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What "Ice Mummies" Might Reveal about the Spanish Flu.

Reporter Malcolm Gladwell of the New Yorker speaks about the Spanish influenza of 1918. Gladwell's article in September 29th's New Yorker explores the medical potential of seven buried bodies stricken by this flu. Lodged in the Arctic tundra, the bodies, soon to be exhumed, may hold clues on how to prevent a similar epidemic in the future. Gladwell is the former New York bureau chief of the Washington Post. (Interview by Barbara Bogaev)


Other segments from the episode on September 29, 1997

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, September 29, 1997: Interview with Malcolm Gladwell; Interview with Paul Rudnick.


Date: SEPTEMBER 29, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 092901np.217
Head: Influenza Victims Uncovered
Sect: News; International
Time: 12:06

BARBARA BOGAEV, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev.

In 1918, seven young men died of Spanish influenza in the town of Lonurben (ph), a mining village on a Norwegian island north of the Arctic Circle. In the fall of that year, the Spanish flu swept the globe, killing somewhere between 20 to 40 million people before it inexplicably vanished.

No one knows why this strain of the flu was so deadly. But now scientists believe the answer might lie with the seven young men of Lonurben, whose bodies have been cryogenically preserved all these years in the Arctic permafrost.

In the next few weeks, a group of scientists will travel to Lonurben to determine if the mummified remains could provide either a sample of the live Spanish influenza virus, or the virus' genetic blueprint. Next year, the team plans to perform autopsies right there in the graveyard with the bodies still in the ground to prevent thawing, which could result in the reawakening of the virus.

Malcolm Gladwell has written an article about the search for the Spanish flu in the current issue of the New Yorker. He's a reporter-at-large for that magazine and a former New York bureau chief of the Washington Post.

He says that the Spanish influenza of 1918 was nothing like the flu as we know it.

MALCOLM GLADWELL, REPORTER-AT-LARGE, THE NEW YORKER, AUTHOR OF ARTICLE "THE SEARCH FOR THE SPANISH FLU": This was a virus that somehow selectively singled out young adults -- men and women in their 20s and 30s were the hardest hit. It was also killing people much more quickly than flu ever usually does.

I mean, usually when you get the flu, if you die at all, you die several weeks later because you get -- flu weakens you so much you get pneumonia. In this case, the virus itself was killing people and was doing it within four, five or 10 days.

And it was -- if you autopsied these people, people who died, their lungs were essentially completely filled with fluid, 'cause that's what, you know, pneumonia is a infection of the lungs that causes your lungs to fill with fluid. These people were essentially -- they had so much fluid in their lungs they were drowning to death.

It was also unbelievably infectious -- far more infectious than flu usually is. It was -- it's been estimated that about a fifth of the world's population came down with a serious case of the flu in the fall of 1918.

BOGAEV: You write that sometimes it changed the color of the victim's face through lack of oxygen.

GLADWELL: Mm-hmm. Because it was -- because flu attacks the lungs and because it causes pneumonia and the lungs filling up with fluid, the lungs can no longer distribute oxygen throughout the body as they normally do. And what happens when your blood becomes deprived of oxygen is it turns blue or black, when you look at it from the surface of the skin.

And people would come in and they were already -- their feet would turn black first. In fact, nurses would triage patients by looking at their feet. If they were black, they just knew there was no hope and they would, you know, turn to someone else who might survive.

BOGAEV: What was going on in the big cities around the world during these months when the flu was at its worst? Was their panic?

GLADWELL: Oh, absolute devastation. One of the worst-hit American cities was, for example, Philadelphia, and in a single week in October of 1918, 4,500 people died. And that meant that, you know, remember at the time, that meant that in Philadelphia the morgue, for example, was completely overflowing. There were dead bodies stacked up three and four deep. They had to throw open the doors because the stench inside was so terrible.

Most American cities ran out of coffins in that year. People were buried in mass graves. Streetcars had to be -- serve as hearses, were converted into hearses because they had no way to transport all the corpses.

But perhaps some of the worst-hit cities, actually, were not in America. It's estimated that world-wide in October, somewhere between 20 and 40 million people died. And as many as half of those people may well have died in India. There, the devastation was almost indescribable.

BOGAEV: You write about Christie Duncan (ph), who is the leader of the expedition to Lonurben where scientists will perform autopsies on the bodies of flu victims who were buried in the permafrost in 1918. Now, she searched for four and a half years for frozen flu victims. How had that become her mission?

GLADWELL: She is a very interesting woman who has a kind of single-minded, almost obsessive, determination. And she's also a medical geographer, so it falls within her natural area of interest to want to be able to trace the origins of something like a flu epidemic.

And she read what is still the finest book on the Spanish flu. It was a book by Alfred Crosby (ph) that was published about 20 years ago. She read it four and a half years ago, and she was absolutely floored by it, as I was when I read that book.

