Tracey Ullman Discusses "Small Time Crooks."
Actress Tracey Ullman. She plays Frenchy, a manicurist married to an ex-con dishwasher in Woody Allen’s new comedy “Small Time Crooks.” She also worked with Allen on two of his previous films “Bullets Over Broadway,” and “Everyone Says I love You.” Ullman is the star of her own shows, HBO’s “Tracey Takes On,” and “The Tracey Ullman Show.”
Other segments from the episode on May 22, 2000
DATE May 22, 2000 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Tracey Ullman talks about her latest film, "Small
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest is one of the funniest actresses working today, a genius at
portraying different types of characters: Tracey Ullman. After coming to the
US from England, she established herself through her Fox and HBO TV series.
Tracey Ullman co-stars in Woody Allen's new movie, "Small Time Crooks." Woody
Allen plays an incompetent crook; he's a schlemihl who thinks he's smart.
He's served time in prison and is now stuck in a dishwashing job, while his
wife, Frenchy, played by Ullman, works as a manicurist. In this scene, early
in the film, he tells her he has a new scheme that will require investing
their entire savings.
GROSS: We'll get to that clip in a second; we're just having a bit of a
technical problem. I'm not sure we're going to have that--we do have that
clip for you, so here it is. Again, he's--Woody Allen is telling Tracey
Ullman that he has a new scheme that will require investing their entire
(Soundbite from "Small Time Crooks")
Mr. WOODY ALLEN (As Ray): Frenchy, I need our 6,000 bucks.
Ms. TRACEY ULLMAN (As Frenchy): What?
Mr. ALLEN (As Ray): I got to have our six G's.
Ms. ULLMAN (As Frenchy): That (technical difficulty).
Mr. ALLEN (As Ray): ...dramatic about it.
Ms. ULLMAN (As Frenchy): Come on, Ray, six G's--that's all we got, right?
Mr. ALLEN (As Ray): Frenchy, I got a brilliant idea. I'm going to make us
Ms. ULLMAN (As Frenchy): How you going to make us rich--rob a bank?
Mr. ALLEN (As Ray): How'd you know that? That's fantastic. How'd you guess
Ms. ULLMAN (As Frenchy): What?
Mr. ALLEN (As Ray): That's fanta--first shot out of the box, you got it.
Ms. ULLMAN (As Frenchy): Is that why Tommy Beal's(ph) coming over, and Denny?
Mr. ALLEN (As Ray): Frenchy, what would you say if I told you that you were
married to a very brilliant man?
Ms. ULLMAN (As Frenchy): I'd say, `I'd have to be a bigamist.'
GROSS: Although the heist Woody Allen is planning fails, it inadvertently
leads the couple into a fortune, and money changes everything.
Tracey Ullman, welcome back to FRESH AIR.
Ms. ULLMAN: Oh, it's nice to be back.
GROSS: Describe your character of Frenchy.
Ms. ULLMAN: Working class, hardworking, and she's not stupid, you know, she's
not a dumb broad, horrible dress sense--I wear some horrific outfits in this
GROSS: We'll get to that in a moment.
Ms. ULLMAN: And I think she's kind of bright. She says something in the
film which is kind of sad, and you realize--she says, `You know, I was smart
at school. I wanted to stay on at school, but there was always some
emergency.' And you think, `Oh, what does that mean?' You know, she was
always, like, made to look after a younger sibling at home or something and,
therefore, didn't get the education she would have wanted, and that was a key
sort of thing to say about the character, for me.
GROSS: Now the character, in the first part of the film particularly, dresses
quite badly. There are some lime-green stretch pants that you...
Ms. ULLMAN: Yeah.
GROSS: ...you have to wear early on.
Ms. ULLMAN: Yeah, they're really bad. I mean, you know, there should be a
legging law, you know. Me and my daughter, Mabel, always think that anyone
over six months should be banned from wearing leggings, because they're very
offensive to us fashionwise. You know, you see those women with the VPL, the
old visible panty lines.
GROSS: And see, I was going to bring that up.
Ms. ULLMAN: Aye! There's nothing worse than a woman who's had three kids,
who's like, `I got my figure back!' and she's wearing leggings. And so we
think they're vile, and I wear a lot of leggings in the movie. I wear like
some sort of bad fashion items from the late '90s, like the shrug. Did you
get into the shrug, Terry?
GROSS: What's a shrug?
Ms. ULLMAN: It's like a mini-mini cardigan. It's got arms, but it just,
like, sits over your shoulders.
GROSS: Oh, I didn't know there was a name for that.
Ms. ULLMAN: Oh, it's horrible. It cuts into everyone's armpits and I get to
wear a pink, fluffy shrug. I look kind of like a Muppet. And got to wear a
Biore nose strip. Biore will be very thrilled with me.
GROSS: Oh, I thought that's what it was. First I thought...
Ms. ULLMAN: Yeah!
GROSS: ...`Oh, did she get ba--someone break her nose and she got bandaged?'
Then I thought, `No, it's one of those pimple strips for the nose.'
Ms. ULLMAN: Yeah. Those--well, that girl rips it off and goes, `Eww, looks
like a porcupine,' you know that--and I thought every woman in America will
know what I'm doing here, because we've all sort of experimented with those
GROSS: Now you know how actors talk about how, like, if you put on period
clothes, you're taken to another era, and it makes it easier to get into
Ms. ULLMAN: Mm.
