Skip to main content

Linguist Essay: The Importance of Grammar

Linguist Geoff Nunberg reflects on the popularity of grammarian Lynne Truss's book Eats, Shoots & Leaves.

05:46

Other segments from the episode on February 1, 2005

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, February 1, 2005: Interview with Essie Mae Washington-Williams; Review of Lynne Truss’s book “Eats, shoots, & leaves;” Review of “The Callas Conversations” on…

Transcript

DATE February 1, 2005 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Essie Mae Washington-Williams discusses her memoir,
"Dear Senator: A Memoir by the Daughter of Strom Thurmond"
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina was one of the most passionate
supporters of segregation in the '50s and '60s. In 1957, he set a record for
the longest filibuster in history while opposing civil rights legislation.
Shortly after he died at the age of 100 in 2003, Essie Mae Washington-Williams
publicly announced that she was the secret daughter of Thurmond and an
African-American woman who had worked as a maid in his family's house. The
story of Washington-Williams' paternity was such a big secret that even she
wasn't told about it until she was 16.

But that wasn't the first shock about her family. At the age of 13, her Aunt
Carrie came to visit and revealed that she wasn't her aunt, she was her
mother. The woman Washington-Williams thought was her mother was her mother's
sister. Washington-Williams was raised by her aunt in Pennsylvania while her
mother stayed in the South. In the new memoir "Dear Senator,"
Washington-Williams tells the story of her life. She's in her late 70s now.
I asked if it was difficult to relearn the identities of her mother and her
aunt.

Ms. ESSIE MAE WASHINGTON-WILLIAMS (Author, "Dear Senator"): Well, it wasn't
that difficult, but it would have been helpful if my aunt had told me that my
mother was coming, and I would have been expecting her. But when she came, it
was a total surprise, and for her to say that she was my mother and I said,
`No,' I'd never met her, I didn't know her, and I said, `My mother is in the
other room,' and she said, `No, I'm your mother. She's my sister.' She
explained it at that point. And had that been done earlier, it would have
been clearer to me and not come as a surprise.

GROSS: How old were you when your mother took you to meet your father?

Ms. WASHINGTON-WILLIAMS: Sixteen years old.

GROSS: Now she hadn't told you anything about him.

Ms. WASHINGTON-WILLIAMS: Not prior to going south to see her sister, who had
passed, and we're all going to the funeral, and while she was there, she took
off the next day at the funeral to see if she could locate my father. She did
not tell me anything at that time. It wasn't until she actually found him
that she came back and told me to get dressed, she wanted to take and
introduce me to my father. It was walking distance, and on the way, she
showed me the house where they had lived. She worked there as a young girl
with her sister, with one of her younger sisters, and she started to tell me
things about him to give me a little information. However, one thing that she
hadn't mentioned was that he was Caucasian. I didn't know that that he was
Caucasian until I actually met him. She had never mentioned that. That was a
total surprise.

GROSS: You write that when...

Ms. WASHINGTON-WILLIAMS: But it...

GROSS: ...you write that when a black servant opened the door, you assumed,
oh, this was going to be your father.

Ms. WASHINGTON-WILLIAMS: Well, I didn't know, you see. I wasn't expecting it
to be a person other than a black person, you know. But it was fine. I was
happy to meet him, and the color really didn't make any difference.

GROSS: At this point in Strom Thurmond's life, he was a lawyer. It was
before he entered politics. You write in your book, `Out of nowhere, I had
become Southern aristocracy.' Was there any part of you that was angry or
resentful that this wealthy white man had not acknowledged your existence or
his paternity until you were...

Ms. WASHINGTON-WILLIAMS: Not until I met him. I didn't know how much, if
anything, he knew about me, but from the time we were introduced, he became a
part of my life.

GROSS: So you weren't angry that he had been...

Ms. WASHINGTON-WILLIAMS: No. I wasn't angry.

GROSS: ...out of the picture for so long?

Ms. WASHINGTON-WILLIAMS: No, I wasn't angry. Yeah. You don't always know
the circumstances. And, of course, by that time, I knew that there were
separations of the races in the South. Everything was separate, even the
restrooms, the water fountains, all public places. So that was the custom in
those days. And it wasn't anything to be happy about, but on the other hand,
I wasn't angry either. It was something that I accepted.

GROSS: What did he say to you at that first meeting?