And she could not get over the fact, which Crosby dwells upon, that this is a virus that killed maybe as many as 40 million people and it vanished. We don't have any record of it. We don't know what it was. It was just this -- an extraordinary mystery that something could kill that many people and then just completely vanish in the space of the Earth.

And so she got this idea, which is actually an idea that's been floating around for about 50 years. People have realized that, hey, one of the easiest ways to find this virus would be to find someone who died of it and was buried in the permafrost, and so the virus is perhaps preserved inside their bodies.

The problem with this is, though, that finding people who have died of the Spanish flu and buried in permafrost is really hard. There were obviously a lot of them, but if people were buried in mass graves in 1918, it's going to be really hard to track down where those graves were. Records aren't very good when you get up near the Arctic Circle.

So, she took up this task four and a half years ago. She looked in Alaska. She put out inquiries all over the world. And she finally settled on Norway, because Norway has several islands well north of the Arctic Circle which are under its protection, where there had -- where there was a large community of people in 1918. And she knew the flu had been in Norway. Norway was struck quite hard by the flu in 1918.

So she -- she sort of guessed that there were probably bodies buried somewhere on this cluster of islands north of the Arctic Circle above Norway. The islands are known as Svolvaert (ph). And so that's where she, after several years, that's where she focused her energies and sure enough she found seven bodies about two years ago. She tracked down seven bodies -- young miners who had died in early October of 1918 and were buried outside a town called Lonurben.

This was written up in a log kept by the mining company that she managed to discover, which had been -- a local historian in the town of Lonurben had hung on to this manual that had been kept by the manager of the mining company.

So, these seven guys had died within a week or so of landing at Lonurben. The youngest was 18. The oldest was 28. She knows as well that -- she has strong reason to believe that these bodies were buried deep enough that they would not have thawed out because it was the practice in Norway at that time to bury people at least two meters.

So, there's a real good reason to believe that they have remained permanently frozen deep in the tundra since 1918, which in turn suggests that it may be possible to recover virus from them.

BOGAEV: What state are the bodies in now?

GLADWELL: Duncan and her team are going this month to do ground radar -- to see how deep they are. And they'll dig them up next year, presuming -- assuming that they're deep enough. But what we know in general about Arctic mummies is that if you freeze someone -- if you freeze a corpse in the tundra for extended periods of time, it gets gradually dessicated much like a mummy does in the desert, except that a mummy in the desert -- an Egyptian mummy -- will get dessicated in a matter of weeks because of the heat and the dryness of the air.

It takes a little longer -- in fact, to fully dessicate a body buried in the permafrost takes about 1,000 years, but it does slowly happen. For the same reason, if you put ice cubes in your freezer -- if you look back in them -- on them, you know, two weeks later, the cubes will be smaller.

Water will evaporate off a frozen ice cube. And the same thing happens in a body. They will gradually dry out, and the estimate from mummy experts that I talk to is that these bodies are probably half the weight they were when they were buried.

So we're thinking -- we're talking about bodies that are probably 60, 70 pounds. So they'll be emaciated. The skin will be stretched fairly tight over the bones. The eyes will be relatively sunken, but they'll still be identifiably bodies and the tissue will be soft enough and pliable enough that it will be possible to do an autopsy.

BOGAEV: If the bodies meet the requirements of the team, how will they -- how will the scientists actually go about retrieving a sample?

GLADWELL: There's two possibilities. If someone dies of the Spanish flu and they're buried in the permafrost, two things can happen. The first thing is that the virus inside that killed them could still be live, which is to say it's exactly -- it's just like you take something and you freeze it and you thaw it out.

That's a very, very remote possibility, but it is still a real one. And if they took these bodies out and they thawed out -- thawed them out and the virus was still live, we could start another epidemic. I mean, presumably we would not be as ignorant or -- of precautions as they were in 1918, but you would have a very, very serious public health emergency on your hands.

The second possibility, and the more likely possibility, is that what's left of the -- the virus has died, but it has left behind a kind of husk which they call RNA residue. The husk is really all you want 'cause you can tell everything you want about the virus from the husk. And chances are, that's what's left in these bodies. But we don't know.

So that means that when you dig out the bodies, you have to take every conceivable precaution because of the possibility that the virus might be live. So when they dig down in the ground -- I mean, they'll start by just with jackhammers, and go through the permafrost and, you know, lift out the chunks of dirt with shovels.

But once they get within about six inches of the graves, of the coffins, everyone's going to put on those space suits -- you know, the biohazard -- like biohazard suits, and they'll start to take the utmost precautions.

They also will not remove the bodies from the ground. That's much too dangerous. Nor will they use any machinery or -- that will create heat. You know, if there's any space heaters around, they'll turn them off; no electrical equipment.

