November 11, 2004
The most memorable books I've read recently have been, ironically enough, three memoirs that stand out for their sensitivity, intelligence and literary quality.
Jonathan Schwartz's "All in Good Time: A Memoir" (Random House) is a particularly well-crafted, deeply felt story of childhood neglect as the child of famed Broadway and movie music composer Arthur Schwartz, and his own rake's progress surrounded by music as a radio DJ and cabaret performer.
In retrospect, it seems like I spent every night of ninth grade listening to Schwartz's broadcasts on WNEW-FM 102.7. He would play songs by the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix and talk baseball and find connections between things great and small -- sometimes illustrated by a rambling story. To me and my friends, Schwartz was our J.D. Salinger and Holden Caulfield (creative genius and misfit) rolled into one. We cared for him, we rooted for him. And then he disappeared. He published some short stories, and a great collection called, "The Man Who Knew Cary Grant." But when he returned to radio, this time to AM to host a program on Sinatra, he had lost me. With this volume, I hear his voice again. And if this memoir is too short on his FM tenure, the story he tells is both shocking and tender written with a sensitivity usually reserved for fiction.
We get to know a boy so lonely and alienated that he sneaks around Beverly Hills, looking in -- and on occasion breaking into -- other people's home so he can gather some small flavor of family intimacy. This, as his own mother suffers from a debilitating illness and his father entertains Hollywood's musical elite, such as Bing Crosby, Artie Shaw, Jerome Kern and Judy Garland -- who sang lullabies to him.
After moving to New York, Schwartz's mother died and his father remarried the wicked stepmother of every child's fears. Schwartz, not yet a teenager, started to host radio broadcasts from his apartment. He leads us through high school, friendship with the Simon girls, Carly and Lucy, gigs as a radio DJ in Boston, a piano player in Paris and working as a radio DJ in New York. In Paris, man meets obsession when Schwartz is introduced to Frank Sinatra before a performance at L'Olympia.
I've never been much of a Sinatra fan, yet Schwartz makes such a compelling case for the beauty, elegance and artistry of Sinatra's recordings that I had to go out and get a copy of "In the Wee Small Hours." Schwartz offers insights into the mercurial character of the legend that render him a tad more human, if not any more likable.
In the subtlest of ways, and with a deft touch that is as honest as it is unsparing, he describes his history as an alcoholic, a journey that began as a 10 year old taking sips of whiskey and progressed to the teenager who filled soda cans with alcohol, a habit that floated him through many relationships, several marriages and children of his own, until he found himself asking the Betty Ford Center to admit him.
Schwartz's charm is that we read his journey much like we listen to a blues song -- we appreciate the aching even as we see the damage caused by the pain.
Speaking of journeys, my dear friend, Nessa Rapoport, was in Southern California last week for a talk at the JCC in Irvine and an appearance at the Jewish Book Festival of the San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys to promote her new book, "House on the River" (Harmony Books), the story of a summer trip on a houseboat with her children, her mother and her aging uncle and aunt.
I first read "House on the River" last spring and it has stayed with me since. It is that rare thing: a slim volume that reads like a narrative but is in fact poetry. It is wise beyond its words, with insights and observations about the things that matter and the extraordinary quality of small moments. Like fireflies in a jar, Rapoport captures the ephemeral moments among family members that far too often slip between our fingers soon after we promise ourselves we'll remember them forever.
Finally, for the last several weeks, I have been reading Stefan Zweig's "The World of Yesterday." In the first half of the 20th century, Zweig, a Viennese Jew, was Europe's greatest and best-known literary figure. His novels, short stories, critical and literary biographies were best-sellers, translated into more than 30 languages. Born in 1880, he died in 1942 in Brazil, in a double suicide with his wife -- his last message concluded: "I salute all my friends! May it be granted to them yet to see the dawn after the long night! I, all too impatient, go on before."
Zweig recounts not his own story so much as the story of his age, what life was like in the 19th and early 20th centuries, as well as the personalities he befriended such as his first newspaper editor, Theodore Herzl, and his friends Rainer Maria Rilke, Auguste Rodin, Luigi Pirandello, James Joyce, Sigmund Freud and Maxim Gorky. Reading "The World of Yesterday" is like having the most intelligent and perceptive tour guide to the people and places of a world that feels close to one's heart but that with time has become increasingly foreign.
If you have been at all engrossed in the events in our country and the world over the last few months, it is fascinating to take the long view by reading Zweig -- to see how much things change -- and how much they don't.
Each of these three books have taken me on journeys -- emotional and intellectual -- that I heartily recommend. And while the airlines we travel on may be going bankrupt, these books will certainly make your life richer, as they have mine.
Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he's an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every other week.