Ms. WASHINGTON-WILLIAMS: Well, he looked at me quite a while and mentioned
that I resembled--had cheekbones like his sister Gertrude. He had three
sisters, a set of twins and this older sister, Gertrude. And he complimented
my mother, told her that she had a very beautiful daughter, and she did make
the statement, `Well, she looks like you.' But other than that, he went on
talking about my plans for school and so forth.

GROSS: What did your mother tell you about how she started having a
relationship with Strom Thurmond?

Ms. WASHINGTON-WILLIAMS: Well, she told me that she worked in the kitchen.
She was a cook, and her other sister did the housecleaning, and she said that
they all knew each other very well and he was in the kitchen quite a bit, and
since that's where she was working, they got to know each other, and they
worked very closely together.

GROSS: Well, she was 15 at the time they started having their relationship,
and he was 23. What was it like for you when you were about 16 to learn that
your mother was even younger than that?

Ms. WASHINGTON-WILLIAMS: Well, the age I was when I met him...

GROSS: Yeah.

Ms. WASHINGTON-WILLIAMS: ...that's the age she was when I was born. So I was
still in school, and to not have the kinds of experience that she had, you
know, so it was totally different for me, because I was very much protected by
my aunt. That's one of the things, I could certainly appreciate the way that
she brought me up. She was very strict about my schooling, and she did not
allow me to run the streets. Some of the young girls in those days could do
what they wanted to do. I wasn't allowed to do that. I was highly protected,
and I didn't like it at that time, but as I grew older, I appreciated it, what
she had done. She did all she could do to see that I had a good life.

GROSS: Now when your mother introduced you to your father, Strom Thurmond,
your mother still seemed to be in love with him. Did you have any sense of
what his feelings were toward her?

Ms. WASHINGTON-WILLIAMS: Well, he seemed very warm towards her, and she
seemed the same. In fact, she spoke so highly of him at all times, and she
would say how smart he was and how nice he was. She just thought he was a
wonderful person.

GROSS: Well, when you met your father, Strom Thurmond, you say you finally
had an explanation for why you had the lightest skin in your family. Had that
been a source of confusion for you up until that point?

Ms. WASHINGTON-WILLIAMS: I hadn't thought that much about it, actually, other
than I do know all my people were a brown color, all of them, and I was the
only one that looked different, but I didn't look that different from other
children that I had grown up with in my neighborhood. There were people of
all colors, so I didn't feel unusual in comparison with the others, but it's
within my own family that I looked different.

GROSS: Early on, after you met your father, during World War II, he was on a
trip to Philadelphia, and he suggested that you meet him at a hotel room. You
were expecting a fancy hotel, but it was a day room in what you describe as a
semi-fleabag. Did you think this was because he was trying to meet you in
secret, that he couldn't be seen with you in his real hotel room?

Ms. WASHINGTON-WILLIAMS: Well, I think perhaps--well, of course, I wouldn't
have gone had it not been for my aunt. She accompanied me to Philadelphia. I
would not have gone there alone. But when he met with us, apparently, it's
not as though we had met for lunch or something. It was in a private room,
and I guess that's because he didn't want to be seen with us, and even though
he wasn't known in that area, but a person, I guess, in his position, you
never know who might see you. Even after I got to know him better, whenever I
met him, it was always in a public place. It was never just private,
generally speaking.

GROSS: So he needed you to keep this a secret. Did he ask you to keep it a
secret?

Ms. WASHINGTON-WILLIAMS: He never said he needed this. He never said that he
needed to keep it a secret. He never suggested that I had to keep it a
secret. There was no talk about secrecy. The fact that things were the way
they were in the relationship, it wasn't anything I wanted to talk about, but
I was never told to not talk about it.

GROSS: Why didn't you want to talk about it?

Ms. WASHINGTON-WILLIAMS: Well, first of all, during that time when he was a
segregationist and he was speaking out against the black race, I didn't feel
that was anything for me to be proud of, because I was black. And so,
therefore, I didn't want people to even know that he was my father. It wasn't
until later years that as we grew closer together and he seemed to have
changed many of his ways, that I really began to feel proud of him.

GROSS: So you both had this connection to each other and there were reasons
you each had to not want the world to know of the connection.

Ms. WASHINGTON-WILLIAMS: It was more or less understood. We didn't discuss
it in that manner, but I respected him and he respected me, and I was not told
to keep any secrets.