They'll open up the coffins and they'll take what's called a "hole saw" (ph) -- which is a saw that's used in forestry to take core samples from a tree. Sort of -- it's got -- it's a long tube that has a serrated edge and it's hollow in the middle. And you simply screw it -- in the case of forestry, you screw it into the tree trunk and it takes a sample, a long sample, from the inside of the tree.

Well, that's what they'll use on these bodies. They'll just screw this hole saw in by hand, so as not to create any heat, and they'll take out a long, perhaps three or four inch, maybe half an inch in diameter, core sample from the lungs, from the trachea, from the abdomen, from the brain. I think that's -- yeah, from those four areas.

And those samples will then immediately be kept on -- in dry ice and they'll be shipped back to what are the -- P4 (ph) facilities which are the highest level of biological containment. For example -- perhaps to the one at Fort Detrick (ph), Maryland where the Army does its biological weapons research. And they'll be analyzed to make sure there's no live virus in there. And if there's no live virus and only RNA residue, if there's only the husk, then they'll be distributed to more conventional labs for analysis.

But this whole process has got to be, and will be, as far as I could tell from talking to the people who are planning it, it has to be exquisitely choreographed. There is no opportunity for error with a virus that is as lethal as this.

BOGAEV: I'm talking with Malcolm Gladwell. He's a reporter-at-large for the New Yorker and a former New York bureau chief of the Washington Post. His article that we're discussing now about the Spanish influenza virus appears in this week's edition of the New Yorker.

We'll be right back after this short break. This is FRESH AIR.

My guest is Malcolm Gladwell, reporter-at-large for the New Yorker. We're talking about his recent article on a scientific expedition to the Arctic to retrieve samples of the Spanish influenza virus from victims of that epidemic of 1918 who were buried in the permafrost there.

Now, there is another sample of the Spanish flu virus that doctors have analyzed. Where did that come from?

GLADWELL: That came from what's called the National Tissue Archives in -- just outside of Washington, DC which is run by the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology. It's this extraordinary place because it is -- it's just a huge building. It's like a warehouse at the back of a kind of an Army base in suburban Maryland.

It's -- there's nothing like it in the world. What it is is, it is a place where the Army stores tissues from autopsies it's conducted on soldiers going back to the Civil War. So what you have is this extraordinary library of death where you can find out information going back to the mid-19th century on any number of diseases that have affected people who happen to have served in the American Army.

A couple years ago, it occurred to a guy called Jeffrey Toppenberger (ph) who is a pathologist, a molecular pathologist, at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, that there may be in the Army's tissue archive samples of tissue taken from people who died of the 1918 virus. And not only that, that he might be able to retrieve some of this RNA residue or virus husk from these samples.

So, he went hunting in the archive and he came up with 120 cases of flu from 1918 American soldiers. Not every case was going to work for him. He -- the chances of him finding a virus were good only in those soldiers who had had a really nasty case of 1918 flu -- in other words, flu that had killed them really quickly.

And he found seven who fit that category. And for about a year and a half, ending last spring, he analyzed -- he worked to figure out how to retrieve RNA from these little tiny samples. And he got one positive sample, which was from a young -- 21-year-old soldier from New York State who had died at -- in South Carolina in late October of 1918.

And he has been analyzing it. He's analyzed so far about 20 percent of it, and what little we know about the 1918 virus so far essentially comes from that one soldier -- that unfortunate 21-year-old who died 79 years ago.

BOGAEV: What does he know, then, about how the flu originated?

GLADWELL: Well, the -- he's confirmed -- Toppenberger has confirmed several suspicions we've had about the 1918 virus for some time. The most important thing that he found was that the virus this guy died -- this 21-year-old died of -- was a swine virus. In other words, it came from a pig, which sounds weird, but in fact that's been the suspicion about what -- where really nasty flu strains come from.

Pigs are unique among animals in that they can be infected both by human strains of flu and by avian strains of flu from birds. And birds are the species in the world that carry the most -- the greatest variety of flu. In fact, birds are really where flu comes from. So the theory is that birds passed the virus to pigs, and pigs because they have this unique ability to infect humans, passed the virus on to humans.

So, this guy had been presumably -- everybody in 1918 got a flu strain that had resided in pigs for some period of time before it got into humans. And that pig, in turn, got it from a bird -- probably a wild duck.

BOGAEV: What do scientists hope to learn from -- if they are, indeed, able to get flu virus samples or this RNA husk -- from the seven bodies in the Arctic? What do they hope to learn in addition to this?

GLADWELL: Well, let me give you an example of what they hope to learn. In 1983 in Pennsylvania, there was an outbreak of influenza in domestic poultry -- the chickens basically that are stuffed in those huge chicken barns by the millions. And this was a disease -- it was a type of flu and it was called H-5 (ph). And it destroyed 17 million chickens in a matter of months.

It was a flu virus in chickens that very closely resembled the 1918 Spanish flu in humans. It caused incredible internal bleeding. Their eyes turned red. They keeled over and died right in the chicken hutch. It was absolutely devastating. It spread like wildfire from one farm to the next.

And when scientists took that flu strain and analyzed it, they found this really weird mutation on one of the proteins in the virus; very distinctive. And the -- this mutation allowed the virus to not just infect the gastrointestinal tract of the birds, but infect every cell in their body. In other words, it turned what was a very localized disease into a completely systemic disease; absolutely terrifying mutation.

That's the kind of thing they'd love to find in a 1918 flu -- a single mutation that would tell you a whole lot about why the virus was able to be so nasty. It won't be the same one as we saw in the chicken flu in '83 because Toppenberger actually has already looked at the relative protein in the one he saw, and didn't see that particular mutation.

But there's a chance -- there's a hope -- that maybe there's some weird mutation somewhere else in the virus that'll just jump out at us. And the reason that'll be important is we can then look at all the flu strains that come out every year, 'cause people are -- there's a whole network of flu surveillance centers around the world that's sponsored by the World Health Organization and the Center for Disease Control. And they analyze hundreds and thousands of flu strains every year looking for something weird -- something that might start something like the Spanish flu again.

And if in fact they found in the Spanish flu some particular mutation that explained its lethality, then they could use that information in analyzing the flu strains today. They could say: if we ever see that mutation, you know, let's panic. I mean, let's -- well, not panic, but let's go out of our way to prepare the population for a possible flu pandemic.

So that's the kind of thing -- in a perfect world, that's what you'd find: some little piece of genetic information which will serve as a kind of early warning of when to know that an incredibly vicious flu strain is on the way.

BOGAEV: Is there just now a reason for an interest in researching this flu? Are we due for another deadly flu cycle?

GLADWELL: Yes, we are due for another very deadly flu epidemic, and the really deadly ones they call pandemics because they aren't confined to individual countries or individual cities. They cover the whole world. The reason that we're due is that flu comes in families, and the families -- we've had two flu families that have basically been creating disease each fall for about the last 20, 25 years.

And every few decades, the families change. We get -- an entirely new family emerges. And when new families emerge, no one has any immunity to it. They spread all over the world in a matter of months. And they generally cause hundreds of thousands of -- if not more. I mean, in the case of the Spanish flu, millions of deaths.

We have not had one of those since the Hong Kong flu of 1968. In the Hong Kong flu of 1968, we got lucky; that the new family that emerged was not that much different from a previous family. So, many people had a kind of natural immunity against it. Before that, there was one in '57, the Asian flu. And before that, of course, was the Spanish flu in 1918.

If you just look at the pattern that's been established by those last three flu pandemics, it's clear that, you know, another one has got to be anticipated.

BOGAEV: Malcolm Gladwell is a reporter-at-large for the New Yorker. His article about the Spanish influenza appears in the current issue of that magazine. We'll talk more with Malcolm Gladwell in the second half of the show.

This is FRESH AIR.

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev.

We continue now our conversation about the Spanish influenza of 1918 with Malcolm Gladwell, reporter-at-large for the New Yorker. He's written an article for the current issue of the magazine about the attempt to retrieve samples of the Spanish flu virus from the bodies of seven flu victims buried in Lonurben, a small town on a Norwegian island north of the Arctic Circle.

Gladwell traveled there to research the piece. He writes that this mission to understand what made the Spanish flu so deadly has a certain urgency because it could help us to prepare for the next global outbreak of the flu.

I asked him how doctors predict what strain of the flu will hit next.

Now, how does the Center for Disease Control figure out what strain of the flu to vaccinate us all for -- against -- each year?

GLADWELL: It's a marvelously intricate and fascinating process. Basically what they do is they have listening posts around the entire world, particularly in China, because for a number of complicated reasons, flu strains seem to come out of Asia, particularly China, the most.

They have hundreds of these around the world, run by the World Health Organization chiefly, but also some by the Center for Disease Control. And essentially these are doctors. And when they see someone with the flu, the flu looks kind of bad, they will take a little sample from a -- like a swab from their throat and send it off to a lab where its analyzed.

Those labs in turn send their samples -- the interesting ones -- to central labs. And so that people put together a kind of library of all the flu strains that are circulating around the world at any given time, 'cause the flu is always changing. It's one of the extraordinary features of the flu is that is mutates from day to day. I mean, it's not mutating on a yearly basis. It's changing all the time.

So, they construct a kind of huge family tree that shows the direction that the flu strains around the world are changing, are mutating. And on the basis of this family tree, they make guesses. They say, you know, every year in January, they sit down with all the people who make flu vaccines and they say: "based on our family tree, we think the dominant virus in the next flu season, the coming fall, is probably going to be "X" or "Y."

And these flu viruses all have names. For example, the big flu virus right now is called a "Wuhan." And so the manufacturers take this information and they go off and they spend all summer making millions and millions and millions of doses of a flu vaccine based this year on Wuhan. And if you guess wrong -- if Wuhan isn't the dominant strain in the fall, then you have a bunch of people who got flu shots that aren't doing them much good.

But we're getting so good at this -- if you got the flu shot last year, it protected you against most of the flu strains out there. And the same was true the year before that and the year before that and the year before that, and hopefully this year. It was not the case 15 years ago that we were this good.

BOGAEV: You know, every year when I consider getting a flu shot, it seems as if the advisory is: get one -- it's going to be a bad year. I have to imagine if the CDC did discover a mutant strain of influenza, wouldn't alarm bells go off? Would it be -- would we really hear about it in a big way?

GLADWELL: Oh yeah. There is something called the "flu pandemic preparedness plan," which is -- a group has been meeting of top government-industry academic flu experts for the last four or five years, essentially planning to -- what we will do if something like the Spanish flu returns. And they have a draft plan already.

The president will, or someone like that, will get on the TV one night and will say: "we have serious reason to believe that a nasty flu strain is coming and the following people should get flu shots as soon as possible under the following circumstances."

And there's all kinds of really interesting debates that go on. For example, it's unlikely there'll be enough flu shot at the very beginning for everybody. I mean, maybe by -- on September 1st, there won't be enough shots to inoculate every American. There may be by November 'cause creating flu vaccine takes time. You essentially have to grow the virus, and you can't grow it all at once.

So the really interesting question, for example is: if we had a really nasty strain coming through, who get the shot first? Do you inoculate people who are most likely to die, which is the elderly and small children, first? Or do you inoculate those people who are most likely to spread the virus, which are children? 'Cause we know that kids are the -- the what scientists call the "vector." They're the ones who spread virus through the community.

But likely, I mean, these are questions that hopefully we'll have all worked out. But other people are more obvious -- you do policemen, nurses, teachers, the armed forces -- all those people go first. That's obvious; firemen, essential personnel. But there'll be a whole plan and hierarchy of who gets their shot at what time, and you know, with luck it will all work out.

That being said, there's no way -- if the virus moves so quickly that we didn't have time to put together a vaccine, it would obviously kill lots of people. Many people don't like to be vaccinated. There's no such thing as -- even a vaccine is not perfect protection. It's 70 percent protection.

And also, I mean, if we might step outside of America for a moment, America is not going to be the place that's going to be hardest hit by it -- the second coming of something like a flu pandemic. There are vast areas of the world, the third world, where people are not vaccinated and where people don't have antibiotics. We could expect if 20 million people died in India in 1918, how many would die there today?

And I think that's really the -- where the worry lies. It lies in those areas of the world that do not have the medical infrastructure and the resources to protect themselves against a thing like this.

BOGAEV: Will you be there in Lonurben when they perform -- if and when they perform the autopsies?

GLADWELL: No. They don't want press, for obvious reasons. And as you can imagine, the Norwegian tabloids, such as they are, have, you know, have become fanatically attached to this. And they'd like to, you know, cover this live on television I'm sure.

But for that reason, the team wants -- will allow no press. They're not even telling people precisely when they're going. They're trying to do this. It is, after all, a dangerous scientific expedition and you really can't conduct science with people sticking cameras in your faces.

And it's also something that is emotionally tricky. You're digging up bodies from a gravesite. And that's bad enough. But to bring in cameras and journalists, I think is probably -- crosses a line towards desecration. And Christie Duncan, the team leader of the expedition, is very firm on this. And I think she's absolutely right -- that people have to show some sensitivity when it comes to digging up graves.

BOGAEV: You know, it seems so odd that the Spanish influenza epidemic is still part of living memory. But I know much more about the Black Death and the bubonic plague in medieval times than about this. Why do you think that is? Is there a kind of global repression at work? I mean, the flu is not supposed to kill you.

GLADWELL: Yes, it's the strangest thing. It's -- this is a disease that killed -- an epidemic -- a single epidemic that in the space of three months killed more Americans than died in the First World War, the Second World War, the Korean War and the Vietnam War combined. And yet, you can look through American history books and not find -- and find, you know, one sentence of mention, if any mention at all. No one seems to know about it.

If you asked people -- I actually -- I was fascinated by this and I was -- I asked friends to ask their grandparents, if they were still living, about the Spanish flu, just to see whether -- and first of all, the friends would say: "what was the Spanish flu?" And then they would ask their grandparents, and their grandparents would say: "oh, yes. You know, your great Uncle Harry died in the Spanish flu" -- or something.

Everybody has a connection. Nobody talks about it. In his book on the pandemic, Alfred Crosby goes through all the literature of the time. And there's a whole crop of writers who came of age, of American writers -- you know, Hemingway, Faulkner -- right around this time and who had first-hand experience of the Spanish flu. None of them wrote about it. They wrote about the war.

If you look in the Readers Guide to Periodical Literature for 1918, you will find more on, you know, baseball scores than you will on an epidemic that killed almost 600,000 Americans. It's an extraordinary fact. I don't have a good explanation except to say that maybe it's related to the disappearance -- the sort of literal disappearance of the virus; that it vanished completely and people didn't want to think about it anymore.

But in an age where we unearth every conceivable memory under every conceivable circumstance, it's kind of strange it's taken us this long to try and unearth this memory.

BOGAEV: Malcolm Gladwell, it was really interesting talking to you today. Thank you.

GLADWELL: Thank you.

BOGAEV: Malcolm Gladwell is a reporter-at-large for the New Yorker. His article about the Spanish flu appears in this week's edition of the magazine.

Coming up, we talk with screenwriter Paul Rudnick about his new film "In & Out."

This is FRESH AIR.

Dateline: Malcolm Gladwell; Barbara Bogaev, Philadelphia
High: Reporter Malcolm Gladwell of the New Yorker speaks about the Spanish influenza of 1918. Gladwell's article in September 29th's New Yorker explores the medical potential of seven buried bodies stricken by this flu. Lodged in the Arctic tundra, the bodies, soon to be exhumed, may hold clues on how to prevent a similar epidemic in the future. Gladwell is the former New York bureau chief of the Washington Post.
Spec: History; Health and Medicine; Influenza; Europe
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1997 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1997 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Influenza Victims Uncovered
Date: SEPTEMBER 29, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 092902NP.217
Head: Paul Rudnick
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:45

BARBARA BOGAEV, HOST: Screenwriter Paul Rudnick describes his new film, "In & Out," as "homophobia in the heartland." Kevin Kline plays Howard Brackett (ph), a high school English teacher and coach in Greenleaf, Indiana.

Just a week before Howard's wedding, one of his former students wins an Academy Award and during his acceptance speech, he honors his former high school teacher and flatly states that Howard is gay.

The media converge on Greenleaf and expose everyone's feelings about homosexuality. Just as Paul Rudnick's earlier film, "Jeffrey," found comedy in the AIDS epidemic, this new film brings out the screwball comedy in prejudice and coming out. Rudnick also wrote the screenplay for "Addams Family Values," and is the author of the plays "I Hate Hamlet" and "The Naked Truth."

Since so much of In & Out takes place in a high school, I asked Paul Rudnick if he was out in high school.

I've been pretty much out since birth, I think, because I think I must have been the most egocentric child possible because for at least the first several years of my life, I assumed everyone was gay. I assumed everyone was like me. It just didn't occur to me to look for differences, let alone any sense of shame or not belonging.

Also, I grew up in New Jersey, so rather than dividing the world into gay and straight or even into men and women, I tended to separate everyone into people from New Jersey and people from New York. And I certainly knew which group I ultimately belonged in.

So it was -- it was strange. I just never went through that particular trauma. I guess also one of the things I resent about the whole notion of coming out is that straight kids are never expected to do it; that a straight kid never has to sit his parents down and say: "Mom, Dad, I have something to tell you." You know, it's only gay kids who are -- have this additional Bar Mitzvah moment.

BOGAEV: All of this stuff that you're talking about is pretty -- pretty serious stuff -- coming out and should gay teachers teach and what's masculine behavior. And maybe you're never a person who has the problem of getting too serious. But was it ever a problem for you in -- did you ever feel that you were losing track of the comic tone of the film, which really is over the top?

RUDNICK: Right. Well, I think, my God, sexuality because it is such a serious issue, is also perfect comic material. I think comedy is at its best, at its funniest, when the stakes are the highest for the characters involved. And when you're dealing with sex and anyone's romantic future, the stakes don't get much higher than that, so it seemed a very -- a ripe situation.

In terms of how serious it is, I guess one thing that's been unfortunate and sometimes in the way coming out has been dealt with in movies and books, even with good intentions, is that it's often treated as a scandal, a stigma, or a terrible trauma; that it's seen as a moment to be, you know, dealt with, struggled through, something to be overcome.

And I think that's nonsense. I think that people's sexuality should be a source of joy; should be a reason for celebration. And so, that was the angle I took -- that rather than, oh, seeing homosexuality still as some, you know, dreadful burden and outcast situation, doesn't it make more sense to treat it as you would any other facet of a romantic comedy?

I wanted to see if outing and coming out could now be used in a screwball sense, the way movies like "Bringing Up Baby" or "The Philadelphia Story" -- great comedies of the '30s -- would use marriage or infidelity or divorce as comic engines for their story. I thought maybe the world has reached a point where coming out is now one of those very useful social and comic institutions.

BOGAEV: It sounds as if writing a screwball comedy about coming out could be a little bit of a tightrope walk. I mean, were you worried while you were writing the screenplay about being politically correct? And who you would be politically correct to? What camp?

RUDNICK: Oh, I think, well -- you're right about coming out -- you have to begin with the assumption that you can't win; that you'll be in trouble with the far left and the far right, and all sorts of people in between. And that's actually part of the fun, that I think, my God, you -- political correctness can be the absolute death of comedy.

I think it can be a real straitjacket. So I try to ignore it and be as politically irresponsible as possible because it just -- my God, the world is more complicated and far more interesting than anything political dogma allows.

BOGAEV: Well, Howard Brackett is a serious Barbara Streisand fan. He seems to have a little trouble controlling his hands. He makes elaborate hand gestures that people interpret as evidence that he's gay. You mine a lot of stereotypes, and some people have criticized that, saying that you're playing into some of the same gay stereotypes that every other man, woman or child who's written a Hollywood film about gays has.

How do you respond to that?

RUDNICK: Well, I kind of -- I take it two ways. First, I think the only thing to do with stereotypes is to mock them, and have as much fun as possible. I think that's a way of demolishing them. But beyond that, there's something that actually offends me, which is -- especially when people start to use the word "stereotype."

Often, what they're really looking for is a gay character who seems straight; is a gay character with absolutely no characteristics -- someone who is such an idealized perfect role model that they're -- not only is no one gay like that, there's no one straight like that. And I think treating characters as that delicate, also becomes quite a bore.

Also there's a sort of shameful rejection of anything that would be considered, oh, effeminate in a character; anything that would seem too gay. And I think, my God, that's as offensive as any other kind of discrimination; to say that my God, any man who seems "gay" should not be portrayed on screen or on stage. That's shameful and actually genuinely shocking to me -- the idea of rejecting an entire segment of the population that way.

And it's -- I understand the need for all sorts of gay characters. I think that's actually the real answer to any kind of stereotypic situation -- is diversity; is to have gay characters who are rabid Streisand fans and gay characters who are Green Pay Packer fans -- and often those can be the same person.

But I think the answer isn't to limit characters. There's nothing easier and more palatable than saying: "oh, look, here's a gay character who's just like a straight person, so don't worry about him or her." I think that's offensive.

BOGAEV: It seems another "damned if you do, damned if you don't" situation.

RUDNICK: Oh, absolutely.

BOGAEV: They're either too gay or they're not gay enough.


BOGAEV: Or too straight.

RUDNICK: And I -- but I think what's required is for everyone to relax a bit, and the only way that will be -- will happen is to have more gay movies, more gay TV shows, even more gay trash.

I think the way that real equality doesn't mean just sort of high-toned political acceptance, it means gay romance novels, gay characters in the IKEA TV commercials, gay people on the Victoria Principal infomercials. You know, it means sort of complete equality, which means, you know, every social level, not just, you know, on the op/ed page.

BOGAEV: Let's talk about the kiss scene. There's a serious kiss between Tom Selleck, who plays a kind of a sleazy entertainment reporter who happens to be gay, and Howard Brackett, played by Kevin Kline. Now, you were there on the set most of the time during the filming. How -- did you see that scene?

RUDNICK: Oh, yes.

BOGAEV: How did the scene evolve? How did Kline and Selleck refine the big kiss?

RUDNICK: Oh, they are amazing performers, and I think they realized that it wasn't even so much that it was a same-sex kiss as that it was a major Hollywood smooch; that in many ways movie stars are dating surrogates for the rest of us. So you know, when Gable kisses Garbo, by God, they'd better make us swoon. That's their responsibility. That's why they're getting the big bucks and the -- you know, 25-foot-high movie screens.

So when you've got Kevin Kline and Tom Selleck, it's Gable and Grant maybe, but it's the same responsibility. They knew that this was a "Gone With The Wind-Casablanca"-scale moment, and that they really needed to go for it; that they needed to make the rest of us wish, you know, we were up there.

And they were just fantastic. They just hurled themselves into the moment, and it only got sexier and funnier. And I think the secret of that scene -- I've watched it now with many, many audiences, with all sorts of demographics. You know, straight teenagers, older people, gay, straight, men, women -- you name it.

And the response has been amazingly consistent. When the kiss begins, there's a gasp. There's a sense of genuine shock, and maybe even horror on the part of some people. And as it continues, the audience begins to laugh uproariously.

And I think -- I like to think -- that they're often laughing at their own fears; at a sense of my God, what were we in such a dither about? And then as the kiss goes even longer, cheers tend to erupt and there's a real sense of audience celebration there. And that's because the movie and the actors really go for it. I think if it were a peck on the cheek, no -- no nobody would be happy. But it's a real Hollywood moment.

And I think that's a complete tribute to Frank Oz, the movie's director as well who was overseeing the whole scene, and you know, two terrific hunks.

BOGAEV: Now, neither one of them came to you and -- I'm assuming both of them are straight. I think so. I think we can say that. Did either one of them come to you and say: "so Paul, how should we do this?"

RUDNICK: I think they're pretty much familiar with the way kissing works. You know, I don't think that changes so much from gender preference group to gender preference group.

So they -- they -- I think now I know when people have asked both Kevin and Tom Selleck about it, they've said that, you know, mouthwash and floss were involved in their preparations, but there was no other enormous leap necessary. I think, you know, a kiss is still a kiss, so...

BOGAEV: Paul Rudnick is my guest. He's a novelist, playwright, and screenwriter. His new film is In & Out. We'll hear more after this break.

This is FRESH AIR.

Paul Rudnick is my guest. He's a playwright, a novelist, and a screenwriter. He wrote the screenplay for the new movie In & Out. He's also a columnist for Premier magazine.

You started your career in New York first as a journalist. What was your beat?

RUDNICK: Oh my God, I was just one of the worst. I was so irresponsible that I was sent on assignments that no one else would touch.

I remember one of the first stories I covered was the auction of the Joan Crawford estate, where it -- among the items available were Joan Crawford's styrofoam Pepsi cooler, her waste baskets, and my favorite being her false eyelashes. And the uniformed guard at the auction house had to appear holding a baggie filled with Joan Crawford's eyelashes.

So I wasn't exactly, you know, headed for 'Nam or covering Watergate or anything like that. I was -- and I also had this terrible tendency to, oh what's the words, make things up when a story wasn't going my way; where I didn't feel it was tying itself up. Well, after a few paragraphs, it would. So it was quite wise for me to get out of investigative reporting.

BOGAEV: While you were a reporter, were you hoping to get a play staged?

RUDNICK: Yes. That was always -- always the real goal. I was working on many plays at home, and basically teaching myself how to write, which is a continuing process because I -- the only -- it's funny, I've never been able to really take playwriting courses because I just -- I need real hands-on experience, and I need to make my mistakes as publicly as possible.

So journalism was always a way of supporting myself until I could get a play on.

BOGAEV: Your first play, "Poor Little Lambs," was optioned by Hollywood and it went through some wild transmutations. What was your story and what did the Hollywood producers eventually want to do with it?

RUDNICK: Oh, well it was a great Hollywood education because even though the film was never made, I wrote many, many drafts of the screenplay. And it was -- it was a romantic comedy about a men's singing group at Yale called the "Whiffenpoofs" (ph), which -- a group which really exists. And the plot concerned a female undergraduate who wanted to become the first female Whiffenpoof.

Well, once this story entered the Hollywood system, it would change as trends changed. So over the years that I worked on various versions of the screenplay, it would become a gang drama. When more serious films were in, suddenly the producers would ask to have the townies of New Haven have street brawls with the snooty Yale students -- something that really doesn't quite go on.

Then when the brat-pack movies became quite successful, suddenly perhaps this was a Rob Lowe-Judd Nelson vehicle. And then as, you know, sci-fi boomed, the Whiffenpoofs might travel to other galaxies.

So it was a real education in Hollywood nonsense, and why I eventually dropped out of the process on that project. And luckily, the film was never made and the rights to the play have reverted to me. So I've learned to be a little more protective.

BOGAEV: What are you working on now?

RUDNICK: I'm actually in the middle of a new play, so it's still in the typewriter.

BOGAEV: We can't talk about it?

RUDNICK: No, 'cause I'm too superstitious. Whenever I talk about something as I'm working on it, I hear myself and I think: "my God, that sounds awful -- abandon ship immediately." So I've tried -- I'm trying to postpone that particular neurotic epiphany a little further.

Although I do find what shocks people is that I do still use a typewriter. I am computer illiterate. I have a big old IBM Selectric -- one of those tanks. And that's my baby.

BOGAEV: You can't drive either, right?

RUDNICK: No, no. I, you know, I'm living a very happy 17th century life. But I do enjoy being driven. You know, I am one of the world's great passengers.

BOGAEV: Well, Paul Rudnick, thank you very much for talking today.

RUDNICK: Oh, you're very welcome. Thank you for having me on.

BOGAEV: Paul Rudnick wrote the screenplay for the new film In & Out. It's playing right now in theaters around the country.

Dateline: Barbara Bogaev, Philadelphia
Guest: Paul Rudnick
High: Playwright, novelist, and screenwriter Paul Rudnick. Paul discusses his new movie, "In & Out," starring Kevin Kline -- the story of a high school English teacher "outed" on national TV by a former student, much to the surprise of everyone. Rudnick is the author of such plays as "I Hate Hamlet," "The Naked Eye," and "Jeffrey." He also wrote the screenplay for "Addams Family Values."
Spec: Media; Homosexuality; Movie Industry; In and Out
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1997 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1997 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Paul Rudnick
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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