GROSS: Well, when you put on your shrug or your lime-green stretch pants to
get into character, what's it do for you?
Ms. ULLMAN: It makes my ass look enormous. Like some said, `Oh, you look
fat,' when they saw the film. I said, `Yeah, well, you'd look fat in
lime-green leggings, and Kate Moss would look fat in lime-green leggings,
Johnny,' you know. It's just great. You know, I mean, I love dressing up.
I've always seemed to wear the most ridiculous things, and I rarely dress in
anything where I'd want to keep the wardrobe. I love it.
GROSS: Who dressed you for the movie?
Ms. ULLMAN: Suzanne McCabe is the costume designer on this film. She'd been
an assistant of Jeffrey Kurland, who'd done most of Woody's movies for years,
and so I'd worked with her before, and she got promoted this year, and we
spent about four days getting ready for this movie, just surrounding ourselves
in all these shoulder pads and, you know, all these different fabrics,
and--what's so great in this movie is that I go from rags to riches, so
there's so much fun in playing nouveau riche, you know, somebody who wore
lime-green leggings and pink fluffy shrugs, you know.
I then get to have money, and so there's a lot of tight, sort of business
suits with shoulder pads and Versace-type things, and my hair is--was great
fun to do, too. I wore two different wigs for the movie, the poor hair and
rich hair, so that, you know, when I'm in my lime-green legging phase, as we
shall refer to it from now on as, I am--had that horrid, sort of badly
processed, dyed, permed hair, you know. You get what you pay for with
hairdressing. And then I imagine that when she gets in the money, you know,
somebody says, you know, `You really should get, you know, just help your hair
a little.' You know, she gets some buttery chunk highlights put in. She
probably goes to a salon uptown, and they do that blow-dried look, you know,
that blowout style that everyone seems to...
Ms. ULLMAN: ...have the last couple of years. And then, of course, for
evening, if you have hair like Frenchy, you do the Ivana Trump look, you
know--up it goes, in the little spiky bits with the gel, and so I had a lot of
fun with my look.
GROSS: So did you go shopping with the woman who was the clothes designer for
Ms. ULLMAN: No. I can't do that with going shopping again because it drives
you mad in stores, because if you try something awful on when you're, you
know, creating a character and the shop assistant goes, `Oh, you look
fabulous.' It's like I'm, `Do you think I would honestly wear this? What's
the matter with you? You retarded or something?' You know, then you tend to
get offended, you know. So--and lots of people recognize me sometimes now,
Ms. ULLMAN: ...then I'd rather just do it in the privacy of my own dressing
GROSS: So they brought you back the stuff.
Ms. ULLMAN: Yeah.
GROSS: Do you fit in off-the-rack stuff or do you have clothes made for you?
Ms. ULLMAN: I like vintage stuff. I find that very interesting now. I
like--because you can find something unique. Because there's no point in
buying a designer dress, you know, splash out for it, and then the next week,
it's on Shania Twain in the Enquirer, Yasmine Bleeth in the Globe, you know,
Carmen Electra in a Miami courtroom appearance. And you think, `Oh,
blimey, I spent all that money.' You know, so I like vintage, but then
vintage is a little bit smelly, isn't it?
GROSS: Well, what I...
Ms. ULLMAN: Terry, you know what I'm saying.
GROSS: Yeah. Yeah.
Ms. ULLMAN: When you get the little armpit shields from the '30s and you go
out in a vintage dress and you start having a dance or something and then you
release a lot of '30s BO, and you go (sniffs), `That's not my BO. Oh, my God,
it's 1937 BO within the'--you know what I mean, they get a bit smelly.
GROSS: Let's talk about the accent that you use in the movie. I mean, you
know, the speaking style. Could you describe how the character speaks?
Ms. ULLMAN: Well, it was--I talked to Woody before we did the movie and I
guess I really established myself with that Long Island Jewish thing, you
know. And I think we realize they weren't Jews. Because they get new
variation. You know, like Jewish people never have people tell them what to
do. Do you know what I mean? Or how to dress, because in the movie, I want
to be told how to dress, about culture, about museums, about art, and I
thought, you know, that this is somebody that is maybe from Jersey, Brooklyn,
and then I had a wonderful makeup artist on the movie called Rosemary
Zurlo and she says things like weren't. You know, in New York, they say
things like weren't. And she used to be an operator for the telephone
company. So I would say, `How did you used to talk when you were an operator,
Rosemary?' Just hear her voice, you know, `You've got to talk to my
supervisor. You know, I'm putting you on hold. Hello. Operator.' And she
has this lovely, very feminine voice, and so I would get Rosemary to read my
lines for me a lot of the time. And other elements of, you know, people, too.
But Rosemary was a big inspiration to me.
GROSS: You have a lot of really hard T's at the end of words, like got...
Ms. ULLMAN: Got and David. You know, like when somebody says David, but
they say Davit, and it's affectation I notice especially when working-class
women are trying to talk better. You know, because Frenchy becomes something
better in this movie, so it's like she starts, `Oh, I love art. I love it.
Picasso, Rembrandt, you know, the boys.' And it was that kind of, you know,
very aware of how she's sounding. Because like my mom when she answers the
phone. You know, `This is 647-0468,' and you go, `Hello, Mom. It's me.'
`Oh, hello.' No, it's that telephone voice thing.