GROSS: My guest is Essie Mae Washington-Williams. She's written a new memoir
called "Dear Senator." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Essie Mae Washington-Williams,
and she's written a memoir called "Dear Senator: A Memoir by the Daughter of
Strom Thurmond," and it wasn't until he died at the age of 100 that she
revealed that he was her father.

When he opposed President Truman's civil rights legislation, denouncing it as
anti-American, he defended segregation laws as essential to the racial
protection and purity of the white and Negro race alike. And he talked about
Southerners never being willing to allow blacks in their homes. Do you
remember the words that he said?

Ms. WASHINGTON-WILLIAMS: Oh, I read that speech many times, and it's strange,
because when he was elected governor in 1947, the people in South Carolina,
the black people particularly, had high hopes that things would improve,
because he had already established a trade school for blacks, which they did
not have. They had one for the whites, but not for the blacks, and that was
one of the positive things he had done, and had other plans. But once this
election came about in 1948, he seemed to have made a complete change and was
going in the opposite direction of what they had anticipated. So that was a
disappointment.

GROSS: So, you know, your father said, `All the laws of Washington and all
the bayonets of the Army cannot force the Negro race into our theaters, our
swimming pools, our schools, our churches, our homes.' How did you feel
hearing that?

Ms. WASHINGTON-WILLIAMS: I've heard that speech many times, and I think in so
speaking, he was addressing his constituents in particular, because they are
the ones who had put him into office, and he felt obligated to support them in
whatever things that they wanted to accomplish. So to me, within his heart, I
never really felt that he felt that way, and the type of person he seemed to
have become in later years, say in the '70s, was the type of person I always
saw him as. But this was the other side of him that the public did not know.
There was a double image there, the way he was and the way he portrayed
himself.

GROSS: Did you feel that with those comments, your father was showing a side
to you that you hadn't seen before? Were your surprised at the depth of his,
you know, pro-segregation feelings, of his anti-civil rights feelings?

Ms. WASHINGTON-WILLIAMS: Well, prior to those statements that he made in
1948, I had not heard such statements before, and I do know a little something
about politics, and I realize that many things are said to get their point
across, and it may not necessarily be what that person really feels at heart,
and I had said also that I felt the type of person he was when I first met him
and was in contact with him during the time he was governor, it was quite
different from the change that he made when he ran for president. And I had
also stated that I felt that he was speaking and saying the things that his
constituents wanted to hear.

GROSS: So you thought that he was a better man in private than he was in
public.

Ms. WASHINGTON-WILLIAMS: As far as the type of person he was, I definitely
felt that the people who knew him in South Carolina also knew that he was a
different type of person from what he had spoken out and portrayed the image
of himself.

GROSS: What did you say to him about his anti-civil rights and
pro-segregation comment?

Ms. WASHINGTON-WILLIAMS: Well, I told him that I didn't appreciate the
remarks that he was making. Why was he saying those things and why wouldn't
he try to do something more positive to make things better, not worse? And he
was saying that it had always been the custom and in the South to have the
races separated. He didn't create that. That's the way it always was. And
there wasn't too much one person could do about it anyway.

GROSS: When your father talked about never allowing black people into the
homes or the swimming pools of white families, did you think he was a
hypocrite? I mean, here he is saying that, you know, white people will never
open up their homes to blacks, right, but it's OK for him to share a bed with
a black woman, it's OK for him to impregnate a black woman. I mean, what does
that say about where he really stood on the separation of the races?

Ms. WASHINGTON-WILLIAMS: Well, I think what he had done was what many others
had done. It was more or less a custom, it seemed. There are many situations
that are similar to mine, and the reason people are hearing about my situation
is because he became such a famous person. But it was very common.

GROSS: Oh, absolutely, it was very common, and, I mean, you could argue that
it was a very common form of hypocrisy that a lot of white segregationists
practiced.

Ms. WASHINGTON-WILLIAMS: Oh, yes. And that was generally throughout the
South.

GROSS: But I guess I'm wondering, did you see your father as being a
hypocrite on that level because he had this relationship with your mother,
because he impregnated her?

Ms. WASHINGTON-WILLIAMS: Well, that seems to be the general opinion, but I
just still felt within his heart that he did care about my mother, I feel that
she cared about him. That was one of those situations where the type of
relationship they had could not come about. There wasn't anything they could
do about that. And it was unfortunate.

GROSS: You also say in your book that in his eyes, you think he never thought
of you as fully a Negro. That's what you say.

