DATE February 8, 2002 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: John Grisham discusses his life as a lawyer and writer
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
John Grisham has sold more novels for adults than any other living writer.
With his new book, "The Summons," he returns to the genre that made him
famous, the legal thriller. His previous two books were an autobiographical
novel and a novella. His best-selling legal thrillers include "The Firm,"
"The Client," "The Pelican Brief," "The Runaway Jury," and "A Time To Kill."
Even if you haven't read any of his books, you've probably seen some of their
Before he was the king of the legal thriller, he was what he describes as a
street lawyer in a suburb of Memphis. When I spoke with him in 1997, he said
that his first novel, "A Time To Kill," was his most autobiographical
thriller. I read him an excerpt of the introduction that he'd written for a
`One day I stumbled upon a horrible trial in which a young girl testified
against the man who brutally raped her. It was a gut-wrenching experience for
me and I was only a spectator. One moment she was courageous, the next
pitifully frail. I was mesmerized. I could not imagine the nightmare she and
her family had been through. I wondered, :What would I do if she were my
daughter?" As I watched her suffer before the jury, I wanted personally to
shoot the rapist. For one brief yet interminable moment I wanted to be her
father. I wanted justice. There was a story there.'
And that's the story that you developed into a "A Time To Kill." Did you
think you were capable of that kind of revenge?
Mr. JOHN GRISHAM (Author): At that moment I sure did. In that courtroom,
only a few feet away from the defendant, all of us who were there I think
collectively we felt very capable of inflicting some measure of revenge upon
this defendant who had, you know, done things to this little girl beyond
description. But there were moments during her testimony when I was facing
the jury off to the side, and I knew three of the jurors, three out of the 15,
and they were all covering their eyes because they were crying. And the judge
was also trying to cover his eyes. And the prosecutor, a man I knew well and
who could cry instantly, was also crying. And even the defendant's own
lawyers were, you know, studying their shoes. And it, you know, was
beyond--well, emotion's not an adequate word. But I think it would have been
easy, right then at that moment, to get revenge.
GROSS: People were crying during the daughter's testimony?
Mr. GRISHAM: Yeah. The little girl's testimony was just--you know, she
started crying, and before long everybody else was covering their faces. And
this went on for a couple of hours. And the courtroom was locked. The
spectators had been excluded by the judge because he knew her testimony would
be so graphic and so difficult for her. She was only 12 years old. And it
was, you know--we just suffered through it. And I was very anxious to get out
of there. I was just a nosy spectator.
GROSS: Yeah. Why were you there in the first place?
Mr. GRISHAM: Well, I...
GROSS: I mean, you had your own cases. What interest did you...
Mr. GRISHAM: It was in the early days of my legal career, and at times, if I
didn't have a lot to do, I'd go hang around the courtroom, especially if good
lawyers were in town trying good cases because I wanted to be a trial lawyer.
And this particular crime had been so heinous and so notorious that we knew
when the trial was going to occur. And so I just kind of hung around one day
to see what was going to happen. And, you know, so there I was in the
courtroom. The local lawyers can come and go at will pretty much, you know,
in a courtroom. We know the judges and all that. So the judge was not going
to exclude me when he closed the courtroom.
We took a break after a couple hours of this and because the little girl just
had to have a break. And the judge kept asking her if she wanted a break, and
finally she said, `Yes,' and so we cleared the courtroom. And everyone was
anxious to leave the courtroom--the jury, the judge--and we did. And in my
haste to get out of the courtroom, I left behind my briefcase and I didn't
realize it until I was at my car, which is downstairs outside. And I realized
I had to go back in the courtroom to get my briefcase.
And I walked back through the back entrance of the courthouse, up the
backstairs, through a side door. And suddenly there I was in the courtroom,
and no one had stopped me. And I walked right by the defendant, who was
sitting in a chair with a deputy a few feet away, the only two people in the
courtroom. And it dawned on me how easy it would be to, you know, get to the
man who did that to my child. And it just floored me to think that I could
have done it. I mean, and that's when the story was born.
GROSS: This is an interesting thing about your position as a lawyer, or a
former lawyer, and a novelist. As a lawyer it's your position to uphold the
law; as the novelist you're always creating characters who break it.
Mr. GRISHAM: Yeah, and I'm troubled by that. I mean, I think I'll always be
troubled by the story of "A Time To Kill" because it condones vigilantism and
that type of justice. And, you know, we cannot function as a society if the
victims of crimes are allowed to seek their own remedies. And I don't know if
I would write that story again.
GROSS: John Grisham is my guest.
And in that first novel, "A Time To Kill," you describe the lawyer, Jake
Brigance, as `He was clean-cut, conservative, a devout Presbyterian with a
pretty wife who wanted babies.' How close does that come to describing what
you were like when you started your law career?
Mr. GRISHAM: Pretty close, pretty close. Again, there's a lot of
autobiography. I'm not sure my wife wanted babies when we had them, but it
was a joint effort. You know, small-town, struggling lawyer, working hard,
trying to get a break, trying to get a big case, trying to get a reputation in
a town that's, you know, filled with lawyers; a lot of...
GROSS: Clean-cut, conservative?
Mr. GRISHAM: Yeah. Maybe not that conservative; maybe more of a politically
moderate Baptist, not Presbyterian. Few differences. Clean-cut, I guess,
GROSS: What were your typical cases, if there's such a thing as typical
Mr. GRISHAM: Well, in the early days, the first three or four years of my law
practice, I did a lot of court-appointed criminal work for indigent clients
who could not afford attorneys. Back then our local county--we didn't have a
full-time public defender, so the criminal cases were assigned on a rotating
basis to the younger lawyers. The older lawyers, of course, had to do it when
they were younger, so there was an unwritten rule that the guys fresh out of
law school would take the indigent cases, and I did a lot of those. The first
year--I'd been out of law school less than a year when I had my first murder
trial, which I was not equipped to handle. And then there was another murder
trial shortly after that, and so I jumped into a lot of high-pressure
courtroom work fresh out of law school, and that was fine with me, because I
wanted to do that kind of work, and I hoped to sort of gain the courtroom
experience, become a good trial lawyer, you know, as fast as possible, and
later try more lucrative civil cases. And that's kind of what happened.
GROSS: Did you feel guilty representing clients in cases that you felt you
were not ready to really take on yet?
Mr. GRISHAM: I would have felt guilty if I'd lost them, but I won both the
murder cases with not-guilty verdicts, and that does a lot for your
GROSS: Yeah, I can imagine. And did you always truly believe in the
innocence of the people you were defending, or were you in the position
sometimes of defending people who you really felt were guilty?
Mr. GRISHAM: Well, both the murder cases involved some very strong defenses
of self-defense. These were shootings, you know, and the question was who
shot first. And my client did, in fact, kill the deceased, but the deceased
in both cases were heavily armed. And again, it's a question of self-defense.
There were some cases I wouldn't take. I mean, I would never have defended a
rapist or a child molester. I simply, you know, would refuse to do that. I
represent a lot of people who were very guilty, and I never had any moral
problems doing that. Lawyers can't worry about such things. Under our, you
know, judicial and constitutional system, everybody's entitled to an attorney,
and regardless of that you're charged with, you're entitled to legal
representation. Somebody has to do it.
GROSS: Did you usually leave cases feeling good about the law or feeling like
you were let down by the results?
Mr. GRISHAM: Most of the time, the system works. Most of the time, juries do
what's right. Most of the time, settlements are fair; they're negotiated by
both sides. And so the vast majority of the time when I closed a file I was
happy with what had been done. The clients were somewhat satisfied, and it
was time to close the file and move on.
GROSS: My guest is John Grisham. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: John Grisham has a new legal thriller called "The Summons." Let's get
back to our 1997 interview with him.
Are there many cases in your novels that actually come from cases that you or
colleagues close to you took on, or do you mostly invent things and make them
a little bit larger than life?
Mr. GRISHAM: Oh, much larger than life.
GROSS: Right. OK.
Ms. GRISHAM: This is fiction, OK?
GROSS: Yeah. Yeah.
Mr. GRISHAM: It's just outright fabrication.
Mr. GRISHAM: I don't--I'm sure real, live lawyers and real-life cases sort of
seep into the novels, but I don't build stories around them. I'm much more
interested in creating something that's brand-new--you know, a big trial
against the insurance industry in "The Rainmaker" or the trial against the
tobacco industry in "The Runaway Jury" or--yeah, I'd rather paint a larger
canvas and maybe cull some of my personal experiences occasionally, you know,
as minor subplots. I don't really want to write books about real people...
GROSS: Why not?
Mr. GRISHAM: ...even fictionalized versions. Well, I don't want to get sued,
for one thing.
GROSS: Oh, oh, oh, yeah, sure. But, I mean, real kind of people...
Mr. GRISHAM: Well, I think a lot of my lawyers are stereotypes or
combinations of real people. I mean, you know, I study lawyers now. I watch
lawyers. I did when I was an attorney. I've watched the good trial lawyers.
And I spend a lot of time now watching lawyers, keeping up with legal
developments, watching--keeping up with trials. And so, sure, I mean, most of
my characters are compilations of, you know, real lawyers.
GROSS: Do you go to the courthouse a lot now, or do you stay home and watch
Mr. GRISHAM: Neither. I deplore the idea of televised trials. And I always
thought there was some sanctity in a very dignified courtroom where people
could go and discuss things they would never discuss outside their own homes
because they had to. They had to testify. But Court TV has made a mockery of
all that and it's turned the actors and judges into, you know, media
celebrities and actors.
I don't really hang around courtrooms because for the most part it's very
boring stuff. And I can't think of anything worse than watching a long trial.
But I follow trials, you know. You can get the daily summaries in the papers.
And I'm always, you know, watching issues and trying to piece together stories
from current issues.
GROSS: Was it interesting for you to watch how some people deal with
pressure, how some people break and other people are able to manage during a
Mr. GRISHAM: Yeah. Trial work is very stressful. It's high powered, you
know, high stakes, tons of pressure. And I've seen lawyers crack up in long
trials. Others seem to thrive on the combat in the courtroom.
GROSS: What about you? How'd you do?
Mr. GRISHAM: I didn't really enjoy it. I mean, I thought I wanted to be a
trial lawyer, but honestly I never had any fun in the courtroom. I never
enjoyed myself, even when I was winning. You don't win till it's all over so,
you know, you worry about defeat up until the very end. But I had trials
against lawyers who just seemed to love the sport and the pressure...
Mr. GRISHAM: ...of the courtroom, and I was never that way. I never was able
to relax. I'd lose sleep. You know, a long trial you don't eat much. You
don't sleep much. A lot of lawyers turn to alcohol because of that, because
it is high pressure. And I knew a lot of those guys. But I didn't handle the
pressure very well.
GROSS: What about the competition and the games opposing lawyers play with
each other trying to psych each other out? Did that trouble you, too?
Mr. GRISHAM: Yeah. Yeah, it really does. It did because especially if, you
know, the opposing lawyer was from a very large firm, and it seemed like he
always was because I was a solo practitioner. I was what we would call
ourselves street lawyers because we were representing people out on the
streets, people who were injured or wronged or fired or whatever. And
typically we were always suing insurance companies and big defendants. And
they hire big lawyers in big firms and they all come in packs and dress alike
and, you know, have fancy degrees. And they just descend on the courtroom.
It can be very intimidating. And I always wanted to be one of those
plaintiffs' lawyers who could take on, you know, a small army of defense
lawyers and do so successfully. I never made it. But, you know, there could
be a lot of intimidation, and there was a lot of intimidation imposed on a
young lawyer struggling to keep up with the big boys.
GROSS: What year did you start writing your first novel?
Mr. GRISHAM: Started in November of '84, same year I took office in the
GROSS: Busy man. You were still practicing law, too?
Mr. GRISHAM: Oh, yeah. That's what I was doing for a living. I mean, the
Legislature didn't pay hardly anything. The book writing was still a, you
know, distant dream. And the only way I could write was to get up at 5:00 in
the morning and go to the office and write for an hour or two before the day
started. And I did that over a period of--well, I got in the habit of doing
it, and over a period of three years the first book was completed. And it
became so ingrained that when I finished "A Time To Kill," I think virtually
the next day I started writing the next book, which was "The Firm."
GROSS: When you were writing "A Time To Kill" and going to the office at 5:30
every morning, was that your home office or your legal office?
Mr. GRISHAM: Oh, that was my legal office. It was about five minutes from
my house. And it was only like the main drag or main street of our little
town, a town of 25,000, which is a suburb of Memphis. It's just outside of
Memphis, Tennessee. And so I would be there at 5:30 in the morning. I turned
on all the lights so everybody driving by to work would be able to see that I
was there, you know, at 5:30 in the morning.
GROSS: Why? So you'd look industrious?
Mr. GRISHAM: Yeah. You know, I got the reputation as a real hard-working
young lawyer, you know...
GROSS: Little do they know you weren't working on anybody's case.
Mr. GRISHAM: I was up there trying to finish a book. And it was kind of
funny. After "A Time To Kill" came out and I told the story I had clients who
said, `So that's why my file never got taken care of. You were out there
trying to write a novel.'
GROSS: So nobody knew you were really writing a novel.
Mr. GRISHAM: Nobody but my wife. I didn't tell anybody until the book was
finished. Renee read each chapter as I wrote it, but she was the only one. I
mean, I wasn't about to tell anybody. See, it took three years, and at least
for the first two years I was not even sure I was going to finish it. I mean,
there was really nothing to talk about. And I remember one day realizing that
the story was half through, and at some point in there I was determined to go
ahead and finish it, but there was a lot of doubt. I think I went four weeks
one time without working on it, and there were many times when I didn't want
to work on it. I mean, I didn't want to get up at 5 in the morning. I wanted
to sleep for, you know, another hour or so. And I often wonder now, you know,
what would have happened had I quit.
GROSS: Do you ever wonder why you had this urge then to write before you knew
if there was anything in it for you, if you could even complete the book?
Mr. GRISHAM: Well, I wanted to see if I could do it. I wanted to get it
typed and have this big stack of pages and then try to get it published. And
once I realized I was going to finish it, then I began having all these
wonderful dreams about getting it published. And once you start thinking
about getting published, you start thinking about best-sellers and movies and
all that stuff. And, you know, it's a whole lot of fun to dream about that.
And I got caught up in that. Now that prompted me to finish the book and to
write the next one and to start thinking about, you know, just the dream of a
big book and lots of money.
GROSS: So how did the dream compared to the reality?
Mr. GRISHAM: You can only dream so much. The reality is far in excess of
anything I ever dreamed back then. It is an enormous amount of fun to be able
to write for a living and to have the books, you know, well-received by a lot
of folks. And it's still a dream.
GROSS: John Grisham, I thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. GRISHAM: My pleasure.
GROSS: John Grisham recorded in 1997. He has a new legal thriller called
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Coming up, we talk with actress Elaine Stritch about working with Noel
Coward. She opens on Broadway next week with her one-woman show. Also,
language commentator Geoff Nunberg considers the word capitalism, and TV
critic David Bianculli looks ahead to coverage of the Winter Olympics. The
opening ceremony is tonight.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Commentary: Term `capitalism' back in fashion
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
To Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill the Enron collapse was a demonstration of,
quote, "the genius of capitalism." Our linguist Geoff Nunberg was struck by
that remark and the way defenders of the free-market system have reclaimed the
word `capitalism' for their own.
In the wake of the Enron collapse, some Bush administration officials were
describing it as a vindication of the free-market system. Economic adviser
Larry Lindsey called it a tribute to American capitalism. And Treasury
Secretary Paul O'Neill made the same point even more fulsomely. `Companies
come and go,' he said. `Part of the genius of capitalism is that people get
to make good decisions or bad decisions and then they get to pay the
consequence or enjoy the fruits of their decisions. That's the way the system
As even BusinessWeek and Fortune pointed out, it wasn't exactly the moment for
bromides about the genius of capitalism, particularly since the people who had
made the bad decisions at Enron weren't the ones who were paying most of the
consequences. But Lindsey and O'Neill didn't intend to sound callous.
Rather, their remarks showed just how reflexive this sort of rhetoric has
become among free-market zealots. It's not just the way they greet each
corporate collapse as a triumph of capitalism, but the fact that they mention
capitalism at all. Fifteen or 20 years ago, free-market partisans would have
been more likely to say, `That's how our free-enterprise system works.'
Capitalism's never been a dirty word exactly, but it's always had a polemical
tone ever since it was given its modern sense by socialist writers in the
mid-19th century. The phrase `free enterprise' was invented by economists
about a hundred years ago in order to dispel the noxious images that had
grown up around the word `capitalism': bloated plutocrats, workers bent over
their machines, strike breakers and the rest.
Free enterprise wears its ideology on its sleeve. It suggests a connection
between political freedom and the right to go about your business without the
meddlesome interference of bureaucrats--by the way, another word that acquired
its pejorative sense around then. And in place of predatory monopolists like
Carnegie and Rockefeller, who were giving capitalism a bad name, free
enterprise conjures up the plucky young newsboys from the rags-to-riches tales
of Horatio Alger.
For most of the 20th century free enterprise has been the homey chamber of
commerce name for capitalism. There's a chair of free enterprise at the
University of Texas at Austin, a Center for Free Enterprise at the University
of South Florida, a Dr Pepper Free Enterprise Institute in Waco, and a Free
Enterprise Leadership Conference held every year by The Jesse Helms Center in
Wingate, North Carolina. And the word capitalism doesn't appear at all on the
Web pages of the Horatio Alger Society, a group that honored Kenneth Lay a
couple of years ago for, as they put it, `helping young people to value the
opportunities presented by America's free-enterprise system.'
Still, capitalism has always had some defenders who weren't reticent about
calling it by its given name, particularly the disciples of Ayn Rand and of
libertarian economists like Ludwig von Mises and Frederick Hayek. These tend
to be people who come to the defense of capitalism with something more like
religious zeal. You could hear some of that in the exuberant profession of
faith that Kenneth Lay made to an interviewer a while ago. `I believe in God,
and I believe in free markets,' he said, and went on to suggest that Jesus
would have agreed with him.
Needless to say, that level of zeal changes the terms of the discussion. When
people extol the virtues of free enterprise, they usually invoke the rising
standard of living and the inventions it spawns. When they talk about the
virtues of capitalism, they're more likely to go on about the moral values of
individualism and the freedom to fail, the lesson that both O'Neill and
Lindsey were quick to read in the Enron debacle.
It's a little scrap of bombast you can trace directly back to Ayn Rand's
turgid philosophizing, `the notion that capitalism is never so glorious as
when it's strewing the ground with bodies.' There was a time when this kind
of talk was considered a little irresponsible by the respectable free
marketeers who were earnestly promoting the virtues of free enterprise over
socialism in the welfare state. But after the fall of communism and the
free-wheeling markets of the '90s, capitalism is back and free enterprise has
started to sound a little musty. It's gotten to where the word `capitalism'
was probably as frequent inside the ballrooms of the World Economic Forum in
New York as it was on the signs of the demonstrators in the streets.
But the right's reclamation of the word `capitalism' hasn't extended to its
cousin `capitalist.' Forbes magazine tried to reclaim that word a while ago
when it started billing itself as a capitalist tool. But capitalist is still
in the closet, at least when it comes to using it as a job description.
People talk about capitalist societies or capitalist economies, and you can
describe somebody as a venture capitalist, which is really just a derivative
of venture capital. But Forbes and The Wall Street Journal don't ever apply
the C-word to people like Bill Gates, Warren Buffett or Rupert Murdoch. Those
are investors, entrepreneurs, moguls or simply businessmen. Reading The
Business Press, you might conclude that America has finally realized the dream
of building capitalism without capitalists; that we're free at last from the
rapacious class that once held the economy at its mercy. As Secretary O'Neill
put it, `It's just the way the system works.'
GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is the author of the new book, "The Way We Talk Now."
Coming up, actress Elaine Stritch talks about Noel Coward. Her one-woman show
opens on Broadway next week. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Elaine Stritch discusses Noel Coward and what it was
like to work with him
TERRY GROSS, host:
Next week, Elaine Stritch opens on Broadway with her one-woman show "At
Liberty," in which she reminisces about her more than 50-year career and sings
some of the songs she's known for. She's best known for her starring role in
Noel Coward's musical "Sail Away," a role he wrote for her, and her
performance in Stephen Sondheim's musical "Company," in which she sang the
"Ladies Who Lunch." Early in her career, she starred in a Broadway revival of
Rodgers and Hart's "Pal Joey," and understudied Ethel Merman in "Call Me
Madam." More recently she was in the Harold Prince revival of "Show Boat."
I spoke with her in 1999. In honor of Noel Coward's centennial, she was
starring in a production of his musical "Sail Away," recreating her role as
Mimi Paragon, the director of a cruise ship who has to deal with the needy and
often irritating passengers. Here she is singing Coward's song about
insufferable tourists, "Why Do the Wrong People Travel?" from the 1961
original cast recording of "Sail Away."
(Soundbite of "Why Do the Wrong People Travel?")
Ms. ELAINE STRITCH: (Singing) ...(Unintelligible). It's very hard.
Personally I can't find the longitude and latitude ...(unintelligible) the
stars of my little boy. Traveling through ...(unintelligible) of very
(unintelligible) till the whole world reels to the shout of the wheels and the
clicking of ...(unintelligible). Why do the wrong people travel, travel,
travel, and the right people stay at home? What compulsion compels them and
(unintelligible) tells them to drag their clan to Zanzibar instead staying
quietly in Omaha? The Taj Mahal ...(unintelligible) and the French Riviera.
The less oppressed in the middle West would settle for somewhere
(unintelligible) I criticize the path that tells you I yearn to roam. But
why, oh, why do the wrong people travel and the right people stay at home and
mind their business? And the right people stay at home and sit around, when
the right people stay at home? I'm merely asking why the right people stay at
GROSS: Elaine Stritch, welcome to FRESH AIR. I'm wondering what personal
meaning the story of "Sail Away" had for Noel Coward. For instance, Graham
Payn and Sheridan Morley edited "The Diaries of Noel Coward," and in their
introduction they wrote that "Sail Away" reflected his passion for travel, his
loathing of tourists, his horror of old age and his love of the sun. Did he
talk with you at all about traveling and how his ideas about traveling figured
into the story of "Sail Away"?
Ms. STRITCH: No, he didn't. He is not Gadge Gazan(ph). He is not one of
those kind of directors. He had a young woman on his hands who had a lot of
responsibility ahead of her, and he loved me, that was the best part, and I
loved him. And when you've got that, you don't have many problems, Terry, you
really don't. It's what I miss when I go into rehearsal for a show and I
don't get any chemical connection with the director. You might as well go
home. It's not worth going to rehearsal. I mean, somebody's got to
understand you and you've got to understand them. It's like a bad marriage;
but this was a good marriage. And he did not go into depths about how he
felt. He explained to me how he wanted me to play this part, and I was very
right for the part, according to Noel. I had Mimi Paragon, his idea for humor
and her--he must have seen some depth in me or he would never have turned this
part over to me.
GROSS: What was it like rehearsing with Noel Coward? What...
Ms. STRITCH: Wonderful.
GROSS: ...kind of advice did he give you...
Ms. STRITCH: Brilliant.
GROSS: ...about the songs and how to sing them?
Ms. STRITCH: Just wonderful. He would--everything was--not everything was a
joke, but everything had humor, everything. And humor, to me, is one of the
most important virtues, I call it, qualities, that anybody can have about
anything; I don't care whether you're digging ditches or singing Noel Coward.
You do it with humor, you're ahead of the game; and he certainly had, you
know, a double scoop of that.
GROSS: Did he give you advice about singing his lyrics or about singing his
Ms. STRITCH: No. Richard Rodgers he was not, if you follow me. No, he...
GROSS: Well, what kind of advice would Richard Rodgers give you that Noel
Ms. STRITCH: He was exacting; exacting to the point of suicide, but I loved
him. But, boy--I'll give you an example. I sang "Zip" for Richard Rodgers.
This is a great antithesis to Noel Coward. I sang "Zip" in "Pal Joey" long
before I did a Noel Coward show. And I used to say (singing) `Zip, Walter
Lippmann was brilliant today.' And he would stop me and say, `Elaine, it is,
"Zip, Walter Lippmann wa..."' And I thought, `Oh, gee.' And as soon as he
left the theater, I sang, `Zip, Walter Lippmann,' such a bad girl. But I was
so convinced that I was right about that. (Whispers) And just between you and
me, I was.
But I'm telling that story for the reason that Noel respected your
interpretation, that extra something that you brought to his music, you know
what I'm saying?
Ms. STRITCH: He was very appreciative of it. And if you were wrong, did you
get it! I wouldn't want to meet Noel Coward in a dark alley, I can tell you
that right now. I don't want Noel Coward mad at me, ever.
GROSS: Did he ever get mad with any of the cast members? And what was he
Ms. STRITCH: Yes, he did, indeed. Yes, absolutely. There was a young guy
that came to audition for Noel Coward, and I happened to be in the theater
that morning. And, of course, Noel always looked like a million bucks. And
this guy came in to sing for Noel Coward, and he had jeans on and a dirty
sweatshirt and `Blah, blah, blah,' you know. And Noel would say, `Are you
going to sing for me?' And this young man said, `Well, it's OK with me, I
don't care,' you know. God, he was rude and awful and filthy and just
unbelievable. And he said, `I could sing "The Star-Spangled Banner".' Oh,
boy. So Noel, who was very full of curiosity, said, `Do you have an
accompanist?' This young man said, `No, I just sing it.' So he said, `Well,
just sing it.'
And the young man sang it, and Noel interrupted him halfway through it. He
said, `Young man, I'm not going to let you finish. I want you to leave the
theater. I want you to stop maybe by on your way home and pick up a very,
very inexpensive white shirt, preferably, and a new pair of jeans, which are
perfectly all right with me, and some nice clean sneakers. And then I want
you to go home. And then I want you to take a very, very long shower with a
lot of soap and a lot of water. And then I want you to get out of the shower
and put on your clean jeans and your new shirt and your new scuffies, and then
I think you should get out of the theater because you have absolutely no
talent at all.' Well, it was brilliant. I fell about, and my laugh came out
from the back of the theater. And he said, `Good morning, Stritchi(ph),' and
then he went right on. And this guy left with a shrug of his shoulders as if
he didn't understand one bloody thing he'd just heard. He thought this man
was from Mars, naturally. Anyway, what a guy. What a terrific--and it wasn't
mean, you know. It was just brilliant.
GROSS: I want to read a couple of things that have been said about your
relationship with Noel Coward. Graham Payne, who was a good friend of Noel
Coward, wrote this about you in his book about Noel Coward. He said, `Coward
cherished Elaine Stritch's similarities with Gertrude Lawrence; her verve,
her irreverence, her infectious vulgarity.' And Cole Lesley, who I think was
Noel Coward's secretary and wrote a book about him, said, `Elaine Stritch's
devout Catholicism perhaps fascinated Noel the most.' And Noel Coward wrote
himself in his diary, `Stritch was wildly enthusiastic and very funny, but I
foresee little clouds in the azure sky. She is an ardent Catholic and has
been in analysis for five years. Oh, dear.'
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. STRITCH: I think it's a great combination, and it certainly figures if
you're an ardent Catholic that you'd end up in one of Coward's...
Ms. STRITCH: So I know exactly where he was coming from--not then, but I do
GROSS: Why do you think he was so fascinated by your Catholicism?
Ms. STRITCH: Well, because I was very serious about it, and I, you know, said
my prayers and went to Mass and Communion and stuff like that. And then I
would say four-letter words occasionally, and that combination made him laugh
and fascinated him. I smoked, I drank; I did all the kicking-my-heels-up type
thing. But I went to Mass on Sunday. So they say that he's an honest man;
you know, that kind of thing.
GROSS: Elaine Stritch recorded in 1999. Her one-woman show "At Liberty"
opens on Broadway next week. Here she is with her signature song "The Ladies
Who Lunch" from the original cast recording of Stephen Sondheim's musical
(Soundbite of "The Ladies Who Lunch")
Ms. STRITCH: I'd like to propose a toast. (Singing) Here's to the ladies who
lunch. Everybody laugh. Lounging in their caftans and planning a brunch on
their own behalf. Off to the gym, then to a fitting, claiming they're fat and
looking grim, 'cause they've been sitting, choosing a hat. Does anyone still
wear a hat? I'll drink to that.
Here's to the girls who stay smart. Aren't they a gas? Rushing through their
classes in optical art, wishing it was fast. Another long, exhausting day,
another thousand dollars. A matinee, a Pinter play, perhaps a piece of
Mahler's. I'll drink to that. And one for Mahler.
Here's to the girls who play wife. Aren't they too much? Keeping house but
clutching a copy of Life just to keep in touch. The ones who follow the rules
and meet themselves at the schools, too busy to know that they're fools.
Aren't they a gem? I'll drink to them. Let's all drink to them.
GROSS: Elaine Stritch from the original cast recording of "Company." Coming
up, David Bianculli on TV coverage of the Winter Olympics. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Analysis: How new technologies will affect coverage of this year's
TERRY GROSS, host:
The 2002 Winter Olympic Games begin tonight with NBC broadcasting the opening
ceremonies live from Salt Lake City. From now through February 25th, NBC will
present live coverage nightly with additional coverage provided by CNBC and
MSNBC. TV critic David Bianculli has some thoughts about how technology and
terrorism have affected this year's Games.
One of my regular complaints about TV's coverage of the Olympic Games has been
how annoyingly jingoistic it gets. Back when Jim McKay was reporting from the
Olympics in the '60s and '70s for ABC, that network presented more of a
feeling of discovery than of international unity. Sure, it was great to cheer
the United States on to victory. The hockey team's 1980 upset win against the
Soviet team at the height of the Cold War was a classic TV sports event. But
back then, TV seemed to take pride in the accomplishments of others as well.
We heard more national anthems from other winning countries and learned almost
as much about their athletes, up close and personal, as we did our own.
As different networks and personnel took on the Olympics, things changed.
CBS, by and large, favored an America first approach in a very heavy-handed
way when it broadcast the Olympics. NBC, with such loser ideas as the
pay-per-view triplecast(ph), spread itself too thinly and cared about other
countries and their athletes too little.
NBC has the Olympics again this year, and with what happened on September
11th, patriotism, as well as international unity, are bound to be front and
center throughout the Games. At the last Olympics, the touching highlight of
the opening ceremonies was Muhammad Ali lighting the Olympic torch. At this
Olympics, it'll be tough to top the eight US athletes who are scheduled to
carry a torn and battered American flag, the one recovered from ground zero
days after the attack on the World Trade Center. Context at these Games will
be everything. There's not only the patriotism to consider, but the
terrorism. And not just regarding the pipe bomb in Atlanta, but going all the
way back to the terrorist attack on Israeli athletes in Munich at the 1972
This is NBC's first shot at broadcasting the Winter Games, and Bob Costas,
who's really good, will serve as host. But in what I consider a fabulous
acknowledgement that history and perspective are important at these Games,
NBC has hired as a special contributor Jim McKay, on loan from ABC. McKay,
now 80 years old, reported from Munich that awful year, and his presence in
the studio with Costas is one reason to give NBC and this year's coverage the
benefit of the doubt.
Another reason is that NBC is trying its triplecast idea again, but this time
without asking viewers to pay for it. In addition to the prime-time coverage
every night on NBC, Olympic coverage will be available day and night on CNBC
and MSNBC. If you want to see early-round hockey games or follow the US
curling team, NBC's sister cable networks are the places to go.
Don't laugh about curling, by the way. At the last Olympics, while David
Letterman was making fun of it on CBS, I was watching it on the CBC, Canada's
national network, and got hooked on it. While many Winter Olympic events are
billed quite properly as the original extreme sports, curling, if anything, is
extremely slow. It's like shuffleboard on ice, with team members furiously
sweeping with brooms to decrease the friction as the heavy stones sail slowly
towards their targets. On Canadian TV, the commentators get into curling in a
big way, and so do the athletes, who are miked and who scream at the curling
stones and each other during each shot. Here's Sandra Schmirler, launching a
stone for Canada during the 1998 Games.
(Soundbite of broadcast)
Unidentified Announcer: And, of course, Sandra Schmirler is a three-time
world champion. She won in Geneva in 1993; in Oberstdorf, Germany, in 1994;
and last year in Bern, Switzerland, defeating Dordi Nordby in the final; and
in her second game today, she will face her Norwegian opponent.
Unidentified Woman #1: Whoa!
Ms. JAN BETKER: Line's fine.
Unidentified Announcer: I hear Jan Betker yelling, `Line's fine.' It's
just a question of her weights.
Unidentified Woman #2: Only if you have to, guys.
Unidentified Woman #3: OK, whoa. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
Unidentified Announcer: They have to go hard on it to get it close to the
Unidentified Woman #4: Hurry. Hard! Hurry. Quick. Hurry, hurry, hurry,
Unidentified Announcer: Oh, just about a foot, foot and a half short.
Unidentified Woman #5: Shoot.
BIANCULLI: Schmirler and Canada won the gold that year, but the three-time
world champion died of cancer two years ago. As it rebuilds and tries to
defend its gold medal, the Canadian women's curling team has a dramatic story
to tell. On one of the cable networks, at least, I hope to be able to see it.
And that's a good thing, because one of the technological innovations since
the last Olympics has robbed me of my ability to watch the CBC on my giant
satellite dish. The signal went digital, but I didn't, so I'm stuck watching
Oh, well, at least there's one technological advancement NBC is adding to the
Games that's an instant winner. You know those virtual reality first-down
yard markers the networks superimpose electronically onto the field during
football games? Well, NBC is taking that same gimmick and using it for the
first time on ski jumps. As the skiers approach the ground, we'll know where
they have to land to win and can see it as it happens. The `as it happens'
part, by the way, may be the most involving part of these Games. Because the
events are held in this country, most events can be broadcast live rather than
taped and edited hours beforehand, which is what made NBC's coverage from
Japan so irritating last time.
So with the time zone advantage, the ski jump line, the multiple networks, the
tattered flag and Jim McKay, the 2002 Olympic Winter Games are setting
themselves up nicely. Now it's up to the athletes and the broadcasters and
ultimately the American TV audience.
GROSS: David Bianculli is TV critic for The New York Daily News.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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.