GROSS: Now tell us more about what you have to do when you're creating a
character for a movie, and this is interesting 'cause this is a character
you're keeping for 90 minutes. It's not a sketch that's just about three
Ms. ULLMAN: I know. I was sent this script and I was told a man would come
to my office, strings of Italian name, and he was going to sit there while I
read the script and then he would take it away again. It's all very
secretive, you know. And...
GROSS: Oh, you know, he was going to--like Woody Allen was going to send a
Ms. ULLMAN: Yeah.
GROSS: ...to give you the script and then...
Ms. ULLMAN: This guy called Martinelli(ph) arrives. Yeah. He sits in
reception and I was told I had to read the script, and when I'd read it, I
would just hand it straight back to him, you know, in a plain brown envelope.
And I did ring Woody's office straight away and I said, `Please, can I keep it
'cause I would love to do it and I need to read it some more to really get
working on it if you're offering it to me?' And then you're right. To
sustain something over 90 minutes, it's a different sort of discipline. But
it's such a good story, it does sustain.
GROSS: So what other things did you have to do to inhabit this character?
What other research did you--places you had to go, people you had to talk to?
Ms. ULLMAN: I don't know what--it was kind of there for me, Terry.
Ms. ULLMAN: I spend a lot of time in New York. Woody doesn't rehearse, which
I don't mind, because I'm very spontaneous. The show that I write and do.
I've been writing it for nine months, so I kind of rehearse in my head and I
don't have time to rehearse. We just show up on the day and we do it.
GROSS: How do you...
Ms. ULLMAN: The preparation--it's in the clothes. It's in the wigs. I
talked about that really important to me. It's in the--my nails particularly
for this role. I grew them. I never have long nails. I have the ability to
grow them and they became a real...
GROSS: And they're polished.
Ms. ULLMAN: Oh, they became a real--oh, I polish them every night. They
were like my pet thing. You know, `Don't touch me. Don't knock me. My
nails,' you know. `I can't wash up. I can't do that.' And my nails became a
thing. And my hands moved differently with this character and I just--oh,
when they said, finally, `Cut. Wrap,' and everything. I cut them off within
three minutes. They were so irritating. You can't do anything with long
GROSS: Now you talked about not rehearsing for Woody Allen's films.
Ms. ULLMAN: No.
GROSS: Can you say that you want another take? Can you say to him, `I'm not
happy with what I did in that take?'
Ms. ULLMAN: Oh, yes. He's very giving. I mean, you know, he's--it's a very
calm set, actually, Woody Allen films. It's people over there that've worked
with him for a long time. You're all there because you're there to do the
best possible work. You're certainly not there for the money. Nobody has big
trailers and cappuccino machines and nutritionists and all that excess stuff
that just slows everything down and is a nightmare to me. That's what I don't
like about movies, all the fuss. You know, I work in TV and it's fast and
it's spontaneous and here we go. And in films, it's like, oh, three hours to
set up a shot with two people. I think it's a waste of time. And everyone's
supposed to look beautiful all the time. And everyone's touching their lip
lines up and they're brushing hairs out of their eyes. And it's totally
unnatural to me, all that. I hate it. 'Cause I come from the--you know, I
wanted to be an actress, I loved Ken Loach and Mike Leigh films and you don't
have makeup artists on that. You just make yourself up and turn up. You
know, it's real. I'm not into the glamour business of it all, you know.
So, anyway, to get back to that, that's what I love about Woody's pictures,
it's very no nonsense. You notice he does a lot of things in one shot. It's
not coverage and--oh, which drives you crazy and totally ruins the rhythm of a
scene, especially with comedy. He can get away with it on a big screen,
though. I think it's difficult to do on television. And he's very generous
and very--he has a lot of confidence in me now, which I'm really proud that he
does. And he will say, `Would you like another take?' And you want to say
this, that's OK, but if you'd like to say that, that's OK. And make it your
own type of thing, and--there's a lot of freedom.
GROSS: My guest is Tracey Ullman. She stars in Woody Allen's new movie,
"Small Time Crooks." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Tracey Ullman and she stars
with Woody Allen in the new movie, "Small Time Crooks."
You first saw Woody Allen's movies when you were living in England, before you
moved to the States.
Ms. ULLMAN: Yes, I saw a few. Yeah.
GROSS: So I'm wondering, you know, how did his very New York Jewish neurotic
personality translate to you when you were living in England, like far away
from the culture that he's so representative of. You know, and...
Ms. ULLMAN: I didn't get it. I really didn't get it. It was like I was 10
years old when "Monty Python" came out in England. I didn't get that because
I wasn't a male, middle- to upper-class university student. I sort of get it
now. You need like a lifetime to figure it out. I didn't get Woody. I think
I watched "Annie Hall" when I still lived in England. I was like, `These
people are so neurotic. They need a good slap.' Because English people don't
really analyze themselves so much. They just kind of go on with things. I
didn't really get it. I do now. I've lived in America a long time. The
first one of his that I really gotten that just really touched me was
"Broadway Danny Rose." And I think I watched that when I was pregnant with my
first child and I was sort of hanging around at home a lot and I was simply
watching a lot of TV to try and catch up on American humor. I watching
these--the "Facts of Life." I think, `This is American comedy?' And then my
husband showed me "Broadway Danny Rose," and it broke my heart. I loved it
so much. I still do. It's in my top-three films. Because it celebrates...
GROSS: This is about a small-time agent.
Ms. ULLMAN: Oh, yes. I mean, it's about a loser. It celebrates the loser.
And it's so endearing and funny. And Mia Farrow was amazing, so I didn't
recognize her until halfway through the movie. And I thought America was all
about, `We're winners. We're special.' And they never sort of like...
Ms. ULLMAN: ...were self-depreciating and I just thought, `Wow, that someone
could make fun of themselves like that.' And then I was totally hooked on
GROSS: What surprised you about how the real Woody Allen compared to his
Ms. ULLMAN: He's very quiet. I mean, it takes awhile to get to know him at
all. I feel I can talk to him and, you know, make jokes and--I mean, he's so
much fun. If he cracks a joke, it's always just great. You know, you're
sitting on the set one day looking through The Village Voice and usually the
guys can talk to him about the Knicks. And he was looking through the
personal ads in The Village Voice, and he said to his assistant Lauren(ph), he
said, `Oh, they're still looking for 212 lesbians.' And she said, `Oh, Woody,
that means like the area code, like 212, Manhattan lesbians.' And I thought,
`He knows, he's just'--I love that. You know, he's quiet. But he doesn't,
you know, want to socialize with--I'm like that, too. I just want to get on
with the work, you know. But I just admire him enormously. And as I say,
because he's so good to his crew and he's great on the set and--'cause I've
worked with so many directors, it's all about ego and screaming at people at
certain times during the day. And I never saw him do that.
GROSS: Do the controversies in his personal life complicate things working
with him, because...
Ms. ULLMAN: Yeah. I don't get involved in that. You know, I remember when
I did "Bullets Over Broadway," I think he was going through a very stressful
personal time then. And I remember him having to race off at certain times, I
think, you know, for court appearances and things seem to be sort of leveling
out. I mean, he seems a lot calmer. The baby is a darling and comes to the
set and he loves the little Bechet and, you know, Soon-Yi is around a lot with
the baby. And I think their lives are sort of calming down somewhat, but it's
really none of my business. I'd never pass judgment on it or mention it. You
know, it's not for me to say.
GROSS: You're going to be doing another HBO series. Tell us something about
Ms. ULLMAN: I've really enjoyed working for HBO the past four years. I did
four seasons of "Tracey Takes On." I mean, it's talking about how liberating
and, you know, spontaneous Woody Allen films are. I mean, that's what I'm
doing on HBO. It's like the BBC with money. I love it. For four years, I've
been doing "Tracey Takes On," where I play all these extraordinary characters
and I sort of smother myself in rubber and yak hair and fat suits, and it's
been enormous fun. But it's like I've proved I can do that. And I want to
try and write a show this year that I play one, maybe two, or maybe three
characters. My husband says, `That's enough. That's enough.' That's, you
know, to prove that I can look sort of like me and do a funny interesting
show. I mean, I do so much of my Lily Tomlin when she did "Signs of
Intelligent Life in the Universe" and she just used light and body posture
to change characters. I was like, you know, it's my time to do something like
that. I get a little tired of working in all the makeup. So I'll start to
write that in August. I'm gathering a team now. And it's a good idea. I'm
really excited about it.
GROSS: Now is it going to be a sketch comedy or...
Ms. ULLMAN: No.
GROSS: Same characters every week.
Ms. ULLMAN: Yeah. Yeah. Same characters every week, but--so it's going to
be a challenge, but I'm looking forward to it. And I'll be able to direct
them all myself now because I won't be wearing so much makeup, so I won't
spend all my time in makeup. I mean, I've had a couple of very good directors
on "Tracey Takes On," but some of the others--I don't know. I'm getting to
that stage now, Terry, where I just want to do everything. I want total
control. And I can't be dealing with someone who doesn't do it right. You
know, I know too much. I'm--listen, longevity in this business. I'm a
veteran of this business. I can't be dealing with stupid directors. I want
to do it myself.
GROSS: Was makeup really what was holding you back from directing because you
had to spend so much time getting the costumes on?
Ms. ULLMAN: Yes. That's a big reason, a big reason. And also, you know,
really big now, but I know--I first started to go in the editing room
and--from editing, I really learned about shots and lenses and all that stuff
and I really felt confident to go and tell people how to do it now and to do
that. I mean, you have to learn. It's a process. But I feel ready to do it
now and act in it.
GROSS: Well, I wish you good luck with the series.
Ms. ULLMAN: Thank you.
GROSS: And I want to thank you again for talking with us.
Ms. ULLMAN: Oh, it's always lovely to talk to you.
GROSS: It was good talking to you.
Ms. ULLMAN: And you're a doll.
GROSS: Tracey Ullman stars in the new Woody Allen movie, "Small Time Crooks."
I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Authors Adam Cohen and Elizabeth Taylor talk about
their book "American Pharaoh" about former Chicago Mayor Richard
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
A new biography of Chicago's former mayor Richard J. Daley is a study of a
brilliant machine politician who amassed incredible power and rebuilt his city
for better and for worse. The book "American Pharaoh" credits Daley with
ensuring Chicago's place as the most segregated large city in the US and
turning the city into a civil rights battleground. The authors describe Daley
in the late '60s as an icon of working-class resentment toward the anti-war
movement and the youth-orientated counterculture. Richard J. Daley was
Chicago's mayor from 1955 to his death in 1976. His son, Richard M. Daley, is
the city's current mayor.
My guests are the authors of "American Pharaoh." Adam Cohen covers politics
for Time magazine. Elizabeth Taylor is literary editor and Sunday magazine
editor of the Chicago Tribune. Before we get to the negative ways in which
Richard J. Daley rebuilt Chicago, let's look at some of the projects during
his years as mayor that changed the city for the better.
Mr. ADAM COHEN (Co-author, "American Pharaoh): Almost every major project you
can think of in Chicago started under Daley, from O'Hare Airport, the world's
busiest, to Sears Tower, the tallest building in the world at the time, major
highway construction, the Gold Coast emerged under him, major parts of the
city were redeveloped. But probably his biggest achievement was taking the
Loop, the downtown area, which was really in decline--Nelson Algren had said
it was like a jukebox winding down in an old bar--and making it incredibly
GROSS: How did he do that?
Mr. COHEN: He formed a very close alliance with the business community and he
neglected the neighborhoods, but he worked very closely with downtown
businessmen and essentially let them come up with the plan for Chicago. They
wrote the 1958 development plan and Daley just put all of his political power
behind it and basically did everything they wanted.
GROSS: Now you point out in your book how Mayor Daley rebuilt the city into a
very segregated one. You say he used public housing as a place to house
blacks and keep them away from white neighborhoods. How did his choice of
locations for public housing help enforce segregation in Chicago?
Mr. COHEN: Well, Chicago has been called by social scientists the most
hypersegregated city in America. And when you look at the layout, it really
is an amazing example of planned segregation. There's what's called the State
Street Corridor, which is a long four-mile strip of public housing on the
South Side, which has 40,000 people living in public housing in a very densely
concentrated area. Daley built much of that State Street Corridor(ph),
including the Robert Taylor Homes, the largest public housing project in the
world, and he then separated it from the white parts of the South Side by
building the Dan Rhine Expressway(ph), the widest highway in the world at the
time it was built, and it exactly follows the racial barrier--the racial line
on the South Side. It was all done very intentionally. And a federal agency
later referred to the State Street Corridor and Robert Taylor Homes as `filing
cabinets for the poor.'
GROSS: Yeah, those are high-rise, and Daley had a lot of high-rise built as
public housing projects. Did he have ulterior motives for favoring
Ms. ELIZABETH TAYLOR (Co-author, "American Pharaoh"): Oh, yeah. I mean, he
wasn't the only one who favored high-rises. The black machine also favored
them for the same reason Daley did. It's a lot easier to control votes in
high-rises than it would be in apartments spread out.
GROSS: Why's it easier to control votes in a high-rise?
Ms. TAYLOR: Because a precinct worker can just go up and down the steps and
knock and get promises. He can also--because the residents are sort of
dependent, they can use threats that perhaps they would be a evicted so that
they would vote the way the machine wanted them to vote.
GROSS: Now in terms of getting the residents of the housing projects to get
out and vote, it would be quite a paradox if, you know, Mayor Daley, who put
African-Americans in these, you know, quote, you know, "filing drawers" and
who intentionally segregated blacks from whites, it would very ironic if
African-Americans actually voted for him.
Ms. TAYLOR: But, in fact, it was quite true that they voted for him. In
fact, an example of that is the 1963 election, when he lost the white vote but
won because so many blacks supported him.
Mr. COHEN: One of the most interesting things we came across in researching
the book was the pre-civil rights black community in Chicago, and this was all
the pre-civil rights era before Martin Luther King and so forth. And it was
amazing the extent to which blacks did just follow the orders of the black
submachine. There was a man named William Dawson, who was the head of the
black submachine, who was at one time the only black congressman in the United
States. And Dawson just had these votes under his control and he didn't want
integration and somehow he kept everyone in line. And one of the really
interesting stories in the book is the evolution from pre-civil rights black
awareness to post-civil rights black awareness. And one transitional figure
is a congressman named Ralph Metcalf, who at a certain point left the old ways
behind, became pro-civil rights and actually said at one point, `It's never
too late to become black.' So what we have is early on blacks who, in some
ways, were kind of bamboozled into voting against their own self-interests.
GROSS: Why did Mayor Daley want to keep the city segregated?
Mr. COHEN: He--well, a lot of it is sort of his roots, where he came from.
This is a guy who grew up in Bridgeport, which was an all-white working-class
neighborhood on the South Side. He was very much in tune with the people of
Bridgeport. He started out his life as a member of a youth gang called the
Hamburg Athletic Club, which was very much involved in the 1919 race riots,
beating of black people. And, you know, we don't know for sure that Daley
beat up black people, but he was elected president of the club just a few
years after that. He was a guy who believed in races living in their own
neighborhoods, not having much contact. And he sort of took that world of
Bridgeport and expanded it to, you know, become the whole city of Chicago.
Ms. TAYLOR: Chicago is known as the city of neighborhoods, and Daley really
believed in that. He believed in small exclusive neighborhoods throughout the
city that would be divided by ethnicity and race.
Mr. COHEN: You don't like to lightly use the word `racist,' but Daley, just
by contemporary standards, wasn't someone who really ever felt comfortable
with black people. He had almost none of them around him ever. He didn't
have them in his Cabinet. He didn't like to, you know, treat them as equals.
He was not interested in whites and blacks really, you know, getting to know
each other very much, and he built a city that reflected those values.
GROSS: What's the legacy of these housing projects in Chicago?
Mr. COHEN: You know, Daley's legacy is still very strong here in Chicago and
the State Street Corridor is still very much intact and many people, you know,
still live there. And one of the things we were fascinated to find is that
something like seven out of the top 10 poorest census tracts in the United
States are in Chicago public housing, which is striking when you realize what
a rich city this is, you know, that these census tracks are not in
Mississippi, they're not in Alabama, they're very close to the Gold Coast of
Chicago. And it's a testament to how what Daley built into concrete in the
1950s continues to dominate, you know, one of the biggest cities in the
GROSS: My guests are Adam Cohen and Elizabeth Taylor, authors of a new
biography of Richard M. Daley called "American Pharaoh." More after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are Adam Cohen and Elizabeth
Taylor, authors of the new book "American Pharaoh: Mayor Richard Daley and
the Battle for Chicago and the Nation."
You described Daley as perhaps the shrewdest retail politician in US history.
What do you mean by `retail politician'?
Mr. COHEN: Well, one of the things about this story that we loved is that the
way politics is done now is so different. It's all about media buys and
raising large amounts of money and, you know, George Bush and Al Gore rarely
meet an actual voter anymore. Daley was a guy who--there was very little TV
involved in campaigns back then, very little fund-raising. It was
really--Daley went to every ward organization, all 50 of them, regularly, met
with voters, told them jokes, encouraged the precinct captains to get out a
big vote. It's the kind of politics that, you know, was really interesting.
And one of the fun things about working on this book was sort of harking back
to that, you know, more retail, more personal form of politics, which largely
doesn't exist anymore.
GROSS: You say he controlled about 40,000 patronage jobs. What kind of jobs,
and how did he used the patronage workers?
Mr. COHEN: The jobs ranged from high to low. If you wanted to be a judge in
Chicago, it was done through the patronage system. But also, the guy who
operated the elevator at City Hall, who actually wasn't needed because there
were buttons there--he was also a patronage worker. And these were all jobs
that were very carefully allotted through ward committeemen, through precinct
captains. It was a very rigid hierarchy as to how they were done. And it was
an incredibly powerful political tool. Political scientists estimate that
each patronage worker was good for about 10 votes when you count his family
and the votes that he was able to pull out on Election Day. So that meant
that that 40,000 workers translated into 400,000 votes on Election Day that
the machine started with. So it's no wonder it was very hard for insurgents
to ever defeat the machine.
GROSS: Now because he controlled the Illinois delegation, you say he became a
kingmaker in selecting Democratic candidates for president. Who was Daley
most significant in selecting?
Ms. TAYLOR: The 1960 election was crucial. I mean, that's how--when Bobby
Kennedy said about Richard J. Daley, `He is the ball game,' reflecting on how
Daley had helped elect his brother, John F. Kennedy, president.
Mr. COHEN: Daley created Aldai Stevenson, who was the Democratic Party
nominee, you know, twice in the 1950s. That was--Aldai Stevenson was
basically selected by the Chicago machine. And, yeah, he was very influential
with the Kennedys and, really, all the way through, he actually played a role
in selecting Jimmy Carter in the last year of his life.
GROSS: What did Daley do to help get Kennedy elected?
Mr. COHEN: Well, he stole Illinois for him, for one thing. The margin in
Illinois was under 9,000 votes and there's just no question that the machine
stole more than 9,000 votes in that race. What was interesting is that his
motivation may not have been to help Kennedy. There was actually a very
hard-fought local race for an office called state's attorney, which was a
prosecuting office that the potential to put the entire machine in jail, and
eventually did put a lot of them in jail. And that was the race they were
really stealing votes for. But they ended up stealing enough to get Kennedy
the state of Illinois also.
GROSS: When you say `stealing votes,' what exactly do you mean?
Mr. COHEN: Well, it was pretty blatant. In Chicago, there was what was known
as four-legged voting, where the precinct captain actually walked into the
machine with voters and helped them to pull the machine lever. The machine
captains also often just walked into the machines themselves and just started
voting as many times as they wanted to. We talked to one reporter who was
examining all this in the '70s and he saw a precinct captain vote 70 times.
There also was a guy named Short Pencil Louie(ph) who was photographed during
Daley's first election just erasing votes for Daley's opponent on paper
ballots and writing them in for Daley. So vote theft was incredibly blatant.
GROSS: One of the things Mayor Daley was most famous for nationally was the
way he handled the Chicago convention protesters in 1968. What did he think
the impact would be on his legacy to have the police attack the protesters?
Mr. COHEN: Daley was about control. He was a man who believed strongly in
order and ruliness. He believed in the Catholic Church hierarchy, he believed
in the machine hierarchy, and he believed that this was his city and no one
else was gonna take control of it. So he had no problem really coming down
hard on the protesters. And, you know, the historical context is also that
Martin Luther King had been assassinated a few months before the convention
and there had been, you know, terrible riots in Chicago, which very much upset
Daley, watching parts of the city burn. And he was just committed that no one
was gonna do anything that he didn't want done. And he didn't mind busting
heads and throwing tear gas and shoving innocent people through, you know,
store windows downtown, which his police did all of. That was fine with him
'cause it was about keeping order.
GROSS: Martin Luther King, after winning the Nobel Peace Prize, decided to
take the movement--the civil rights movement north to Chicago, and he lived
there for, I think, for about eight months. You say that Mayor Daley had a
strategy that was a brilliant campaign of his own. He refused to let the
movement cast him as a villain. What was Daley's strategy?
Ms. TAYLOR: Strategy was to kill Martin Luther King with kindness, and then
Martin Luther King got on the plane to return, he reneged on all the promises
Mr. COHEN: 'Cause Daley had seen what had gone on in the South and he
realized that, you know, the Sheriff Clark in Alabama and George Wallace and
all of these people, you know, getting tough with the civil rights movement
made for terrible television and ultimately was the reason King was able to
succeed. So Daley just vowed that there were gonna be no television images
like that out of Chicago. And, in fact, when King showed up in Chicago, Daley
sent Marceniak(ph), who was the head of his Human Rights Commission, to the
airport to meet him. They brought him down to City Hall, King met with the
police chief. It was really--the red carpet was rolled out so that there'd be
done of this sense that Daley was the villain. And then the other thing that
Daley did just so shrewdly was he coopted all of King's issues. When King
started talking about slums, Daley talked about slums even more. And in that
period in 1966 when King was here, Daley was Mr. Slum Removal. He was closing
down housing that was inadequate, he was giving speeches every day and, you
know, sure enough, as soon as King left town, Daley stopped caring about
GROSS: Was Mayor Daley connected to organized crime?
Mr. COHEN: Very much so. In fact, there were 11 wards in Chicago that they
called the Automatic Eleven(ph) that were the wards that really kept the
machine in power, and two of those were very much controlled by the Mob.
Particularly one, the first ward, was totally bought and sold by the
syndicate, as it's called in Chicago. And as a member of the machine, Daley
believed the syndicate was entitled to its share of the goods, just as every
other constituency was. And what Daley did, when he came into office in 1955,
was he shut down a unit of the Chicago Police Department called Scotland Yard,
which was in the middle of a huge investigation of the syndicate, and there
were celebrations in Mob circles, in fact. Even Time magazine did a story
about one Mofia don in Chicago having a really big party after Daley was
elected because the heat was off.
GROSS: Was Richard Daley ever more ambitious than being mayor? Did he have
higher aspirations than that or was he content to remain mayor of Chicago?
Mr. TAYLOR: Daley didn't mind if occasionally his name was bandied about as a
potential candidate for governor, but he really looked as far as the 50 wards
in Chicago. He loved the city and he understood that the greatest power he
would have was as mayor of the city.
Mr. COHEN: And also, we live in a very national culture now, so it's hard to
kind of, you know, wrap your mind around this, but back then, you know, for
people like Daley, Chicago was more important than the nation and the world.
And it was actually true that back then they would bring back US congressman
and tell them, `OK, you know, a ward has opened up. You can run for
alderman,' and that would be considered good news. I mean, this was where the
action was for them, and once you've controlled Chicago, you know, for people
like Daley, you know, going off and being a US senator or moving to
Springfield as governor or joining a Cabinet, you know, that's a step down.
GROSS: Was there a point when Mayor Daley started to look like a political
Mr. COHEN: Daley had a big setback in '72 at the convention when actually an
insurgent group of delegates led by Jesse Jackson and William Singer(ph) were
ceded instead of the machine slate because of the McGovern Rules(ph), as they
called them. There was a ruling that Daley's slate was not democratically
elected, and that really was a major turning point for Daley at the national
scene. He had been sort of been thrown out of the party that he had devoted
his life to and was sort of downhill from there afterwards. He also, under
the Nixon administration, was being, you know, prosecuted right and left and a
lot of his friends were being sent to jail. So, yeah, his final convention in
New York in 1976, when Jimmy Carter had sort of wrapped it all up, Daley was
just sort of sitting there and, you know, people walked by him and thought,
you know, `This is really a guy from another era.'
GROSS: Richard J. Daley's son, Richard M. Daley, is currently the mayor of
Chicago. What is he doing to carry on his father's legacy or to change things
from his father's day?
Mr. COHEN: Well, he's really presiding over the city that his father created.
The heavy lifting of building Chicago as a segregated city was done by his
father in the '50s and '60s, and he doesn't need to do much as long as he
doesn't do anything to change it. And not very much has changed or is
changing. When Liz moved to Chicago years ago, I asked her, you know, what it
was like compared to New York, and she said that when she took her commute in
the morning from the Gold Coast to downtown Chicago, she didn't see a single
black person, which is just not the experience you have in New York. And
that's something that the father did, but, you know, the son now presides
Ms. TAYLOR: It's kind of like Chicago's a family business. And Richard J.
Daley built the factory and Richard M. Daley presides over the making of the
GROSS: Well, Richard J. Daley was able to do everything he did in Chicago
with the help of this incredible machine that he headed up. What's left of
that machine and how much machine power does his son have now?
Mr. COHEN: Today's machine is very much watered down and the reason for that
is at the core of the machine always was the patronage system. Machine
politicians like Patty Bouler(ph), who we talk about in the book, always
boasted that their workers would deliver on Election Day because their jobs
depended on it. Whereas the Reformers were just sort of doing it out of some
abstract notion of what was right. Those jobs, by and large, don't exist
In the 1970s, there were a series of rulings called the Shackman Decrees which
ruled that the patronage system in Chicago was illegal and it really
dismantled the patronage machine. So that was the driving force behind
Chicago's machine politics, and without it, you still have precinct captains
who go door-to-door on Election Day. There still are ward organizations, but
they don't have anywhere near the power that they once had. And then also
television has been a major, major factor. People now can make their own
decisions about candidates by what they see in their living room every night.
They don't need the guy who stops by and has a cup of coffee and hands them a
GROSS: Do you think that there were a lot of cities that had people like
Richard J. Daley heading them? Do you see them as unique or as just being the
kind of most powerful version of his kind?
Mr. COHEN: The latter. You know, the quote that we use as the furnace piece
of the book is Daley saying in 1968, `This is Chicago. This is America.' And
that really is our view about Daley and Chicago that it does embody larger
themes that were happening everywhere. And one reason, you know, Chicago
resonates so strongly is we do think of it as the most American of cities, the
capital of the heartland. It was the confluence of the three great migrations
that occurred in America--the immigrants who came to Chicago from overseas,
the farm laborers who moved to the big city and then the blacks who moved up
from the South. It sort of captures all of that about America. And Daley
sort of worked his magic to make the city that he wanted, but this was going
on elsewhere. It was going on in Detroit. It was going on in New York. It
was going on everywhere. But Daley's sort of the most resonant example. He's
really the American icon.
GROSS: I want to thank you both for talking with us.
Mr. TAYLOR: Thank you for having us.
Mr. COHEN: Yeah. Thank you.
GROSS: Adam Cohen and Elizabeth Taylor are the authors of "American Pharaoh,"
a study of Chicago's Former Mayor Richard J. Daley.
Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews a British best-seller that's been
published in the States. This is FRESH AIR.
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Profile: Novel "White Teeth," by Zadie Smith
TERRY GROSS, host:
Zadie Smith's debut novel "White Teeth" is a best-seller in Britain. It's
just been published in this country and has received enthusiastic reviews.
Book critic Maureen Corrigan decided to see what all the fuss is about.
Ms. MAUREEN CORRIGAN (Georgetown University): The question is this: Would
"White Teeth," a debut novel by an unknown writer named Zadie Smith, be
getting all the attention it's already gotten if its author weren't a
gorgeous, 24-year-old, black, British woman who began writing the novel in her
senior year at Cambridge? The answer is: Are you kidding? Debut-novels are
borne and die quiet and unseen every day. Then, again, it was only fairly
recently that gorgeous young black women could be writing novels at Cambridge
at all, let alone novels as good as this one.
"White Teeth" is ambitious, historically, geographically and racially
sprawling and brimming with humor and tart social observations. It's just
that "White Teeth's" smashing success makes me feel guilty about all those
debut novels I haven't been tempted to sample because their authors looked
more like George Eliot than George Clooney.
"White Teeth" is set primarily in north London and tells the story of two
World War II veterans and their families. It opens on a London street on New
Year's Day 1975 where one of the vets, a white, working-class guy named Archie
Jones, is attempting suicide in his exhaust fume-filled car. Archie's
marriage has fallen apart and his job as a printing shop paper perforator
isn't meaningful enough to keep him going. But Archie's suicide is foiled
when a Hindu butcher shop owner, who's busy trying to kill pigeons defecating
on the sidewalk, spots Archie and rescues him. `We're not licensed for
suicides around here,' the shop owner tells Archie. `This place halow(ph),
kosher, understand? If you're going to die around here, my friend, I'm afraid
you got to be thoroughly bled first.'
That very same day, the 47-year-old Archie, who's energized by his redemption,
meets Clara, a 19-year-old Jamaican woman who quickly becomes his second wife.
Present at the wedding are Archie's best and only friend, Samaad Ikball(ph),
who's a Muslim-Bengali waiter and his wife. Archie and Samaad became unlikely
friends during World War II when they served together in a tank battalion.
The novel flashes back to those terror-filled days and speeds forward into the
lives of Archie's disgruntled daughter, Iry(ph) and Samaad's twin sons, who
respectively become a fundamentalist terrorist and a posh lawyer.
What holds the scrambled story lines of "White Teeth" together is Smith's
unflagging inventiveness. Minor characters who appear early on in the novel
pop up to play crucial roles some 300 pages later. The penetrating commentary
of her heroes, as well as of her old-fashioned, all-seeing narrator also give
the novel weight. Late in the story, reflecting on the multiculti population
of modern-day England, that narrator remarks, `This has been the century of
the great immigrant experiment.' It is only this late in the day that you can
walk into a playground and find Isaac Leone(ph) by the fish pond, Quang
Owark(ph) bouncing a basketball, children with first and last names on a
direct collision course. Yet, despite all the mixing up, despite the fact
that we have finally slipped into each other's lives with reasonable comfort,
like a man returning to his lover's bed after a midnight walk, it is still
hard to admit that there is no one more English than the Indian. There are
still young white men who are angry about that, who will roll out at closing
time into the poorly lit streets with a kitchen knife, wrapped in a tight
Because of social observations like that one, and because of her novel's
sweep, Smith has been compared to Dickens. I think the more apt comparison
would be to equally ambitious but more aloof writers, like William Thackeray
or Tom Wolfe. Contemporary readers sobbed over the deaths of Dickens'
characters. Some of us still tear up. I didn't feel emotionally engaged that
way with Smith's characters. Instead, it's the grand design of her fiction
that I admired, the way she encompasses a whole teeming society within the
pages of her outsized novel. "White Teeth" glistens with wit and energy,
proof that imagination and talent can coexist with beauty.
Mr. Clooney, what about it? I'm looking for another good book to curl up
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She
reviewed "White Teeth" by Zadie Smith.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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