Ms. WASHINGTON-WILLIAMS: I'm not sure how he felt because he never did expect
it. He just said that he looked at me as a person, a person that he had
interest in and was willing to help. But as far as race is concerned, he
never went into the racial part of it.

GROSS: You grew up in the North in Coatesville, Pennsylvania, and you knew
you wanted to go to college. And, you know, after you left home, you lived in
Manhattan. and you saw a sophisticated world, a world where the races mixed,
a world that had gay people in it, a world that had intellectuals and writers
in it. And you had high hopes for the college you went to, and your father
offered to help finance your college education. But he really wanted you to
go to Orangeburg, a segregated college in his state of South Carolina.

Ms. WASHINGTON-WILLIAMS: He wanted me to go anywhere I wanted to go. At that
time I had gone to New York. I was in a nursing program with the Nurses
Corps, which was set up in 1945 because of the great shortage of nurses. And
since I had worked at Coatesville Hospital for about three years during the
summers and weekends, I became highly interested in nursing at that time. But
because of segregation, I could not go to that hospital. Had things been
different in those days, that's probably where I would have gone and probably
never would have left Coatesville. However, I had to go to the big city. I
didn't want to go to Philadelphia. I went to New York to Harlem Hospital, and
it was like a little city in itself. It's a huge hospital.

I didn't really care for it there, and I told my mother when I went home I
thought I would leave the school because I was interested in going to college
instead, which was my second choice--going to college. And I was interested
in business education, and that's the decision I made. But at that time I had
not looked into any schools. Meanwhile, I had applied to South Carolina State
when he mentioned the school to me, and I thought that would be a nice place
to go. I had lots of relatives there. It was away from home. I would leave
New York. But, in the meantime, I took some classes at NYU, an educational
psychology and history of education, to have--to actually get started. I had
those credits transferred when I went to South Carolina State.

And I enjoyed going to South Carolina State. I never regretted that decision.
I met wonderful people there, including my husband. And I had a very good
experience at South Carolina State College, and I love that school even today.

GROSS: Essie Mae Washington-Williams is the author of the new memoir "Dear
Senator." She'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross,
and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

(Announcements)

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Coming up, more of our conversation with Essie Mae
Washington-Williams, the once-secret daughter of Strom Thurmond. Linguist
Geoff Nunberg considers what a best-seller grammar book and "Queer Eye for the
Straight Guy" have in common. And Lloyd Schwartz reviews new recordings by
Maria Callas.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Essie Mae
Washington-Williams. She's written a new memoir called "Dear Senator."
Shortly after Senator Strom Thurmond died at the age of 100, she revealed that
she was his secret daughter. Her mother was African-American and worked as a
maid in his family's house in the mid-1920s, when Washington-Williams was
conceived. It wasn't until Washington-Williams was 16 that she learned who
her father was. Although he never publicly acknowledged his paternity, he did
help her financially, including paying for her college education.

When you got married, your husband--when you finally told him about the true
identity of your father, your husband didn't like the idea of taking Strom
Thurmond's money.

Ms. WASHINGTON-WILLIAMS: During the time that my husband was in school, he
was going to school on the GI Bill of Rights and I was not working except a
little part-time job on the campus. So we needed as much money as we could
get. And as far as my education was concerned, he did not mind my accepting
money for that. However, when he finished school and our situation changed,
he didn't want me to accept any money because he said he could take care of
his own family. And we had a little disagreement about that because sometimes
I felt I really needed the money for other things.

And when my husband and I were first married, he had heard about Strom
Thurmond being my father, as everyone else on the campus had heard, but it
wasn't anything we talked about. I never brought up the subject to him; he
never mentioned it to me. But he did know about it, and it wasn't until his
cousin had said something one day about him marrying a governor's daughter and
he came home, he told me about it, and that's the point at which we had this
discussion.

And he didn't have a real hatred for my father as such; it's just that he did
not like his politics. But no black person did. Who would like his politics
when he was setting up--making all those negative remarks about blacks?
Naturally people didn't like that.

GROSS: Well, your husband said, `Is this why I fought Hitler, so I could come
home to a man like this?'

Ms. WASHINGTON-WILLIAMS: Well, he was very sensitive about the fact that so
many black soldiers had gone abroad to fight for this country and they came
back and they still weren't treated equally. So that was a very sensitive
matter with him, 'cause he felt he had gone to war to fight and still be
treated as a second-class citizen when he returned home.

