lot of the families will--I think I've seen this especially
with families with sons who were not married and still have their childhood
room, that room turns into a virtual shrine to these guys with everything
they've received. It's pretty amazing what the country has done. Also kind
of behind the scenes, there's a group that sends a quilt to every family.

Col. BECK: Mm-hmm.

Mr. SHEELER: There's a guy that draws a pretty incredible portrait of every
service member who's died and just sends it to the family.

Col. BECK: Mm-hmm.

Mr. SHEELER: They get stuff from everywhere, just condolence letters, piles
of condolence letters, and they save them. And a lot of time they turn into
these shrines, these boyhood rooms.

GROSS: Colonel, are you still in touch with Katherine?

Col. BECK: Sure.

GROSS: How long ago did her husband die?

Col. BECK: Gosh, four years.

GROSS: So that says something about the commitment that you make to a family
after delivering the news.

Col. BECK: These families mean a great deal to me, and they all have a very
special place in my heart, and I hope I have one in theirs, and they're a part
of my family. So that's how I view them.

GROSS: You know, I'm wondering, like, when you train to be a Marine you're
training to survive war and to be able to kill your enemy. When you're
dealing with families on the home front, delivering the news that their loved
one has died and then being there to support the family through this horrible
period in their lives, it's such a different set of emotions and skills and
parts of yourself that you must have to draw on. Like, were you prepared for
that? I mean, is--do you know what I'm saying?

Col. BECK: I do.

GROSS: It's like being a Marine in war is so completely different than having
to be with somebody while they're grieving and be there for them.

Col. BECK: I completely understand. One of the things that Jim said, and
that you've just repeated was that, you know, Marines are trained for war,
they're trained to kill. That's certainly true. We're very good at that.
The counterargument is we're extremely good at saving lives and taking care of
people. The saying "no better friend, no worse enemy" certainly holds true
for all Marines. So we're as adept at protecting lives and saving lives as we
are at taking them. So. And as defenders of this country and democracy and
freedom I think that that's exactly what you want.

GROSS: Is it fair to say--because this is one of the impressions I took away
from the book--that you both feel that Americans have been very protected from
the realities of the war in Iraq, that the men and women fighting in Iraq and
their families and loved ones have paid a huge price, are making incredible
sacrifices, but that the majority of Americans have been protected from those
sacrifices and haven't been really called on to make sacrifices. Am I
interpreting that correctly? And if so, would you elaborate on your concerns
about that?

Mr. SHEELER: I think that sacrifice is the right word. I've especially seen
it in the, you know, the homes of these wives and widows who've, you know, the
stories come out in the beginning. And, you know, the first funeral we had in
Colorado thousands of people lined the streets. And now, unless it's a
smaller town, really the turnout is relatively small. You know, you see that
name go across the TV screen and, you know, for anybody who's had any
involvement in the process, it weighs so much heavier. I mean, that name is
going to affect tens if not hundreds of people, including the service member
who just got that cell phone call and had to go knock on that door, which
could be happening right now.

And the people, there's so many people in this country that live with that
realization that that knock could be coming anytime. And yet they go and they
do their jobs and they take their kids--the kids are trying to make it through
school. I mean, I interviewed a girl who got in trouble, sent to the
principal's office for writing on the bathroom mirror in lipstick, `What do
you do when your mom's in Iraq?' You know, there's these little scenes that
are happening everywhere. And just helping people understand that there is a
war going on, I think that there's no family out there who would be against

GROSS: Jim, you're a young journalist at kind of the beginning of your
career, and you've spent, you know, five years writing about fallen soldiers
and fallen Marines and their families, and you've written a lot of other
obituaries as well. One of those stories you tell is about a Marine who'd
been a gravedigger at Fort Logan cemetery, a military cemetery. And he had
been promoted to a supervisory position. Now, he had been sent to Iraq and,
when he got back, suffered a terrible depression. It sounded like he was
nearly suicidal. And you write about how the place that he seemed to feel
most comfortable was working in the cemetery. Would you talk a little bit
about what he told you about that?

Mr. SHEELER: Sure. His name was Andrew Alonzo. And he's a Reservist who
saw one of his really good friends die in Iraq and came back and had a really
hard time. He was actually a caretaker at the cemetery when he was called up
to go to Iraq. And so he had been burying mostly World War II veterans,
Vietnam veterans. And then he came back after Iraq and was basically in
charge of setting the headstones for the newest active duty, especially the
Marines who were coming back. And he had an incredibly hard time with it in
the beginning, but then he realized that being that last person to take care
of those guys was actually a very cathartic thing for him, that he could make
sure that they were cared for.

And as we were standing there as one of the Marines was being buried, he kind
of stood off on the side, and after the family left I asked him what he would
have said to her. And he said he felt awkward going up and talking to her,
but if he could have talked to her he would have told her that `it's OK, we'll
take care of him now.'

GROSS: Colonel Steve Beck and journalist Jim Sheeler. Sheeler's new book is
called "Final Salute."

You can download podcasts of our interviews on our Web site,

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Maureen Corrigan with nonfiction picks for the summer

Our book critic Maureen Corrigan has put together a list of nonfiction books
she recommends for summer reading. Waterfalls, wizards, boys with red wagons
and nights in white satin jostle for attention on the list. Here's her

Ms. MAUREEN CORRIGAN: When I was a kid, family vacations took place in the
dead of winter, not summer. My dad was a refrigeration mechanic. His job was
to maintain those huge air conditioning units you see on the roofs of tall
office buildings. Naturally, summer was his busy time. So it was in that
holiday week between Christmas and New Year's that he, my mom and I would pile
into our Rambler Classic and go off on a road trip. Washington, DC;
Williamsburg, Virginia; Mystic, Connecticut; and Niagara Falls; I remember
tramping around all those places on overcast, icy days.

And now Ginger Strand's new book casts another pall over my childhood vacation
memories. One of the facts about Niagara Falls that Strand highlights in her
idiosyncratic cultural history called "Inventing Niagara" is that since 1950
the volume of water that tumbles over the falls roughly doubles during the
summer tourist season, from about 50,000 cubic feet of water per second to
100,000 cubic feet per second. During the blah winter season, Canada and the
US divert water from the falls as a source of hydroelectric power. So the
falls I dutifully stared at on a winter's day were a falls with the faucet
turned halfway shut.

Strand's book is a kick, illuminating and inflected with her wry voice. A
self-proclaimed hydro geek, Strand says that she became obsessed with Niagara
Falls because it's a monument to the way America falsifies its relationship to
nature. If you just think of Niagara as a Viagra-enhanced, has-been honeymoon
destination, "Inventing Niagara" will alert you to the torrent of other
meanings Americans have poured onto the spot.

I don't remember spending a lot of time looking at the passing scenery on
those long-ago vacation car rides. My head was usually buried in a Nancy Drew
mystery. If you want to revisit some beloved books of childhood and learn a
lot about the history of children's literature in America, "Minders of
Make-Believe" is the substantive tome to dip into. Written by Leonard S.
Marcus, who's a prominent scholar of children's lit, "Minders of Make-Believe"
takes readers from the first children's book to originate in the new world,
the New England primer of 1689, up to the Harry Potter phenomenon.
Throughout, Marcus traces the tussle that's been going on for over three
centuries over whether tykes and teens should be reading books primarily for
entertainment or for erudition.

While we're on the subject of children's lit, I've just got to wedge one
fiction recommendation into this nonfiction roundup. HarperCollins has just
reprinted Don Robertson's 1965 young adult novel "The Greatest Thing Since
Sliced Bread." That it is. The multilayered story is set in 1944, when a
nine-year-old named Morris Bird III decides to walk across Cleveland pulling
his little sister in a wagon. Morris wants to find his old friend, Stanley
Chaloupka, who's moved across town. Unfortunately, it's the day of the east
Ohio gas explosions, an actual disaster that killed 130 people and destroyed
one square mile of Cleveland. Both the disaster and its chronicler, Don
Robertson, have faded from memory, but with the boost of this reprint,
featuring wise child Morris, who worships both Veronica Lake and F.D.R., a
whole host of new readers will be ushered back into this lost world.

For a generation of kids who came of age in the 1960s and '70s, summer
memories are suffused with the tinny sound of rock 'n' roll playing on
transistor radios. In her eccentric new memoir, "The Importance of Music To
Girls," British writer Lavinia Greenlaw writes about the way music, especially
rock, propelled her into her first experience of puppy love with Donny Osmond
and later Clash and Banshee-inspired punk rebellions. Greenlaw is gifted with
a sharp eye for the deeper significance of the ephemeral. Here, for instance,
is how she describes a street scene of her youth:

"To be a teenager in 1970 was to suffer an excess of gravity. I watched them
move slowly along Camden High Street, boys and girls alike with faces
half-closed behind long, center-parted hair. The shape their clothes made was
that of something being pulled down into the earth, scoop-necked tops and
flared, ankle-length skirts and trousers made of cumbersome corduroy. Their
colors were vegetal: umber, ochre, aubergine, mushroom, sage. They looked

Boy, does that paragraph bring back the teenage glums of the 1970s.

Whether you're traveling this summer or, as my family once did, you find
yourself stuck in place, any of these provocative books offer a lot to think
about and maybe dredge up a few things you'd rather forget.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University.
Sometime this summer she'll do a roundup of biographies and books of narrative

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Lloyd Schwartz on "The Joan Crawford Collection: Volume
2," a five-DVD set of Crawford films featuring "Torch Song"

A new box set of five famous movies starring Joan Crawford has just been
released on DVD. But classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz says that one of
those films, which he's wanted to see for years, is probably famous for the
wrong reasons.

Mr. LLOYD SCHWARTZ: A new DVD has been making me think about the connection
between the way performers look and the way they sound. Because of the way
music gets recorded on film, most of the singing in movie musicals is
pre-recorded and lip synched by the star miming the motions. If it's the
right voice, the dubbing can be electrifying. Rita Hayworth's mock striptease
in "To Put the Blame on Mame" in the film noir "Gilda" became her iconic
image, even though she didn't actually sing the song. She was lucky that her
singing voice belonged to the wonderful Anita Ellis, who sounded as glamorous
and witty as Hayworth looked. Marnie Nixon's ladylike, trained operatic
voice, complete with British accent, was the perfect counterpart for Deborah
Kerr in "The King and I." But in "My Fair Lady," all the character drained
from the songs when Nixon sang for Audrey Hepburn, whose own voice was so
distinctive and endearing.

The musical melodrama "Torch Song," starring Joan Crawford, not known for her
singing, has just come out on DVD. Crawford plays a hard-bitten Broadway
musical star, but she was not as lucky as Rita Hayworth. The uncredited
singer dubbing her voice has some of the hard-edged qualities of Crawford's
speaking voice, and Crawford's lip synching is quite expert. But how could
this possibly be the voice of a character who is idolized for her singing?

(Soundbite of "Torch Song")

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) Follow me
And you'll have diamond starlight in your eyes
I'll take you places on a cloud of gold
And in your arms you'll hold a paradise

My smile will beckon you to follow me

(End of soundbite)

Mr. SCHWARTZ: The most poignant item on the "Torch Song" DVD is a bonus
feature, a half-hour audio clip of an excruciating recording session in which
Crawford actually tries to sing her own number. She had once taken lessons
from the great American soprano Rosa Ponselle, but she can barely hit the
notes or stay in tune.

(Soundbite of bonus feature)

Unidentified Man: Twenty-five, 41, take six.

(Soundbite of throat clearing)

(Soundbite of beep)

Ms. JOAN CRAWFORD: (Singing) Follow me
And you'll have diamond starlight in your eyes
I'll take you places on a cloud of gold
And in your arms you'll hold a paradise

My smile will beckon you to follow me
And you will know the glow of ecstasy
You'll own the sun, the moon, the stars above
A world of love
If you will always follow me

(Spoken) Any good?

(End of soundbite)

Mr. SCHWARTZ: There are a number of reasons "Torch Song" wasn't a hit. How
could audiences be expected to accept Joan Crawford as a singer or dancer? In
1953, she still had great legs; and when she played flappers in the 1920s, she
could really shake them. But she's almost as klutzy a dancer as she is a
singer. "Torch Song" is probably most notorious for a preposterous production
number called "Two-Faced Woman," in which Crawford actually performs in
blackface and dark body makeup. We can finally howl at this legendary camp
classic in all its terrible, widescreen, Technicolor tastelessness.

(Soundbite of "Torch Song")

Woman: (Singing) I can't help being a two-faced woman
A little bit of boldness, a little bit of sweetness
A little bit of coldness, a little bit of heatness
Don't fall in love with a two-faced woman
Givin' you a warning, I'll leave you in the morning,
Got another lover undercover
I'm like a weathervane that goes with the breeze
My disposition makes me do as I please

That's why they call me...

(End of soundbite)

Mr. SCHWARTZ: "Torch Song" is actually a fast-moving soap opera about how a
self-centered Broadway diva finds love with the blind ex-soldier and former
theater critic, played by Michael Wilding, who was still Elizabeth Taylor's
husband at the time. The film is smartly directed by Charles Walters, a
dancer-choreographer who directed such entertaining musicals as "Good News"
and "Easter Parade." In the movie's most ironic scene, Walters himself plays
Crawford's dancing partner, and she wants him fired because he trips over her
when they're rehearsing a number. "Torch Song" is great fun to watch, but
it's even more fun when it's bad than when it's good.

GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz is classical music editor of the Boston Phoenix and
co-editor of the new Library of America volume of Elizabeth Bishop's poems,
prose and letters.

We'll close with a track from a new CD by Catherine Russell. I just recorded
an interview with her that we'll hear soon.

(Soundbite of "So Little Time (So Much To Do)")

Ms. CATHERINE RUSSELL: (Singing) There's so little time, so much to do
There's so little time for dreams to come true
Many a ship to sail, many a magic lamp
Many a moonlit trail, many a road to walk hand in hand
There are songs of love we never have sung
Let's not waste not an hour, the night is still young
Lifetime's not enough for the love that I have for you
There's so little time, so much to do

(End of soundbite)
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?


Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR


Daughter of Warhol star looks back on a bohemian childhood in the Chelsea Hotel

Alexandra Auder's mother, Viva, was one of Andy Warhol's muses. Growing up in Warhol's orbit meant Auder's childhood was an unusual one. For several years, Viva, Auder and Auder's younger half-sister, Gaby Hoffmann, lived in the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan. It was was famous for having been home to Leonard Cohen, Dylan Thomas, Virgil Thomson, and Bob Dylan, among others.


This fake 'Jury Duty' really put James Marsden's improv chops on trial

In the series Jury Duty, a solar contractor named Ronald Gladden has agreed to participate in what he believes is a documentary about the experience of being a juror--but what Ronald doesn't know is that the whole thing is fake.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue