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Gwendolin Sims Warren Shares Beloved Religious Songs.

Gwendolin Sims Warren has performed with the Metropolitan Opera and the Boston Symphony and has sung in opera houses in Europe, but she's most at home singing in church. She's the daughter and granddaughter of ministers. Now she's the minister of music and choir director at the Allen AME Church in Queens, New York. She's compiled 101 best-loved Psalms, Gospel hymns and spirituals of the African American church in her new book "Ev'ry Time I Feel The Spirit." We invited her to talk about and sing some of those songs.

21:32

Other segments from the episode on January 8, 1998

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, January 8, 1998: Interview with Gwendolin Sims Warren; Interview with Robert Caro; Review of Alice McDermott's novel "Charming Billy."

Transcript

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: JANUARY 08, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 010801NP.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Ev'ry Time I Feel the Spirit
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Gwendolin Sims Warren has performed with the Metropolitan Opera and the Boston Symphony and has sung in opera houses in Europe, but she's most at home singing in church. She's the daughter and granddaughter of ministers. When she was growing up, she sang and played piano and organ at her father's African Methodist Episcopal Church in New Jersey and in other community congregations.

In the late '80s, she began a seven-year tenure as minister of music at Times Square Church in Manhattan -- a church of 50 nationalities and ethnic groups. Now she's the minister of music and choir director at the Allen AME Church in Queens, New York.

She's compiled 101 best-loved Psalms, Gospel hymns and spirituals of the African American church in her new book "Ev'ry Time I Feel The Spirit." We invited her to talk about and sing some of those songs.

Gwen Warren, welcome to FRESH AIR. It's a pleasure to have you here.

Now, you are the minister of music at a church in Jamaica, Queens.

GWENDOLIN SIMS WARREN, MINISTER OF MUSIC, ALLEN AFRICAN METHODIST EPISCOPAL CHURCH, AUTHOR, "EV'RY TIME I FEEL THE SPIRIT: 101 BEST-LOVED PSALMS, GOSPEL HYMNS, AND SPIRITUAL SONGS OF THE AFRICAN-AMERICAN CHURCH":
Yes.

GROSS: And it's a pretty big church. How many people are members of that?

WARREN: About 8,000 members.

GROSS: Wow. Right. How many people show up on a typical Sunday?

WARREN: Well, we have three services, 6:30, 8:30, and 11:15, so it's close to about, I'd say about 1,800 members visiting every Sunday morning.

GROSS: That's really a lot.

WARREN: Yeah, I mean, well, each service. So you're talking about perhaps about 4,000 -- or 6,000 people or more.

GROSS: And what's the makeup of the congregation?

WARREN: It is African-American -- those who are here basically from the South -- family backgrounds in the South -- as well as a high population of Afro-Caribbean right now, from the islands moving into Jamaica over the years, and new immigrants.

GROSS: So you're the minister of music and the choir director, which means among other things, you choose the songs.

WARREN: Yes.

GROSS: How do you choose the songs?

WARREN: Oh, with much pain.

LAUGHTER

It's trying to find music that is appropriate for the congregation. The congregation -- we still sing hymns. We still do anthems. We have a classical ensemble. We sing contemporary praise music. We do gospel music that is quite contemporary sometimes, especially our youth group sings, you know, Kirk Franklin (ph) stomp.

GROSS: What is the difference between a hymn, a spiritual, and a gospel song?

WARREN: Well, the hymns are basically composed songs, even by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. You might refer to it as poetry that comes forth; so a religious poem set to music. The gospel songs are basically things that are coming from the emotional reference of the contemporary time; the circumstances in which they live. And while it is in rhyme or what have you, it is also based out of the feelings -- depth of feelings. Whereas the hymn could be more scriptural in verbal content, the gospel song is saying "well, this is the way I feel today."

"Gospel" meaning the good message is also based on a style of singing, on a style of singing -- not just the music itself, but its style of singing. The spiritual, we know, then comes from the spontaneity of the Holy Spirit, without having to write it down; just simply whatever's coming out is what's coming out. And it's like a new song -- something just birth out of their spirit.

GROSS: There's a gospel hymn I'd like you to sing called "Nothing Between My Soul and the Savior." Tell us something about the composer of this, Charles Tinley (ph).

WARREN: Charles Tinley came up in a time when slavery still had not ended. He was offered out to work as a young child. And he came to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, I think with his parents here. And growing up, started working in a church here called Calvary Methodist Church. And he was a janitor there.

And I guess with the demise of the pastor at that time and somehow evidence of his, really, a calling from God became the pastor. And it became one of the most booming churches for years here in Philadelphia. Thousands upon thousands of people would just visit the church because his preaching was so incredible and his music was so incredible.

His -- sometimes he would get a song while preaching, and he'd write it down. He was a prolific songwriter. And he's the one who really influenced Thomas Dorsey (ph) who we now call the "Father of Gospel" because he dealt with ordinary, everyday circumstances, which for him, also being African-American and from slavery times, the difficulties of living in the city, discrimination, poverty -- the circumstances of life. He would say, well no matter what, I can praise God. No matter what, I can still live. No matter what, I have hope.

GROSS: What do you particularly like about this song?

WARREN: Well, the story behind this song is he was getting ready to sit down and write another song, and he had a piece of paper in his hand and the pen. And if I remember correctly, the wind blew something between his paper and the pen as he was writing the song. It was like a leaf, I think, got between the paper and the pen.

And all of a sudden, he was just inspired, said: "oh, let nothing between," because he needed the pen right on the paper. And he said: "oh my God, let nothing between -- be between you and me." "Nothing Between," that's what it's all about.

GROSS: Do you want to do it for us?

WARREN PLAYS PIANO

WARREN SINGING: Nothing between my soul and my Saviour
Lord of this world's elusive dream
I have renounced all sinful pleasure
Jesus is mine, there's nothing between

Nothing between my soul and my Saviour
So that his blessed face may be seen
Nothing preventing the least of his favors
Keep the way clear, let nothing between

GROSS: Very nice. Thank you. You know, you point out in your book that most people would be really surprised to find out that a lot of gospel songs or hymns that they associate with the African-American church were really composed by white songwriters. And vice-versa, lots of hymns that are considered to be from the white church were really composed by African-Americans.

Surprise us with a couple of examples.

WARREN: Well such as "It Is Well With My Soul" -- I thought for the longest time that it was "our" song, 'cause I've always heard it. I've heard it forever and ever. Just as late as the other day, last Saturday, it was a song sung at my uncle's funeral.

And we sing it -- it's probably sung in the African-American Church every single week.

GROSS: Just do a couple of bars of that first.

WARREN: Yes.

WARREN PLAYS PIANO

WARREN SINGING: When peace like a river attendeth my way
When sorrows like sea billows roam
Whatever my lot
Thou has taught me to say
It is well, it is well with my soul

GROSS: So you always assumed that that was written by an African-American, but it's...

WARREN: Yes.

GROSS: ... really written by a white songwriter.

WARREN: Yes.

GROSS: Another example?

WARREN: "Amazing Grace."

GROSS: Amazing Grace is written by who?

WARREN: Ex-slave trader.

GROSS: An ex-slave trader?

WARREN: Yes. John Newton.

GROSS: That is really surprising because it seems so much a song about, you know, liberation of every sort. And to think that it was written by a former slave trader. Do you know anything about the circumstances...

WARREN: Well, you know...

GROSS: ... of the writing of it?

WARREN: ... they said he was just -- well, he called himself a "wretch" and he lived a very horrendous, I guess, life that just didn't please anybody around him. He was on an ocean voyage. The hull was filled with slaves. Someone had given him a book by Thomas a'Kempis (ph), "Imitation of Christ." And a storm brewed up on the ocean, looking like they were going to lose their lives. And that's one way of getting one to kind of make a commitment.

And at that time, he gave his life to the Lord. And when he realized after that, just the grace of God in his life, he just began to pen that song. Sometimes they say that the melody sounds like an African-American melody that he may have heard some of the Africans singing in the hull of the ship -- that kind of a melody. But it's been sung in a Christian church, and especially in the African-American church, forever and ever and ever.

GROSS: Of course, also in a lot of white churches.

WARREN: Oh, yes -- during the civil rights -- or course. And then during the civil rights movement, we identified it with a black church thing because television was, you know, televising the black churches and they were singing this song. So, that's Amazing Grace.

GROSS: Did you -- are there any songs you can think of that people would assume were written by a white songwriter that were actually written by an African-American?

WARREN: Well typical of that was Nothing Between; "Just a Closer Walk With The." Many people still might not know that "Take My Hand, Precious Lord" is by Thomas Dorsey. That's a song that many sing. But many may not know the history of Thomas Dorsey and that he was an African-American, and that this song that is sung in about, maybe more than 20 languages.

GROSS: Well tell us a little bit about Thomas Dorsey and then I'll ask you to sing Take My Hand.

WARREN: Well, Thomas Dorsey came along in the early 19th -- 1900s, some of an itinerant minister who, you know, traveled around preaching. I think his mother was a musician. And he grew up playing and singing in the churches. Then, he also went out to do blues. He played for Ma Rainey (ph), Bessie Smith, and was influenced by that sound and the chordal structures of those songs.

And he was living this kind of life. Of course, when he started writing these songs, he was an outcast in the black church. They -- you know, he would come to sing, sometimes Mahalia would go. If they really found out what they really were going to sing on a program, you know like a concert in the afternoon services, they would just overlook them. They never got a chance to sing, or they would just tell them "you're not going to sing that sin music or that devil's music in here" because they had a problem with that bluesy sound.

But, Dorsey just felt very strongly that it was going -- it was God's music because he felt it in his soul. And that he was just going to keep waving the banner until it became accepted.

So he had $5 and he invested in one of his songs to get 500 copies made of that song. It took him three years to make any money off of it. But once he did that, it began to -- gospel music began to sell.

GROSS: And now, he's considered one of the fathers of gospel music.

WARREN: The father of gospel. If they want to identify with that -- of gospel at all, say the father of gospel is Thomas Dorsey, or they call it "Dorsey's music."

GROSS: Want to do one of his songs for us?

WARREN: Yes, I'd like to do "Take My Hand, Precious Lord."

WARREN PLAYS PIANO

WARREN SINGING: Precious Lord
Take my hand
Lead me on
Let me stand
I am tired
I am weak
I am one

Through the storm
And through the night
Lead me on
To the light
Take my hand
Precious Lord
And lead me home

GROSS: Do you do that much in church now?

WARREN: Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. We do it a lot.

LAUGHTER

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Gwendolin Warren. And she directs the choir and is the minister of music at a large church in Jamaica, Queens. She's also the author of the new book Ev'ry Time I Feel The Spirit: 101 Best-Loved Psalms, Gospel Hymns and Spiritual Songs of the African-American Church.

And we'll hear more songs, she's at the piano, after we take a short break.

This is FRESH AIR.

Back with Gwendolin Warren. And she is the music director -- minister of music of a large church in Queens, New York. And she's author of the new book Ev'ry Time I Feel The Spirit.

You know, you -- you've also, in addition to singing spirituals and gospel, you've sung opera. You've performed in various places in Europe. You've sung art songs. I wonder if it's a big difference for you singing in a church or singing in the concert hall? I mean, in the church, people aren't showing up and thinking "OK, I paid my money, entertain me." You know? It's just a different -- it's much more participatory than it is in, you know, in the opera.

So talk to me a little about the difference between the two for you?

WARREN: Well for me, I -- I love singing in the church...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

WARREN: ... because -- well, even when I was at Times Square Church, although that was 50 denominations, the response of the congregation -- we were -- I didn't feel like I was a performer. I'd feel like I was participating, maybe in more lead role, but the people were participating and -- for any performer -- that -- or any minister -- that's what you need, is people to be joining in with you.

So when you're singing opera, when you're singing symphony music, you have an audience out there. You have a curtain in front of you. Even when it's not closed, there's the difference between the stage and the audience. And so many times, of course, people don't -- you know, they wouldn't dare say "yay, hey," you know, not in an opera or in a symphony. They may weep silently or they may feel like rejoicing, but that never becomes expressed.

So you don't really know how you're even rating out there, you know. You just worry about whether you're going to sing the high notes, sing the right notes; how is your diction, how the reviewers receive you. This is totally freeing for me because I depend on the Lord for the -- what we call the anointing inspiration of the Holy Spirit for the power to sing. To do -- how to line out the song -- I don't necessarily have to be dependent on all that I have. I'm depending on Him to give me whatever I have.

And the wonderful thing about it is that the congregation is singing right along with you. Sometimes you have to almost say "OK, hold it" 'cause I'm getting ready to introduce the new verse and you don't know this one, so hold on for a minute, 'cause they're just going, just going, just going and just praising the Lord.

And so I think that's -- that's what I really enjoy. It's just -- I can be me.

You were for seven years, I think, the music director of a really large church...

WARREN: Yes.

GROSS: ... on Times Square.

WARREN: Yes.

GROSS: ... in New York. And you know, you think of Times Square as a place where tourists are and visitors are and maybe vagrants are, but not where people actually live. So who -- who were the members of this congregation?

WARREN: Well, they came from all over; as far as -- even from New Jersey; people would commute in from like Allentown, Pennsylvania at least twice a month or early services; from all over the boroughs -- New Jersey, Connecticut. It touched many lives -- and most of it, its outreach to the community there.

At that time, you know, there were street people in the Times Square area. Now it's been cleaned up so you don't see any street people. But in those days, it was street people. And we had a facility to bring them in there. And we would have people come in off the street into services, you know.

I remember one guy was running from a cop bust. He was selling drugs on the corner by the church, and he saw the cops coming, so he ran into the church during the service to get out of the way. And he came in and he heard the praise and worship and the music. And he sat there. It was almost like he was stunned. He couldn't move.

And before the service was over, after which he gave his life to the Lord, he went to school. He forsook everything. He went to school. He is now -- he's got a diploma in Bible -- so I think he's doing something with his life. I'm almost sure he is. I've gotten letters from him.

So it ministered to the people of the street, and the squeegee guys, you know, who were doing your windshields.

GROSS: Right -- the guys who do your windshield then press you to give them some money.

WARREN: People sleeping -- at that time -- yeah -- and the time they were in those, you know, cardboard boxes there by...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

WARREN: ... the train station -- the bus station. There but for the grace of God could I be, you know. God -- only God knows how we get from one place to another. And so, we did speak to the congregation that someone coming in may really need God, need a change of life. And if you're going to be a barrier to them because you're going to shun them, you know, what's gonna happen? The major moves of God in the Christian church have been where people have not looked at any barrier, be it racially, culturally, ethnic -- any of that -- and have just reached out to another soul.

GROSS: I'd like you to leave us with a song. Why don't you tell us what you'd like to sing, and if there's a story behind the spiritual, what it means to you.

WARREN: Well, I'd like to close out with "Sweet Jesus" -- a spiritual. And I guess I would say that that which has held the hearts of the African-American believer through the ages is that relationship with Jesus. Slaves in their kind of child-like faith, esteemed that relationship with Jesus -- "talking to Mr. Jesus," "Master Jesus" or "King Jesus" or "Sweet Jesus."

And because in the midst of all their sorrow and grief, he was like honey to the lips. He was the lily in the valley. He was the bright and morning star in darkness. And they just cultivated that love relationship with him. And so they just loved him and they just said "sweet Jesus" and this is some -- they could be having a groaning, moaning time -- "oh, how difficult it is" -- and they just be...

WARREN PLAYS PIANO

WARREN SINGING: Sweet Jesus, sweet Jesus
You're the fairest of ten thousand
You're the bright and morning star

Sweet Jesus, sweet Jesus
You're the fairest of ten thousand
To my soul

Oh how I love you
How I love you
You're the fairest of ten thousand
You're the bright and morning star

Sweet Jesus, sweet Jesus
You're the fairest of ten thousand
To my soul

Yes, you're worthy
You are worthy
You're the lily of the valley
You've the bright and morning star

You are worthy
Lord, you are worthy
You're the fairest of ten thousand
To my soul

GROSS: Gwendolin Sims is the author of Ev'ry Time I Feel The Spirit. She's the minister of music at the Allen AME Church in Queens, New York. Her name, by the way, is Gwendolin Sims Warren and she's the minister of music at the Allen AME Church in Queens, New York.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Gwendolin Sims Warren
High: Gwendolin Sims Warren talks about her new book "Ev'ry Time I Feel The Spirit: 101 Best-Loved Psalms, Gospel Hymns, and Spiritual Songs of the African-American Church." It is published by Henry Holt. Warren is Minister of Music at the Allen African Methodist Episcopal Church in Queens, New York.
Spec: Religion; Books; Authors; Gwendolin Sims Warren
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Ev'ry Time I Feel the Spirit
Show: FRESH AIR
Date: JANUARY 08, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 010802NP.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: The Power Broker
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:30

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

New York City is celebrating its centennial this year. Perhaps the man most responsible for the shape of the city and for its parks, expressways, and bridges is Robert Moses. Moses held 14 state, regional, and city offices ranging from city parks commissioner to construction coordinator.

My guest, Robert Caro, won a 1975 Pulitzer Prize for his book about Moses called "The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York." It's now seen as a classic study in the use and abuse of power.

Caro went on to study the use of power on a national level by writing a series of books about Lyndon Johnson. The two published volumes have each won National Book Critics Circle Awards.

In the January 5th edition of the New Yorker, Caro wrote about Moses' impact on New York City. I asked Caro first about the significance of the city's centennial.

ROBERT CARO, AUTHOR, "THE POWER BROKER: ROBERT MOSES AND THE FALL OF NEW YORK": Exactly 100 years ago in January, 1898, the five boroughs of New York City were united, consolidated into a single city. Before that, what we think of as New York was really Manhattan and the Bronx.

With the consolidation of New York, Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island were added to the city and it became, in that one moment, the largest city in America, with a population of over 3 million people; and also the most extensive -- about 320 square miles. And that all happened in this one moment 100 years ago.

GROSS: You describe Robert Moses as the man who more than any other individual shaped modern New York. What was his role in the building of New York City?

CARO: Well you know, he was in power for almost half this century that we're talking about today -- for 44 years, from 1924 to 1968. During that time, seven great bridges were built in New York. You know, the city -- we think of New York as a city, but it's really four islands. Only one of the five boroughs -- the Bronx -- is on the mainland of the United States. So the city has to be -- had to be brought together. The city had to be linked with bridges.

Robert Moses built every one of the seven great bridges that link the boroughs together since 1917. He built the Verrazano Bridge, the Triborough Bridge, the Bronx Whitestone, the Throgs Neck, the Henry Hudson, the Crossbay (ph), and the Marine Parkway. He built every one of the expressways that run across the city -- these great roads: the Long Island Expressway, the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, the Cross Bronx Expressway, the Major Deegan, the Van Wyck -- he built every one of them.

He built every one of the 11 parkways that run through the city, out towards the suburban counties of Long Island. And he built every one of the parkways on Long Island. During this half a century that Robert Moses was in power, he built 627 miles of expressways and parkways -- many more miles than any other individual in history.

GROSS: I think one of the things that makes your book The Power Broker about Robert Moses so interesting is that you not only talk about his grand vision, but you talk about the price that the city paid for that vision. You talk about not only what he built, but what he needed to destroy in order to rebuild New York.

What's an example of the destruction that he caused?

CARO: You know, when I was doing the book, Terry, I decided to try to look at and portray the human cost of these great highways that he was building. And I -- he built 627 miles of expressways and parkways. I decided to concentrate on one mile. So, I took a mile of the Cross Bronx Expressway as it ran through the East Tremont section of the Bronx, which was a poor, but lively, stable community, largely Jewish, but with substantial German and Irish and black, well-integrated, populations in there.

And I found -- he built these roads with an absolute disregard for what was in their -- was in their way. And in this particular mile, he destroyed -- he took a route which destroyed 54 separate apartment houses, throwing, really, thousands and thousands of people out of their homes and destroying the community, when there was available just two blocks away a parallel route which would have destroyed only six small brownstones.

GROSS: Why didn't he take the parallel route?

CARO: Well, political considerations were a very important factor in the way Moses exercised power. I say in the book, we don't really know whether it was simply because of his whim that he said it was going to be that way and that's the way it was gonna be; or whether the only things that would have been condemned on the other route were six small tenements and the Bronx depot of a transit company in which high-ranking Bronx politicians had hidden interests, which was very profitable to them and which they didn't want condemned.

GROSS: Well, you investigated the techniques he used for relocating the thousands of people in the East Tremont neighborhood that needed to be relocated to make way for this expressway. So how did he let them know they had to move and how did he make sure they got out in a timely fashion?

CARO: One day, everyone along this route -- thousands of families -- got a letter from Robert Moses saying the Cross Bronx Expressway is going through and you have 90 days to move. And the men and women who lived there whom I interviewed at the time -- so I had to go, you know, find them wherever they had moved to -- described how they gathered out on the street, holding the letters saying "90 days to move -- what is this? It was like the earth opened up under our feet."

So they tried to fight, but they found that although their elected officials agreed with them, it didn't really matter what those officials wanted. The only thing that mattered was what Robert Moses wanted.

GROSS: And how did he help push them out so that they'd get out quickly?

CARO: Well of course, they didn't have to get out that quickly. One of his assistants said to me the 90 days was just to shake them up a little bit; to get them moving. The actual construction of the expressway in that area was not to begin for three years. But as soon as some people moved out of their apartments, he'd immediately board up the windows as an advertisement that the apartments were vacant and available for looting.

When people moved out of the top floor of these apartment houses, he would immediately tear off the top floor of that apartment house, as soon as it was vacant. As one woman said to me: "while we were still living there, he was tearing the buildings down around our heads." When he got one or two tenements along this route vacant, he immediately demolished them and left the foundations as gaping pits in the ground and refused to build fences around them. So the remaining residents were afraid that their children would fall in.

He used the most ruthless means possible to drive these people out. And he was successful. In a very short time, those 54 apartment houses were vacant.

GROSS: Do you think in the long run, you know, a lot of people were -- a lot of people had their lives shaken up. Some people had their lives ruined. But could you say in the long run, it was worth it, because for decades after, New York has had better highways, better roads? You know, that in order for a city to grow, some people have to pay a price.

CARO: It's a very complicated question because you really say: if the city had not been made so dependent on the auto, would the whole shape of the city have changed? When he was building the Long Island Expressway in the 1950s, out through Nassau and Suffolk Counties -- New York suburbs -- those counties -- Suffolk County was still largely potato fields. The cost of land was so cheap that buying land for it was very inexpensive.

And every urban planner who dealt with Moses said to him: "build a rapid transit line down the center of the Long Island Expressway." It's very cheap to buy the land for it. I forget the exact figure, but it was an infinitesimal amount compared to the cost of the expressway. You needed 80 feet for the center mall.

Moses refused to do that. And then they said: "well, if you don't want to build the rapid transit line, at least buy the 80 feet. Then in future generations, if people want a rapid transit line, they'll be able to put one down the center of the expressway." He refused to do that. And as a result of that -- in fact, he even did certain engineering things which will make it impossible for the Long Island Expressway ever to have rapid transit down it.

So, the whole shape of Long Island might have been different. And if we take that -- you know, for many of these expressways, you say "well, things didn't have to be this way." At the same time, what you say is really correct. In some way, these roads are a benefit.

So in The Power Broker, I really say that it's impossible to say whether New York City would have been a better or a worse city if Robert Moses had never lived. But it is necessary to say that had Robert Moses never lived, New York would be a very different city than it was today -- than it is today.

GROSS: My guest is Robert Caro, author of The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

Back with Robert Caro, author of a book first published in the mid-'70s called The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. It won a Pulitzer Prize in the mid-'70s, and this year is the centennial of New York City -- a good time to take another look at how New York City was shaped by Robert Moses and his use of power.

One of the things that you uncovered while investigating Robert Moses and his use of power was that Robert Moses forged a secret deal with a multimillionaire who owned a large estate in an area that Moses wanted to go through to build a parkway -- the Northern State Parkway.

And when he realized that he would offend this wealthy, powerful multimillionaire, he moved the parkway someplace else where it went through the land of several small farm owners, just really ruining the lives of most of these farm families.

What was it like for you when you found this secret agreement?

CARO: I was looking through the papers of the old governors, Al Smith and Franklin Roosevelt, from the 1920s and '30s. And I found that Moses had in fact accepted -- now he didn't -- there was no personal dishonesty in this. Moses was not interested in money for himself. Someone once said to me: "some men are interested in caviar. Robert Moses was happy with a ham sandwich if he could have power on the side."

But the legislature was blocking the construction of the Northern State Parkway and wouldn't even give money for surveys. Otto Kahn (ph), who was a multimillionaire, had in the Dix (ph) Hills this immense estate, including his own private 18-hole golf course. And he agreed -- he said that he would donate $10,000 to the -- Moses' park commission for surveys, provided that part of the surveys found a new route for the parkway that did not go across his golf course.

Moses moved the parkway; did that; the surveys found a new route to the south. But to the south, there were the estates of other immensely wealthy and powerful robber barons. So he moved it south again, until he came to this line of 21 small farms. And that's where the parkway ran. And one day, a representative of Moses suddenly showed up and told these farmers that land was -- out of -- from the middle of their farms, was being condemned for the parkway.

When they said "can't you just move it a little further south," they said "no, engineering considerations dictated that the route would go here."

Well, I and my wife eventually found some of these farmers. And the human tragedy that was involved from this change in the parkway route was so striking. It ruined their lives, because the condemnation awards never came to much; the farms were divided in half.

And one of these farmers, James Roth (ph), you know, he begged Moses to move the parkway just 400 feet south -- less than one-tenth of a mile south. Moses refused. And I wrote in the book something like, I said: "for men of wealth and power, Moses had already moved the parkway three miles. For James Roth, who had neither wealth nor power, he wouldn't move the parkway one foot."

GROSS: On the one hand, you could argue that Moses was a pragmatist. You don't get things done in New York unless you play it by certain political rules and cater to the people who have the power to give you what you need. You can be an idealist and hold onto your morals and get absolutely nothing done. Moses -- Moses knew how to play the power game and got a lot done.

On the other hand, he portrayed himself, from what you say, in a really dishonest way. He portrayed himself as an uncompromising public servant who was above politics, which clearly he wasn't. And he kept all these deals a secret so he was able to have a dishonest view of himself. He was able to represent himself in a way that he really wasn't.

CARO: Yes, and you have -- you see, that's why the story of Moses, and of political power in general, is such a complicated one.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

CARO: There's no easy answer to this because you really say: what was the city like when he came to power? And what was the city like when he left power? When he came to power in New York in 1924, New York was a city really bright with promise. At the time he left, New York was a city -- left power -- New York was a city, really, if we can look back that far and imagine that time now that the city is on the rise -- of a place of chaos and despair.

He built housing, but the kind of housing he built for poor people, he tried to keep it -- he tried to make people feel that they were poor. He believed in that. He believed in the ghettoization of the city; believed that classes -- you shouldn't build low income structures in upper income areas. He concentrated always on diverting the city's resources to the middle and the upper middle and the upper classes, and away from the lower classes and the lower middle classes.

This had great impact on the course of the city's development. You really can't say, as I said before, that New York would have been better or worse if he had never lived. What you can say is this one man shaped the city as we know it today. No mayor shaped the city. No governor shaped the city. Robert Moses shaped the city.

The city we live in today, 30 years after he left power, is the city that Robert Moses shaped -- not just with his highways, his parkways, his bridges, and his parks. But because for over 40 years, despite the wishes of its elected officials in many instances, he skewed the city's policies -- the city's resources, the use of the city's resources -- away from trying to integrate and bring the new immigrants and make them really part of New York, into things -- into projects which would benefit the middle and upper middle classes.

GROSS: Because of secret deals that you revealed about Robert Moses and because you showed how he abused his powers, as well as how he used it for the good, he was very angry with you. He hated your book. He denounced your book.

CARO: Yes.

GROSS: You didn't even go to his funeral, even though you wanted to, because you sensed that his family would not have wanted you around. Did you feel bad about that? I mean, everybody wants to be liked.

LAUGHTER

CARO: Well, you...

GROSS: You devoted so much time to this man, and you know, he hated you for it.

CARO: Well, when -- you know, he loved to build. He had great dreams. The Power Broker, you know, is not in any way a wholly negative book. I would say the first 300 or so pages are about this young idealist with these great and beautiful dreams. And I admired those. And I saw how important it was for him to be able to build.

During the time I was writing The Power Broker -- when I started it, he was at the very height of his power -- but during the time I was writing it, he was removed from power. He was then about 80 years old. And when I realized that he would never be able to build anything again, my emotions -- you know, you had a lot of emotions toward him -- you always do about someone you write. But now, I started to pity him as well.

And as years passed and he kept fighting to get back into power and to get to build something else and he couldn't do it, I really became very sad for him. At the same time, you also have to feel pity for the people -- hundreds of thousands of people -- that he displaced from their homes, often without any good reason, so that he could realize his dreams.

It's really too complicated to try to put Moses or perhaps any great political figure -- to try and sum them up. And that's really what I learned when I was doing this book. It's very complicated. When he -- when he died, of course, as you know -- say -- I wanted to go to his funeral. I felt it would ruin it for his family and his friends if I was there because he hated the book so much. So, I didn't go.

I must say as I walk or drive around New York, there's scarcely a day that I don't see something on which he left his mark and which makes me remember him. And to tell you the truth, the way I feel now, 23 years after the book came out, is that there's a great void in my life because he's not filling it up anymore.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

CARO: Thank you for having me.

GROSS: Robert Caro's book about Robert Moses is called The Power Broker. Caro is at work on the third of a project four-volume series of books about Lyndon Johnson.

Coming up, a new novel set in Queens, New York by Alice McDermott.

This is FRESH AIR.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Robert Caro
High: Robert Caro talks about his Pulitzer Prize winning book "The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York" which was published in 1974. The book focuses on Robert Moses who over 50 years held 14 state, regional and city offices, some concurrently. He built parks and playgrounds, beaches and bridges, highways and housing. So vast was his influence that Caro says no single man has had more influence on shaping modern day New York. This month, marks the 100th Anniversary of the consolidation of New York's five boroughs that make up New York City. "The Power Broker" is still available from Vintage books.
Spec: Cities; New York; History; Robert Moses; The Power Broker
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: The Power Broker
Show: FRESH AIR
Date: JANUARY 08, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 010803NP.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Charming Billy
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:55

TERRY GROSS, HOST: Alice McDermott's new novel, "Charming Billy," returns her readers to the world of Irish-American weddings, wakes, and whiskey-fueled conversations that she created in her earlier novels like "That Night."

Book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, FRESH AIR COMMENTATOR: A couple of months ago in the New York Observer, the always-astute columnist Ron Rosenbaum wrote an essay pitting Brooklyn against the Bronx for the honor of being New York City's most literary borough. Rosenbaum weighed the relative merits of Brooklyn boys like Walt Whitman and Norman Mailer against Bronx bombers like E.L. Doctorow, Kate Simon, and Grace Paley.

I remember feeling some resentment at the non-consideration of my own native borough, Queens. How could Rosenbaum overlook Jimmy Breslin? Or the visionary architect and writer Louis Mumford, who was born in the lyrically-named Queens neighborhood of Flushing?

Now, after reading Alice McDermott's Charming Billy, I'm retroactively incensed at that literary slight. As she demonstrates here, McDermott is an unsentimental and fearsomely accurate poet of Irish-Catholic Queens -- the fast-vanishing land of first communion breakfasts at the Knights of Columbus, college at St. John's or Fordham, followed by white collar jobs at the phone company of ConEd.

McDermott's characters are deferential, quiet people. They shy away from embarrassing profundity. Given her characters' native reticence, Alice McDermott, like James Joyce's Stephen Daedalus, must take it upon herself to forge the uncreated conscience of her race.

A novel about misguided love that opens at the main character's funeral, Charming Billy could have so easily been a bathetic mess. Instead, in McDermott's hands, it's a controlled masterpiece about loss and fleeting time, and the foolish valor of being loyal to dreams that will never come true.

The hero of the novel, Billy Lynch (ph), died in his 60s -- a much-lamented alcoholic. As our narrator, a young female second cousin of Billy's, tells us: "if you loved Billy, then you told him at some point he was killing himself and felt the way his indifference ripped through your affection."

Billy's many relatives and friends gather at his wake to recall his humor and his love of spouting the odd line from Yeats. They also whisper among themselves, so Billy's wife May, the one with a face as plain as butter, won't hear. They whisper about his first and greatest love, the Irish girl, Eva, who died of pneumonia right after Billy sent her a ring and passage money to America.

It's the general consensus that her early death is what drove Billy to his long romance with the bottle. But then, later that evening, the narrator learns it was all a lie. Eva never died. She just dumped Billy for another beau and kept his hard-earned cash. Billy learned of her deception when, as a middle-aged drunk, he traveled to Ireland to take the pledge and visit Eva's grave.

What follows after the first chapter of the novel is a vivid family narrative that spirals backwards from Billy's funeral. We hear about the lives of other long-dead Lynches: the uncle who was a silver-tongued streetcar conductor; the sour aunt who had a gift for diminishing things. We return to the post-war years when the crowd gathered around Billy's casket was young and caught up in a flurry of weddings and christenings.

And we witness the crucial moment of Billy's life -- his fateful first meeting with Eva out on Long Island. Just back from the war, Billy was in the Hamptons repairing a ramshackle seaside cottage. Eva was temporarily in America working as a nursemaid to a wealthy family. She was really nothing special. Only Billy's pointless devotion made her so.

As one of Billy's mourners laments: "Billy wanted too much. He needed someone to tell him that living isn't poetry. It isn't prayer." A smart, pragmatic assessment, but you can tell that McDermott herself is on the side of the dreamers. In Charming Billy, she makes her readers admire the stubborn clinging to poetry and prayer that gave radiance, however false, to an ordinary man's life.

McDermott also once again demonstrates that the borough of Queens is as rich a repository of stories as any tree-shaded corner of Betty Smith's Brooklyn.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed Alice McDermott's new novel Charming Billy.

Dateline: Maureen Corrigan; Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest:
High: Book Critic Maureen Corrigan reviews "Charming Billy" by Alice McDermott.
Spec: Books; Authors; Charming Billy
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Charming Billy
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.

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