GROSS: So everyone on the campus in South Carolina had this idea that you
really were Strom Thurmond's daughter? I mean, do you have any idea how...

Ms. WASHINGTON-WILLIAMS: Well, the rumor was around.

GROSS: Yeah, how'd it get started? How do people--you know, here you are,
you're keeping it secret; he's keeping it secret. So how does the word get
out, do you think?

Ms. WASHINGTON-WILLIAMS: OK. During the time that my father was the
governor, he would visit the various colleges, including South Carolina State.
And he came to South Carolina State; he knew the president there, and the
president knew that he was the one who had recommended school for me and so
forth and was paying my tuition. He told him to send for me; he wanted to
talk with me. And the young lady came over to the dormitory to tell me that
the governor was there and he wanted to speak with me. And of course, the
word got all over the campus about the governor coming to the college and
asking to speak to me.

There were some students there--not too many--from Ridgeville who had heard
the rumor. In fact, most of the people in Ridgeville had heard the rumor, and
other places of South Carolina also. But it wasn't commonly known; it was a
thing that was whispered. So after that, word was around the campus that he
was my father and he'd come to visit me. So that's how it got out.

GROSS: How did you deny it?

Ms. WASHINGTON-WILLIAMS: No one approached me personally and asked me about
it, but I knew the students had been talking because my roommate told me one
day about the things that were being said. I never even admitted to her or to
anybody. I told her he was just a friend of the family, that my relatives
knew his family very well. And that's as much as I said to anybody about that
relationship.

GROSS: Now you kept the secret of your father from everybody. You told your
husband after a while. And then when your children were grown, you decided to
tell them. How did you break the news to them?

Ms. WASHINGTON-WILLIAMS: Well, I had been going back east periodically on the
business trip, and the children knew that I would go that morning and I would
be back home by evening. I did not explain it to them at that time; I just
told them that I had some business I had to take care of. But when he came to
Los Angeles to speak at one of the big churches there, he had called and asked
me if I would bring the children to this church; he would like to see them.
And so I did that. That was the time when I started to explain it to them,
who he was. I let them know that he was a Caucasian, all that. I didn't keep
it as my mother had kept it from me. And they were prepared, and after the
speech was over, he was shaking hands with everyone, as they usually do, and
we sort of waited around and he came over and talked to us, each one of them.

GROSS: Your children's reaction--what was it?

Ms. WASHINGTON-WILLIAMS: Oh, very positive. It was very positive. They were
glad to meet him because they didn't have a grandfather; that was the only
grandfather they knew, because my husband's father was deceased. And it was a
happy experience for them.

GROSS: Well, how did they react to him politically? I mean, all your
children by this point had big Afros. One of your sons, you know, had Black
Panther posters on his walls. The other son, you know, idolized Martin Luther
King. You know, so how did they deal with their grandfather's politics and
the reality of that?

Ms. WASHINGTON-WILLIAMS: Well, they didn't know too much about politics at
that time. But as they did learn more and more about him, I explained the
situation about the separations of the races in the South and so forth, and
they were understanding.

GROSS: My guest is Essie Mae Washington-Williams. She's written a new memoir
called "Dear Senator." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Essie Mae Washington-Williams. Shortly after the death of
Senator Strom Thurmond, she publicly acknowledged that he was his secret
daughter. Her mother was African-American and worked as a maid in his
family's house in the mid-1920s.

You write in your book, `Heroes are entitled to their idiosyncrasies. My
father's was an obsession with beautiful, very young women.' Are you
referring to the fact that Strom Thurmond was a hero to you or hero to others
or...

Ms. WASHINGTON-WILLIAMS: Well, he was more of a hero to others, to his own,
so much so that they elected him eight times to Congress, 48 years of service,
more than anyone else. And so he was a hero to them.

GROSS: So now you're saying that he had an obsession with beautiful, very
young women. Did that make you uncomfortable?

Ms. WASHINGTON-WILLIAMS: No, it did not make me feel uncomfortable because
both of his wives were much younger. When he married his first wife, she was
21; he was in his 40s. And the last wife, Nancy, she was about 22 and he was
66 then. So he had always been involved with young women.

GROSS: But looking back, do you think that his relationship with your mother
when your mother was 15 fits into that, like, lifelong interest, you know,
with younger women?

Ms. WASHINGTON-WILLIAMS: Of course, at that time, he was very young himself.

GROSS: He was in his 20s himself.

Ms. WASHINGTON-WILLIAMS: Yeah, he was very young himself. But at any rate,
it was still--he was a grown man and she was not yet grown up; she was just a
teen-ager. But apparently she cared about him and he cared about her, and it
was just one of those situations that they couldn't do anything about.

GROSS: I'm going to ask you a question that's kind of personal, and I don't
mean--so if this is too personal or makes your uncomfortable, you just let me
know. But I can't help but wonder about this. I think it's fair to say that
your mother believed, you know, that she loved Strom Thurmond and that he
cared for her and that, over the years, you believed that he cared for her. A
lot of outsiders might think that he used her, that he used her because she
was a servant, and that's what a lot of white men did in the South at that
time, and that it wasn't a sign so much of deep affection as it was of
convenience and power.

Ms. WASHINGTON-WILLIAMS: You know, it's always easy to say things. People
always make statements. But they don't know what happened between those two
people. They have no way of knowing that. And I don't know, either; I just
have the feeling from knowing both of them that there was a deep caring there.

GROSS: Now you didn't reveal your identity until after Strom Thurmond's
death, even though journalists had been knocking on your door, having heard
the rumors, and you didn't talk to them about it. Why did you want to reveal
his paternity after his death?

Ms. WASHINGTON-WILLIAMS: I never actually wanted to reveal it at any time. I
had started to write a book some years before he died about my life, more or
less information for my children. And after he passed, my children already
knew the story, and they had actually encouraged me to write a book, complete
that book that I had started. And they said they thought it was a very good
story and was certainly a part of history. And as far as their heritage was
concerned, they wanted all this to come forth. So I agreed to write the book,
and so that's what happened. And I had no idea it would be as big as it is.

Even when we went down to South Carolina to make the statement, I was amazed
at the number of people who had turned out from all over the country,
photographers and others, and the room was actually overflowing. And the
people there were so warm and receptive. So it became a much larger thing
than I ever anticipated.

GROSS: And did you decide to wait until after his death to bring the story
up?

Ms. WASHINGTON-WILLIAMS: I wasn't waiting for his death. The reason I had
never done anything prior to that is because during the time--you know he
worked almost until his death. He had retired in December. And then that
January--no, he had a big birthday party in December, when he was 100 years
old. That January he retired, and then he died six months later, and it was
six months later that I came out with the announcement. I would not have done
anything prior to that because, as I've stated many times, it was no advantage
to me to try to discredit him or hurt him in any way. I would not have wanted
to do that. I cared enough about him not to want to hurt him. And then I
didn't want it known.

So for those two reasons alone, I never had any intentions of making any
announcement. And the only thing that I said recently was, once he was out of
politics--and he was very ill, he only lasted six months more--it would have
been nice if he had actually publicly acknowledged me after that time, because
in that way it wouldn't have damaged him. However, I know he also had a
family, and that's probably why he still never acknowledged me publicly.

GROSS: What was the reaction of Strom Thurmond's family--his widow, his
children--when they found out about it?

Ms. WASHINGTON-WILLIAMS: Well, they accepted me into the family. In fact,
just last summer my name was added to my father's statue; it was added along
with all the other children. And we have a good relationship. I am in
contact with them, and when I go to South Carolina within the next week or so,
I'll probably get together and have lunch with them.

GROSS: How did you let them know? Was it through a lawyer that they found
out about you?

Ms. WASHINGTON-WILLIAMS: Well, it was in the news. I didn't even know them
at that time. But it was in the news and they heard it like everyone else.

GROSS: Oh.

Ms. WASHINGTON-WILLIAMS: And my attorney was in contact with my brother; he
had written to him. And they have had some correspondence.

GROSS: Just one more question. Do you think that--say you'd gone public, or
say he had gone public. Do you think it would have changed him politically?
Do you think it would have made him less the segregationist and more willing
to think about the importance of civil rights?

Ms. WASHINGTON-WILLIAMS: Well, that's difficult to say. I really don't know.
He might have survived that if it had been revealed. He was so well-liked, he
might have survived it. He might not have. I really can't say. I don't
know.

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

Ms. WASHINGTON-WILLIAMS: Well, surely. It's been my pleasure.

GROSS: Essie Mae Washington-Williams is the author of the new memoir "Dear
Senator."

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

Commentary: Popularity of grammarian Lynne Truss' book "Eats,
Shoots & Leaves"
TERRY GROSS, host:

One of the most unexpected best sellers of the past year was Lynne Truss' book
"Eats, Shoots & Leaves," a book about, of all things, punctuation. But
according to our linguist Geoff Nunberg, the book's success may not be that
surprising after all.

GEOFF NUNBERG:

The author photo inside the cover of Lynne Truss' "Eats, Shoots & Leaves"
shows Truss with a marker poised to insert a missing apostrophe on a poster
for the movie "Two Weeks Notice." That's an allusion to her proposal to form
vigilante groups who will venture out in ski masks in the dead of night,
correcting the punctuation on signs and billboards. Like other pop
grammarians, Truss is always addressing her audience as a tiny band of
beleaguered partisans who stand between the language and out-and-out
barbarism, as in, `How long before the last few punctuation sticklers are
obliged to take refuge together in caves?'

Actually, she'd better change that `caves' to `caverns' if she's planning to
accommodate all the people who have bought her book. Almost a year after its
American publication, it's still perched near the top of the best seller
lists, even as more recent books by Bill Clinton and David Sedaris have
receded from the ranks. In fact, for all their talk of beleaguered
minorities, writers like Truss, John Simon and Edwin Newman have turned
sticklerism into a popular entertainment that appeals to a far wider audience
than an old-fashioned high-culture grammarian like H.W. Fowler could ever have
dreamed of.

True, most of Truss' readers aren't dyed-in-the-wool grammar buffs, the sorts
of people who correct the spelling on restaurant menus and begin their
sentences by saying, `I pride myself.' They simply enjoy a lively rant,
particularly if it flatters their tastes in the bargain. And a lively rant is
what Truss gives them, garrulous, rambling and brimming with melodramatic
outrage. To hear her tell it, not a day goes by that a faulty punctuation
mark doesn't leave her appalled, gasping, shuddering, gazing in horror, or
stopping dead in her tracks with her fingers in her mouth.

That's all deliberately over the top, of course. Anybody who was actually
walking around in a state of outrage over the punctuation of e-mail messages
or movie posters would have serious priority issues. We're meant to take it
as campy exaggeration. If you play your pedantry broadly enough, nobody can
accuse you of taking yourself too seriously.

In fact, Truss' book bears a resemblance to another surprise cultural
phenomenon, "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy." Those fantasies about forming a
militia of commahadeen bring to mind the "Queer Eye" SWAT team swooping in
after dark to replace somebody's tacky shower curtain. And those operatic
denunciations of punctuation errors are exactly what you'd expect from the
"Queer Eye" bunch if they added a grammar makeover specialist. `Oh, my God,
did you hear that pronoun?'

But in an postmodern world, mocking your foibles is also a way of giving
yourself license to indulge them. It's like karaoke singers who clown and mug
as they sing songs by The Carpenters that they're embarrassed to admit they
actually cherish. And for pop grammarians like Truss, you can't help feeling
that the self-mockery is a cover for self-congratulation. She may make fun of
herself as a stickler, but she clearly considers herself to be one of a select
few, somebody whose sleep is troubled by a misplaced apostrophe even if it's
20 mattresses down.

That's where the resemblance to "Queer Eye" ends. As Susan Sontag pointed out
40 years ago in a famous essay, true camp is always infused with generosity,
even when it effects a malicious tone. It's about relishing, not judging.
That's why the last scene of every "Queer Eye" episode shows the team chatting
fondly about the zhlubby straight guy they've turned into a swan.

But despite her relentless jollity, generosity isn't Truss' long suit. It
doesn't take much to launch her into an aria of indignation: a superfluous
apostrophe in a pizza ad, the name of a pop group or a sign over the vegetable
bin. H.W. Fowler would have cut people a bit more slack there. After all,
the English language isn't going to stand or fall on the strength of its
supermarket signs.

It's true that for most readers, Truss' orthographic snobbery is merely
amusing. After all, a knowledge of the apostrophe is a pretty trifling hook
to hang your self-esteem on. But the book has come in for rough treatment by
reviewers like Louis Menand in The New Yorker and Edmund Morris in The New
York Times, writers that you wouldn't ordinarily expect to bother with a book
like this at all. That may be because they see Truss' book as trivializing a
subject that they take very seriously.

When we turn punctuation into an occasion for feeling superior to a local
tradesman, we're letting ourselves off too easily. Anybody can master the
simple rituals of the apostrophe, but it's a more humbling exercise to
confront the austere disciplines of the colon, dash and semicolon. And for
all her self-assurance, Truss doesn't show much sign of having grappled with
those mysteries. In fact, her own punctuation is alarmingly insouciant at
times. She tosses semicolons into her sentences in something like the way I
scatter fennel seed when I'm cooking in the vague hope it'll somehow pull the
other ingredients together. The difference is that no publisher would let me
get anywhere near a cookbook.

GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a Stanford linguist and the author of "Going Nucular:
Language, Politics and Culture in Confrontational Times."

Coming up, Lloyd Schwartz reviews a new CD and a new DVD featuring Maria
Callas. This is FRESH AIR.

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

Review: DVD "The Callas Conversations" and CD/DVD combo "Maria
Callas: The Legend"
TERRY GROSS, host:

One of the most popular soprano arias in all of Italian opera is Puccini's "O
Mio Babbino Caro." Classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz says that the pretty
tune gives sopranos a chance to show off their voices. But according to
Lloyd, few sopranos ever sing this aria with a real understanding of what it
means. You can hear the exception on a new DVD.

LLOYD SCHWARTZ reporting:

Have you ever seen a performance of "Romeo and Juliet" in which Juliet
delivers her most famous line as `Oh, Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou,
Romeo?' Juliet, of course, hasn't known Romeo long enough yet to be concerned
with his whereabouts. `Wherefore' doesn't mean `where' at all, but `why.'
She's asking why he's Romeo. Why did she have to fall in love with a
Montague, her family's archenemy? The line should read, `Oh, Romeo, Romeo,
wherefore art thou Romeo?'

I hear a similar misunderstanding in most performances of a famous soprano
aria, Puccini's "O Mio Babbino Caro" from his short opera "Gianni Schicchi."
In the aria, the heroine, Loretta, is threatening to throw herself off the
Ponte Vecchio, the famous bridge in Florence, and most sopranos emphasize this
potential tragedy. But the opera it's from is actually a comedy. Loretta
isn't really going to attempt suicide; she's begging her babbino caro, her
dear daddy, for permission to buy a wedding ring so she can marry the young
man she loves. `If you don't let me buy it,' she wheedles, `I'll throw myself
into the Arno. So, come on, have pity. Have a heart.'

Sopranos love this aria. It's pretty, it's short and it's not very high. But
one of the very few who really understood Puccini's tone was Maria Callas. On
her famous early album of Puccini arias, she captures the aria's playfulness.
But in a 1965 concert on French television, Callas, in terrific voice,
suggests even further how Loretta's mercurial emotions flicker from romantic
love to tender affection for her father to that comic wheedling threat.
Callas offers a kind of a road map of the aria, showing all the different
directions the emotions take. It's thrilling to hear it done right, and it
makes almost every other performance, no matter how beautifully sung, seem
misguided. Here's the complete aria.

(Soundbite of "O Mio Babbino Caro")

Ms. MARIA CALLAS: (Singing in foreign language)

SCHWARTZ: Callas' face is so expressive. The performance is even better when
you see it. EMI has issued it on DVD along with two other arias Callas did on
that French TV show. That concert is so important, EMI released it in two
different formats. On one DVD, the three arias are coupled with Callas'
fascinating television interviews about her career, her range of roles. She
talks about how singing is really about life. The other version is both a DVD
and a CD with seven of Callas' greatest Verdi recordings. Films of Callas
performances are extremely rare, and they're all amazing, but this one stands
out even in that rarefied context.

GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz writes for the Boston Phoenix. He reviewed "The Callas
Conversations" on DVD and "Maria Callas: Legend," a CD that includes a DVD of
Callas performing on French TV.

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.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?

Advertisement

Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR

22:30

From 'Designing Women' To 'Hacks', Jean Smart's Career Is Still Going Strong

Smart is nominated for Emmy Awards for her performances Hacks, about a veteran comic working with a Gen-Z comedy writer, and the crime drama Mare Of Easttown. Originally broadcast May 2021.

52:30

'Storm Lake' Documentary Depicts The Triumph And Struggle Of A Local Newspaper

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Art Cullen discusses the battle to keep print news alive in small-town America. Cullen runs Iowa's Storm Lake Times, along with his brother, the paper's publisher.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.

Playing

Just play me something
Your Queue

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

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue